When I revealed that my annual “boys’ weekend” bike trip would take place in October in the Pyrenees, the reaction at work was mild consternation. In the rugby heartland of southwest France, the terrain is rugged and the weather fickle. But what really messes with the mind is the length and severity of the road climbs. This is Tour de France territory, where grown men have been reduced to tears.
Over the summer I worked hard to build stamina. No alcohol for six weeks; more roadwork in the gym, including 20km stints on the bike; and an increase in my regular 4km run to 6.5km, twice a week. Then the carefully calibrated finale: two consecutive 80km solo bike rides from Dulwich in south London, to Westerham, Kent, culminating in a gruelling climb up Toys Hill.
A week later, here I am on a chilly Saturday morning at the local inn (Le Manoir d’Agnès) in Tarascon, a hard-scrabble town roughly 110km from Toulouse, where we flew in to the previous night. I have shed 5lb but my fellow riders look much leaner and fitter as they munch through hard-boiled eggs on toast, washed down with black coffee and orange juice. They also look the part: tight-fitting “bibs” (Mick McManus-style wrestler pants with shoulder straps); arm-, knee- and leg-warmers; and branded shell jackets, with heavier waterproof apparel in reserve.
Mark Neep, our tour organiser, stares at my kit, then suggests something more suitable to keep out the cold. It’s 9C outside and, despite forecasts of sunshine, cloud cover is heavy. That could spell rain, and greasy roads on a 120km route that includes 2,700 vertical metres of climbing. I meekly agree to change and, five minutes later, rejoin the group, a cosmopolitan mix of money brokers, accountants, a QC and a public relations executive, all of whom work in the City of London.
At 57, I am at least 10 to 15 years older than the rest of the group, many of whom race regularly, whether from London to Paris (three days) or Chamonix to Nice (four days). What brings them all together? “Enthusiastic amateurs in search of the professional experience,” says Andrew, the QC. “Middle-aged males trying to avoid a mid-life crisis,” clarifies Robin, one of two super-fit accountants.
After a group photo, we set off at speed along a flat road following the Vicdessos river, past the village of Niaux and its prehistoric caves, towards our first Tour de France col: the Port de Lers (1,571m). It is an 11.5km climb, with gradients of up to 10 per cent, a good opening test.
I am riding a Scott bike provided by GPM10, Neep’s tour company. It is light but nothing like the Parlee ridden by another member of the group – an expensive, featherweight contraption in matt black, which I dub the Stealth bike.
As well as clothing and a bike, GPM10 also offers support on the road. Extra food, clothes and spares are transported in the Mercedes sedan that is tracking us all the way. This leaves me free to ride carrying only one water bottle (filled with High Five energy mix) and no backpack. Nevertheless, as we ascend, I soon fall off the pace and become the “leading laggard”, accompanied en route by one of the company’s expert young riders.
My first escort is Soren, a sinewy young man from Oregon. Along with two other twentysomethings, he supplies the pedal power to both assist riders in need and to test the more competitive members of the group, above all Bo, a shaven-headed Danish broker. I am too breathless to talk much but Soren and I exchange biographies as we pass sweeping ravines on the next climb to the Col d’Agnès (1,471m). My Garmin sports watch is buzzing at regular intervals to record time and distance. One of my co-riders wonders, (seriously?), if it denotes I have a heart problem.
After three hours, we begin our descent to Aulus-les-Bains, a rejuvenated spa town. The mist has closed in and the roads are moist and strewn with gravel. As I freewheel downhill, my hands and face suddenly freeze up. I am gripping the brakes far too hard for my own good. My legs slowly lock. Soren glides alongside and orders me to spin the wheels. Good advice, but that means going faster – a serious mental stretch. Finally, and thankfully, we arrive in Aulus to be greeted by hot chocolate and French onion soup. Even the experts agree: that was one helluva hairy ride.
After lunch by a log fire, I make a fast early start only to be overtaken by all but Charlotte, the sole female rider on the trip. Still, it feels good to be ahead of her until she reveals she has recently pulled a hamstring playing hockey. I plough on past several bends and then it’s downhill, fast. My confidence is growing as I reach for the drop bars and keep my pedals in parallel, riding high in the saddle to maintain maximum flexibility until the next bend, when I switch weight to complete the turn. Textbook stuff.
At the bottom of the hill, we gather in peloton formation and race through the valley at upwards of 45kph to Massat. This is the highlight of the day, a glorious collective endeavour temporarily interrupted by the appearance of a flock of sheep on the road. That could have either led to a nasty accident or ready-made supper. At any rate, we rapidly shift gears and head for the final pull up to the Col de Port (1,249m). By now I am struggling: my legs are leaden, gas has built up in my stomach and I am quietly whinging. Sandy, my new escort, hands me a lemon sugar gel shot, which offers temporary relief. Now it is all down to willpower.
As dusk gathers, we sweep past the signs for the mountain principality of Andorra and re-enter Tarascon. My Garmin records 6,982 calories consumed over a distance of 119.4km in six and a half hours: a personal best. I take a 20-minute hot bath and stagger down for supper – a mix of amuse-gueules and local fare that I cannot remember eating. The group conversation turns from the Lance Armstrong scandal to great bike accidents of our time. By 9.45 I make my excuses and head for bed.
Day two begins with a paradox. The forecast is for rain but we set off in blinding sunshine along the Route des Corniches, east of Tarascon, a stunning ride through close woodland that merges, at its eastern end, with the approach to the Col de Marmare (1,361m). But I am in no mood for scenery: my knees are desperately stiff and I am sweating under too many layers.
Soren is beside me once more and asks what are the most interesting places I have visited in the world? It’s a transparent manoeuvre but I am glad to be distracted. So I answer, in no particular order: Ethiopia, Colombia and Syria – and Jerusalem. The crack of a rifle shot echoes across the valley followed by the beating of drums. This is fox-hunting territory, as well as the scene of an infamous massacre in 1244, when the so-called Albigensian crusaders burned alive 200 heretics, known as the Cathars (“the clean ones”). But none of this registers, as all my energy is focused on finishing the pre-lunch lap.
By noon, I am close to surrender. I grab a baguette and a bottle of water. The tour organiser suggests a rest and a consultation. Then one of the “Mamils” (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) declares that the peloton is about to regroup. The invitation is irresistible and for the next half hour we speed along together, covering 25km or more. And even as I suffer another wall of pain on the 8km uphill ride to the castle of Montségur, I can see the end in sight. The wind picks up, but two of the guides form an arrowhead to protect me on the run home.
It is hard to describe the feeling of exhilaration on completing the 123km ride along the banks of the Ariège river. This is as much mental as physical achievement. I pose for photographs, naturally. And now for 2013.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT
Lionel Barber was a guest of GPM10, which arranges bike tours throughout Europe. The Pyrenees weekend trip costs £795 including airport transfers, half board, guides, support car, energy drinks and mechanical assistance.
Big days out for bikers: Get in the saddle for next year’s top cycling events
Such has been the boom in popularity of cycling that keen amateur riders need to plan months ahead to ensure their place in the most celebrated events. Last year, for example, all 3,000 places on the Dragon Ride in Wales sold out in less than three hours. Here, Andy McGrath, chief reporter for Cycling Weekly magazine, picks the key dates for the cyclist’s 2013 diary.
Cape Argus Cycle Tour, South Africa
The world’s largest timed cycle race is also one of the most enjoyable. Starting in Cape Town, the 111km, traffic-free route takes riders through Table Mountain National Park and along the Atlantic coast. Professional cyclists start at the front before a steady trickle of 35,000 fun riders.
March 10; entry is open now and closes February 22
Tour of Flanders, Belgium
You won’t believe that Belgium is boring – or flat – after riding the bone-juddering, short, steep cobbled climbs that litter the final third of this event, which traditionally falls on the eve of the famous professional cycle race of the same name. Three routes are on offer – 87km, 138km and a daunting 244km (the same route the pros will take). Belgium is one of cycling’s heartlands, so you’ll share the road with enthusiasts of all ages and on all types of bike. Once the race is over, it’s time for the traditional recovery meal of chips and Belgian beer.
March 30; entries open in November (exact date to be confirmed)
Gran Fondo New York, US
More than 7,000 riders took part in this year’s event, a 177km ride that sets out over the George Washington Bridge and continues along the Hudson river to Bear Mountain, in Harriman State Park, before returning to the city. There are closed roads, timed mountain sections and it coincides with the Bike Expo in downtown New York. Only launched in 2011, the “GFNY” is already one of North America’s most popular sportives.
Dragon Ride, UK
Britain’s biggest sportive takes 4,500 riders over the quiet, rolling roads of the Brecon Beacons. Like Quebrantahuesos and the Tour of Flanders, it is part of the International Cycling Union’s Golden Bike series, an elite selection of top-quality mass participation rides endorsed by the sport’s governing body. Three routes are on offer – the longest will be around 200km.
June 9; entries open November 1
The clue is in the name: the Quebrantahuesos is a bird of prey that drops captured animals on to rocks below to break their bones. Spain’s largest event isn’t for the faint-hearted, spiriting riders over the French border and back via several Pyrenean climbs. The mountains and 205km length mean this is a tiring test but the scenery helps make it one of Europe’s best sportives.
June 23; entries open in November (date to be confirmed)
Etape du Tour, France
This is the annual blue riband event to ride and write home about. The route changes annually, mirroring one of the most challenging Alpine or Pyrenean mountain stages included in that year’s Tour de France. Demand for places will be especially fierce in 2013, when the Tour celebrates its 100th edition. Last week it was announced that the Etape will follow the route of the penultimate Tour stage – 125km from Annecy to the ski resort of Semnoz – on which the race could well be won or lost. The amateurs may go slower than the Tour’s professionals but the sense of achievement and suffering is often just the same.
July 7; entries open November 28
Ötztaler Radmarathon, Austria
This summer tester is one for serious amateurs, taking in 238km around the Austrian town of Sölden. There are four high mountain passes, including the Timmelsjoch at 2,509m, before the downhill run to the finish. Entertainment runs through the weekend, and a brass band strikes up in the evening to close one of the best-organised and toughest events on the calendar.
August 25; entries open in January