Martin Malins writes…
Slowly working my way through the classic French sportives, I spent 6 days in the Pyrenees with Paul Harris and my friend Matthew. Matt and I flew to Toulouse and hired a car for the 100km drive down to the foothills in St Girons where we met Paul at the campsite, he having done a quick ride as we arrived. We decided against anything too energetic that afternoon so drove up to Mas d’Azil where there is a spectacular cave with a road going right through it into the other valley.
The next day was Le Col du Tourmalet; a classic and very hot Tour climb with many cycling pilgrims making the 1400m ascent on the day and well worth it for the spectacular views from the top and the exhilerating descent which I took very gingerly (like all fast descents) since my accident.
The next day we had a short ride up the valley to ride back through some old unlit railway tunnels which have been converted into a one way road; quite scary on a bike with cars up your rear end! After that it was more caves; the spectacular underground river of Labouiche where you are taken through a mile of decorated streamway in a small boat. And finally on to Tarascon to pick up our numbers for the sportive and find a campsite.
The sportive has 3 different courses; a flat 74km, a hilly 115 and a 165 which both finish on top of Plateau de Bielle, scene of a few stage wins on Le Tour by Lance Armstrong. Matthew opted for the 74km while Paul and I went for the 165; relatively easier than the 115 with 500m more climbing over the longer distance. The start was the usual razamatazz as the 4000 strong field blasted out of the town to the North, I was overtaken by most of the field in the first few km and found myself climbing the first col almost alone. the next section is relatively flat as it snakes along the plateau to Le Col des 7 Freres, but the heat was by now crushing and those not used to the temperature suffered.
Following the next Col, the Marmare; it looked in theory all downhill to the foot of Bielle at Les Cabanes but there were still several kicks up to small hilltop hamlets as the course went along the side of the valley. Finally the lovely hairpin descent took me back to valley floor where I reached the start of the final climb with 45mins in hand before the cut-off. Picking up my secretly stashed (the night before) too small jersey which they would only exchange at the finish I started the long long climb, by now most of the field was plummeting back down from the top. Everyone still on the climb was really suffering by now, but fortuntely there were several water stops with encouragement from the helpers. I didn’t really pay much attention to the time now and just wanted it over with; but the hairpins just kept coming and I found myself stopping at least every kilometer on the gruelling gradient of 8%.
And finally the ski station came into view and I crossed the finish line to meet Paul (who had finshed about 80mins earlier) and Matt (who had driven up after finishing the 74km in Tarascon). Paul said I was lucky as I finshed within 2 minutes of the finish control closing but I was past caring; just wanted to sink a cool beer and get back down as I cooled down very rapidly at the top. We grovelled back to the campsite (Matt and I in the car; Paul riding the last 6km up the valley) where we sat drinking beer and getting bitten by midges until all retiring for an early night.
The next day we had a 70km recovery ride to Carcassone which was even more stiflingly hot but a lot flatter, before the drive back to midge-free St Girons for the last two nights. On the penultimate day we had vaguely planned a white water canoeing trip but this was not possible, so following Paul’s suggestion we rode one more col, Le Port which was only 5% gradient; but it was still a chore and we were very relieved to reach the summit. And a final bit of sightseeing; the 2 hr walk up to the spectacular Cascade d’Ars waterfall which was in full spate after a large snow melt and also a thunderstorm. We never did get to Andorra or Spain although we saw some of the mountains from over the border; one for the next time!