Images courtsey of Rupert Hartley
Having finished the inaugural Further Pyrenees in 2018, I had a rough idea of what I was getting myself in to... My desire to return is because of the appeal of the unknown. Camille, the mastermind behind Further, puts considerable time, effort and thought into concocting a unique sequence of mandatory ‘sectors’ each year, which we are left to link up.
The race was to begin at the Refuge du Ruhle perched high in the mountains at 2185m, so getting to the start was a taster of what was to come. A 25km road climb then a two hour hike and we reached the refuge. “That’s the hardest hike a bike you’ll do” Camille lied. So far from the truth maybe it was intended as a joke?
An evening of faff, catching up with old friends and new, a cosy dinner and then a stormy and restless night, left us with a beautifully crisp and clear morning to start the race.
It was the usual frenetic start, even though we were carrying our bikes from the off. We rode, carried and tumbled our way down the valley, before heading straight back up again on a long gravel climb, such was the theme of the day. The temperature just kept rising. Any available water source - fountains, taps, rockfaces - I would drink all I could stomach, and pour water over my head to try and cool off. The ascent to Fourcat, at 2001m, was a push I was familiar with. This time cloud hung low drifting between the hills with no views from the top.
Back down we go and I meet Camille, who assures me making the pizzeria in Massat before closing was well within reach. However I’d began to doubt some of what Camille spouted, so not one for taking food risks, I did a number on the Tarascon Mcdonalds (and thank god I did!) Food anxiety at bay, I could enjoy the next lengthy climb stress free up to and along a dramatic ridge at 1700m. With the sun setting in the west, strobes of lighting in the distant east, and the reassuring twinkling lights of civilization far below, it made for a special end to day 1. Just one more sketchily steep hair pin descent, a quick wash in a river and I was bedded down before midnight near the start of the curfewed sector 6B.
Already at 1500m for sunrise and the start of Sector 6B, in daylight you could understand why this section was banned in the dark. An awkward traverse along the face of ‘Les Trois Seigneurs’ - an excellent training ground for some tricksy hike-a-bike. A tenuous path strewn with obstacles designed to test and punish cyclists who had the audacity to take a bike there; massive rocks to squeeze between, small rocks to trip over and extensive overgrowth to get tangled in. Having seen Romain effortlessly trot past me with his bike worn like a back pack I realised I needed a carrying system if I was going to move with any speed/ grace/ joy. I’d brought a thin strap ‘just in case’ which I looped round the top tube and padded out with a t shirt to keep the pins and needles at bay. It wasn’t perfect, but it enabled me to walk upright without straining my lower back – a game changer. Now I could focus on picking my way through the terrain, concentrating my movements to avoid being biffed off rocks. Eventually we reached a smooth beautifully graded climb and a long swooping descent into Vicdessos, where it was universally agreed that the croissants were c**p.
The next notable and curfewed sector was no.7… and rightly so! After a long, very hot push up through woodland, it opened up into a valley where eventually the mountains ahead closed in. Rearing up in all directions, the only indication as to where I was headed were the brightly coloured lemmings clinging to hairpins with bikes on their back. Surely not… it looked impossibly steep…. however, besides a couple of hairy grass/ shrub/ thistle grabbing moments to avoid toppling off the hill – it was of course possible.
Down down down into Aules les Bains for a Super U raid with a small gathering of fellow riders. Any sense of urgency I had fell away for the day, as I was confident I’d make the curfewed final sector at a reasonable time having got the significant hike a bikes out the way. It was a long day, and after nearly 5000m of climbing I descended off sector 8 into the small village Melles near the Spanish border just as darkness fell. I was thrilled to find a charming little restaurant, terrace adorned with fairy lights and ambient French hip hop coming from inside. To my relief they were willing to serve me food, so a three course meal it was, a couple of beers and I even blagged a shower. Rich then came along having chosen a more scenic route for the day (and buzzing from it), and joined me for a cold one before we set off to find shelter as ominous thunder rumbled around. After a couple of misses we hit the jackpot - a shelter in a carpark complete with a stack of almost new mattresses! It was around 11pm, and we had nowhere to be till 6.30am…
The final sector was a very special beast. Having completed the previous 8 sectors, it seemed we’d unwittingly passed a test and earnt the right to take it on. I’d heard reports of tears from those that recce’d it – Michael and Camille – some from the sheer beauty, and the others I’m assuming from the mind messing false summits? Which sums it up really, with every steep winding carry to a false summit, was the reward of yet another vista unfolding before you to marvel at.
After a truly spectacular descent, with the odd landslide to navigate, I had lunch in Spain with Simon and Rich and it was beginning to feel like we were in an actual oven. Now it was just a self routed hoon back to the finish, all the mandatory sectors complete. Routing east towards Andorra I would take an off road climb to the border which we’d descended in 2018, a notorious smugglers route. A beautiful but relentless climb through a river gorge as the light faded, I reached Tor ‘the murder village’ around sunset, where a couple of guys drank beers outside what appeared to be an extension of someone living room. A cheery woman served me an ice cold cerveza which I promptly smashed on the ground. Without hesitation she handed me another saying ‘Don’t worryyy, be happyyyy’. She could obviously tell I needed a beer. So I sat, finished my last enormous ‘bocadillo’, drank slowly, breathed deeply before giving into the pressure to keep buggering on.
By 10pm motivation had flagged. A quick river dunk before I stumbled across a large wildlife hide buried deep into the hill. A sleeping bench complete with mattress and embers still warm in the fire, this would do nicely. Which it did until some time later I hear car engines, two of three of them, right outside! I’m in the middle of nowhere at nearly 2000m accessed only by gravel tracks. My imagination runs wild. I recall this sector being banned at night in 2018 because of SMUGGLERS. They must be smugglers, it’s the only possible explanation, I hear voices, see lights, one shines inside, they’ve seen me. I’m going to die. (Lol). Then I hear a woman’s voice, I relax. I’ve rationalised that women smugglers wouldn’t kill unsuspecting cyclists in their sleep. Phew. I drift off. I’m woken again, this time to the very surreal site of two large tents and double inflatable mattresses being posted through the large windows of the hide. Turns out they’re not smugglers, they’re just fellow weirdos who turn up in the middle of the night to pitch tents inside a hide.
I wake at 4 without an alarm, my body says it’s time to go. 50km to go, of which 40km was tarmac - easy breezey. The ‘far to steep to ride’ gravel track of the night before has miraculously turned into a perfectly rideable and enjoyable climb, such is the marvel that is sleep. I hit the Andorran border and with it smooth tarmac descending through ski villages as I fondly recall sleeping in a gondala 3 years before. Breakfast in an Andorran cafe and then onto what turned out to be my least favourite part of the whole route – an easy graded road climb littered with petrol stations, over development and way too many trucks. I felt overstimulated by the wrong kind of thing and couldn’t wait for the hike a bike begin.
While the final hike up to the French border was predictable, the final few km to the finish was an almost laughable surprise. Not the ‘easy roll to the finish’ I naively anticipated, instead a 2+ hour traverse across a boulder field with the refuge in view the whole time. Fortunately a bike on my back now just felt like a lazy old pal. Tricky terrain had become a satisfying game which I could play better than 3 days before. More confident, I’d dare myself to jump between bigger boulders, chancing landings to avoid glancing off a cleat. (Needless to say, the thought of doing this in the dark - as a few did, still boggled my mind.)
Two final lakes to swim in which I couldn’t resist - sparkling clear water bound by soaring mountains at 2000m+ is an experience I would regret to miss. The dizzying rush of cold water, the crisp air and clarity of light, all this beauty accompanied by the now familiar jangling of cow bells below. My senses were overloaded and part of me didn’t want this feeling, in this place, in this moment to end.
But I was hungry, and Calou makes the best high altitude omelettes and I’d heard he was running out of eggs….