There was a buzz to breakfast this morning. There was no tweaking to be done to the bikes: everyone's bikes had been fettled within an inch of their lives the night before. That had been the primary directive on Sunday evening when we all converged on the Hotel Bellevue in Hendaye to start our expedition.
The eleven Randonneurs had arranged to meet at the hotel in Hendaye on Sunday. The luggage, equipment and Stu, Julie & Tom had arrived in Vincent the Vivaro (or "Vincent Van Go") and the bikes, Trev and Lorraine were in driving down in Andy the Ambulance (actually a small van which had previously been used as an animal ambulance) The vans had made their way through the Chunnel and down through France, stopping overnight en-route. The rest of us were arriving by various other routes encompassing all modes of transport apart from skateboards. Rob, Steve, Sarah & I, were survivors of the Ryanair flight from Stansted to Biarritz. Geoff and Viv were cycling down from the UK (the mad fools) by tandem and had taken a couple of weeks to tour through France on their way. Geoff's legs would be nicely warmed up for the Raid - and I suspected Viv would be relieved to sit on something other than a saddle. They were yet to arrive, but as the upturned bikes along the car-park hedge underwent treatment by rubber gloved hands like a Tour de France field hospital, Primrose (the Telford Tandem) pulled into the car park.
The last of the Magnificent Seven was due into the railway station shortly. Nathan was holidaying with his family close to our ultimate destination, and was making his way to the start in Hendaye by train.
With the bikes being setup and then stored in the hotel garage, Nathan was collected from the station - and we arranged to meet in the breakfast room for the walk down to the sea-front restaurant for our meal. Resplendent in our white Raid Randonneur T-Shirts we all sat down to the menu-du-jour, which although lighter on the pasta front than we could have done with before our 123mile Day 1 ride, was tasty and filling.
As usual before an event - I found sleeping hard. It's strange, at home I'll quite happily sleep soundly, get up and jump on the bike to ride 70, 80, 130 miles on a weekend without a problem, but make it a sportive, or a special event, the nerves set in and I'll toss and turn all night. It's as if having a number stuck on your bike makes it suddenly matter more. Of course the 24 degree temperature, lack of air-conditioning, a few beers, and a strange bed (what is it with French hotels and bolsters?) may have contributed.
I suspect that everyone else was also feeling a little apprehensive at breakfast, which was unsurprising given there were 450miles and 44,000ft of climbing ahead of us over the next four days. That would justifiably distract anyone's thoughts over their croissants and chocolat chaud, it certainly did mine. Rob resumed his role as the butt of food-based ribaldry: as a 6ft+ chap with very little excess weight on his bones, it still staggered us how much he was able to pack away at each mealtime (and between) and still not gain any weight. Fundamentally it's just jealousy - at least on my part. It had taken me a real effort of will to get and keep my weight down to 13st (ish), unfortunately failing to miss my target of 12st7 through lack of willpower, or to be more accurate: a surfeit of chocolate and biscuits…
With breakfast dispatched, it was all down to the morning sunshine of the car park to mount our steeds, and head to the 'official' start. Trev had planned all four days' rides, plus the route to the official start and we all had the routes on our Garmins. 'Ride Start' was selected by someone, and we all trailed the half-mile or so to the sea-front for our official Depart Real.
As we pulled up next to the sea-wall on the promenade, someone's Garmin serenaded us with the 'you've completed your course' fanfare, at the same time as my phone rang. Given that the vans hadn't yet appeared I suspected there was a hold-up so pulled the phone from my pocket. It was Sarah.
"Hi - we don't know where you are...."
This didn't bode well for our support crew at the start of a hectic four days - not able to find the starting point less than a mile from the hotel!
Thankfully a combination of Trev going to lead them in, plus directions via the bar where we'd had our welcome-to-France bieres, brought them quickly to our sides for kick-off photos and good-luck kisses from other halves. Nathan finished fiddling with his saddle (a la Eddy Merckx) and we were off.
The road followed the coast for a short while, up and down headlands, before turning inland through rolling hills. We turned a corner and found ourselves steadily climbing to our first col signpost: the Col de St Ignace. The first of many - and if they were all this easy, it would be a straightforward ride. However - the Col de St Ignace only shows as a little bump on the profile of the day's riding, which included the Col d'Osquich and Col de Marie Blanque on the way to our overnight stop a third of the way up the Aubisque.
Our first planned stop was to be in Esplette - one of the official control points at which we needed to have the Raid Pyrenean carnets stamped to prove our presence. We rolled into pedestrianised and cobbled town centre to find a willing local with a rubber stamp. We found a willing cafe owner - but not our support crew who had the cards! A quick phone call determined that we'd beaten them to the tea stop. They had just camped up in a layby we'd cycled past on the way into the town, so helmets were re-donned and we picked our way back through the shoppers and a few Japanese tourists who were snapping away at the intrepid randonneurs.
This was intended to be a quick tea stop as we were only 28miles in - too quick for the kettle to get warm on the gas stove, so Danish pastries and juice was the menu. One of the counter-intuitive things about training for longer and longer rides is that it seems to take you longer to get warmed up and into your stride. When I started cycling and managing about 15-16 miles the first mile or two felt hard work, beating your body and legs into submission: "You *are* enjoying this." Once I got to the second mile, the legs would eventually concede it was ok to continue. Extending this to cycling 100miles each day meant that my legs were only just getting into the groove at 28miles!
Onwards and upwards (literally) to the first visible col on the route-plan, Col d'Osquich at mile 67. The weather was holding nicely and until we hit the slopes we were all together. It was like a Sunday club ride with cracking views. Once we hit the slope of Col d'Osquich we started to string out. Last year's LEJOG had been very much a group ride (although often two groups) as the majority of the terrain was flat. I say flat - this is only in hindsight and when compared to the Pyrenees. Memories of horrid ascents and road surfaces wane with time, I've discovered - leaving you with the gems of spectacular views and descents to savour and remember. The A74 near Moffat is an exception to this. I've still got the Specialized logo branded into my backside from the road surface there!
This was now a 'proper' climb. I quickly dropped back - my training has been all about endurance rather than speed - so I settled in for a constant effort up the 5km 400m climb (averaged about 8% gradient). I started to see other riders with the Henday-Cerbere official Raid number sticking out from their seat posts. Some were passing me - I was passing others. A scot I chatted to briefly as he caught me up was aiming to complete in 4 1/2 days and impressed that we were aiming to get to Eaux Bonne on Day1. I passed a couple of guys in black and white jerseys with velotours.de logos. A cheery "Guten Tag" opening salvo was returned with a "Guten Tag... but I'm Danish" - so thanks to Borgen and an employee in Denmark was able to bat it back with a "God eftermittag" which got a laugh as I pulled away up the slope... Probably at my pronunciation.
The half hour climb warranted a brief stop for a photo call at the top of Col d'Osquich (or the col d'Ostrich as it had been renamed) and a quick gathering around the vans to don gilets, and refill bottles. Then the almost audible smiles of a bunch of Bedfordshire cyclists on their first 'proper' descent on smooth roads, in fab weather, with cracking views! The different descending skills (and probably weight!) meant that we successfully regrouped on the other side.
Lunch stop was planned for Tardets (mile 85), so we pushed on as a group, ascending slightly over a couple more minor cols. We passed the velotours.de group a couple of times as they paused to regroup, and then they passed us as we stopped for Nathan to 'empty' himself and then refill his water. We cruised past them up a rise and then turned right off the road at the insistent biddle-beep of the stylophone septet of Garmins. Down the road we cruised, as the road became more of a lane, and then a gravel track. "Is this one of Bill's routes?" - Bill Cottrill is renowned within the club for his route planning which on occasion makes full use of cycle tracks and bridleways, briefly converting a club-run into a cyclocross training session. Thankfully we turned again after half a mile, on to a smoother lane, and back up to a main road in few hundred yards, along which a black and white peloton span easily past. We should have stayed on the main road.
For some reason the pace picked up - probably because someone at the front smelled the coffee of the lunch stop, maybe there was an intention to catch up with the velotours.de peloton (which, being bigger, was now fairly motoring along). Whatever the reason, the pace was starting to take a toll on my legs, and eventually I dropped off. Nathan, bless him, towed me back up a couple of times - but when we arrived at Tardets, I was spent. The folding chairs were already occupied, which gave me the perfect excuse to collapse on the bean bag in the back of Andy The Ambulance and refuel as best I could for the rest of the day.
My right knee had started to ache. I'd switched to new shoes in June so that I could get used to them before the Raid, and although I'd worn them on club rides and the turbo, looking back now, I realised the only time I'd worn them on a long ride was a trip up to Norfolk. My knee had ached then, but I'd not really taken any notice. The Etape had seen me wearing my old, slipper-comfortable, but battered, shoes as my new ones had been wet. Still - it was just an ache, and that last section had been a toughie. We were over half way to the end of the day - just the first bit the Col d'Aubisque to climb to our day 1 hotel at Eaux-Bonne.
Parked in front of a very deserted-looking fire-station (we just hoped that any arsonists also observed the siesta that the Pyrenean-French population observed) we tucked into tea, rolls, cake, and packed away carbs. One of the nice things about long-distance, multi-day events is that you can (and should) eat pretty much anything you can get your hands on. You're likely to be burning off 5000-6000 calories every day, if not more, and it's important that your body gets enough to prepare for the next day.
A local stray dog decided that there was an opportunity for some free grub, and wandered up to make our acquaintance. Not for the last time this week, it homed in on its best source of tidbits and affection: Toby... Sociable dogs were to be a recurring theme during our travels.
A short while after lunch, we paused at the base of a climb for a besoin naturel - and Nathan and I (probably because we have bigger bladders than the peanut-sized bladders of Trev an Stu) were slow to remount our bikes and follow the rest up the climb out of the valley. We turned the corner around the head-land, only for our Garmins to trill urgently - "Off Course". How had we missed a turning? We certainly weren't going fast. We turned back down the slope and freewheeled looking for another turn out of the valley... And ended up back at the bottom - with the only turn visible a 20% narrow path straight up the side. This wasn't the route the others had taken - but without Trev's knowledge of the route, we decided that to stick to the Garmin would probably be best. Mad fools.
The 20% climb hairpinned twice, and the out-of-the-saddle grind shot my mind (and my legs) back to Honister or Wrynose Passes and the Fred Whitton. Thankfully short-lived, we topped the valley quickly and rolled along our Garmin route to a crossing of the main road, and another steepish hill. As we cleared the top, an explosion of fur leapt across the road, splitting in half and barking madly. The two dogs kept speed as Nathan and I jumped on the pedals to escape their attentions - and we had a sharp bend on gravel ahead. Direct action was necessary - out popped the bidon, and a squirt of SiS Go hit my pursuer in the face, which seemed to do the trick.
Downhill on gravel again - it was hard to believe this was the right track - the Garmin route was looking less trustworthy as the day progressed. Another sharp bend and a climb on loose sand and stones brought us into the garden, and very nearly the laps, of a local farmer and his family. Spotting we were English (I suspect the combination of the text on our jerseys, the fact that we were muttering and cursing about Garmins, or possibly because it's an English trait to follow instructions blindly - and therefor a regular occurrence) he told us quite cheerfully that there was no route through.
Sliding down the scree of the road we suddenly realised that we'd have to get past those damned dogs again. Knowing how sticky sweet Blackcurrant SiS Go is - I wondered if the dog was enjoying licking his chops, or possibly unable to blink. His next grooming would certainly be interesting... As we passed the farm, it just took for Nathan to lift his bidon from the cage for the barking to stop instantly, and an about-face back to the veranda as we span quickly past.
Returning to the main road, Nathan and I cranked up the pace - and before long caught up with the rest of the group who had eased the pace and wondered where we had got to. They'd ignored their Garmins, and just stuck to the main road all the way along. Far more efficient - but a lot less exciting!
Deciding to stay on the main road to avoid any more RideWithGPS cyclocross routes is fine, as long as it's clear which is the main road. One of the characteristics of French villages (and towns - and often cities too) is the way that signposts direct you into towns and the central market square. The place de ville often has seven or eight roads converging, and nary a signpost on any of them. Nor lines on the road. Nor traffic lights. Even when there are traffic lights they seem to be on some kind of random number generator, picking permutations of pairs of traffic streams to joust their way to their chosen escape from the town. This traffic management philosophy has been honed to perfection on the Champs Elysee.
In this case, our Garmins were insistent that the road along which we escaped from Lurbe-Sant-Christau was the wrong one; so we ducked down a side-street to join a decent road, which became a track, which became a path, which became a dry(ish) stream bed. Calls for Bills route-planning ideals to be officially banned, we stopped. My knee was hurting - and I didn't fancy slipping off a rock and twisting it more. As the others hoicked their top-tubes over their shoulders, Geoff and I as the tail-end-charlies (or lanternes rouges) spotted cars on the road slightly up the hill, parallel to our track. We decided that to clamber over the collapsing dry-stone wall and brambles to walk over a dry field was preferable to a tough-mudder wade through mud. A hundred yards over lush grass and a small barbed-wire fence brought us onto the main road, and gave us the opportunity to wait and watch the helmets and seats bobbing along the top of the hedge that lined a muddy stream. Snatches of hysterics were wafted up to us by the wind, and an ideal photo opportunity when the the head-shaking, chuckling explorers emerged from a path up to our road. The routes on the Garmins were to be treated very sceptically from here on in.
Back together we span along the road to the start of the park containing the next col - Col de Marie Blanque. A col that I wasn't expecting based on my pre-ride investigations. Trev had re-done the routes a few times on the run-up to us leaving, due to various Garmin-based tech problems. This is probably where the cyclocross snippets had snuck in - but it also managed to bring in the Col de Marie Blanque at 715m ascent over 9.3km. Although the average is nearly 8%, there are a number of 11% sections - none of this did I know when we started the climb.
Again, I quickly dropped off the back. Spinning my legs steadily and keeping my gear low - the signs started to appear: 9km a sommet - 10%. This was going to take some time - at the speed I was going, I'd be at this for about 45mins. Keep it steady. Keep turning. Round and round. Round and ouch. Hm. Turn, turn, turn, turn. Turn, ouch. I slipped down a gear again to allow me to put less pressure on my knee. Spin, spin, turn, turn, rooouunndd (this is obviously a steeper bit) ouch.
The clouds had started to become more solid - the mist droplets had now become proper water, and it had started to succumb to gravity and was falling ever heavier around me. The birds fell eerily silent as I ground the pedals round. Looking at my speed of about 6km/hr as I passed a 6km a sommet sign, the coincidence made me smile. The realisation that that mean another hour of this wiped it quickly and damply from my face.
An ominous rumble explained the eerie silence. A thunderstorm was a-brewing. The rain grew heavier yet, and as I tried to find different angles for my feet, positions for my legs, and songs to sing in my head, soon discovered that the pain in my knee was inescapable. My mood started to fade to darkness, accompanied by the sky. The rumbles rolled around the curves of the climb and were joined by sheet lightning which only served to deepen the dimness when they paused for breath.
There was nothing to be done other than keep turning the pedals. First one, then the other. Had I not started down the dark spiral of despair pulled by pain, wet and failing light; I should have recognised the signs of an imminent bonk. I keep kicking myself in hindsight - perhaps a gel, or maybe a flapjack could have yanked me from the pit. However when I heard Sarah calling through the rain, probably only about 20metres away, my resolve had been ground into a powder by my knee, and then rinsed down the slopes of Col de Marie Blanque. I could go no further.
With the thunderclouds continuing to empty their contents as I knocked the wheels out of the bike - the frame went into Andy and the wheels into Vinnie... I climbed disconsolately into the front of the van. Crushed. Going round and round in my head was something I'd read on a blog about the Raid - 1 in 20 fail to complete, often due to knee pain. I don't even know it was true, or where I read it, but it span over and over as I sat and watched the rain and darkness batter at the window as we made our way to Eaux-Bonnes and our hotel.
My abandon had caused a problem - we didn't have enough seats for me to join the other crew in the van. Julie, Sarah and Toby were in the Vivaro, and Viv and Lorraine were in Andy. Toby volunteered to take the beanbag in the back of Vinnie - bless him - a decision he came to regret. The snaking road down from Col de Marie Blanque, combined with no windows or light in the back of the van meant that when he finally emerged as we arrived at Eaux-Bonnes, he was a distinct shade of green and a very-much more subdued Toby than everyone was used to seeing.
The Hotel de la Poste in Eaux-Bonnes is a bizarre mixture of eastern-European tired décor, hotel Budapest surrealism, and Victorian plumbing. The centre of the hotel is a three-storey atrium with the rooms overlooking balconies to the crazy-paved courtyard and indoor, non-functioning fountain below. Our bikes were to line the walls when they arrived. It had the feel of faded grandeur, having obviously been very salubrious in the past - but never brought up to date with redecoration or furniture.
However - the historically-posh dining room was to provide the best meal of the trip: a fixed menu of gallons of mushroom soup, which seemed to just keep coming; ox-tongue in gravy with vegetables and pasta which also seemed endless and crème-brulee dessert.
Steve had managed to fall off his bike - and there was much concern from the support crew and the mistress d' , but he shrugged it off and self-medicated with the wine on offer.
I had struggled with the stairs and my knee, (only discovering on arriving at our room that there was a lift) and so dosed up with ibuprofen and went for an early night to rest it. My plan was to see how it went the next day with the drugs.
The Victorian plumbing provided a backdrop soundscape of rushing water as I drifted quickly to sleep in preparation for our assault on the rest of climb to the Col d'Aubisque on Day 2.