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Pyrenees 2018: double trouble

July 4, 2018

Another year done and dusted. And while in previous years there were (almost) daily blog posts, this year the shonky hotel wi-fi, reticence to start typing rather than sleeping and the heat means you’re getting a wrap-up at the end rather than throughout.

Disappointing you might say. Well, tough.

And it was this year, as it always tends to be. Double trouble: one ride, two countries. Starting from Banca high in the French Pyrenean foothills, crossing over into Spain on the first afternoon, heading east through the Aragon region then turning north on day four to cross the border into France again before finishing in the familiar spa town of Argeles-Gazost, they were five hilly, hot, hilarious days.

So here’s the wrap-up (what I can remember at least) and some poor photos, mostly taken in the saddle – send more to add here, they’ll be better.

Day one: Banca to Hecho

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We had rain, fog, sun, wind, cloud; flat, false flat, little climbs, big climbs, a lot of climbing overall, some fast descents, and some where you couldn’t see a sheep in front of your face. Starting up the twin peaks of the Cols d’Iraty (individual names: Col de Birdinabusha and Col de Cantremembera), we could see the clouds gathering, and the sharp ramps came right off the undulating countryside as we hit the mountains proper. It’s a beautiful, remote part of France and the road builders seemed to have taken their cue from the Spanish as gradients were inconsistent and pragmatic engineering lacking.

As we crested the first of the twin cols ad turned left to the second (pas de coffee stop, fermee..) JL was having an un-JL day at the back when navigational disaster struck – carrying straight on, he added some km to his endeavours before he realised l’erreur, but had a nice chat with some hikers as a fringe benefit. By the top of the second peak the crap weather was really coming, a big concern for Sleds who had to navigate his high-powered motorcycle through some nasty fog patches. It made for a tricky and slow descent, but all down safely.

Think I crested first; will never know, no-one saw anyway

Next the big beast of the day, the Port de Larrau, which would bring us into Spain. Not that we saw much of it, with dense fog obscuring what are surely amazing views, several kilometres at 11% and nothing much to recommend it. At the top, sod all to see either, but after a few minutes downhill there was a lunch stop at a rustic café in the sunshine to add some cheer. From there, a fast descent then climbing again up a long, steady col in the sunshine. Coming through a village, the first of newbie Brendan Barney Barnes’ handful of punctures over the course of the week, though thankfully he took good advantage of the support available before hopping back on and leaving them for dust.

Barney, not on bike (this would become a theme)

 

And finally, up the Alto de Hecho, a climb in 40oC heat, never very steep but a grind for already-tiring legs. Which then got more tired on the 8km steadily uphill drag to the hotel into a headwind. In total, something like 4,300m of climbing on the first day, which is better than 4,400m. No matter, there was a foot spa of sorts in the grounds, much food consumed and more than a few panaches to slake thirsts. Barney further announced his presence by contracting facial shingles, which did nothing to slow him down.

 

Day two: Hecho to Torla

“Hole”

Billed as an early rest day, it would have been were it not for a load of cycling that got in the way, including some diversions, the first of which was Barney realising at 10 minutes to roll-out that he had another flat. Just two climbs, but the heat was again a factor. The first, up to a place called Asia is think was gradual but gravelly, pretty remote but a scenic introduction to the more rustic parts of Aragon that were to follow. A quick coffee stop then some sweeping, wide-open descents on smooth roads until it became more rolling. Apart from for Barney, who got another puncture.

Got the horn for flats

Having tried to avoid getting caught up in The Bone Breaker, Spain’s biggest sportive, we then got embroiled in it by way of closed roads, so had to do a loop round the diversions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, up another hill in searing heat. Baguette lunch in someone’s driveway didn’t do much to ease a few frayed nerves, but there was the respite of a 12km climb in searing heat to help that bread digest (easier for Tom, in the van). I was struggling on this one with the weather, guzzling water and crawling up the thing, before finally emerging from a tunnel into a stunning descent almost all the way to our hotel in Torla, a kind of semi-plush Spanish outdoorsy village at the end of a cul-de-sac because the mountains reared up severely just in front of us to form a spectacular natural barrier.

Mountains that keep the French out

 

Which we could take in from the pool at our four-star hotel (correct) while some got massages (correct) and then had a massive dinner before nominations in the garden under the palm trees (correct).

 

Day three: Torla to El Pont de Suert

After a general consensus (well, majority verdict) over dinner the night before, we decided to take the sting out of the hillier bits of the next morning by re-routing ourselves in a slightly longer but flatter route (thanks Mr Windsor) which made for a fast, smooth (again) descent to a valley floor before heading east. Sleds departed vis motorbike (he still found those first few days highly challenging) while the rest of us felt engine-assisted given the soft-pedalling needed for the first part of the day. The road surfaces in this part of Spain are certainly a cut above Italy and even France – so of course we turned off the main road for some single-track lanes to take in a bit more of the scenery. And came face-to-face with a very big cow that obstructed our passage at a bridge. Being a country boy now, I felt it was my duty to roll up to the beast first for a bit of Croc Dundee mind trick action. Seeing no imminent threat from a vegetarian, she duly trotted off.

As the midday sun was at its fiercest, we began a steady but long drag up to Foradada del Toscar, which definitely took its time and split the bunch. The reward outstripped the endeavour – a bomber of a descent into the lunch stop at Campo that saw Ed hit 107kmh, the nutter. Imagine what he’d achieve with fitted kit.

Obligatory Dartford Motors abroad shot

Lunch was a dietician’s nightmare – pizza, chicken dippers, patatas bravas doing breaststroke in garlic mayo. But welcome, as we then set out onto more remote roads and another long uphill slow before descending to start the steady, spectacular ascent of the Col de Bonansa via a stunning, narrow gorge that was any geologist’s wet dream. We’ve been to many a vista over the years, but this was particularly special. Never steep, rising gently, winding through a narrow gorge on a rod that fell away to raging waters below and making its way through narrow tunnels before swinging right and through the trees to an exposed summit with sweeping views to the eastern hills and Pyrenean wall to the north. Not sure whether any episodes of Bonanaza were actually filmed there, but if not they missed a trick.

What we were saddled with

Gorge/us

Another wide open descent followed – Il Postino sensing he could only deliver it by knocking back a gel for the downhill – and then a drag along the main road south into El Pont de Suert. Appropriately enough for the bonanza region, very much a two-horse town, or perhaps one-point-five. No matter, we lodged in what was presumably the best hotel in the area on a small square still recovering from a festival the night before, complete with a half-soaked reveller continuing to serenade us through a traffic cone. We slept soundly, mostly, despite the unnerving curiosity of each room having a witch’s broom on its balcony, ahead of the looming return over the border to France the next day, a big day.

 

Day four: El Pont de Suert to Unneccesary Ski Resort Pla d’Adet

Just four climbs then. The first, 30km. The road started to rise as soon as we left the town, very steadily via false flat at first and then increasing to five or six per cent as we made our way up to the top of a mountain that I forget the name of, but remember the enormous reservoir at the top and the views it afforded back down into Spain. It was a long old ascent, but minds were occupied with what lay in store for the rest of the day. As we crested, the next five km were through a big, wide tunnel. No real issues with visibility for once, but on a busy road and with a slick, concrete surface, in some cases with big gaps and with the inevitable roar of traffic coming in the opposite direction to contend with. Some feathered the brakes a lot, others were more carefree, but it made for an odd but memorable start to our last bit of Spanish downhill. Another sweeping, well-surfaced descent to our coffee stop and then some valley floor chain gang action, with some holding the line better than others it must be said, before we hung left and started up the Col de Portillon, our border crossing back into France.

Image courtesy of National Geographic/Barnes

Tunnel vision

Around 10km in length and averaging 7 or 8 per cent, it was harder than I think most of us had anticipated, given the midday heat, the gradient never really let up and we’d somehow consigned this to being the easier bit before a more testing afternoon. It’s actually a well-marked climb, definitely more French than Spanish (though we went up the Spanish side of course, so I’m taking shit here) with Tour stage winners commemorated on those little plaques the locals presumably got a special offer on when commissioning a few darts trophies. By the top, I was feeling pretty sick (again) from the heat and the inherent frailties of my vegetarian diet.., so had to take a moment to supress some vom. It wasn’t to last unfortunately.

Lunch in a restaurant on the main street in Bagneres de Luchon, familiar territory given the number of Tour starts, finishes and tomfoolery it has witnessed over the years.  I was feeling pretty ropey by this point, ate little and could see the inevitable afternoon chez Erik the van driver ahead of me. Giddily I remounted, as did everyone else a bit apprehensively, and we immediately began up the Col du Peyresourde on leaving Bagneres. I love the Peyresourde as a climb – beautiful views, testing without being a full-on whack in the chops, and a lot of variety as it winds its way through woods, villages, open farmland and finally green mountain meadows en route to a summit with spectacular views in either direction. But just a few km in I was wheezing like the engine on my old Austin Maestro and seeing stars, so got in the van (thanks to Gladders, ride captain for the day, for shepherding). Several days struggling to get enough fluid down had led to a bout of Tizer-piss and combined with general flimsiness – but got me out of Pla d’Adet so it can’t be all bad.

Down from the Peyresourde (the better western descent, more open and faster than the other even if you don’t sit on your top-tube), along the valley floor to the south and then (I observed through a windscreen) the tortuous climb up to Pla d’Adet. It’s an ugly French ski resort and the climb starts ugly – 10 per cent from the off, sometimes dipping to eight or so, but with no respite on the hairpins, a wall of rock on one side and just the valley plain disappearing to the other. The group was split wide apart pretty quickly, the moaning (nous?) was in top gear while sprockets were at their lowest, and the long grind in the heat continued.

But I was in the van, so I’ll shut up. At the top, at the end of what is surely the world’s ugliest car park, was our hotel, run by a friendly Belgian family who’d opened just for us. And what views – panoramic, Pyrenean, a just reward for a very tough day. Dinner was around a big table with those vistas all around us, knowing the final day started with a fast but slightly dodgy descent and much valley floor.

Peaked our interest

 

Day five: Pla d’Adet to Argeles-Gazost

Short stage, final stage. Only 100km and with what appeared to be a fairly flat profile after the initial descent. Though appearances – and supplied data – can be deceptive. Think of those total ascent and gradient numbers as more a pirates’ code than the rule of law. No matter, the end was in sight – only some Pyrenean foothills, mere tiddlers to the loftier cols, stood in our way.

It didn’t feel like that once we’d left the valley road and the pretty village of Arreau, and swung west towards Lourdes. Rolling, wooded hills and roads that felt more Kent (or Surrey, for the connoisseurs) than Pyrenees Atlantiques. Whack: 18 per cent. Whallop. 25. Probably a bit of 30 too at points, though I just use by Garmin like a watch strapped to my bars so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that despite an affliction of heat-induced sweaty-anus meaning boggy chamois, I was squelching in and out of the saddle a lot just to stay upright. It was unpleasant, and far tougher going than we’d bargained for. And that col went on for far longer too, up through the woods until reaching higher ground, views across the flatlands of the southern Gers, and a signpost pointing to a village called Lies. Just sayin’.

Arreau-straight (actually meandering/some navigational fannying)

Lunch was a farce, at first. Typo and Windsor, in full pink, ejected from the only gay bar in the town of Bagneres de Bigorre with a ropey sandwich to show for it before the rest of us luxuriated with pizza elsewhere. Then more flat and undulating bits, though the oddness of Lourdes and along the flat to Argeles, a home-from-home, along a cycle path (or virtual motorway, if you did things properly).

And then it was over. Another big week, another round of big mountains, another few days of drama and titillation.

Yet more hilarity was to come. At dinner, our hosts confused the request for one vegetarian meal and believed we were 16 vegetarian English cyclists rocking pink lycra. Of course I found this not in the least funny, as I tucked into my best meal of the week. Sour faces around me, but surely not in response to the carrot rapee.

Oh, bell went to Norman Reynolds, in his absence (but he had previously nodded his approval, with some vigour).

I’ll have missed loads I should have included, so share more and we can make additions.

But remember this: Les Vegetarians Gentils/Blackheath Vegans 2018 certainly had its moments. And that’s no miss-steak.

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Day 4: Hills/Treat Blues

June 19, 2016

147k.

Up the Soulour and the Aubisque first, which takes some time, given it’s 29.1 km. Descended with a time trial sportive around us (they went quickly).

aubisque2

Then the Col de Marie Blanque, which was pretty but strange.

And into the cheese country of Ossau Iraty..:

iraty

Then another Col that I will look up the name of another time. Col de Bastard, peut-etre. It started at 15%, and never really got any friendlier. It hurt. Then after 7kms or so it dumped us into a cow poo-ridden valley for a lot of false flat and uphill into buffeting winds until we finally arrived at a non-summit in what looked like one of those really crap parts of Wales. Then the descent was mostly gravelled. We overbrimmed with joy.

Anyway, more to come on this one another time, and more pictures I’m sure. But we’re not staying in pretty (and pretty Basque) St Jean Pied de Port ahead of a 60km roll (no hills, por favor) into Biarritz tomorrow.

A demain, gracias.

Day 3: LVG (Laundry Veloistes Gentils)

June 19, 2016

It threatened to be a washout

It threatened to be a wash-ing.

But the first ever #LVG *big cough* ‘rest day’ succeeded in being both. And that worked well.

For the first time, we had a day in the same place, meaning a two-night stay in the fantastic Aurrieulat hotel in Argeles Gazost.

The options were: no climbs, one climb (the Col de Spandelles, basically a sh&t goat track by the sounds of it, but manly), two climbs (the aforementioned, plus up to the Soulour), or three climbs (including the Hautacam).

It was also billed as a day when, for once, there was an opportunity to launder filthy kit properly. In the sauna.

Everyone but me set out of the Spandau Ballet and Sue Lawley climbs. I rested, bought overpriced souvenirs then (was feeling sick, have been all week, my mitigation) had a crack at the Hautacam. The Haughty Cam (Hauta-Can’t) is not my favourite climb. It’s a bloody nuisance, and bloody steep in places, being 16kms up from the valley floor. Thankfully though, at the top, there was a sign leading to another Col 1.2kms up, so I bagged two in one climb sort of, scoffed a crepe, descended in horrific hail then lost lunch at the bottom. Plus ca change.

Hautacam1

The others, meanwhile, did some cycling somewhere, in some rain. Then went to a bar to watch the football. Apart from JL and Typo who (*bigger bloody cough*) manfully followed in my tyre tracks up the Hautacam.

Bell to David Gladwell for excessive strength. Sash to Brian for something. Horn of shame somewhere.

Basically this post is a day late due to tiredness and illness. And laundry.

Day 2: Le Geant, Le Pas Trop Geant, L’Arse

June 17, 2016

One day, less distance than the previous one but still three mountains to tackle. Bagneres de Luchon to Argeles Gazost, via the Col du Peyresourde, Horquette d’Aniczan and, naturally, the Col du Tourmalet – Le Geant of the Pyrenees, the hallowed hill.

The Peyresourde is no tiddler though. 16km from Bagneres, pretty constant all the way, and we were thankful for the sunshine and clear skies.

Peyresourde2

A quick coffee stop at the top, descent and then on to the Horquette d’Aniczan. In short, this thing is only 10.6km but starts like  beast – 11% average but surely knocking on 20% through the village then not dropping below 10% for 3.5km.

Thank God, I thought, it’ll even off soon. Not much. Apart from one 5% section it was 7.5 to 9.5% all the way to the top. Much panting and pespiration. Then, a pretty yet pretty shitty descent: gravelled corners (does France have a gravel surplus currently?) and then an uphill section again after about 3km just to really wind me up. It eventually met the Aspin descent after lunch. But if the Tourmalet is Le Geant of the Pyrenees, the Horquette is L’Arse.

And so to the Tourmalet. 18km from Ste Marie de Campan, but to my mind the tougher side, as it was easy for 5km and then kicked in like. After that, no lower than 8% all the way to the top, with lots of 9.5% and 10%. And rain, and cloud, and hail, and vomitting, and sheep, and horned cattle, and not much joy.

Until the summit. Le Geant tamed, barely.

Geant.jpg

Descending, for those of us slow or kind enough to wait for the weather to clear, looked like this:

Tourmalet

Then a wet run in through the Gorge du Luz to the hotel. To find Vaidas going for a spin up the Geant and back before dinner, in the rain, the nutter.

Tomorrow: optional day/rest day/ride up hills in torrential rain day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1: the chipping forecast

June 17, 2016

The first day is often a bit of a big day. And so it transpired.

144.8km from Foix to that backwater cycling mecca of Bagneres du Luchon, via the Col du P-Something, Portet d’Aspet and the Col de Mente.

All was going well (well, as well as it can be for a long ride through mountains. Sleds had nearly killed us all via a bout of high-speed shoulder jousting, Tom had nearly been hit by a car but the weather – that threatened abject misery – had held.

Foix

Even the steep descent of the Portet d’Aspet, past the Casartelli memorial that marks the spot where he fell tragically, was done in the dry, with greater safety.

And then at the bottom, as we turned onto the Col de Mente, there they were. Stone chippings, all over the bastard road; like riding through a pebbled beach. 3-4km later and we were till on chippings, grinding away.And then the heavens opened.

By the time we (well, I) got to the summit some 10km later, visibility was down to very little and we faced a piss-wet descent. And so it was – cold, filthy, dodgy, little to recommend it.

After that, a showery 16km into Bagneres that left everyone, well, rinsed.

Bell to Tom – not per previous allegation. Horn of shame and the safety sash to Sleds, to our collective shock.

Next: mountains, and rain.

2016 Prologue: the (Hu)Mid-i-Pyrenees.

June 15, 2016

 

Look, I’ll keep this brief and skip the courteous provision of context because we all know this blog’s readership is lucky to hit double figures, so you all know the score anyway.
Another year, another LVG trip. In fact, another LVGBV – not just a brand, but a hashtag – trip, given last year’s posse nuptials. An annual tradition born in the steamy swamp of (mostly) PR people that has evolved to a broader crowd.
Again, there are mountains on the horizon. That plea for a visit to Norfolk fell upon deaf ears.
Again, the weather looks a bit iffy. Hence the humidity here in Foix, near Andorra. Thunderstorms beckon: capes at the ready, taxi numbers discretely tapped into phones for the chosen few.
Again, a mighty support van is poised, though without traditional pilot Howie, a fallow year for him, and the rest of us the poorer for it although Vaidas and Erik will keep us in check.
Again, further posts will be dependent on the kind of hotel wi-fi equipment that can probably be knocked up on Blue Peter with a rummage in a recycling bin.
Again, the banter has begun.
What lies ahead, beyond the merriment, is this:
Day 1: Foix to Bagneres de Luchon, via an initial long, long hill then the Portet d’Aspet and Col de Mente, both of which have sad and notorious two-wheeled histories.
Day 2: Bagneres to Argeles Gazost, via the holy pimples of the Pair of Swords, the Tour upstart that is the Forchette de Marzipan and the Grand Boucle’s favourite lofty excursion, the Col du Tourmalet (Peyresourde and Horquette d’Ancizan also in the mix).
Day 3: Argeles Gazost. One, two or three optional mountains. Or none. All optional, and a nice place in which to have such options.
Day 4: ArgyBargyless to St Jean Pied de Port. Doesn’t pied de port imply the ‘feet’ of said locale are in proximity to a port? Doubtful, as it’s a good 60km from the sea. Certain proximity to mountains though, with the long drag up the Col de Soulour, dramatic hop up to the Aubisque for those funny cycling climbing frames and the Col de Marie Blanque (Mary White, perhaps a relative of Barry)?) to be tackled before the soigneurs, mechanics and team psychologists do their evening duties.
Day 5: St John Port Feet to Biarritz; morning only. Flat and downhill, looking forward. A chance to wind down and dry out.
That’s your lot. Utterly straightforward. About 565k/365 miles, more or less, some of them optional. What could go wrong?
Stay tuned.

Day 5: Feltre to Venice – legends/leg-end

June 30, 2015

And so it’s over for another year.

Legs may be tired, undercarriages may have taken a beating and some may be thankful that they can find their own way to a destination with relying on the input of others, gathered at a dusty roadside, staring into a small bleeping screen in brilliant sunshine.

But it’s still over. Back today to normality, where getting up means going to work, not smearing cream, pulling on lycra and heading for a breakfast regime of stuffing hotel food down throats that lead to stomachs which have long since lost their appetite.

Yesterday was the final run in from Feltre to Venice. The route profile looked bumpy initially, then pan flat. After a trundle out along main roads, we turned south for the Passo San Baldo, our final climb-proper of the trip. We’d seen the pictures, but few had bothered with the words – not many can adequately describe this theme park ride of a hill. Here’s one – ridiculous:

LVG15_Day 5_1

 

A pass that tops itself out with a single-track section consisting of tunnelled corners, with tight hairpins, short straights and traffic lights. Fantasy roadbuilding.

The thing is, it never seemed to come. As we approached, the road banked up, then down a bit, then around, then up a bit more. We were all in ‘where’s this bloody hill then?’ mode.

Until it dawned that we were already at the top. The tunnels bit was the south side – we were going down it.

I could wax lyrical about that for more space than is duly permitted here. Suffice to say I was laughing most of the way down, not quite believing what we were doing. The stuff of legend.

Befitting then, that the last day of a legendary trip, the first joint outing of LVG and Blackheath  Velo, should end with such a legendary hill.

The rest of the ride was less legendary, but still a great and fast run in to Venice. Flat, increasingly hot (particularly if you’re wearing a pink morph suit, pics to follow I’m sure) and with the smell of the sea (well, swampy lagoons) in the air.

And then it was over. Time though for one last legendary lunch. Surrounded by innumerable restaurant options in a beautiful town off the lagoon, there was just time for one last baguette’n’van luncheon par excellence. To depict the full scene, only a picture montage can really do justice:

LVG15_Day 5_2 LVG15_Day 5_3 LVG15_Day 5_4 LVG15_Day 5_5 LVG15_Day 5_6

Another legendary week of summer cycling, legendary for being a dual-society ride. It worked well.

Thanks everyone who put so much time and effort into organising this year’s Italian job, in particular:

-Matteo Oweniani for the research into hotels and general getting-togetheredness of the arrangements

-Gianni Stradale for the route mastery and adjustments, and quick-thinking in the form of lagoon bridge gymnastics

-Tomaso Doncani for being the third and oft-vocal part of the triangle, and never minding too much when being nominated (despite maintaining the look of a guilty man each evening)

-And the support crew, Howardini, Vaidasimmo and Ericetti, who kept us all safe and sane.

One question remains though: why did I risk not just life but limb by doing this on a broken ankle (well, a healing ankle, three weeks in, which is obviously not so sensible)? Why would anyone want to do that, given the mountains, the distances and the need to chomp painkillers constantly while riding around with a cycling shoe so fat it couldn’t be closed?

The answer is in the stars. It’s because you’re a long time dead, mate.

A week that was the stuff of legend. And for me, also the stuff of leg-end.

Ciao bimba.