Willesden Rockets Easter Arrow

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As I have said before, I have wanted to do an Easter Arrow for a number of years now. Finally I have had the chance.

Martin (our Captain), Mel, Ian and myself left Willesden Junction train station at 9am on Good Friday with the intention of arriving in York 24 hours later with at least 400km in our legs (minimum distance is 360km).

Our route took us through, roughly, Aylesbury, Huntingdon, Grantham, Lincoln, Blyth, Goole and York.

Much of the first legs were spent riding into a troubling head-wind and I was glad of a good rest at Huntingdon.

By nightfall as we reached Grantham, it was clear that the night was going to be very cold, so a lot of layers were put on and we sort of resolved that riding throughout the night (we had a leg over towards Tadcaster if we were feeling very up for it) was probably not going to be on the cards. It was, indeed, a cold night with temperatures in the minus 2 and 3 range. We were well-dressed and didn’t suffer overly.

But we were all glad to reach Blyth services and stop for a few hours and get some broken sleep on the chairs/floor.

Into a murky cold we went with only 4 hours of riding left and before too long, we were in York where we piled into a pub with 100 other riders to have breakfast and share our tales from the road.

Great fun and massive thanks goes to Martin for being a very good captain.

Plans for 2014

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I wrote early last year about my plans for the coming season – it was a useful exercise for me for me to put down what I thought I might achieve and to put some structure together for the year.  

So, whilst we all swim about rather than ride our bikes due to the wettest January on record, I thought I should put my thoughts down on paper.

I have known for some time what my big goals were for the season – and I have 3 things I wish to accomplish:

  • Easter Arrow

I have wanted to ride an Easter Arrow for a couple of years.  For those that don’t know, an arrow is a fairly unusual event in that it is ridden as a team (of 3-5 machines (so it could have 10 (or more!) riders, if tandems/triplets etc. were being used)).  The rough concept is to ride as far as possible in that 24 hours (certainly for the competitive teams anyway).  Most people will be happy to ride around 400km (you must ride at least 360km).  

I’ve never managed one – we’re generally away at easter, last year was my 40th birthday etc. etc. 

But, somehow, I have permission to go and ride one this year (a week after our American wedding no less – so I am amazed to get a pass for this!). It seems like a good year to ride it, Easter is fairly late, so the chances of warmer weather are somewhat enhanced (but not guaranteed!).

So, I have a team and we’re planning our route.  I am looking forward to it.  

I think the thing that really appeals is everyone from all over the place, converging in York for breakfast and swapping tales of their rides.  The event will be slightly tinged with sadness as the person that organises the Arrow in past years is currently still in a very poorly condition following a horrific collision with a car in August.  He has a very long road ahead of him, but, like everyone in the Audax community, I wish him the very best for his recovery.

  • The 24hr Time Trial

At some point last year, I decided that this would be a primary target for this year.  It is related to Audax, and much of the roots of Audax UK can be traced back to the 24 Hour Fellowship.  In years gone by, riding 600km in the 24 was about the only way of qualifying for Paris Brest Paris before AUK was formed.

It is what it says on the tin – ride as far as possible in 24 hours.  The race of truth.

No hiding in big bunches, sucking wheels – just you, on your own, riding as far as possible.

The top riders will be riding over 500 miles, which is just mind-boggling.  But, most riders will be riding to beat previous distances that they have done or whatever.  

Personally, I would like to manage at least 375 miles (600km), as that is a good standard for anyone to reach.  If things went very well, it would be amazing to reach 400 miles – but I am currently looking at 375 miles.

It’s all so different to Audax, that I do find it hard to get my head around to be honest.  600km – normally that takes me between 35 and 40 hours!  All right, I tend to choose the hillier events, and that will include a little bit of sleep.  

LEL – first 24 hours, I was hammering along in fast groups, often up at the front – sure, I stopped for a cheeky kip in Thirsk for 2.5 hours, but still, I only rode about 470km and that felt pretty quick.  

But here I am talking about riding another 130km in the same time – it’s all quite alien to me at the moment.  

However, there are some differences – no navigation (marshals at turns etc.), no big saddle bag of stuff, no real stopping and spending a long time off the bike (I will be supported by my (by then) wife and a friend who I think I have roped in, who will hand me up food and water every so often to hopefully make my time off the bike minimal), aero bars on the bike etc.

I am actually taking things reasonably seriously for this – I’ve been riding with aerobars for a couple of months now to help dial in my position.  I really don’t want to waste the time of my support crew by not giving this everything I have got and getting a decent distance.  

I am looking forward to it, but am under no illusion that it will be the most comfortable 24 hours I have ever had.  I expect it will hurt.  A lot.

  • The Highlands, Glens and Western Isles 1300

Well, I had read about the permanent version of this, and thought it sounded superb.  But, luckily for me, Mark Rigby is putting this on as an event this year.  

This promises to be a real test of self-sufficiency, as we ride through some exceptionally remote countryside.  We have ferries to contend with, very long stretches without food possibilities and we’re really on our own.  There is one organised stop where Mark has hired a hostel at around 800km – but other than that, we’re fending for ourselves.  Some people will use hostels and bunkhouses, and some are considering bivvies/tents.  It really will be an adventure, and I can not wait.  

We will get to see huge chunks of Scotland’s most beautiful roads.

I plan to take my time and enjoy this ride – I can’t see it being one to blast around as quickly as possible.

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I think this is possibly the most audacious event staged in the UK so far, and I think that anyone that completes this will have something to be very proud of.

I have yet to decide how I will tackle it – I think I will look at bunkhouses and carry a light sleeping bag.  I may also put a rack on the bike and either have a pannier for food etc., or just bungie dry bags to the rack.

It’s going to be amazing!

 

I am sure other things will happen this season as well.  I still plan to attempt our first long ride on the tandem (new tandem by then) as a PBP pre-registration banker – I’d like to do at least a 300, possibly a 400.

Whatever happens, I just hope I have as much fun as I did last season! 

 

So, you’re thinking about Paris Brest Paris 2015 then?

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Now the 2013 season is coming to an end and a lot of riders who are new to long-distance cycling have had a successful LEL (or even haven’t), there seems to be an upsurge in questions on riding PBP in 2015 on various fora and Facebook etc.

I’m no expert, having only ridden it once, but here’s a few of my hints and tips for those that are considering it.

Pre-qualification

There’s a lot of concern being raised that unless you ride at least a 1000km BRM event in the 2014 season, there is not a chance you will get a place on PBP.

So what is pre-qualification/registration?  Put simply, if you ride a BRM event in 2014, you will be able to pre-register for PBP earlier than someone who hasn’t ridden a BRM event in 2014.  The longer the event you have ridden, the earlier you can register (so someone who has ridden a 1000km event in 2014 will be able to register earlier than someone who has ridden a 400km event).

What does this mean practically?  Well, less stress really.

If you don’t have a 2014 BRM, then you will have to register when general registration opens – this, in 2011, was at midnight – in my case, the night before my first ever 600.  It wasn’t the preparation needed as I didn’t get much sleep!

In the end PBP 2011 did not sell out – I am sure many reasons exist for this, the economy probably being quite a big one for non-european riders.  PBP 2015 is having it’s capacity raised to between 6000 and 6500 riders.  Will it sell out?  I have no idea.

Besides being able to register early, riding a BRM event in 2014 is going to do no harm to your preparation, especially if you are new to distance cycling.

I don’t think it will be required at all, and certainly people panicking that they need to ride a 1000km BRM event in 2014 or they won’t get a place is just silly.  Don’t stretch yourself too far, build up sensibly.

I have a very keen interest in this, not for myself, but for my (by then) wife, who has expressed an interest in riding PBP on the tandem – so we’d like to ride at least a 300, maybe a 400 together in 2014 to see if we can do it.  I am more than confident that if we have a 300km BRM in 2014, she’ll be able to get a place.  I’m not worried and won’t be pushing her to ride any longer than needs be in the 2014 season.

For British riders – do make sure your intended events are BRM.  I think most 300km+ events next season will be run as BRM, so I don’t think it’s a drama, but do not assume that any ride will qualify (clearly, any DIYs or Perms can NOT be BRM, so are not going to help with pre-registration).

Qualification

Pre-registration is just early registration.  You still have to complete your qualification in 2015.  That is, you will need to ride a Super Randonneur series (SR) in the 2015 season – i.e. a 200, 300, 400 and 600km ride.  Again, that needs to be BRM (most rides will be in 2015), so DIYs/perms won’t count.

If you are new to distance riding, an SR builds your experience and confidence up nicely over the spring/summer as you approach PBP.

200km – a day ride. if you are riding 200s in January, there’s considerable night riding involved, so you get to develop your skills at that.

300km – a long day ride, a real taste of distance.  Again, there’s going to be some night riding in the sort of window you’ll be doing this distance in the run up to PBP (March-April).

400km – the first over-night riding and a real test of distance.  400km is further than you need to ride each day on PBP – so, crack this distance, and you’re there.  These will be ridden April-May in a PBP year.

600km – the big one.  Depending on the ride, this will usually split into a 350-400km, a sleep, and then a 200-250km second day.  The first day should hold no surprises for you now – you’ve done a 400.  What this does teach you is what it is like to get on the bike two days in a row, and a bit more about hygiene and looking after yourself on multi-day rides.

Once you’ve done your 2015 SR, you’re there!  You’ve qualified for PBP.

One of the pitfalls is backing off at this point (Mid May to mid June) and losing fitness etc. before PBP in August.  Keep riding!

Are you a Vedette or a Touriste?

PBP has 3 basic catagories that you need to choose from.  This is time based.  It also has an impact on your start times.  I will list how it was done in 2011 – however, they do fiddle about with start times, so there’s nothing to say that this is how it will be in 2015.  Anyone riding a Velo Speciale (bents, tandems etc.) will set off between the Vedettes and the Touristes.

Vedettes - the stars – 80 hours – this is the first group of riders off (mid-afternoon in 2011).  In this group you will have anyone who is ‘riding for a time’ – there will be the really fast riders (aiming for a finish in the 45 hour range), along with your faster Audax riders.  I am led to believe that certainly the first group on the road is a terrifying place to be as people jockey for position and start to work out who they can work with for the next 2 days.  A lot of the very fast riders will be supported and will be riding very minimal fast road bikes.

Touristes - after the special bikes have gone off, the 90 hour Touristes set off from late afternoon into the evening (around 9pm).  This is the largest group with the most time to complete the ride.  This is the one where most people will ride their first PBP – makes some sense for sure.  Being the largest group on the road, this is the one where over-crowding can be an issue and queues for food and beds can be a challenge.  I rode in this group in 2011 – we were one of the last away within this group (they set you off in blocks of around 500 riders), but by the evening of the next day, I had got ahead of the ‘bulge’ (you’ll hear about the bulge a lot!) and didn’t have any troubles with queues at all.

Randonneur - finally, the morning after the Touristes have gone, the 84 hour Randonneurs set off.  From what I understand, this is where the more experienced riders tend to be, certainly those that don’t want the cut and thrust of the Vedettes any way.

All three groups will intermingle as the ride progresses – I was into the back of Vedettes on the return leg, and the Randonneurs will catch up with the Touristes towards the end.

General advice is to go with the Touristes first time out, unless you are confident about your pace.  It’s the place to learn about how PBP works for sure.  I went with the Touristes, and even though I finished within a time that meant I could have ridden as a Vedette, I wouldn’t ever have dreamt of doing my first one as a Vedette as it was my first season of Audax, let alone PBP!

Travel arrangements

At some point, you will have to start to think about how you’re getting there, and where you might stay.  It’s really difficult as a novice.  You’re not even sure if you can ride the SR yet, and you have to think about hotels etc.

It is tricky.  I booked a hotel for the start and finish fairly early on – it was a risk, but I also thought if there was some money on the table, it would add a little further motivation!

In terms of how to get there – planes, trains, cars, organised coach, riding there – all options are valid.

I rode down and it was a blast.  I did it in a day last time, if I do it again, I (hopefully, we!) will do it over a couple of days and really tour down.  Large numbers of Brits do ride down, so it can be a very sociable couple of days with nice lunches etc.

Finally

If you are thinking about it – do it.  It was one of the best things I have ever done on a bike – for my experiences, see here - http://wp.me/pcAfK-1F

Don’t panic if you’ve never done anything long before.  I went from being able to just about ride a 100 mile ride to riding a 76 hour PBP in less than a year.

If you’re reading this in 2013/2014 – you’ve got plenty of time to gain the experiences needed to succeed.  Get your bike and equipment right, learn how to eat and drink and look after yourself on the road.

See you there!

Small Update – 22nd January 2014

Some initial information has been released by ACP.

The dates for PBP will be August 16th-20th (registration and bike checks on the 15th/16th)

The pre-registration dates, for those with BRM rides in 2014, are as follows:

1000km+ – 26th April 2015
600km – 3rd May 2015
400km – 10th May 2015
300km – 17th May 2015
200km – 24th May 2015

The proposed start times look pretty much the same as last time:

16:00 – Vedettes
18:00 – Touristes
05:00 (Monday) – Randonneurs

(I assume the the special bikes will leave between the Vedettes and Touristes again, but no confirmation of this in the document)

Control towns proposed to be the same as 2011 (but I hope that they don’t use the same control in Brest town centre!)

Further update with the English brochure - http://www.paris-brest-paris.org/en/download/PLAQUETTE-GB.pdf

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Super Randonnée Pyrenees 2013

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I’ve held off putting this on the blog as I had submitted it for inclusion in the Audax UK magazine – it has now been published in there, so here’s the gory details:

There’s also some Strava data here:

http://www.strava.com/activities/82386152

http://www.strava.com/activities/82386058

http://www.strava.com/activities/82391843

I’m not sure when I first read about Super Randonnées; but almost as soon as I did, I knew I had to ride one or more of them.

The concept of Super Randonnée (organised and validated by Audax Club Parisian) is a permanent event of 600km with a minimum of 10000 metres of ascent, but with a time limit of 50 hours with an additional hour per 500 metres of ascent (over 10000 metres).

There are currently 4 Super Randonnée available and one of the newest is the Pyrenean one. 2013 is the first season it has been available and I was due to be the 5th person to attempt it (of which 1 person had DNF’d). This ride was, on paper, the hardest Super Randonnée available, with a staggering 15000 metres of climbing giving it a time limit of 60 hours. The ride took in a huge number of climbs, some of them iconic sites of great battles from the history of the Tour de France, and some were very rarely visited by, well, anyone.

The organiser, Sophie, was very helpful with advice and updates from other riders as I began to prepare for the trip. More than any ride I have ever ridden, I needed to create a schedule and look at how to break the adventure up. This ride goes through some pretty sparsely populated areas and hotels can be few and far between, particularly in the Spanish sections.

I elected to ride in mid-September to round out a great season. There was a risk of poor weather, and watching the pros suffering horribly in the Vuelta d’Espagna only a couple of days before leaving, only added to the tension.

Theoretically, this was an easy ride to get to. It started and finished around 15km south of Lourdes, where Ryanair have flights twice a week from Stanstead.

I say theoretically. As I sat at the departure gate, I heard an announcement that no-one ever wants to hear. The words “flight”, “cancelled”, “French baggage handlers” and “strike” were all used during the course of the announcement.

Sheer bloody-mindedness is a trait that is almost compulsory to achieve anything in Audax, so no way was a spot strike going to stop me. If I didn’t ride now, it could well be June before I could attempt it again as winter is not far off up in the mountains. I discovered that the strike was only affecting Lourdes. So, looking at options, I found an EasyJet flight to Toulouse (having rejected a BA flight to Bairritz for £800!). From Toulouse, it would be around a 2 hour train journey to Lourdes. I would arrive around 12 hours later than planned, leaving little time for rebuilding the bike and generally acclimatising and so on; but I would get there!

As I boarded the coach to Gatwick, I met another person with the same exact plan, except Kit’s (a French student who studied in Edinburgh) father was driving up to Toulouse to give her a lift home. She offered me a lift, on the proviso that the bike box would fit in the car.

Fortunately, it did, and I found myself in Lourdes unpacking and rebuilding my bike in an Ibis hotel room that was barely large enough to lay the bike box down.

An early night and an early start to get down to the start town of Argelès-Gazost and I was off.

The ride started with one of the most iconic climbs of them all. Col du Tourmalet has been visited by the Tour de France a staggering 82 times so far (and is rumoured to be visited twice in the 2014 edition). The western approach of Tourmalet was devastated by the terrible floods in June. It was horrifying to see the damage for myself as I climbed through the town of Bareges. The road itself had been washed away in many places and the work to repair it seemed to involve just about every JCB and truck in France.

As the climb progresses, the writing starts to appear on the road; this is what I came for, I was pedalling on the shoulders of giants.

Tourmalet is a very long climb, but not exceptionally steep. Despite the sun coming up, it was very very cold at the top. My Garmin was reading 2 degrees, but the wind and being in the clouds made it very uncomfortable at the top. I had been advised that the café on top ‘probably’ opened at 9am, and I was very relieved to find that was true. I drank a coffee and ate a sandwich as I added some layers ready for the descent.

As I descended for the next 20km, I was amazed by the number of cyclists heading up to the top. It must be so busy in summer.

The ride went from an incredibly famous climb to one little travelled by anyone it seemed. Col de Sarrat de Gaye was superb and really whetted my appetite for the days ahead as I was now in some remote, picturesque mountainscapes.

The day progressed and I ticked off climb after climb including many well-known ones like Hourquette d’Ancizan, Col de Peyresourde and Col du Portillon into Spain. Whilst I felt pretty good, I was getting concerned about my progress. Day one was always going to be hard, but I had felt that 18 hours to cover 240km, even with over 6000m of climbing was going to be fine. I had to be at my hotel before midnight and my progress was just not quick enough. I had another 2000m pass (Port de la Bonaigua) to get across and I was getting concerned. Though, I did know that once I reached the top, I had 50 kilometres of descent to the town of Sort. I cautiously estimated that I would cover that 50km in under 2 hours, so I began to relax a little as I settled into the climb of Bonaigua. A very long climb, but not exceptionally steep.

It was very cold towards the top and I stopped to get my proof of passage (a photo of the summit sign) and put on extra layers for the long descent.

I love descending in the big mountains, and doing it at night was a real thrill. 70kph felt more like 1000! Clearly, there is a need for caution, there are many animals in the high mountains who will wander around the road without concern.

Once the main descent was over, I had around 20km of gradual downhill to the hotel. However, there was an issue, I was getting the dozies. Badly. Two mornings of being up at before 5am were taking their toll and I was really in a bad way. As I have got older and wiser, I have recognised just how dangerous the dozies are and know to stop immediately and get a power nap at minimum. However, even a 20 minute stop would put getting to the hotel in time in jeopardy. So, I had no choice, I had to push on or I would be sleeping out all night, and it was very cold indeed. I played every trick I knew, I pushed hard out of the saddle, I had some upbeat tunes on the iPod (Deadmau5 for the record) and I just about stayed awake.

I reached the hotel about 11:45 and, well, it was closed. No lights on. Well that was a blow.

There was a buzzer, I pressed it, I was worried I would be waking someone, but the website had said reception was open until midnight, and I really didn’t fancy sleeping outside on a very cold night, so I didn’t worry too much about disturbing someone’s sleep.

Luckily, I didn’t actually wake the young chap who answered the door and he was fine with sorting me out with my key etc.

It felt great to be in the warm after a very cold few hours in the dark. I was pretty soon asleep and got nearly 5 hours of fabulous sleep. It had honestly been one of the hardest days I have ever ridden on a bike. Just under 6800m of ascent in, roughly, the 190km to the top of Port de la Bonaigua!

Showered, rested and in clean gear, I set off into the chilly pre-dawn and got to enjoy a truly fabulous sunrise as I climbed up towards the village of Peremea. This section was really very beautiful and very remote, it was one of my favourite parts of the whole ride. I did, however, have an issue, breakfast.

Due to rushing to the hotel, I hadn’t eaten dinner and now I was riding through the middle of nowhere where the opportunities for food were minimal. I did have some cake snacks in the saddlebag, but I really wanted something more. Water was also becoming an issue.

I had to work my way over the climb of La Creu de Perves in ever warming temperatures without water. At least the sign at the top amused me, the reported altitude was 1334.9 metres. I had never seen a sign with such accuracy!

I finally made it to a town, where breakfast, coffee and a refill of bottles was all sorted. The 6 or so kilometres following the N-230 was the only part of the entire route where traffic was an issue. Sophie had noted it in the route sheet as being a road with lots of lorries and so on. It didn’t spoil the ride in any way at all, but it was a rude awakening after so many kilometres on roads with no traffic at all. It was actually the only section of the entire ride with anything like traffic, and even this was nothing like a UK main road as it had at least a metre of shoulder to ride on.

Though the climbs on my second day were not on the scale of the first day, I was enjoying them very much. The scenery was generally fantastic and the climbing much more enjoyable. I was also maybe relaxing into the ride a little more. I had had a very stressful trip over to France, the first day had been exceptionally hard. But now, I was getting into the flow of the ride and enjoying it far more. I always find, even on a regular 600, that it takes a day to shake off the stresses of everyday life and start appreciating the ride more and more.

It was also getting very warm indeed, and the day topped out in the high 20s, and that felt marvellous.

I reached the town of Benabarre and stopped for lunch, a huge plate of beans and sausage followed by rabbit with garlic sauce. It was superb and actually the first proper hot food I had eaten on the ride so far. Really set me up for the rest of the day.

I also noticed my back tyre was soft – looked like a slow puncture, so I gave it some air and hoped for the best (and it worked until the hotel that night with only one more top up).

If you thought the Buddhist temple at Eskdalemuir was remote, the one I passed in Panillo was something else! If you needed to get away and contemplate life, the universe, and everything, then 1000m up in the remote Spanish Pyrenees is a pretty good place for it. I was tempted to give it all up and go and live there; but I would probably have to give up the bike as well, so I stuck to meditating on the slopes of some amazing climbs.

The day’s schedule had me riding around 200km, and progress was quicker today due to the climbing being considerably gentler (though I was still climbing around 4000m in that 200km, so this was still a tougher day than most 200s in the UK). This put me at my hotel around 8 to 9 pm. It was going to be a bit odd as I’d have to be out of the door around 4am, but that’s the way it is.

The sun started to go down as I climbed through the fabulous water-sculpted shale landscape towards Los Molinos as I passed my last control of the day (a tourist information panel in the middle of nowhere).

I reached the hotel, checked in and enjoyed a good meal at the bar whilst I assessed my progress and worked out what time I had to leave and so on. Another good sleep and shower and I was off into the dark. Except I wasn’t.

The front door of the hotel was completely locked. I had a search around and found the garage and a magical side door that led to the outside world. I went and got my bike from the lobby and exited via this door. I was pretty relieved, I had visions of failing the ride due to not being able to get out of the place and I certainly didn’t fancy trying to find where the manager slept and waking them up at 4am!

It was surprisingly warm as I got going, which was a bit of a pain as I had been expecting the cold to be as it had been the previous night, so I had put on lots of layers. I was soon having to strip off and it was a very pleasant night for cycling.

The ride started with a climb up a huge gorge on a very narrow steep road. By the sound of the river below, the rain that had fallen a few days previously was still making it’s way to the sea.

I felt that I was missing out on some amazing scenery due to the darkness, but that is the way it is sometimes. I did stop a couple of times and marvel at the stars. Living in London, I don’t get to see them often!

The final day promised to be difficult, I had around 14 hours to cover 160km, but there were several hard climbs including two 1700m passes, one of which was Col d’Aubisque. I knew that the final 30km were primarily downhill, so was confident if I summitted Col d’Aubisque with a couple of hours to go I would be fine. So I hoped to be able to relax and enjoy the day.

The terrain had other ideas and before too long I was grovelling up the Col du Pourtalet to cross into France. This climb was the high point of the day and was really quite challenging by itself. With a strong headwind, it was very difficult and it was actually the first time I had to engage my bottom gear on the trip.

I was very relieved to reach the top and cross into France and enjoyed the huge descent down towards the base of Col d’Aubsique.

I stopped off in Eaux-Bonnes for a spot of light lunch before the climb. I was clearly back in the main cycling areas as there were groups of slickly dressed cyclists arriving in mini-buses to head off up the next climb they wanted to tick off. An interesting way to approach cycling, but if that’s what they wanted, then fair play to them. This trip had shown a side of the Pyrenees that they would never see and that is their loss. At this point, I would have happily swapped my steel Condor for one of their carbon creations with no luggage though!

The climb of Col d’Aubisque from Eaux-Bonnes was around 13km long with several sections with sustained 10% gradients. It was a very hard steep climb, but I felt okay. I was looking okay on time, I thought I would arrive at the finish with an hour or so in hand.

It was very warm on the lower slopes and it felt brilliant to be on another famous climb (though the more famous side of this Col is the other side I believe). As I climbed towards the top, the clouds closed in on me and it got considerably colder. I was very pleased to reach the summit and throw a jacket on. I took my photos of the control point and headed to the café at the top for a quick coffee and Orangina. There was a roaring fire in the place, and it felt lovely and warm after the cold. Made me realise that they really are very close to winter already and the contrast to the Spanish foothills and high 20s was quite amazing.

The descent to the foot of Col du Soulor (a tiny little 200m bump from this direction) was amazing, it is a view I won’t forget, with the clouds hanging over the thin string of a road that clings to the side of the mountains. Down, down, down, up Soulor. I was there! I had 20km to go and it was all downhill.

I cruised down the last section, and reached the sign at the entrance to Argelès-Gazost, which was my final control. 59 hours ago I had been at the exit sign on the other side of town. Since then I had tackled some of the toughest cycling I had ever done.

There were plenty of cyclists milling around Argelès-Gazost, and it does look like a great town to base yourself as you are in striking distance of many great climbs such as those I had done and others (including Hautacam, Col d’Aspin and more).

I didn’t stop for long. I wanted to get to the hotel, have a look around Lourdes, eat and then pack the bike up. So, 15km back along a superb Voie Verte and I was back to Lourdes, where I cleaned up and went to explore the town a little (see the grotto and the shops full of devotional items of tat).

This trip was a superb 4 days away from home. The stress of the travel at the start was worth it. This ride was a very special adventure that was completely different to most other 600s.

In some ways, I had under-estimated it. I knew it would be hard, but maybe not quite how hard climbing for sustained periods of time really is. I’d ridden some very tough events this year (the Wessex SR and the Pendle 600 amongst others), so I was expecting it to be a similar level of challenge with slightly less stress about time. The ride was exceptionally difficult. Very little can prepare you for climbing for an hour plus (up to 2 hours at times), descending for half an hour, climbing for an hour plus, descending for half an hour and repeat until bedtime. I struggled at times and had some concerns about whether I would finish the ride.

On the other hand, the time pressures one feels on a hilly 600 in the UK were not there. I stopped for two decent sleep stops with about 6-7 hours in a hotel. I was able to stop and take photos when I wanted, I didn’t spend as much time enjoying the local cuisine as I would have liked, but that was partly due to the lack of facilities.

I can highly recommend this ride, and I am sure the other three Super Randonnée are equally superb. Sophie says this and the Dauphiné Gratiné are the two hardest rides of the series.

Each of the rides can be ridden either as a Randonneur, or a Touriste. The Touriste requirement is to ride at least 80km a day. As I rode around this region, I did think that it would make a great route for a 5 or6 day tour, and am considering it as an option on the tandem with Cass.

This ride has a fairly short window for riding it each year – the high passes will not be passable until late May/early June and the weather by October will cause the pass to potentially close by then. Even if the passes aren’t closed, I wouldn’t want to be going over them in the early morning/night-time cold within a couple of weeks from when I did.

Preparation is key. In the high summer, you could certainly sleep out in a bivvy bag and this would enable some flexibility to plans. But, if you are soft like me, and want a proper bed, then hotels need to be planned in advance. The split I chose worked well, I missed some great scenery on the last morning, but that was unavoidable I think. I would have only ended up climbing up the gorge at night anyway.

If you fancy something very different to a standard UK 600, and a real adventure then I suggest you explore one or more of these magnificent routes and book a flight over the Channel to go and hit the hills. They are very special rides that will give a sense of achievement unlike any UK 600 (even something like the Pendle, the hilliest 600 put on in the UK, so far). They will test any rider with a very different demand on your body compared to a UK ride with generally choppy up and down characteristics. But they are very achievable and even allow for a proper night’s sleep. They are not to be rushed, but to be savoured. They will show you views that will take your breath away.

Whether you tackle them as a Randonneur or a Touriste, they will reward you throughout the ride and give you a warm glow for days afterwards (and not just from your sore knees!).

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The Audax season is over!

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The 2012-13 season is just about over in the UK.  It’s been a great season personally, and for Audax in general, very successful it seems with a marvellous array of events including a very well-received LEL.  There have been some amazing performances and records have been broken both in the tandem and AAA championships.

I’ve had a very successful season, my third and biggest season to date.  I end the season with (probably, see below) 77 points and 47 AAA points.  This is very pleasing.

I am not sure if the Super Randonnee will count for AUK points, but that adds 6 more points and 15 AAA if it is accepted.

Quick recap of the season in number of events:

200km (11)

ECE+Mid Sussex Olympic Hiller

Upper Thames

Dinner Dart

Dinner Dart return

South Bucks Winter Warmer

The Willy Warmer snow cancelled version

ECE to the Kennet Valley 100

Dorset Coast

Ditchling Devil Perm

DIY 200 around AAAnfractuous

Ditchling Devil Perm

300km(3)

DIY 300 to Wiltshire

Hard Boiled

Baldock 300

400km(2)

DIY 400 to Lincolnshire

Porkers

600km(5)

ECE to Green & Yellow Fields

Bryan Chapman Memorial

Brimstone

Pendle

Pyrenean Super Randonnee

Longer(1)

London-Edinburgh-London 1400

It was a lot of fun. I’ve seen parts of the country I have never seen before, I have returned to some parts I do know.  I’ve met many great people and strengthened friendships with many people I’ve got to know better.

Next year will be different for a whole load of reasons – I am looking forward to it enormously.

Super Randonnée Pyrenees – the short version

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I did it!

There will not be a full blog report on this ride for a little while.  As I was the first British rider to attempt one of these rides, I hope to drum up some interest in tackling these adventures with an article in Arrivée (the AUK quarterly magazine).  If that gets published, I will put up a copy here.

The short version is that it was an amazing adventure (involving striking baggage handlers trying to spoil the trip).  I rode so many legendary climbs and many less-travelled ones (that were in many ways more enjoyable).

These rides are a significant test.  The first day was one of the hardest I have ever had on a bike.  I climbed around 6700 metres in only 190km!  It hurt.

Very chuffed to have completed the ride.

Here are a couple of photos of the two climbs that bookend the ride:

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