Duncan Coulter is a 27-year-old Briton who in September 2017 completed his second Cent Cols Challenge. Here, Duncan attempts to explain the extraordinary experience of riding 100 cols in ten days, and the depths of thought that the journey can take you.
Riding the Pendulum
Since May 2016, an anonymous writer has been penning a series of diary entries about long-distance riding for Rapha. In this piece we reveal his name.22 August 2018
Steep, wet ramps
The road ahead looks like an Etch-A-Sketch made of shit
The cows here hate my singing, I’m sure of it. There’s something in the way they turn their backs to me as I pass them wearing every jacket I own. The Tourmalet is a beautiful descent, I’m sure of this too, yet the clouds have a way of making everything look the same and I can’t see from all the rain in my eyes. It was on the way up that Phil [Deeker, founder of the Cent Cols Challenge] and I were joking about the ridiculous nature of cycling clothing, how we ascend these mountains in ‘glorified swimming trunks’ – suitable, I suppose, for the rain we were in, but not for the 4°c chill that greeted us at the summit and certainly not for the 20km descent on the other side. Plummeting down the valley, the cold cut straight through me as the rain burned away at my exposed skin – it was like being dragged through a hail storm naked.
All this is much to be expected on Rapha Travel’s most demanding trip, the Cent Cols Challenge (CCC). Riding 100 cols over 10 days, every rider can be safe in one assumption – they will be tested. Since the first CCC in 2009 Phil has been using the iconic mountain ranges of Europe as his tools, wielding their heights to break down and rebuild riders’ resolve. By the time I rode the Tourmalet on day four, I had given into the scale of the Pyrenees and was starting to find my own way to wade through the fatigue we were in.
To wake me from my hypothermic day dream, I thought to sing. Before I could think to muster a tune the words started pouring out. It was an odd choice really; a sad song I hadn’t listened to in years, one I had been trying to find the words to for the three days prior, but had always lost my way on the second verse. Ruts in the memory I’d once stumbled on were filled in by the cold and I sang with a confidence and clarity as if I’d written it that very morning, each word bringing me back towards the present moment. I could have been embarrassed if anyone was there to hear it, but of course the roads were empty – who would ever ride the Tourmalet on a day like this?
Ways in which descending is like a relationship:
Both are based on trust, which builds over time
The pace at which they progress is not always in your control
Neither should be meaningfully engaged with when tired
On a Cent Cols Challenge, you develop two minds. There is the mind that knows and there is the mind that chooses not to know. Navigating the trip is often about balancing these two. Whether it be the temperature of your descent or your climb, the distance left on a stage, or the pain in your knees, you are governed by extremes out of your control that you try to ignore. To dismiss all information is to be at risk – of crashing, fuelling improperly, or developing an injury. And yet , to be fully aware of it all is to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the experience and guarantee your own failure. So you find strong emotions are best kept at arm’s reach. You have to resist sending the emotional pendulum swinging in case the momentum carries you clean off the bike. It’s not an exciting approach, there’s little flair in this level of consistency, but it gets you through.
On a Cent Cols Challenge, there are so many moments that burst into your consciousness, forceful with their beauty. In these moments emotions precede awareness; the tears run before the feeling is fully understood, then you realise you’ve been staring at the sunset for a while now, and maybe you miss home. Such intense sensations are a surprise, but emotions are much closer to the surface than once thought, or hoped, when you’re fatigued to the point of exhaustion. We are delicate, yet we are enduring – nowhere more so than on a CCC. And so it progresses – stronger each day, yet weaker.
If there is one thing there is plenty of in the day, apart from vertical ascent, it is time and conversation. A well placed joke can give levity to a dark moment, yet equally as important is knowing when to leave and be left alone. Choosing your company is part of the art of getting through the CCC. There is much to be learned about the wide spread of people attracted to this place, from all different regions of the world, professions and athletic backgrounds. I have shared climbs with Olympians and plumbers, CEOs and pilots. Whether the trip resembles years of savings or small change, we all glean some pleasure from hardship and are drawn to the highest of places.
Every person has their moments of strength and weakness, riding those undulations together is what binds you as a group. All this is important, because the people you share the roads with make up your environment as much as the mountains themselves. Over the course of the trip, their moods become tangible forces, additional elements to be enjoyed, or weathered. The transfer of emotion through the group can be like a forest fire. A solitary thought that sparks into life in one individual spreading from rider to rider. The lack of sleep and comfort leaves everyone exposed and vulnerable. Like emotional kindling, it takes little to set it alight. In moments, the group can be ablaze with good humour, or scorching the tarmac, radiating like a furnace with frustration.
Then I look to Phil, witnessing his consistency amidst all the variation. I’m learning from him to be my own constant, to be at peace with being alone, to find refreshment and comfort in the smallest actions and shortest windows of time. These are the survival skills of the Cent Cols Challenge. He is a master of balance and I hope he is on two feet and happy long after all this is over.
The sheep here look warm,
Even in the cold and rain.
I wonder if they’re comfortable.
And what is comfort anyway?
I suppose it’s related to what’s normal.
And what is normal comes from what is experienced
I’ve noticed my showers are getting shorter
And I eat less at lunch
Is this becoming normal?
Am I getting comfortable?
The support on the Cent Cols Challenge is part of what gives it its unique character and charm. Each day the skeleton team carry out their own endurance event, to make our ride possible. Made up of Phil’s close friends and family, to be embraced by them, emotionally and sometimes physically, feels like a kind of achievement in itself. Louise, one of the longest standing and most frequent ‘helpers’, demonstrates that most British supporting style beautifully; balanced somewhere between sympathy and refusing to indulge you in your misery, she is always on your side and assuming of your success. She is the chef, the physiotherapist, but most importantly she is the master of illusion. The sense of security she casts, in the most simple of gestures, inspires an almost hazardous level of confidence. I cannot say whether we would have taken ourselves to the depths required, if we hadn’t known she’d be on the surface waiting for us – head torch beaming in the car park, looking like a five-foot lighthouse.
Climbing the Aubisque, of course it’s raining
Watching the clouds part, then piece themselves back together.
It looks like a slow motion car crash made of vapour.
On the final day there are tiny bumps of euphoria that come at the top of each col. They build throughout the day and yet the final climb was not the crescendo of happy hormones that I had anticipated or hoped for. The serotonin was sputtering between my synapses, whether I wanted to be elated or not, I was running on empty. Ten days spent reining in my thoughts, refusing to ride the emotional pendulum. It takes its toll.
The final night at dinner I longed for some kind of closure, some kind of artefact that would sum up my experience. Something perfect that I could store forever. But there was nothing. How could there be? We said all the words we could think of in the moment, but I was consumed by disappointment that it was over.
While I know this is only the end of one thing and the beginning of another, transition is never easy. Over the course of the evening I slowly woke from a dream – one we had all been sharing. It felt like falling out of love for the first time. The mundane clarity in realising what you imagined would go on forever is over. The people I’d come to know intimately felt like strangers in the light of normality. It felt like this morning we were all something, and now we were just people, sitting in a room, trying to find the words to say goodbye. That is to say, the spell that the CCC casts is so very powerful, only when it’s broken can you appreciate how it changed you.
You see, the full extent of our achievement is understood by so few people – the memory of our experience survived by so few minds, the piece we each hold resembles a large part of the whole. In this way, our memories are less diluted by other witnesses, leaving them more rich, more potent. The experience becomes less dispensable and you feel compelled to pay attention. To continue on without everyone else is to carry my share of the memory alone. So there is also fear in the forgetting, a fear that with the loss of this place, comes the loss of the person it has built. This is the hardest challenge for me, simply to remember.
To remember that the best lessons to be taken from the Cent Cols Challenge are the ones that transcend cycling. To remember how to forgive my immediate emotions and to understand there is always an undercurrent of fatigue distorting my view of the world. On the trip my tiredness bred a vulnerability that I came to accept and in my darkest moments I learnt to ask very little of myself. It’s this kind of awareness that is so necessary in the Everyday; a place where personal mountains are not so easily defined and where I am seldom so gentle with myself – not because it’s hard to do, but because it is easy to forget it’s worthwhile.
I suppose it’s this sensation that brings people back every year, to spend time in this place in which friendships are born so quickly, where months of emotional ground are covered in a single climb, where we are given the opportunity to be our best selves 24 hours a day. It is the greatest gift I could be given, which is why leaving hurts so much…
Cent Cols Challenge 2019
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