Contributed by Paul Smeulders of ErgVideo
Another day and another wakening to hazy skies. This time it was thick and promised to stay. We opted to stay out of the van and just ride from the home base, with a longish warm-up and a quick ride up the mist-soaked Pla d’Adet. Since the recovery sought the day before hadn’t been found, I figured this shorter ride would serve my purposes, and I secretly hoped for enough bad weather to discourage them from riding too far and too long once we’d covered the highlight. It worked a charm. Some noticed their legs weren’t normal; Vince and Marc wisely took a break, and the summit was cold enough for the rest to figure watching the tour back at the apartment wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. Lots of riding under sunny skies lay ahead.
The animals you see along the way make riding in France far different than in North America.
Definitely liking the idea of riding from the Cami Real to avoid another cramped drive, the next day we rode into our backyard to cross the Col d’Azet and the Col de Peyresourde. These climbs figure often in the Tour, from one direction or the other, but rarely host a stage finish. The Col d’Azet is often called the Col de Val-Louron, promoting the ski resort found here. The Peyresourde and Azet are normally preambles to a stage finish at Pla d’Adet or further on, the Piau Engaly. Not being able to fit the van through Azet on the planned route, I would meet the group after the first descent, leaving Vince and Marc in charge. This is a truly spectacular climb with plenty of open views toward beautiful peaks along an easy-to-ride false flat section…once you haul your ass up to it, of course. The descent of the west side is a very regular zig zag of switchbacks, mostly with a clear view toward the Peyresourde. You get that feeling “why am I descending for so long right now, if I have to go back up THAT… over there!?”, but you love it anyway.
Great weather makes for awesome views and great ErgVideo quality. This is on the west side of the Peyresourde.
Probably every picture you have seen of the Col de Peyresourde has included a little brown cabin. Hey, everybody…STOP THERE, you will never forget it. The specialty is sugar crepes, real cheap and served up on the patio or inside at fine wooden bench-tables. We couldn’t split our orders equally among us, so Rock Paper Scissors diplomacy took over. If I owned that place, I’d be evil enough to only serve the crepes in prime numbers, just to see the anguish among those trying to share these delectable treats equally. Nobody would blame you for fighting over them.
Atop the Col de Peyresourde, be sure to stop for delicious crepes 4.50Ђ per dozen
Heading home meant a descent the full length of the Peyresourde’s west/northwest side, into the valley and back to St. Lary. It isn’t terribly technical, so you really can go full speed. The boys got so far ahead that I never caught up to them. I was convinced they must have taken a wrong turn. The truth was, the hammer had dropped and it was a full on race down the D929 from Arreau.
They enjoyed riding in this area so much that I turned them loose from the eastern side of the Peyresourde starting in Luchon the next day. They returned home this time via the Col dA’zet, to cover the more popular racing direction on video. The ride was short enough that one group took a ride out to the tunnel toward Spain, and another group of three found there way up to the Barrage de Cap de Long. They may have thought twice had they known they’d need to endure 300m more vertical ascending than a ride up Alpe d’Huez, or only the same amount less than Mt. Ventoux. The locals had told them it was spectacular, so they had to do it.
Now THIS is a climb you’ll never see on the tour, for sure. Incredibly narrow and isolated, the van had some difficulty fitting around the switchbacks. A full Tour caravan couldn’t dream of it. Hugh and I went on a rescue mission when we hadn’t heard from the riders in awhile, and we were rewarded with an incredible view of the lake and the dam, but not the riders. While we were checking for alternate routes of escape that they may have taken, we spotted 3 dehydrated, tired, and evidently broke cyclists riding out from a tunnel and onto the dam. These guys were COOKED, but loving every minute of their adventure. The descent would be more work: the road was rough and challenging and it would shred what remained of their brake rubber, so they were all pleased to get into the van for the trip home.
Our rescue mission and touristy stay at the Cap de Long.
I’d long given up on the idea that these guys wanted to get rest and be fresh for the next day. They didn’t care if they blew up, it’s all part of the fun. I’d just take them some places and let them ride. They were now well aware of what I wanted in the videos as far as aggression, attacking and excitement, and they seemed to be coping well with fatigue and diet. The final two days would pack in some exciting stuff with 5 major climbs.
We had the van and car-packing routines down pat, and we headed off efficiently to Argeles Gazost to hit the Hautacam and Luz Ardiden. This town, incidentally, is an excellent base town for plenty of easy access to climbing, within riding reach of the Tourmalet, Aubisque, Soulor, the town of Cauterets and even the breathtaking Cirque de Gavernie to the south. You can get to easier rolling rides to the north of the town pretty much immediately, too.
This day was a little more hazy than others, and the Hautacam was shrouded in mist as we began. But seriously, it seems that whenever we see the Hautacam on TV, it’s always covered in mist. Throughout the climb the clouds opened up to show some sunny skies before rolling back in just before the finish. A group from Spain had also chosen Hautacam as their challenge this day. When the South West Bike Academy boys caught a glimpse of a pack up the road, even way back in the van I could feel the excitement and tension. I could see the attention the group ahead was getting from my team, all eyes were forward. Surely the sound of gears shifting was resonating among their little cabal. Click, click…thunk. Click, thunk.
They know they are supposed to stick together for the video, and so some words go round to be sure the chasing pace is right for everyone so far. Finally they pass, and surely these veteran Spaniards are prepared to follow. Here’s where Luke really showed well. He’s not a blistering attacker, he rather sets a pace and looks back to see if you are still there. Then he cranks it up just a little, so somehow you feel like you can stay with him just a little longer. I swear he does it on purpose, but he doesn’t let on. He looks back with “still here?” in his eyes, and then goes just a little faster, with an unsettlingly perfect Eddy Merkcx head-bob. You convince yourself you can match it, then you explode. He’s not looking back at you anymore. Right now, “I just got smoked” is what the little voice in your head is telling you.
The seasoned vets struggle to match the pace of the UK/Canadian axis.
The pressure continued and eventually Luke and Ben were on their own with only one remaining from the other group, unsurprisingly their best and their leader, Alex Maja. Once this big break was well-established, they settled down and continued together until the final sprint, taken by Ben. We had a cool chat with our new friend Alex, a few drinks, laughs, and then I sent them back down with instructions to find their way to Luz Ardiden from here. I’d try to catch up in the truck before any easy-to-miss turns were…um…missed.
The route threaded through the beautiful Gorge de Luz, and the flatlanders decided to ride furiously before the grade would steepen once again. A quick stop to assess the level of fatigue and we swapped a camera onto Matt’s helmet as soon as he indicated “yeah, I feel pretty good still, I reckon this will be a good climb for me coming up. Yeah, put it on me.” He and Ben stuck close to Luke who was just plain on fire today. At the top, some interested locals inspected our camera equipment, tested our bikes for lightness, and tested a bit of our French. Thank God for Marc, who is not only fluent, but puts on the accent with a little Quebecois twist that they immediately detect. It turns on their “Welcome to France, have fun here” reflex.
The routine was well established: Ride, eat, Ride, eat, Ride.
The next day would be our epic ride, one we had planned as our hardest. On paper it was only 130km, a distance that doesn’t scare anyone. But the route took in 3 climbs: The Col du Solour and the Col D’Aubisque from the east, then a big wide rolling loop brought us around to the Soulor again from the northern approach. Our Col d’Aubisque ErgVideo is certainly the most scenic and beautiful of all our 2010-11 releases so far. Deep blue skies rather hide the fact that the temperature was 34C at the top of the Aubisque. The smell of food in our van was especially attractive to the free roaming donkeys, so I shared some watermelon with them. We also ran into some fellow Ottawan’s here, one of whom was completely comfortable letting the donkeys lick the salt and sweat from her arms. My distrust of horses, and things that look like them, prevented me from being so generous.
I’d say everyone was in good shape through the flat rolling sections between the climbs, and as usual the speed was higher than it needed to be. When we rounded the turn to head back up the Soulor, heat (38C) and fatigue started to show with the usual signs: salt-stained and looser-fitting kit, heads hanging lower, and frequent trips back to the feeding portal that was my driver-side window. I had a hard time finding enough water that day. It’s usually abundant in towns along the way at fountains or near the Mairie (town hall). Today, I needed to find them often because the pack was shredding. I had to bounce between the leaders, the middle group and those needing to pace by themselves. While those behind are taking it easier, it’s important to realize they are likely in most need of real help, having pushed beyond their limits earlier in the day before realizing they should sit up. You mustn’t leave them behind and hope they make it in on their own just because they said they are “going easy”. Nope, they STILL push as hard as they can muster, and they are dealing with a desire to “get it over with”. It’s my tip to you if you ever find yourself responsible for guiding a trip: never forget the guys at the back. I’m under some pressure to keep the boys up front happy due our goal to get good video, so this was a frantic day in the truck.
Matt (and Marc, with camera) follows hard-carving Hugh and Luke down the Col d’Aubisque.
Back at the top of the Soulor, it was all about the four main food groups: Water, salt, caffeine, and ice cream. Everyone admitted it was a killer day and they were “smashed” as Ben puts it. The memory of the first climb of the day was fresh enough that none were too tired to miss descending that same way back to Argeles. There are some early twisties and steep pitches, but then it rolls out into a long, long, really long non technical low grade rush down the valley. It doesn’t take much skill, there are no real surprises, and it’s a well earned reward for a very hard day out.
Our final day of riding was a bit of a free day for everyone. I was content with the rides covered and the quality of the video, and people could pick and choose. Marc went on a photo hunt back up to the Cap de Long, while the others took a ride out to the Tunnel d’Aragnouet. An easy, unpressured day put us all in the mood for a final night in the pubs, getting into various amounts of trouble for which there is no documentation, photos, video, or other evidence. I swear.
I can’t say a big enough thank you to my crew: the riders of the SouthWest Bike Academy: Tom and Ben Stockdale, Hugh Wilson, Luke Dunbar, Matt Ullmer, their coach David Walters, as well as hometown buddies Vince Caceres and Marc Lapointe. They all suffered my single mindedness in getting great material for ErgVideo Inc. They all tolerated my tunnel-visioning, my complete tuning-out, (Paul…Paul….HEY PAUL!…) and my habit of ignoring everything around me whenever something catches my attention, whether it’s a real technical problem or just a bright, shiny object. They all have expressed that it wasn’t really work after all, and that’s good to know. Vince knows it’s going to be work for him as the second vehicle driver and mechanic, but he sees the fun in all of it too. I’m grateful to the whole team we assembled, for sure. I think everyone walked away, rode away, with some great memories.
So far we’ve released 4 Hi Def ErgVideos from this trip, as well as several Train For Real™ HD editions shot in various locales. More of the ErgVideo Pyrenees trip will be released in the coming months.
• Get more info and buy the latest ERGVideos at their website www.ERGVIDEO.com