Fri 7th June.
My first pass. Col du Aspin 1489m.
Where I had camped was a special (and the only) spot. It over looked the road below and I was immersed by trees, just off a footpath that hadn’t seen use in a while.
I was already at around 1000m when I started, but as soon as I began cycling the was noticeably steeper and more of what I was expecting from a mountain climb.
Immediately the terrain become much more dramatic and beautiful with the steeper climb. I started noticing small signs that occurred once ever kilometre, and they would tell you how high you were, which Col you were ascending towards and how many more kilometres you had to go until you reach the top. These signs were a great source of will power when going at these Cols alone, but at the same time, when you start seeing them, they usually report a further 7km of constant uphill before you can relax.
The percentage (steepness) of the hill wasn’t too bad and I had been getting myself mentally prepared for hills for a while, so I had developed the attitude that if I just kept moving and didn’t overdo it, I could keep rolling along at a consistent pace, which is what I did.
Every time I saw a sign (so every km) I would stop not to overheat, adapt to climbing with weight and the altitude. The difficulty of the task (and the loneliness, although there were other cyclists on the road doing it) encouraged me to eat when I stopped, as the only comfort or refuge I had in the challenge.
Smurf Haribo’s I’d picked up somewhere were my snack of choice, as they were packed full of sugar and very satisfying. Every time I saw a sign I would stop, wipe the sweat of my brow, have a drink, catch my breath and have a snack.
I remembered these electrolyte sachets I bought in case my levels got low and I needed a quick boost. I decided as this was the first big challenge in the trip, I better have one as a back up as I had plenty and hadn’t used them yet. It was a blackcurrant flavour and tasted pretty bad mixed with water (as the instructions recommended), but I took a good swig and got moving again.
On the way up I had a very pleasant surprise painted on the road. I saw the names “Miler, Cadel, Cav and Wiggo’ in large pink letters painted on the road. It spun me out at first glance, as I knew the tour for 2013 hadn’t started yet, so this was obviously from 2012 when Wiggins won the title with the Sky team. It was quite an amazing feeling to think I’d been wondering around Europe for weeks on a bike and here I was on what must have been part of the Tour de France last year.
I didn’t feel a noticeable difference from the electrolytes, but carried on. Naturally I was really struggling and finding it hard to manage with constantly heaving a bike that weighed around 45kg uphill. Eventually I started to feel that I was drawing close. The landscape began to change once more and the wind became silent. I was still stopping with each sign and finally I had two km to go.
I didn’t bother stopping for the last one and kept pushing so I could get there sooner, relax, eat and hopefully take in the view.
When the final push came, the road going uphill obscured the vision ahead and I thought there was more to come, but when I got up on the plain and it was flat I realised I had made it.
It was a tremendous feeling, having hauled a fully loaded bike up to a mountain pass and the views were incredible. Both from where I had come from and where I was heading. You could see for miles all around and more exultingly the road ahead was all downhill and looked like it went on forever. I stopped took some pictures, then sat down to eat. There was a gravel car park there and a few tourists in cars, people walking their dogs, motorbikes and a few other cyclists but not many. It wasn’t crowded and people were respectful of each other. There were also some native cows on the other side of a fence and some raven flying around.
While eating a gave myself plenty of time to really soak up the view, the smells and how it felt up there. I can still remember everything clearly now. I took photos, but instantly realised that the pictures didn’t capture 50% of the depth, colour or beauty of what I was seeing. I selected shots carefully, but then spent the rest of the time taking it in with my eyes and nose.
It was much windier at the top then it had been getting there.
Now that I had stopped, I had stopped burning calories by cycling and then wind quickly cooled me down. Sadly, the time had come to leave. I got back on the bike, took a few more shots to savour my first pass and then began rolling down the long spaghetti road ahead.
Within about thirty minutes (maybe less) I had reached the bottom of 12km descent. It was a hell of a rush. The speed was incredibly exciting and really got the adrenaline going. The views were incredible all the way down and very green and lush.
I remember thinking that all the work and effort put into going uphill for about two or three hours was all worth it for that short burst of pure speed and luxury. Naturally, you can’t get too relaxed, with plenty of hairpin turns and the weight of the bike I really had to be careful on turns, especially as my bakes weren’t particularly responsive.
I went to the first boulangerie and picked up my daily bread and a pain du chocolait. I went to a small supermarket and picked up some supplies and had another bite to eat by the river there. It was a nice small town, very pretty and ideal for tourists.
I guy from a bike group saw me and came over. He mentioned the bike being packed up for what was obviously a solo trip and started asking me some questions. As it happens he was from Bolton and was here with some friends on a cycling holiday. He was about 40 or so and called Barry.
He was very warm, friendly and chatty, which really lifted me up as I had seen or spoken to an English person since Barcelona, and the accent was nice to hear.
He was amazed by what I was doing and said that he wished he had done something like it when he was younger. I always felt quite self-indulgent when talking about this trip and what I was doing, but if I wasn’t doing it, I’d be at work in London and I’d done that for long enough.
The group he was part of were amateur cyclists from England with varying levels of fitness. What they had arranged here, was to be driven to the places they wanted to go to with a local host, then they would cycle up to the pass and back down and meet the guy in the town. He had just got there and was excited to start cycling and out of shape.
I thought a bit less of them at first, as I was doing this all on my own without anyone to help, then I realised at their age, with their lives families and jobs, it was probably the best way to see a lot of the Pyrenees in two weeks. Still, I was glad I was doing it my way.