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Cent Cols Challenge 2011
WORDS & PHOTOS: Phil Deeker
Our hotel at Rivesaltes is not the most pristine of the trip but it’s a busy, lively place. Upon arrival, we take over three basement rooms with our bikes, cases and general event equipment as soon as they are no longer required for Flamenco rehearsal ahead of the upcoming festival in town. Pierre-Henri, the establishment’s owner, admits to me that he spends more time in his vines and his kitchens than in his hotel. We dine at his Domaine, a 15-minute walk from the hotel. The quality of the food and the smoothness of his wine on our first and last nights make the slightly unkempt hotel entirely forgivable. And this is the Pyrenees. The Alps are tidier, wealthier, more finished. The Pyrenees are rougher around the edges. That’s what I love about them. Well, one of the things.
This is the second year that I have led the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge groups up and down these mountains and the majority seem to agree that they are harder to ride than their Alpine cousins. The Cent Cols route in the Alps covers a wider range of landscape, often monumental in character and scale. The Pyrenees juggle constantly between hills and mountains; one moment cocooning us in lush green woodland, the next throwing us out into vast open spaces clad only with a thin skin of tussock grass. The roads are rougher, too, which often makes descending hard work, and they are rarely clean of debris. Horses, cows and sheep all reckon the roads were built for them as much as for two-wheeled creatures. I have a special fondness for climbs with particularly narrow roads, those which are naturally quite low on the local authority’s maintenance list, because it is not always just the gradient that makes the riding challenging.
The subtle beauty of the Pyrenees reveals itself gradually. The dramatic, shop-window beauty of the Alps is there for all to behold from the moment you see them. Scenery is important because when riders spend so much time digging into ever more depleted reserves of body and mind, it is the beauty around that can refuel tired limbs and brains. I have begun to notice a CCC performance curve which may have something to do with the energising effects of scenery. It starts high on stage one, testosterone bouncing off the walls at the pre-event briefings in which I am trying to play down the need to compete or to impress. By the end of this first day, many faces already look worn out and worried, wondering how surviving nine more days of this can be possible (the Pailhères, in the afternoon heat of day one, had been a major shock for most of the riders this year).
Stages two and three do little to reassure, the pain and exhaustion refusing to take a back seat. But at least by this time the riders have realised they are not here to ride these stages as they would a one-day sportive. They have begun to settle down and build their own bubble in which they will cycle for the next eight days. Stage four usually sees riders beginning to claw back up from the low places and a glimmer of hope appears.
By stage five, with the rest day to follow, the group spirit has changed noticeably once again. Confidence is growing healthily, along with the realisation of the scale of achievement. During the second part of the Challenge, fatigue might slowly work its way into both mind and body but morale is buoyant and muscles are tuned to the roads ahead. If knees, back and ankles have survived the first week, then the muscles thrive and become increasingly efficient. And of course, appetites soar uncontrollably.
By stage eight the Challenge almost feels like a Cent Cols Celebration. The pecking order has become firmly established but many enjoy climbing up a step or two as they thrive on new found abilities. The whole group shares a unique bond and by day ten, everyone agrees that the bittersweet pill of ‘the end’ has come all too soon and they honestly don’t want to finish.
The first group of 2011 consisted predominantly of Australians and northerners from the UK, which meant there was plenty of spirit. That’s useful when confronted with a long queue of mountains in front of you. Opinions were bold and frank, with humour winning out every day. I deliberately keep groups small on the CCC because it’s so essential for individuals to benefit from the support of a tight group. This group rode exceptionally well together, apart from the odd occasions when heads-down riding caused ‘arrow-blindness’ and turnings were missed. That there were no scrapes or crashes was a first for the event and is a credit to the attitude of every rider, especially when descending.
It is hard to mention one rider among them all but Lindy Edwards (who had been followed by Cycling Plus in her build up to the event) deserves a special mention. Accompanied by her very talented husband, she rode through all stages with an exemplary, no-defeat attitude.
The second group contained many familiar faces, previous CCC riders coming back for more. Are these individuals hardened men whose bodies survived the blows in the Alps and wanted to test themselves in even harsher combat? Or are they poets on wheels, riders who were so moved by the intimacy developed over ten days cycling these mountains that they had to have another dose of this extraordinary experience? A bit of both, probably.
Given the first event had gone so smoothly, it was inevitable that the second might experience problems. Sure enough, with just seven kilometres ridden, a fall in the peloton at a roundabout meant the end of the ride and a bloodied face for one rider. After months of training it was a cruel twist of fate. There were a couple of other tumbles but with none with serious consequences.
One particularly difficult moment came on the sixth stage, when I had to say no to going over Le Geant, the Col du Tourmalet. A few had not yet ridden this monster, so it was high on their to-do lists. And yet, after a glorious first week, the weather finally faltered. So a day that had already started wet as we climbed the Aubisque became decidedly wetter and colder. I found my little flock in the café at the top, shivering sheepishly and looking towards their shepherd for compassion. (Sorry guys, no disrespect but that was my first impression).
After a week of sun, one soon forgets how different things are with a sudden change in the weather. So we headed down towards the Soulor. When the café staff at the top of the Tourmalet confirmed that the afternoon forecast was just as bad, I explained to the group over lunch before Luz St Sauveur that it's getting down the other side, potentially in snow, that’s particularly tricky. No one disagreed. The next day, as we looked across to freshly snow-capped peaks there were no regrets. After all, when we have 106 climbs on our long list, missing just one of these big daddies hardly spoils the party.
Other special mentions from this group have to go to Mike Simpson and Tim Smith, both of whom positively flew up the timed climbs. At the other end of the group, Kelvin Wright, a fireman from the Isle of Wight who didn’t consider himself a proper cyclist earned the deepest respect from us all. Riding, in his own words, in an “unknown dimension” he never gave in. Kelvin was clearly a very driven man – having already carried a long ladder round the fair Isle earlier in the summer for charity, the CCC was the main course of his fundraising menu for 2011. Chapeau.
Anecdotes of all kinds come in truckloads from these rides and magic moments abound. As for myself and my wife, Claire, the sincere gratitude of the riders at the end is proof that we have succeeded in our own challenge; to lead others into the remote beauty and eternity of these ranges and share the experience that is unique to the trilogy of bicycle, road and mountain.
Bookings for the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge are now being taken.
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