Thursday 19 September 2013

Haute Route Pyrenees Sept 1st - 9th 2013

Now the legs have rested, and the brain has once again started to function I thought I would write a short (turned into long, you might need a coffee) summary of my experience on Haute Route Pyrenees.  It was an incredible event; exceptionally well organised and supported, the gendarmes, the medics, the hotels, the food, the baggage, the transport, everything so meticulously worked out.  All you had to worry about was riding the bike.  

It was impossible to update this blog en route.  Apart from my scanty updates on facebook and twitter it was difficult to connect at all to the outside world.  Firmly gripped in a wonderful exhausted bubble consisting of sleeping, eating, riding bike as fast as possible, eating, massage, eating and sleeping.  It was awesome... and incredibly hard.

 The welcome in Barcelona was under blue skies and sunshine.  Surrounded by almost 400 pro looking guys and 35 women with very bling bikes I was feeling more than a little out of my depth.  What had I let myself in for?  A dip in the mediterranean sea, made me realise that the next time I would see the sea would be in Biarritz, with a whole lot of mountains in between, eek. At the briefing in Barcelona the slightly spikey course profile was revealed.  

Stage 1: 85k 2300m  Col de jou, Port del Conte, Coll de port

We started the stage under the Haute Route banners in a little village, cheering crowds lining the street, and Greg LeMond in the pen, making me feel slightly pro.  Despite all the advice and the knowledge that it's a 7 day stage race, a marathon not a sprint,  - with fresh legs and racing mentality I was chasing wheels from the off.  That lasted about an hour, then the hills really started and the wheels disappeared into the distance as I realised maintaining 180bpm for 85k was not going to work!

After restoring my heart rate from the red line I found my rhythm taking in the beauty of the mountains with lakes and valleys below.  The descents were incredible, laugh out loud, although rutted and uneven in parts on the Spanish roads.  The last 10 k was sprint for the finish was so much fun.  Bike into the bike park, straight to lunch of pasta, massage booked in, grinning from ear to ear, just in time for photo moment with the legend Greg LeMond!

Stage 2: 120k 3500m  Coll del Conto, Port de la Bonaigua, Plan de Beret.

Legs a little weary but hey ho.  I was interviewed on the start line.  'What do you do when it gets tough, when it starts to hurt?' ... 'I smile' I replied with a big grin, 'and remember why I am here and how amazing it is to be on my  bike in the mountains'.  Oh how naive I was.  

Stage 2 started well, I knew I had to get over the first climb with a good group in order to get through the 40k of headwind in the valley before the next set of climbs.  I worked hard and stayed with a bunch up the climb, crested the hill, and then... watched them disappear into the distance, bugger. They all descended like torpedos around me, leaving me trying to get my little bike to go faster while trying to squash the 'what if you come off?' 'what if you puncture?' 'it would really hurt' voices in my head.  I evenutally made it to the bottom and spotted a lonely wheel in the distance.  That will do I thought, and sprinted to latch on, we recruited another guy and worked as a three into the headwind. With a french and swiss guy the conversation was limited to nods and elbow flicks but we made fairly good progress until the calvary arrived and we were swept up into a group of 10 strong guys form Belguim, hurrah.  I got a hey Nic, from a fellow Dulwich Paragon  and we were off again. Dulwich paragon were out in force, so great to have so many team members around.
With Paul.  Gordon and Niall

By the time we hit the next climb my back was starting to grumble. I fractured a vertebrate in my back last year when I was hit by a car cycling to work.  The pain had resolved on a daily basis but long days in the saddle and intense climbing efforts seemed to be aggravating it.  The climb was long and high at 2072m and the head wind persisted.
The final climb was better, a sensational road in a sequence of switch backs. Kenton Cool, the everest mountaineer, passed by and exchanged a few words of encouragement. I made it to the top eventually, negotiated the bunch of wild horses that were surrounding the finish line and took in the mountain views. 

That evening we stayed in a pretty chocloate box ski town of Vielha.  So pretty.  Great hotel, great massage, stocked up on painkillers with my pigeon spanish, great meal with a group of new friends.  Still in the top 10 in the GC remarkably.  Tomorrow was the worry, with my back complaining as much as it was I was starting to worry about getting through and had let go of any hopes of finishing well in the GC; right now it was about survival.
Top of Plan de Beret
Stage 3: 120k 3300m  Col du Portillon, Port De Bales, Superbagneres

We started at 7am in the valley, it was pretty chilly at 8 degrees.  The first 10k were neutralised, as we all shivered our way accross the valley floor. The only time in the whole trip where I was wishing for the climb to start so we could warm up.  Over the timing mat and we were off.  First climb was great; we hit the top, crossed the border and descended into France.  I found a good group of 20 or so in the valley working together until we hit the bottom of Port De Bales.  I had been up this climb before, I knew it was beautiful.  I also knew it was hard.  I chatted with Phil through the bottom valley then the steeps happened.  10% to 7% back to 12% to 9% little consistency and difficult to find the rhythm.  Keep smiling nic, keep smiling, I tried through gritted teeth as the back pain returned.  More and more people passed me as I crawled to the top. The scenery helped.
Port De Bales

At the top of Port De Bales, I managed to stretch my back, drink some coke, and enjoy the incredible descent.  The nice thing about being shot off the back of a group is being able to take in the whole descent solo, it was amazing, a favourite part of the Pyrenees for me. I felt like Heidi in the mountains.  Next up, Superbagneres;  it was hot, 31degrees.   Slowly pressing the pedals forward, slowly climbing through the village and woods, out into the open vista of mountains.  It became breathtaking... literally.  I passed Christian, the  French guy that had also cycled the Alpes Haute Route just 2 weeks before, with one arm and one leg.  Yep that's right 1 leg, a completely incredible feat.  And there I was whinging about my back.  I made it to the top within the time cut off, and it felt sensational to be surrounded by snow capped peaks.  Big smiles once more.

Road up Superbagneres
Top of the world

That evening we stayed in the pretty town of Bagneres-de-Luchon. The contrast to Spain was clear, shuttered windows, tall architecture, great food.   The hotel I stayed in was small, with lack of bike security, but no matter, I had always wanted to sleep with my bike! 

Stage 4: 133k 4000m  Col de Perysourde, Col d'Azet, Cole d'Aspin, Col du Tourmalet

I slept poorly that evening, anxious about the marathon stage and woken through the night with my room mate sleep talking. I woke at 5am to head for breakfast before the start at 7am.  I was really worried.  I was exhausted, my legs were toast, my back hurt, I had had little sleep and I was about to take on what was effectively the equivalent of an Etape stage. Not even beetroot juice could save me now.  To top it off, I discovered the caliper buckle on my shoe had snapped.  Fortunately I was saved by a friend with with a roll of Gaffa tape. 

The first climb of the day was Perysourde, a pretty climb, but long, and as soon as the climbing started I knew I was in trouble.  Effectively going backwards as people continued to pass me. Today was going to be one long day.  I was concious of needing to complete it within the cut off time with an average pace of 15km per hour needed.  The descent from Perysourde was fast and beautiful then pretty much straight into the next climb, Col d'Azet.  This was steep, and challenging, steep sections I found hard as they required deep breaths, deep breaths hurt my back. So much so at the top I was in tears.  The last km was a struggle.  I dropped the bike and lay onto my back to stretch it.  The medics came trying to get me on the bus, I refused.  As a physio I knew that the pain, as bad as it was, was not causing further damage, just a case of grin and bear it. 

 The descent off Col d'Azet I openly sobbed. I thought of Claire, my friend who had inspired me to raise money for Target Ovarian Cancer, and all the donations that had been made and the words of encouragement from everyone at home.  Whatever pain I was in was nothing compared to what she had suffered fighting cancer.  And here I was, doing what I loved, surrounded by incredible scenery and inspiring people.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but very thankful to be there. 

Lake  before ascent of Col d'Aspin

The climb of Col D'Apsin, I started with a Brazilian guy.  He sat on my wheel on the lower less steep sections.  Towards the end the gradient increased, at which point my speed decreased.  My Brazilian friend took the lead, and despite his encouragement I failed to hold his wheel, but with only a few km to go I was soon at the top.  Another lie down to stretch, another discussion with the medics, a bottle refill, and I was on my way again.  Just the Tourmalet to go... just.

After the wonderful descent of Aspin we turned a corner and a shadow loomed in the distance, the almighty Tourmalet towered majestically in front of us, snow at the top.  It looked a very very long way away.  Head down I pressed on concious the clock was ticking.  As the day wore on it got hotter.  The cyclists around me now were limited in conversation.  Grunts, groans, head down, this was no longer a holiday, this was work.
It was very hot, 35 degrees, no respite as we climbed the side of the mountain.  I saw a guy soaking his shirt in a stream, great idea I thought, if only i could get off my bike and be sure I would get back on it.  

John from London came alongside me, "how are you?" "my back hurts" I grumbled, "my ankle hurts" he replied.  A reminder that at this stage in the game, for everyone it was a struggle and all had their own inner battles to contend with.  Happy we would make the cut off, John offered to stay with me up the climb.  Head down tailing his wheel I was certainly happy for the moral support, although felt bad that the only conversation I could proffer was heavy breathing with the occasional groan.  Bet he regretted his chivalry pretty quickly.  "What are they?" he asked, I lifted my head "Llamas" I muttered. Head back down. 

Somehow, when you exert yourself so completely physically it empties your mind of everything and makes you connect more wholly with yourself.  Thoughts are banished, worries, stress, you reach your base level as a human.  I felt like a totally spent Tour de France rider that you see, hollow eyes, empty expression, complete and utter exhaustion but still moving forward.  Nothing left apart from the desire, the need to continue, each pedal stroke taking me just a little bit closer to my goal.  4k from the summit we stopped at a feed station in the little ski town of La Mongie.  A stretch of  the back, some coke, a banana and we were off again.  I was very tempted to ditch the bike and hijack one of the roaming donkeys for the final k's.  

In what felt like a lifetime later we crested the summit and the finish.  I've never felt so happy to hear the beep of a timing mat.  I had made it, I dropped the bike. John handed me a coke, I gave him a thankful hug and almost burst into tears (again). What a view!
Exhausted at the top of the Tourmalet

He looked like I felt
I made it into the race village to receive a call telling me I had won the Coup de Couer.  A prize for showing courage that day.  I felt a little embarrassed, continuing when in pain is not really a demonstration of courage, more a demonstration of stubbornness and idiocy.  Tired, not yet showered, I received my prize at the presentation, explaining how i was raising money for charity.  I also won an identical prize in the raffle.   I handed the additional ticket to the well deserved John who had suffered the last km's of the Tourmalet with me.

Stage 5: Time trial up Hautacam, 16k 1088m

A 'rest day'.  You know you've become a little deranged when you consider a 1000m+ mountain TT a 'rest'. Comparatively it really was.  It was a beautiful climb. People lined the lower parts, shouting encouragement, "allez la fille" cyclists passing me encouraged me on, 'go coup de couer', 'bravo Nic', keep going! The lantern Rouge Fergus, the back marker who rides each day to encourage the people struggling, gave me words of motivation.  It felt amazing to be part of what now felt like a family, all of us in it together, all for our own reasons., whatever they were: to finish in the top ten, to make the top 100, to finish in the time limit, just to get through each stage.  For everybody it was hard, but everyone was united in the struggle.  Nearing the top a group of horses sat on one of the bends, taking in the spectacle before them.  

Time Trial Hautacam.
I enjoyed my prize that afternoon in the spa.  We stayed on a camp site complete with swimming pool, basking in the sunshine, now this is a holiday.   I felt like the Haute Route was almost complete.  Just 2 more stages to go. It was all downhill from here... well not quite.

Stage 6: 101k 2300m Col de Borderes, Col de Soulor, Col d'Aubisque

The weather had changed resulting in cloudy skies but fortunately no rain.  I felt well rested and hopeful that my back was better following the relatively easy day previously. The climbs today were like steps finishing with Aubisque which is reportedly one of the most beautiful climbs in the Pyrenees, if you can see it that is.   

By the time we entered the fog on the Aubisque my grunts had progressed to obscenities.  I was kind of really over it now.  I was sick of the pain, sick of the climbing, sick of the struggle and without incredible vistas to help me along i was quite frankly pissed off.    The same woman that interviewed me on stage 2 pressed a camera into my face at the top of the Aubisque, I raised my eyebrows, unable to smile, 'I'm having a very bad day' I said woefully.  Smiling was clearly not going to help me now.  

Sense of humour failure on top of the Aubisque
After summiting the Aubisque things did get easier, without having to take deep breaths the pain ebbed away.  I descended well, passing others on the way down, apologising for all the moaning I'd subjected them to on the way up.  In the valley I trucked along and met with the welcome view of a pack of men in pink, the Black Widow Cycling Club.  This group of guys were all about the fun, strong cyclists clad in bright pink and silver lycra, for them it was all about having fun along the way.  

I was welcomed into the fold by Paul, a fellow Dulwich Paragon member and the smiles returned.  Pretty quickly we formed a decent chain gang and trucked along the remaining 60k.  The roads and valleys at times were just like the hills of Kent.  Working with the group it felt like a Wednesday night chain gang.  Smiles returned and I made it through to the finish.  Broken and in need of a serious injection of sense of humour, my prayers were rewarded with a stay in the Parc Beaumont, a 5 star hotel in Pau. Perfect.  One more day to go.

Stage 7: 177k 3000m Col du Soudet, Col d'Ahusquy

For some reason I think we all thought the final stage would be more like a token gesture with all the hard work done it was just lip service to the other stages to get us to Anglet. I don't think any of us had listened to the brief and realised we still had almost 200k to go.  

It was raining.  All the Brits decked out in the Rapha gear were in their element.  The French were convinced the stage would be cancelled, thankfully the first ascent was, but the climb that remained was no easy feat.  Col d'Ahusquy was hard and steep, rarely below 10%, but with a controlled descent I quickly found my friends in pink again. It was like cycling along the Yorkshire moors, with rain and rolling mists. Punchy hills interrupted the flat sections. We traversed through fields and little villages.  

With Black Widow cc on Col D'Ahusquay (aka Yorkshire)
Towards the end I lost the group and worked with one other girl.  We reached the 10k to go sign.  10k to the finish not only of the stage but of the Haute Route! We crossed the line to cheers, a medal thrown over my head, I had made it, unbelievably I had made it. 

Despite all my worries, and doubts, despite the exhaustion and the pain I had done it and it felt so good.  It turned out after 800km, almost 20000m of climbing lots of mountains I finished 16th out of 34 women.  Not that it mattered.  It was all about the journey.  I had met amazing inspiring people, felt on top of the world and found my lowest points, seen amazing vistas and had been cajoled, supported and encouraged by everyone around me, I felt incredibly lucky.  I was also very proud to have raised almost £2000 for Target Ovarian Cancer   

Biarritz and beer
It was great to relax that evening without the worry of having to sit on the bike the next day.  Free beer and champagne made the final celebration of the week.  Not only of the week but also of the months and months of training leading up to it.  Watching the post Haute Route video, the heros of the week were recognized, Greg LeMond was sharing a beer with us, we had made it.  Big smiles all round.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely.

And then there was beach...
Huge thank you to the Haute Route, for putting on such an incredible event which I could only look at as a complete logistical nightmare, amazing that they can execute it so well.  Thank you to LaFuga for the loan of the incredible cervelo R5, definitely on my Christmas list if Santa manages to win the Euromillions.  Thank you to all that sponsored me and encouraged me along. It made all the difference.   

Saturday 31 August 2013

Trying to update this from an iphone is proving tricky. It may be easier if you wish to follow me to friend me on facebook: nicholaroberts or twitter @nicroberts_

I will endeavour to update this when I can. Just about to start stage 1. Slightly sad to leave Barcelona with its beautiful art, blue skies and coffee shops. Part of me wants to stay here a while. But i am also excited about the adventure that lies ahead.

Wish me luck.

Thursday 29 August 2013


Welcome to my blog.  I'm very new to this but lots of people have asked me if I will be blogging about my trip Haute Route Pyrenees so here goes

I have just finished packing, panicking and procrastinating.  I don't feel ready, but I'm not sure you can ever feel ready for what I am about to undertake.  I've had to stop looking at the profile as it makes me feel physically sick.  I just know there will be mountains... lots of mountains.

Tomorrow at 7am I leave for Barcelona, 2 nights there and then the fun begins on Sunday.  I will endeavour to update as I go.

Thank you to everyone who has sponsored me so far. I feel overwhelmed by the generosity shown. Almost at the target.  For anyone who would still like to donate please follow the link.

Right I had better get some sleep.  Barcelona, here I come!