Travel: The Pyrenees Coast To Coast
Every year Allan Reeves, of France From Inside Cycling Tours, counts the days to his once a year epic cycling trip: Conquer the Pyrenees, 12 days riding from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and back, 1000 miles, and climbing 94000 feet. 2011 marks the 5th presentation of this marathon ride. PEZ takes a moment to ask him some questions about this journey.
People think I’m living the dream here at PEZ – galavanting off to Europe and the world’s biggest bike races to soak in the culture of cycle sport and some of the best rides on the planet. I’ll admit it’s a good gig, but the daily duties of dad/ husband/ guy-with-a-job affect me like I expect they affect many of you… my travel days are limited and must be used wisely. And let’s face it, even when I’m away at the Giro, or some cool industry event, I usually can’t wait to get home and back to my girls.
So editing articles like this one is a double edged sword of sorts – on one hand I’m thrilled to share the details of an amazing cycling trip with readers, on the other, I’m ticked that I now need to find another couple weeks of travel time in my calendar so I might partake in said trip myself. Well, as they’d say in France… c’est la vie….
I review a lot of cool trips here at PEZ, and this is one I’d definitely love to do…
The map of the Ride Across the Pyrenees, with each stage indicated in colored lines. See the full-size map here.
How did you come up with the idea for this trip?
Allan: I wanted a larger-than-life cycling challenge, something to be proud of, and something that not many cyclists will ever do. By 2005 I had already personally logged, over many years, a lot of riding in the Pyrenees, and I really enjoyed everything about them. The riding is absolutely out of this world, the climbs are breathtaking and hard. I was looking at a map, trying to decide on another region of the Pyrenees to explore, when it dawned on me to plan an itinerary to ride all of it. The Pyrenees have natural boundary points with the Atlantic and Mediterranean on either end. So, I put together a route and voila, the rest is history.
Atop the summit of the Col de Soulor, with the Col d’Aubisque in the background, and the ever present sheep.
How did you come up with the course?
Allan: Of course the route had to include as many of the famous and epic climbs that the Pyrenees have to offer, but I also wanted to take people off the beaten path. My objectives were simple: epic and challenging climbs, famous climbs, roads less traveled, and a minimization of roads with car traffic. I was not looking for the most direct way across the Pyrenees. Instead I wanted a combination of challenge, beauty and serenity. I wanted people at the end of each day to say, “Wow, that was hard, beautiful, and I can’t believe how little traffic there was.”
View from the summit of the Col du Porte de Pailheres, looking down the east face.
How did you determine the length and difficulty of the daily stages?
Allan: First off this trip is all about demanding cycling, though it is not meant to be a “death march.” Therefore, I wanted the average day to be between 5 and 6 hours of riding, long enough to be very difficult and yet also taking into consideration the cumulative effect of riding for 12 days. If the rides per day are too long and hard, then recovery for the following day is impossible. I had to keep in perspective that this is a multi stage route. I also had to fit the trip within 2 weeks, with 2 of those days would be reserved as rest days. I used my knowledge of the Pyrenees to inventory the terrain’s difficulty level. Also, as an experienced cyclist and a fitness trainer, I recognize and understand what the total distance and elevation a strong fit cyclist can ride in a day. With all that in mind I designed the course, and the feedback is what I hoped for…tired, but amazed, proud and happy smiling faces at the end of each day. When I see that I know that I have done right.
The group enjoys another perfectly paved and beautiful backroad, without any vehicle traffic. In the rising morning sun they make their way to the first climb of the day – the Col du Marie Blanc.
You limit the group size to 10 people, why?
Allan: This trip is unique because the group size is small. The first year I did this trip I pitched the idea to some cycling friends. One of them thought it was a great idea and he knew 20 other guys that would sign up. I realized that this would be too big a group – the logistics and flexibility of the trip would be complicated, and this would negatively affect the overall fun and experience. This trip is a quest and a serious challenge; so it needs serious focus and rider support, which I could not compromise. I decided on a max group size of 10 people – perfect so the group could gel and develop a bond, the riders could work together, the sag-wagon would be there to support all the riders, and our service at hotels and restaurants would be better. I wanted the trip to create lasting friendships between everyone and the experience to be that of a lifetime…truly memorable. One of the consistent comments I get from my clients is that they have never been on a trip with such outstanding rider support, which they also attribute to their success in completing the ride. I can only deliver by staying small and nimble.
Now all we have to do is descend into that valley, ride through it, and climb up the Col d’Aubisque. Priceless!
You say that the small group size make the trip unique. What else makes it special?
Allan: I think it is really cool that the riders will complete the entire journey without ever having to ride in the sag-wagon. I designed the course so that each stage goes from hotel to hotel, and never once does the trip call for travel time in the van. This journey is 12 stages to go from coast to coast and back. I also personally run and attend the trip, and after 4 years, experience means a lot.
When you look back from the summit of the Col du Tourmalet, on a sunny clear day, at least you can admire your effort.
How did you choose the dates for the trip, August 27 to September 11th?
Allan: There are two important reasons for those dates. The first is that I wanted to avoid the summer vacation crowds, and summer vacation is over at the end of August. The second reason is the weather. It turns out that some of the best weather, which I identify as the least likelihood of rain, falls within those dates. Every one of my trips has been blessed with 11 days of dry conditions and only one day of “on and off” rain. Last year we didn’t get rained on at all. Much of the time the weather is sunny with blue skies. You can look at the pictures on my website if you need more proof. Knock on wood we have the same luck in 2011.
First of 5 climbs for the day, our starting point somewhere in the base of the valley below.
What are some of the climbs that you do?
Allan: We do 22 mountain passes total. In 2010, the Tour de France included 10 of the 22 passes in my trip. Some of the more famous ones are the Col d’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Peyresourde, Portillon, Aspin, Pailheres, and Iraty. I have done this trip 4 times and it has always been in a counter clockwise loop. This year, 2011, I am doing the trip in a clockwise loop. It should be interesting.
With about 110 miles done and 15 more to go for the day, the group stays together in an effort to get the job done.
What kind of hotels do you use?
Allan: I look for hotels that are family run so that we get a local, friendly and distinctive feel for French culture, and preferably hotels with a restaurant as part of the establishment. Often times this is where you will get the best food. I have one such hotel that is owned and run by a French chef with his family. The meals there are outstanding and copious. It is also pleasurable and convenient for everyone to retire to their rooms when they want, something that is not as easy if we have to go out to a restaurant, though the restaurants are always within walking distance of the hotel. Many of the hotels I have found are like this. I do not use chain hotels because you will miss the charm that France is known for. The hotels are all 2 star, with comfortable accommodations, wireless internet access, secure and proper bike storage, and they serve breakfast.
I’m almost unsure where this is, as this site is a “dime a dozen” in the Pyrenees, with the sweeping hairpin turn and the Tour de France graffiti…Col du Porte de Pailheres.
What kind of food do you have at dinner?
Allan: Thankfully, the primary reputation and appeal of France is their cuisine. Typically the dinners include a salad, an entrйe, a main dish, cheese and desert. One of my favorite hotels has a restaurant and is owned and run by a trained chef. His restaurant is a destination for locals. Here you might chose to begin your meal with melon and prosciutto, followed by a mixed salad, a main dish of pork filet mignon with roasted oven potatoes and thinly shredded vegetables, a dish of varied Pyrenees local sheep cheeses, and a desert of chocolate cake with vanilla crиme sauce. Combine that with some red wine and you will be grinning from ear to ear. Note, the hotels and restaurants in the Pyrenees are familiar with cyclists and their appetites, so they know how to take care of us. We eat and we eat well.
The French Basque Pyrenees and the road that awaits us once we get down off the Col du Barguri.
What are the breakfasts like?
Allan: Well of course the French serve good coffee and croissants. Many of the hotels have a breakfast buffet, with choices of cereals, toast, yogurts, cold cuts, juices and other hot drinks. You can eat to your fill of whatever they have. They do not, however, serve omelets and hash-browns
What does the sag-wagon provide?
Allan: There isn’t anything fancy or magical about the sag-wagon and its purpose, but to serve the riders effectively. I make sure that it stays with the riders all day, like a Sheppard’s dog with his sheep, and this is one of the things that makes this trip successful. In addition to carrying our luggage and bike tools, the sag-wagon is stocked with food for the day and lunch. Every morning I buy fresh bread from a local bakery, and I have coolers with ice cold soft drinks, i.e. Orangina, Coca Cola. I also have fruit, cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches, cookies, and water. I shop on a regular basis for supplies all along the trip. The purpose of the sag-wagon is to give all the riders constant access to hydration and food to stay energized, and to have access to their cycling gear to adjust to weather and temperature conditions throughout the day, and assist with mechanical problems. I’ll quote a former client, “Having van support throughout the day was an added bonus…never been on a tour that had everything you needed pretty much at your fingertips all day long.”
The final stage in the Pyrenees, of the 2010 Tour de France, the riders climbed up that road on their way to the Col du Soulor and the Col du Tourmalet.
Tell me about a typical day.
Allan: The day starts with breakfast at 7 or 7:30 am. Most everyone comes down to breakfast with riding gear on. We talk about the route, joke around and enjoy our food. Next we load the van with the luggage and the riders prep and check their bikes, i.e. pump up tires. By 9 am we start the ride as a group. Everyone has a highlighted map, and some now even have Garmin computers with the map downloaded, but the van still tracks the riders and attempts to get to the intersections ahead of them to indicate the way. Anyone who needs something from the van has only to ask. As you can guess the group can fragment, mainly on the climbs, but it tends to regroup at the tops of the passes and for lunch. Riders of comparable ability ride together. This trip is not a race and the strength level between the riders is obvious after the first day, so most everyone takes a moment at the top of passes to enjoy the view, snap photos, and maybe go into a cafй when there is one. Around 12:30 to 1 pm we stop for lunch. The day’s ride is usually completed between 3:30 and 4:30 when we arrive at the destination hotel, or I should say the fragments of the group arriving at intervals. We check in, put our bikes away, shower-up. Everyone is free to roam about and visit the town where we are staying. At 7:30 pm we go to dinner. After dinner, which by now the time is 9 pm-ish, most everyone goes to bed.
A little more than half way up the west face of the Col du Tourmalet, but still 7 kms to go.
How many years have you done this trip?
Allan: I have done this trip 4 times, in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
What are some of your better memories?
Allan: The whole adventure from start to finish is fantastic. No matter where you are it is beautiful, and when you realize that you are riding the same epic roads and cols as in the Tour de France, well you can’t help but be thrilled. Again, I will quote one of my clients, Gordon, who said, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life, or smiled so much, especially during the 25 mile downhill. After each day, I kept thinking that the next day’s ride couldn’t possibly be as fun as the ride just completed, but it always was, for 12 days straight.” I love it when riders can work together to push themselves and keep a strong pace, and when that happens the memories are always good. Now I get to ride my bike for half of the trip, as I have another guide to divide the driving and sag-duties. When I get to ride with them and participate, those are my personal favorite moments.
What are some of the difficulties?
Allan: The small group size enables me to react to complications quickly and most of the problems can be avoided with good planning and execution. I am an organized person and I plan and anticipate as much as possible. The events that I can not plan for are the ones that become difficulties, and those are limited to extraordinary mechanical issues with bikes. For example, I had someone show up with a cracked frame, which we discovered at the end of the first stage just before dinner. That problem got solved by buying a new bike, which got addressed at the end of the next day’s ride when my client and I could go off looking for a bike shop. Finding a bike store wasn’t difficult, but finding one with a bike she wanted and that fit her made it more complicated. It was about a 4 hour project that ended with a positive result.
What do people like about this trip?
Allan: They like the comradeship, the riding, the adventure, the mountains, the routes, the climbs, the food, the experience, the challenge, the group size, the flow and organization…pretty much everything this trip is advertised to be. I really think that France, and especially the French Pyrenees, is a paradise for cyclists. Everyone is stoked, and proud to say that they rode 1000 miles with 94000 feet climbing in 12 days in the Pyrenees.
Has anyone come back to do the trip again?
Allan: I have had 3 people do this trip twice, and more who claim they will do it again if I reverse the loop direction. I can say that everyone who has done it has thoroughly enjoyed themselves and been proud of their accomplishment.
What kind of rider does well on this trip?
Allan: Obviously the trip is for an experienced and fit cyclist, and anyone who fits that profile can do it. So the better question is what do I consider experienced and fit? Experienced to me means that at a minimum you have been riding seriously for 5 or more years, and that you have ridden a lot of centuries. Fit means that a century is something you can ride right now without too much effort. The question is never can you complete a century, but rather how fast can you do it. From a rider profile perspective clearly climbers are better off than sprinters. Cyclists who are racers or who have experience with double centuries and multi-day rides are the type who have tested and proven themselves to be qualified. Therefore, the riders who do well are the ones who love to spend their day on a bike, love to suffer and push themselves, and thrive on endurance. Remember, it is not a race, but you need to be tenacious and committed and not to give up when the going gets tough.
France From Inside Pyrenees Trip Stats
• Price: 2800 Euros
• Dates of annual trip: August 27th to September 11th.
• 12 stages, 1011 miles, 94886 feet elevation.
Take a closer look and book yourself a spot on this trip here: Francefrominside.com/Pyrenees_bike_tour/Pyrenees_bike_trip_home.html
• Contact Allan Reeves at: