Riding the Circle of Death

Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!

The Tour de France first visited the high Pyrenees in 1910, and Octave Lapize's impassioned cry of "Murderers!", aimed at organiser Henri Desgranges and his officials at the top of the Col d'Aubisque, entered Tour history as one of its most iconic moments.

At the top of the 5th summit of the day, 3x 1st Category and 2x Hors Categorie, ridden on unpaved gravel roads, you can hardly blame him. The road surfaces may have improved somewhat in the subsequent century, but these mountains still present a formidable challenge, whether in their regular Tour appearances or for the determined amateur cyclist.

Barry was the latest to succumb to the siren call of the Col de Peyresourde, Col d'Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque...

The email from my mate Antton sounded intriguing...

Did I want to do a ride from Luchon-Bayonne that is held every two years and traces an immortal stage of the original 1910 Tour de France?

It sounded a lot of fun so I signed up and it was only after I did so that I really focused on the key statistics:

It's one day, 320km and 6000m of climbing...

It's a long day out!

Our group was Antton who is incredibly fit and a travel guide, Haimar who is super strong and Ryan who's a racer from the USA. I hadn't met Ryan before but he looked very fit and he told me he was pleased that he had just gotten down to 59 kgs. It promised to be a long day...

Because it's point to point the logistics are a nightmare, and we were very grateful to have David drive the van to the start at Luchon-Bayonne, and also act as a support van for food etc every 50kms or so.

He is also an ex Pro MTBer, so knows how to look after riders. The night before we had pizza and he told us of racing in France and being on a team that was a feeder to AG2R. I felt very small in comparison - what the hell had I signed up for??

We spent the night before spending a fortune in Aldi stocking up the van with as much water and carbs as we could fit in. The 5 of us then slept in the smallest flat in Luchon, but by 4am we were up and ready to get started.

We started riding at 6am, and within 20 minutes we were climbing the Peyresourde; it's a climb I now love but used to hate (I am still scarred from doing the Étape up it one year). This time could not have been more different; it was a perfect morning and Ryan and I climbed together at around 270 watts. I knew that's way too high a pace with a 12 hour day ahead, but I never learn!

The climbs soon came thick and fast; next was Col Aspin and then the fearsome Tourmalet, where Ryan dropped me and I never saw him again until the finish.

I stopped for the van at the top of Tourmalet in high spirits and waited for Haimar and Antton and planned to do the rest of the ride with them.

After doing Tourmalet I thought I had broken the back of the ride; nothing could be further from the truth. After Tourmalet you smash through various valleys on the way through towns like Luz Saint Sauveur and Argeles Gazost. I thought we would get a recovery; no chance. Antton was absolutely drilling it and we were all doing thorough and off, and I was working harder in the valleys than I had on the climbs.

I thought this was madness, but did not want to appear weak so pretended I felt much better than I did. It turned out that Antton's powermeter was drifting and was reading 50 watts low, so he was riding much harder than he had intended as well!

By now it was getting up to 6 hours into the ride; and that's normally a very long day. And we were not half way done yet.

It was now properly hot, and all the banter had stopped, especially as we started to climb Soulour and the the Aubisque. One of the many reasons I love cycling is that there is nowhere to hide. The modern world is very safe. You ride and start to bonk and no one is getting you out of the hole but yourself; you find out more about yourself on a bike than anywhere else. We climbed the Aubisque in near silence, and the power was down; 240 on the climbs was an achievement.

Finally, after what seemed forever, we had reached the top - our 5th big climb of the day.

Now we had a mere 160kms to go!

This section was incredibly beautiful; when you go the Pyrennnes you just think of the climbs, and miss all these roads that head westwards to the coast. But they are beautiful.

By this stage Haimar was having an unusually bad day so Antton and I did most of the work at the front - it was hard going and by this stage I had the worst hot spots in the my feet ever. Haimar was the same, and at one stage it was so bad that he actually took his feet out of his shoes which were clipped in, and just pushed down on the empty shoes. Its such a surreal moment - the strong climbing of 6am was a lifetime ago.

There were other people on the course and eventually we saw a decent group of them at a feed station with 70km to go. They were obviously veterans and were riding in a pack of 50.

As soon as we saw them leave the feed station we decided that was our autobus to the finish.

Unfortunately for me the feed station was at the top of a small col, and these riders all went down like a bat out of hell. I was immediately dropped and on my own, and spent a hellish 10 minutes fighting my way back to the group.

The last 50km are all a bit surreal; I had a litre of Coca-Cola at the last stop and suddenly felt amazing. For some reason I was now at the front of the pack and myself and 5 others were taking turns pulling the group along. At one stage I did this enormous turn and my Basque colleagues encouraged me with "Venga, Venga"; so I kept on going for km after km. Then I realised why they had let me, as we hit a serious of steep climbs which when fresh would have been ok. But by now they felt like a mini Mortirolo...

The thing about Spanish riders is that no one likes to work on the front, but as soon as a climb comes they all think they are Contador; so 50 guys smashed up this rise at 400w and I struggled to get back on.

Lesson learnt; no more heroic pulls from me, and I sat back in the bunch for the last 20km.

The feeling of achievement by that stage was huge; you could see the signs for Bayonne and we were in the finishing straight.

It's such an amazing event; I really like events that end on a flat and not a climb; your last memories are always much fonder. We all met up at the van and shared war stories...

For those interested my data was 11hrs 45ride time, 27kph, 317km, 5800 metres of climbing, 220watt Normalized and 550 TSS

(you can see the full data here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1657520357)

My hotel was in Bayonne and it was when the World Cup was on. I remember watching Germany v Sweden and 'real life' felt slightly detached; nothing was quite what it seemed. Little luxuries like a hot bath, or an air-conned room now seemed the height of indulgence. The ability to sit on a sofa and not move was simply glorious.

The Luchon-Bayonne is held every two years; the next one in 2020, and it's absolutely a bucket list event to do.

The Mallorca 312 is amazing and I loved it and will do it again and again... but nothing can match the grandeur of the Pyrenees and the sheer sense of "I am f*cked' as this event. Makes you feel alive!!

words by Barry Scott, photos by Haimar López Eguzkiza