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Barcelona-based photographer Ian Walton recently rode the route for next year’s Haute Route Pyrenees sportive, and sent us his reflections on an extraordinary cycling challenge. Words and photographs by Ian Walton.
I just want to sleep.
And sleep some more.
It is day four of the Haute Route Pyrenees recce that is taking me from the Med to the Atlantic through Spain and France. Some 800km and 21,000m of climbing. It is 10 days since I completed the seven day randonnée sportive Haute Route Alps in Nice, after 780km and 21,000m climbing. I had two days at home in between the two, mostly spent washing and preparing for the Pyrenees.
And now I just want to sleep.
The recovery products of good food and sugary sweets are not enough… This must be what it feels like to be a Pro. Or an indication of it. Finish one race, unpack, wash, pack, then off to the next for a week. Through the stunning beauty of the country the daily grind of wake, eat, ride, unpack, massage, eat, sleep, pack, repeat wearing you down bit by little bit.
Almost two years of living in the pre-Pyrenees cycling daily have prepared me, but not protected me, from these strains.
The nightly briefing around the dinner table, going over the days cols once more, verbally, mentally preparing for the challenges of tomorrow and fighting the urge to have a glass of the nice Spanish or French wine calling from the table. I am sure it won’t hurt. But I am that tired, the thought of alcohol drains me further. Sparkling water and coke. Again.
I am not physically exhausted, in the sense of having just raced a hard crit, cyclocross circuit or belted up a single days’ set of climbs. For I have ridden within myself knowing this fatigue would come, after last year’s inaugural Haute Route Alps experience. Riding smart. It hasn’t worked. I am still worn out. At least my new friends are struggling the same. Some more, some less.
Nor am I averse to early morning starts. I have done penance as a postman and on mine sites in Australia. I know the sight of the sun rising and often enjoy it still. This is just fatigue.
Through the inner whinging of fatigue, the call of the climbs, the beauty of nature and the challenge keeps me going. The camaraderie. The competition at whatever level you choose to create it. First past the post, or first among equals. Those who beat me yesterday . For we all have good and bad days over mountainous seven days.
And those mountains. To compare the Alps to the Pyrenees is futile. They are different. The Alps – French at least – a more constant gradient. The Pyrenees ever changing in gradient and often steeper. Some find one less difficult than the other and one more beautiful than the other. For what it is worth, I am struggling more in the Pyrenees – but that may be the backing up after the Alps – but I find the Pyrenees more awe inspiring. More rugged. Wild. Threatening.
On the bike, as I ride comfortably (relatively) – just below what I know will destroy me for tomorrow, though not today – I am aware of two large silhouettes floating above the road ahead in the glaring sun still baking in September (after the rain and wind yesterday!) As I approach another kilometre of changing gradient, which once again forces a gear change and a rhythm adjustment, the silhouettes now take form. No more than two metres above my head, floating on the thermals rising from the precipice to my left, two huge vultures gliding past my head. Eyeing dinner perhaps. The grace and power of these scavengers shocks me to the summit of the col with a smile of being truly in the mountains.
The prizes are many in the mountains. The views and the villages along the way. But the descents are a real prize. Once ridden like an idiot driving mums borrowed car – all charge and brake, no subtlety. Now ridden with more grace and more ability to take in just where I am. And seemingly going faster because of it. It’s handy here in the Pyrenees, as the road surfaces are subject to various unpredictabilities. Cracks, rocks and plenty of goat shit, to name a few. Avoiding these while taking in the environment is all part of staying awake. As I do, I see my two friends again. The two vultures seem to have followed me over the crest and down into the next incredible valley. Silently watching, very closely, my fall from the clouds round a hairpin toward another village famed on Tour de France routes.
The day’s riding over. I am tired. I just want to sleep. There are three more days to enjoy. A little food and a siesta will help a little, but won’t cure the fatigue. Time to dream, dream of the Pyrenees.
I just want to sleep.
Entries for Haute Route Pyrenees open on 1st November at 1200 CET – last year the event sold out in 8 hours. Riders can go for the ‘Iron Package’ and take on both the Haute Route Alps 18th – 24th August, 2013 and Haute Route Pyrenees 1st – 7th September, 2013.