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Pyrenees Ride - Write Up & Pictures

e17bladee17blade Posts: 214
edited August 2013 in Tour & expedition
My family holiday was in the Pyrenees this year and I thought it would be mad to not take the opportunity to have my first taste of riding in proper mountains. Here is the write up of my day. Pictures added in a later post too.


Pyrenees Ride

I have always loved the mountain stages of The Tour de France. As a kid. As an adult. Always with the same thought in my head. I should do that one day. That day is today.

The train glides on from Foix. Forty minutes up the valley to Ax-les-Thermes. To where the real mountains begin. The Pyrenees. I sit on the floor of the carriage. My bike leaning on the wall. I sip my early morning coffee. Supressing a mild sense of panic. I’m a half decent bike rider. But I have never done anything like this before.

Hills are my strength. Hills that is. Not mountains. My local climbs hold no fears. Today is frightening though. Five categorised climbs. One UNcategorised climb. Over a distance of 112km. What was I thinking?

Fail to prepare or prepare to fail. Training done. Technique honed. Advice taken. Rested up and well fuelled. Nice bike hired. With a triple chainset. I am prepared.

The train pulls into Ax-les-Thermes. I step out onto the platform. An early morning chill hangs in the air. All around mountains are capped by swirling cloud. It is incredibly quiet. This is going to be amazing.

I cruise slowly into town. I know what is coming next. Immediately. Left at the roundabout and UP. Steep. Hairpin. Steeper. Hairpin. It goes on and on. Always up. To the village of Ascou. What a view. It’s amazing how quickly you get so high. I feel strong.

There is the sign. The start of the Col de Pailheres. Fifteen kilometres to the summit. At 2001m. The highest point of this year’s Tour. A leg shredding ‘hors categorie’ climb. I don’t care how long it takes. I just want to make it to the top without stopping.

The cloud has dispersed. The sun is out. A perfect day. I pass a lake. Mountains mirrored in the serene surface. The road ramps up into a forest. The view disappears but the volume turns up. A stream gushing down the mountain. Crickets chirping. Cow bells in the distance. My breathing. Always my breathing.

It just goes on and on. Twisting up through the forest. Long sections of 8% interspersed with short respites of 4%. A few hundred metres of flat. I coast almost to a standstill. Then up again. Steeper than before. The effort returns. The brief moments of respite become 7%. I never thought I would say that. Past a ski station. Crowds mill around the unmoving chairlifts. And onwards. Upwards. On and on.

The hairpins start. They break the climb up into chunks. The outsides of the hairpins are wonderful moments of semi-flatness. The insides steep little horrors of leg bursting effort. For the first time it crosses my mind: is it far to the top? As soon as the thought pops up I try to squash it back down. But it’s too late. My mind races. I could have a rest. Just for a minute. I can’t get the idea out of my head. But I must go on. Is it far to the top?

Round the final hairpin. I can see the summit. Miles away. My heart drops. One long slog to the finish. I have the legs. If I can get my head round it. Technique goes out of the window. Head down. Teeth clenched. Legs burning. Lungs burning. Pure effort. Sweat runs into my eyes. I can’t see. It doesn’t matter. Just keep turning the pedals.

I reach two other cyclists. They are barely moving. Grunted bonjours all round. Past I go. My ego is boosted. I look up. I can see people at the summit. So close. In my daydream yesterday I covered the last few hundred metres in effortless style. With panache. Today I drag my exhausted body up the slope. Drenched in sweat. Barely able to breathe. But I make it. I bloody well make it.

I sit on a grassy mound. Satisfied. Happy. Slightly disbelieving what I have achieved. Looking at the insane road going down. It looks fun. I start to shiver. It is really cold up here. Even on such a glorious day. Better get going.

It is much harder going down than I thought. Short straight. Tight hairpin. Short straight. Tight hairpin. Over and over. The cold starts to get to me. The constant braking makes my hands ache. But I lose altitude quickly. The straights get longer. The curves get faster . The temperature soars. I am absolutely flying.

The scenery is astounding. Towering mountains. Lush valleys. Precipitously placed castles, churches and villages. The road dives into the Gorge de l’Aude. Near vertical rock walls on either side. Towering up to the sky. A river crashing noisily alongside.

My directions say to turn left soon. How can that be? Left is a rock face. Sure enough a tiny road appears. It goes steeply up for twenty metres. Then round to the right and up again. I check my directions again. Ah yes. A category three climb. Here we go again.

This is the most amazing road I have ever seen. A single track clinging for dear life to the edge of the gorge. Delving through holes in the rock. Climbing ever higher. Gaps in the trees reveal astonishing views. My only company the lizards skittering out of my way and the butterflies. Butterflies everywhere.

I look back as I crest the climb and leave the gorge. Sad to have left it. I enjoyed it so much I barely noticed the effort. Entranced by my surroundings. I ride into the village of Aunat. In search of a shop. I am out of water.

Aunat is tiny. And closed. Shop shut. Shutters on the houses shut. Nobody around. Ghost town. Thankfully though, a water fountain. ‘Eau non potable’. Damn.

The next village is also shut. I stop in a shady spot. It is roasting hot and I need water. The silence broken only by the gurgle of a stream. Bingo. I find it in a small wood. I clamber down the bank. Glorious fresh cool water. I drink my fill and top up my bottles. Set off again. Refreshed.

Another climb. My frame of reference has changed. The five kilometre category four climb into Esperzel is nothing by today’s standards. No problem at all. I notice that my out-of-the-saddle technique has improved. More efficient. Subconscious improvement.

Esperzel looks more promising as I approach. I fancy a croque monsieur and a Coke. Esperzel is also shut. Barely a sign of life. A dog barks in the distance. An old couple sit in the shade of a tree in the town square. The man smiles and waves as I pass. I wave back and press on. I cross the Plateau de Sault. A few kilometres of flatness at an altitude of around 900m. It is the hottest part of the day. There is barely any shade. I am wilting.

I turn right. Towards Belesta. Over the Col de la Croix des Morts. At the junction a small restaurant. Perfect. Almost. They stopped serving a few minutes ago. They take pity and serve me a large Coke with loads of ice. I sit in the shade with it. Munching on an energy bar. It will do for now.

The Col de la Croix des Morts seems a triviality. The summit sign takes me by surprise. All then becomes clear. I am only riding down it. Seven kilometres of long sweeping corners at an average of 6%. Unbelievable. A flat out screaming rollercoaster of a road. I hit speeds I have never been close to before. And it goes on and on. Unbelievable.

Belesta arrives all too soon. I fly past my turning. Do a loop around town. Find my way again. Into another gorge. Cliff face on my left. Wooded hillside on my right. People playing in a river. A cave with a river flowing out of it.

I ride on. Tired but happily distracted by the world around me. I realise that I am riding into a dead end valley. I try to remember the route profile. I am pretty sure there is only one climb to go. At Roquefixade. I am not there yet. But how do I get out of this valley?

Weariness starts to set in. I decide to stop for an energy bar and gel. But not before I see the sign. Oh censored . The Col de Montsegur. Two climbs to go then. Nine kilometres at an average of 6%. How could I have forgotten that? I stop by a river. Fill my bottles. Eat. Stretch my legs. After all I have done today I face a category two climb.

I decide not to count down the kilometres to the top. They go too slow. This is a mistake. The road rises slowly for a while through a forest. Then the hairpins start. Each section steeper than the one before. A couple of cars come past. Making me ride up the steep insides of the hairpins. I feel my legs start to wobble. I will NOT stop now. I grind on. Progress slow but steady.

The incline relents slightly. Buildings appear. I have made it. I relax. My spirit soars. I turn a corner. My mistake is laid before me. This is not the summit. Not even close. The road rises brutishly. I don’t understand.

I check my bike computer. Two kilometres to the top. Oh no. The gradient steepens at every turn. 8%. 10%. 12%. I stop looking. I haul myself out of the saddle and refocus on just trying to keep moving. My legs are gone. My lungs are gone. But I refuse to stop. A dozy pedestrian walks out in front of me. I swerve right across the road to avoid him. I stay upright. Just.

Something is sprayed on the road. ‘500m’. I look up desperately. I can see the summit sign. I still don’t know if I can make it. Pedal turn by pedal turn I inch my way up. In the saddle. Out of the saddle. Whatever it takes. Inch by inch. I make it.

I lay motionless in a field. In the shade of a bale of hay. Half of me amazed that I made it. Glad of a well-earned rest. Half of me knowing I should get going before my legs seize up completely. I have twenty six kilometres to go. And one more climb.

Another super-fast descent. Montferrier flashes past in the blink of an eye. The climbs may be tortuous but the descents make up for them. A brief stretch on a main road is a bit of a reality check. But the solitude soon returns. The final climb of the day. Through a tranquil forest. A four kilometre category four climb. Up to the village of Roquefixade.

My legs have almost given up. I just cannot get going. It is not fun. I just want to get home. I slog up through the forest for what seems an eternity. Struggling to keep moving at all. Thankful for the shade. Desperate for the summit to appear.

When I finally pull into the viewpoint I slump onto my handlebars. I notice as I look down that I have ridden all the way up on the middle chainring. My shaking legs testimony to the tired mistake. I spot a small sign for a café and ride round the corner. It’s open. I down a Coke. Eat a Bounty. Another Coke. A Kit Kat. I start to come back to life.

Just thirteen kilometres left to go. Virtually all downhill. I don’t race down though. I sit up and coast. Take in the breathtaking views. Reflect on the highs and lows of the day. I feel quite emotional. I actually did it.

As I ride into Foix another roadie overtakes me. We acknowledge each other. I am straight out of the saddle. Bust my balls to get on his wheel. I can’t resist. After the day I have had I am not going to pass up a draft. I call merci as I turn into the campsite. Home. I coast to a halt in front of my family. Collapse onto the grass.

I need a beer. What a day.


Sorry it is so long! If you like it there are a few other write ups on my blog...




  • Great write up Dave. Makes me want to go ride it. Thanks!
    >> Domane Four Series > Ridgeback Voyage
  • markynultymarkynulty Posts: 409
    That sounds amazing. Cracking write up as well. Have you got any pictures?
  • chrisaonabikechrisaonabike Posts: 1,912
    markynulty wrote:
    That sounds amazing. Cracking write up as well.
    Is the gorilla tired yet?
  • e17bladee17blade Posts: 214
    markynulty wrote:
    That sounds amazing. Cracking write up as well. Have you got any pictures?

    I have a few - I'll sort them out and post them ASAP.
  • Mac9Mac9 Posts: 134
    Great read!

    Congratulations on what sounds like a fantastic ride.
  • mrc1mrc1 Posts: 852
    Great write up and very well written. The Non Potable signs have caused many a disappoint for me over the years!

    Le Domestique Tours - Bespoke cycling experiences with unrivalled supported riding, knowledge and expertise.

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  • e17bladee17blade Posts: 214
    edited August 2013
    mrc1 wrote:
    Great write up and very well written. The Non Potable signs have caused many a disappoint for me over the years!

    The 'Non Potable' signs were everywhere. I was so thirsty I nearly ignored them. I'm not sure how much cleaner the streams were to be honest, but they did the job.
  • e17bladee17blade Posts: 214
    Right then. Pictures. Some of them taken the day after the ride......

    1. The lake at Ascou just before the Col de Pailheres starts


    2. The view down the other side of the Col de Pailheres (short straights and tight hairpins all the way!)


    3. The Gorge de l'Aude - you can see the road carry on up the side in the top left of the photo


    4. The Gorge de l'Aude - looking back the way I came. You can see the road on the right.


    5. The Col de Montesgur. It nearly beat me. Nearly!


    6. The view back down the valley towards Belesta from the top of the Col de Montsegur


    7. At the top of the last climb - the view from Roquefixade


    8. Random picture of a random TdF sculpture. At a motorway service station of all places.

  • simonheadsimonhead Posts: 1,399
    Great reaview and pictures
    Life isnt like a box of chocolates, its like a bag of pic n mix.
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