I’ve said it before and doubtless I’ll say it again: it’s not the whippets who really deserve our chapeaux and kudos, it’s the wheezers at the back who only get an hour a week to cycle but who battle on anyway. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a finer example of the breed than I did on this summer’s Raid Pyrenean ride.
The Raid is one of the great European randonnées. Starting at Hendaye on the French Atlantic coast not far from Biarritz, the ride snakes over the Pyrenees for about 720 kilometres and 13,000 metres of climbing (and descending) before finishing at the little Mediterranean resort of Cerbère.
It’s a pretty demanding route whatever your pace, but in order to win the medal and certificate given to those who officially complete the ride, you must finish in less than 100 hours. That boils down to a daily average of about 100 miles and 3,000 metres of climbing for four and a half days.
The Raid is clearly not for the faint-hearted or poorly prepared and I took it very seriously once I’d signed up with three friends. In the six months leading up to June’s ride, I trained harder and more systematically than I have for years, losing around a stone in weight and gaining a great deal of fitness and climbing strength.
It would be possible to do the ride unsupported, no doubt, but we all knew it would be a lot more fun – not to mention safer – with proper support. So we signed up with Marmot Tours, one of the most experienced operators in the game.
There were 13 of us in the group that set off on 16 June. Meeting for the first time the day before the ride, a few fellow riders stood out. One was Jillian, a slight 59 year-old Australian who’d flown over especially for the ride. Another was Alan, a softly spoken 57 year-old Ulsterman who seemed a bit daunted by the prospect of the Raid and who freely admitted that his longest training ride had lasted just two hours.
A third, Dave ‘Roon’ Rooney, describes himself better than I ever could: “I'm 46 years old, 5'11" tall, I weigh 18 stone [that’s 115 kilos], I have high blood pressure, I commute between 4-6 hours to work each day, I work for upwards of 30 hours at a time, I eat takeaway foods almost daily, and I drink more than the recommended alcohol limit. Basically, I’m the fat knacker at the back.”
What Dave omitted from his self-portrait was the fact that just two years ago he suffered a transient ischemic attack – a sort of mini-stroke – which he attributes, at least in part, to a ‘very unhealthy’ lifestyle. He says: “Within three months of my diagnosis, my son Lewis had done the Raid Pyrenean. I used the prospect of joining him on this year’s ride as a motivator for me to stick to a healthier lifestyle. I’d always ridden a bike but I wasn’t getting out very often – maybe twice a month. But then Lewis and I started cycling properly together, building up to 60-mile rides and using Sufferfest videos during the winter.”
As soon as I’d met him, Lewis struck me as one to watch. Not only was he the only member of the group who’d successfully completed the ride before, but also he was just 22 years old and clearly in pretty good shape. His passing mention of being a racer confirmed my suspicions that he’d be a tough one to keep up with.
Day one was nothing more than a loosener: a mere 2,200 metres of climbing over 160km. After the obligatory group shot on a drizzly beach at Hendaye, we were off, into what quickly became a torrential downpour that didn’t relent until long after we’d squelched into our hotel for the night. But the rain was reasonably warm and everyone finished the day safely, with spirits not dampened nearly as much as our kit had been by the deluge.
The second day was the first real opportunity to test our climbing legs, taking in the Col d’Aubisque, closely followed by the legendary Tourmalet. Despite my weeks of training graft, I found the quick succession of these climbs very demanding. I’d slowed to a crawl by time I’d reached the final kilometres of the Tourmalet and struggled to muster anything approaching a smile for the cameras at the summit. For the first time, I wondered rather nervously if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
As we recovered in the café on top of the Tourmalet, I remember wondering just how many people we’d lose that day. It seemed inevitable there’d be at least one. If it had felt that hard hauling a well-trained 74kg body up those hills I just couldn’t see the likes of Alan and Dave managing it. But I’d underestimated them. They were slow but they made it just fine. Looking back, Dave says: “I’d never done anything of this sort of scale before. Great Dun Fell in the Pennines was the biggest hill I’d climbed. But I really enjoyed the Tourmalet; it’s a real mind over matter thing.”
As the ride continued, it seemed that Dave and Alan had struck on a winning formula: keeping the pace low and comfortable, tackling each climb as it came, and supporting each other as their strength ebbed and flowed. Every evening they rolled in three or more hours after the quickest riders but every morning they were up and ready for more.
In fact, by the end of the third day, Dave felt surprisingly strong. He says: “After the Col de Portet d’Aspet, Alan was absolutely done in. We had 60km to 70km to do. But I felt okay so I told him to jump on my back wheel and I’d take the lead until I was spent, then he could take over. I felt full of beans and ended up sitting on the front all the way. I was elated to have been able to do something for him after all the help he’d given me. He’d been my rock for the whole ride, encouraging me throughout – he should really be a motivational speaker.”
Down to earth with a bump
Rolling in on that Wednesday evening, we’d completed three of the ride’s four and a half days. Dave says he and Alan had pretty much discounted the fifth day because it was short and contained no significant climbs so there was only one more proper day’s cycling to negotiate. But that fourth day involved 3,400 metres of climbing, including the Col de Pailheres, one of the biggest climbs of the week.
Nevertheless, there was a feeling of optimism in the air on that Wednesday night – a feeling that was unfortunately destined to last for just a few hours, as Dave explains: “After supper that night I started shivering – which is unusual for me because I don't really feel the cold normally. I thought ‘oh dear, something’s seriously wrong here’.”
That night, Lewis was violently ill with vomiting and diarrhoea. In the morning, he’d recovered enough to face breakfast but by this time Dave was feeling too bad himself to contemplate food. Despite their rough night, father and son got back on their bikes for the day’s riding.
Dave managed the first climb of the day – the 1,249 metre Col du Port – but the next one, the Col du Pailheres at 2,001 metres, proved too much. He says: “I started vomiting on the Pailheres, a 22km climb. I got to about 2km from the top but then Graham [Hey – the tour leader] said it was time to throw in the towel and get into the van. There were points on the Pailheres where I wondered if I was losing my mind because all I wanted to do was sit in a mountain stream and drink it dry – but every time liquid passed my lips I’d throw it straight back up again.
“Graham had watched me deteriorate through the morning. I felt emotionally destroyed when he told me I’d have to stop for my own safety. But I guess I knew it was coming and I was very grateful that Graham made the decision for me.”
Upsetting though it was to admit defeat, it was even harder to tell Lewis that it was all over, as Dave recalls: “I got in the van on the Pailheres and watched Alan come up. Then I went to sleep and about three hours later I woke up on the top of the last climb. Lewis was there, preparing for the final descent of the day, so I told him what had happened and that I didn’t think I’d be riding the next day. He was so upset that he broke down in tears, which really upset me too of course. I don’t think I’d fully realized how important it was to him that I finished the ride.”
That penultimate night was spent in a hotel in Prades, just a few miles from the Mediterranean coast. As the rest of the group sat down to our evening meal, Dave and Lewis headed for a nearby McDonald’s in search of familiar food and a bit of father and son time. Dave says: “I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much in a McDonald’s before – it cost me about £40! It’s amazing what that boy of mine can eat. He was very excited to see the Royale with Cheese, which he knew from Pulp Fiction.
“We’d not really spent much time together on our own during the week so we had a good chat. What we decided was that I’d ride the following day, putting in as much effort as I could for the first hour or so, which was mainly downhill. Then when I was spent I’d sit up and wait for Alan, put whatever effort I could manage for him and then come in slowly.”
The home straight
The following morning saw everyone leave the hotel with a sense of purpose. The finish was 100km away with just 620 metres of climbing. There was a stiff tailwind helping us along so we knew it wouldn’t be a tough ride – but we also knew we had to reach the finish by 1pm or fail the challenge.
Sticking to the plan they’d hatched the previous night in McDonald’s, Lewis and Dave set off with Alan. Dave says: “I don't know where the energy came from but I stayed on the front and when my hour was up I still felt really good so I pushed on. When we reached the coast we realized we were at the front of the field. We got to about nine miles from the finish before my body decided it had had enough. I thought I’d be passed by everyone but in the end only Lewis and one other rider caught me. It was a wonderful finish.”
The previous day, it had taken Dave three hours to cover 12 miles. But on that surge for the finish line, he covered more than 60 miles in the same time – a transformation he attributes to the restorative powers of his McDonald’s feast, needless to say.
It was a complete delight to sit with the Rooneys on that sunny afternoon in Cerbère, gazing out at the Med, sipping fizzy wine and sharing the joy of completing an epic adventure together. Of course there’s no guarantee when you embark on a trip such as this that you’ll like your fellow riders but all 13 of us and the Marmot Tours support team got on like a house on fire.
As we all returned to our daily lives, full of pride and eager to share with loved ones our tales of derring-do on those beautiful mountains, Dave’s thoughts were already turning to the summer of 2017, when he plans to return with his son to Hendaye to complete his unfinished business. He says: “Strangely, I don’t feel any of the embarrassment or shame I thought I’d feel if I didn’t finish. But I’m determined to finish it next time – and I can’t wait.”