Q: What has ten legs, weighs 60 stone and spouts an endless stream of filth from its back end?
A: The Fiasco peloton wending its way up some of the most beautiful climbs in the Pyrenees.
On reflection we should have known it wouldn’t be easy. From the moment our phones pinged with the news that all flights to Toulouse had been cancelled, the Fiasco train was always going to be tackling a steep gradient.
Did we give up? What would that kind of defeatist attitude say about our chances in the Etape on July 10?
From despair to determination in ten minutes, we jumped into two cars (WAGs in tow) and headed for the Chunnel. Cue 16 hours of boredom.
In the Qashqai Claire ate her own bodyweight in sweets, Jen slept (and snored), while David and I drove. Over in Duncan’s Volvo the conversation revolved around whether a fart is expelled or emitted. Incredibly Fiasco’s chief science officer was called on to resolve the debate. You get the idea: good times.
It was 2am by the time we finally fell asleep in our Toulouse hotel. As Friday dawned we set off again, bleary eyed, for the provincial delights of Bagneres de Luchon.
Any feelings of fatigue were dispatched by the sight of the Pyrenees rising majestically to our left. This was the magnet pulling us southwards. Barhatch eat your heart out.
WAGs duly dispatched to the spa, we collected our bikes (in the nick of time – this was France at lunchtime) and set about fiddling with stems and seatposts.
Where to go? In Luchon you are spoiled for choice, so we turned right and found ourselves climbing the legendary Col de Peyresourde.
This has featured in the Tour no fewer than 45 times and to the names Coppi, Bahamontes and Hinault you can now add Price as the undisputed leader over the top.
No false modesty here: I was having a good day and LOVING my first experience of a carbon framed climbing bike (thanks MTB Luchon, we loved those Massis!)
Soon afterwards the mountain goat known as Longy bobbed into view, followed by a beaming Spike, a muttering James and… what was that noise?
‘You utter bastards… this isn’t the top of the ****ing climb! ****ing ****ers! Why were you waiting down there?! It’s sabotage, giving me a ****ing false summit!!’ And on and on and on.
Good to see you too Jim. Now wring out your sweaty cap and let’s get going.
You see, there simply wasn’t time to stick around and be abused for long because by now the early risers were getting rather cold. That’s the thing with mountains – it was a lovely day, but up on the exposed summit it can get a bit nippy. We descended like the wind back into Luchon, inhaled a very good lunch, then climbed back on board for Friday part II: Superbagneres.
Four things we learned on this climb:
1. It is stunningly beautiful, especially with the high peaks still covered in snow.
2. Duncan never stops smiling in the mountains.
3. Longy could probably compete for a TdF stage if he wasn’t so busy taking photographs.
4. Jim + mountains = oil + water.
It was here in 1989 that Robert Millar famously danced his way into the polkadot jersey. On the same slopes in 2016 Richard Price secured bragging rights for the rest of the Fiasco tour.
For myself it was a climb in two parts. The beginning and middle were so beautiful it was easy to forget the effort and find a rhythm, with a great combination of steady climbing stretches and switchbacks. The end, however, was unmitigated grind. The summit of Superbagneres, as seen from the top, doesn’t look all that steep. Trust me, it is.
For the last five kilometres the gradient rarely drops below 8.5 per cent, and in parts is well north of 10. All this up a dead straight road which saps the will by showing you just how far away in the clouds the summit remains. The last 500m is the worst, prompting each of us to shut down all thought except counting the white lines in the middle of the road. Tough, but incredibly satisfying. Mr Benning gave something close to a chuckle as he realised the end was nigh, Longy punched the air, Duncan carried on smiling. Jim… well what do you reckon?!
Pleasantries exchanged, photo opportunities exploited, we saddled up again.
Cue another long, slightly more feisty descent (the headwind from Peyresourde did not slow us down this time) and the chance to dive into the shower and head out for dinner.
Serendipitously Luchon has very few shops to speak of, so our wives had failed to spend any money other than at the spa. And there’s only so much you can spend on massages a pierres chaud. The following morning we woke up to rain. So much of the stuff we couldn’t get the slightest glimpse of the cols we had descended barely 12 hours previously. Porte de Bales, today’s chosen col, was closed due to snow so it was time for plan B. While the WAGs headed off to Toulouse in the Volvo, credit cards at the ready, we pootled over to the bike shop in Luchon. Two hours later and a few hundred Euros lighter, we pottered off to Spain. This was via the Col du Portillon, a lesser known (but extremely easy on the eye) mountain which has the border with Spain at its summit.
Taken at a gentler pace, it was accompanied by an improvement in the weather. I think it’s fair to say we all enjoyed this one. Well almost all of us. Jim celebrated so wildly at the top I suspect there was more than a hint of sarcasm involved. We descended into Spain and tucked into an inappropriately big lunch before winding our way back into France via a circuitous, but pleasingly flat, route between the great summits. Shame about the headwind.
In the mood of celebration which followed we ate, shopped and slept with gusto. Toulouse is great, highly recommended, but let’s face it: we didn’t do that drive for a city break.
Complain though we might, we Fiasci are never happier than when tackling these tough but incredibly beautiful climbs.
So I shan’t trouble you with details of the long drive home.