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Raid Pyrenean 2009

The Raid Pyrenean is a permanent brevet which runs across the Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Cerbère on the Mediterranean coast. There are two versions: the 100 hour "randonee" route, with 710km and 11,000m climbing and the 10-day "tourist" route, with 790km and 17,000m climbing. There are several tour companies running supported versions which handle entry, accommodation and ferrying equipment but John and I were too disorganised to book in time and fancied the old-school independent version, carrying our own gear and figuring out our own schedule. We chose the randonee route, but it might be fun to try to do the tourist route within the 100 hour randonee limit.

Booking, packing

All very straightforward. We picked some dates that fitted (26th to 30th August), booked a Eurostar return to Paris and singles from Paris to Biarritz and Perpignan to Paris and sent off our entry money. Cyclo Club Béarnais claims to have a Raid information phone number available on Friday evenings but each time we called nobody answered. We filled in the forms, wired the money to the CCB and hoped for the best. With a week to go our entry packs arrived, containing the route card and a nifty TDF-style frame plate to fix to the bikes, presumably for bragging rights instead of any practical purpose.

We each rode our normal road bikes and took a slightly dorky-looking but actually really good Carradice SQR Trax bag to carry our gear. Our packing lists were minimal:
  • on the bike: shorts, jersey, arm/knee warmers, gilet, rain jacket and winter jacket (more useful off the bike)
  • off the bike: shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops
  • tools: a tube, a spare tyre (between us), multitool, lights, phone charger
  • toiletries (most important: big pot of chamois cream) and clothes washing detergent
My bag weighed about 5kg yet didn't really affect the bike's handling; riding out of the saddle felt a bit odd but descending and cornering felt fine. The bag makes a handy mudguard and is very easy to fit and remove.

We took our bikes on the Eurostar and TGV as normal luggage using CTC plastic bags which we posted from Hendaye to Perpignan post office using poste restante. Aside from a grumble on the TGV down and generally making ourselves unpopular with bulky luggage we had no problems on the trains.

London to Hendaye

5.25am train from St Pancras, 3 hours in Paris (useful as their entire ticketing system had broken down) to transfer to Gare Montparnasse, 5 hours to Biarritz by TGV and 30 minutes on a local train to Hendaye (although it turns out our TGV went to Hendaye, too). We stayed at Campanile Hendaye, a 10-minute walk from the bottom of town. Dinner in Pippo's Pizza, without doubt the worst pizza I've had in my life: a thin-yet-doughy base, litres of super-sweet sauce and lashings of "French cheese" (i.e., the cheap ready-grated stuff). An awful dinner was followed by a tour of Hendaye's dog-poo covered pavements to find a hotel named in the route guide for our first stamp.

Day 1: Hendaye to Arudy

"Breakfast buffet": these are the words a cyclist likes to see and Hotel Campanile did them proud. Despite Hendaye's grottiness and in contrast to the previous meal the hotel breakfast was the stuff of legend: muesli, bread, jam, yoghurt, fruit, coffee, the works. I almost needed a post-breakfast lie-down but we had 200km to ride and hit the road by 8.45am.

Riding north through Hendaye it was obvious that this was the nice bit of town: cafes, bars, a view of the sea instead of a grubby port as with the bottom end. We continued north, up and down the headland and turned inland at St Jean de Luz. From here the roads rolled up and down, over the first "col", the 169m Col de St-Ignace (which even had kilometre counters: don't worry! not long! only 2km at 4% to go!). We stopped briefly at Espelette (46km), a small town with lots of sunny cafes, for a stamp, coffee and stilted conversation with some locals who'd seen our frame plates: "Yes.. 720km.. ask us in 4 days' time".

As we headed east the countryside got lumpier and the sun hotter. None of the climbs are long or steep but the road rolls relentlessly making maintaining a smooth pace tricky. In the midday sun the Col d'Osquich, an exposed but gentle climb to 500m, had John pouring with sweat and even I was a little damp around the edges by the time we reached the restaurant at the top for water. A quick descent into Mauléon was followed by a substantial 3-course lunch, none of which even touched the sides. We'd covered the first 140km at about 28kph so this probably shouldn't have been a surprise. As usual John was raring to go and 500m out of town we were back to through-and-off, blasting through Tardets (stamp here) to Asasp, the point at which the route splits for the optional 19th col: the Marie Blanque.

The standard randonee Raid route doesn't cover the Marie Blanque but there is an optional tickbox for it on the entry form. John and I ticked it with a "duh, of course" air of arrogance but now we know why: it's very tough. Although it only gains about 500m when ridden from the west almost all of that is in the last 3 or 4 km, which are listed as 11% on the profile but signposted at up to 13%. After 180km this was hard work, even with a pre-emptive coke from a sandwich shop in Asasp. We both rode all the way up with my 24kg weight advantage on John helping me up quite a lot faster. After a quick cramp-postponing leg stretch at the top we hit the descent, a fast, technical run down to the farmland outside Arudy. John had recovered enough by this point to "get a smash on" at 45kph for the last few kilometres into town where we stopped at the supermarket for fruit and brownies. We stayed at the Hotel de France on the small sqaure and ate very well at the restaurant opposite.

Day 1 stats: 197km and 2700m ascent in 7h13m (av speed 27.3kph), 7300 kcal consumed (almost certainly way too high -- Garmin's algorithm seems very suspect)

Day 2: Arudy to Arreau

The big day: the Aubisque, Tourmalet and Aspin. Breakfast wasn't as good as the first day but we still managed an embarrassingly high number of return trips to the buffet. An early roll to Laruns at the foot of the Aubisque meant a fairly cool climb, with fantastic views opening up as we emerged from the trees on the bottom half. The gradient is never very steep so we managed a fair pace, hitting the summit at 10.45am or so for a coffee, stamp and "snack" (a foot-long baguette sandwich). The descent from the Aubsique is a gentle roll down to the 2km-long Col du Solour then a blast down to Argelès.

By the time we'd reached the valley floor the sun was fiercely hot and the gentle drag upstream to Luz-St-Sauveur was a sweaty slog with the Tourmalet looming in the distance. We stopped in town for a panini, quickly followed by a panini chaser (where was the food going? It didn't feel like my stomach) and another broken conversation with some other customers. "Tourmalet.. bon courage!", etc.

The Tourmalet itself isn't a particularly attractive climb when approached from the west. It drags up a tree-lined valley, through a town (€5 for two cans of coke!) then swings right into another valley, emerging from the trees at the far end for a sweltering 5km of switchbacks to the summit. It's not especially hard, just long; the gradient is relatively relaxed for the most part and even the toughest section at the top isn't too bad. The Galibier is certainly harder.

We had to stop in La Mongie (a fantastically ugly ski resort) for a stamp so took the opportunity to get some more food in. A galette, coffee and (John) bun all disappeared in short order and we were off to the last climb, the Col d'Aspin. This side of the Tourmalet is much prettier, with sweeping corners, long straights and tight switchbacks. The right turn to the Aspin appears after 13km of descending and before long the road is heading up. The bottom of the Aspin is a frustrating up-down roll for 5km or so before the climb proper starts. By this point there's around 400m to climb in 5km at a consistent 7 or 8%. I really enjoyed this climb -- shady, sweeping corners, and a quiet, narrow road. The view from the summit is fantastic with the road running through a hidden fold in the valley beneath you. It's a technical, fast descent which drops 700 or 800m over 13km straight into Arreau, our stop for the night.

We stayed in the Hotel d'Angleterre, probaby the plushest (though still not very) place we stayed in on the trip. Unfortunately its plushness also meant breakfast wouldn't be available until the genteel time of 8am, a bit too late with a 170km day ahead of us, so we asked for an early breakfast. A bad move. The hotel staff were stressed and asked us to come back later to sort it out so we retired to the room and tried to stay awake. After talking about it we decided that 8am would work, especially if it meant we could make a decent dent in what would surely be a decent buffet spread instead of finding food en route. I went down to tell the staff we'd wait but found them preparing our "breakfast" on a tray: 3.5 small slices of bread, 4 mini-croissants (the size you might serve as a breakfast hors d'oeuvre, if such a thing existed: one bite and it's gone), juice and a coffee all for the bargain total of €18. This was bad in two ways: a) it clearly wasn't a breakfast in any sense, b) it clearly wasn't going to last the night uneaten in our room. So "breakfast" was consumed at 11pm with the justification of getting the carbs in early for a long day and we resigned ourselves to finding food on the road.

Day 2 stats: 146km and 3600m ascent in 6h51m (av speed 21.2km), 6000 kcal consumed

Day 3: Arreau to Tarason-sur-Ariege

Day 3 dawned overcast, a welcome relief for John but an unwelcome potential threat to my clean bike. Breakfast of cold pizza and chewy bread from a boulangerie in town and we were off up the Col de Peyresourde. We climbed through cloud so I have no idea what the view was like but it was an enjoyable climb nonetheless at a steady 7 or 8%. A fast descent that would have been much more fun in the dry took us into Bagnères-de-Luchon and a lead-lined pain au chocolat and coffee stop. Today would be a day of 5 smallish climbs (the Peyresourde at 1569m was the biggest with the rest between 700m and 1250m) split by drags along valleys. The first drag was slightly downhill into the wind to Chaum, about 20km away. I am not in my element on these sections but John "Johan" H certaintly is: the smash express is in town. 35 minutes of looking at John's back wheel dropped us into Chaum by 10.45am.

After a quick map check we pulled away ready to climb the Col des Ares only to hear CLANK-CLANK-CLANK. Oh dear. John's Museuw-style effort had broken a spoke in his rear wheel at about the worst point possible: 20km in every direction from a town late on a Frday morning. A combination of faffing at a train station, discovering the train was in fact a bus which wouldn't take our bikes, despite our best looks of hopelessness, and finding a taxi had us back in Luchon for 12.15pm. The local bike shop sold John the cheapest, nastiest looking wheel ever seen and, fuelled by more cold pizza, we once again shot up the valley to Chaum, arriving back at the spot of the breakdown at 1.40pm.

The Col des Ares was unremarkable: a gentle climb, poor road surface and a puncture. The Col de Buret was just as average. Next was the short-but-stiff Col des Portet d'Aspet, 4.3km at 10% average with sections at 17%. More huffing and puffing and a brief hint of sun had us over into the next valley for a giant sandwich and moment to consider our options. Our planned (and booked) stop was at Tarascon-sur-Ariege, about 100km away. It was already close to 4pm so we were looking at not arriving until gone 8pm -- a long day but not a disaster. The descent was long and gradual and perfect territory for getting a smash on, so once again I dutifully followed John's giant calves at 45kph, unable to hold a turn on the front for more than 20 seconds. Not much fun for me but extremely efficient: we covered the 35km to St Girons in less than an hour.

St Girons provided yet another bun stop to fuel up for the drag upstream to Massat and the final climb, the Col du Port. At last gravity worked to my advantage as I gradually eeked the pace up to the point where John's turns became very selective and then entirely absent. We arrived in Massat, a tiny, boring town, shortly after 6pm for a quick coke stop and the Col du Port. We were up on our revised schedule and looking like reaching the hotel by 8pm.

The Col du Port is supposed to offer fantastic views on a clear day but it was shrouded in cloud when we climbed. Despite being wet it was still muggy and we both rode with helmets off and jerseys fully unzipped. It was also utterly boring: 12km at 5% with no view of the top and almost no view of anything but the inside of a cloud. The summit finally appeared at 1250m and we quickly togged up for the descent. Being of slight build I quickly got very cold descending in the wet and the first rise which required pedalling was agony with stiff, cold legs. Still, we made it, and as we hit the valley floor the rain stopped and we warmed up a little for the final run to Tarascon, arriving at 7.40pm. What could have been a complete disaster turned into a long but reasonable day of riding and kept us on schedule.

We stayed in L'Hostellerie de la Poste, a fairly grotty and noisy hotel in the centre of town. The breakfast room looked promising (cereal dispensers, lots of jam and so on) as we wheeled our bikes through the dining room to the garage out back (it's cyclist-friendly, at least) so we thought we'd be in for a good start to the next day.

Day 3 stats: 175km and 2700m climbing in 6h41m (av speed 26.1kph), 6000 kcal consumed (plus about 20km and 40 minutes for retracing the route to Chaum)

Day 4: Tarascon-sur-Ariege to Prades

Breakfast wasn't quite what we'd hoped for with no fruit, no yoghurt, not very good cereal and yet more white bread. Oh well. After a long day we both felt stiff and sore ("someone's been playing the bongos on my quads" -- John) on the dull 28km to Ax-les-Thermes. A coffee stop didn't do much to help our legs and only put off the inevitable: the 30km climb of the Col de Puymorens. Nothing I'd read about this climb sounded very inspiring -- it's long, it's gradual, it's on a main road -- and that's mostly right. However, after the halfway point the views improved, some of the traffic turned off to the tunnel under the col, the sun came out and we got an impression of how high we'd climbed (the summit is at 1920m). It took about 1h40m to finally hit the summit and (horrors!) a headwind for the descent. What could have been a super fast descent turned into a gusty, nervous potter down the valley. Still, descents are rarely 30km long so it's unfair to complain too much. Before too long we arrived in Bourg Madame on the Spanish border for a long lunch break and a breather before the last few climbs of the ride.

The Col de Puymorens marks a dividing line between two halves of the Pyrenees: on the west, narrow, tree-lined roads and craggy valleys; on the east, open, hot plains and scrubby, smooth mountains. We fought a stiff headwind in incredible heat to winch our way over the last climbs of the ride (Col de la Perche and Mount Louis, both around 1600m) and start the final run into Prades. Again, the wind made descending tricky and less fun than it might have been but it was a fairly low-effort 35km to Prades at about 350m.

Another enjoyable day on the bike but less so than the first days. We both agreed that it someone gave us the chance to spend more time in the eastern Pyrenees we'd pass up the offer.

We stayed at the Hexagone Hotel, another identikit chain place on the outskirts of Prades. The room was tiny but adequate and the breakfast area looked promising with several cereals to choose from (living on bread makes one appreciate cereal a lot!) Really good dinner in the pleasant, leafy town centre.

Day 4 stats: 135km and 2000m ascent in 4h50m (av speed 27.8kph), Garmin kcal stats not working

Day 5: Prades to Cebère

Breakfast was indeed good: the chain hotel is king! Not as good as Hendaye but close, with a decent choice of cereal, bread, fruit, yoghurt, etc. Quite a shame as today was relatively short at only 90km and overnight the wind had changed to give a northeasterly, giving us a nice push along. A very nice push, actually, as we set off at about 45kph. After 10km off through-and-off we agreed that averaging 37kph wasn't sustainable but we kept at it and at our coffee stop in Elne, only 5km from the Med, we'd pushed the average speed to 38kph and embarrassed everyone we passed (including a guy on a TT bike with Zipps).

The wind was still on our backs for the run down the coast but tricky navigation around Argelès-Plage and the hills outside Cerbère ate into our average speed. The last 20km rolls up and down the headland, in and out of bays and ports giving us a last chance to hurt each other. I'd pull us up the hills and John would lay down the power on the descents, though (fortunately) the twisty, technical road didn't let him hit maximum speed. We rolled into Cerbère after exactly 3 hours of riding for a stamp from a grumpy cafe owner and a congratulatory lunch.

We'd planned to take the train back to Perpignan before getting the TGV the next day but instead chose to fight the wind all the way at more of a touring pace. The rolling roads along the headland were fine but the last 20km into Perpignan were truly awful: relentless wind, hot and poorly signed. 50km took almost two hours.

Day 5 stats: 97km and 1000m ascent in 3h00m (av speed 32.3kph), 3000kcal consumed plus 54km in 1h40m back to Perpignan.


A fantastic ride and well worth doing. Doing it independently might sound like a lot more work but it gives you the freedom to ride at your own pace and schedule and the satisfaction of doing it all by yourself. You don't need a lot of kit (our packing lists were pretty much spot-on) and it's very easy to organise.

Total Raid stats: about 750km and 12,000m ascent in 28h35m (av speed 26.2kph). We finished the route 98 hours after starting.