Day One - Transfer to Hendaye 32km
This being my second point-to-point bikepacking trip I was a lot more confident with how to pack and what to take. We travel very light for these trips. A single large saddlebag with one set of civvie clothes and washing our Shutt Velo kit each night. I was a bit concerned about the potential for bad weather in September so allowed myself the luxury of my team Roubaix top and still had plenty space left in the bag.
There's always a nagging doubt that you've forgotten some vital bit of kit or overdue bike maintenance. Thankfully we were able to pick up our boxed bikes in Biarritz airport build them up without incident before heading off toward Hendaye.
The road to Hendaye is decent but very busy on a weekday late afternoon. We tried to get onto the coastal bike path a few times but gave up as the sun was starting to set over the water and we had to get a move on.
After a friendly welcome from the dogs at the family house we were staying in, we went off to celebrate the start of the adventure. We found a couple of great bars and there was some cracking live music. Not for the first time Justin and I 'slightly' overdid it on the beers. What the hell - we were on holiday right? I'll spare you the photos!
Day Two - Hendaye to Saint-Christau 172km 2,500m.
Thanks to a night of over indulgence, our planned early start didn't quite materialise. In our mid-forties you'd think we might have learnt by now but we found ourselves with horrific hangovers setting off from the coast at noon after getting our first stamp in the tourist office. The clock was ticking, we had 100 hours to get the Mediterranean.
We headed back along the coast toward the airport and then turned east into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The day was pretty much a hundred miles of false flat with a few small climbs toward the end of the ride. If you start fresh and early this would probably be a great first ride of the week. We did neither.
After popping across the border to Spain for a late lunch we stopped for a Raid stamp in the very pretty town of Espellette, famous for its chilis as far as we could tell (the houses are covered in them!). Once we'd stopped for coffee in the busy but pretty St Jean Pied de Port the roads got really quiet and pretty much stayed like that for the next 3 days. The first decent climb, Col D'Osquich, came and went without incident and after a quick stop for one of many "Col Bagger" photos we pressed on with another 60km to go.
We were being forced to set a steady pace thanks to our late start and my mild case of alcohol poisoning was starting to catch up with me. Justin's legendary constitution seemed to be serving him well, but I was suffering like a dog for the last couple of hours. After what seemed like an eternity we found our hotel. It turned out to be the worst of the trip. The rooms were just about usable but the food was like a Bushtucker trial. I'm not a fussy eater and it might have been fine had I not felt like death warmed up. After I gave up I marvelled while Justin knocked back his full meal with wine and beer. I was beginning to suspect he might not be human.
Day Three - Saint Christau to Col Du Tourmalet 125km 4,300m
This part of the route starts with the optional Col De Marie Blanche which has a challenging looking profile and would have been one to relish. However, having been kept awake by the local owls and still suffering after not eating properly the day before, we decided to take the flat way round via Arudy. The masocistic cyclist in me felt bad at taking the 'easy' option but it did give me a reason to go back one day. After a nice coffee on the square in the bustling little town of Laruns we headed up the Aubisque. After many cycling trips to the Alps I was excited to tackle some of these legendary Pyrenean climbs for the first time. The Aubisque was a great opener with incredible views and a nice steady gradient.
There was a triathlon on and the leaders of the bike leg were descending as we climbed which added a bit of entertainment. The atmosphere at the top was good with music and gaggles of tired looking triathletes.
After dipping down and spinning back up to the Col du Solour we enjoyed the first long descent of the trip before stopping for lunch.
Heading up the valley toward Tourmalet it got very hot and we had to start stopping to cool off in fountains. So much for dodgy September weather! I was still feeling a bit ropy but was really looking forward to this incredibly famous climb.
Col De Tourmalet was one of the first mountains to be used in the Tour and has had countless tales attached to it from the race. It's always a treat to climb a new mountain and then to add your own colour and memories when reading these legends. I've climbed a lot of mountains on my bike and the Tourmalet is a stunner. I'll definitely be back.
We descended 4km to the ski resort where we were staying and managed to watch Yates seal the deal for the Vuelta whilst eating pizza.
I was still struggling a bit with my appetite and general state of health, but Justin again ate like a horse and washed it down with beer while I looked on with increasing suspicion and jealousy. Definitely not human.
Day Four - Col Du Tourmalet to Massat 187km 3,800m
This day started just about as good as a day on the bike can, with a descent of an utterly deserted Tourmalet as the early morning sun lit up the top of the surrounding peaks. It was a cold start and I was able to finally make use of my roubaix top which kept me toasty all the way down. I tried not to look too smug.
We arrived in St. Marie de Campan, where Eugene Christophe famously repaired his fork at the local blacksmiths during the 1913 tour. After finding a friendly cafe I was pleased to discover my appetite had returned and we set ourselves up for the long day ahead.
First up was the Aspin which was a glorious climb up through a quiet forest. The gradient is mostly that sweet spot around 6-8% that just urges you on and we had to tell ourselves a couple of times to relax so early in the day.
The views from the top of the Aspin were spectacular and an enticing descent is laid out below you.
Arriving at the pretty town of Arreau we headed straight up the valley to begin the Peyresourde. This was another lovely steady climb with plenty of great views and, like almost all of our time in the mountains, more or less deserted.
I was looking forward to the descent into Bagneres Luchon so I could emulate Froome's fantastic 'over the top' attack and stage win there in 2016. It lived up to the promise with virtually no traffic and perfect conditions allowing me to fly down and imagine I was being chased by the pros!
After a great lunch in the very civilised town of Bagneres we headed further down the valley on a fast main road, making good time before heading over the Col d'Ares and down to the start of the Col de Portet Aspet. We took a few moments to pay our respects at the beautiful Casartelli monument (Lance Armstrong's young team mate that died here in 1995).
Then onward up the simply fantastic Portet d'Aspet, with some of the most sustained tough gradients of the whole week. Justin settled into a steady rhythm, but I had found my legs and went for it with the still ethereal forest looking over me from either side. It was a magical climb and a major highlight of the whole trip.
While the cafe owners at the top of the climb represented some of the quirkier residents of this very isolated spot, we were very happy to scoff their ice cream and chug down some much needed cold drinks.
We still had 60km to go and pushed on hard into Saint Giron and up along the river to Massat to end a spectacular day on the bike. Massat is a run down town with a fairly bleak feel this late in the year.
Luckily the only restaurant in town also has a well earned reputation for serving ridiculously enormous portions. Even better, I was able to keep up with Justin as we worked through an almost embarrassing amount of food.
Day Five - Massat to Prades 162km 3,600m
Our host had delegated breakfast duties to her friend Nick Flanagan who, it turned out, is a bit of a legend in the cycling scene, not to mention a throughly nice bloke. While we ate we had a great chat and heard a few stories from his decades of experience riding and supporting the Raid Pyrennean. We later found a reference to him in a favourite cycling book where he is described accurately as the "synthesis of all the actors who have played Doctor Who". Sadly we had to get going and said goodbye to him and Massat.
The ride started with another peaceful wooded climb to the Col De Port with yet more stunning views back toward the High Pyrenees we'd just come from.
After hearing some sad news from back home we were in a contemplative mood and the first 30km to Tarascon suited this perfectly. It's a great place to remind yourself how lucky you are to be healthy and able to enjoy such adventures.
On hitting the main road to Spain and Andorra however, things changed noticeably. Busy roads led us up to the Puymorens. I can't not mention the incredible sight of this wandering soul and his doggy companion we met half way up the mountain.
The col itself was throughly disappointing with several derelict buildings sucking any natural charm from the surroundings.
The fast, busy road continued down off the mountain and through a series of increasingly ugly towns and a seemingly endless grind over the last few bumps of a plateau finally got us to the Col De la Perche - our last big col before the drop to the sea began.
The last 80km had been such a stark contrast to the wonderful riding we'd had for the previous days, however there were still treats in store. The descent off Col De La Perche is unusual and great fun. Long sections of 10% on what is effectively mini-motorways meant a super fast drop if you were brave enough with the traffic. And then, at the bottom of the main descent the incredible walled town of Villefranche de Conflent appeared.
Sadly we had no time to get to know it but it's another strong reason to return.
We checked into a cracking BnB in Prades with great hosts and enjoyed a good meal and a couple of pints, looking forward to our run down to the coast in the morning.
Day Six - Prades to Cerbere (and on to Girona). 192km 2300m
Whilst the road is heading inexorably to the sea, the day wasn't exactly devoid of climbing. There's a few 'small' lumps to get over before it really flattened out and then a bit of a sting in the tail once you got onto the corniche coast road. Once at the coast we enjoyed a celebratory ice cream in the stunning town of Collioure (yet another place to return to and spend more time in) and then headed along to Cerbere (the formal end of the challenge according to the stamped card).
I made a point of beating Justin to the Cerbere town sign to claim victory for the whole 4 days and thereby repaying him for doing the same in Geneva the previous year. He was suitably impressed but managed to disguise it well. Over a very satisfied finishers lunch I was persuaded to ride to Girona where we'd booked accommodation for our flight home the next day.
I'd been considering getting the train and making the most of our last night before returning to reality. I was glad we rode in the end, but this second half of the day proved to be a lot more challenging than the profile had suggested.
There was plenty of climbing along the coast before turning into a solid headwind to cross the Catalonian farmland and navigate our way (with a few wrong turns and misadventures) into a busy rush hour Girona.
By the time we got there we were pretty spent, starving hungry and looking forward to a beer or three.
Girona was great and (you guessed it) definitely a place I'd go back to. Amazing architecture and a very relaxed and cosmopolitan feel about it. We'd managed to source a couple of boxes at one of the better known bike shops and in the morning packed up our bikes there while spotting the odd pro popping in and out (Girona's a bit of a pro-rider favourite).
I'd recommend the Raid Pyrennean without hesitation. It was great to complete the 'Classic' route in the 100 hours target and get to know some of the most famous climbs in cycling. We had near perfect weather and, despite my best efforts to sabotage myself, I found the climbs and schedule the right side of challenging.
If I were to go a second time I might be tempted with the longer tourist route that keeps you off some of the busier roads, adds a lot more climbing and, I suspect, a bit more flexibility with schedule planning.