Contributed by Paul Smeulders of ErgVideo
Here’s a little tease of what’s coming.
My friends often express some envy that I travel to great cycling destinations with top-ranked riders and film epic bike rides for ErgVideo.com. Few believe me when I say that it’s really hard work with long hours. It requires endless fiddling with technology, fixing whatever might break, charging batteries, backing up files, loading GPS routes, and making sure everyone gets what they need to perform well each day for the camera. I’m lucky to have plenty of willing help from the people I take along. Travelling with a happy, easy-going group always attracts the interest of the locals. When they catch your vibe and your smiles, they are always willing to help out cheerfully with a little favor or sharing local knowledge of the best and less well-known routes and attractions.
In 2010 we chose to stay deep in the Pyrйnйes, in a place where a long drag in the up direction is pretty much necessary before you get anywhere. I had visited St. Lary Soulan on an Erickson Cycle Tour back in 2001. It’s a more modernized ski-village/hiking adventure town than historic Limoux that we used in our 2009 trip. From the town’s strip you look straight up at the Pla d’Adet, the site of Armstrong and Hincapie victories.
In the other direction you look up the slopes toward the Col d’Azet, another takes you toward Piau-Engaly and a number of other peaks. Your only escape from St. Lary is north up the valley road, and that’s no easy ride either. Make a wrong turn along this road and you’ll be climbing another mountain. Places like this seem like a great idea until your fifth day of riding, or so. You are best to schedule full rest days, since few rides can be “easy recovery” when you are so surrounded.
The Pyrйnйes have broad, open views unobstructed by too many trees, but you may miss their shade when it’s 34C.
Returning to France with ErgVideo was Vince Caceres, owner of Ottawa’s Cyclery bicycle shop. He’s my on-road enforcer/director since my position back in the truck is less immediately influential than his. He simply loves to climb long mountains with riders younger, lighter, and stronger than himself. He animates every ride with early attacks and likes everyone to suffer whether they are temporarily behind him or way out in front. The more oppressive the heat, the happier he seems.
Along as well was Marc Lapointe, a rider on the Nine2FivePro.com team based in Ottawa. He’s lightweight, fit, and has a head that’s held steady by the alert gaze of his race-face. He turned out to be a perfect shooter for us. It was his first time in Europe, and watching him cope in a place not terribly accustomed to vegetarians went from kinda funny at first, to having my full sympathy by the end. I suspect he was always hungry, and he regularly cleaned out the truck’s cooler of anything that qualified. Good thing that beer is vegetarian.
Rounding out our team were the boys from The Southwest Bike Academy, based in the UK and ably led by coach David Walters. He sent us 5 this time, with only Matt “Mt. Ventoux times 2” Ullmer returning from last year. All are U23 riders, and were fresh from riding their national championships.
Other than Matt, none had ever visited the Pyrйnйes before. Matt’s experience was needed as a soothing presence for the team right away, when they witnessed the first “Dang, I-took-another-wrong-turn” meltdown on the journey from the Toulouse airport. “It’s cool boys, he’s not completely insane” was the message his quiet grin delivered to those sitting stunned and speechless in the backseat.
Vince, Marc and myself had arrived a few days prior. We had prepared the accommodations and stocked the fridge before the boys arrived. The “sleeps 10” accommodation I had booked at the Cami Real hotel apartments was nice, clean and with a great view, but as with all such things, the number they “sleep” doesn’t always align with the number that will find it comfortable to live, eat, and fix their bikes together.
Places like this are set-up for skiers who will be gone all day and return at night to sleep. Bikes and photo equipment take up more room than skis, and we needed more room. It was low season for this place and we easily scored another room with a little “Me and the staff just think y’all are cool” discount from the manager.
The view Spain-ward from our 3rd floor deck.
Before the team arrived, Vince and Marc had a chance to shake down their bikes on a damp ride up to the Pla d’Adet . With some eagerness to go higher, they scouted some roads indicated on our map with faint squiggles. Lesson #1 was that the faint squiggles meant “alternating gravel and cow-path not suitable for a new 9 passenger van.” We gave up and I had to back myself out. I suspect the next mechanic to look into the clutch will think the original had been stolen and replaced with a unit from the wreckers. Marc made it furthest among the wet rocks and mud, and wished he had his ‘cross bike to go further. Lesson #2: Bring one someday!
Once the boys arrived, they quickly set about getting their bikes ready. It’s great to have a well blended team of young, eager racers along. They are accustomed to tight schedules, long drives, traveling with their bikes, and getting them ready in a jiffy. It’s when we become older and set in our ways that we become picky and less-willing to endure a little discomfort. I am the poster-boy for that disease, but under-23’s are still flexible and just want food, bed, bike, roads, and some poor slobs to humiliate as they ride past. It’s still about the simple pleasures, for them!
Our first ride altogether was meant to be the ice-breaker for team Canada and team UK. A simple ride from the hotel, over the Col d’Aspin and back home via a lesser known but equally beautiful climb called the Hourquette d’Ancizan. I told them it was the “Prettiest mountain never to be used in the Tour de France”. Lo-and-behold, it’s been included in the 2011 route.
I’d ridden it myself in 2001 where I met new buddy Paul Suzman. He’s one of those very rare types with a sense of humor much like my own. We’d rather claim a hill-top victory by doubling up the other guy with a good joke rather than a vicious attack. If it works with a bad one? Oh, that still counts! The descent is fast with a road rougher than you’ll normally find on a Tour route, so I suspect it will get new pavement before 2011.
Highlights of the descent of the Hourquette d’Ancizan. It’s much, much longer than the few minutes shown here.
Everyone came home in one piece. They became familiar with the cameras, our styles and our strange accents. They said they were ready for more serious rides ahead. “Well, that’s great to hear”, I replied, “I think we need to do the Tourmalet. Let’s get it out of the way, and if the video is no good, we’ll have another crack at it later in the week. Oh, and we need it filmed from both directions, so expect to climb it twice tomorrow.” I had expected some concerned faces, but all I got was “Smashing!” from the eager brothers Ben and Tom Stockdale.
I miss being young and foolish, because all I could think of was how hard it’s going to be. Good sense is one of the burdens of aging, I suppose, and there’s no point in rushing to get it. Ben turned out to be the one with the most sustained energy and drive to crush others in battle for victories over the peaks. Tom was the youngest at only 17, but he’s already been a national youth time trial champion in England. Dubbed “The English Train”, the group depended on him to pull back attacks on the flats.
As the guy in charge, I’m always the first out of bed, and the first to start worrying about the weather. Looking out from our deck, our Tourmalet day started as overcast and a bit foggy. I soon learned to just stop worrying, get ready and head out to wherever we planned to ride. Usually the weather would be warm and clear when we got there. We had hit France in the middle of a very hot and sunny streak that contributed positively to our morale and the quality of the ErgVideos that resulted. We packed into the van and car to drive some suitable “warm-up distance” from Ste-Marie de Campan, the town well known for Eugene Christophe’s fork-fix-it stops. The ErgVideo begins with a dash down the Aspin’s lower slopes before Ste-Marie. A quick left turn and Vince lights up his first attacks to be sure there would be no complacency in the ride.
This day had become blazing hot. The snow sheds gave some relief to the riders, but there are not nearly enough of them, and the best spots are claimed by the free-roaming cattle, anyway. The town of La Mongie presents an especially steep section, and the group was altogether for this highlight. After a quick break at the top, the boys filled up with water and headed down toward Luz St. Saveur.
A little taste of the atmosphere at the ErgVideo mobile-diner, by exclusive reservation only.
A van can’t descend nearly as fast as the cyclists, so that part of my day is spent taking up the rear and hoping to see no riders fixing flats (yep, Tom had one) or worse, laying out by the side of the road. Lightweight and strong, Luke Dunbar is generally considered the climber in the group. With a background in mountain biking, he also turned out to be among the downhill speed demons, with Hugh and Matt often following closely behind.
I’ll say I was worried from my vantage point, which was completely blind to the real goings-on, ultimately kilometers back from the action. Upon seeing the final footage, I must say I worried unnecessarily. The SWBA are as smooth, skilled and confident as they come. Marc’s skills meant he could keep a close camera on them, too. We show short bits of descents in the ErgVideos generally as an entertaining cool-down from your harder efforts in the opposite direction, and some lessons are there for the learning.
When I found the group, they were lounging in some shade, waiting for another snack. Once fed, they didn’t need any convincing to get back on their bikes again. The climb back up the western approach was eventful only in its increasing temperatures. Through the last few kilometers, some were coming back to my window looking for drinks and anything else for a final boost. From this direction, the last stretch before the top is especially brutal. We all expected it would be “decision territory” when the 2010 tour would pass this way in two weeks. Sure enough, it is pretty much where Andy Schleck tried, tried, and mostly conceded the race to a tenacious Contador.
From the top of the Tourmalet, looking down on La Mongie nestled in the valley.
So when you go up, you are in a hurry to go down, right? Well, it’s good to take a rest first. After a few very long descents you realize that downhill means hard work too. Sure, you needn’t pedal as much, but after 15 minutes of twisting roads, hard braking and holding tight lines, you experience a completely different kind of fatigue in your legs, back, neck, and arms. You are using your muscles in a totally different way than when you are pedaling so it’s not terribly wise to descend when you are too tired to stay alert and agile. I encouraged everyone to rest as long as they liked, finish whatever food was still in the cooler, and descend refreshed and invigorated. I’d try to find a flattish ride for the next day to provide some recovery.
It’s difficult to take a day off when you are travelling the legendary roads of the tour, especially when the weather is excellent. The day’s plan was to head out of the valley and into the rolling territory just north of the Pyrйnйes, starting in the town of Lannemezan. It will be easier terrain, and the riders can ride at an easy pace and get some recovery. Steady base-training style ErgVideos are extremely popular, and I was certainly content to have an easy ride filmed. I was equally interested in having recovered riders ready for the next round of mountains that I had planned for them.
Towns, homes and barns are built on any grade, and definitely make the climbing more interesting.
Vince and our sprinter/rouleur Hugh Wilson saw an opportunity for a little revenge, and the abundance of little towns and their natural “town sign finish lines” rather took over from any ideas of recovery. A sprinter and a rouleur? Sure, it’s Hugh in the mould of Thor. This guy is imposing, fast, experienced in a bunch, can just plain haul. The terrain held a few surprises for them, so the climbers managed some redemption here and there. All this action put the “recovery ride video” up two categories to “hard tempo ride”.
Two big events of the day: Matt’s ill-considered attempt to smack a fly with an empty beer glass (any need for me to go further?) and the on-road explosion of Hugh’s rear shifter. It was of a type and model not easily found in St.Lary, but it was a great excuse to scout roads and visit Liberty Cycles in Luchon, just two mountains east, later that evening. Finding no direct replacement without a 2 day delivery delay, we set-up Hugh with a bar-end shifter.
Our mechanic at Liberty even pimped his ride with retro-print bar tape to complete full-on old-school look. Hugh is young and lucky enough to have never seen these shifters before, but he quickly mastered shifting with his knee following some instruction from wily veteran Vince. Now having only 8 gear choices (wisely favoring the climbing gears), Hugh’s sprint would be a little blunted. Nobody else seemed troubled by that at all.
Stay tuned for more adventures with the ERGVideo Crew from deep in the Pyrenees, and:
• Get more info and buy the latest ERGVideos at their website www.ERGVIDEO.com
…And stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon…!