Day 0: Sunday 26th June, 2016
A Randonnée, is a journey, and one that is not to be underestimated. I first completed one in the Italian Dolomites in 2014 and during that one I found it all a bit overwhelming as I had no idea what to expect and the forces that led me to feel that way I did during and after it. I just trained as hard as I could (which in hindsight was over training and training of the wrong type) and hoped that this would get me through it. Having one Randonnée under the belt already I was a lot more aware and concious of what was required to get me through this challenge another 2 years older. This challenge is effectively a Coast to Coast challenge that covers 735km and 24,500m of climbing in 6 consecutive days crossing the Pyrenees from East to West and as there is no rest day each of those days average over 4,000m elevation gain which brings me to the issues this presents to a Dubai based cyclist. Firstly there is the complete lack of appropriate training. If you live in the Middle East and your European trip is in the summer as they all are then you are basically pretty screwed before you even start. With no realistic access to mountains, riding fast and flat roads in the heat just doesn’t cut it. The turbo trainer provides an option (if you can face it which is another challenge in itself) but still doesn’t really prepare you for 18km long inclines at 11% sitting in one position on a bike pointing up hill for 1.5 to 2 hours at a time. You quickly realise that doing this uses muscle groups not normally worked on in Dubai. Next up is the pre-trip packing. Coming from Dubai where we only ride in one type of kit and occasionally use some arm warmers this is not something that comes naturally. Planning for every eventuality whilst trying to keep the weight down for an extended family holiday on the end of the cycling trip is no easy task. Then there is the long haul flight that dehydrates you and takes something out of the legs before you even arrive at the start line whereas your fellow riders have often driven a few hours or taken a one hour flight from the UK.
I arrived in Perpignan airport and was greeted by one of the Rapha guides who transported me to this amazing old castle hotel at the foot of the Pyrenees. Once at the hotel you then need to get your bike set up which in my case was a Canyon Endurance rental bike that I hired from Rapha. I brought some Garmin Vector pedals and my S-Works saddle with me. The pedals worked fine but the saddle didn’t fit the Canyon seat post which was frustrating. So the original stock saddle was reinstalled hastily so that we could get out for a quick test ride before dinner. The heavens promptly opened so the guides decided that it wasn’t worth us getting soaked for a one hour spin so this meant that no test ride on this new rental bike with odd saddle was possible before the first day.
Next up was getting ready for dinner and packing a day bag for the next day to keep in the support car. Dinner was a fine dining set menu which worked well for the first night as the body is mostly rested and has no cravings. Packing a day bag for an unknown environment in which the weather changes hourly is no easy task. The bags are provided to you so it’s a matter of cramming in the most essential items. Once done it’s repacking the suit case before bed and making sure phone chargers etc. Are not left behind as when you wake up you won’t be coming back to this hotel room. Alarm 06:30am is a luxury for a cyclist followed by a disappointing continental breakfast (would have preferred porridge) dragging a suitcase uphill to the support van and we are rolling out the car park by 08:30am
Day 1: Monday 27th June, 2016
Route: Moltig-Les-Bains to Tarascan-Sur-Ariege | Distance: 132km | Climbing: 4,649m
Key Climbs: Col Du Jau, Port de Pailheres, Col Du Chula. Col de Marmare
The hotel Chateau de Reill was an hour from Perpignan and is located at the foot of the first climb of the day, the Col Du Jau. No leg or cardio warm up, no bike testing, just full gas from the start. We were only 8 participants with a Rapha crew of four in support. One driving the luggage / lunch van. One driving the support van with ride nutrition / hydration and day bags and two on the bikes to motivate / push / pull / shield us etc. Basically doing the job of a domestique and guide.
This was the day of hell for me. Two of our group were from Colorado (not know to be flat) and one of those had done the Cent Col challenge (100 climbs in 10 days), two were from Brazil and had done lots of endurance events, two from England with one as an Ex-Rapha employee and experienced racer and the other had done 4 Randonees and lives in Korea doing 2,000m climbs daily (was also on my Dolomites trip).
Finally we had a female participant which was apparently rare for such events and she was a super strong experienced racer too. Then there was me, the Flatlander from the Middle East who rarely races, rarely sees a hill and felt really very out of place. From the very first pedal stroke I was up against it and struggled so hard to keep up with all of them so as not to be the one who kept them all waiting at the top. It was a clear and sunny day and I thought coming from 40c+ heat that I would be fine in the heat but it really got to me as I pushed beyond my own pre-determined limits on the relentless climbs. About 3 hours in my legs started to cramp. I then realised that I was drinking whatever ride hydration they had provided and this was not what I was used to. The Rapha crew prepare your bikes with one bidon of water and one of an electrolyte mix and each has a different colour lid so to identify them so these are swapped pro-style rather than re-filled during the day. I battled on until after 5 hours at which time I had the most severe double leg cramps I have ever experienced and as it hit both legs simultaneously I couldn’t ride so had to pull over. After 2 minutes stretching I tried to ride up the mountain again and was fine for 20 minutes or so until they hit again and then a third time. It was at this time I was ready to pull the plug on the ride and in fact the entire trip. But I couldn’t fail and then go home early and tell my children that their daddy was a quitter and failure. So somehow I found the will power to fight through the cramps to the top of that climb. I had dug deeper than ever before and entered a pain cave I never knew existed and really hurt myself in the process. At the top one of the guides informed me that they had effervescent magnesium tablets and I could add these to the water. I took one and it got me to the end of the day. A cripple but it got me there under my own steam and I avoided the dreaded support van. From then on I used one bottle of the Ettix Electrolyte mix they gave and then one water with the Ettix Magnesium tablet in it and never experienced a cramp again on the trip. Amazing stuff and an amazing first day.
A 132km ride with 4,649m climbing was a day I would have been proud to have achieved in its own right and to hang my bike up and bask in the glory of that ride for a few days. But not here. Not on a Randonnée as we still had 5 more of these days to come and some were even harder! I have to say it was not a very motivating thought at the end of day 1 which had taken us through very rustic and agricultural roads and even to a summit where we lunched with backdrop of show capped alpine mountains and even had some snow on the ground around us which was quite bizarre for late June.
We rolled into our next hotel for the night, racked the bikes for the Rapha crew to wash and service and made our way to the next hotel room for the night.
I was a mess visually and physically. I was so happy to find a bath in my room. I soaked the pain for an hour until my appointment with the Rapha soigneur. He did a 15 minute leg rub managed to ease some of my leg pain but was worried that I had done some serious damage to the muscles when I rode through the cramps. It was then off to dinner at 8pm with the legendary South of France pace of service so we were only done at 10pm and I was already half asleep by 9:30pm. We were offered a set menu and I noticed it was duck and beef which was very similar to the previous day’s hotel. I was already getting bored of dinner already on day 1. Then back to the room and the new ritual of packing the day bag, leaving the dirty laundry bag out and packing the suitcase again starts and it’s lights out at 11pm.
Day 2: Tuesday 28th June, 2016
Route: Tarascan-Sur-Ariege to Saint Girons | Distance: 92km | Climbing: 3,398m
Key Climbs: Port de Lers, Col D’Agnes, Col de Latrape, Col de Catchaudegue
The routine is now set. Alarm 06:30, suitcase drag, breakfast at 07:30am but today with some added elements. Firstly I added a massive application of deep heat to my legs. Then I noticed a massive swelling in my saddle area when applying the mandatory saddle cream. It was only on the left side and I had never seen anything like it before. A quick check with the Google doctor and I found it was indeed a saddle sore most likely caused by the saddle being misaligned. On the same left side as the saddle sore my left thigh was also super sore and felt like I had pulled a muscle in it. I really thought my day was over before it had begun. I hobbled down to the bikes, found mine and sure enough the saddle was pointing left and up! So the Rapha mechanic realigned it but I was in too much pain to ride so I added another element, pain killers and these would remain with me for the next four days (I was fine by day six).
The day started with a 35km/h average on the rolling flats and then hit the big stuff. I was out the saddle for almost all of this to protect my sore saddle area until the painkillers kicked in. This was the “rest day” of the trip as it was only 92km but in that 92km we still climbed the same amount as some of the other longer days so if anything it was even more intense. Not the best day for saddle sores and a sore thigh. But I got through it by standing out the saddle at the sight of even road paint and adjusted my position on the saddle to almost handing off the back to avoid the swollen area and by the end of day two I actually didn’t feel too bad. We had ridden through a protected National Park area for the day so were in unspoilt green areas with natural water falls and a backdrop of snow capped peaks so any pain was trumped but the most beautiful scenic roads imaginable and at the end of it the sight of this amazing old hotel / castle that we would call home for the next 12 hours.
The same ritual of bath, massage, dinner, packing, unpacking, packing, laundry, trying to connect to wifi (essential for Strava uploads and communicating to the family that you are still alive) remembering your phone charger, all in a different hotel again is now getting a bit tiresome. By the end of Day 2 I felt I deserved a pizza. My body wanted and needed one. But we had the set menu of duck or beef again even though it was the third hotel! Maybe some prawns and other stuff I don’t eat were also on this menu so it was beef again. But this time I was sick, literally. The beef overload had got to me as I went to bed and dinner vacated my body pronto.
Day 3: Wednesday 29th June, 2016
Route: Saint Girons to Bagneres-De-Luchon | Distance: 108.5km | Climbing: 3,646m
Key Climbs: Col de Portet d’asper, Col de Buret, Col des, Ares, Port de Bales
I woke up with the same beef after effects. So now sore saddle area, sore legs, sore stomach and I had no energy (possible as dinner was not inside me). Then the continental breakfast of toast or croissants and a yogurt with horrible French coffee was the sustenance for the morning. You get the story now.
Oh, yes another 100km+ 3,000m+ day on the bike for 5+ hours. Along the way we do stop several times (normally at the top of the climbs). Before we start climbing there is a quick stop to grab some food / drink and change clothing for what you are about to face. The thing is you don’t know what you will face. It’s a mountain and 20c at the bottom. The top is over 1,000m up and quite often 20km of road to get there so it’s around an hour of climbing before you summit. A lot changes happen during that time and distance in the mountains. So I would grab a couple of gels, a sugar coated waffle and 2 full bottles (for weight weenies thats around 1.5kg of fluids). I would also put on a gillet (vest) of which I packed a lightweight one, a waterproof one and a windproof one. It was each time the challenge to guess which to take to the top. Also some arm warmers were handy. These are all stresses one normally doesn’t consider as part of a trip like this as you have the gear, don’t want to overheat, don’t want to freeze and also don’t want to drag 5kg of kit up a massive mountain. How do you get that right to be comfortable enough to perform and enjoy the experience? In Dubai we know if we go to the mountain we start early so if we are soft then we take a gillet and perhaps arm warmers but after 20 minutes these are in the support car and we are in the lightest coolest clothing known man. In the Pyrenees this is just not possible to gauge. As a general rule I believe the temperature drops 1c per 100m of elevation. So on a typical climb it will be 10c cooler at the top. But then you get hot riding up there etc. So I have to say I really struggled for kit choice and became the joke of the group as I spent so long considering it, getting dressed then seeing what the experienced Americans and Europeans chose and getting changed again.
On day 3 I started to learn this for myself. I would wear the minimal, suck it up for the first 5 minutes and ride harder to keep warm but was always conscious to protect my chest as I really didn’t want to have my trip cut short for being sick so I often opted to be over dressed than underdressed. At the top the support van would always be waiting for me as I was never first up and the van would stay with the first rider so I could just sprint to the van and put on all my warm gear. At the top it is was amazing how quickly you get cold. We would stop for maybe 10 minutes, begin to freeze within 60 seconds and wait for the last rider to come up while re-fuelling and layering up for the descent ahead. These were supposed to be the rewards for the pain but presented pain in their own way. The cold mountain wind just cut through you so it was difficult to get that kit choice right too as you don’t really want to stop again at the bottom to undress as your legs then seize up and we would typically have 4 such mountains to ascend and descend per day before the evening. On this day we descended the Col de Portet d’Aspet where Fabio Casartelli lost his life in the 1995 Tour. We took this one especially slowly and stopped at his memorial which was about 100m before the corner of his crash. We also ascended the Port de Bales which was the scene of some controversy in the 2010 Tour when Contador attacked Schleck as he dropped his chain on this climb and we ascended through the cloud line to reveal a stunning scene. The day ended in the picturesque French Spa town of Bagneres-de-Luchon which is often visited on Le Tour and in this years tour again made the headlines for Froomes already legendary attack on the descent.
Day 4: Thursday 30th June, 2016
Route: Bagneres-De-Luchon to Saint-Savin | Distance: 129km | Climbing: 5,054m
Key Climbs: Col de Peyresourde, Col D’Azet, Horquette d’Ancizan, Col de Tourmalet
By now I am Pro. Just real Pro. I have the routine in the bag. I know the drill, I feel strong, my bike fits, my brain has blocked all leg pain and saddle sore signals and I just smash every mountain put in front of me (well almost). This was the “Queen Stage”, the one with the most climbing. Over 5,000m in the day which would be the most I have ever done. At the backend of the day was the Tourmalet at 18km long and reaching an altitude of 2,115m. It was ever present in my mind and had been for the past 2 months. This was the day that I had mentally fixed in my mind as the point I had to get to and past. I knew if I had made it this far I had to get through this day no matter what and if I did that then I could survive the subsequent two days and finish the route. It turned out that this day was the exact reverse of Stage 8 of this years Tour De France which added an additional element of cachet to the day.
We started in glorious sunshine / fog with an immediate 1,000m ascent up the Col de Peyresourde and I was feeling great and was in the front half of the group for most of this climb and most of the day. By the quarter mark of our last climb of the day (Tourmalet) I realised I had burnt all my matches riding the way I had done this day and there was unfortunately a 12 hour turn around to get some more matches. I suffered like never before up this relentless climb. We rode though the clouds and that soaked me and presented near zero visibility and also as the temperature dropped I became increasingly uncomfortable and disinterested and began to question why I had thought this trip would be a good idea. The unhelpful signage every 1km showed the gradient of the next 1km and how far to go that just depressed me further and 5km from the top I threw up. Was it the beef again? I think more likely a riding diet of gels, magnesium tablets, coke, waffles, ham / jam / cheese sandwiches / Speculos rolls, ham / egg rice cakes and a lunch of pasta, cheese, salad, sausage etc. could have been to blame! I was almost in tears at the top. It was raining, freezing, foggy and I was ready to pull the plug for the second time this week. I was last up and saw the cafe at the top and the bikes outside so ran in and received the “last one up” cheer from everyone. I grabbed two hot chocolates, got changed in a fresh base layer and jersey with some added layers of a rain cape and long sleeve jersey and then braved it for the descent. It was pretty much all down to the next hotel but within about 60 seconds of leaving the cafe we were just as soaked and frozen but this time at 60km/h in the fog for the next hour. Don’t get me wrong, this was a stunning day where we rode around a magnificent lake and in the big mountains for much of the day and were blown away by the scenery (other than the Tourmalet as we had zero visibility) but the day was fit for Le Tour and perhaps just a bit beyond my ability / comfort zone in reality and that really hit home this day. As strong and good as I felt at the start of the day it made me very aware of the gap between what we were doing and what the pro tour does over 21 days. Those guys are superhuman hard-men to get through days like this without stopping several times and being pampered all the way.
We arrived at our next hotel and went through the normal routine until dinner. This night we were eating outside the hotel so I was more hopeful. I asked for veggie food and the waiter shrugged that off. I then asked for any pasta as I was desperate for it and they eventually agreed to do a side of it if I ordered main. I found gravlax and dory fish on the menu as the only alternative to the duck / beef combo so ordered that and received some boiled tagliatelle with no sauce at all. It is times like this on a Randonees when you just want to cry and give up. My body and mind was screaming for pasta, pizza and chips and I was getting fish and duck and those that know me know I don’t eat this stuff and only eat beef occasionally. But I needed the energy to ride so I ate what was given and overdosed on the bread (not served with butter in France) to make up for it. In hindsight I guess for food choice I was in the wrong country. I had loved the food on the Italian Dolomites trip but in France I really struggled. Nothing against what the Rapha team had done as they were providing us a regional and authentic gastronomic experience. They even sourced fresh local produce each day from the mountain region we were passing through and used that to provide us lunch and in all fairness it was mostly me that struggled with and complained about it but I noted that the Americans also had a pretty hard time with the food too. We did also have the choice of beer or wine with dinner so there were some additional painkillers on tap but as we had such a demanding schedule one glass is as far as that went before the daily evening routine.
Day 5: Friday 1st July, 2016
Route: Saint-Savin to Oloron-Ste-Marie | Distance: 117.5km | Climbing: 4,042m
Key Climbs: Col des Borderes, Col du Soulor, Col d’Aubisque, Col De Marie-Blanque
This day was sandwiched between the queen stage of the most climbing and the last day of the longest distance so it was part recovering from the abuse we had just put our bodies through and part trying to save what we had left for the final day which was another massive day. I also faced the dreaded technical issue of my Garmin failing on save and when I recovered the file I was then unable to get the “relive” video made for this day – but it’s in Strava so it did happen 🙂
Waking up in yet another hotel room was by now making me feel totally disorganised and confused. My suitcase was no longer packed but rather just stuffed and jumped on to close. I’m now counting the wasted energy in lugging my suitcase to the lobby in the morning and thinking how I need to conserve it as this was yet another massive day on the bike and also being careful not to strain my already strained muscles in doing do. I feel tired. Like exhausted tied, not just aching tired. Zero energy today. The knowledge of what I am about to endure is now outweighing the anticipation and excitement of the new challenge and beautiful scenery we will pass through this day. The day never disappoints again. Legendary climb after climb. Too many photo opportunities but in all of our minds these Cols and sceneries have merged into one. We can no longer recall what Col du Bains was, how it felt to accent it and or what it looked like when we made it to the top. We are now referring to the photos on our phones to jog our memory of the climbs we did just a few hours ago. Pain and suffering has now taken its toll on our bodies and minds. But the camaraderie and mutual acknowledgement and admiration of what were doing has bonded us. We have each had a good / bad day and a good / bad climb and also made good / bad kit choices and so have all had to have the mental and physical endurance to pull us this far along the week whether we were the strongest or weakest of the eight.
From a personal perspective this day turned out to be my best day of the week. I got stronger each day of the trip which is the reverse of any logic I could apply other than my body accepting it’s new life of abuse rather than fighting against it to protect itself. So even though I started out feeling tired I seemed to be stronger than any other day on this day. My mind was also stronger as I knew the biggest day was behind me, I had overcome cramps and saddle sores, muscle strains and adverse weather and now there was only one day to go I knew I could now handle whatever was thrown at me. I also enjoyed the scenery and climbs more than any other day. Each was stunning in it’s own right with the Col du Soulor (1,474m) and Col d’Aubisque (1,709m) as the stand out climbs of the day. This was a truly stunning day out on the bike. At the end of it I was so sad. Just sad that this day had past and that I wouldn’t ride such a day again for at least a year or more if ever.
We rolled into the Hotel Allyson, our final resting place before the big final day. For dinner we were transported to a restaurant in town for a fine meal and we recalled the tales, trials and tribulations of the week so far before the evening ritual.
Day 6: Saturday 2nd July, 2016
Route: Oloron-Ste-Marie to Biarritz | Distance: 152km | Climbing: 3,593m
Key Climbs: Col d’Orgambidesca
This morning was a very odd one. There were a lot of very serious faces at breakfast and when we were kitting up outside the support van the mood was quite sombre amongst the group. The day was overcast and rain was forecast enroute.
The day was 153km long and the profile we were provided showed it as mostly flat with just the 1,284m Col d’Orgambidesca marked as the only notable climb. Yet according to the route guide in that flat was another 2,000m+ of elevation gain which meant it was rolling hills and as we were heading to the Atlantic coast we would be riding into a fierce head wind all the way. The first 40km past with relative ease and we escaped the rain. We then ascended the Col d’Orgambidesca. This started off fine and I was doing well. I had a gillet with me as we were told it would be cold and wet as we rode through the cloud line even though it was clear and sunny at the base. I then overheated as I was pushing hard so pulled over to remove a layer. My choice of stopping point in hindsight was an error as when pushing off on the 14% ascent I lost balance and tumbled at near 0 km/h. No real damage done as I rolled on my back but I did twist one knee and thought nothing more of it at the time but I felt this twinge all the way up and it forced me to hold back a little to prevent further damage. The climb was 18km long and had a 5km section of 13% gradient which was relentless. I really struggled up this as the long constant grades are just not my thing. I’m much more of a short power type rider but need either a lesser gradient or shorter steep ones with lulls to the torture. At 4km from the top we did hit the rain and fog and as we did so I noticed from my Garmin that we had covered only 53km which meant we still had 100km to go. It was at that point I broke both mentally and physically. I had nothing left in the tank, I was freezing, soaking, 4km from the summit, it was pre-lunch so I was running low on energy and my recently injured knee was now hurting more and more. The only things keeping me going were the thought that there was still one rider behind me (I was determined to beat him to the top) and also lunch was awaiting me. I did beat him to the top, but by only a few metres in the end. To my joy I saw the group had found a log cabin restaurant on the summit and inside there was an open fire. I rushed inside with my day bag and ordered 2 hot chocolates and a double espresso. The food had already been ordered for us. I then got a complete kit change and felt so much better with a bacon omelette inside me. The guides were awesome as one was even standing out in the rain with our bikes wiping them down to make sure we got dry bikes to get onto with the knowledge that any comfort at this stage would help get us to the end. We were also warned as we left lunch that the descent was very wet, steep, cold and hazardous. It would also be 30km long. I took it as slowly as I could and noticed that even the fastest descenders amongst the group were also being very cautious today. I then saw one of them pull up in front of me and assumed he wanted to take a photo so I just kept going to the bottom. At the bottom we saw an ambulance going back up the mountain and one of the guides caught the 3 of us that got down together. He informed us that the guy that stopped in front of me had been involved in a crash and that the ambulance was for him. Two riders had got down in front of me and were carrying on to the end on their own. Two of the riders behind me had seen the crash so stopped to stay with the fallen rider and were traumatised so abandoned the ride which just left the 3 of us. The mood was more sombre than ever with head guide constantly on his phone getting updates on the accident situation. It turned out that the rider had pushed off after stopping and lost control within 200m and broke his hip and collar bone. The one support van with our luggage was already in Biarritz at the hotel and the other support van had gone to the hospital and dropped off the 2 riders that abandoned. So that meant the 3 of us had to ride that last 100km unsupported and in the same wet gear we had on the descent. All of that would be bad enough but we still had the headwind and 2,000m of rolling hills to contend with and we only had the food we had grabbed to carry at the top of the mountain which was minimal as we were expecting to stop and re-group with the support van at the bottom. It was at this point that I realised having a Garmin on my bike was a huge negative. Seeing how far to go and how many metres of climbing was not helping me at all at this stage. I decided to focus on micro parts of the ride so I switched the display to show the elevation profile screen and zoomed that in so I could only see the next 2km at a time. This way I knew I had around 60 seconds at 285w power to get up the bump and then maybe 90 seconds at 150w power until the next one so it was more like doing mini intervals all the way. The remaining 70km past mostly like this and also went quite quickly and we did manage one stop for a bottle of Coke with 35km to go. Then before I knew it we had the 3km to Biarritz signage. Following a very sketchy ride through traffic to the hotel we were all done, on the coast with the Rapha support van waiting there for us. It wasn’t as I had envisaged. I thought it would be a jubilant feeling at the end of a very demanding week of mental and physical endurance. But in view of the fallen comrade and abandonment of others which also forced the support crew to be fully occupied with sorting out the logistics of what to do with the riders luggage, bike and his hotel, flights and he also contacting his next of kin etc. the vibe was very flat and a real anti-climax. There was no leg rub this evening, no bag to pack so the routine was all but over. We headed out to dinner to restaurant with a street table in a buzzing area and even found chicken on the menu. The trip was done, we were done and the thought of going back to a normal life was slowly sinking in as was what we had just achieved. It was a truly epic journey. We had crossed the Pyrenees mountain range and in doing so had ridden from the east coast of France to the west coast of France but taken only the most demanding terrain as a route. We had ridden though a variety of terrain from agricultural villages to high mountain passes, though climates of 30c+ sun drenched days to freezing fog and snow of the ground. We had ridden the Cols of our heroes and cycling gods / legends with their names painted across them and past the memorials where they had fallen. This was a journey of a lifetime and one I will never forget….