Its the mountains that makes the Raid so special, a pretty much unbeatable tour through the classic Pyrenean battlegrounds of Le Tour. The whole ride boasts 18 cols but to be honest some a relative pimples. Day 1 features none of the big names, but though looking like an 'easy' day has the distance and the amount of climbing one would typically find in a British sportive such as the Castle Ride or the first day of the Tour of Wessex. When one is dealing with the Raid, easy is a relative concept.
It day 2 that really bites and there was a tricky little extra chucked in. The day was due to kick off with the Aubsique, but a landslide meant an alternative route. The alternative needed to be approved and the powers that be were not going to let us off lightly. They added an extra 18km and 500m of climbing by replacing the Aubisque with an ascent of the Col de Soulour, prefaced by the Marie Blanc. One damp morning we left the hotel and hit the foothills of this nasty bugger pretty much straightaway. Many of the Pyrenean climbs start with a gentle upgrade before showing their teeth. The Marie Blanc is not one of the giants at 9km, but with the final 4km between 10.5 and 12.5% gradient it stings. By comparison the Soulour is more of a pussy cat, but by the time one has crested this we still had 100km to ride and the Tourmalet lay ahead.
Of course the Tourmalet is the big beast with all the tour history but for the first two thirds I was pretty underwhelmed. To start with there seemed to be pretty much continuous road works, with some pretty serious civil engineering going on. The we rode into what I took to be a thick mist, where one could only see a few feet ahead, so even if there were majestic views we weren't going to see them. It was when Tim came past in the van, I realised that we were riding through the clouds, and about 7 km from the top we broke through into beautiful sunshine, and the true power of the landscape opened up. Despite is 8.5% average in the last 8km, and some pretty iffy road surfaces I found I could keep a steady pace going and enjoy the spectacle.
At 174km day 3 was the longest with a generous 3000m of climbing, but with a real sting in the tail. The Col d'Aspin was a treat, beautiful, nice tarmac and a steady gradient. What followed was the peyresourde, probably my favourite climb, not least because the café at the top served the most wonderful cheese and ham omelettes, and delicious crepes. But again, we still had 120km to ride from there. Day 2 had been a bit mixed on the weather from, but day 3 was beautiful, and after a couple of minor Cols we reached the foot of the Portet d'Aspet. Arriving after 100km, and with reports of gradients of 14%, though fairly short this one had a few of us worried. There was one ramp where it was probably over 14%, but averaging around 9% for the final 5km meant that it never got out of hand. But even now, we still had to slog the best part of 60km to the finish, firstly a long descent to St Girons and then a 27km uphill drag to Massat. A long tough day.
Day 4 had less pedigree but no shortage of ascent, but with day 5 being a relatively mild run to the sea there was confidence building. As before we were climbing pretty much from the moment we left the hotel, but the Col de Port was nice and steady. However that was just setting the scene for the Col de Paiheres. Rising to 2001m with average gradients in the last 5 km of 9% this was probably only second to the Tourmalet in terms of scale. As one reaches that final part it is one of the few climbs that has that alpine feel with lots of hairpins and ramps where one can look back to where you have come from. Once over the top the descent was on a skinny road that seems more like a bowl of spaghetti thrown at the mountain than any sensible route.
It was getting hot now and though nothing special the Col de Garavel kind of pissed me off, but as I started the final climb, the Jau, my mood picked up and when I got of 4 km from the top I threw a bit of caution to the wind and attacked to the summit. From there it was a beautiful downhill run to the finish in Prades. And that was that for Cols, well not strictly speaking. on Day 5 we went over St Pierre and Ternere, but compared to what had gone before these were pimples. But the climbing wasn't quite over, having hit the Med at St Cyprien, the Coast road started to get a bit lumpy, and there was a final little hump to get over before the run in Cerbere.
The Pyrenees' have a feel all of their own. Only the Tourmalet and Paiheres get serious beyond the tree line and though often vary steep the gradients felt more variable than the Alps or Dolomites. The roads were often narrow, and one had to be serious alert to livestock. On the Tourmalet climb we got stuck behind a farmer herding his sheep, and narrowly missed being pursued by Llamas. On the descent of the Paiheres but for a shout from the rider in front I would have piled head long into three riderless horses ambling slowly up the mountain.
It was possible to sit in a gear and ride to a heart rate generally, compact chain sets and 28t rear cassettes have probably done much to tame these brutes. The idea of tackling the Tourmalet on a barely made road, with a single speed bike like Octave Lapize did in 1910 is quite a different concept.