Wednesday, 31 August 2011

When Saturday Comes

The weather last Saturday did at least dawn brighter and drier than Friday.  We had planned an absolute belter of a day, at least in terms of climbing.  The charge sheet of cols was to read: Port de Bales, Superbagneres, Hospice de France and Portillon.  We only managed the first two in the end, but they're still "HC" (Hors Categorie = beyond classification = as hard as you can get) climbs.

The Port de Bales was a superb climb, alternately shaded, twisting, wooded, open, and donor of lovely views of mountains and lush farmland.  I loved it, despite an aching back towards the top and an aching knee all the way up.  It was also 19km long.  The P de B is best known perhaps for last year's incident on the Tour de France when Schleck the Younger's chain unshipped itself, leaving Bertie Booster free to build a lead that, with wry coincidence, was his margin of eventual victory.  That chain came off allegedly because Andy was preparing to attack, and so selecting a bigger gear.  Attack!  On there!  These boys aren't human.  Still, we made it to the top in a reasonable state.  The descent was nice too, but then again I love virtually all descents in the dry, being a lot more circumspect in the wet.

We reprised last year's luncheon arrangements in Luchon (we stopped there on the Raid Pyrenean), viz. a slice of pizza and a can of coke, from the same shop too, on the very pleasant tree-lined main boulevard of Bagneres-de-Luchon, to give it its full title.  And then we tackled the climb of Superbagneres, a 16km pull up to a ski-station, a cul-de-sac.  That didn't augur well, as neither of us are big fans of the up-and-back.  From the moment we hit it, neither of us seemed to have our mojo.  Mendip Rouleur's greater discomfort was on the ascent (I won't go into detail, but let's just say I now know that it's not only bears who repair to the woods for that particular activity), whilst mine was on the descent.  As climbs go, it was ok, views, switchbacks and the like, but it just didn't have the magic of other ascents.  We managed a coffee and hot choc respectively at a pretty exposed summit cafe, and then came the was fast, sweeping, dry and should have been fun, but halfway down I knew something wasn't right.  I was unfeasibly cold given the number of layers I was wearing, and I was feeling lightheaded to the point I was worried about blacking out.  Now, descending a mountain on a bicycle at speeds up to 80kmh and with unprotected corners is not a good time to lose consciousness, even for a couple of seconds, so I stopped for a few minutes to eat and drink, and carried on.  MR and I reconvened in Luchon where the temp was 19c and I was still freezing.    

A piece of Gateau Basque was hurriedly consumed, but did nothing in the short term, so I had to sit behind MR on the 25km back to base.  At the time, I thought maybe the previous weekend's virus-type thing had returned, brought on by the exertions of the 2 HC climbs, but now, looking back, I realise it was a classic case of 'bonking' - blood sugar drops to levels where you can't maintain power output.  Cold, shivering, energyless, I should have known really, particularly as when we got closer to home I perked up a bit (the Gateau Basque hitting the system!).  Thanks to MR for escorting me back at speeds approximately half of what I'd normally expect along what was basically 25km of fairly steady downhill.  I thought I'd eaten plenty, and probably had a moderate amount during the ride itself.  However, I'd been woefully short on the carbs front in the previous evening's meal - it just goes to show, you really can't mess with these mountains.

Sunday was our equivalent of a leisurely round of golf - we planned to do just two cols of any significance, the Hourquette d'Ancizan and the Aspin.  The weather was a notch up again on Saturday, making it a superb day to be out on a bike, and even better, we had a good run on the flat (45km) before the first climb of the day, a leg warming distance denied to us the previous two days.  We even had a quick stop in Arreau for no particular reason other than that we fancied it.  After some debate, for neither of us were over-burdened with energy at this point, we decided to stick to our original plan and take the eastern approach of the Hourquette (10km at 10%).  And boy, were we rewarded for that decision. It was superb, the best of the 3 days for me.  On the lower slopes we were brought to a halt temporarily by a "Tour Pyrenean de Volants Anciennes" - old cars driving over various cols, including (cars not cols), Citroens from the '50s, restored La Poste vans, open-topped Mercedes that would be the vehicular equivalent of ladies-of-a-certain-age, and the inevitable 2cv's.  What a great moment that was, good humour all round.

And the rest of the climb continued in the same vein.  It was narrow, quiet, well-paved as usual, shaded (which was welcome), had the most unbelievable views at the top, but the best thing for me was that my legs started working for some reason.  Whereas all my previous climbing had been fairly laboured, all of a sudden it was, well, if not easy as such, then certainly pleasurable.  I put it down to the entire packet of jaffa cakes i consumed in a 10 minute period the previous evening, after a 3 course meal where I'd had two helpings of main course.  Hardly surprising I guess - just doing some maths and assuming an average hourly calorific consumption of 700, I needed 5 days worth of extra food to fuel those 3 days of riding.  God knows how the professionals keep it up for 3 weeks at a time.

Anyway, the descent of the Hourquette was fast and furious, calmed only in the last few km by hundreds of daytrippers, and after a quick ice cream we started the Aspin, the bases of each being only a few hundred metres apart.  Climbing form was maintained up there, but it wasn't novel, having covered the same ground on the Raid.  That time, however, the descent was in the wet, whereas this time it was dry, and if the Hourquette was the best climb of the trip, this was head-and-shoulders the best bit of downhill - long, clear bits of road to really build up some pace, corners both tight and wide to keep it interesting, and vehiclar overtaking opportunities, which I particularly love.  I don't think the speedometer dropped below 50kmh at any point, and sat between 60 and 70kmh for a lot of the time.  C'est magnifique.

We celebrated by finally managing a civilised lunch at a lovely cafe in Arreau, galettes and salad all round.  From there it was a 45km cruise back up the D26 valley road to Bertren, on an archtypal lazy summer, Sunday afternoon, to complete the riding for the trip.

This post is already too long, so I'm going to leave it there, and put one more on tomorrow that picks up a few final reflections on our 3 days.

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