This excursion was bound to happen at some point. We are fortunate enough to have a beautiful house in the foothills of the Pyrenees. From the brow of our hill you can see the (still) snow capped mountains, dusted beautifully by the closely hugged clouds. The area around is blooming with life, but you can’t help but stare up at Le Pic du Midi, the observatory jotting out at the top like the most gracious, elegant church spire.

This wasn’t my first outing with Pyrenean slopes. I’d done the Hautacam a year previous, and although not considered a monument, was really one of those climbs which just does not give up. Straight into 7% it barely ebbs the whole way and punishes you halfway through with 14-15% sections. Vincenzo Nibali rode his tour to victory up that climb this year in Le Tour, but it was a completely different story when I scaled it.

By comparison, I, Myself, am not built for climbing. I’m tall, haunchy, and not the slightest guy by nature. With that being said, all the recent climbing I’ve tried to incorporate has really slimmed my legs down, such to the point my quads don’t jut out over my knee anymore. Now, for a guy like me, I should be suited to the Puncheur routes and Sportives I so often challenge myself upon around the Kent Downs. However, there is no excuse for stopping, slowing or hiding on the slopes of the Cols of Southern France. There is no respite. Their cousin, the Alps, are slowly gradual, more constant and longer. The Pyrenees represent the relationship between the French and the Basque whom inhabit these areas, biting and sharp. Built like a Track sprinter, why should I think I’d be any good at these climbs? It’s all for the experience.

I’d done a lot of preparation before this ride, and I knew I was in good shape. The thing that always shocks me about travelling to Southern France is the temperature difference. You have to keep on top of Water a lot more than over here. Suddenly, Food becomes the lesser of importance when a humid climate is entered, the 1 bottle an hour rule (for me) gradually changes to 2 and you really have to be careful about planning. I knew we’d be tackling the climb in the second week so I based my training around short and sharp and a couple of longer rides to condition myself. I’d recently tackled an 100 and finished with a gap of around an hour on the guys I’d been riding with – Bare in mind I had a time in my head and not a social occasion, so it doesn’t mean much. Rest assured, my winter training had payed off.

Alas, the day came, I felt pretty bad in the morning before due to a food issue, but I wasn’t going to let that spoil the vast array of climbing I’d planned for so long. We found a petit resto in Luz-Saint-Saveur and got kitted up. Most of the challenge of riding a mountain is the mental preparation it takes. It’s like a dull ache in your legs which sears towards the end of 2 hours. You’ve gotta tell yourself you’re gonna be breathless and hurting for the remainder of that time, but it’s definitely going to be worth it. Alas, we started the climb following a Trek Tour wagon and got on our way. At this point, I’d been training with a heart rate monitor for 1-2 months, something I’d picked up when Dad gave me his Garmin. I hadn’t used on in the past, not out of ignorance, but out of wanting to learn my body by nature and get a feel for things. It’s one thing having some data telling you you’re doing ok on a climb, but actually feeling alright is a different thing. Il ne faut jamais craquer. It’s important to listen to your body and learn your rhythm, something I’ve actually found easier in my Zones with the HR. If i’m consistently in 180, I know I can push for a lot longer, but going out too fast and going into the Red is a situation no one wants to find themselves in.

As we rode away, Dad, Bless him, gave me the usual smile and “see you at the top”. It’s not that I’m better, faster, stronger, It’s that he’s a guy built to ride for hours on end. I may have a faster climb up the Tourmalet, but when it comes to riding 3 times up, it a terrifying feet, I’ll put money on the fact one day he’ll come past me on a climb and teach me a lesson.

With my Ipod in and on shuffle, I was awaiting the beautiful tunes and music. You always want something with a beat, Pantera, some brutal metal near the end to keep you going. Pretty surreal as it was, one of George Ezra’s new songs came on, Spectacular Rival, which has this sick slow drum beat. It’s the sort of thing which you can imagine being a TDF Aerial helicopter promotion shot. It really set the mood of this beautiful, bitch, horrible mountain I was about to climb.

As always, going out too hard. 4-5km in, I can’t remember if I was in or past Bareges, but the Rain was coming down harder than ever. Oh yeah, Sod’s Law. I was suffering, no doubt about that. When you’re on the bike, it’s easy to curse other people. I saw families and shopkeepers closing the doors to their establishments, staring at the orange/black clad English kid riding past in shorts and a wicked open jersey flapping against the torrential cull of rain. They stared and I gurned back, it’s a beautiful exchange. They’re thinking, “Eugh, why would anyone do that?” and the strange thing is, at the same time I’m thinking “Why am I doing this?”. You can ponder the thoughts for as long as you want, It only drags your concentration. So you look up the road, get your feel back, take a gel and keep going.

After being battered by a, I must say, fairly constant ride of 7-8-9% incline, I reached Super-Bareges. I don’t know when, or where, but I was there. I didn’t stop, I wanted to, but I wanted the climb, the time. Taking on some solids was tough, the crumbs nearly choking my lungs and definitely stopping your rhythm. You look like some ghoul who’s never been taught how to eat, but you swallow the glucose and the substance quicker than you put it in.

Fair enough, there are some things up there to take your mind off the pain. One of which never fails to make me laugh, the Pyrenean mountain Cows. They’re always there, placed across the rode, bells chiming, grass chewing. The deepest part of my soul tells me it’s an Omen to go back, find Dad and go home. “I couldn’t get past them, we should probably just head back and go”. You push the thoughts away, push the pedals down and push past the cows, hugging the middle of the road like cats eye’s in the now blazing sun. Oh yeah. Just when you think you curse the rain, you pray it comes back.

My numbers were ok, not great but ok. I was in the mid 180bpm range for bits of the ascent, and every look down confirmed it. I was tired. When I did look up, I was blessed by the most beautiful crests of these Pyreneans giants, poking into the sky like they have for centuries. Whatever vision I did have was blurred by breath, now in sheets, cold and visible in the ever dropping temperatures. 25 at the bottom, 5 degrees at the top. Not ideal.

I was passed by one guy on the ascent, fully kitted out. I’m sure it was probably a Semi-Pro or continental team, he gave me a nice glance and a Bonjour, and he went on his way. I tried as I may to stay on his wheel, to get some sort of slip stream, but to no avail. All the people that had been behind me had since drifted, not out of lack of form but for the brutality of these slopes. The side of the road was kissed by a road barrier, stopping any passing car or cyclist from falling to their untimely death some 300-400 ft below. Scary stuff.

You try and count the Kilometres, but there’s two sides to that – you can count how many you have left, or how many you’ve done. Both work. Both suck. “Only 15 to go!” “1 done, 14 left”. It’s much for muchness, you just have to try and reduce the time you hurt for. At some point I got to 2km to go. Two from the top, I could see the Telecabin from this point. Your body is screaming, your legs are literally numb, if you get the right rhythm. My heart rate had stayed pretty constant, maybe even dropped a bit. The sweat from my brow had long since soaked into the brim of my helmet. I took off my glasses and reached them to the back of my jersey cuff. Time for the final push.

The last 1-2km’s are the worst. You feel like absolute shit, your lungs are screaming, your head is pounding, your arms and legs are senseless. The one thing you don’t need is a Europcar rider coming past with a team car and a GO-Pro. He’s had his ascent, now he’s mopping up the Kilometres without a care in the world. I looked up and grimaced. Still 500m to go. I can here the bustling croud of cresters at the top, they’ve finished their work for today. I get beeps from cars, hands out windows, willing me on. It’s all too much.

You spend 6 hours on a bike in the winter maybe on Saturday and Sunday. Long and hard miles. Slow, but hard. Nothing prepares you for seeing the top of a mountain. You are in the clouds. The landscape of cutting edges – and not that of technology – are jutting out left, right and centre. The smell of thin air, the rustling of sandwich wrappers, the beeping of French autohomes. It all takes your senses by the horns as your roll over the top, you’ve crested. The final 20 pedal revolutions kill your legs, but you’ve done it. I glanced up, breathing in the homage to Mercxx at the top of the climb. Glory sears through my veins in equal measure to lactic acid. This is it. This is the top.

When the glory does wear off, it’s bloody cold. You prepare yourself by taking Arm warmers at an optimistic maximum, but nothing prepares you for the icy chill of a Col. I hustled inside the tiny Cafe, precariously perched on the edge of a Pyrenean cliff edge. Flemish, German, Italian, Australian all hit my ears at once, the warm greeting of caffeine shoots up my nose as the smells entice my senses. It’s a gift. The smell of hot food, the bustling of foreign tongue around me is such a compliment to European riding. Millions of riders flock to the slopes each year each with a common goal. Got a flat tyre? There’s an Italian Pantani Fan who can fix your wheel in a Jiff. Broken sprockets? The Jens Voigt lookalike probably has experience on the Leopard Trek Development Team.

I want to be left alone. I wanna catch my breath, to feel human. Pierre, or some other generic French named guy comes over, humble as anything and asks me what I want. I rack my fatigued brain for the correct tense, agreements and so forth in French and it comes out perfect. Brilliant. So he knows I’m gonna sit in his Cafe until my lovely dad comes in, looking a whole lot less tired than I am, Bless him.