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Soulor and Aubisque
The large group of Belgians gliding past our café terrace and taking off up the Soulor was just what we needed to get us back on our bikes. Ten minutes later, our quartet pedalled smoothly up to their column, exchanging grunts and nods. I, for one, felt quite smug, knowing where we had come from and that these guys were surely still snoring when we were starting our third col of the day. But once the road kicked up for the last 5km, I stopped feeling so cool. This time my legs rebelled, refusing to do battle again with gravity.
As sweating turned almost to meltdown, breathing to panting, and humble pie was swallowed in bucketfuls, the first of the Belgians wound me in. By the time I made it to the top, I was dearly hoping my usual ability to recover quickly wouldn’t let me down. The extent of my suffering was obvious to the others and they rode beside me to the top of the Aubisque. We had successfully ridden this section of the high mountains in relatively hostile conditions and yet were only 135km into the ride. It seemed something to celebrate with a quick clenched fist and smile.
On the way down, Graeme stopped to change both his front and back brake callipers (taking them off my spare bike in the van), which he did with no help from team mates, just as in 1910. This was less to do with historic authenticity and more about the mission the rest of us were on to get off the mountain as fast as possible in search of a few extra degrees of warmth. In Laruns, we found the first dry road surface of our ride, celebrating by drafting and swooping round bends whenever possible. Though we would be subjected to a few torrential downpours later on (usually after I had just taken off my rai jacket), overall we had left the worst weather behind us.
At Bielle, we crossed paths with a group riding the Rapha Randonnée. Their cheers and respect reminded me that we were in fact doing a rather special ride. Our mud-spattered faces probably told them that, too. The 60km recovery section that took us to our second stop point was crowned by the road through the Bois de Bager, probably one of the most enjoyable stretches of road I know. It’s 15km, no straight bits, and the road never stops twisting through lush woodland, pretty much following the same contour all the way. With a better road surface, it would be perfection on two wheels. In the tiny village of Lanne-en-Baretsous, Claire and I found a bakery for our control point stop. We ordered fig & goat cheese tarts for all of us and even I almost finished mine. The baker was not allowed to sell us coffee, so he didn’t. Instead, he made us a pot in his kitchen and brought it out for us, free of charge – Vive la France Libre! With the air noticeably less cold, we stowed jackets in pockets, left leg and arm warmers in the van and felt (almost) ready to face the last section of the ride.