The Transpyrenees is a 1050km ultra race with over 25,000 metres climbing taking in 33 cols including the mythical Tourmalet. Wheelers Dan Pateman and Sam Sneyd took on the challenge and have some epic war stories from their week in the Pyrenees.
I’ve never considered myself a long distance cyclist, and still don’t when I compare this ultra event to the exploits of others in the club. Nevertheless, this was destined to be a big challenge for me which would require a degree of structured training to hopefully effect the change (something that I’ve previously got quickly bored with).
I was 50 this year, and so yes, clichés about and around this milestone were certainly a factor in me entering. I had been looking for a challenge for some while, both as an individual goal, but also as a test of the direction that I wanted my cycling life to head-in over the coming years: I want to travel more (another cliché, I know) and for longer periods, so needed to see if I would enjoy ‘subsistence cycling’ as a way of making this viable financially. Sam’s forum post about this event at the end of last year spurred me into action.
I won’t dwell too long on my training plan. A simple (ignorant?) approach: ride my bike (sometimes hard, sometimes easy, sometimes long, sometimes short), but with an emphasis at certain times of blocks of longer rides either side of a particularly long ‘loaded bike’ ride (Gently Bentley, Amesbury Amble, South Downs Way and my Eleanor Cross ride). I don’t ride with power or heart rate meters, preferring to trust my judgement on how I feel. I supplemented the bike kilometres with quite a lot of gym work, as I’ve long considered my lanky frame to be a limiting factor to riding further.
Arriving at the start line seemed a challenge in itself. Llanca, a small town on the Spanish coast at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, was not the easiest of places to get to, especially as I wouldn’t be returning there afterwards. My plan was to fly to Toulouse (lots of helpful advice on the forum about flying with a cardboard box), reassemble my bike at the airport and ride to the train station, followed by a couple of local trains to avoid the need to pre-book. This all went largely as hoped, save for the half hour of mild panic when my bike hadn’t appeared to have arrived and the somewhat comical (in hindsight) squeezing of triple the number of permitted bikes into the half dozen spaces on the first train.
The start day, Saturday 24th June, was a bit of a drag. The off wasn’t until 8pm, but registration and briefing commenced at midday. I spent most of the afternoon horizontal attempting to relax and rest (and of course, eat): it was a relief to finally get underway.
I will confess to not especially enjoying the first few hours. Riders everywhere, many who seemed happy to bomb down narrow, poorly surfaced descents in fading light, disrupting my line, and in many cases, immediately slowing to a crawl as the road next went uphill, so repeat, repeat. This was countered by an amazing sunset, with the sun dropping below the headlands jutting out to sea, and then by the stopping of large groups of riders at a couple of late night take-aways as we headed inland. I had enough food to see me through the night, so was glad of clearer roads to disappear off into. I was conscious of the ‘first’ day being a Sunday and resupply opportunities being potentially limited, but had researched a boulangerie that claimed to open at 6am. Sure enough, I was just getting comfortable in their outside seating area at 4.30am when an employee arrived for work. He was quite surprised to find someone curled up in a sleeping bag, but more than happy for me to sleep and await their opening.
The remainder of the opening day went, on the whole, very well- a minor food bonk around lunchtime and then the first trip over 2000m (Port de Pailheres) being the only real difficulties and I arrived early evening, as hoped, in Tarascon sur Ariege. This ticked off around a third of the overall distance, meaning a further 150km per day would see me finish before the deadline: that had always been my objective.
Unfortunately this, albeit entirely my fault, is where things went slightly adrift. After a reasonable night’s rest at a closed campsite, I pedalled off into the damp morning having stocked up at another fabulous boulangerie. I counted-off the cols in my head (which included the evil Péguère: only 3km, but long sections of over 15%), before heading towards familiar territory. Loup, Larrieu, des Ares and Bales were all climbs that I’d ridden before and I trundled along quite happily. The Port de Bales summits at close to 2000m, and as the weather at these higher altitudes had begun to worsen, I decided after a few minutes of descending to add some extra layers, rolling to a stop outside a hotel and restaurant. I took the opportunity to have some dinner but then foolishly declined the offer of a room. Buoyed by an excellent day, I wanted to plough on into the night, giving a dismissive wave to my plan.
In fairness, everything continued to go well for several more hours. Despite misty and damp weather at higher ground, which necessitated regular clothing on/offs, I continued to make reasonable progress and arrived at the foot of the mighty Tourmalet around 4am. Seeing a couple of other riders camped in a large covered area in the town square of Saint Marie de Campan, I decided to stop also. I was restless and fidgety, however, and certainly didn’t sleep, so despite feeling a little sick was on the move again shortly after 6am. The next 6 hours were possibly the worst I have ever spent on a bike. I didn’t feel like eating, and in fact struggled to force anything down, was constantly feeling sick, and was having to stop every kilometre or so to stretch my back. The Tourmalet followed by the Troumouse- both over 2000m with long, steep sections- were hell. Sam later told me that there is a photograph, somewhere on social media, of me looking especially sorry for myself in a café between the two climbs. Having initially hoped (at this café) that I could ride a further 100km after the Troumouse, this illusion (delusion) was soon disintegrating on the early slopes of this climb. Even rolling down from the summit was horrendous and I was glad to stagger into a hastily booked hotel in Luz Saint Sauveur mid-afternoon, the one positive note being that I was still ahead of my plan, although entirely at odds with the proposed method!
Despite a reasonable night’s sleep, I didn’t feel any better the following morning: my back was still feeling very sore and weak and a first bout of diarrhoea (sorry!) was added to the nausea. I certainly didn’t have any appetite. I was grateful, however, for a piece of good fortune: this was the first time since the opening night where there was some sustained gaps between the climbs. The Solour and the Aubisque, although long, were not unpleasant, and 170km was covered with far greater ease than I expected. This deposited me at the foot of the nasty looking Port de Larrau, where I’d booked a hotel earlier in the day. Other than finishing within the time limit, my other wish had been to sleep-out at least one night on one of the cols, hopefully waking with the sun rising above a picture-postcard horizon. Although my sickness was the main factor in deciding to spend a few nights in hotels, the overcast weather would have scuppered my wish too: it was 5 degrees and foggy when I crested the Larrau on Thursday morning.
The hot bath at the hotel was extremely welcome and by late evening my body seemed to have ejected much of what had upset it. I still had two days to complete 230km, so was feeling relatively happy when I woke the following morning. Prodding my back led me to apply kinesiology tape in a slightly different way and this proved to be decisive. The difficult Larrau was tackled pain-free, as was the even more challenging Munhoa later in the day. My appetite had returned and my legs felt good: a rider reborn! The sun was setting, at least what I could see of it through the intermittent heavy showers, just as I arrived at the top of the Jaizkibel, the final climb, and the official end of the route before the neutralized roll-down into San Sebastian. I had finished with a day to spare.
At 3am the following morning I was sitting in a bus shelter outside Hendaye train station, a further 20km from San Sebastian over the border in France. I had ridden there in the pouring rain and now had all my layers on, supplemented by an emergency blanket, yet I didn’t care. I was waiting for an early train to Bordeaux, where I planned to spend the day and night, followed by further trains the next day to get me to Dieppe and its ferry port. After docking in Newhaven at 4am on Sunday morning, there was really only one fitting way to end my journey. I even got the sunrise I’d been hoping for.
Similar to Dan’s experience we were blocked in on the early climbs where people feeling fresh and full of adrenaline. It also became apparent as the sun began to set on the horizon that no one particularly wanted to turn their front lights on. Mine and Chris’ plan was to always stop on the first night and have a good night’s sleep whilst others would burn themselves out by riding through the night. We covered a total of 112km for the first night covering just over 2,100m of elevation. We decided to stop over in a village called La Bastide, it is here we commandeered the village well which gave us a place to shelter should the weather turn and also some peace and quiet from others riding through.
For me, the first full day started well was feeling rejuvenated and ready to continue ticking through the kilometres. This lasted probably for the first hour before the wheels started coming off majorly for me mentally and physically to the point that I only managed to tackle 158km of the route and a further 3,600m of elevation some of this being over 20% for a kilometre and it not easing much after that. Col de Pailhères, a climb which I would love to go and do properly this was for me the hardest climb due to the heat and the gradient becoming a little too much and with a knee which wasn’t wanting to play along anymore and there was moments which I wanted to scratch totally. Fortunately, Chris was waiting for me at the top with the news we could obtain pizza at the bottom of the descent…. We headed down got dinner and found accommodation to sleep in Ax-les-Thermes.
Following on from the pizza I was given a good talking to by Chris who put my head right back in the game and it shows with the way I was riding much more in control and at a tempo which worked for me on the gradients. The day had climbs like the Col de Port, Col de Péguère & Col de Ares. I felt strong throughout this day and eating and drinking became second nature with no GI issues or the sort which I think I was incredibly fortunate with. The high point of the day / low point of this day was the lack of places to sleep and places for dinner. This led to us sleeping on a stage in the village of Siradan next to a church bell which went off every 15 minutes. To say I’ve had better night sleep is an understatement.
Heading into day 3 our plan was to get over the Tourmalet and complete the Troumouse before finding somewhere to sleep. Sadly this didn’t work out due to the poor quality of sleep we had the night before we were feeling very lethargic and we decided to call it a day after going over Col du Tourmalet. We warmed up for the Tourmalet by climbing Col D’Aspin which was the only climb where visibility was perfect for us the entire climb and descent. The climb up the Tourmalet is something that I remember forever… climbing up into the middle third of the climb and not being able to see your front wheel due to the thickness of the cloud was an experience in itself. We were fortunate to have some motorbike riders who rode alongside us with their hazards and full headlights on so we could see and also be seen by other traffic until we broke through the cloud barrier. Coming down the other side descending into Luz-Saint-Sauveur was probably the coldest I have ever gotten on a bike with the length of the descent and the clouds we were going through I began getting uncomfortably cold and required multiple layers and hot drinks to warm myself up which is when we decided the day needed to be called there. 131km with 4,000m of climbing.
During the night we discussed how we were going to claw back the distance that we had lost to continue with our aim of completing the event by Thursday evening. This meant we had 223km on the cards today with over 5,000m of elevation. We began the day with the climb we skipped out the day before the Cirque de Troumouse. All I can say is this “WHAT A CLIMB” – the way up and down over 2,000m was probably the most spectacular climbs we did on the trip with the views at the top being worth the one hour of climbing to get to. We decided we could climb this at our own pace and regroup at a cafe two thirds of the way down the descent for breakfast.
Following very friendly French couple had filled us with pastries, cake and coffee we headed off on our way still only being 10am we had the Col du Soulor in our sights.
The way the route worked coming back from cirque de Troumouse took us back past where we had stayed the previous night in Luz Ardiden, at the base of the Tourmalet. The weather conditions were considerably better in comparison to the day before when we were descending.
The roads that took us towards the Col du Soulor were initially following the rivers which meant flowing easy riding through tunnels, which allowed for the legs to be spun out ready for the climb. The climb felt smooth and the legs and tempo felt dialled in at this point, however it wasn’t long before visibility once again went and we were up in the clouds with the lower temperatures that come with it. Once at the summit the type of road changes drastically where we’re basically riding on a narrow lane on the cliff edge with a straight drop down 1,400m to the valley floor (not ideal for me as I hate heights). This took us to the latter slopes of the Aubisque which was where we were greeted to a car park full of donkeys which was an improvement on cars and something I’m sure Kush would have appreciated too.
A 30km descent followed with sweeping bends and stunning views of the ski resort but what we thought would be an easy run in to where we had booked accommodation that morning quickly changed in our heads to a real battle of the mind. We realised we had begun to enter the Basque Country region and the profile of the climbs changed with it. Gone were the relatively constant climbs to ones with kicker sections where the gradient would just spike without notice. However, as the sun began to set we had the pleasure of a beautiful descent to what we thought would be dinner for the gang before an easy spin 2km to the hotel. We get to this restaurant to find it’s shut and the only place is a ‘pub’ next door which served sandwiches which at this time in the day was a matter of need. Strapping the sandwiches for me, Chris and Tom, I cycled to meet Chris at our hotel. What he had failed to tell me on the phone was the final 2km to Larrau was basically a wall with the 36×30 being deployed to drag my tired shell of a body with the food strapped to its destination. We stayed in an old farmhouse B&B with a lovely older lady who’s English was bad as my French so was constantly using Chris as a translator for me.
Our final day had arrived following a late start, the owner wouldn’t let us leave until after 9 as she’d locked our bikes in her garage. We set off knowing we had just 227km and 5,000m of climbing between us and the finish.
We started with a stunning switchback climb with the locals smiling as we went past probably because they knew what we had in store with a day jumping back and forth across the French and Spanish border and the conditions changing almost with the boarder.
As we descended the first climb Chris and I were riding along a lane by the river when we could hear dogs barking and all of sudden two dogs broke through their garden fence and were on our back wheels I have never seen a pro sprint but it’s safe to say Chris sacrificed me in return for his own personal safety! I have never sprinted so hard in my life. As we approached the next village we were back as a three and were welcomed with someone shooting a shotgun in the air which made me literally crap myself. And a lady in the village found it amusing if nothing else.
As the sun began to go down on our final day, we were all saying how fortunate we felt we had been not to of been caught in any rain. Oh my did we speak to soon. As we all know when it rains in Spain, boy does it rain, and we were descending these roads with the light fading and not being able to see due to the heavy rain.
Eventually we managed to ride out of the rain knowing more would be coming as we headed down the coast to San Sebastián which it eventually did. Chris and I had been looking at the tracker throughout the day and at the start we were 14th in the pair category due to our later start so as we approached the final climb we had managed to get to 11th but one final push on the last climb we managed to get to 9th with Chris literally sprinting side by side with me to the line. I’ll let you work out who won that.
After the timer is stopped it’s an easy spin down to the harbour to collect your medal and bits which is where the rain started again, but what an experience that was had and I’d do it again without thinking twice.
Found out more about the Transpyrenees here