Somehow Thursday knew it was a rest day and is raining, which makes us all feel better about doing nothing. People come down to breakfast in dribs and drabs, legs creaking in time with the stairs, and with no mountains to make plans with it’s a leisurely meal to say the least, and there’s no need to cloy faces with fuel either.
The morning is spent looking idly out the window and doing the odd jobs that a cycle holiday requests, bike and clothes cleaning, lying down, thinking about leg-shaving, having more coffee. Pyractif have enough to keep you occupied in the rare times you’re not on the bike or around the table eating, the place is littered with stacks of cycling magazines to leaf through, there’s comfy sofas in front of a TV with enough DVDs to turn your eyes square, and upstairs there’s the guest kitchen area to make more tea, eat snacks and just lounge.
Towards the start of the afternoon the rain eases and splashes of blue appear in the sky, so the shout goes out for a quick café spin down the road just to stretch the legs and grab some lunch. Mr Pyractif offers up a few options and we lycra up and head off. The group this week has opted for the centre-based “Liberty” self-guided option, which means we can go where, and when we like, for how long and how fast. There’s a discussion of desires each morning with Chris and he hands us a map with a marked route on, tells us where the good coffee stops are and points out any route deviations that might appeal. There are over 20 cols & Tour mountains within a 30km radius of the Pyractif base so there’s no shortage of hills to tick off, if it’s hills you want, because there’s plenty of quiet, rolling back-roads and flat-lands for easier days. Like today.
If you’re wanting something more of a cycling challenge though, with a beginning and an end and a massive achievement in-between then Pyractif can offer you their Coast-to-Coast experience, riding from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean via most of the steep bits along the way with four options to choose from, varying from quite hard to incredibly hard. Pyractif are also handy people to know if you fancy a riding week around Tour de France time. Placed where they are the Tour always travels close by, sometimes even past the front door, and with some useful contacts they already have some sneaky information about the 2014 route and are planning rides accordingly, but that’s confidential for now, okay?
We tootle up the road a few kilometres towards Saint Bertrand de Comminges where we stopped on that first evening ride, aiming for coffees and lunch, deliberately spinning easy gears until the junction at the bottom of the hill where young Will has pointed out there’s a Strava segment to the village that needs claiming, because we surprisingly got to within a few seconds of being KOMs when we rode up it chatting a week ago. Dead legs do their best to lead scabby Will out up along the fortified walls and he claims King of the Mountain. Victory secured for the day we settle in for a long session of galettes, beer, Orangina, crepes and coffees. Four day riding legs happily absorb it all.
We go our separate ways afterwards, some return to Bertren base, others head off for a longer ride and unexpectedly stumble up a small climb used in the Tour, road still busy with graffiti. I’m hesitant with tiredness but turn left with Dean and James to cruise along the D26 for a bit and then turn left at Aventignan up the Nistos valley because we’ve been told of a nice climb up there. We agree that if it in any way gets hard we’ll turn round, because this is meant to be an easy day after all. The road slowly climbs up the wide valley and the temperature rises to meet it, what started as a grey miserable day has become a sunny sweaty 30 degrees. Not complaining, but the thicker undervest is now a bit much. We pass through Nistos, Mont Nere and Haut Nistos all empty, silent and timeless enough as to think they’ve been deserted for years, although some of the houses obviously have, roadworks the only indication that the road is actually ever used, faded bunting strung between walls a sign that something happy happened a while ago, village names a suggestion that the general trend is up.
At the twin sign for Cap Nestes and an Anglo-Canadien cemetery the road takes a sharp left and turns into a real climb, the further 14km of wiggly road sign testament that it’s not just the short hop to the top that we thought. Ah. The Anglo-Canadien sign is for the resting place of airmen that crashed in a Halifax bomber during the Second World War during a mission to supply the Maquis of Nistos Resistance with munitions and equipment. Not every bit of history on these climbs has to be cycling related.
We sweat our way a couple of kilometres up the stiff climb until an arbitrary round figure is reached on the trip computer and stop. We listen to the silence of the wind in the trees for a while until it’s disturbed by a tractor coming down the hill strimming the verge, when we turn into the sun for home.
The next day is pissing it down, as forecast, it tantalizes by easing just enough to keenly put shorts on, only to resume with sheet rain again but it’s the last day so we’re going out anyway. Knee-warmers, Goretex, over-socks. There has been talk of going up Superbagneres but the thought of trudging up the main road for 25kms in this weather to only trudge back down it isn’t appealing so we vote to ride local and go up Cap Nestes, that 14 kilometre climb should be enough today. It’s a shame that the Devil’s Pitchfork will have to wait for another day, or as this is the last week of the 2013 Pyractif season, another year.
The Devil’s Pitchfork is Pyractif’s homespun Epic Ride; 180 kilometres long, with 5 large cols and about 4500m of climbing. A route profile hangs above the dinner table to taunt you each night, next to a real pitchfork of rustic charm. Only a handful of people have completed the spiky Portillon, Hospice de France, Superbagneres, Peyresourde and Bales combination, and just before we get in the van to the airport there may have been an understated handshake to come back and do it next year. Training starts tomorrow.
It’s the kind of wet that’s so all prevailing it’s almost funny, for a short while. Rain swamps from skies above, deluges from below off tyres, and the clouds are interrupted by flashes of lightning. But at least it’s warm, in an all too alarmingly brief time we will be home and this will be cold and miserable. We sploosh along the D26 and head left to fight against the stream up the Nistos valley in stark contrast to our previous balmy jolly along the road less than 24hrs previously. There is a nervous look around the group before we carry on, if anyone had said that this was a stupid idea and we should really turn back no-one would have argued.
There’s another wavering pause at the corner where the road turns left and the Cap Nestes starts to gnaw. We stop to regroup and eat energy bars in the lashing rain under the trees by a large bin, almost deliberately for effect there is a clap of thunder, with lightning. That nervous look again. A rider in a grey waterproof allays any indecision by pedaling up the hill with a purpose. That’s it then, we’re all going.
I pedal up the hill, past the massive empty metal hopper on the left, around the tight right-hand hairpin and further than we rode yesterday into the unknown. The road surface is variable, with rocks, foliage and vast large patches of deep gravel that will make the descent something to focus on even without the brake sucking powers of the river of a road. But it’s a wonderfully quiet secluded and empty climb through the woods, and where the trees open out the view is simply across to more folds of mute forest, diffused in cloud. There are no reassuring countdown kilometre markers on this road, it doesn’t deserve them, so there’s no option but to find a happy pace and simply pedal on, wipe the rain off the computer screen with the right thumb, look down, do the quick miles to kilometres maths, carry on. Somewhere near the top there’s a flat section that then slowly dips downhill enough to make you think you’re going the wrong way, but apart from the gravel path up to the airmen’s memorial there is nowhere to go. Climb again, look up and watch the drip of rain on the peak of your cap pendulum in time with your rocking body right-left-right three times before falling off. Count to two and another one forms. Pendulum right-left-right three times.
It’s not just the named and famous Pyrenean climbs that are worth bagging, the small insignificant unknown nowhere roads are just as pretty, just as hard, just as impressive, just as worthy as any of the hills with a reputation you’ll find on the Tour route. And in many ways their enigmatic ways makes them a little bit more special, everyone likes to take a secret home. The Cap Nestes starts nowhere special and finishes nowhere special but it requires just as much effort on the way up and delivers just as much fun on the way down as any of the celebrity climbs we’ve done this week and because it is so tranquil it makes the battle all the more private, personal. You could ride these obscure climbs all week and not come home unfulfilled.
The summit is empty, but for a solitary car the large lake of a car-park is deserted, a ski-station that were it open would have cyclists huddled round hot-chocolates is resting between Summer and snow so they’ve all made their way down the hill to the safety of the valley. The mist dissolves in slow waves to reveal broad ranges of vacant monochrome mountain and were it warmer or even just drier it would be worth sitting and looking and absorbing but this is no time to be hanging around, take a snapshot memory, any spare layers are slipped on and the descent is minced down. The holiday is over, and I am complete.
Half an hour previously I’m pedaling steadily upwards towards I know not what, for how long. This is hard, this isn’t hard. Rain is smacking off my rain-jacket, I can see it, it glistens wet, I can’t feel the rain. I’m on my own, plotting a solo line through the trees. They hold onto the noise, it is quiet everywhere, I can’t even hear my own breathing, but I know I am breathing because this is hard. But this is not hard. It is not hard because I am perfectly happy. This place. This now. This hill. This feeling of comfortable pain in the legs. This feeling of calm that can come from nothing else. This is perfect. I smile from deep inside.
The only gushing comes from the rain water washing down the gutters of the road.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he’s not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he’s not doing either of those he’s pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he’s agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours doesn’t. He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.