I am no wordsmith but i always enjoy the tales from the road of the riders so I hope the following is useful to anyone looking to do this in the future - learn from my mistakes!
Before I start apologies for the mix of miles and km. The route and route card was marked out in km but I track in miles so there is a mix of both. For reference the parcours was 950km or 592miles and 24,200 metres of vertical gain.
Also before diving into the ride my first mistake was to have a flight booked on Thursday evening out of Bilabo (an hours drive from the end) as I had made other commitments I had to attend to on Friday at home and making that flight was non-negotiable. Never make this mistake if you are looking to do your own trip. It adds a level of stress that should / could be avoided – this was a huge error on my part and almost led to me abandoning for no other reason than scheduling.
Night Rider (Sat evening / the start) – with a 10pm Sat start the day was free apart from the race registration at midday and a pre-race briefing at 7.30pm there was lots of time to rest up, eat, and have a few beers. After the evening briefing Hippy thought that we rolled out as a group from the sports hall where we registered (and where we left some kit), down to the water front and then out into the night. However, we were actually rolling out from the beach direct so when we realised this little fact, a quick sprint up the road was required to pick up the kit we had left in the sports hall that was now hosting a basketball session. After that little scare we were good to go with 10-min to spare and joined the gathering crowd of riders and public.
We had a police escort out of town and once we were a few km out and hit the first climb the group started to string out and wanting to make sure I didn’t blow up in the first day, kept the pace easy. Lot’s of people seemed keen to push on quite aggressively but I had no intention to try and follow anyone but be content to do my own thing.
Riding at night I find, when rested, quite an enjoyable experience as it concentrates the mind and you enter the trance like state where you ride the tunnel of light you create. Descending is fast and fun as you do not see the drops that are only a few feet away and using my GPS I know when the hairpins are coming up.
The first few hours make me realise that the heat is going to be a constant issue for me. The night brings two roadside, public water fountains to top-up my bidons and a few riders, including myself manage to catch a bar closing up by the roadside and crab a bottle of coke (the first of many). As the night becomes dawn, I start to pass the first few people starting to grab some sleep and by 6am, having completed about 90-miles, I do the same. A pallet behind a bale of hay on the edge of a field becomes my first bivvy but wake after an hour and can not get back to sleep. A bit of breakfast and back on the bike and set of into the short-lived cool of the morning.
Baptism of fire - The first day can be summarised in one word – HOT. I heard one rider say 38 degrees and another claim 42 but whatever the figure, it was for me completely debilitating. I can not eat when I get hot and this obviously this has a huge detrimental impact on energy output. The climbs were super long (two climbs over 20km in length) and mostly completely exposed to the sun so absolutely no place to hide. By 2pm I had mentally cracked and half way up Pailheres (10.9km’s / 8.1% average) and with another 5km to go before topping out I took the opportunity to jump in a stream and then sit in the shade until I got myself sorted and some food inside me.
After cooling down and energy levels returning I get going again just after 4pm and drag myself over the top and take a quick photo before enjoying the descent. As I get to the bottom of the hill, I see a few riders eating at a bar / restaurant and I join them. It’s then that I decide that I need a hotel for the night so I can sleep properly and re-hydrate and the booking.com app gives me an option a few km down the road so having eaten, I am relieved to know that a shower and a bed was waiting for me. I only managed another 40 / 50 miles since my morning “snooze” so it was a very slow 150 miles from the flag drop. Day 1 complete and I already had a my head kicked in by the conditions!
Clouds of relief and pain – The second full day is cloudy and having had a full nights sleep, a big breakfast I am feeling revived again and looking forward to putting in a shift. After the legs started to free up I started to enjoy the experience and appreciate the opportunity this event has afforded me and I can actually take a few moments to enjoy the views. I get a great lunch and get a supersized baguette in the late afternoon, keeping some for the evening as I was going to go on after dark. The last two climbs of the day were done in the dark and as low hanging cloud had rolled in I got soaking wet just from the moisture in the air. It was grim riding conditions and descending in the dark this time was horrible as the wet mist made it impossible to relax and let the bike run through the corners.
By 1am I was getting tired again and coming down a col decided at the bottom I would try and find a place to sleep. I had intended to bivvy but as I was wet and cold took a chance on some cabins being open and phoned the number on the website and got lucky! The owner, whilst initially annoyed, when he found out what I was doing was helpful and even made me a breakfast that I could have when I needed to leave.
Day 2 included the cols of Chioula (10.4km / 6.8%), Lers (11.1km / 7%), Agnes (4.1km / 7.3%), La Core (5.2km / 6.3%), Portet D’Aspet (5.5km / 6.7%) & Mente (11.1km / 6.5%).
Clouds of doubt - A shower, 4-hours sleep, breakfast and a bit of faffing saw me back on the road as it started to get light again. As it got brighter I prayed for clouds but the gods were not listening. I had stayed overnight a few miles from the climb of Superbagneres (17.1km / 6.8%) and it was already getting hot by the time I started the climb. I topped out Superbagneres mid-morning and there wasn’t a café or restaurant open to even buy a celebratory coke so a quick salute to the mountain gods and it was time to head down.
Superbagneres and the next batch of climbs were the ones I that had drawn the eye when I first looked at the parcours and I was going to try and enjoy them if I could. The climbs included the Peyresourde (13.7km / 6.9%), Aspin (11.9km / 6.7%), and the Tourmalet (17.1km / 7.4%) but they amounted to a paltry 80 odd miles of total distance travelled and whilst it was hot they thankfully had regular tree cover so I could drag myself up and over without having to much time of the bike getting re-hydrated at the cafes and bars that I came across. That said my average speed was low and after the Tourmalet it was time to eat and rest as it was nudging 5pm. Now I had a decision to make – eat something and push on with a view to a night bivvy or find a hotel, enjoy a nice meal and a full night’s sleep but accept that probably meant that completing the course and making my flight on Thursday was unlikely. I had intended to ride late on the first night and bivvy outside so the hotel option so early in the event had cost me dearly and a second night in a hotel in the first half of the course was a serious blow to the schedule.
A quick call from a mate saying that what I had done so far was an amazing effort and that the main thing was to try and enjoy what I was doing made me relax a little and keep things in perspective. With this in mind and a desire to really enjoy and see the next few climbs in daylight I checked into a hotel and mentally checked out of the “race”. It was only the end of day-3 but I had lost so much time compared to my original plan it seemed impossible to make up the difference and make my flight.
The magic numbers - Food and sleep are wonderful tonics and I woke up feeling good but still of the view that I would ride a biggish day and then in the evening find a town with a train station. From there I would head to San Sebastian to have a good evening of food and beer and then dismantle the bike at my leisure Thursday morning and get the bus to Bilabo airport in the afternoon. With this relaxed attitude I climbed the Borderes (14.7km / 5%), Soulor (7.5km / 7.9%) and the Aubisque (5km / 6.1%). The weather was cooler and the legs were spinning well and at the top of the Aubisque I wondered how much of the course I would skip if I bailed after the next climb, the Marie Blanque and headed to Pau.
My longest training ride was from London to Cornwall and it was 197 miles – it stuck in my head as I was intending to do at least a double century but I had promised my wife I would be at the in-laws in Cornwall by 8pm in time for dinner (there is a theme emerging here). At 6pm I knew I was behind schedule and when I got collected of the road I had clocked 197 miles. Now 197 miles is a random number and only relevant due to my training ride, but when a friend confirmed that’s what I had left to travel to San Sebastian my brain flicked over and I decided to go all in – it was all or nothing and if I was going to fail, it would be on the road. I had from roughly from midday Wed to my estimated cut-of time of roughly 5pm on Thursday to complete the event.
Singularity of purpose – I wish the next 197miles was a story of fast miles and strong climbing but the reality it was a mixture of grovelling, walking up hills in the middle of the night, tantrums, swearing and at times murderous intentions towards whoever had written the route card. It was roughly midday when I decided to push on and tackle the next climbs. The Marie Balnque (11.2km / 5.2%) and the Labays (11km / 8.3%) were amazing with stunning scenery and I am glad to have done them during the day. The next climb, Erroymendi, almost broke me again as the 10.5km / 8.9% gradient was in consistent with flatter sections and then ramps that wore you down and combined with the heat made for tough, hard earned miles.
It was now early evening and I was still uncertain if I was just kidding myself that I could make it to the end on the bike and I had just had to walk for the first time on a ramp section of the Larrau which was meant to be 2.5km and 9.1% gradient. I managed to get a get a meal at a restaurant before they closed in the village of Larrau itself and thinking that it would be a quick ride to the top I would nail that and then get a few hours sleep in the bivvy before hitting out for the finish line.
I was seriously wrong about where the top of the hill was and after 30-min of walking / cycling I decided to get some rest. I slept in a field for a few hours under a beautiful star filled sky but it was only a short break before the start of the push for the finish line.
It took me at least another 30-min of walking the ramps and cycling to get to the top of the Larrau climb and I blame myself for not being prepared enough to know what the course entailed – a lesson for next time.
The next seven cols on the route card were a combined 45km of climbing with an average of 5.5% gradient and it was the long, long day to get them done. A timely call from a friend in the mid-morning gave me enough impetuous to keep going and and push on for the end. When you are moving at an average of about 10 miles per hour every hour adds precious little to the target, but you have to keep moving.
This is the end Anyway, after this tale of up and down, both physically and mentally, it was with great relief that after 4 days, 19 hours and 26 min I finally saw the Atlantic coast and I crossed the finish line.
Did I make my flight? Just about. I literally crossed the line and then headed to race HQ to collect the bike box and the organisers were amazing and helped me pack the bike and ordered me a cab. After the quickest bike dismantling ever and a shower I was on my way to the airport – I just made my flight!
A little about the kit: -
• Bike – Mason Definition (compact chainset and 11/32 cassette
• Saddle pack – Wildcat with a 13 litre Alpkit dry bag (tapered)
• Frame bag – Apidura
• Top tube bag – small Topeak one for snacks and a Pro Discover one for tubes, tyre leavers etc.
• To increase water capacity I had used a Topeak temporary cage attached to the front fork so allowed me to have 2 x 0.75 (in the normal cages) and 1 x 1litre on the fork.
• 1 x Tupperware cake box strapped on top of saddlebag – essential.
Next time I will also add a handlebar bag for more food and a wider range of clothes and outdoor bivvy options.
If you get a chance to do the event go for it - just don't make my mistakes!