The Cent Cols Challenge is the stuff of cyclist’s dreams – and their worst nightmares. Claud the Butler was on hand to provide lunch – and bear witness to the glory and the suffering – over two back to back challenges in the Pyrenees this September. This is Claud’s story…
Burden of Dreams
We set out in the still darkness before dawn on a late August weekday and head for the Pyrenees. Claud, our Citroen HY van, is ladened with all that we’ll need for just over a month on the road. In the half-light of early morning a pair of tiny black birds swoop down in front of his bonnet.
By first light we’re on the Poole to Cherbourg ferry, tucking into scrambled eggs, beans and toast with lashings of tea … We’ve removed a bat, sadly lifeless, from Claud’s radiator grill. I check the French translation for bat and find that it’s ‘chauve-souris’ – which translated back literally means ‘bald mouse’. We’ve also left Misty, next-door’s-rabbit stuck under a gooseberry bush – and discovered that we can barely hear our shiny new i-pod with our entire merged music library on it because Claud’s cab is so NOISY…
We’re off on the first leg of our journey into the unknown…
I am reading a book full of references to myths and legends as we chug across to Cherbourg. This chapter is all about Hercules and his labours, and right there, at the end of it, is this little gem:
“The faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting…So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing… TS Eliot. East Coker.
Expectations are high. We travel in hope.
We travelled a grand 520km in total from Frome yesterday. We finally reach Amboise to find hot air balloons rising over a many-arched stone bridge, like so many castles in the air. We cross over into the heart of the mediaeval town, glowing in the early evening sunlight, and marvel at the ‘French-ness’ of it all. But the more practical issue of finding a parking spot takes over from admiring the view or soaking up the ambience. Lee takes control and veers out of town towards ‘camping-car’ parking, a thoroughly prosaic concrete yard. In such a busy town it’s a good call, safer too, but god knows where the hotel is – a long walk with bags beckons…
On the road once more, we emerge from a misty, mystical sunrise over what can only be described as ‘god’s own country’ to out-of-town grimness that wouldn’t look out of place in ‘Somewheresville’, middle America, with its dismal offering of fast food outlets, vast warehouses and endless concrete car parks. Parts of France seem to have lost their soul. Thank god there’s still plenty more closer to heaven. My pain-au-raisin, artisan made and bought at 7.30am on a Sunday morning from a sweet-smelling village boulangerie, more than proves my point – and allays my fears.
We take the M62 from Agen straight to Perpignan, with a drive-past at Chenonceaux in all it’s fairy-tale castle perfection. We’re in Rivesaltes’ ‘Hotel des Vignes’ by three thirty in the afternoon. Which is when we meet up with Andy the mechanic and discover that a whole box of bike tools has been left behind in Claud’s lock-up. Lee ‘fesses up. Andy takes the news remarkably well. By five we’ve met the riders too, all sitting facing each other in a circle in the hotel’s deserted ball room. We introduce ourselves and move swiftly on. Phil gives a thorough pre-tour briefing, including a mini ‘descent’ masterclass, where I discover that everything I’ve ever done on a bike downhill is wrong. Things pick up considerably with an evening meal in a local ‘cave du vin’. The entire ‘Cent Cols’ family for the next ten days sit down to wonderful food and locally produced Muscat. Candles light up the table. There is an air of quiet contemplation of the days ahead. Phil tells of his exploits on the Paris-Brest-Paris ride, that he completed in just a whisker over sixty hours, less than a week ago. There are tales of men asleep on cardboard in urinals, unconscious with lack of sleep, other men leaning to pee over them. He also tells of his terrifying brush with sleeplessness-induced psychosis, ‘we were riding through a forest in the dead of night when I became aware that the trees were closing in on me, actually coming to get me….Another of my friends was chased by an imaginary wolf.’ Tricks of the mind. Claire, Phil’s wife, tells me that throughout his sixty-hour ordeal she had the sense of sleeping for him, an incredible tiredness that wouldn’t leave her until the race was over.
Stage One, Tour I. Rivesaltes to Ax-les-Thermes
Monday, 29th August, 2011
203km, 4,400m of climbing
Cols: 13: Bataille, Grau de Maury, Tribi, Croix Dessus, Gres, Linas, St Louis, Camperie (E), Pailheres (E), Pradel, 7 Freres, Marmare, Chioula
We’re washed, up and at ‘em by six thirty am. Silent riders graze through breakfast at the hotel with the precision of an army off to war. This is fuel, not food. Mistakes at the breakfast table – too much, too little, too much of the wrong stuff – can have serious consequences later in the day. Caffeine is high on everyone’s list. They are poised and purposeful. Phil leads them for a quick photo-op in front of Rivesaltes Mairie, there’s a cacophony of clipping-in, and then they’re gone. Next we’ll see of them is lunch at a location one hundred kilometres and eight cols away. Claud sees them off and then we’re in a race of our own – a daily race against time.
We fly out of Rivesaltes, our garmin bleeping happily away as we locate an artisan boulanger along the way. By eight in the morning loaves of every shape and size line mirrored shelves. I leave with eight loaves of straight-from-the-oven bread, pain de compagne, pain complet and a basket full of baguettes. The smell is heavenly. A little everyday miracle.. Next on to Carrefour for the first of many dashes along food aisles, years of bringing up my own family making it an almost unconscious ritual of my own, even in unfamiliar terrain. Being the big sister of four sports-mad younger brothers can stand you in good stead for all kinds of life events as it turns out. Baskets full of fresh ingredients pile into Claud, the scent of the still-warm loaves wafts into our cab and we fly along through fields of ripening vines to find our first lunchstop. We pick a riverside location, spark up the coffee machine, and attempt ‘Salade Nicoise’ for twenty or so. Eggs are boiling, ditto baby potatoes and green beans, when suddenly the first cyclists appear for lunch – at 11.45am. I imagine myself in some kind of reality TV show. Somewhere in my head I had planned on at least another twenty minutes or so prep time. Luckily I have ‘back-up’. Out comes the bread, cheese, ham and olives. Stuff to keep them going. Slowly the salad takes shape and disappears into hungry (but not ravenous…) mouths. It’s ‘head-down’ mental. Phil offers to peel eggs. Luckily it tastes and looks good and everyone seems happy – except the owner of a riverside canoe park who claims to own the car park and emerges to do battle. Phil’s diplomatic skills disarm the situation – and even secure a place for us when we come this way again on Tour II. Nifty. As quickly as it began lunch is suddenly all over. We reel from the speed of it, pack Claud up in the early afternoon heat and by two o’clock we’re back on the road again, heading for our ‘hotel du jour’ at Ax-les-Thermes, some one hundred or so kilometres further on. Phil has given us a route that takes us via main roads, but Lee’s garmin knows better – so up the ‘Port de Pailheres’ we go…
The gradient starts to ramp up pretty early on. There are massive drops to the right all the way up the ‘Gorges de Georges’ with cascading rivers and spectacular rocky outcrops as standard. But then it ramps up some more and ‘Claud’ digs deep – and then deeper. I am, by this stage, beginning to palpitate. The drops are staggering, I’m in a thirty-something year old vehicle, which creaks and groans as he heaves five hundred weight of equipment – and a two lever coffee machine – up 12% switchbacks. We’re the ‘Fitzcarraldos’ of coffee. Werner Herzog made an incredible art-house movie about a character hell bent on taking opera up the Amazon on a paddle steamer. Not even detours over mountains could halt his progress. It features the messianic Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo. A documentary about the making of the film is called ‘Burden of Dreams’ and explains the relationship between the director and his leading man. Lee and I are massive ‘Herzog’ fans, we’re loving the analogy. This is a ‘folie de grandeur’ as the French would call it without a shred of irony. I attempt to focus on the positive. We pass sturdy palamino horses, follow lone cyclists on their limb-sapping ascents, buff coloured cows raise their heavy, bell ladened heads as we rumble by… I am acutely aware of clenched knuckles and clammy palms clutching the door handle of the reassuringly-named ‘suicide doors’. This is a death-wish scenario. ‘When we get home I’m contacting the Vicarage Tea Party Association…’ I manage through gritted teeth. Cycling for softies this is not.
Eventually we wind down off the mountain, Lee pumping away at ancient drum brakes as we go. We pass more stunning scenery, pass empty ski-stations and arrive at the mountain-bound town of Ax-les-Thermes to set up a ‘pique-nique’ in front of the hotel and wait to greet the riders back from hell… Dinner that night is a sombre affair. I sit opposite Nick, who is best described as sick-as-a-dog. We hit on a magic formula of cups of English tea (hastily retrieved from Claud) as a way to stave off his extreme dehydration and the disorientation that comes with it. Jeff the medic hovers in the wings should things take a turn for the worse. Luckily ‘magic tea’ seems to cure a host of ills. Washed down by a pint. Not a conventional approach, granted, but the Cent Cols Challenge is by no means a conventional experience in any way. Our four Aussie surgeons/oncologists (Ian, Rick, Rob and David) have taken a forty kilometre detour earlier in the day and win a well-deserved ‘Lanterne Rouge’ cap each for their efforts. The ‘Team Meeting’ for the day takes place after dinner. Phil is concerned that we laid on too much food at lunchtime, ‘you don’t want to spoil them too early on, ‘cos their bodies will be ravenous later in the week and they’ll be screaming for food…’ Keep it simple is the message. One salad, one protein, plenty of bread, ca suffit. Army catering called for. Forget the cupcakes…
Stage Two, Tour 1. Ax-les-Thermes to Bagneres de Luchon
Tuesday 30th August, 2011
218km, 5,300m of climbing.
Cols 11: Port, Caugnous, Peguerre, Portel, Crouzette, Rille, Portet, Portet d’Aspet (E), Buret, Ares, Port de Bales.
A nice easy climb this morning up the Col de Port for Claud. Lee drives like a trooper. Lunch on board already. We’re aiming for Castillons en Couserans today. Little flickers of red light on the dashboard make us nervous. It’s a sunshine beautiful morning in the mountains.
It’s 8.50am as I write, high in the Pyrenees. It’s a perfect, clear day. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful, wispy clouds below mountain peaks make it appear Avalon-like. We pass a tiny stone cottage, two ancient seats outside, perched on the edge of the world – and imagine how it must be to wake up to this every morning… On we go, past the turn-off that the riders will take up the Col de Peguerre with its’ four kilometres of eighteen-percent switchbacks. Their ascent into l’enfer.
Stage Three, Tour I. Bagneres de Luchon to Argeles Gazost
Wednesday 31st August 2011
188km, 4,900m of climbing
Cols 9: Peyresourde (E), Aspin, Beyrede, Coupe, Crt. D’Asque, Palomieres, Couret, Lingous, Tramassel.
At this point my journals begin to re-cap the events of the previous day before dealing with the ‘here and now’…
and sometimes the other way round!
A day of mixed fortunes for ‘Team Claud’ yesterday. Lunch was a triumph (even though I say so myself) – we arrived, found a perfect spot by a river overlooking meadows. We laid our tables and benches out over a little footbridge – which happened to be located just below the house of a sports journalist – who popped down for a chat and a quick interview with Phil…
We put out a massive cous-cous salad, fresh crusty bread and a selection of cheeses. All went well – except for lack of power for the coffee grinder. The little red light on the dash was definitely telling us something ‘battery’ related. The question is which battery – Claud has one in his engine and another ‘slave’ one to run all the electrics in his ‘kitchen’. The loss of the ‘slave’ we can work around, the loss of the main one would have ‘consequences’. We put it to the back of our minds and keep the faith, promising to search out a garage just as we have time to stop. Phil was stressing about ‘back marking’ at lunchtime. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but what he wanted was for us to sling everything in the van after lunch and follow the slowest cyclists over mountains. Lee isn’t so sure this is what is required. He sits down, briefly, to eat lunch, whilst I grab some cheese and a couple of slices of bread standing up – and begin to wash up our eco-friendly melamine picnic plates, cups, cutlery and cooking stuff. It takes over an hour and a half to finally pack everything back into Claud. We set off, stopping to snip arrows off telegraph poles along the way. Spirits are high as we pass the white marble ‘Cassartelli’ monument, which commemorates the spot where the Italian cyclist died of head injuries on the Tour de France in 1997. His demise marked the compulsory wearing of head gear…A sobering thought, especially for our riders making their 75kph descents off the mountain. I take photos of a particularly lovely shrine to the Virgin Mary and we stop to shop at Intermarche for the next day before arriving at the Hotel Majestic to Siberia.
Lee is oblivious, but I know the second I step from the cab. ‘Where did you get to?’ asks Phil. He had been waiting for us in a café after lunch to hand over the reins of ‘back-marking’. The Team Meeting later that evening is a meltdown of recrimination. Phil calls us ‘the weakest link’ in front of everyone, Clare and Andy share a private joke, Jeff the medic looks smug, as well he might – earlier Lee had tried to make him do the washing up… All I can think is ‘Get me out of here…’. We had worked, non-stop, from 6.00am that morning. OK, Lee had a plate of salad and a sit-down, I had two slices of bread and cheese, standing up. ‘Lunch?’ Phil storms, ‘you don’t have time for lunch…’ The daily scenario dawns on me, rise at six am., pack, wash up in the shower for twenty, set off at 7.30am, after a gulp of coffee and a mini-croissant, to find a lunch stop up a mountain or three. Forget lunch. Continue to work until ten thirty at night. Fall asleep, repeat times twenty… ‘This is hardcore’, he rages. Like we are under any illusions… Claire, the medic and Andy shuffle off to bed, we stay with Phil.
At this point I decide to be very quiet indeed. This is the stuff of the headmaster’s office. As the daughter of a headmaster I know the drill. Phil turns to Lee. I wait, anticipating the worst, and then Lee speaks, ‘Look Phil, we signed up to provide lunch, to avoid mountains wherever possible…your problem is the medic, he’s dead wood, isn’t he?’ I hold my breath. It’s audacious and unexpected. Phil takes a deep breath, ‘You’re right, Lee. You’re right, between you and I. When the big accidents happened last year we called ambulances. The medics couldn’t help – and were nowhere near. They’re all unpaid volunteers, doing charity rides mostly…’ The men are speaking the same language. Phil and Lee chat like old friends. We head up to our room shattered, but here to see this through…
The next morning finds us up at 6.00am, washing up and grinding coffee for the day in the Mazzer grinder that Lee now has to go and fetch from Claud until we can fix the battery issue. I head downstairs for a gulp of brown brew and a mouthful of croissant. . Just before we leave the medic comes over to admire Claud’s bodywork. He kicks the tyres in a genial kind of way.
We’re on the road now – heading for Bagneres de Bigore to find bread, then off up the Col de Palomieres to cook lunch. It’s 9.15am and we’re nearly there now… The weakest link? I hardly think so.. Let’s hope for better today, dear Virgin Mary, Holy Mother of God and all the angels… 9.20am and I look up from my urgent scribbling to look around and see mountains, beautiful, lush green mountains all around.
Stage Four, Tour 1. Argeles to Logi Bar [nr Larrau]
Thursday 1st September 2011
Distance: 180k, 4,500m of climbing
Cols 15: Spandeles, Tisnes, Hosse, Porteigt, Marie Blanque, Ichere, Lie, Labys, Guilhers, Soudet, Souscousse, Ste Gracie, Lateillarde, Hourcere, Sustary.
Every night Phil gives the riders a briefing on what to expect the following day in the mountains. He remembers details of each climb in photographic detail. He has also perfected the fine art of understatement, with much talk of ‘intimate climbs’, ‘bumpy’ terrain and the like. It’s impressive – and equally terrifying for the riders – whose only get-out clause is to jump in a Team Car if the pain gets too much to bear. Injuries are rife already as bodies protest at what they are being asked to do. But they’re in good spirits – a robust mix of Aussies and Northerners, these guys (and one rather wonderful woman) are spirited, hilarious and tough in equal measure. Their thanks each day at lunch is more than enough to keep me focused on what really matters here… I am reminded of a production I once saw of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’, Fiona Shaw in the lead role, pulling her caravan round the stage at the Olivier Theatre, catering in a war zone.
Yesterday, hopefully, a real turning point in terms of ‘getting it together’. Claud’s lunchstop on top of the Col de Palomieres, with it’s cliff-edge views out over the Pyrenean foothills, was perfect. We cooked enough rice for a small army, made water boil by sheer force of our combined will-power, and by the time Claire arrived at 11.30am the whole ‘buffet’ was on the Claud table, as it were…
The riders had a bit of a day of it. ‘Day Three blues’ were kicking in savagely. Three cyclists veered off course today, Dene is post-viral sick, and Nick isn’t so clever, either. Dave Mayes is pulling out with an angry Achilles. He hobbles grimly round the top of the Palomieres, trying to keep the working parts of his ankle moving. David Grimes arrives in the medic-mobile. Gerald, our lone Frenchman, is loving the cheese. Everyone else seems to be coping in their own way. Claire arrives with two enormous artisan cheeses, made in a farm up the road, together with a sort of giant hand-made blueberry muffin.
We’re the ones waiting for riders today – Greg, who got lost, is arriving by car…there’ll be a late lunch for three or four of the riders today. Andy the mechanic is stressed as his new van is finding hare-ing round the mountains not entirely to its liking – it’s overheating and generally grumbling… Lee and I look smugly at ‘our’ Claud. What a boy! Every inch the proud parents… We have everything in place today – all the little touches that make lunch tick over nicely – we have a table for plates and cutlery, now we’ve added a ten litre bottle of water with its own tap, handwash, napkins, and sea salt. Cyclists consume huge amounts salt, I discover…The barista coffees and organic teas are going well, cokes and oranginas have been added to the offer on account of the heat. We even have music – not that this scenery needs a backdrop. Even Piaf herself couldn’t improve this…
I set out determined to wash up before we break camp. There is nothing grimmer than washing up dirty plates in a hotel shower. Guide camp training kicks in, ‘I was a Queen’s Guide y’know, I tell Lee. ’Badges for everything, me…’ Funny how stuff like that resonates even though it was well over thirty years ago since we lit camp fires, sang songs, toasted marshmallows – and washed up in buckets. I’m washing up with the Pyrenees as a backdrop on a bier keller table. Lee has ‘a little look under the bonnet…’. Car parts are scattered all over the place, Claud’s innards all alarmingly on display. I keep my eyes on the horizon and grimly plough on through.
Because of cyclists veering ‘off piste’ arrows have been left behind. Lee and I get the gig. Back we go, twenty kilometres or so through what we decide is a ‘Welsh’ valley – rolling green hills, artisan activity at every twist and turn of the ‘rue’ and little hand made notices that entice passers-by with home-made bread, pasta, jam and ‘poterie’ to put them in. It’s a beautiful sunny day for a detour, I leap down and snip plastic ties, hop back up into the cabin and off we go …
We finally make it back to Argeles by 6.50pm, just in time to see Phil, Greg and Rob swoop back from the top of the Hautacam. Their faces are full of the joy of descent. ‘I know that feeling’, says Lee, wistfully. He wishes Jonah, his life-long cycling buddy here. Perhaps the first time I get a glimmer of what makes these men, and Lindy, put themselves through the agony of relentless Col climbing. It must be for moments like these. We just have time for a shower, five minutes lie down – how good that feels after a day on your feet – and then down to dinner.
Claire sits next to me tonight for the first time. It’s slightly awkward at first, both of us hesitant – and then she tells me about her three children, all grown up now – who she couldn’t see for ten years. And the daughter she ‘lost’, who has returned to live with her, along with her three year old child – Claire’s grandson, ‘we’re making up for what we lost…’ I miss my daughter too. We have common ground.
The ‘Hotel Soleil-Levant’ is funny, quirky and comfortable – and what the staff lack in charm the comfort of the rooms makes up for. The evening is lifted by a brief moment I have as I head back to our room to grab maps for the Team Meeting. A semi-circle of male Basque singers are entertaining a group of tourists in the lobby. The close harmonies swell and I pause momentarily on the stairs to feel the sounds soothe my soul. Musical medicine. Tonights ‘Team Meeting’ is a blast.
The next morning finds us up at six am., heading out from Argeles Gazost via Lourdes. Lee grinds coffee in the hotel room before we leave. A ‘screw’ has come lose from the machine…we search the floor of the hotel bedroom on our hands and knees. No joy. ‘Maybe it’s in the beans?’, says Lee.
Stage Five, Tour 1. Logi-Bar [nr Larrau] to Orleon St Marie
Friday 2nd September 2011
Distance: 203km, 4,800metres of climbing
Cols 18: Soudet, Pierre St Martin, Couma Longa, Errayzeko, alto de Lazar, Port Larrau, Erroymendi, Bargargui, Orgambidesca, Heguichoruria, Burdincurutcheta, Haltza, Landerre,Aphanize, Lecharnia, Burdinolatze, Inharpu, Ibraburia.
9.40am. Through woods now –full of gun-slinging gamekeepers, fishermen in waders and a lone mushroom picker, basket in hand. Last night’s rain still hanging in the air as we head for the foot of the Marie Blanque and lunch…
We find another ‘perfect’ lunch venue – a riverbank with a little footbridge over to a bank with a waterfall, moss, ferns, tall trees and the half-light of sunshine.
We set up the ‘Claud’ cookhouse and make pasta, avocado, tomato and basil salad, Pyrenean cheese and big chunks of watermelon. The ‘Aussies’ arrive first, clearly well over their collective jet-lag by now, buzzing like boisterous schoolboys. Andy, the bike shop owner from up North, is having a bad day, and cycles right past lunch ‘in a dark place…’.
In the afternoon we head to relieve Claire on the afternoon feedstop. She’s worried about arrowing and shoots off as we arrive. The constant need to be a hundred paces ahead of riders at all times makes the arrowing a lonely and constantly pressured task. Not easy. We sit in the sun, listen to ‘Claud’ tunes and Lee even paddles in the river that runs beside us. It’s a full forty minutes before the riders arrive. A rare moment of relaxation. Feed stop over, we pack up once again and head for the ‘Logibar’ that Phil has warned us is the ‘no-frills’ stopover of the tour.
We are deep into the Pyrenees now. The Logibar is snuggled in a gorge, at the foot of endless peaks and is a walkers’ paradise. We sit and wait for the riders to arrive. Greg and Dene make it first, radiating that cycling-induced endorphin glow that I’m beginning to see glimpses of. Others follow hard on their heels and Andy Belfrage, our ace team mechanic, sets up an impromptu ‘cycle-workshop’ for bikes that are beginning to show the strain. The boys will share bunkhouses tonight, but we are shown to a tiny, but perfect little room for two, full of simple, homespun charm. We have a great evening meal with everyone out under a star-lit canopy, cracking jokes and telling tales of derring-do over big plates full of home-cooked food. Lindy applies a nightly bag of ice to her troublesome knee. The late night meeting is fraught with ‘logistics’. Lunch needs to be at the top of the ‘Col de Bargargui’ – (or the Col de Buggery, as renamed after a early edition of the etape du tour). It boasts over nine kilometres of relentless 10% climbing – so Claud has absolutely no chance of making it without monumental engine effort –and possibly disaster. We hatch a plan. Tomorrow we’ll prepare our first ‘Claud the Butler’ take-away and the rest of the team will deliver it to the mountaintop. Perfect.
We wake at 7.00am this morning – a lie in!!. Within minutes Lee has fetched the coffee grinder to do his daily grind. Thirty seconds after he switches on there’s a nasty noise and the whole process comes to a halt. He looks on helplessly, close to tears. £500 of Mazzer coffee grinder hangs in the balance. ‘The screw was in the beans, babe…’ We go for breakfast. Greg and Dene are still there at 8.00am. Everyone else has headed for the hills. When we get back to our room Lee puts his ‘engineer’ head on, unscrews metal plates and there – sho’ nuff – is the screw, firmly wedged in the grinding burrs.
I go to get lunch on the go. Lee rolls up his sleeves – eh, voila…the screw comes loose. The grinder works once more. Deep breaths are taken and we move swiftly on …
I put together a huge potato salad, smothered in lemon juice, olive oil and scattered with chopped parsley. To go with there is a tomato, fennel and basil dish, twenty four hard boiled local eggs, half a huge ‘artisan’ cheese and half a dozen ‘Logibar’ baguettes. Crème caramel pots to finish. All packaged up and ready to head up the mountain. Claire does the honours, Andy mans the stop. We head for the base of the ‘Col de Buggery’ to man a water stop. The village of Larrau at the top of the pass is one for the guide books. Here I will return. No question. We stop riders in their tracks and fill water bottles to prepare them for the blistering ascent. They’ve already been into Spain and back this morning – and rumours are beginning to circulate that Greg and Dene are adrift, some 40k off route…
We pack up date and oat wraps and head for the afternoon feedstop near a tiny village called ‘Mendy’ or ‘Mendi’, depending on whether you’re Basque or not. The French and Spanish borders are so close at this point that road signs are in both languages, or dialects. The two languages melding into each other; my ‘Parisian’ French often causes looks of blank incomprehension in these remote villages. The drive is nice…no rush. Claud’s engine as solid and reliable as the first moment we heard it. We find another little spot, backdrop of the Pyrenean mountains as standard. In no time at all we have a pop-up café, we have music, a spread of sweet and sticky stuff – and a sultry summer heat with storm clouds gathering in the fields not half a mile away. Up go the gazebos. The riders are in some disarray. Dave Billington has packed – and is remarkably chilled and sanguine about it, ‘just not my day…’ he says – Justin has huge boils on his bum. Jeff ‘s knee is giving him gyp (but on the up-side his stomach is now co-operating…) Nick has made an incredible turn-around from dribbling, tea-drinking zombie to pretty-darned-accomplished-rider. Ian the Aussie is really building up a head of steam, Rob is rather disillusioned with the whole thing, Rick is the strong, silent type – but with a way of looking over his horn-rims that suggests all is just hunky-dory, thank you. Gerald is speechless with exhaustion, but is never short of a smile. And Mark and Lindy are incredibly laid back, focused, modest and lovely as ever – even though Lindy’s knee with it’s random floating nodule, must be agony. Greg and Dene – potentially by far and away the most talented riders here – are lost, last heard of heading for Madrid. ..
They all feed and water at our stop and head on back to base through an electric thunder storm… ‘Watch out on that steel bike…’ shouts some wag to Mark, who grins through the gathering heat. ‘No worries, I’ll take it for the team…,’ he calls back, quicker than lightening. We catch the tail end of it – rain clatters down on Claud’s roof- it’s like being in a tin of beans. But the route is rolling, bucolic woodland – and mercifully he doesn’t leak. It’s been a long old day of it…
We reach ‘Hotel Alysson’ in Oloron past seven o’clock and don’t emerge for dinner until eight thirty. I’m way beyond knackered. But the hotel room is spacious, the bathroom well-appointed and pool-views come as standard. Not a bad place for a ‘Rest Day’ as it happens… The food here is delicious. I have never eaten ‘nougat souffle’ before, but it is sublime. Andy suggests a bottle of ‘red sancerre’ and we happily concur – dinner is a blast and we’re floating on a cloud of exhaustion and happiness by the end of it. We’re a great team – and the riders are heroes of the open road. Chapeau to us all…
Next Day… An Official Day of Rest
Hotel Alysson, Oloron Sainte Marie
Saturday 3rd September 2011
view our snapshots of the story so far whilst you’ve got time! ps click image to scroll thru or wait…
Jeff the medic ends his tour of duty today. Lee the new medic arrives. Jeff was a tall, slender elegant man with a bald head and a Harley Street ‘Weight-Loss’ clinic. Lee, by way of contrast, is a gap-toothed Geordie with the build of a prop-row- forward gone to seed, and is fresh off the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The ‘day of rest’ turns out to be rather a misnomer for most of us. We breakfast with Mark, Lindy and Gerald. As usual the breakfast room has been routed by the early risers, and we scrabble around to find cups for coffee and spare croissants amongst the debris… Phil appears, stressing about almost everything in his ‘strict parent’ fashion. We take the hint, make sure that we no longer view this as a ‘day off’, miss our lunch date with Nick, and head for Carrefour. We clear ‘Claud’s insides up too. And wash up in our bathroom from the day before. At four pm we have an ‘accounts’ meeting. The average spend for lunch over the past five days is well within budget. Excellent . Everybody’s happy.
The cyclists spend their day flitting about with laundry, cleaning bikes, stretching seized-up limbs and rubbing their thighs with tennis balls…I get a call from my son. All well with my grown-up children, barring turbulent love lives. Home seems a very long way away.
Team CCC are heading up the Tourmalet and the Soulor tomorrow. I have actually cycled up the Soulor myself, on a 100k ride from Pau a couple of years back. For these guys it’s just one col of many. These riders are indeed ‘hardcore’. We’re early to our rooms tonight, another wonderful ‘Hotel Alysson’ meal inside us. We’ll be up at six fifteen tomorrow, looking down the barrel of a 95km race to lunch. The LED lights that run off Claud’s ‘slave battery’ died tonight. Fingers well crossed for tomorrow.
Stage Six, Tour 1. Oloron to St Lary Soulan
Sunday 4th September 2011
Distance 192km, 5,700metres of climbing.
Cols 6: Aubisque, Soulor, Borderes, Tourmalet, Ancizan, Pla d’adet
Off once again through early morning mists en route for a lunch stop at Gorges de Luz, somewhere near the foot of the grand-daddy of them all, the majestic Tourmalet. Four magpies fly past and perch side by side on a wire.
Mark was chatting this morning at breakfast about a training camp in Arizona he had spent some time at in preparation for the Cent Cols. ‘I had a trainer who could push your right to your ‘edge’ and hold you there. ‘Just follow my wheel,’ he’d say, and the whole world would narrow down to white lines and the blur of the wheel in front of you…’ And it occurs to me is that why these seemingly sane, amiable guys come here and ride this event – to find their ‘edge’, define their boundaries or push over them and go home feeling sated, physically, emotionally and possibly even spiritually? It’s just a fleeting thought.
Phil barks at us at breakfast, ‘Five of them have gone already…you’d better get going…’ My stomach gripes. We’re on the road by 7.15am, chasing rainbows. As I write this it’s now 7.50am and the road is full of cyclists. It’s Sunday today. I’ve only just realised. The days blur in a ‘Groundhog Day’ fashion. Cyclists raise their arms in salute as we pass by. Claud is the best ambassador ever…
A ‘new boy’ joined us yesterday, too – Jerry Clark, a dapper man in plus fours, retro cycling shoes and a face that is plumped and moisturised. Fit as a fiddle, too, by the looks of it, fresh from a Mallorcan holiday.
We call in at a boulangerie not far from a campsite that Lee and I stayed at for the Tour d’Etape two summers ago. We reminisce. The red dashboard light is still flashing, brighter now, ‘the alternator is on its way out…’ says Lee. In the distance blue-remembered hills form the backdrop to today’s drive. We pass through the centre of Lourdes, a big blousy city, full of neon lights, belle-epoque mansions and a food hall that would rival Harrods. A tiny Pyrenean town made good by a twelve year old shepherdess with a vision…
Lunch number six in the Gorges de Luz is a big hit – cous cous salad, saucisson, plenty of artisan cheese and chocolate. Big chunks of it. Cakes and coffee are flying off the shelf too now.
I meet ‘Cobra’ too, an enormous Pyrenean mountain dog, who lives just next to the lay-by where we’re making lunch. He is a big slobber of a dog, weighs in at over 55kilograms, and reminds me of ‘Belle and Sebastian’, a black and white children’s tv programme from the sixties about a little boy and his amazing dog – all set in the mountains round here. Great theme tune too.
Greg’s tyre blew out his wheel today, fortunately just after the morning feedstop and not on a high-speed descent. Damage to Dene’s chain ring means that he’s spent the day riding on his 53/27 chain ring – which earns him a heroic ‘Lanterne Rouge’ at dinner. We spend the night in St Lary Soulan, a picture postcard ski resort, high in the mountains.
Stage 7, Tour One. St Lary Soulon to Oust
Monday 5th September 2011
Distance: 165km, 4,300m of climbing
Cols 7: Azet, Peyresourde (W), Portillon, Mente, Portet d’Aspet, Core, Catchoudecque.
It’s La Rentree today, which means ‘all back to school’ in France. Bleary eyed teenagers line the roads through towns. We’re en route for lunch number seven in St. Beat near the foot of the formidable ‘Col de Mente’, heading on to Oust this evening. We’ve just had a heart-stopping moment in the little town of Montrejeals. We went ‘speed shopping’, came back to Claud with the goods, Lee pressed the ignition…nothing, rien de tout. He gets out the crank, covered in rust. Two turns and we’re back in business.
By 9.30am we’ve arrived at our lunch destination on the outskirts of St Beat. Lee (cTb) is very happy with the location – we’ve found picnic tables and public loos with a river running around them. There’s a slight question mark over access, which appears to be over private land – but we ask at the nearest house and the lady who lives there points us in the direction of the Mairie. That’ll have to wait.
We drive on after lunch through the town of St Beat and find it full of astonishing slabs of white marble and sculptures everywhere. We take a wrong turn (or rather, miss a turn) two hundred metres out of the town centre and find ourselves outside a marble quarry.This tiny town supplies its’ own stone. Lots of it. The sculptures are monumental in scale – a giant woman steps out of a massive piece of marble, a distraught man stands holding a sea nymph, seemingly lifeless, in his giant hands. No time to lose – we press on.
Next stop – a garage! The flashing light on the dashboard has never gone away and we’re gradually losing power in all our electrics – the coffee grinder, the power points, the cooler box and finally, the LED strip lights. Lee has spotted a ‘general’ garage. A good ‘spot’ as it turns out. A young guy in overalls comes out to meet us and loves Claud on sight, ‘oh, c’est chouette..’ (he’s cool…) He gets to work with battery meters in the cab and in Claud’s ‘kitchen’ (half the contents of which are now sprawled over the garage forecourt). We call ‘our man’ John in the UK and he diagnoses trouble with a fuse. The one we’re using has blown and is the wrong size. The lovely mechanic gives me four ‘thirty watt’ chips – I give him twenty euros – and we’re up and running. Everybody very happy, and relieved, indeed.
A supermarket sweep is next. Trolleys at the ready…go… Finally, we fill up with petrol and put a bit more air in the front tyres before heading for Oust and Hotel de la Poste. We arrive at around six in the evening and find an old coaching inn, full of fabulous authentic furnishings – there are grandfather clocks, dark wooden ceilings, ancient armoires and toile de jouy covers on the beds. Charming it is. We all sit down along one long mahogany table to dine, gigot d’agneau washed down with a full-bodied local red wine, which reflects back the colour of the dining room walls.
The view from our bedroom window is of a chapel, high on a hill, but very close, with a life-sized Virgin Mary perched on top, like a huge plaster cake decoration.
Stage 8, Tour 1. Oust to Saillagouse
Tuesday 6th September 2011
170km, 5,500metres of climbing
10 Cols: Latrappe, Agnes, Port de Lers, Pas de Soulambrie, Pailheres (W), Hares, Quillane, Mel, Perche, Rigat.
The next morning the owner is exasperated by repeated requests for breakfast from the lycra-clad hordes before 7.00am. ‘For god’s sake, the Tour de France began on 15th July – and this is NOT the Tour de France!!’ She makes Phil laugh, and he translates the rapid-fire French for us. Nick and Mark then discuss the fact that the Tour de France is, on balance of probability, easier than the Cent Cols Challenge in many crucial respects. Lindy agrees. Phil passes round a small, but very positive article, posted by the journalist from lunch three days ago. There are photos of Team CCC having lunch on the footbridge, and he kindly calls Claud a very stylish ‘Tube’.
We’re racing towards Ax-les-Thermes (from the other direction now!) to a tiny place called ‘Cassou’ for lunch.
There is a combination this morning of rolling green hills, bright, bright sunlight and low lying mist as we drive out. More ‘god’s own country’. The riders are all on fine form. ‘Lanterne Rouge’ for Mark and Lindy Edwards last night. Mark wells up, just a little.
Andy the mechanic has a touch of the ‘I don’t like Mondays’ about him. He’s literally keeping the show on the road – and the pressure is intense.
Stage 9, Tour 1. Saillagouse to Prades
Wednesday 7th September 2011
212km distance, 3,100metres of climbing
Cols 10: Toses, Ares, Guille, Seille, LLauro, Fourtou, Ram, Rang, Xatard, Palomere.
Writing on my lap 09.40hrs…
We’re up and out of the hotel in Saillagouse at an ungodly hour. Time is tight today. Tina, the receptionist, is rushing round with a trolley in a state of shock at the sight of sixteen men in lycra swarming round breakfast tables at 6.45am. Just one more day of Tour 1 to go after this. Only two more lunches, as I write, notebook on knee. Tortilla today – when in Spain, eh?- quinoa and bulgar salad tomorrow. The chocolate quotient is high now. ‘They’re children,’ says Claire, ‘they like treats…’ Through the main road out of Bourg Madame and into Spain we go. We grab a ‘speed’ breakfast at a cool ski lodge, shop in a ‘supermercardo’ and then it’s on up the Col d’Ares to make tortilla up a mountain. There are 1,000 foot drops to my right. Vertigo plays havoc with my mind. But the beauty of the mountains, these gentle giants, takes the edge off the terrors. Lee and I are riffing now, the ‘song du jour’ is a retro seventies TV hit ‘Run wild horses…’ at little bit like the ‘Belle and Sebastian’ theme tune that we love. Music gets us up mountains
Yesterday descended into a stress-fest. We pulled in to a garage to get our front tyre blown up a little en route for lunch near the mountain village of Cassou. The garagiste took one look at the front left tyre and shook his head, ‘il faut le changer, c’est dangereux…’ Indeed.
We plan to come back straight after lunch, but right then and there we have no time. The cyclists are snapping at our heels, boulangerie stops take precious minutes, ditto petrol, or cash or, heaven forbid, garage. ‘No time, no time…’, our constant refrain.
We head up the mountain for Cassou, take a wrong turn in the heat of the moment, end up in winding side streets fit only for a horse and cart, and come to a grinding halt at the first village. There, right in front of us is flat tarmac. A car park, nestled below the square tower of a XII century church. We know it’s not where lunch was planned – but we can’t go any further up the mountain on a bulging tyre. Neither of us fancies dicing with death. We are totally spooked by the prospect of a blow-out on a mountain pass. Command comes from above – Claire will arrive to collect lunch. Gears crash in my head. Now all the food will have to head up the mountain without Claud. It’s ok. I’ll go with it…
Claire arrives, I put a huge bowl of mozzarella pasta salad in my lap, the rest of the food gets packed behind us and we hurtle up the mountain in the CCC – mobile. This is ‘extreme catering’ at its finest. Team work. Within ten minutes we’re setting up lunch on a table, high on the side of a mountain. There are spectacular ‘Sound of Music’ views over the valley below. Greg and Justin arrive first, along with Andy and a non-riding Rob. Claire flies off to ‘arrow’ for later. Greg and I chat briefly when he arrives. As we speak a tiny blue butterfly begins to flutter round his head. It lands on his hair three or four times, ‘…maybe my girlfriend…’ he smiles, and tells me about his wonderful ‘yoga bunny’ soulmate. He’s missing home. Other lives… The rest of the riders arrive. Phil is happy. Crisis averted. Lee goes back down the valley with Claud and the spare wheel is in place in no time. He sends news that he’s on his way back. By 2pm it’s just me, Lee and Claud on the mountainside. I grab a quick cheese sarnie, feast on the view – and BREATHE deeply…
We pack and head for Saillagouse, stopping to load up with food for the next day. We also try to buy a spare tyre from a garage next door to the supermarche without success. Suddenly tiredness overwhelms me, my legs feel like lead. If someone had appeared and offered me a ticket back home I’d have been sorely tempted. We trudge through town in fierce late afternoon heat looking for a café. We’ve almost given up hope when last-chance-saloon appears on the edge of Bourg Madame. We grab a café con leche – we are practically in Spain – and I start to feel human again.
We get to Saillagouse and the ‘Planotel’ (established 1894) at about six, sort out the shopping, put freezer blocks in the hotel kitchen and wash up the dishes. (Another low – am now a kitchen porter!! I try to imagine I’m channelling George Orwell in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – his account of being a penniless artist in, well, Paris and London.) And then I just get on with cleaning plates.
Things take a great big turn for the better as the cyclists begin to arrive back. Greg high-tails it in first, grinning from ear-to-ear, muttering something about a ‘fabulous descent’, Nick isn’t far behind him, Gerald and Dean too. Within minutes they’re all installed with cold beers in front of the hotel. Lee and I follow suit, chat briefly to the elated riders and then head off into the beautiful hotel garden to shelter from the world, watch a late summer sunset and the red squirrels who are darting up and down pine trees.
That evening we’re dining at ‘Planotel’s’ restaurant, a few hundred metres from the hotel itself, and totally worth the walk. It’s a hunting lodge, full of stuffed creatures, furry and feathered. We dine like ‘Knights of the Round Table’, surrounded by hundreds of pendants from Rotary Clubs worldwide. It seems they get pretty much everywhere, these Rotary types. The atmosphere is slightly subdued. Everyone is tired now – and focused – sensing the end not far away, ‘bittersweet’ is how Nick describes it. The group share tales of family and home, photos too.
17.20hrs later the same day [Wed 7th Sept]…
We’ve had a wonderful lunch on top of the Col d’Ares. Rob and Dave are taking time out, Nick is sparklingly witty and dry as a bone, Phil is happy. The view on the French/Spanish border is beyond compare. Wild flowers cover the mountainsides and we bask in more late summer sun.
The descent, however, is another nightmare of nerves. Lee doesn’t like the sound of a random ‘squeak’ and mentions the word ‘brakes’. I actually find myself praying that we get off the mountain safe. Sometimes faith is what life takes. Lots of it…
The CCC ‘Road Book’ is promising an ‘easy’ day for Claud tomorrow – oh, apart from lunch in a village only approachable by 15% hills. On va voire, as they say in these parts. As I write now we’re safely off the thirty five kilometre descent from Spain. The squeak/creak/general groaning is just Claud’s ageing bodywork by the sounds of it – possibly brought on by the heat of the sun on metalwork. We’re heading for a hotel in Prades now and home for the night.
We’ll be in Rivesaltes tomorrow. Come full circle.
Stage 10, Tour 1. Prades to Rivesaltes.
Thursday 8th September 2011
190 kilometres distance, 3,600metres of climbing.
Cols 8: Jau, Garavel, Moulis, Camperie (W), Aussieres, Roque Jalere, Auzines, Dona.
We have a late start – a guilty pleasure. Our distance to lunch is much shorter than usual today. There is kerfuffle with the coffee grinder – ‘le patron’ forbids coffee grinding in the bedroom apparently – and has spotted Lee coming in through the hotel entrance with it tucked under one arm at 7.00am. He very kindly allows coffee grinding in the hotel kitchen, however, so all is by no means lost.
Andy Belfrage is cycling today – he’s outside with the boys – all ‘Rapha’d’ up – infact the whole team are in black and white today. He’s Phil’s surrogate son, his heir-in-waiting. And he’s a really good lad too, no shadow of a doubt.
By ten twenty in the morning we’re having another ‘Burden of Dreams’ experience. We have been diverted round the mountains by a ‘Rue Baree’ sign. Claud has just descended a 15% drop on the knife-edge of a ravine. It’s beyond terrifying. We are now climbing to Sournia to make Phil a fruit salad on a mountain top. Werner Herzog eat your heart out… We pass a little grotto by the side of the hill on the final climb to the village. A sweet-faced Virgin Mary extends both hands gently towards us as we pass. Something has got us up here and I am pretty sure it has more to do with faith than engineering…
By five-fifteen lunch is well and truly over. The Sournia stop has been the setting for a real ‘end of tour’ finale. We set up on the ‘boules’ pitch. And elderly gentleman comes to enquire if we’ll be finished by four because that is ‘l’heure du boules’. We reassure him and he makes us welcome, proudly pointing out the well-kept facilities available to all – fresh running water in an enormous roman water trough, proper loos and a hand basin. The villager’s washing is hung out to dry beside the little square and it flutters in the warm midday sun. There is an ancient church nearby which chimes every fifteen minutes. The early riders are ravenous, just as Phil predicted. I keep enough back for the late arrivals, but it’s not easy. Rob has gone ‘solo’ today and arrives just after midday. We chat ‘Oxbridge’ – his experience of it – and defining moments in life… He’s laid back good company…
Again, we’ve been chasing herrings of sorts. We were hare-ing up mountain passes to arrive in Sournia by ten thirty, when in fact today’s lunch is much later than usual. It’s the last day, the riders are in no hurry… I’m still not prepared to call it an ‘easy morning’ however…more ‘extreme catering’! In spite of the pressing haste there’s been no more ‘creaking’ from Claud. The old boy is on great form. Lee drives brilliantly, because driving Claud requires tenacity and upper body strength in spades. His anxiety lessens as his faith in Claud rises. Which is a massive relief in the passenger seat too, anxiety is catching.
After lunch the group keep together for the last ‘roll back’ to Rivesaltes and the ‘Hotel des Vignes’. Lee photographs the ‘Aussies’ in front of Claud, who is all gussied up in bunting for the final lunch of the tour. By six thirty we’re pulling into the hotel. The ‘boys’ and Lindy welcome Claud back – clapping us in from the hotel balcony where celebration drinks are in full swing. A heroes’ welcome for our returning hero, Claud…
Tonight we’re all heading for the ‘Caves de Rivesaltes’ where we began, green and nervous, only eleven short days ago. It’s Thursday evening. No more lunches to cook ‘til next Monday. I miss my kids. My phone has been stubbornly silent today. I’ll call everyday for the next three days to make up…
The Caves de Rivesalte is just as lovely as I remember it. I chat to Dene, properly, for the first time. He’s an ex-Yale rower, as it turns out, and former ‘Iron Man’. No surprises there after his 53/27 exploits. But his concern is to remain defined by who he is, rather than as someone defined by a place or an institution, however illustrious. He tells me about fully grown men who arrive at parties in the US, teetering on the brink of their seventies, who wear tiger tails, all the better to let everyone know that once upon a time they went to Princeton. The conversation is much like the one I had with Rob. We agree that an event like the CCC is about still seeking and defining that ‘edge’ and then pushing it, the better to feel alive. To have peaked at twenty one seems tragic. This group are defined by their fire and enthusiasm, their energy. None of them are twenty one is seems fair to say. All of them have a real lust for life. Perhaps this is what draws them together.
Ian takes ‘King of the Moutains’ at the end of tour dinner and is gracious in his victory. He is presented with a Rapha book, full of pictures of the Pyrenees, signed by the entire Cent Cols 2011 family. Phil thanks everyone for riding with skill and style. Only seven of the sixteen riders have completed the elusive ‘Cent Cols’. Greg and Dean miss out on account of their ‘Spanish’ detour. Mark and Lindy bag it – an incredible achievement for an inspirational woman and her steadfast partner. It’s a great evening – and a fitting end to Tour One. Greg eats four puddings – is that some kind of CCC record? Jerry Clark says a few (albeit slightly pissed) words, about how incredible Phil has been to organise an event of this calibre. He also mentions the ‘amazing standard of service’ on the tour…’ which makes us glow with satisfaction.
Ian catches up with us as we stroll, hand in hand back to our hotel at the end of the evening, ‘Watching you guys driving back today – you’ve really got it right – who needs life in the fast lane? Don’t change a thing…’ he beams.
‘cTb’ are Helen & Lee
to be continued…