First let's explain how you say it.
Kay~branta~whey~zos. It's a massive eagle, in case you were
wondering and it's the iconic figure for this region of the Basque
Country. Unlike the Marmotte where I never saw a single one of the
furry little creatures, here you see hundreds of them. These five
foot tall birds with the wing spans of truck circle you constantly as they
glide the Pyrenean updrafts. Very disconcerting.
To the race, and the classic climbs of the
Tour of Aragon. Turn up the day before the event and it's 38
degrees. Finding shade and drinking enough fluids is my main
concern. I follow the crowds to the local sports hall and sign on.
On display are all of the medals and trophies to be awarded. I hope
I don't win one because I don't think I could lift one up if I did.
Looking around me at all the slim, tanned, 50 kilo five foot riders
signing on I think the chances are low. Good, I can now sleep
After a hotel booking fiasco I wont bore
you with, I arrived at the race with moments to spare. Already in my
race kit, I stopped the car put the front wheel in the bike put on my
helmet just as three official looking cars went screaming past at what
seemed 100 mph. There were crowds, police and spectators everywhere
and somehow I found myself on the course about 400 metres after the
Then a commissaires car went past just as I
was putting my helmet on and five seconds later all hell broke loose as
the biggest peleton you've ever seen came screaming towards us. I
dived on the bike and started pedalling, somehow found a gap and held my
breath as we sped through the narrow streets of the town at 30 mph.
It's 8:00 am, the first kilometre of a 205 kilometre event, I'm at my
anaerobic threshold, my heart is already at 195 bpm (my max is 241) and I
haven't had my pre-event wee! It's going to be a long day.
Luckily the temperature is around 20 degrees. Time to settle in.
I fight to stay in the top 50 to 100 as we
head out on to the motorway that will take us to the Puerto de Somport.
The first 20 kilometres are neutralised, if 25 mph can be called
neutralised. There are police cars and bikes everywhere. Half
French and half Spanish, other bikes have photographers going up and down
the line taking your photo. The atmosphere is electric.
At one point I look back to see the longest
line of riders ever. Fifteen wide spread across the motorway and as
far back as the eye can see. It's possible to lose or gain 50 places
in the blink of an eye as riders puncture or move line causing others to
brake and gaps to open. Unlike Italy, everyone stays upright as we
get to the base of the first mountain.
At 1640 metres the Somport is big. I
already know because I drove over it the day before. I try to climb
with the leaders who are just riding within my limits. At 16
kilometres and 5% it's a long drag and it starts getting chilly. But
I ride well and at one of the flatter sections half way up I put on my
gilet. I can see clouds ahead and I think we're going to be riding
through them The descent is unbelievable, on the drive over I'd
already marked out where I thought I could top 50 mph but in the rain and
As we reached the top I could hear cow
bells ringing and crowds cheering. I'm still in the first hundred or
so and don't appear to be suffering too much from the manic start.
Two Spanish team mates come past and I jump on their wheel. We come
around the corner and can see the customs post at the summit.
There must be 2,000 spectators here!
The noise is unbelievable and the temperature gauge is reading 2 degrees.
It's so cold that there's condensation on your eyebrows and you can only
see about 10 metres in front of you. The hill is getting Lobster Pot
steep but the sound from the wall of people keeps you going. The two
riders I'm with are obviously locals as everyone is cheering them on,
either that or they've mistaken me for someone good. As we reach the
top a youngster passes me a newspaper. A quick "gracias" and it's up
the jumper, a swig of a drink, ignore the feed station and hit the
Now the bit between the Spanish customs
point and the French one about a kilometre away has to be rougher than any
cobbled road in the Tour of Flanders. Somehow I survive the massive
potholes, the ice and the washboard roads while forcing myself not to
brake. Once through the French side we hit the twisty bits.
Marshals are standing at all the danger points with flares and torches.
The fog is getting worse but at least they are prepared.
I descend as fast as I can making up places
everywhere. These Spanish can sure climb, but downhill? Then
just as I'm about to turn in to a big wide hairpin I hear the swishing of
rubber sliding on tarmac. I look under my shoulder and there's
someone totally out of control. I straighten my bike and head wide
with the brakes full on just as matey hits the deck and slides under my
front wheel. I can see his shorts being ripped from his bum and
notice he's Italian. From his kit, not his bum! He's the one
and only person all year to overtake me downhill. As his back wheel
passes I turn in and continue uninterrupted.
It's now a 30 k flat out scream to the foot
of the Marie Blanque. We're almost there, still in thick fog.
A group of around 30 of us has formed and I'm fighting to stay in the top
six. In front of us in the fog we can hear all sorts of shouts in
many tongues. Everyone eases instinctively but no one brakes.
Then it's mayhem.
Running alongside us to our left are three
spooked horses. This isn't good. The road is now opened to
traffic. We're doing 25 mph, slightly downhill, in thick fog, on
roads we don't know and we've somehow formed in to single file as these
horses run at our shoulder with nostrils flaring and horse spit
everywhere. Horses are like women, some have a mind of their own and
can become unpredictable ~ some one said.
We approach a sharp bend and the horses
begin to just ease back as they become uneasy about the cliff face to our
right and the low wall and river to our left. In the blink of an eye
I decide to go, just as two other riders get the same idea. We
sprint for this bend like it's the finish line on the Champs Elysees.
Somehow we get in, scrub off speed and get round, give ourselves a smug
grin and get back to work.
I suffered on the Marie Blanque like I've
never suffered before. Everyone in the world overtook me. It
was a disaster; and I'm only at half way. This "hill" is a baby
compared to the Portalet to follow, so I'd better recover and recover
quick. Determined not to stop I pass the water station, grab a
bottle and drink it's contents. I throw a gel down my throat and
grind out in my lowest gear for another half hour. What a mess.
The crowd at the top give me a lift and spirits rise as I eat on the
descent and start to feel human again.
Then comes my next big mistake. I
change down to too low a gear too early on the Portalet. Spooked by
it's 1800 metre peak and 29 kilometre climb I over compensate (or whimp
out, depending on your view) and end up climbing like a novice. All
those I passed descending the Marie Blanque come past me again, and all
those that never passed me before now get the chance. As we reach
the top I'm sure I'm in last place.
I decide I'm not going to stop at feed
stations. Just grab what I can, fill my bottles on the move and make
up lost time. I pass what seems like three hundred people on the
descent as the roads are still wet and riders are being possibly
over-cautious. Probably with good reason. We're back in Spain
and the roads have become narrow, twisty and very, very slippery.
People shout out as I go past ~ not in admiration!
Somehow I'm feeling rejuvenated and quite
strong. I'm in a group of about eight as we fly through a small
village where every single house is decked in bunting. The whole
village is out cheering us on and a band is playing at one end while loads
of people with cow bells are at the other. You can't not be spurred
I climb the Puerto de Hoz in the middle
ring. It's a 10%-er and 5k long but I feel okay. We've been
surrounded by motorbikes the whole day and just as we get to a
particularly tight and steep section the kid on his Honda next to me
changes down. An almighty bang comes from his gear box and his bike
stops dead. He manages to stay upright but balancing a bust CBR 600
with your missus on the back on a 10% climb, surrounded by bikes gives him
more headaches than he actually needs. I wish I could help but I
know I mustn't stop.
I ride like a man possessed back in to
Sabinanigo. Again I literally pass around another 200 people on the
descents to the town. Jumping from group to group almost at will.
With 5k to go I look behind me and I'm at the front of a group of around
200 riders. A few come through to help with the through and off and I
take a rest. As we pass under the flamme rouge I go to the front
and give it everything. Dianne even took a photo of me leading out
this massive line of strung out riders. Blew up before the line.
Looked good though!
Two hundred and five kilometres. The
longest I've ever ridden. Came in 744th which wasn't too bad after
the day I'd had but what did cheer me up no end was the time. Not
only had I made the cut for my age-related gold medal I'd even beaten the
time for the scratch group. So it's off for some food and a nap.
Next week it's across the border to France for the L'Ariegoise and a run
up the Tourmalet and Plateau du Beille. And the sun's come out
again. These races just get better and better.
PS Dianne bought a bike and rode one for
the first time in about 40 years. Went for a kilometre alongside a
river then turned around and came back. Very tired and puffing a