So the gauntlet, or Great Cycling Mitt of the Very Reverend SLJ was thrown down, and having partially provoked the challenge, I had no choice put pick it up off the ground, wipe it, wash my hands to the sound of [insert inane nursery rhyme of choice] and get typing.
First please understand that the following has been translated from the original Cockney-Gaelic, which accounts for all errors and seeming cold-as-ice-slanders.
Any road up, so I thought back over two-wheeled adventures in the dim-distant past and those more recent. What would be worthy of SLJ?
Perhaps I could fill in some history from the murky past of two-wheeldom? You might for instance be interested to know that the feared mountain range, last seen bordering France and Spain, and home of the infamous Col du Tourmalet, takes its very name from the sport of cycling.
According to local legend, it was in fact an early member of a certain Northumbrian cycling club (founded shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain led by General Chorus Campagnolo in 53 BC according to historical Super Record. (That’s 73 BGRC in local parlance.)
This storied club, we have been repeatedly told, was down to -16 members, during the Black Death, as many of those buried in the Club Chapel had not paid their subscriptions and were hence denied an official gravestone and there names struck from the records. Yet despite these travails, somehow it still survives to this day.
Anyway, as I was saying, it appears that the naming rights of this particular mountain range were bagged by one of these strange Novocastrian psychlers (as they were known, back in the day), struggling up one or other godforsaken 15% incline in the vicinity.
Armed with a manly 21 rear sprocket, and bristling a 39 tooth (why would you even need that?) inner ring in hope of grinding the mountain to dust, it seems the ill-fated psychler came a cropper, split apart his mid-leg and cried out in pain, “’Paar a knees! I need a new paar a knees!”’
And so, dearly beloved, our mountainous range came, to be called the Pyrenees (since les Francais cannot spell proper). And surely, it has sounded the death knell to many jangling cartilage containers ever since.
But, turning aside from this bad turn up the Tourmalet, let me turn back over my own cyclepath of history, and pluck out a ride – not quite at random – and chase it along the keyboard.
It’s never quite clear, what makes a ride a great ride. Often those ones with ‘epic’ written all over the packaging can shine a bit brighter in advance, or in the re-telling, than in the doing. Sometimes the best rides aren’t so easy to recount – which to my mind makes the achievements of the Rev SLJ all the greater. But sometimes those rides are the ones we return to and relive even if there’s no 2,000m climb or breakneck descent, and that’s the case with this one.
A couple of years back the S.O. in my life (the Fechtette w whom I bide?) was taking part in the Loch Ness Marathon, a frankly incomprehensible (to me) affair, where they transport poor souls into the middle of nowhere – literally to a place where there are no roads and so no spectators may follow them – and then make them run the 26 miles back to the civilisation of Inverness. (No jokes please, I happen to love Inverness, but that’s another story).
So, wanting to fully support this first marathon adventure, I headed north, bike in tow, and finding the runners would depart at 5.30 for the bus out to the Loch, I made quick plans to put my two wheels to use, aiming to return in time to dutifully cheer on my S.O. at the finish line.
Some of you might perhaps know of the Black Isle? – but if you’re thinking of the Tintin story I’m afraid that doesn’t cut much ice, Snowy notwithstanding. The real Black Isle is no more of an island than the Isle of Dogs (Translators note: no known equivalent for this Cockney-Gaelic term). It is in fact a peninsula that isn’t really on the road to anywhere. The A9, the main highland artery, cuts across its mainland shoulder, but otherwise it’s largely a footnote. I set off for it, cheerfully hapless and mapless, with a sense of the shape of the ride I needed to follow more than an actual route.
Out of Inverness it was gloomy with rain falling as the dawn was sluggish in materialising, while the heavy road hugged the bay of Beauly Firth westward, against the wind. Finally turning inland there was a long slog to Beauly itself where the road crosses the cunningly named River Beauly (anyone else thinking that Beauly has a bit of an ego issue?)
It’s here that the ride really started as the road turned north east, and I headed back out towards the sea. A series of climbs, or maybe rather just endless undulations, up via Muir of Ord and all its many family members – in that way, where when you’re riding a road you don’t know, and can’t see far ahead, you never know how many more lie over that ridge.
Starting to flag, I dragged myself up the slope at Mulbuie, where one of those weird monuments to nothing very obvious was sitting waiting for me – think, modest Presbyterian version of the Kirkley obelisk without the cows.
Just about then the sun got its act together and the landscape opened out and I got a view across the Cromarty Firth. And for the next 30 odd miles I was flying along one of those roads that rewards every pedal stroke tenfold, carrying more speed than it seemed like I was earning, and luckily with not a car in sight, since my eyes kept drifting across to the deep blue of the firth, and the sun on the hills beyond.
It was one of those roads you want to go on forever, where you’re torn between giving it everything to the max, and slowing up cause you want to sustain the enjoyment. The road rose up gently, along the spine of the Black Isle, then ducked down to trace the northern shore into the deserted ferry stop at Cromaty. I stopped there to refuel and skim a few stones in the hope of concussing a haddock or two, but on that front, no joy.
Cromarty is the tip of the Isle, and from there much of the road back works its way through forests, and by this time what passes for traffic in these parts was starting to close pass. I worked my way back, stopping at a fork in the road to debate with myself whether to chance my legs on the mighty A9 suspension bridge, and save a good 25 miles.
But what am I actually saving here? I figured to myself and plowed on. Some few miles down the track, as I was about to leave the isle and re-join the Inverness road, I noted a hawk or falcon type thing, hovering some 20 foot above my right shoulder, just in the near blind spot. Perhaps coincidentally I picked up my pace a little at that point for the run into Beauly where I stopped for the espresso I needed to power me on back to Inverness.
Once back in town it was a quick shower and I headed off to the marathon finishing line to find I’d missed a certain talented debutante coming in well ahead of target time, some 10 mins earlier.
Can’t say I regret it though.
Not sure why, but this ride is one I find myself going back to in my head and reliving. And if someone were to ask me why the f*** does a 50 year old guy like me continue to ride around on a bike, I might not bother to answer, but this right here would be one of the reasons why.
The weather was set to be perfect, bright, warm and dry, the sky without cloud and the land without wind. Still, it wasn’t quite there yet when I first set out, with the air still chilly, so I hid under arm warmers and full finger gloves, all pulled over a necessary layer of sun-cream.
I had a very pleasant and totally relaxed ride across to the meeting point and arrived in good time to join G-Dawg admiring the obscene graffiti on the wall, before it was obscured by a flash mob of milling cyclists.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
In the space of just seven days we found a startling contrast between last weeks wickedly cold start and this weeks balmy, sunny conditions. Everyone seemed to have dressed accordingly, well, other than Zip Five in tights, arm warmers over a long sleeved base-layer and overshoes and the Garrulous Kid, who was basically wearing the exact same kit he’s worn for the past 6-weeks… only this time it was appropriate to the conditions.
“You’re like a stopped clock,” Jimmy Mac informed him, “Just very occasionally you are, by default going to get it right.”
The Garrulous Kid is proving to be to football punditry what Theresa May is to international diplomacy and delicate negotiation. After his disastrous guarantee that Germany was going to sweep all before them and dominate the World Cup, his prediction that Man City were “nailed on” for a remarkable quadruple is starting too look ever so slightly suspect.
OGL rolled up, took a chemist’s prescription bag out of his back pocket and started emptying out the various contents, bottles, tubes and boxes of pills, to secrete about his person.
“What’s with the Jiffy bag?” some wag asked, while I started singing, “EPO, EPO, EPO” to the tune of “Here we go, Here we go, Here we go” – a variation of the fiendish complex, difficult to master, classic football-chant, devised by the veritable Toshi San to serenade David Millar on his return to racing on British Roads.
OGL had the Team Sky deflection tactics down pat though, immediately switching the conversation to boxer Jarrell Miller’s failed drug-test, where he’d secured the grand slam of being popped for EPO, HGH and GW1516 (whatever that is) all at the same time. Still, Miller has wholeheartedly apologised, held his hand up and admitted he’s made a mistake … so, no harm done eh?
OGL then advised that roadworks meant traffic was backing up through Ponteland, so recommended we changed our route into the village. With that agreed, we picked a rendezvous point, split into two groups and away we went.
Things started out well, the pace was high, the sun was shining and the company amenable. I was just rolling up the outside of the group, picking up too much speed on a downhill section and too lazy to brake, when ahead of me, Spry’s bike jettisoned his tool tub. Stuffed with spare inner tubes and various Allen keys, it bounced once end-over-end and then rolled under my front wheel. I hit it and there was a resounding crack. My front wheel twitched violently and then straightened and I rolled on checking for damage.
My bike seemed fully intact and there was no puncture to deal with, but the impact had shattered the lid of Spry’s tool tub. I apologised for the damage I’d done as I passed him, back-tracking to pick up his discarded essentials.
We pressed on through Stamfordham and then up the hill to the lay-by, used for the start and finish of numerous cycling events. We pulled over here to wait for our rendezvous with the second group.
They duly arrived and we hung around for too long just chatting aimlessly and enjoying the sunshine, until OGL got tetchy and, pausing only to rebuke Plumose Pappus for having a grungy, rusting rear cassette, nagged us all into action again. Various splits and routes were agreed and we finally started up again.
Heading up toward Capheaton, Mini Miss picked up a puncture and it was back to standing around, shooting the breeze and waiting. I had a chat with Captain Black about the missing BFG (presumed to be still alive, but probably living under a(nother) false name, somewhere in the UK). We reminisced about the time he’d taken his bike into Boots to find the exact colour of nail varnish to match his chipped frame and ended up with a bevvy of beauticians and shop assistants helping him out. (Rimmel’s Pinking Out Loud and Max Factor’s Broody Blood Bouquet were the recommended choices. Although grateful for all the help, I’m led to believe the BFG felt the need to push back when it was suggested his cuticles needed urgent attention and a full manicure wouldn’t go amiss.)
Repairs made and on we went, following the route of last years National Road Race and cutting across the hills, through Hallington, to the bottom of the Ryals. Once again we marvelled that people actually race at full tilt down this narrow, twisting, pot holed, gravel-strewn and over-grown farm track.
I caught up with Richard of Flanders and we both agreed it was too nice a day to ruin it with an assault on the Ryals, but that’s exactly where we were heading.
I was drifting toward the back of the group when we made the turn and hadn’t gone far, when Jake the Snake, the Dormanator, pulled up with a puncture.
Our calls went either unheard, or unheeded by those in front and they pressed on leaving six of us to help sort out the puncture and then make the run for the cafe. I joined Aether in helping Jake the Snake replace his tube, while an overheating Zip Five tried to shed some layers and Rab Dee, in a move that was pure Jacques Anquetil, drained his water bottles, declaring he didn’t want to carry any extra weight up the climb. The Ticker then admitted he was a Ryals virgin and this would be his very first introduction to their nasty, brutish ways.
Underway again and rolling toward the climb, I passed the Ticker, whistling a little too nonchalantly and I commended him on his show of bravado.
Then we hit the first ramp and started to go up. I followed Rab Dee and Benedict closely up the first ramp, but didn’t feel I was in a comfortable gear and I was spinning a bit too wildly. As the road dipped down before climbing again, they changed up and kicked on, opening up a gap while I freewheeled, trying to recover and find a comfortable gear for the second ramp.
Then the slope bit again and I gave chase, slowly closing the gap, but running out of hill before I made it all the way across. We rolled down to the turn for the Quarry, where we stopped to regroup. After several minutes, with no sign of the Ticker, I started to backtrack, hoping to pick him up.
I’d almost made it back to Ryal village when he finally appeared, having suffered what he hilariously described as a “chain wedgie” – shipping his chain and getting it jammed between chainring and bottom bracket, or cassette and free hub … or maybe both at the same time.
“That’s what you get when you’re desperately looking for the secret 12th sprocket on an 11-speed cassette,” I told him.
After the Ryals, we made short work of the Quarry and started to pick up speed for the cafe. Once again I found myself on the front for the drag up and through the crossroads. It’s becoming a very bad habit.
I stayed on the front up to the final junction, when Rab Dee took over and kicked away. Closing fast on the Snake Bends, I pushed in front of him again, he took the briefest of micro-pauses, just enough to collect his breath, before he surged away.
I couldn’t follow, but we seemed to have left everyone else trailing in our wake, so I sat up and coasted through the bends.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The day was nice enough to retire to the garden and there I joined the already firmly ensconced Goose, Captain Black and Mini Miss, the latter enjoying he wanton displays of bike porn, most especially someone’s pure white Storck. This was close to being her dream bike, although she admitted it would be a difficult decision between a Storck and a more traditional, celeste Bianchi.
We recalled Goose, perhaps the least brand aware amongst us, being accosted by the one-time distributor of Storck bikes in the UK, who gave him the full-court press in trying to persuade him to drop £3 grand or more on a new bike, without really being able to justify the price tag, or read his audience with any degree of accuracy or empathy.
In discussions with Captain Black, I did the Ryals a disservice by suggesting they didn’t get much above 7-8%. The VeloViewer site characterises the “official” climb as being 1.5 km long, with an average gradient of 4% and a maximum of 16.8%.
Whatever the actual statistics, I think my point is still valid, it’s not an epic, enjoyable, or particularly memorable climb and I never feel any great sense of achievement topping it. I can imagine it does become brutal if you race up it, full gas 3 or 4 times in a race (such as next weeks Beaumont, or the Nationals Road Race) though.
We then played a kind of cycling Top Trumps, with Captain Black selecting the Tourmalet as the hardest climb he’s done, while, along with Goose, I went for the Galibier.
At the next table, the Monkey Butler was getting grief for his white, aero socks, but I refused to join in and condemn him, when the Garrulous Kid had two hairy, shapeless, baggy and grungy socks of no discernible colour, pooled around his ankles like two used and discarded elephant condoms.
Then, in a concession to the heat and inadequate pre-planning of layers, the Monkey Butler Boy re-appeared wearing just a gilet on his top half, arms bare to the shoulder. Socks be dammed, I immediately told him he looked like a wannabe triathlete and he couldn’t ride with us. Standards must be maintained.
As a parting shot, as we were packing up to go, I turned to Mini Miss, “What’s it going to be then, a Bianchi, or a Storck?”
“Well,” she mused, “I think Bianchi …”
She paused a heartbeat, before adding, “But I wouldn’t mind meeting a man with a Storck.”
Oh dear, that didn’t sound right. Time to leave.
Having been delayed by a couple of punctures, we were running late, so I peeled off to pick my way over the airport and shave a little distance and time off my journey home.
A couple of others came with me, at least as far as Ponteland, so I at least got another opportunity to apologise to Spry for destroying his tool tub.
Through Ponteland, I passed the long tail of traffic OGL had warned about that morning, as it backed up through the roadworks. Uncharitable as it seems, I have to admit passing the long, long line of drivers, cooped up and sweltering in their cars, made me smile and it buoyed me all the way home.
YTD Totals: 2,582 km / 1,604 miles with 34,470 metres of climbing
Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 6 hours 4 minutes
Average Speed: 20.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Baking
Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.
Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.
We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.
The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.
Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.
Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.
Ribble Rousers Meet Again
While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.
We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.
They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble
Hold on there, Bald Eagle…
We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.
“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.
Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.
Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.
“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)
He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.
By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …
“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”
Did he really just say that out loud?
With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.
Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.
As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.
Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone
As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.
He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.
Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.
The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.
It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.
Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.
Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.
Cow Lickin’ Good
There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.
We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”
We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.
As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.
At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.
With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!
Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.
If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.
“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found. It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.
You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.
Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.
So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.
We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.
I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.
Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?
We must be mad.
At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.
At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.
At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.
Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins
At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.
Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.
At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.
Hot Foot to the Top
At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.
At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it. I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.
With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.
“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.
She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.
I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!
I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.
Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.
We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.
As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.
Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.
Down Side of Me
Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.
Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.
I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.
Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.
After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.
Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.
We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.
All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)
But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.
Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)
A suitable point to retire for dinner…
In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.
“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”
Oh well …
The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.
Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.
Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.
“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)
Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”
As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.
Encouraged by our super-successful, slightly-secretive, semi-selective, sterling-sojourn into the Alps last year (see: Riders of the Alps Bucket-List) – this time Crazy Legs had us targeting the Pyrenees for another raid, deep into traditional French cycling territory.
With his formidable planning skills to the fore, he picked a date, found flights and accommodation and then simply offered the opportunity up to anyone willing, able-bodied and crazy enough, to want to ride a bike up multiple mountain passes in searing heat.
All we had to do at this point was indicate our intent with a quick, “Oui” or, “Non.” Perfect.
Wholly unsurprisingly, all of last year’s sextet re-upped for a second Tour of Duty (or Tour of Doodie, if you happen to be American) – so that was Crazy Legs, Goose, Captain Black, the Hammer, Steadfast and me.
To these serried and honourable ranks we added some real climbing prowess, with Kermit, a sub-55kg, climbing spider-monkey and the larger, but somehow-even-faster-going-uphill, Caracol.
Buster hemmed and havered, but eventually gave a reluctant, “Non” – and so we were set – an octet of inappropriately optimistic, opportunists, intent on wrecking who knows what – legs? lungs? livers? … and probably, somewhere along the line, any hopes of post-Brexit, Anglo-French entente cordiale, too.
British Airways flights were booked to leave early Thursday morning, June 21st from Newcastle to Heathrow, where we would connect with Steadfast, before travelling on to Toulouse. The return was planned for the following Monday, allowing us 3-full days of riding.
As usual, the Hammer would travel independently (which our fevered speculation determined would be through a combination of private jet, chartered helicopter and chauffeur-driven limousine).
Due to arrive early as our advance party, he promised to gather the most basic essentials to fuel our trip, which, in order of importance, appeared to be beer, wine, beer, cheese, beer and pain au chocolat.
… and beer.
Crazy Legs had secured us four cabins at the Campsite du Lavadan, just outside Argelès Gazost and some 15kms due south of Lourdes. This would be our base of operations for our 3-days of cycling and would put us within the orbit of such famous Pyrenean climbs as the Tourmalet, Hautacam and Aspin.
Goose sought and negotiated transport from the airport to the campsite – one big, 6-seater-van and a large car, deemed sufficient for 7 skinny blokes and their oversized bike boxes. He and Kermit bravely volunteered to do the driving and we were not at all worried when Kermit kept asking which side of the road he would be driving on.
The flights cost £185, the car hire about £65 each and 4 nights’ accommodation was around £100, so the basic bones of the trip came together for a, fairly reasonable, £350.
Crazy Legs then devised and circulated a rough plan for the rides:
Day#1 – Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin – a 126km loop
Day#2 – Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque – a 120km loop
Day#3 – Hautacam – 40km – straight there and back again
Everything was agreed and booked by the time BA announced the cancellation of our return flights. Luckily, the available alternatives actually helped, rather than hindered, with a more relaxed timing for the return.
Then, like last year, I more or less forgot about the whole thing until a few weeks before we were set to go.
There was a little last minute uncertainty when flash floods hit the western Pyrenees and destroyed some of the roads around the region. Indications were that the route from the Col d’Aubisque through the village of Gourette was particularly badly affected and likely to be closed, but we determined to play it by ear and adapt our route on the day.
More seriously, any effect on the upcoming stages of the Tour de France, set to travel across the same roads for stages 19, remains to be seen.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
Like an anorexic, bulimic teenager, weight became a bit of an obsession on two fronts as, learning from the previous trip, I planned how to travel lighter, both personally and baggage-wise.
The latter was much the easiest to accomplish. I swapped last year’s borrowed, rigid bike box for a cheap Planet-X bike bag, which I would load up with the bare minimum. This I determined was: one T-shirt per day, the clothes I would travel in, three full sets of cycling kit, a few energy gels, a set of allen keys for building up and breaking down the bike, a couple of spare tubes and a few sticking plasters (in case of emergency).
I found the bike bag much easier to pack than a box. It had integral wheel compartments and a ton of internal pockets that proved incredibly useful for stuffing things in and keeping them tied-down and in place. I also found the bike would fit in easily, with only one pedal removed – and the less assembling and disassembling I do, the happier I am, so a win all round.
Wheels out, one pedal removed, seat post out, handlebars released from the stem and taped to the top tube, I removed the gear hanger and taped the rear mech up inside the stays. I mummified the whole rear triangle in bubble-wrap, added a few pieces of foam pipe insulation to protect the frame and held everything in place with copious amounts of masking tape. That’s it, I was done.
If anything, the bike bag proved too big and capacious. Even fully loaded with wheels, frame helmet and clothes, it was still only ¾ full. I could actually have done with it being not quite as tall and, while eminently luggable, a set of wheels on the base would have been a real boon.
I’d been paying a little more attention to my own weight than usual and, as mileage ticked up, this started heading in the right direction too. I was hovering around 65kg’s on the weeks leading up to departure and starting to feel stronger and better for it.
That was until, the weekend before, when I developed a sore throat and tried the patented Crazy Legs cure of riding through it. (Hint: he’s called Crazy Legs for a reason).
Exactly one week before the trip, I climbed off the bike after a difficult commute home, admitted defeat and crawled into bed for three days, laid low by some vicious, random bug that left me thoroughly drained, caused me to miss a slew of meetings at work and, more importantly, the Saturday club run.
The following Wednesday, D-Day Minus-1, I finally swung a leg over the bike for a lone, last commute and my final ride before travelling to the mountains. Not exactly the ideal preparation, but I was good to go.
Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees
Early Thursday morning and having submitted my (hopefully well-packed) and protected bike to the tender ministrations of the ground crew at Newcastle International Airport, I tracked down the rest of the mob, already happily ensconced in a coffee shop in Departures and slurping down a selection of premium, hot beverages.
I think Kermit had surmised his baggage allowance also took into account personal weight, which gave him a massive advantage over every other passenger. To exploit this to its fullest extent, he was trailing quite the biggest and reddest piece of “hand baggage” I think I’ve ever seen.
We naturally queried if it would fit within regulation, hand-baggage dimensions, knowing full-well that if he did, by some miracle, manage to jam it into one of those baggage-guidance stands, it would never come out again.
Taking our concern to heart, Kermit triumphantly zipped up the expandable gusset, reducing the bags width by, oh, I don’t know a whole 5cms, maybe, and effectively reducing its overall footprint by almost 2%. It still looked massive and Kermit started to fret a little about getting it on the plane without having to pay an excess baggage charge.
Meanwhile talk turned to marginal gains, with Kermit admitting to taking a hacksaw to his seatpost to shave off a few centimetres and a few excess grams. There was some involved discussion about whether leg shaving constituted a marginal gain, while Goose and Crazy Legs bemoaned their androgenetic alopecia … of the legs.
Kermit worried we must have sounded like a troupe of old queen’s sitting round talking about leg shaving, but I assured him we were much too ugly for anyone to make that kind of mistake.
Someone mentioned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it was a short-leap from there to Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, I briefly pondered if there’s a collective noun for a transvestites – a camp of transvestites the best I could find.
Our flight was called and we made our way to the gate, half of us taking the escalator to jeers about “marginal gains” – which no doubt thoroughly bewildered other passengers. I felt I was doing ok, as, although I used the stairs, I was drafting Caracol the whole way.
On the plane, Crazy Legs found himself sitting next to a bloke who looked like a rugby prop forward, he was as wide as he was tall and solid. He initially took the aisle seat, hoping the plane wasn’t full and he wouldn’t have to squeeze into the middle of the row. No such luck, a late arriving passenger appeared to claim the aisle seat and the prop forward was soon pressed in tightly against Crazy Legs, blocking most of the light filtering in from the window and causing the seat in front of me to creak alarmingly.
Close proximity, coupled with abundant, natural Crazy Legs bonhomie, soon had the muscled-mass talking and it emerged he actually was a prop forward, from Leeds Carnegie Academy and travelling to France for a little continental seasoning at one of their pro clubs.
The Return of Hans
At Heathrow, with time to kill, we gravitated toward the Costa Coffee where we’d been sitting, talking our usual brand of unadulterated bullshit on the return last year, only to forget about the time. We’d had to dash to the gate, making it just as the last flight home was closing.
In commemoration of that anniversary, Captain Black informed the staff his name was Hans, which they duly inscribed on his coffee-cup, as they had the year before when he’d told them his actual name. I’m still at a loss to understand how they could have misinterpreted Captain Black quite so badly that they arrived at Hans.
We found five seats and Kermit perched on his big, red case to sup his drink. (Ah, so that’s why he brought it). British Airways announced our connecting flight was full and were offering to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Hoping to avoid any unwelcome arguments, Kermit gave up his impromptu perch and had it checked in. One less thing to worry about.
As Kermit returned from the baggage drop, we were discussing the photos of Donald Trump alongside Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, which seemed to prove that the President of the United States was lying (yes, I know – it’s hard to believe isn’t it) about his height. The photographic evidence suggested that he isn’t the 6’3” he claims and, given his weight, can officially be classified as obese.
Still, I’m not sure if this matters, after all a wholly impartial, completely objective and scrupulously honest physician has already unequivocally informed us, that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Kermit only caught the tail-end of this conversation and then spent five minutes wondering what Jump Judo was and whether it was worth catching on Eurosport.
Dead or Alive?
A discussion about the Orange Dotard’s tiny hands morphed into a discussion about Jeremy Beadle and the Kenny Everett character, the spectacularly stupid, Brother Lee Love, who had giant hands. From these humble beginnings the trip tradition and a new game, Dead or Alive? was born. The rules were quite simple, whenever someone moderately famous, or mildly notorious was mentioned, someone (usually me) would invariably pipe up to query: “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Backed up by Google, the most astonishing thing we found was how many people we thought were dead, were still hanging on, hale and hearty, and how many we thought were still with us that had, in fact long since departed.
We eventually relinquished the seats in Costa’s and made our way to a quiet gate, where we could sit and people-watch. Here we enjoyed the drama of a futilely sprinting, late-arriving passenger pleading to be allowed onto a flight that had already closed.
(I thought he lost his case through over-acting, especially when he clasped his hands together in prayer and begged. At this point went from being a somewhat sympathetic character to overly-dramatic and slightly unhinged.)
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs tried to decipher the complex code behind all the rank markings on the epaulettes of the aircrews. The conclusion seemed to be they were mainly for show and generally meaningless.
At some point, we were joined by Steadfast, who lives just a short drive away from Heathrow and then we were all filing on board and bound for France. Goose snagged a Financial Times to read on the plane, but would later complain there were too few pictures to hold his interest for long.
On the flight I swapped seats so a pair of separated, second, or third time-around (I assume) honeymooning Americans could sit together and I managed to sleep through most of the flight.
At the other end, we queued dutifully for our bike bags with a motley collection of other Anglo-cyclists, then suffered through the seemingly interminable process of collecting our rental cars. Why such a simple process always takes such a long, long time remains one of life’s great mysteries. Finally, we were sorted and started to move.
We hit the van first, Goose and Captain Black finally remembering how we’d managed to fold the rear seats flat after a fair amount of pondering, head scratching and trial and error. We managed to load 6 of the bikes into the back of the van, squeezed in four passengers, with Goose as a driver and off they went.
The second vehicle turned out to be a new, very square, very big and very ugly, ultra-white Jeep. I would have been embarrassed to be seen in such a (# cough # wanker tanker # cough #) monstrosity at home and I think my bike bag felt the same as it curled up and hid, alone and a little lost in the Jeeps rear compartment.
I finally got to grips with a recalcitrant SatNav, tapped in details of the campsite and then Kermit got us moving for a couple of hours driving, with arrival scheduled at the campsite just as the sun was setting.
We made it to our destination without incident, bikes and bags were quickly unloaded into the cabins (all decent looking and a step up from last year’s – not that we’d ever do much but sleep and shower in them anyway.)
We picked up our advance party, the Hammer and all piled into the campsite bar. There, hard bargaining with a somewhat angry and prickly site manager, managed to make Brexit negotiations look simple, straightforward and positively jocular, but our unwavering stance finally netted us four buckets of moules et frittes and four platters of ham, eggs and chips. This seemed just about acceptable to everyone.
I stocked up on calories, washed everything down with a couple of beers and retired to the cabin, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, an early breakfast and the chance to calmly build up the bikes before we began our first ride tomorrow.