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Peyresourde to Aspin
It was 2am. I dragged myself out of the bed I had got into just four and-a-half hours earlier. I had tried to sleep but it hadn’t worked. I knew all the climbs we were going to ride in just a few hours time - and that was what worried me.
2.30am. The four of us sat in the hotel breakfast room. Like lost souls, we wondered why we were dressed in smart, matching Tourmalet jerseys at that time of night. The buffet table beside us was covered: with croissants; pains au chocolat; cakes; bowls of fruit; cereal; and, here’s the really ‘pro’ bit, scrambled egg, rice and pasta. We were trying to get a feel for what it might have been like, those 100 years ago, when ‘real men’ got up at roughly the same time and rode 400km as a matter of routine, eating the best part of some four-legged animal beforehand. We all forced down a bit of whatever was on offer, some more easily than others; I was already worried about keeping up with the other three on the road and I was slipping back in the restaurant before we’d even started. I packed the food in despite having no real appetite, hoping that it would help stoke the fire. What a mistake. I was about to do one of the hardest rides I ‘d ever done, and had just blown my usual eating habits out the window.
At 3.33am we rolled out of the hotel grounds and a few minutes later we were climbing the Peyresourde. The whole thing was unreal. And it was raining. Our four light beams traced irregular patterns through the pitch black. I was breathing hard already and all I could think about was the food I had stuffed into my face that my stomach was now trying to deal with. I wanted to reject the whole lot and start again. This was going to be a long ride.
One hundred years ago, the first riders to attempt this stage got to the top of the Peyresourde in 57 minutes. We made it in 1hr 15min. The admiration we had for those Octave Lapize and co. was already immense. It would continue to grow throughout the ride until it turned into something else – total incomprehension. How, we wondered, were they able to ride that strong and push on those pedals that hard?
Seconds after we began our descent of the Peyresourde, we realised that climbing was, in fact, going to be the easy part. By the time we reached Arreau, Mat, who would go on to become the strongest of the four of us, was such a shivering wreck he seriously thought he might not be able to continue. In fact, we were all cold – and slightly shocked. We had come down the Peyresourde in the rain, through swirling fog, sometimes helped by the van’s headlights as Claire, our support driver, tried her best to show us the road that our lights were struggling to read. We had narrowly missed two large deer, a fox, several large rocks washed on to the road by heavy rain, and almost gone off the road completely on a newly surfaced section yet to have any white lines slapped on it. A century ago they had descended using candle lanterns bolted to the front forks.
We agreed not to forget the lessons of that descent and took comfort in the thought that our next climb, the Aspin, would keep us busy until it got light. The Aspin is one of my favourite climbs in this part of the Pyrenees and it charmed me once again. We all enjoyed it. Dawn, timid to begin with, finally arrived and with it a sense of security. The air was still cold and wet but as the silhouette of the col appeared, just leaving the darkness behind made us feel warmer. The road was still menacingly shiny so, again, we had to take it easy on the descent. The thrill of a descent should, invariably, be our reward and but on this day we stayed stiffly upright round the bends, happy to get to the bottom undamaged.