2009: Perpignan to Biarritz
A dozen cyclists gather at a soulless hotel near Perpignan airport, where most arrived on a cheap flight from Stansted an hour or so before. The van carrying their bikes completed its own journey from south-east London earlier the same afternoon and as the riders gather around its rear doors, chatter and schoolboy banter accompany the mildly ceremonious handing out of jerseys.
Consensus seems to be that the jerseys look great. Across the back of each, stark white lettering spells out the challenge ahead: Perpignan to Biarritz, 3-8 Mai 2009. As if that wasn’t enough to turn legs a little wobbly, underlining it is a none-too-subtle linear representation of the route, with two prominent (and very steep) spikes highlighting mighty peaks to be overcome. (Perhaps being aware of the anxiety being shown by a number of the group members, it isn’t mentioned that, in reality, the jerseys were designed before the final route was decided, and now four high cols will need to be tackled.)
These aren’t professional cyclists. In fact, maybe only three or four could claim to be very keen amateurs. Only one has deemed it appropriate to shave his legs (he’s a fit lad though, and new to the group, so nobody mentions it). This is a bunch of middle-aged men – friends and acquaintances – in various states of fitness who, for the second year, have come together with an ambition to spend six days covering hundreds of kilometres sitting on unforgiving saddles to raise some money for charity. None of the group has ever attempted such a lengthy and precipitous cycle ride. None of the group knows if they have the legs to carry them all the way to the finish. None of the group is ready to admit that they’re slipping inexorably towards the second half of their time on the planet. Some are probably already in it.
The group is known as Les Veloistes Gentils. It’s a name that was conjured up on 2008’s inaugural ride from London to St Emilion, when a slightly smaller group found that the simple focus of cycling from one place in France to another for a worthy cause was a rather agreeable way to spend a few days. Post-ride, one member of the group with an eye for design came up with a lovely logo and so a relaxed club of gentleman cyclists was born.
Day 1: Perpignan-Mirepoix (160km)
The good news: it’s sunny. The bad news: there’s a 25km wind blowing from the west, which is where we’re heading. However, the decision is made that we need to truly ride from coast-to-coast – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean – and this means a rather counter-intuitive start heading east towards the beach at Le Barcarès. The helping wind pushes us the 12km or so at a very healthy pace. If only we didn’t have to turn round and head the other way…
We do. Photos taken, feet dipped into the Med, the ragtag peloton sets off west. The pace (and, it has to be said, spirits) drop a touch as we beat our way back into the wind and the unspoken concern is that there’s another 650km of exactly the same, just with bigger hills. Then the first in a day full of punctures brings the group to a stop right outside the hotel where we started, 25km and an hour or so ago. Hard.
A similar distance further on, coming out of Cases-de-Péne after turning away from the main road, we find our first climb. It only winds up to 200m above sea level, but given we had our feet in the Med a couple of hours ago it serves to wake the legs up, particularly its steep little kicker at the top. We gather together and take in the fantastic view before enjoying a winding descent to Tautavel. Back onto the long, arrow-straight road straight into the teeth of the wind and towards lunch, it’s an incredibly tough 30km or so. A stiff headwind is the most demoralising weather for cyclists, particularly those with less than ideal aerodynamic properties. Every turn of the pedals seems like a struggle, and even the downhill sections take effort to push the bike along.
Our driver and king of catering Howard provides ham and cheese baguettes more welcome than any I can remember eating before. The first morning had been very, very hard indeed and lunch is taken in fairly quiet reflection on the task ahead. After all, we’re still a long way from any proper mountains (but you can see them from here).
Refuelled if not entirely re-energised the group heads off towards Quillan, taking in the stunning run down the Gorge de Pierre-Lys, through pitch black tunnels alongside the river Aude, which enthusiastically slices the gorge ever deeper, before passing through the town itself and immediately up the hot and winding climb to the Col du Portel (601m). Thankfully, for those really starting to feel the length of the day’s ride, over the top of the Portel things level out. The fast, flat road to Puivert traverses the north slope of a lush green valley; a hidden airstrip enforcing the impression that the only way in or out of here quickly is by air. Turning north through densely-wooded vales, we arrive in the crooked but quaint old town of Mirepoix, where a couple of quick and very welcome beers are necked before making the short trip to our overnight accommodation, showers and dinner.
160km is more than most of the group has ever ridden in a single day. To do so going uphill for the most part and into a headwind was a mighty achievement in itself. But the knowledge that the longest day’s ride was behind us was tempered by the sight of the huge hills scattered across the horizon, waiting to greet us (and quite possibly beat us). As ever though, thoughts of the effort to come and the pain of the day’s ride seem to dissolve over food and a few drinks and childish enthusiasm and ridiculous chatter returns.
Day 2: Mirepoix-St Girons (85km)
Despite still needing to get up at a decent hour, climb aboard the bikes and pedal, the second day of the ride provides a much-needed rest after the trials of the day before. In relative terms, a short, flat, fast run across country and the chance for the group to ride as a bunch (and for those that hadn’t done much of that before, to realise the benefit of doing so). Coffee and pastry is taken after 40km or so in Foix in the shadow of the incredible Chateau des Comtes and the now upbeat Veloistes Gentils seem only mildly taken aback by the climb out of Foix to the Col del Bouich (599m). In fact, most appear surprised that the climb to Bouich takes us to an altitude only two metres lower than the previous day’s climb from Quillan to the Col du Portel. But then of course out of Foix we’ve covered less than half the distance before the climb and in much cooler and less windy conditions. Still, confidence boosting, and even the steady drizzle fails to dampen spirits.
An uneventful rolling run takes us to St Girons, a sombre, grey town split by the raging river Salat and apparently being entirely resurfaced in anticipation of its moment in the spotlight as an arrival town in this year’s Tour de France. The whole placed seems closed, however, including the single cycle shop (evidence later in the trip would demonstrate this to be a commercial mistake on the part of the owner). Our earlier than usual arrival in St Girons means a decent time spent in the hotel bar chatting, joking and studying the strangely compelling 3D relief maps hanging on the walls.
For a while it seems to have been an error on our part not to have arranged dinner at our hotel; St Girons is dead. Thankfully, a very decent meal is eventually found at what appears to be the smartest restaurant in town (though the abstract pornographic art confuses). Someone mentions – to happy endorsement – that we’re burning more than 6,000 calories a day. Someone else ventures that – with the sweets, cakes and beer – we’re consuming about 8,000. It’s a fair shout.
Day 3: St Girons-Bagneres-de-Luchon (82km)
The following morning’s pre-ride preparations seem to take much longer than usual. Bikes need extended tweaking; bidons careful filling; limbs elaborate stretching; cereal bar choices and Haribo discussions take on great importance. Perhaps it’s the thought of the climb arriving in just 30km or so; one that will take the group above 1,000m for the first time on the ride (and for most of the riders, for the first time full stop) and which features scary-sounding things like switchbacks and 8% gradients.
The climb up to the Col de Portet d’Aspet (essentially the last seven of eight kilometres being the climb proper, though it’s uphill all the way out of Luchon) is genuinely beautiful; a small road with little traffic that winds its way through pretty farmland and dotted, this morning at least, with slow-moving men in black on bikes. It puts me in mind of classic World War II movies and I half expect to round a corner to find Clint Eastwood stretching a wire at neck height across the road.
We all make it up the climb for the obligatory team picture under the legend which tells us that we’re standing 1,069m above sea-level. A proud and happy moment. Sadly, the café isn’t open, but luckily Howard’s turned up laden with bananas, the fruit of champions.
We’d been warned about the drop down the other side. Through the forest it’s incredibly steep (in places more than double the steepest parts of the climb from the other side) with tight, rough hairpins and a sobering memorial halfway down marking the sport where in 1995 Fabio Casartelli crashed on the Tour de France and lost his life. It isn’t difficult to imagine how, but it’s still an incredibly thrilling drop. Brakes get a thorough workout before we climb over the Col de Buret (599m), which feels like the merest bump in comparison.
Lunch is taken in the dip (Howard excels himself again as crisps make an appearance for the first time) before the day’s final climb up and over the Col des Ares (797m). Though not high or especially difficult, the Ares is a lovely climb. The road curves gently, its surface dappled with the sunlight cutting through the trees that line it, the col’s crest providing a cool spot to take a moment’s rest and more photos. The descent is simply fantastic. Huge sweeping hairpins are taken fast and the tarmac is smooth enough to feel secure. Huge grins split every face as we gather at the bottom and compare top speeds.
The snow-topped mountains which surround Luchon loom ahead of us as we fairly blast along the flat 25km run into the town. There aren’t many rules in Les Veloistes Gentils, but one remains that the final 10km or so of a day’s ride are a free for all; if anyone fancies a quick run in, they’re more than welcome to go for it. They’ll always find some company as the underlying competitive spirit kicks in. The group splits as at first six riders press on and then three of these break away at real pace, time-trialling their way home.
As is now another Les Veloistes tradition, we settle for a couple of beers and banter in a bar which, as luck would have it, is next door to a cycle shop. The owner enjoys a busier and almost certainly more profitable afternoon than expected as a steady stream of limping British cyclists hobble in for various bits of kit and clothing. Filled with the bravado only a couple of beers can bring, two members of the group set off to tackle the huge climb up to the ski station at Superbagnères (1,804m). The rest of us settle for showers and stretches.
The evening ends with a fantastic meal in the Cafe de la Paix where walls are appropriately adorned with old Tour de France jerseys. After studying menus for a good while we are told by the lone waiter that we’ll all be having onion soup followed by steak. A very good choice it is too.
Day 4: Bagnères-de-Luchon-Bagnères-de-Bigorre (80km)
Clear blue skies greet us the next morning, though the fresh mountain air is also full of anxiety about the huge day which lies ahead. It’s the shortest day of the ride but we are due to take in two monster climbs, the Col de Peyresourde (1,563m) and the Col d’Aspin (1,490m). Despite not really wanting to make the day harder that it necessarily needs to be, it is agreed that a warm-up is a good idea as the 15km climb to the Peyresourde starts almost immediately upon leaving Luchon.
We’ve been told that there are some respites on the way up to the Peyresourde, as the road levels a little through a couple of small villages, but it’s difficult to detect them. The climb seems relentless and never-ending. It’s also relatively featureless – sparse ground cover, skinny trees scattered about – which seems to add even more length. After a while (a long while) the series of switchbacks that lie just a couple of kilometres from the top come into view; motivation, sure, but if you’re also unfortunate enough to see a car on them they look impossibly steep. Keep turning the legs though and eventually you make it, as every member of the group does. The view is astounding, the sense of satisfaction enormous. The moment of the trip for many and we spend quite a bit of time at the top taking it all in and gathering around the suitably impressive signpost for photos.
Again, lunch is taken in the dip between climbs in the pretty little chocolate box town of Arreau, some 11km or so from the top of the next challenge: the Col d’Aspin. Technically (apparently) the Aspin is an easier climb than the Peyresourde. In the heat of the day with a belly full of ham, cheese and bread it feels anything but.
As we have now crossed into the next department, the climb has a new feature; signposts every kilometre which show how far to go to the top, how high you are and, excruciatingly, the average gradient over the next 1,000m. With five kilometres to go, the road stretches out and the sign tells you that the gradient averages 9.5% for the next kilometre; the one after that is 8.5%, the following one 8%. There are moments when – energy sapped; sweat dripping – the focus literally becomes nothing other than the next turn of the crank. Push right, push left; push right, push left. Mental strength overcomes physical. (Or, for some, it doesn’t.) Every now and then, though, you lift your eyes from the square foot of tarmac ahead of your front wheel and are almost surprised by the beauty of the environment. If you had any left, it would take your breath away. The climb is an absolute killer, but the view from the top surpasses anything we’ve seen so far.
The ride as a whole delivers (or at least returns) some genuine perspective, both in terms of one’s own importance in the grand scheme of things, and in what’s really important to you. The scale of the vista on the Col d’Aspin is perspective in its most physical form. Anyone who can’t find something spiritual in having used their own strength to reach the top of these peaks has truly lost touch.
As we rest for a while, lost in our own thoughts, we see other riders reach and cross the col. One or two stop for a chat and to share an orange. There’s an automatic connection between anyone in this place wearing lycra and sitting near a bike which goes way beyond these mere physical attributes. Drivers of campervans and cars arriving to eat picnics and take photographs are ignored. A local (we assume) on a pristine bike perhaps 30 years old and maybe twice that himself crosses the col as if he’s just popping out for a baguette, and to a man we all hope we’ll be doing the same at his age.
From the top of the Aspin to Bagnères-to-Bigorre is, as you might expect, downhill all the way. About 15km from our finish, we pass through the famous Ste-Marie de Campan and the turning which leads to La Mongie and, beyond it, the legendary Col du Tourmalet. We’ll be heading up that way the following day, but we’ve achieved enough for now. We install ourselves in the 60s-original Hotel d’Angleterre (where else?), enjoy a rather surreal dinner surrounded by slot machines in the casino and see Barcelona nick a Champions’ League semi-final from Chelsea back in London. It couldn’t seem further away.
Day 5: Bagnères-de-Bigorre-Pau (125km)
We set off towards the Col du Tourmalet knowing that we won’t be able to reach, let alone cross, this most infamous of mountain passes; late season snowfall means that the road is covered. But we do know we can get to the ski station at La Mongie, which is no mean feat in itself at some 1,800m, and plan to go as far as possible before snow halts our progress. Because of the impossibility of crossing the col, we also know that we’ll be going up and back down the same way, passing through Bagnères-de-Bigorre again some 60km after leaving it.
A steady uphill run to Ste-Marie de Campan before turning right towards La Mongie and the group quickly breaks up as everyone settles into their own pace. There’s no racing on these climbs; the achievement is making it to the top. Man against the mountain and himself. Some like the company of another rider or two, others just get into their individual world of pain and grind. Each to their own; meet at the top.
The climb to La Mongie is full of contrasts. The lower, gentle slopes amongst green fields change to steeper turns through the trees where sharp little rocks have tumbled down and are strewn across the road (nobody wants a puncture here…). The trees and ground cover eventually disappear entirely and we climb across a barren, partially snow-covered landscape, dipping in and out of open-sided tunnels from which torrents of recently melted snow pour down (which to hot cyclists look incredibly enticing). The road kicks up punishingly over the last few metres into La Mongie’s incongruous high-rise apartment blocks and construction work.
We cycle on a few hundred metres until the road becomes utterly impassable (and to prove the point, four late-season skiers swoop down it). The climb has been tough, as you’d expect, but the over-riding emotion is regret that the route isn’t clear and crossing the Tourmalet would have to wait for another day. Still, it’s a great reason to come back and as we chatter over hot chocolates and reflect that our serious climbing is over, it’s certain that most of us will. Unfinished business.
The descent is the only time on the trip that we travel down the same road we’ve just climbed up, so a chance to appreciate on a fast downhill run how steep the uphill had been. Back through Bagnères-de-Bigorre and on the way to lunch in Lourdes, the skies darken and thunder rumbles. Somehow our mood also grows gloomier. We’re very clearly on the way out of the mountains and, though they’d been difficult and challenging, they were also utterly majestic. An incredible and inspiring place to ride a bike. It might be over-egging it, but the Pyrenees had firmly placed themselves in the heart and soul of all of us. It was sad to be leaving.
Day 6: Pau-Biarritz (120km)
Grey drizzle sweeps though Pau as we prepare to leave. It’s a fairly featureless run from Pau to Biarritz, though made even more so by the memories of the mighty mountains we’d left a day earlier. The final day of the ride is one of mixed emotion. On the one hand we’re looking forward to finishing; to having achieved what we set out to do; to catching up with family and friends and to not having to get on the bike the next day. The flipside is a sadness that the adventure is coming to an end; that normal life is soon to resume and that the camaraderie built up over the ride will dissipate.
There is a fantastic spirit within Les Veloistes Gentils. The primary aim is that everyone who starts the ride completes the ride. There’s no winner, so no need to race…but the competitive nature of the group means that, now and again, a little sprint home takes place. The honesty of the group means that nobody can get away with being precious or a prima donna or not giving their all. At the very least they’ll find themselves with a nickname that will persist far beyond the ride.
We love our bikes but we’re not bike geeks (well, not all of us). It’s a classless group where status relies more on your ability to give and take a joke than your family background or financial position. Some have the means to equip themselves with the very latest and lightest bike; others make do with last year’s model. But when four grand’s worth of carbon fibre is largely negated by one too many croissants, it’s largely a level playing field.
Arriving in Biarritz and the Atlantic looks pretty threatening; a total contrast to the benign Mediterranean we’d paddled in six days earlier. Huge waves crash onto the beach and people, wrapped in raincoats and hats, watch in amazement as twelve tired men leant their bikes against the wall, strip off shoes and helmets, and charge into the surf.
That evening, over dinner and amid the usual banter, thoughts start turning towards the next adventure. Should we start in Biarritz and head the other way over the Pyrénées to Barcelona? A route from Geneva to Marseille would allow us to take in climbs to Alpe d’Huez and the legendary Mont Ventoux. Over the Alps from France to the Italian lakes sounds nice.
A final decision won’t be made for months. But what is in no doubt is that the annual ride of Les Veloistes Gentils – and other fundraising events in between – will continue for years to come, and we hope that many more will enter into the spirit. You can join us here.