56,000' of elevation gain
46 hours on my bike.
Before embarking on my trip to the Pyrenees all my non-cycling friends had the same question.
Why put myself through that when I could spend my precious vacation hours lying on a beach with a good book and a margarita. Why on earth would I want to spend the week traveling from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean by bike, traversing the most mountainous roads possible. And if I'm completely honest with myself, there were moments during the trip when I asked myself the same question. The trip was the most challenging week of riding I had ever attempted so I wasn't entirely sure how to answer their question. I know why I love to ride my bike and I'm sure all those reason would apply to this trip, but surely I could get those same benefits - scenery, camaraderie, food - without going to such extremes. In fact I had recently traveled to Italy and ridden about half as much and came away from that trip elated. So why was I going to such extremes?
Day 1 was fun. Everyone was buzzing with the excitement and anticipation of what our new adventure had in store for us. The ride that day was supposed to be flat and rolling but I was caught off guard with endless 15% “bumps” in the road that quickly wore me out. I ended that day with 7,500' already in my legs and feeling slightly anxious for the "big" days coming up.
Day 2 was still filled with excitement as we embarked on our first real day of climbing. But this day would bring new surprises. The climbs we encountered were much steeper than I had expected. That day consisted of Col d' Marie Blanque. Hands-down, the steepest prolonged climb I had ever attempted. Back in Los Angeles I live at the top of arguably the steepest climb in the Santa Monica mountains. This was worse and it quickly put the trip into perspective for me. To top off the day, Ms. Blanque was followed by the famous Col d’ Aubisque. Long stretches of 8-10% grades at the end of an already tough day did me in and when we rolled into our hotel I started to worry. The days were expected to get tougher.
By day 3 eveything started to fall apart. That morning I woke from a nightmare. A band of boys had snatched my cat out of my truck and proceeded to torture it. Surely this was some subconscious look at how I felt and as I rolled out of bed, groggy, eyes puffy and swollen, I wondered if the boys in my dream had british accents much like my lovely guides. At breakfast the rest of the group looked well rested. I, on the other hand, felt like I had a hangover. My cycling hangover came complete with nausea so the full breakfast spread laid out before me did not look good. Even the light, flaky, buttery croissants I looked forward to every morning tasted like chalk. That's when I knew it was serious. I had another 10,000' day ahead of me so I had to refuel. I choked down some food and quickly retreated to my room to gear up.
On my bike my legs felt like lead. We started the day on a false flat, a steady 2-3% grade, and the fast guys didn’t hold back as they rocketed towards the first climb of the day - Tourmalet. I knew the bulk of them were going for time. A test to see where they stood next to the likes of Levi Liephiemer. Planning for the trip I wanted to do the same. Not that I stood any chance of coming anywhere near the pros, but I wanted to push myself on this one. I quickly had to reassess my plans, and reassess my expectations. Today was about survival and I tried to reassure myself that we had lots of climbs ahead of us. I was bound to feel better, eventually. Right now my goal was to finish the day. To not get in the car. To not give up.
As I plodded along, alone, neon bakery signs announcing “Pain” lit the way. At least that made me laugh. As I weaved through town at the base of the climb rider after rider drifted away from me. My comrade, the only other girl on the trip and an equal match in riding abilities, had already pulled way ahead. I just hoped I didn’t fall so far behind that they’d get tired of waiting at the top and take off without me, leaving me to ride solo the rest of the day.
The climb went on that way for over two hours. Two hours of plodding. Two hours trying to press one foot in front of the other. Two hours alone with my thoughts. Two hours of my mind drifting to dark places filled with self-doubt and disappointment. Two hours trying to wrestle my mind back to “the bright side”. Two hours of wondering, “why AM I doing this?”
At 2k to go I saw a matte black Cannondale resting in the grass. "That's a funny place to stop", I thought and my eyes inquisitively scanned the road for the owner like a game of Where's Waldo. Found! It was the trip's photographer, his grey kit camouflaged with the guardrail, crouched down for the perfect shot. It was the first sign of human life I had seen in quite awhile. I rounded the last corner and spotted a bright fluorescent yellow dot in the distance. My husband was there, waiting, and next to him were a few other lycra-clad specs. The coffee shop at the top had slowed them down just enough for me to catch up. Then, finally, I approached the summit. Immersed in blue sky, clouds within arms reach, and the cool air prickling my cheeks. My spirits lifted the instant I was reunited with my crew. I made a quick stop to refill water and bundle up for the chilly descent. Then we were off.
The last to go, I saw each person drop off into oblivion. Then it was my turn. I crested the top and suddenly a vast valley stretched out before me. The last two hours spent staring into the wall of a mountain were replaced with endless layers of green valleys and mountain peaks receding into the distance. As I crested the top the pavement fell away beneath my front tire and for a split second I was suspended in air. The road perched into the side of the hill, absent of guardrails, I was un-contained. Flying between mountain tops. My stomach rose to my throat, like that brief moment on a roller coaster when you’re sitting at the top, track laid out before you, and you're whipped over the top and down the other side. For that split second time is frozen. You are weightless. You defy gravity.
I can’t pin point what it was. The beauty of my surroundings, the way the light streamed in between the clouds, or the feeling of effortless velocity after hours of moving in slow motion. Or maybe it was a combination of it all. As my bike gained momentum my stomach rose to my throat. It continued upwards, filling my chin, my cheeks, my eyes. The struggle coming up the mountain manifested under my chicken skin. And as I flew down the mountain a feeling washed over me that I can only describe as transcendent. My mind was clear with room for one thought only.
This is why I’m here. I’m alive.