REVIEW: Bike Basque
by Caven O'Hara
With the New Year behind us thoughts have already turned to what the year might hold, what challenges will be accepted? To achieve those goals, it is now that those winter base miles need to be ridden to give yourself a chance of hitting those targets. It just happens to be that time of year in the UK when the weather can be at its worst.
First Day View
A taste of things to come...
Yes it is winter but a combination of the wet, cold and downright windy conditions make it a real test. It can lead to the mind drifting ahead, thinking of warm summer days when the riding is easier, the light better and generally you are left with a smile on your face. It feels like a long way off!
The locals were eager
What if that goal you were working toward was a week away in the sun, in the mountains riding the Cols that the pros ride in the big Tours? That would provide oodles of motivation to get out regardless of the weather. I was lucky enough to get a taste of what one of these tours can offer courtesy of Bike Basque. When owner Xavier Lopez contacted me to see if I would like to see what the Pyrenees had to offer, naturally I jumped at the chance. Given the trip was later in the year it would prove to be an ideal way to wind up the serious cycling for the year. After several emails confirming itineraries and flights, everything was in place. I took advantage of the offer to use one of their fleet of Peugeot bikes, equipped with a Shimano Ultegra groupset so it meant I could travel light.
Plenty of this...
The climbs hurt but were worth it.
With the flight leaving London Stanstead early afternoon, it was a relaxed start to the day, two trains and I was there thanks to the joy of Thameslink. The flight over to Lourdes Tarbes airport was painless and Xavier and side kick Nigel who was on our flight, greeted us at the airport. We had 6 days and 5 nights ahead of us and with the forecast predicting more sunshine it was a relaxed jaunt to the hotel. Intros and chat in the minibus allowed us to quickly get to know each other. Arriving at the Carre Py hotel, our base for the opening two nights and our final night on French soil, we unpacked the van and were shown to our rooms. After a quick bag drop we were back downstairs to get our bikes setup and fitted. I had taken the easy option of using one of the Bike Basque fleet, a Peugot, carbon frame shod with Ultegra. You can't beat a good bit of faffing but before long we were all happy with our respective steeds.
The Long Way Up
Dinner was in the restaurant next door to the hotel and proved to be tasty and filling. Over dinner discussion turned to what lay in-store for the next day. The gist of which was to head out from hotel before tackling the La Horquette d'Ancizan and the Col d'Aspin. An 80Km route with 1800m of climbing - an easier day in the saddle.
An early night was followed by breakfast at the civilised time of 0730 before getting our gear together for the day ahead. With bottles filled, everything else we may need including lunch carefully stashed in the van it only remained to don shades and head out onto the main road. The first 10Km provided a rolling start, a little bit of a rude awakening for the legs but not as big a shock as lay ahead. At least by the time we hit the lower slopes of the La Horquette the legs were warm and just as well given the terrain ahead. Whilst not super steep it was enough to keep the legs honest but the scenery gave a glimpse of what this area has to offer. Perhaps overshadowed by the attention and coverage received by the Alps, the Pyrenees has plenty to offer for the climbers, those who love stunning scenery and those who like a large dose of Tour heritage. After a picturesque setting for lunch followed by a pleasant descent off La Horquette d'Ancizan mixed with having to avoid some donkeys on the way down who were happy to stand in the middle of the road, it was time to hit the Col d'Aspin. Dessert was that large portion of Tour heritage I mentioned, having been featured 71 times in the big race. Now it was our turn and it didn't let us down.
Just over 11.5Km at an average of 6.5% it is another climb that makes you concentrate but not enough to put you on the limit. Once over the top it was another long downhill stretch that was the best part of 20Km in length as we headed back to the hotel. A great first day with time left to shower and relax and there was even time before dinner to head down the road into town to explore. With a lovely square, well more of a rectangle filled with chairs and tables we settled for a beer and an ice cream. Xavier was keen to show off the area so with the restaurant next to the hotel closed we headed into town for dinner. As we found out during our stay, Xavier knows several restaurants in each of the towns we stayed in that offer superb food. So suitably fed it was back to the Carre Py for a good night's sleep and think about the next instalment, the Col du Tourmalet.
Worth the effort
Descending the Tourmalet
Another late-ish start and breakfast and it was time to tackle the big one. I've been over the Tourmalet before when I rode the 2010 L'Etape which finished on top. On that occasion we came over the other side from Bareges so it was going to be interesting tackling the other side of this iconic mountain. It is a giant of the Tour with 84 appearances, synonymous with the Grand Boucle and its slopes are covered in race history. If was disappointing then to feel rough, I couldn't keep anything down or in which made the whole ride a real test. I suffered the whole way up and it is a long way, to make matters worse I cracked the screen on my phone! Stopping to visit the loo I was trying to get something out of my jersey and dropped it. Sort of summed up the day. Having kept the others waiting I got to the van and donned some warm clothing and got in, not trusting myself to manage the descent. We had already cut the day short as the forecast was predicting storms and heavy rain.
We met the others at foot of the climb for a coffee before they headed off to cycle off to our second hotel, Primerose. A more homely place to stay, they are a haven for cyclists and cycling clubs, given the number of bikes in the storage area. The owner was always welcoming and friendly. Whilst the others were spinning towards the hotel, Xavier and I drove ahead to buy some bits for lunch which we had in a park opposite the hotel whilst they readied our rooms. I couldn't manage much for dinner and left the others to have their fill and had an early night.
Foot of the Aubisque
The next morning I didn't feel 100% and was going to sit in the van but as the morning progressed and the others were getting ready I decided with 70Km of rolling roads before the Col d'Aubisque, what the hell - at least give it a go. The weather was warm again and with the help of some flatter miles I felt better and better as the ride progressed. Honestly it had nothing to do with the Xavier having invited the crew from ContentLab to do some filming. The ride through rolling countryside and towns was France as you'd imagine it. Big fields, quaint towns we even came across a farmer and family walking their sheep through the lanes. At the foot of the Aubisque it was difficult to visualise the climb to come. At 16.6Km and an average of 7.2% it would prove a tough nut and given temperatures in the late teens it was going to be a long slog. The lower slopes were tree lined and offered shade at times interspersed with stretches of open road or the occasional town. As we climbed the roads opened to reveal the mountains in the distance as the roads dropped away from you and the real vista opened up. Besides battling the gradient we happened across a gnarly old Frenchman, no helmet, old school bike and who refused to be dropped. If that wasn't enough, there were cows ambling down the road at various points to contend with, the bonus here I suppose was we weren't descending.
Cheered on by the locals
We arrived in drips and drabs to find a mountain top restaurant which served perfectly chilled cokes. When everyone arrived we had our usual lunch of baguettes, cheeses, hams fruit and snacks. With a mountain vista all around it was truly stunning and humbling to sit, eat and watch the world. Xavier did have to lead one over enthusiastic horse away who was showing real interest in our lunch. From here it was a short drop to the foot of the Soulor and we then climbed the final couple of clicks before a long drop down back to the Primerose. Dinner was in town, Argeles Gazost, bizarrely the square where we ate provided one of the feed stops when I rode L'Etape. It looked a little different this time around and my breathing was more relaxed. The conversation around the table was relaxed as it had been all trip and the next route came up. With some tired bodies we decided to alter the proposed plan and take the most direct route back to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
What a view for lunch!
Lunch was popular
With more cloud than we had been used to we only had one major climb on the day's route at Arrodets-ez-Angles. The route differed from the previous day's as there were no serious mountains but more tree-lined country roads that wove in-between farms and woods. It was a real contrast but showed another side to the region. We stayed ahead of the rain and made it back to the Carre Py without getting wet, in fact the weather cleared up. Nigel decided to take advantage and go for an extra ride, the rest of us decided to head into town for a coffee. Our final meal was back in town and as usual it didn't disappoint.
Go on then, I'll have another descent.
Another Col Bagged.
With an afternoon flight a couple of us took advantage of the time available to get out for a final spin, north out of Bagneres-de-Bigorre. At just under 40Km but more pertinently just scraping over 400m of climbing this was a relaxing spin. It was nice to take advantage of the flatter terrain and visit a different part of the region but with time waiting for no man we had to head back to clean up and pack. We did have to time to stop for lunch, en-route back to airport before boarding our flight back to the UK.
For more information on what Bike Basque have to offer, click here: http://www.bikebasque.co.uk/
You won't be disappointed.
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