It turned out our first two days in the Pyrenees were just a warm up for days 3 and 4. Mainly for the scenery but also for the things that happened to us along the way.
On a cloudless Sunday morning we were ready to tackle our third climb, the Port del Canto (part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France). For those that don’t know, the Tour has 5 climbing categories defined by their steepness and length. Toughest are ‘hors categorie’ – literally meaning ‘beyond categorisation’ but really meaning climbs for riders that are properly mad. Category 1 climbs are the next most demanding, then 2, 3 and 4.
The Port del Canto is a Category 1 so this meant it was our third such climb in as many days. I must admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known that beforehand (especially with panniers). It climbs more than 1000m over 19km (12 miles) at an average gradient of 5.4% but with several steeper sections. For our Bath readers, that’s the same as 12 Prior Park Hills in a row.
Clare listened to an audio book (The Miniaturist) to help her through the 2 hour climb whilst also enjoying the spectacular views. For the first time I discovered the power of music, pedalling to the rhythms of Coldplay and the Two Door Cinema Club. I began to understand why people actually enjoy cycling up mountains – I felt stronger, able to increase the pace a little and to last a bit longer.
We were refuelling ahead of some steep switchbacks near the top when a club cyclist in full lycra kit came past. Perhaps that unexpected feeling of strength caused my inner boy racer to spring into life as my only thought was ‘I can take him!’
It took a while to choose the perfect music track, which gave him a start of about 400m. The commentary in my head was clear and loud:
“Maintain an even pace. Reel him in slowly. Don’t burn yourself out.”
Bit by bit I got closer and closer:
“Once you catch him, stay on his wheel to recover. Then quickly change gear and accelerate. Keep the pace high so he has no chance to react.”
I passed him near the end of the second switchback:
“Don’t look back. Don’t call out “Ola” as he might think it’s condescending.”
Yessssss! That’s why we Brits are cycling world champions! Hah!
Was it a bit uncool to take a selfie of triumph at the top?
Hopefully he thought I was taking pictures of the magnificent views instead!
The afternoon didn’t go quite as well with our worst ever ‘dreadful detour’. Coming off the top, our planned route didn’t look that inviting as it wound down a steep, gravel track. The only alternative was fat red line on our map called the ‘Trans-Pyrenees Cycle Route’. It was a 15km detour but it still felt like the right way to go.
Wrong! It turned out to be a mountain bike trail, little more than a rutted path winding through the woods. Again, I have to admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known THAT beforehand – it was muddy, steep and quite scary!
“Get me out of here!”
Eventually emerging back onto the road in the dark, we were surprised by the volume of traffic coming down from Andorra on a Sunday night. This was actually the first time we’ve had to cycle on a major highway and Clare was superb, riding smoothly and quickly in front for an hour. I tucked in behind, slightly on her outside to encourage cars to leave a wider berth. Helped by our drafting practise along the canals, we safely reached the hotel in this formation – tired, hungry but unscathed.
On Monday morning we were sufficiently revived for a fourth and LAST big climb in the Pyrenees. Despite being exhausted, we knew that this one (from Coll de Nargo to Solsona) would be worth it as it has an understated reputation as one of the most breathtaking bike rides in the world. It winds up a spectacular gorge, through hanging valleys and then traverses across the rugged tops. We have genuinely never seen mountain scenery quite like it.
Amazingly, this was the day that Clare had her strongest legs and despite insisting on still clipping in on one side only, she powered up the climbs.
Not feeling anywhere near as good as the day before, I decided that cycling up hills must be a bit like golf. The moment you think you’ve cracked it you have a run of bad holes.
I had a VERY bad hole on a steep section near the top. Messing about and not concentrating I came to a complete standstill whilst clipped in on both sides. The inevitable outcome was a serious tumble off the side of the road!
My first thought was to take a photo so I have obviously been treating this blog too seriously. In truth, I was lucky to escape with just a few cuts and bruises.
For those of you who like stats, here’s a summary of our time in the Pyrenees:
Thursday – 43km, 1485m climbed
Friday – 67km, 1810m climbed
Sunday – 66km, 2034m climbed
Monday – 54km, 1860m climbed
Over the 4 days, we have pedalled 230 kilometres and climbed 7,189 metres. It’s fair to say we don’t feel we’re the same cyclists that naively cycled towards the mountains from Toulouse last week.
Now safely down in the foothills we have less than 100km left to reach Barcelona.