Friday, 22 August 2008

Cols for Cols sake

The morning after the Etape before was, to be frank, a bit of an anticlimax. Everyone was coming down off the buzz of weeks of preparation, and we were faced with the reality of filthy bikes in need of attention.

By lunchtime, the majority of french roadgrot had been removed, and following a light(ish) lunch, Peter and Brett retired to Pau to take in some culture whilst the other three of us took in about 30 miles of roads to remove the remaining aches and pains. It was on this ride that I remembered how easy it is to dislike Mike as he grinned his way past me cycling uphill on just one leg and leaving me floundering.

Tuesday was our last day in France, so we decided it would be rude to leave without checking out a few more metres of climb, eventually deciding on the Soulor and (possibly) Aubisque from the 'easy' side at Argeles-Gazost. Peter came along, determined to at least bag one Col despite suffering the after effects of a stomach bug, and the lingering effects of a long illness that has left him depending on EPO to maintain any sensible semblance of haemoglobin in his bloodstream.

Gone were the weather conditions of the weekend. Mountains beckoned. The planning process had worked on the basis that ascending from the Argeles-Gazost side would give us a nice long warm-up along the Val d'Azun before commencing the Soulor climb proper, and give Peter a gentle introduction back onto the bike. Passing Argeles-Gazost we slowly negotiated market day, which was all-but blocking the through road. Alas, we then noted that the first pat of the climb, an ascent of 350 metres starts in Argeles, and climbs to the Val d'Azun itself. Mike, Mark and Brett disappeared into the distance, myself and Peter ground along, stopping when needed.

We eventually decided that the others would carry on, and I would accompany Peter. Once in the valley we experienced several kilometers of picture postcard alpine cycling before the climb of Soulor proper at Arrens-Marsous. Pretty soon, the gradient was around the obligatory 8% and the odd rest was needed, although steady progress was being made.

Once reaching the 1,000 metre altitude mark, Peter sent me on ahead to catch up with the others feeling, I think, that he may have been holding me up. Quite frankly, I didn't mind, but carried on upward.

About 1km further on, a call from the others informed me that they were carrying on to the Aubisque, and they would see me there (if I made it). I was pleased to note that I only had 3.4km of climb to do before I reached the top, from where they were phoning. At this point, I felt that I was pushing on far more than in the Etape, and the average speed confirmed this as I reached the top of the Soulor averaging 10kmh, a full 25% faster than up the Tourmalet. Mr Trek had his picture taken to prove attendance.

At this point I noticed the road up to the Aubisque, and was stunned. There was no longer any doubt that I would get to the top of Aubisque. This is a road that simply has to be ridden. A proper 'corniche' road, blasted into the mountainside, with tunnels, walls (more of a 'trip-hazard' actually), tunnels, and a thousand foot drop at the side. Outstanding!

I don't know exactly what the Etape did to my hill climbing ability, but I seemed to fly up the Aubisque, arriving at the top to find Brett, Mark and Mike watching the Tour on TV in the bar in the company of Dr David Williams and his companion, two gentlemen I had last met at the end of the White Rose Classic. It's a small world, as was further proven by meeting Rob Ford from the Kelly's Heroes Etape Blog. I gather Alec and Karen were also up there on the Tuesday at some point, though we didn't come across them.

Once fed and watered, Brett and I decided to return to Argeles-Gazost, Peter and the car. Mark and Mike continued back to Pau down the Aubisque through Gourette and Eaux Bonnes. We fair flew down the Soulor beneath flocks of eagles circling round in the Val d'Azun.

Back in Argeles-Gazost, Peter appraised us of his day. Fate, it seems, has a habit of picking on certain people, and must see Peter as an easy target. He was absolutely determined to reach the top of Soulor, some 6km from where I left him. Having gone no more than 500 metres, his freewheel mechanism broke completely, leaving him with no option but to wobble back to the car on an unstable rear wheel.

The drive back to Pau was done over Soulor and Aubisque, during which we noted that we had drawn the short straw returning to Argeles. The descent of Aubsique is MAD! Some 20km of hurtling descent with hairpins a-plenty. It's on the list, I'm going back for that one.

Mark and Mike beat us back to Pau, averaging an enormous speed down the Aubisque, outpacing cars and enjoying themselves immensely. I'm still envious. As a day on the bike, though, it was a fitting end to a great trip.