Am­a­teur cy­clists tackle the Pyre­nees in a gru­el­ing race

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

For many peo­ple, va­ca­tion means ly­ing pool­side or beach­side, read­ing and re­lax­ing. But for me, it meant bik­ing through the French Pyre­nees in a week-long race, tak­ing in the fa­mous climbs of the Tour de France with 400 oth­ers. It was ag­o­niz­ingly dif­fi­cult, one steep, gru­el­ing moun­tain road af­ter an­other. But it was also won­der­ful. The event was part of the Haute Route series, billed as “the high­est, tough­est and most pres­ti­gious am­a­teur cy­cling events in the world.” The events take place an­nu­ally in the French Pyre­nees, French Alps and Ital­ian Dolomites. A US event is planned for the Rocky Moun­tains in June 2017.

Haute Route events at­tract cy­cling-crazy folks from around the world of all ages and abil­i­ties. At the sharp end of the stick are as­pir­ing or re­tired pro­fes­sion­als, in the mid­dle are fit cy­cling en­thu­si­asts like me and at the bot­tom are peo­ple who signed up on a whim and may be re­gret­ting it. Some brave souls do all three Euro­pean events, back to back, the so-called “triple crown.”

My Au­gust trip to south­west­ern France was a 50th birth­day present from my wife. I met up for the race with a friend, Paul O’Don­nell, also turn­ing 50. Both of us race bikes reg­u­larly in the New York area and are, for our ages, very fit. This was to be a stiff test of our abil­i­ties: 500 miles (800 kilo­me­ters) with 65,000-plus feet (20,000-plus me­ters) of climb­ing. Each day we’d burn 4,000 to 5,000 calo­ries.

The event be­gan in An­glet in rainy weather. Then we hit the first ma­jor up­hill of the day, the Col d’Ahusquy, a steep 8-mile (13-kilo­me­ter) as­cent. I’d never been on a climb this long and dif­fi­cult be­fore and found my­self breath­less and ex­hausted half­way up, won­der­ing what I’d got­ten my­self into. A quick pause and it was down the other side to­ward the day’s sec­ond and fi­nal climb, the Pierre St Martin, a 10-mile (16-kilo­me­ter) climb through heavy fog, with vis­i­bil­ity drop­ping to about 20 me­ters (65 feet), a bless­ing be­cause you couldn’t see the long series of switch­backs com­ing.

It was quiet for long stretches but for the whirring of bikes and the rid­ers’ breath­ing, with cow­bells softly tin­kling in the dis­tance. A car or mo­tor­cy­cle en­gine would come and go and then you could fo­cus on your own en­gine again - heart, lungs, legs. Day two saw four climbs, all hard and long, with the Col D’Au­bisque the killer, on and on (and then on some more) for 10 miles (17 kilo­me­ters). Ex­hausted, ra­tioning water, stuff­ing down en­ergy gels, con­trol­ling the breath­ing, I tried to fo­cus. Sweat dripped into my eyes, sting­ing me onto an­other pedal stroke, and then an­other.

Some might call it suf­fer­ing, but for me it was cleans­ing, lib­er­at­ing, noth­ing but ef­fort and the road ahead. The mind? Cir­cling the wheel, won­der­ing what was to come. And then I passed a one­legged, one-handed man on his bike, also mak­ing his way up. He’s Chris­tian Haet­tich, a reg­u­lar, who lost his leg and hand in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent as an ado­les­cent and yet he’s chug­ging away on some of the tough­est climbs in Europe. At the top, the land­scape was as­ton­ish­ing, mas­sive moun­tains up­hol­stered in green grass and trees like gi­ant sleep­ing ogres.

The Pyre­nees, where Ibe­ria smashes slowly into France. Drop­ping down like a mar­ble, through tun­nels bored through the rock, we de­scended into the val­ley. Cows lay non­cha­lantly by the road­side, big metal bells around their necks, a few pigs too and some sheep, guarded by large moun­tain dogs. We were warned not to ap­proach the sheep lest the dogs mis­take us for wolves and at­tack, as had ap­par­ently hap­pened in pre­vi­ous years.

‘Broom wagon’

And then to the base of the day’s fi­nal climb, the Col de Span­delles, just 6 miles (10 kilo­me­ters) long but with steeply graded ramps. Small groups of cu­ri­ous by­standers would form by the road, some clap­ping, some cheer­ing us on. We went through the leg­endary Tour­malet climb, scene of epic bat­tles in Tour de France races. Drink, drink, sweat, sweat and drink some more. More switch­backs, fo­cus, OK, half a mile (1 kilo­me­ter) to go, push­ing a bit harder and on­wards, up and then down through ma­jes­tic scenery, but al­ways keep­ing an eye on the clock.

Each day had a time cut off and if you didn’t make it, you’d be elim­i­nated from the timed event and es­corted to the “broom wagon” for a ride to the fin­ish. The next day you could con­tinue at your own pace, no longer timed. The fi­nal day was a mere 105 miles (169 kilo­me­ters), just one ma­jor climb and then mostly down­hill through rolling farm­land into Toulouse. And then it was over. We got our par­tic­i­pant medals, then cel­e­brated with pizza, soft drinks and later in Toulouse, a beer or two. Re­flect­ing on the week, each day had seemed as pun­ish­ing as the next, my whole body a slip­pery sinew of mus­cle turn­ing and turn­ing. But I’d grad­u­ally ad­justed to the ef­fort, the fit­ness kick­ing in. What seemed like mis­ery in the mo­ment felt like tri­umph look­ing back. But would I trade a beach va­ca­tion for a week of push­ing up­hill again? Ab­so­lutely.

Photo shows cy­clists make their way up the Col d’Ahusquy dur­ing the first day of the 2016 Haute Route Pyre­nees timed cy­cling event in France.

Photo shows San­ti­ago Lyon makes his way up a climb dur­ing the 2016 Haute Route Pyre­nees timed cy­cling event in France.

Photo shows cy­clists make their way up the Cap de Long climb dur­ing the 2016 Haute Route Pyre­nees timed cy­cling event in France.

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