At the rider briefing for the Trans Pyrenees Race, organiser David asked me, and no doubt many others, why I chose to ride TPR. I replied without much thought that I liked climbing hills and wanted a big adventure and challenge. That was true, but on further reflection I'd add that TCR is too far. With family and a lot else going on I would find it hard to commit the time, holiday and energy to the ~4000km Trans Continental Race, but Lost Dot's shorter TPR seems, if not easier, then at least shorter.
I had chosen not to fly to the start of the race. As someone who campaigns in various ways against climate change, it's easy to be dismissed as a hypocrite for taking even a single flight, unreasonable though that is. So that meant ferry and trains. No problem, I thought, trains in France are generally fast and convenient. However, French workers are also well known for going on strike regularly and I discovered only hours before I was planning to leave the house that my train the next day was cancelled. I don't resent workers for going on strike, it's a necessary part of democracy and probably why France has a more generous welfare state than similar nations. It would be arrogant to say that my race is more important than people's pay and working conditions, but that didn't prevent me feeling stressed about it!
Some frantic replanning, grabbing a large bag into which I could stuff my bike and I set off. I was weighed down by said bag and rather flustered. However, the replacement bus I booked did show up and, after 17 hours in pretty cramped conditions wearing a mask alongside coughing passengers, I arrived in Saint Jean de Luz.
I had only a few hours to reassemble the bike and head for registration.
On the breezey Atlantic shore, some hours before dawn, I chatted with a few others about to start the race. I was somewhat reassured that many of them felt scared by the prospect as I did. In the anxious moments as the first two waves went off I dithered before putting on my waterproof trousers. Perhaps they would keep me warm enough to go gently for the first few hours.
As my wave set off my main feeling was one of relief. There had been so many COVID-related delays, so much planning, rearranging so much of my life around being able to get to the start, so much help and encouragement from family and friends, not to mention the last minute transport woes. Now I was finally engaged in the simple act of pedalling. I gazed at the line of red blinking lights stretching out ahead of me. Stress and anxiety lifted and I felt gratitude to everything and everyone who had got me here.
The climb to control point 1 (CP1) felt like Wales - damp, leafy and deciduous. Once we crested the col however, we crossed the threshold into another world. We plunged into a steep gorge, great shards of rock hiding in wisps of cloud. The flora seemed slightly tropical, more Ecuador than Wales.
The race had begun.
I wasn't paying much attention to the GPS tracker of the race, but I understand that a large proportion of the field took shorter, more mountainous routes through France, while I headed South into Spain in line with my plan for the first day. This meant less climbing overall, but it started with a tough climb, higher than I'd ever taken my bike at over 950m. As I and a few others struggled towards the top eagles soared, but below us. Even they thought it was a bit high to be bothered with.
Once over the top the landscape changed again and became drier; it certainly felt like Spain. There was a good sized stream alongside the road, so I stopped for a good long drink using my LifeStraw to filter the water which felt fantastic.
For the rest of the day the gradients were mild and the wind was often behind me. The scenery was pleasant, but not dramatic. The mountains always looming in the distance to my left. The roads weren't always quiet, but the Spanish drivers were very careful around cyclists. There are signs everywhere reminding drivers about the law to keep 1.5m away from cyclists when overtaking and the drivers seemed to take it very seriously. I was making good progress too.
Food options didn't readily present themselves. When I stopped around 3pm for a late lunch at a bar I was persuaded into a three-course 19-euro meal and thought I might've made a mistake. I've messed up on previous rides by eating too much and getting digestive issues making myself miserable and slow. However, it seems I got away with it, perhaps because my stomach was almost empty by this point.
The only snag on this route was a closed road. No chance of sneaking through as they were building a dam. A brief panic, but the detour took only a couple of minutes.
All in all the first day went very well. I grabbed some pastries from a shop a short time before arriving at the hotel where they were very helpful and understanding about us leaving early. A guy whom I recognised from the start and who had cycled the mountainous route arrived at the same moment. So I hadn't gained any time on him, but maybe he was faster anyway. He did look rather more exhausted than me. I felt I had probably made the right choice going South. 262km done and in bed before midnight.
After a decent five hours sleep I headed off in the dark the next morning to climb up to the Cotefablo tunnel. I spotted at least one rider sleeping by the roadside, rear light still flashing. I reached the small town of Broto - start of parcours 1 - around 7am to find a thumping loud rave going on! I was glad I hadn't chosen that as my overnight stop. As the sun rose it revealed the parcours' quiet roads and increasingly beautiful scenery. I stopped several times to take photos, forgetting that I was racing and that keeping going is more important than pedalling hard.
The end of the parcours at Plan felt like a milestone to celebrate. I had seven hours in hand, a tough off-road section ahead and I needed food. I visited a little shop to stock up on nuts and bananas - my two staples - and also made use of a cafe. The latter turned out to be a bit of a mistake. I ordered three small courses, thinking I could eat them fairly quickly and set off gently. However, the food arrived slowly. I didn't mind much at the time as I sat chatting to a few other riders. When I noticed I had been waiting half an hour for ice cream though, I realised this was not good use of my time and I couldn't get it back by riding faster.
The off road section to to Puerto de Sahun was as slow and steep as expected. I walked some of it and probably should've walked more as it wouldn't have been much slower. The violent bumping of my narrow tyres left and right on this and the similarly-rough descent left me and others feeling beaten up and not just in the legs. However I think this route was worth it not just for the views, but the 46km saved, which would've been at least a couple of hours.
Despite general fatigue, I was relieved that so far my knees had not given me much trouble. The previous year, my left one had flared up badly for a while on Pure Peak Grit, but so far on this ride only the occasional twinge. My neck was really sore at times so I tried to massage it and remember to relax my shoulders.
I had intended a long second day, possibly getting close to CP3, but with the above delays it was already rather late, so I messaged some hotels to ask if I could arrive late and leave early and ended up booking one in Sort. Around 222km for the day was less than average, but still felt good given the tough section. Unfortunately another noisy party was going on in Sort with all kinds of classic rock booming across the town, so I took the time to have a shower and was still asleep around midnight.
Once again I headed out into the dark, knowing I had a big climb ahead of me. On the plus side, by the time I reached the top it would be getting light and this would make the descending easier. Happily this climb turned into a sociable ride as Josh and Eben introduced themselves. Having company was always welcome, especially after spending a long time riding alone. The descent did not disappoint, with smooth roads and gentle enough gradients to really let the bike go.
Much of the time I spent riding alone I would be calculating distances and times in my head, based on the little route sheets I'd made and what my GPS was telling me. It occurred to me that, despite all the technology in the GPS, I was regularly asking it quite a childish question - "Are we nearly there yet?". The answer in this case was that the road route I'd chosen - rightly, if the comments of those who took the second gravel section are anything to go by - gave me plenty of time to get to CP3 by the 2pm cut off. Getting to CP4 by 9am the following day however, was going to be tough. Especially if I didn't manage to find a hotel close enough to make that an easy morning ride. I didn't want to risk getting stuck with a late checkout and too much distance. The uncertainty over finding hotels was continuing to cause me anxiety. In some places there weren't many options.
I found a hotel just beyond CP4 at Tapis who agreed to stay open late, but I needed to get there by midnight. That would make for a 290km day - my biggest yet. Was that realistic?
In favour of this big day was that it was a relatively flat route I'd chosen, heading North-East through France. Although there was a slight overall climb, progress to Puigcerda was quick and I may have had a slight tailwind. I noticed locals filling bottles from a pipe sticking out of the mountainside, so I took the opportunity for a quick refil as well. After a few hours the riding got tougher and I ended up walking through the very steep village of Llo. There must've been a gentler road around, but this had looked like a shortcut on the map!
Next the long descent towards Olette began and it was one of the less pleasant parts of the ride for me. Ten percent descent is fine in the UK, but here it continued for 10km; it was so long that my hands and shoulders started to ache. I was forced to stop for a rest and to shake out the tension. There was a precipitous drop to the right side of the road which made me nervous. On top of that the road was busy and while the drivers gave me some space, they were intent on overtaking each other given the smallest of gaps and occasionally honking with impatience. None of this improved my confidence in descending.
Gradually the gradient got shallower, while still providing a good boost to my speed. The issue now was finding food. There were plenty of towns and villages, but it was Sunday and everything seemed to be closed. Eventually I found a McDonald's. Not my first choice, but it was filling and I think it set me up well for a long evening. As that evening progressed, thankfully on peaceful roads, I continually recalculated my arrival time at the hotel. Midnight was looking like a challenge. I'd be annoyed if I arrived late and wasted my booking. However, I was feeling good and steadily increased my pace. If I could keep this up then I should make it on time. I was annoyed when I missed a turning and had to go back, but it probably only cost me a couple of minutes. I phoned the hotel and after working out that the only language we could both speak was French I explained that I would be there "around midnight". I think they said that was OK.
On the last climb up to Coustouges I met Oliver. He had ridden the TPR route with a friend last year after the race was postponed. I admitted that I'd found his ride on Strava and used it to help make my own route decisions. We had a chuckle at my Internet stalking and enjoyed the distraction of chatting life and cycling. He hadn't booked a hotel and was seeing what he could find. Happily, when we arrived at my hotel a little before midnight and not only did they have a room for Oliver, they could keep the kitchen open and make us some dinner! When they heard what we were doing the dinner turned out to be free of charge as well!
I was so pleased with having made this long day that I set my alarm late and wasn't out until past 7am. I also took the time to oil my chain which made the bike feel great. As we were getting ready to leave another racer, Nod turned up looking really beaten up. He'd had a run in with a wild boar, which he'd hit at around 51kph in the small hours. He was probably lucky to only have bruises and scrapes, but his bike was in bad shape and probably not safe to ride.
The ride down to the Mediterranean coast was relatively easy. Once again I found as I crossed a col I was transported into another world. Suddenly I was among olive groves, vineyards and bamboo; there were cacti beside the road. Even before I could see the sea, it felt like the Med. Several of us spotted a small supermarket and stocked up on pastries, bananas and yoghurt, saving the bananas as they will travel well enough in my back pockets.
On reaching the coast, Phare du Cap Bear I felt only a little elation. It was a huge achievement for all of us, but I was very conscious of how far I still had to go and how today was likely to be shorter than I needed. I sat for a little while at the lighthouse eating nuts and checking hotels. There weren't many options at about the right distance. I picked one that would make for a 181km day - some way into the final parcours, but well behind my plan for this stage. After taking a short, but rough route through farmland, I arrived at the hotel to discover some other racers had chosen the same stop. It was a friendly and eccentric place. One of the owners wore a communist beret as he took our card payments, while his partner made the most wonderful tomato salad I have ever tasted. Soft jazz played in the background. I confided in Eben that I thought this place was dangerous - it was so nice we could stay here for days!
Now the only time limit was the finish. I had always intended to finish within General Classification (GC). That meant before midnight on Thursday night. It was Tuesday morning and I still had about 650km to do with plenty of huge climbs. So I set myself an ambitious plan and booked a hotel in Bagneres du Luchon, some 280km away. I'd done further than that on previous days, I reasoned, so it should be possible.
After a couple of spooky climbs in the dark, during which I was genuinely freaked out by the sound of deer, I started to enjoy the hills. Col de Pailleres in particular was peaceful and beautiful in the dawn. The green farmland at the bottom, the pleasant shade of the beech woodland and the dramatic views from the top where there was even a little snow on the ground. There was something special about these huge climbs. Looking ahead and trying to predict how the road will wind its way up the mountain and thinking, "Surely I can't be going all the way up there!". Then later looking down a the the road snaking back into the valley so far below, unable to believe how far I'd climbed. That did provide a really visual sense of achievement that is hard to get back home in Britain.
I was taking fewer photos now, but I continued to be awestruck by how beautiful and varied the scenery was. I crossed a col and deer country gave way to flocks of sheep along with the famous Pyrenean mountain dogs protecting them.
In Ascou I bought an ice cream at a campsite and asked where there was a small shop. I was told "Ax-les-thermes, vous devez descend". This was no good. Ax might only be a km or two off-route, but descending deep into the valley would mean a long, arduous climb back out. The day before I had gone off route in search of a supermarket, having been told "C'est pas loin". Indeed an extra 4km round trip isn't far, but I did feel the time adding up.
The climbs weren't impossibly steep, they just went on a very long time. Over time I worked out a rough rule of thumb - a 500m climb would take an hour. This helped with estimation but made me realise how difficult a GC finish would now be. To make matters tougher, food wasn't readily presenting itself, even on a weekday. Shops in small places didn't stay open all day and I'd often arrive shortly after they'd closed and not want to hang around until they opened again. So I would dig into the supply of chewy bars I'd carried with me. This was why I'd brought them, but I knew they wouldn't get me all the way home. At the same time, I didn't want to spend hours searching a town for the ideal nourishment.
Once again I fell back on the reliable MacDonalds where some other participants had congregated. As usual we had some good-humoured chat about how hard the ride was and I had to admit that my 280km day to Bagneres was not going to happen. I cancelled the hotel and lost the money. I didn't know where I was going to stay or how far I could get. A GC finish now seemed like a crazy dream. A French rider I'd spoken with before told me he was aiming for Seix as it was the last place to stay before the long Col de la Core climb. That sounded reasonable, so filled with fast food I set off with that aim vaguely in mind.
At times it felt very hard though and as I crested the Col de Port de Lers I expressed this feeling, moaning first in French and then English to another rider I had assumed was on the ride. "Oh it's hard" I said. He replied, "Yes, but you're doing it!". I have no idea whether he knew exactly what I was doing, but his words stuck with me.
I was doing it.
As I wound my way slowly up the climbs, doing a lot more mental arithmetic than I had expected, I began to realise I needed a change in mindset to finish this ride. One of my main worries had been not knowing where I would sleep each night. I wanted to have it all planned out perfectly. I had done a lot of research, but dealing with uncertainty is inevitably part of a race like this. At some point I decided I should lean into that uncertainty and see where it got me. Why couldn't I take it as it comes? I'd already seen that climbing and even descending in the dark is fine. OK so you have to go slower on the descents when you can't see so far ahead, but I could still make good progress. The weather still looked good, if chilly at times, but I had packed more clothing than most. I could cope with that. Also I had a space blanket which I could sleep under if necessary. I was tired, but not worn out. This was a small epiphany that brought a little relief and hope with it. If I pushed on, maybe I could get far enough to make a GC finish possible.
With this in mind I decided I could go beyond Seix and cross the Col de la Core at night. There were villages on the other side so something should present itself. If I had to sleep out somewhere for a night, that would probably be OK.
Crossing the Col itself was fine. There were a couple of campervans at the top, probably like me admiring the stars in the clear skies with minimal light pollution. I donned all my warm clothing and descended the other side carefully, all the time looking out for a place to stay. It was past 11pm and I wasn't exhausted, but tired enough to sleep. A quiet village seemed like a good spot and I checked whether their church had the doors open. It didn't so I made use of a wooden bench outside, putting on all my clothing including winter gloves which didn't seem to fit - I realised later that I'd accidentally taken my wife's gloves which explains this!
It wasn't a great night's sleep. In spite of the space blanket I was shivering. The bench sloped slightly and I felt I was always rolling off. Still, I think I got a couple of hours and felt good enough to ride again.
As luck would have it as I continued down the road I found a public disabled toilet in the next village. Doesn't sound appealing, but it would've been a great option for me. No one around, space to bring the bike inside, wash, brush teeth use the loo. I did make use of it, but was kicking myself that I hadn't kept looking for longer and had a better sleep.
I lost count of how many cols I climbed that day, but it was around five. On the beautifully-surfaced Col d'Aspin I found some shade and stopped for a twenty-minute nap, which made all the difference. I knew that coming up was the highest point of the race, the famous Col du Tourmalet. I was hoping to get over that before bedtime. It might be a three hour climb/walk. That would make for only a 180km day, but my mental number puzzles suggested that this would be all I could expect to do with so much climbing and that it might, maybe, be enough to make a GC finish possible the following evening. Later in the day, when I was more confident of making it, I booked a hotel. "The Grand Hotel de France" didn't exactly sound like my style, but I didn't have a lot of choice.
The Col du Tourmalet was as long, epic and rugged at the top as expected. I was relieved to get up it in less than two and a half hours, just before sunset - or at least sunset from the top of the mountain which was a bit later than in the valley. Josh and some others were at the top, so I spoke to them briefly as we rushed to put warm layers on before the long descent. As they put their clothes on quicker than me I reflected on another aspect of the race which was not about pedalling fast. I was feeling that every second counted but some of my clothing was a bit of a faff.
After a fast but tiring descent, I got to the Grand Hotel rather early, around half nine. The check in process was slow as they were also running a restaurant and it was hard to politely explain that I was in a hurry. However, they did quickly make me a wonderful pizza covered in roasted veg which I devoured eagerly.
When I woke up shortly after 2am my knees were in agony. Stiff and painful, I felt I could hardly move and was coming around to the decision that I would have to scratch from the race. However, after levering myself out of bed and having a bite to eat they eased up and gave me no more trouble whatsoever. Strange, but a huge relief.
I was on the road around 3am and keen to keep going. I had 250km to the finish and 22 hours to do it. There was unexpected drizzle and fog, but it didn't really matter. I knew I had to climb the Col de Soulor and Col D'Aubisque before it got light. The descents would be slow, but so be it. I was pleased to be joined by Lucy who had started in the same wave as me. Conversation with her made the climbs much more enjoyable, especially with the lack of views due to darkness and fog. I spotted a striking black and yellow amphibian on the road near the top of the Aubisque but felt I couldn't afford any time for photos. I was amused at one point to hear a jangling bell as I climbed. In the Pyrenees they put bells not only on cows, but sheep and horses too. The jangle was joined by others and before long I was being seneraded by an untidy orchestra of forty sheep. It was most unusual music, but it entertained me. By the time I descended the other side there was a little light and I became aware of the clouds below and scale of this mountain. I'd been plodding away for hours without much sense of how high I was besides a number on the screen. Now I had a moment to appreciate it.
In the town below I caught up with Josh and asked "Ou est la boulangerie?". He didn't know but agreed it was an important question. Everything seemed to be shut. The descent continued through Eaux Bonnes where we, and I think most riders, missed a subtle right fork. Gah, another five minutes wasted. Eventually I made it to Bielle - a place I had originally thought would be good to spend the last night of the race. A group of French walkers were gathering and I asked them if there was anywhere to buy food. They were very friendly and directed me to a small local bakery where I surprised them by ordering several pastries. Josh was already there! I didn't feel especially competitive with the other racers around me - I wanted to finish and I wanted them to finish too - but it was interesting to measure my progress against them.
As the finish got closer my mental arithmetic intensified. If I could finish the parcours by 8pm that would leave me four hours to complete my 83km route back to Saint Jean de Luz. I knew it would be mostly downhill and on an ordinary day that would be easy enough. I was counting on the last section being easy.
I think I crossed a total of eight cols that day. A week ago I would've considered all of them big climbs, but some were now much smaller than the monsters of previous days. I was aware though, of one last monster. The Col de Soudet would see me gaining 1220m from the town of Arette. Knowing this, I stopped in the town for lunch. The shop was shut for at least half an hour. Luckily I found a bar which provided a large cheese baguette and packet of crisps. A French participant had done the same. At least if he was here at the same time I couldn't be too far off finishing in time, could I?
I managed the col and a couple of others, finishing the parcours before dusk and feeling confident about my GC finish.
The challenges weren't over however. What had looked like flat roads in my planning software still contained significant hills, only hidden by the scale required to show the earlier mountains. I felt I was really trying hard, but barely keeping my average speed up to the 20kph target I'd imagined for this section. Again the jacket and reflective belt had to come on and off, taking more time. The batteries in my backup lights had died and I didn't want to take the time to stop and replace them, so I stuck to my dynamo headlight. This is good and reliable, but only allows me to see about 25m down the road, so sometimes means I have to slow down.
Throughout the ride I'd been aware that friends and family had been watching my GPS track and getting my updates. I liked this and it made me feel less lonely during the quiet times. I'd look down and see the GPS Tracker light flash and be reminded that people were watching and willing me onwards. It was a nice feeling. Now, rushing for the finish I knew everyone would be watching closely. When I missed another turn and headed back some 400m I wondered whether they would notice or whether the update interval was too long. Towns, villages and farms were more frequent now. Many had noisy dogs and in the dark I hoped they were all safely behind gates. I did not want to have to deal with a terratorial pack harassing me. During the day I didn't mind dogs so much. One of the large Pyranean mountain dogs had even barked and bumped into me as I passed. At night however, I was pretty nervous of them. Thankfully they all seemed to be either secure, well trained, or not fast enough to bother me.
I pushed on, giving it all the speed I could. It felt fast. It wasn't.
I became increasingly annoyed about how long it took me to adjust clothing as I warmed up and cooled down.
Then, horror - Route Barree!
Argh! I didn't have time to replan my route, no idea how long a diversion might be. I wasn't sure what to do. It was totally dark and I couldn't see far ahead. In the UK cyclists can often pass through closed roads, so I continued carefully. I was hugely relieved to find only half the road was actually barree and I could pass without a problem. However, I had slightly lost my momentum, my urgency and it took me a while to get going again properly.
As I approached the final 20km on fast flat roads another racer caught up with me. Presumably those watching at home must've seen him on the tracker, but I hadn't been watching regularly. We exchanged friendly greetings and he continued ahead. I could see he was faster than me and I didn't have the energy or motivation to catch him. I told myself the same thing I'd said many times in the past six days - I can only do what I can do; I have to ride my own race. I didn't know we were probably the last two with a chance of finishing within GC. I continued for some minutes with his tail light still in view. He had passed quickly but now didn't look like he was getting away. As I thought this I noticed that my route forked off to the right. He carried straight on, but I had no time to consider which route would be better. All I could do was to trust that I had planned the last part of my ride sensibly - it had mostly been OK so far. The turn took me off the flat main road and over another hill. I muttered some ungrateful words to my former self, wondering whether it would be worth the effort. It's very nice to spin along a flat road when tired, putting in only as much effort as feels comfortable. A hill climb was more work.
Eventually I was within sight of the bright lights of Saint Jean de Luz and allowed myself to believe I would definitely make it in time, though only just! Tired and around some late night traffic for the first time in a while, I took extra care while still keeping up the best pace I could.
Finally I arrived! 6 days, 17 hours and 25 minutes after I'd started, making General Classification with only 20 minutes to spare. The other rider I'd seen earlier, whose name was Ian, arrived about ten minutes later to become lanterne rouge. Depending on how you look at it I was either second to last or 57th out of 150.
It was without doubt the most beautiful and hardest ride I've ever done. I can't imagine finding the time or energy to do anything like it again, but that is what I always say, isn't it?
In the week that followed the ride I found the sleepiness really caught up with me. I didn't feel any great lethargy during the race, but once I started taking more rest, my body demanded even more. I've been obliging with early nights and naps. As expected I lost some weight, only about 4kg by the time I got home. What surprised me is how hard it was to put that back on. As I've also lost a lot of power - around 50W from my FTP. I'm thinking the weight loss might be partly muscle. It's as if there is 2kg of leg muscle lost in those beautiful mountains! I'm not sure what kind of exercise to do, so I've been gently getting back into cycling, running and bodyweight exercises while spending a lot of time catching up with family. Whatever I do, I think it will be a long road to get back to fitness. I have no idea how people do multiple events of this length in a single year!
Stress and anxiety lifted and I felt gratitude to everything and everyone who had got me here.
I stopped several times to take photos, forgetting that I was racing.
I decided I should lean into that uncertainty and see where it got me.
As the finish got closer my mental arithmetic intensified.