The Great Pyrenean adventure - introduction
We run cycling holidays. Once a year we run a special tour out of our normal area (Brittany) where I go as guide and mechanic. These trips are a bit special and over the years they've become populated by cyclists who come year after year and who I consider some of my closest friends. Normally these groups number 14 and we've had some great fun together, although it has to be said they have to pay for the privilege. This year I thought why not run a special tour, where the group pays as normal, but instead of going into our coffers goes direct to our favourite charity - ITDG. Why do it this way? Well I think the usual cycling charity ride has become a little discredited over the years. The idea that people would raise money and then I'd take out all expenses made life complicated - what were my expenses? How much could I legitimately take? Would people want to spend time stinging their friends and colleagues for yet another charity? No. This way everyone paid £350 direct to ITDG, no money passed through my hands to tempt me to 'skim off' expenses or complicating our already labyrinthine accounts. Riders would be given a sponsorship pack so the could collect money beyond this, but there was no obligation whatsoever, I'm well aware that some of the group will have 'cleaned out' their friends on several occasions already whilst others could plough into virgin territory.
So the die was cast, a one off charity ride was the answer, with £350 per person a total of £4900 was guaranteed to ITDG with no doubt much more to come.
So Where to Go?
I wanted a tour with some 'bite' in it. No-one would find it easy to get sponsorship for pottering around the Loire valley, or going wine-tasting in the Dordogne. There was also a significant sub-text. Over the years I'd run several tours to the mountains of France, the Alps, Auvergne and Pyrenees. One of our regular cyclists, Jennie Johnson, I'd always thought of as being tailor made for such a trip - lean, fit and with good stamina, but she'd always said she'd hate it and would never come, I saw this as a challenge. During our Led Trips to the Mayenne in 2002 I'd hassled her once more about it. It was yet another straight "no! never!". "But what if it was all for charity?" - I timed it perfectly, after several bottles of wine, and all around her saying "yes let's do it!" she fidgeted around and said "Under the influence of sun and alcohol I'm not promising anything". From that moment on she was doomed, and for that matter so was I. The commitment had been made, there could be no backing out on my part, and I made sure it applied to Jennie too...
And of course it had to be the Pyrenees, nothing else would do, including of course the 2115m Tormalet, the most famous mountain in cycling.
No area in the world can rank with the great cols of the Pyrenees when it comes to fame as a cycling route. The result of the greatest cycle race in the world, 'Le Tour' is, more often than not, decided in those few days when the cyclists brave mountain roads that take them to 6000 feet and beyond. But its fame as a cycling race-track is not the only reason for choosing this as the route for our charity ride. As well as being being a challenge to cycle, it has some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery in Europe. If the weather held it'd hurt, but it would leave us with views burned into our memories that none of us will forget.
The trip would have to be in the second two weeks of September, at the end of our season - on the last Saturday of the season I'd drive down with all the bikes to the campsite at Biarritz, our start/finish point, chosen because of its proximity to the airport and railway. It would allow for several days parallel to the mountains before turning into them for the return via the cols. The dive out of the mountains would take us to Biarritz on the final day. The plan was that once in the mountains we'd ride up a col every morning with the downhill and recovery in the afternoon. So in March I sat down and planned the route in detail. It's not normal for me, usually I like to do tours on a wing-and-a-prayer with vague targets linked by on-the-fly planning. This time people had to be able to give a route to sponsors so that they could be sponsored per col. In the end the route worked out and the discipline it imposed took some weight off my shoulders, but meant some hard days.
What to expect? - I'd been here several times before. Though it was mid to late September the weather could vary from torrential rain, snow, ice, hurricane force winds, to blazing sunshine with temperatures in the low 30's centigrade. I'd made enough mistakes in the past to know what personal gear was needed, (thermal underwear and ski-gloves for starters) so I made out equipment lists for everyone.
Equipment we supplied - Here I was happily on solid ground. We've always used bikes capable of just about anything, and well up to real mountain touring with full loads (did I mention that there was no vehicle back up?). We had a new batch of 'BB Specials' for 2003 and I made sure their gearing was as low as possible and special attention was paid to the brakes, especially the touring bikes (drop-handlebarred bikes) which had the new Dia-Comp V-Brake compatible levers fitted. I had every confidence they'd be fine for the job. Our philosophy on tents and sleeping bags is the same as for bikes and so once again we could draw on normal Breton Bikes stocks for equipment, though I did buy several extra one-person tents. Everyone also took cooking gear - hey we were going to rough it!
The summer flew by. All the time during the season the Pyrenees loomed before me, sometimes as incentive to get though the season, sometimes as a worry as to whether it'd all go according to plan. As finally the day came to pack the bikes on the trailer and begin the 8-hour drive to Biarritz I have to admit to some anxiety. But one thing kept me confident, the knowledge that the I was going with a very special group of people...
The Runners and Riders...
During the 12 months from that first drunken campsite commitment and the 'off' the group changed somewhat. Many wanted to join but priority first had to go to those around that campfire and other regulars on the trips. As the time for the trip grew nearer some had to cry off, family commitments, work/business reasons and some out of fear, but in the end the group numbered the planned 14 + me - something that surprised me for one! As for those that had to pull out, you missed the adventure of a lifetime and your presence was sorely missed by us all, but in pulling out you allowed others in who in the end made the trip as special as it undoubtedly was.
So on to the staunch characters that finally made it to the start point in Biarritz.
As team leader and organiser of the whole thing (cynical laughter from the group). I get the first mention.
A youthful 43, 6' dead, prematurely grey (you need to ask?) and constant worrier. I've cycled all the cols several times so in theory should be in fine fettle. The downside is that because I have to be on-call all summer I can't cycle, so hit the Pyrenees without having ridden a mile for 4 months, and precious little since the previous September. A planned assault of a few cols in April was thwarted by atrocious weather so I arrived at base camp with only a few hours on a turbo trainer under my belt and rather too much above it. My belief that mountain climbing is 80% technique, 20% fitness was about to be tested. I was viscous in editing my pannier contents but the bike still felt damn heavy... On that subject I was the only one not to be riding a BB Special, my steed being my 11 year-old Bob Jackson lightweight. With skinnier tyres it rolled a little faster than the BB's on the flat, but with higher gearing and much less grip for the downhill hairpins it wasn't the 'edge' I'd have liked. During the next two weeks I often wished for the bottom gear the BB's had...
As one of the reasons for doing the trip Jennie gets first slot, she also acted as treasurer for the ride, a lot of work for her - thanks... She's done many trips with us and generally looks after me and any other suffering cyclists. Sees herself as a victim of a carefully worked plot and she's right... When I say her cycling is 'steady' I mean she could ride all day, just the sort of stamina you need, if only she believed it too...
13 years ago Allan came on our very first tour with his 12 year-old son riding one of our tandems, he had a wonderful trip apart from a Porsche driver trying to kill them both - this time it would be a truck. Since then his son Stuart has been a couple of times, but Allan has never missed a tour. A powerful cyclist who never seems to be working hard, I always see Allan as a rock at the heart of the group, never complaining, always soaking up whatever experience the road offers. I couldn't have imagined going without him. Having been with me on a Pyrenees trip 12 years previously he knew what to expect. He might have worried but I didn't...
Jeff's fourth trip. Jeff isn't built for climbing. Climbers are skinny/wiry people pared to the bone. Just watch the Tour de France next year and see all those muscle bound sprinters grinding up the mountains and being swept up by the sag-wagon. Jeff is built like a sprinter or a rugby wing-forward. He also had the most staggering amount of luggage, so much in fact that he couldn't close his panniers properly. He had never done anything like this before. How is it then that he was first to the top of every col? Sometimes there's no justice... (luckily for Jeff there's no drug testing )
Evelyn is 5' in her socks, not by any means a powerful cyclist and doesn't normally cycle a lot. But 12 years ago, she'd persuaded me, against my better judgement, to let her come on our first ever Pyrenees tour. On that trip her motto was "I never push" and neither did she. If I was reckoning on 'technique' to get me up, I knew that Evelyn would do it on sheer bloody determination. She also has another reason for coming, as she was raising money for her own charity, set up in memory of her life-partner Richard, which is collecting money in order to provide a fishing lake with access for disabled children. If you want to know more about 'Little Owl', read about it here. Her account of the trip can be found here
Rob is another long-term Breton Biker, this being his 10th ride with us. Manic Manchester United supporter and only just the right side of certifiable. A typical climbers build, Rob would always be near the front whilst fully exploiting his unmatched knowledge of expletives...
Known as 'rocket legs' and with good reason. Though only her second trip Meryl had already showed she could out-cycle me (no great feat in truth) and most of the men in the group. Very experienced tourer and confessed to having done some smaller cols in the Cevenne earlier in the summer - we all considered this to be cheating.
Chip is a Southern gentleman - he even says "y'all". Sadly he couldn't persuade his lovely wife Suzie (known as 'Mrs Chip') to come so was out on a long leash. As the person who'd come the furthest he'd obviously been training and looked disgustingly fit. But true to his generous nature he'd decided to level the playing field by bringing his own 'saddle' which weighed almost as much as the bike and meant he had to ride with his saddle an inch lower than ideal. He swore by it, I tried it and just swore...
Sheesh! another skinny, fit hillclimber - Frank had even managed to get out of his job so he could train over the summer. The antithesis of a dour Scot he's been in the mountains with me before and so knew what to expect - perhaps the reason for the training.
If Rob is the right side of certifiable then Alister is somewhere in the distance - on the other side. 'Discovered' fitness a few years back and so now cycles 400km Audaxes and runs marathons - for fun! Spends most of his time riding away in the far distance singing "bibbidy, bobbidy, boo!" which in my book is reason enough to get the men in white coats out. It appears a liquid intake of 2 litres of diet Coke a day may have something to do with this manic energy (don't try this at home kids).
William is one of my closest friends and is, of course, French. When someone pulled out four weeks before the start I gave him the hard sell and he gave in. The baby of the group (32) William didn't ride a bike, had never ridden a bike with panniers, and had no idea of what to expect or time to train for it. I had hoped this would mean he'd be company for me at the back - some hope...