At what glacial speed does an exhausted cyclist stop moving forwards and start toppling sideways? That was the question going through my mind as I tried to ignore the pain in my cramping legs, squeezed the last few drops of warm water from my bottle, and stole a glance at my handlebar computer. Four miles per hour was the sorry reading that greeted me.
It was only the second day of my foolhardy attempt to pedal the length of the Pyrenees and already I was wilting. How far had I left to go? Three miles to the top of the Col d’Aubisque, and then… only another 300 after that. How had I allowed myself to be lured into such a sweaty folly?
In fact, I’d been planning a long-distance cycling challenge for a very long time. My mother passed away seven years ago, aged just 51, and going through her belongings my siblings and I found a list of things she had wanted to do before she died, compiled soon after her rather dismal prognosis. The items ranged from the comically ambitious (“Learn a martial art” and “Master a foreign language”) to the downright confusing (“Keep chickens” and “Go down the Thames and under London Bridge in an amphibious car”). Some make me laugh (“Be towed by a banana boat”), some pained me to read (“See my grand-daughter grow up”). Sadly, she wasn’t given enough time to make much of a dent in her “bucket list” so her children each picked a couple of items to tick off on her behalf.
I chose “Get fit” and – because it seemed a suitable partner – “Cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats” (how this found its way onto the list I still have no idea – my mother never cycled further than the corner shop). I completed task one in the six months after her funeral, transforming myself from a portly 15 stone to a comparatively svelte 12, but due to various commitments the second had eluded me. So when I was finally presented with an empty diary last summer, it seemed only sensible to fulfill my promise.
Then I did some thinking. Land’s End to John O’Groats is certainly the most famous challenge for British cyclists – but all those A-roads and angry drivers, and the absolute certainty of rain, hardly make it the most enticing route. Wouldn’t mum, who loved nothing more than sunning herself in the Med while cradling a glass of rosé, have really preferred a two-wheeled adventure in warmer climes? You see where I’m going...
My research led me to Bike Basque, a tour operator based in Biarritz. Its one-week “Raid Pyrenees” itinerary takes cyclists from France’s Atlantic coast to its Mediterranean shores, tackling one of Europe’s great mountain ranges on the way. What it lacked in length (around 450 miles, compared with 874 for Land’s End to John O’Groats) it made up with steep slopes (16 major ascents and 40,000ft of climbing). A reasonable substitute, I concluded.
Bike Basque arranges transfers from the airport, bike hire and accommodation, and its guides ride with the group while owner Xavier Lopez – a French former racing cyclist – follows in a minibus with luggage and much-needed refreshments. Our ragtag group numbered eight – four Englishmen, a Canadian couple and a Polish couple – and we were kept in line by another Briton: Nigel Hale-Hunter, who coaches young racers when he’s not fixing tourists’ punctures.
Elegant Biarritz, with its seaside setting and plentiful pinxtos bars, offers a fine starting point and we broke the ice over a few bottles of the local cider. The following morning, after watching the surfers brave the cold Atlantic, we turned our wheels east.
Our start was inauspicious, with the first few miles taking the best part of half an hour as we inched past traffic lights and escaped the city. But alluring landscapes quickly enveloped us as we pedalled south into the heart of France’s green and pleasant Basque Country. Day one, a mere “mise en jambe” (warm up) according to Xavier, took us over three relatively short and shallow climbs, including – after a brief foray into Spain – the Col d’Ispeguy. Reached via a sinuous ascent, it is a contender for Europe’s finest border crossing; we ate lunch at the pass surrounded by lush mountain pastures and ambling horses.
Eighty miles stretched the definition of “warm up”, but having benefited from fresh legs and forgiving terrain I was feeling confident about the task in hand as we entered the sleepy village of Barcus for our first overnight stop. That faith took a hammering the following morning when I stretched my stiff muscles and took a peek at the second day’s route map and weather forecast: another 70 miles, with two proper ascents – one devilishly steep and one interminably long – to be tackled in temperatures of 30C.
The Col de Marie Blanque, a one-hour slog with maximum gradients of 15 per cent, looked the harder climb on paper, but it was the Aubisque that really hurt. We reached the lower slopes during the hottest part of the day and I had unwisely allowed myself to run low on sustenance. The group – which until then had maintained a sociable little peloton – quickly scattered, leaving me with only my own thoughts and doubts for company. Sweat poured, momentum evaporated – as did my speed, from six miles per hour to five, then to four... I was cracking, but would I break?
The Aubisque, which tops out at 5,607 feet and whose Eastern side – the Cirque du Litor – features sheer drops and staggering views, is one of the great cols of the Tour de France, having featured 45 times since 1947. In one legendary incident, in 1951, the Dutch rider Wim van Est, while leading the race, tumbled over the edge of the Cirque but miraculously survived the 70-metre fall after landing on a grassy ledge. His team manager tied 40 tyres together to haul up the badly injured rider, and a monument now reads: “He survived but lost the yellow jersey.” My plight paled in comparison. But it was thoughts of my mother’s suffering before she died – while maintaining the optimism evident in her ultimate to-do list – that really put my hardship into context. If she could keep her sense of humour with a terminal illness, surely I could reach this mountain pass under my own steam. And, with memories of her for motivation, I did.
Our next major obstacle – confronted on day three – was the 6,939-foot Col du Tourmalet, another Tour de France climb cocooned in myth. In 1913, luckless Frenchman Eugène Christophe suffered a broken bike fork on the mountain and, with all outside assistance banned under the early Tour’s archaic rules, was forced to repair it himself at a forge in the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan. His handiwork kept him in the race – though jobsworth officials penalised him for allowing a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows. A statue celebrates the story.
Pyrenean weather is famously variable, and after the blazing sunshine of the previous day, my two-hour grind up the Tourmalet took place in lashing rain and bracing temperatures. I battled the elements, and a devilishly steep final stretch, having been assured by Xavier that sanctuary awaited at the top in the shape of a cafe serving chocolat chaud. Except it didn’t, because it was fermé. Restaurants in France, I was quickly discovering, open their doors only after exhausting all other options, and the owner had presumably decided to visit an aunt, go fishing and/or observe de Gaulle’s birthday, rather than earn a small fortune overcharging tired cyclists during the peak summer season. Cue a freezing descent and a lot of muttered insults; thankfully the minibus was waiting in the valley with food and dry clothes.
The sun remained elusive as our group vanquished two more Pyrenean beasts: the Col de Peyresourde and the Col de Menté, on day five, but reappeared at the foot of the Portet d’Aspet. Here, during the 1995 Tour de France, the promising young Italian professional Fabio Casartelli died after a high-speed crash. A poignant memorial sundial, which highlights three dates – his birth, his death, and the day he won an Olympic gold medal – now remembers the tragedy, and provided an apt place for my own reflections.
Indeed, the whole trip offered a unique opportunity for contemplation. Like many people, I’ve always tended to avoid dwelling on difficult feelings, and the (welcome) distractions of the previous seven years – a busy office job, a wedding, home ownership – meant I’d never taken the time to really consider the loss of my mother. A solo holiday, albeit in the company of other cyclists, removed these distractions. Yes, uncorking the bottle of emotions tinged my trip with sadness (I would have given anything for the chance to soak up the bewitching mountain views in her company – on a tandem, perhaps?!), but surely it was good for the soul.
With the most famous climbs behind us we moved into the Ariège, a wonderfully uncrowded but beautiful bit of the world that offers a liberal dose of ‘La France profonde’. The village of Massat, with its creaking antiques shops, looked like something from the 19th century, and I met a friendly farmer with a pet crow. It was the best day of the week. Inspired by the gorgeous landscapes, and buffeted by a generous tailwind, I flew up the Col du Port, and was rewarded with a stunning view of cow-filled fields and forested peaks. Even better was to follow. The rolling Route des Corniches, an utterly beguiling stretch of road, took us, grinning with delight, from the Ariège river to the spa town of Ax-les-Thermes – where hot springs and massages awaited.
And suddenly the end was in sight. Our last leg included one monster ascent, the Port de Pailhéres, and a couple of lumps, before a mad dash for Perpignan. We covered the mostly downhill final 50 miles, with a helping hand from the prevailing breeze, in under two hours. Our rapid progress made the change in climate – from chilly alpine to humid Mediterranean – all the more remarkable; we had ski resorts for lunch and palm trees for dinner.
A surprise greeted us as we rolled into our final hotel. One of the Englishmen among our group, who completed the ride to raise money for charity, had planned to meet the rest of his family in Perpignan to celebrate. And they were out in force on the roadside as we rounded the final bend – wife, brother, kids – waving Catalan flags and whooping their approval. It was a touching denouement to an emotional journey.
My “Raid Pyrenees” complete, I plotted one last assault – of the hotel bar. I hadn’t quite cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, as my mother had ambitiously put on her bucket list, but my 450-mile odyssey still felt like an achievement of which to be proud. And as I soaked up the evening sun with a large glass of rosé in hand, I was pretty sure she would have approved.
How to do it
Bike Basque’s Raid Pyrenees tours cost from £1,530 per person including all meals, accommodation and transfers. Riders can bring their own bike or pay an extra £205 to hire one. Flights extra. Departures from June to September. See bikebasque.co.uk or call +33 6 95 94 82 37.