FROM THE WILDS OF MANHATTAN
Fifty Shades of Pain:
Cycling the Pyrenees, One Mountain Pass at a Time
True cycling, bicycle legends and aficionados will tell you, is about suffering. Not for us the one-gear “fixie” bike with the large latticed basket and kickstand. If we don’t come back from our long weekend ride with chain grease stenciled on our calves, and aches and pains in our trapezium muscles, we don’t deserve dinner.
And while other neophytes may be content to merely watch the Tour de France each year on television, and only wonder how romantic and exciting such riding might be, others, like yours truly, actually take the plunge. We see organized bicycle vacations as an opportunity to ride harder, climb more swiftly, descend faster, and steal insights from fellow cyclists on how to be the greatest bike rider on the planet. To people like us, there are mountain ranges like the Alps and the Dolomites to be conquered. And this year, my dream was to cycle the Pyrenees, the mountain range that separates France and Spain (and as it turned out, the real cyclist from the parvenu.)
As some of my cycling and non-cycling buddies know, I am no stranger to organized bicycle tours. Over the past 30-some years, I have taken nearly 40 such tours, always opting for the most challenging, so challenging in fact afterwards the physical exertion has often led to flu, colds, and sinus infections. I have enjoyed suffer-fests in the French/Swiss/Italian Alps, the Dolomites (the mountain range on the border of Italy and Austria), the island of Crete, and some “hors categoire” (HC) rides in California.
But nothing, nothing prepared me for the uber-challenge and sweet pain this past June of conquering the Pyrenees, that humongous mountain range subject to the same extreme heat and impossible roadways that gave Hannibal and his armies fits and starts many centuries ago.
What kind of preparation is required for such an undertaking? For the past 12 months, I have tried—despite the fierce pushback of the Polar Vortex that convulsed New York City, my home, to ride my bicycle at least 200 miles a week, seven days a week. I figured if that wasn’t adequate preparation for a bicycle trip that advertised 500 miles in a week, with 50,000 feet of climbing, then nothing was.
In retrospect, I realize I was kidding myself.
The organized tour included 14 male guests and 5 guides, and was operated by Thomson Bike Tours (thomsonbiketours.com) that I half-seriously believe should carry a warning on its Web site that reads: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” I came to discover that Thomson attracts a very select clientele: an elite cadre that either are, or consider themselves to be Category 1 or Category 2 (“Cat” for short) riders, so categorized for the kinds of climbs they are accustomed to mastering. Besides the Pyrenees and the Dolomites, Thomson conducts heavy-duty, mucho-macho tours that follow the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and other death-defying bicycle events and destinations.
While other bike touring companies offer such rigorous vacations to many of the same destinations, they will often “sweeten the pot” by creating a touring agenda where clientele will complete perhaps one hard ride in the morning, then have the rest of the day to lie by the pool and write postcards.
If you wanted to write postcards on a Thomson Bike Tour you would have to write them very quickly, perhaps in the restroom. That’s because Thomson’s modus operandi was best expressed by our tour leader, Toni, who was given to parroting the Robert Duvall character’s line from Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” You are not there to make friends, discuss what spiritual quest led you to the Pyrenees, or have a long leisurely lunch with foie gras and vin rouge. No, you are there to experience the pain, misery, and occasional glory of a pro cycling rider. On this Thomson tour, we rode every day, rain or shine, with no rest days, rising at 7 A.M., beginning the ride no later than 830 A.M. and finishing close to 6 P.M.
The first day, just outside Sitges, Spain, we rode 37 miles on hot, hilly road surfaces including the infamous Rad Penat, a 20 percent climb that went on for 4K. (By way of comparison, a 20 percent climb here in metro New York typically lasts for about 100 yards). Never on any bicycle tour have I experienced the pain and discouragement of looking up and seeing the road seem to crest before me, only to keep on rising—all in 90 degree weather. The pain I felt was so extreme, I needed to dismount from my bike every kilometer or so, count to 25, and pray that I could get back on without injuring myself too seriously.
On Day 2, we rode 100 miles inland from Sitges on the Mediterranean Coast, to the base of the Pyrenees, climbing 7,500 feet. (Again, by way of comparison, a long ride in New York will get you about 3,000 feet up). One cyclist felt such pain as he reached the summit of one of the early climbs, he hopped off his bike and immediately threw up.
When I ride a century (100-mile ride or plus) in the metro New York area, I usually take a day off afterward. This was not the case with Thomson Tours, where the very next day, we climbed Col de Jou (4,300 feet in the morning) and Col de Canto (5,200 ft in the afternoon), two of the more significant passes of the Spanish Pyrenees, for a total of 79 miles. The temperature on Canto was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with little to no shade.
The pain I began to feel at this point in the ride was no laughing matter, especially for someone who took cycling as seriously as I did. With the combination of the heat, the roads without shade that never seemed to dip, I began to reel with dizziness, as if I had drunk too much wine the night before. I felt my right knee give out from under me as I tried to stand on the pedals and push the bike forward. Eventually, I finished the day’s ride, but not without gulping down four bottles of water, and having an entire jug of cool water poured over my head by the guide.
This intense pace continued over the next four days, but with some welcome respite from the heat. As I climbed Port de la Bonaigua (aptly named because it means “good water” in Catalan), lined with intense switchbacks at 20 percent grade, I managed to enjoy the cool tailwinds and waterfalls that reminded me of similar climbs I had mastered in the Alps, all of which psychologically began to signal that I might finish this ride after all. Col de Portillon in the afternoon brought us to the French border, and higher elevation (meaning far less heat) as well as the opportunity to mingle with riders who were not Cat 2 caliber—fellows from France and Spain who were out to have a good time and maybe even a beer!
The granddaddy of the week occurred on Day 5, when we started in Bagneres de Luchon (a stop on the Tour), then climbed three Tour de France passes in one day—Col de Peyresourde (4,700 feet); Col d ‘Aspin (4,500 feet), and the greatest of all: Col du Tourmalet (over 6,500 feet of climbing.) The good news on a Thomson ride is that your legs are always fresher in the morning, as is your attitude; the bad news is, as the day progresses, temperatures rise, and fear begins to set in, as to whether or not you will finish, whether that pain in your butt will miraculously disappear, or if you will fall off the road during the fast descent (more often than not, the roads had no guard rails). However, the company of wild cows, horses, goats, ibexes, and cuckoos does wonders for soothing the psyche—that is, until you are told you have five minutes to grab a slice of bread and Nutella for lunch and get back on your bike.
Soon, in the blazing heat of the afternoon on Day 5, we reached the beginning of the 17 kilometer climb to Tourmalet, marred by road blocks, freshly laid asphalt that gummed up your tires, thunderstorms, fog, and more animals on the road. As temperatures began dropping from the 90s to the 40s, and the winds began picking up, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to be anything more than a cyclist “approaching mediocre.”
But then something happened. Over the last 4 kilometers to the Tourmalet summit, where the average gradient neared 11 to 12 percent, the pain started to disappear. That searing, wrenching ache in my butt from sitting on a hard seat for over 300 miles—poof! Gone. The fear I felt as I rounded another switchback just to see another one appear—vanished! As you approach the summit of the most famous climb in the world, all you can do is focus intently, watch your front wheel turn before you, look down and see the “1,000-meter, 500-meter” countdown written on the road. At this moment, what you begin to feel is not pain, but elation—the feeling that, sweet Jesus, I am going to make it after all. And once I did eventually reach the summit, I promptly choked up with emotion, and almost lost my breath doing so (but not before heading to the souvenir shop for a Tourmalet jersey!).
On Day 6, we encountered our first serious rain, after climbing Col du Soulor: as we approached Col d’Aubisque, one of the most legendary Pyrenees climbs, the sky opened up, lighting began to crackle, and the narrow twisty roads we were to ride on became slick with rain and thus too dangerous for a descent. Our brief respite from riding, however, allowed us to continue on for another 75 miles in the afternoon and ride Col de Marie-Blanque and Col D’Ichere. Finally, on Day 7, a 91-mile day, we rode the tough, tough Col de Bagargui in France’s Basque country, finishing on the Atlantic coast in Hendaye.
All of this demonstrated to me that pain is, at the end of the day, all relative. Is it the mental dismay you feel as you push yourself to ride with Cat 2 cyclists who are stronger and faster than you, even though, try as you might, you can’t keep up with the peloton? Is the pain at all alleviated by the reward of arriving at each pass, dragging your bike up to the summit sign and taking a triumphant selfie to post on Facebook?
Furthermore, are woman more susceptible to pain than men? A legitimate question, as all my fellow cyclists on this tour happened to be very fit, heterosexual men—ranging from age 37 to a feisty 72. It was the first tour I have ever taken where there were no women riders, something the Thomson guides noticed as well. There is no hard evidence as to why this was, but my highly unscientific conclusion is that woman read the tour description more closely, and decided the only people foolish enough to take on such a ludicrous challenge would be men.
Yet, if a cyclist’s happiness is measured by the pain he or she endures, then I can safely say that the week I spent in the Pyrenees with Thomson Bike Tours was probably the happiest week of my life. Altogether, I cycled 445 miles, climbed approximately 49,000 feet, and expended 44,000 calories—all the way from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Would I do something like this again? As soon as I disassembled my rental bike, I told myself, never. But after only four days back in the States, I’m already looking for another opportunity to reap the rewards of 50,000 feet of climbing. And the sweet pain that accompanies it.
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
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