Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Chasing Legends in the Pyrénées

Treading on hallowed ground
And so it finally happened... a seminar invitation from Europe with just the right dates to squeeze in a free weekend around my otherwise hectic schedule... 

Naturally the first thing I did after accepting the invitation was to look for places to ride, preferably with some climbing. There was one rather obvious problem though -- the university I was going to visit was in Holland! While great for bike commuting and several other extracurricular activities that involve spending excessive amounts of time in coffee shops, unfortunately the entire country is pancake flat -- so quite less than ideal if one is interested in climbing.

Luckily, I was able to route my flight through Toulouse, France which happens to sit right at the foothills of the mighty Pyrénées -- many a Tour de France has been won or lost in these great mountains...    

While for most people a weekend in France would constitute enjoying excellent cuisine, fine cheese and wine, and perhaps a crash course in culture (and there's nothing wrong with doing that) my idea of weekend fun was to ride my bike uphill as far and for as long as I could manage over the two days I had available... 

After about 15,000 feet of climbing in cold, often freezing rain, I think I managed to achieve my goal of beating my legs to a pulp!  

The flight into Toulouse was thankfully uneventful and the rental car got me into the town of Salechan, a small hamlet within striking distance of many major Tour de France Cols. Here, I had booked a room at a B&B that caters to cyclists. They also happen to rent out top end road bikes for the rare idiot who shows up without a bike for a two day blitz trip. 

In true French spirit, the B&B turned out to be a grand Chateau that was once used as a vacation home by a wealthy Parisian family, and very lovingly and tastefully restored by the current owners. 

Everything about this place was great -- the hosts, the room, the food... highly recommended!

My steed for the weekend was a Trek Madone 5.2 SL, which they happened to have in my size. Thanks to my Retul bike fit measurements, I was quickly able to setup the bike almost identically to the Cervelo R3 I ride at home. 

Pre setup

Post setup -- as aggressive as I could get the bike without swapping parts
I arrived Friday evening and the plan was to ride my heart out Saturday and Sunday. Mother nature had its own plans though. First, she decided the week prior that she'd dump a whole bunch of snow on the higher cols ensuring that they'd be closed. So Tourmalet was unfortunately out as an option.. so I focused on cols lower than 2,000 meters which hopefully would be rideable. Second, while Friday was bright and sunny all day, the weekend forecast promised heavy rain for both days... less than ideal conditions for bike riding. 

But I was determined. The plan for Saturday was to ride up to Superbagnères, a long (11.5 mile) climb at an average gradient of 6-7% but with some double digit pitches mixed in. This is a ski station so you climb up, turn around and descend back into the town of Luchon. For those who follow professional cycling, this is the stage where Greg Lemond took back some time from Bernard Hinault in the famous 1986 Tour de France. Depending on how the legs felt after, I'd planned on riding a couple more shorter cols to round out the first day.

The day started off reasonably mild with a slight drizzle so I wore just two layers and stuffed my light rain jacket in the back pocket -- a poor decision in retrospect! 
Starting out. The Chateau is on the right and some big mountains loom in the distance
 The first few miles of approach were only slightly uphill till I reached the town of Luchon. Here, the climb began pretty much straight out of town center. One aspect of climbing in this area that would become apparent over the next two days is that the grades are incredibly hard -- while the advertised average gradient for this climb was 6-7%, this clearly masked the reality of a bit of flat ground mixed in with extremely difficult pitches up to 20% in gradient! Not only is getting up 20% gradient hard, but there is no way one can get into a rhythm when the slope is changing so much!  

Throughout the climb, I had my garmin set up to show elevation and gradient and sure enough as soon as my cadence slowed to a crawl, I'd sneak a look and see high double digits popping on the screen. But its not like there was anything I could do about it. I was already in the lowest gear possible on the bike and had long given up smooth circles at 90+ rpm, so the solution was to just put my head down and grind up as best possible...

Half way up. By this time the rain had started in earnest but I was too warn from effort to be worried just yet
The mist and clouds were so low that about 3/4 of the way up, I was riding above them
Above the clouds that envelope the valley... Spanish peaks in the distance
 The last couple kilometers of the climb were especially brutal. Here the treeline was gone so I was out in the open, with freezing rain pelting me along with a strong gusting wind. It didn't help matters that the gradient here steepened even more with the last 2K averaging over 10%. Finally, though, I did make it to the top and eked out this last photographic evidence before my camera battery died from the cold. 
Now is when the fun started.. Huffing and puffing uphill, I had my jersey unzipped and didn't bother with the rain jacket. So all my clothes were wet. Now I put on the rain jacket on top and started the descent... I didn't get very far before my entire body started shivering from the cold.. my glove-less fingers were frozen so I lost most dexterity needed to apply brakes, not a good sign on wet roads. I had to stop a few times just to stuff my hands in my armpits to warm them or to do jumping jacks on the side of the road to warm the rest of me. 

Somehow, in my mildly hypothermic state I made it down in one piece... but the rain was still steady and the temperature had dropped further. So I decided to bail on the other cols and head to the B&B to thaw out... I can't remember the last time a hot shower has felt so good!
Decent day's work but I wanted more
 After licking my wounds over a delicious dinner, I planned an all out assault for the next day to make up for the part-fail that day. One of the climbs I really wanted to do was Port de Balès, not only for its renowned difficulty (the last 10Ks of the 19K climb pitch up at an average of 10%), but also for its history in the Tour de France. Indeed, this is the infamous burial ground for great sportsmanship, i.e. host of the pivotal stage in the 2010 Tour de France where Andy Schleck dropped his chain and Alberto Contador decided to continue attacking and not wait for his main rival (as an aside for all those Lance haters out there, Lance actually waited for Jan Ulrich under similar circumstances and so did Ulrich for Lance). 

But all websites and the people who rented me the bike warned that the road would be closed due to snow and rockfall. Yet, true to my contrarian nature this just made me want to do it even more! Of course, I'd just turn back if rocks started falling on my head but I didn't see any reason why I couldn't try and go as far as I could go.

The other main reason for doing this climb was that it would link up really nicely with the other climbs I had planned for a potentially epic day, namely Col de Peyresourde, the ski station of Peyragudes, and Col du Portillon, to form a really nice long 70+ mile loop with some serious climbing. 
To avoid repeating the previous clothing disaster, the plan was to bring all my layers and critically my waterproof gloves and booties. Extremities are last on the body's pecking order of where to send blood under cold conditions so I wanted to be as warm as possible with toasty fingers and toes.  
So off I went early in the morning. Luckily, the climb to Port de Balès starts right outside the B&B so there was literally no approach. Just head out the front door, ride up a few hundred meters North, then turn into one of the gazillion hamlets and start climbing! 

It was evident pretty quickly that this was not a bad decision; the views were just stunning..
yeah, mom.. I want my bedroom on the other side of the house!
Basically, you pass through these tiny villages on narrow roads with houses right up to the road, and then suddenly the houses give way to lush green forest and a beautiful stream running alongside... 

The camera doesn't do justice.. absolutely stunning views!
I was significantly happier today.. no rain so far + I brought all my layers
The neat thing about this climb is that they have put up signs every kilometer telling you the average gradient for the next K. The early parts are nothing terrible and I was able to maintain good rhythm going up these gentle grades. But that changed pretty quickly...
Doesn't look too hard now does it?
oh wait... gulp!
Despite the difficulty of the climb, the fact that I was climbing the same roads professionals race on gave me extra motivation. Indeed, paint markings like this all along the route made me stomp on the pedals a few times here and there... 
This one made me chuckle
Soon, the forest gave way to open jaw-dropping valley scenery, with a tiny road snaking its way upward
Climbing higher
and higher
through some seriously narrow roads with big drop offs!
Here I stopped to take in the scenery, eat some food, and make the following short video:

Sufficiently fueled up, I kept plugging away through rocks and snow
They did warn me about this...
but I was undeterred.. where there's a will there's a way :)
Very soon, I found myself in the general vicinity of Schleck's chain drop. Now I understood the state of panic he must have been in. The road is so narrow that it would have been impossible for his team car and mechanic to get to him quickly, all the while senor Contador was busy attacking and taking time in chunks.. 
Here's my horrible Schleck re-enactment.. Yes, I actually took my chain off for this photo!
 Soon though, I found myself on the summit!
100 meters to go.. This is no camera trickery... the road is actually that steep
Here, I put on every single layer I had including my gloves for the descent on the other side. Thankfully the rain had kept away but the waterproof jacket was still very valuable to keep wind at bay on a high speed descent. And ohh.. was the descent lovely. Super smooth roads, long straightaways where you could bomb down at speeds approaching 45mph (pros do it much faster!), through some quaint little villages, and passing incredibly lush green scenery. I have traveled a lot and frankly have never seen anything like this before. 
Right off the summit the road pitches down hard
but soon opens up to views such as this
and this
Every few kilometers, I would pass through a village like this
and before I knew it I was at the bottom, ready for the next challenge -- Col de Peyresourde!
While Superbagneres and Port de Bales were both Hors Category climbs (meaning they are too difficult to even categorize), Peyresourde was a Cat 1 climb, so I thought it would be easier. Oh how I was mistaken. While it gives up somewhat in distance it certainly doesn't let up at all in terms of steepness. The first few kilometers were the hardest with the road averaging above 10% right from the point this picture was taken.

Thankfully, it did level out a bit in the middle but then picked up again pretty sharply toward the end. With the rain and clouds at bay, the views were quite spectacular
I could get used to views like this!

you can see the road snaking up with several small villages visible in the valley below
This gives a good sense of the gradient. There is a switchback to the left with the road rising up in double digit grade
Suffering but couldn't be happier!
I had heard many good things about a snack shop at the summit of the Col with an exuberant owner who made killer crepes, and I was looking forward to having about 6 or 7 of  those for lunch! As luck would have it, the shop was closed so lunch would have to wait.. I still had to climb up to the ski station of Peyragudes, the site of a summit stage finish in the upcoming 2012 Tour de France. 
Peyragudes ski station was deserted.. bet it'll look quite different in mid July
From here, a bombing descent got me into Luchon pretty rapidly where I stopped at a cafe for lunch.. turns out this place had history with the Tour and had both a yellow and polka dot jersey framed in the main dining room. Also turns out this is Lance Armstrong's cafe of choice in Luchon; the owner even showed me some pictures as evidence!

After some yummy steak frites, it was time for the last climb of the day -- Col du Portillon. While this is a Cat 2 climb, I already had two big climbs in my legs so I was expecting some internal bodily revolt.. Fortunately that did not happen though I did have to stop once to catch my breath.. What was cool was that nearly every moto drive who passed me yelled "Allez Allez" which kept me going..
The Portillon summit falls right on the Franco-Spanish border. While I climbed in France, I descended in Spain. Kinda cool!
Once at the summit, I knew the climbing for the day was done and I was quite happy with what I had managed to do -- almost 10,000 feet in elevation gain. But the day wasn't done. I still had to descend and ride another 15-20 miles back to the B&B. What complicated matters a bit was that the roads on the Spanish side were incredibly broken up, perhaps an indication of the recession in the economy. So the descent was by no means relaxing..

At the bottom I hit the town of Bossos which was lovely but by this time I simply put on auto pilot and slogged my way back, at some point crossing back into France as well.
Not bad for a day's work!
After eating almost an entire cow for dinner, I finally hit the sack for a well deserved rest.This was quite a training weekend and I'd love to come back here later in the summer to climb some of the higher peaks and maybe even some of the comparable ones in the Alps.

Overall, after an unusually long lull in work travel where I wasn't on a plane heading overseas for about three months, this trip has started off a series of highly intriguing trips abroad. In the next couple months, I'll be heading to Brazil, South Africa, and then all the way to St. Petersburg in Russia. While these are work related trips, as most of my travel is, I've always found a day or two or more to explore, climb, run, or ride around the places I visit.  Lets see how much trouble I can get myself into next!