The Trans Pyrenees Race (TPR) is an unsupported bike race over the Pyrenees from Biarritz to Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean. And then back again!
Held at the beginning of October, 2019 was the first ever edition of the race organised by Lost Dot, the people behind the famous Transcontinental Race. From the Race Manual:
The Trans Pyrenees Race is a self supported, single stage race in which the clock never stops. Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when and where to rest. They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find. Four mandatory control points and associated parcours plus four separate parcours guide the route from West to East through 1500 km of the most spectacular and remote routes of the Pyrenees. Trans Pyrenees Race No.1 will guide riders back to Biarritz using a set route based on the famous Le Raid Pyrénéen Randonneur, created in 1950 by the Cyclo Club Béarnais , climbing some of the most famous routes of the Pyrenees including Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin.
Not being a natural climber, the race didn’t really suit me, but I had always wanted to cycle in the Pyrenees, and this would give me a flavour of big unsupported bike races, so I entered on a bit of a whim!
My preparation wasn’t ideal…
My main focus of the year had been Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) – an iconic and hugely popular 1,200km Audax in August. All my training had focussed on this. I didn’t even have a suitable bike for TPR as I did almost all my Audaxes on a fixed wheel bike.
Getting accepted onto TPR in early March however, gave me the perfect excuse to buy a brand new “super-bike”. After a lot of research, I settled on a bespoke steel frame built by Jaegher in Ghent, Belgium. After countless emails between me and Emanuel, we finally agreed on a design and specification. The bike was designed to be somewhere between a road bike and a gravel bike, with a SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset, SWS carbon wheels and finished in a glorious metallic burnt orange paint job. Stunning!
Only problem, it arrived in the UK whilst I was riding PBP, only 6 weeks before TPR…
My feet and hands weren’t great after PBP, and I wasn’t that motivated to go out and train, even with the new bike which I christened “De MOAB” – The Mother Of All Bombs/Bikes. I certainly didn’t do much hill training – a single AAA 100km Audax on Fixed. So, come the end of September, I panicked and went out and did about 500km in the week before TPR, but mostly in the rolling Essex countryside.
Arriving in Biarritz a couple of days before the start of the race, I was tired, stressed and nervous. My neck ached and I really didn’t feel in great shape. I bumped into a couple of fellow competitors at the hotel – Karl and Thomas – who looked super fit and were humbly telling me all the amazing feats they’d been up to that year. On closer inspection, I noticed they even shaved their legs! I felt massively out of my depth…
The day before the race, we all gathered in a skate park to show our insurance documents, to make sure our bikes were safe and to pick up our GPS spot tracker. Every competitor had to carry a spot tracker so that the “dot watchers” at home could keep an eye on us and make sure we were following the designated routes and not cheating.
The race comprised the following controls and parcours (a set route):
Every competitor had to plan a route between these controls and parcours, minimising distance and elevation gain, whilst making sure we could resupply along the route. As the final race manual came out only in September, I spent a lot of evenings planning my route and where I would stop in the final 2 weeks before the race.
This was my daily plan and route:
After working out my route through a combination of “Ride with GPS” and Google maps, taking in the parcours and controls, I was facing about 1,600km with 32,000m of climbing. To qualify for an official finish or General Classification (“GC”), I had exactly one week to make it back to Biarritz.
The plan was to cover roughly 250km a day, and leave 100km for the last day – I felt this gave me enough contingency in case of bad weather or other problems. I had scoped out potential places to stop for the night, and I was hoping to make it to a hotel most nights. I did however, and again last minute, decide to take a 3 season sleeping bag and a bivvy bag in case I got stuck in the mountains and had to sleep by the side of the road.
Having suffered with sleep deprivation on PBP, I decided to minimise my stops during the day and prioritise sleep – I felt this was the best use of my time off the bike – it would allow me to recover and give my neck a break which had decided to give up in the last 100km of PBP.
Fully laden, my bike comprised the following kit:
- 3 season down sleeping bag
- Breathable bivvy bag
- Down jacket
- Spare bib shorts
- Spare socks
- Spare base layer
- Spare gloves
- Arm warmers
- Leg warmers
- Tool kit with 2 spare tubes, brake pads, pump, etc
- Warm Gilet
- Buff & headband
- Wash kit
- Charging cables, plugs, spare batteries & 35,000 mAH battery pack
- Head torch
- Wallet, passport, money, etc
- Two 750ml water bottles
- As much food as I could cram in – sweets, trail mix, energy bars & gels, cake, etc…
Back to Biarritz… All the competitors gathered together to pick up their race cap and listen to the race briefing delivered by Anna Haslock. I was going to be cap number 89 – #TPRNo1cap89 – my first ever personal hashtag! Looking around the room of roughly 100 people, I realised I was definitely in the heavyweight division. I thought to myself: it doesn’t matter, just go out and enjoy the first few days, get to the Med and see where you are, that’s a big enough achievement.
After we all raided the local supermarket for last minute supplies (I’m sure they’d never seen so many coiffured beards in their lives), I went to bed early, anticipating the 4:30am alarm clock and the imminent start of the race.
Race Day – 4th October 2019
It was still dark and starting to spit with rain when we all began to line up at the start. We were let off in waves of about 20 people. I was in the last wave to set off, and I joked with Hector Kidds that we were obviously in the “Fatties Wave” at the back.
Soon it was our turn to start, and I promised myself to go very slowly to begin with. Everyone else seemed so strong and raced off up the first few hills out of Biarritz. I helpfully got a text from my mate Dan who was dot watching and told me I wasn’t coming last!
The sun soon came up and I settled into my work, trying to keep everything easy and light. I passed one or two cyclists and was passed by plenty more, but I just tried to relax and ride my own race.
Below are my Facebook posts during the race (in italics). I have added a few bits post-race, including any significant climbs I did.
Day 1 – Biarritz to Sabiñánigo – 268.43km, 4,441m
- Col de Suscousse
- Col du Soudet
- Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin
- Puerto Zuriza
- Puerto Jasa
End of day one, about 265km of riding (and walking, I’m not ashamed to say!) About 15.5 hours since I started (including rest), average speed of 17.2kmh and 4,441m of climbing.
At about 100kg, I’m not built for hills, but I didn’t disgrace myself today. I’m not in the mix for the win (obviously), so I need a good nights sleep to be able to go again tomorrow.
Bit of rain in France this morning, but beautiful once we got into Spain, the descents especially were epic. Couple of problems with the bike, but nothing I really need to worry about, and it’s so stable descending that I can make up some of the time I lose on the uphills! Thankfully, got my routing right so managed to avoid some early and late lumps…
Strangest story of the day? Someone crashed into a cow and broke their frame 🐄 🚲 😬
In hindsight, I probably went off too hard, even though I spent some time walking up the steep gradients. It’s difficult not to get overexcited when there are lots of other cyclists around. This is borne out in the relative effort recorded by Strava – it was 300 higher than any other day on TPR.
Day 2 – Sabiñánigo to Alins – 224.85km, 3,528m
- Alto de Petralba
- Puerto de Foradada
- Puerto de Bonansa
- Port de Viu
- Creu de Perves
- Estany de Montcortes
TPR Day 2 – slightly shorter day today as I didn’t fancy climbing over the really steep gravel road into Andorra and arriving after midnight. 225km, 13h 20m, 3,528m of climbing.
Nothing as steep as yesterday but relentless up and down all day, and the sun took its toll a little. Absolutely breathtaking country in glorious sunshine. Got a pinch flat going over a cattle grid on the gravel section of Parcours A. It’s staring to catch up with me now, but 485km out of 1,600 in two days isn’t too bad. Gonna need a big day tomorrow to catch up, but fortunately the last 100km or so are downhill!
Strange story of the day? Just got passed by someone riding it fixed as I turned in for the night!
The heat really caught up with me today and had to stop more than I wanted to for Coke and other refreshments, hence why I decided not to climb over the Port de Cabus. My hydration strategy got a little better as the race went on, but I was now starting to get into a deficit.
Day 3 – Alins to La Jonquera – 266.88km, 5,122m
- Port de Cabus
- Port d’Envalira
- Col de Palomere
TPR day 3 – Early start at 4am to tackle gravel up and over into Andorra and CP2. Getting out of the saddle occasionally, I noticed the front was flat and getting flatter… You tend to question your life choices when you’re mending a puncture at 4:10am in the pitch dark (save for some beautiful stars).
The climb up was steep and tough and then the tarmac turned to “gravel” for the last 8km or so. It was probably 50% rideable, but it was difficult to pick your line in the dark. Maybe all that ripio in Patagonia has given me an advantage…
The sun was just getting up as I hit the pass, 3.5 hours after I had set off. The descent into La Massana and CP2 was freezing and it took me a long time and two cups of chamomile tea to thaw out.
Then the small matter of the 28km climb out of Andorra past “El Pas De La Casa” (Envalira). Long long long… my coordination had gone and I found it hard to clip in or rest my bike without it falling over…
Highlight of the day was the descent off the Col De La Llose – about 23km of downhill, massively exposed and crazy… I might need to change my front brake pad tomorrow!
Otherwise good day, though really tired – 267km, 5,122m of climbing and 20 hours from start to finish – maybe a small lie in tomorrow?
Strange story of the day? Andorra loves petrol stations – I counted 3 BP garages within a mile of each other…
I didn’t get into my hotel until about Midnight – really tough day and I’m proud that I kept going considering how bad my balance was climbing up to Port d’Envalira. The beautiful and exhilarating downhills certainly helped my mental state, as did sharing a pizza with Michal in Prades, but I really had to dig deep to get over Col de Palomere. My feet were playing up and sizeable chunks of walking certainly helped – my strategy had become to keep moving either on the bike or on foot – by that stage there wasn’t much difference in speed between walking and cycling!
Day 4 – La Jonquera to Molitg-Les-Bains – 210.41km, 3,156m
- Col de Palomere
TPR day 4 – So today was supposed to be the “easy” day – nice flat run down to the coast, over a small headland, get my brevet stamped, and then head back into the hills… Unfortunately, someone had obviously upset the gods as we were faced with 45mph northerlies gusting to 60mph…
It was something just to stay upright on the bike and not get swept off the side of the road. Fortunately, I had factored in some extra gravel (COR in ACME terms), so at least I wasn’t going to be blown under a vehicle. The last Km to Cap De Creus was so windy that I had to walk, at one point my bike taking off into a horizontal position like a kite. When I was having my photo taken, my glasses blew off and went over what seemed like a cliff. Fortunately we managed to scramble down and find them!
Otherwise, I felt a bit sick all day. I was dehydrated from the day before and was paying catch up, not easy to do…
The climb up through Oms to La Bastide was pretty good though – it really is beautiful countryside. My feet are starting to get worse and worse each day, and my neck is killing on the descents, especially in the dark.
I’m not sure I’ve got enough left in the tank to finish. 650km left over 3 days isn’t impossible, but there is almost 5,000m of climbing each day. We all expected the leaders to finish today, but they were just hitting the tourmalet at dusk, about 220km from the finish.
Oh well, I’ll enjoy my night in Le Grand Hotel in the spa town of Molitg-les-bains, have an early breakfast and see where I am…
Oh, and I managed to reunite the stuff I picked up with their owner. He was ordered to give me a hug by one of the volunteers and it was the worst attempt at a hug I have ever witnessed. Then again, I can’t imagine what I smell like…!
I bumped into Hector again at Cap de Creus which restarted my brain’s obsession with the “First of the Gang to Die” song by Morrissey, which was to stay with me on every single climb for the rest of the race…
“Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand, And the first to do time, The first of the gang to die, Oh my…”
Day 5 – Molitg-Les-Bains to Castet-D’Aleu – 184.81km, 3,701m
- Col de Jau
- Col de Garabeil
- Col de Port
- Mur de Peguere
TPR day 5 – just a quickie as I’m bivvying tonight. Another puncture almost did it for me, but managed to patch a spare. 185km done, 470km to do in 2 days, but still over 10,000m of climbing...
I don’t know how I got going this morning – certainly the toughest start to any day of the race. The bed was big and comfortable, my neck was really bad and I was in a Spa Hotel for goodness sake! I told my wife Linda that I was going to spend another night there and then slowly cycle back to Biarritz and try to make the party on Friday night. Linda encouraged me to go and have breakfast, even if I had given up, it was important to recover.
I popped downstairs wearing my bib shorts and the hotel dressing gown. Annoyingly, the woman on reception asked me to put on some footwear, so I had to climb all the way back upstairs, put on my cycling shoes and eventually clatter into breakfast.
Fortunately, it was a buffet – I helped myself to EVERYTHING, about 3 times! I must have been quite a sight to the other octogenarian residents… On my third coffee and umpteenth croissant, having watched numerous riders pass me on trackleaders and having contemplated whether I was going to go for a swim first or maybe have a massage, I started to feel better. Before I knew it, I was back upstairs, my slightly damp and sweaty top was back on and I was packed and ready to go.
Whilst I was checking out, which took FOREVER (don’t they know I’m in a race?), Julien, another racer, pulled up and asked if he could have breakfast. He said to me after the race that I looked so miserable going out with my bike, that he would have given me everything he had just to cheer me up!
The climb up to Col de Jau was one of the most picturesque of the entire week. Soon after, I bumped into Hector again and we rode together on and off all the way to Belesta. Incredibly, the bakery in Belesta seemed to be a magnet for TPR riders – there must have been about 6 or 7 of us all there together. People started talking about whether they thought they could get back in time for GC – about 3 or 4 people at that moment decided they weren’t going to make it, altered their strategy and teamed up (including Hector and Lucy). Talking to Dan Sparrow afterwards, we both agreed that the fact others were giving up spurred us on to keep going, even if there was a very small chance of us making it back in time.
A lot of people had decided to stop in Tarascon-sur-Ariege for the night. Eating a pasta dinner in the Lidl car park, I deliberated whether to go on or not. By this point of the day, I had only done 135km or so, and it was only 7pm – far too early to turn in. Even if I couldn’t manage 250km in a day, I was determined to do at least 100 miles. Normally at this time of day I would book a hotel through Booking.com, but there didn’t seem to be any left on the road ahead. I decided to carry on without a plan – I had dragged my bivvy and sleeping bag over countless hills so I had to use them at least once.
Once I got going, I resolved to get over the last couple of big lumps of the day and then find a suitable place to camp, somewhere before St-Girons. I rode the last few kilometres with Julien which was great – whenever I bumped into him, he always made me feel better!
Day 6 – Castet-D’Aleu to Sainte-Marie De Campan – 176.97km, 4,229m
- Portet d’Aspet
- Col de Mente
- Col de Peyresourde/Peyragudes
- Col d’Azet
- Hourquette d’Ancizan
TPR Day 6 – well, my aim of 6 cols in one day didn’t quite go to plan, but 5 out of 6 ain’t bad, right?
A special thank you to Mark Christy who came out today to cheer me on the Col De Menté. I was so in the zone, I couldn’t even work out he was speaking English, I thought he was a crazy Basque. All I could understand was my name, so I gave him a thumbs up. It was a fabulous effort Mark, and made a big difference to my day!
I fell short of my target owing to the rain. Just couldn’t keep anything warm or dry, so had to cut it short before getting hypothermia. Problem is, I sweat a lot on the climbs, so everything is damp all the time. However, I did find it easier climbing when cooler, so mixed blessings.
It leaves me with 300km to do on the last day including the Tourmalet and Aubisque, so should be a fairly easy day! I think just to complete the course with everything it’s thrown at me, would be enough. A 3rd of the field have already pulled out. So we’ll see what happens!
At the beginning of the day, I had worked out that I would have to get over the Tourmalet to stand any chance of finishing in time. In the end, it would have been crazy to carry on, although I found out later that some racers, including Julien managed to get over it that night. I managed to bag the last hotel in Sainte-Marie De Campan whilst I was stopped in a supermarket in Saint-Lary-Soulan – for some reason the warmest place I could find was the disabled toilet…
The hotel wasn’t the easiest to find, but when I did, it seemed all shut up. Eventually, I found a door and an envelope with my name on it, and managed to get in. I obviously made so much noise that the owner came and found me. He took one look at me and immediately offered me hot soup, bread and cheese. I can’t tell you how much of a life saver that was – looking back, it was the single most important moment in my race.
Day 7 – Sainte-Marie De Campan to Biarritz – 306.15km, 6,429m
- Col du Tourmalet
- Col du Soulor
- Col d’Aubisque
- Col du Porteig
- Col d’Ispeguy
- Puerto d’Otxondo
TPR Day 7 – So, long story short, I finished with 2 hours to spare! Only 47 finishers out of a start list of 107. My phone has died. More to come…!
TPR Round Up
So, what a last day. I’ve never had a day like it. 305km to ride, 6,429m of climbing (including Tourmalet and Aubisque) and a little under 22 hours to do it.
When I arrived at the last hotel below the Tourmalet, I intended to leave at 5am the next day to give me the best chance and enough time to complete by the Friday 6am deadline. However, I’m a bit rubbish getting going in the mornings and I thought it better to prioritise sleep and have a decent breakfast as I wasn’t going to be able to stop much during the day for a proper meal.
As it was, I left after 8am in the end… The legs always feel a bit sluggish when I first get going, as though the wheels are rubbing and the bike’s made of lead. But I soon got into my rhythm on the Tourmalet. It has a formidable reputation, but for me, it was the perfect warm up – between 7% and 9.5% all the way up for about 17km, there’s a bludgeoning constancy about it that works for the way I like to climb.
Getting to the top without stopping or going into the red, gave me the confidence that I might be able to pull this off if I kept pushing all day. Somehow I had ridden myself into form and it was all possible.
I broke the day down into 3 x 100km sections, and I had to hit each one in 7 hours. Having got to the top of the Tourmalet with an average of less than 10kmh, I knew I had to push the downhills, thrash the transitions between climbs and minimise stopping time.
I got to the foot of the Soulor having raised my overall average up to over 15kmh. The climb up the Soulor and then on to the Aubisque is totally different from the Tourmalet – lots of changes of gradient which I find hard – but it’s incredibly beautiful, especially the traverse across from one col to the other. I passed the crazy Russian (Sergey) who was riding fixed (I still can’t it get through my head – in the end, he managed to come in 1 hour after the deadline 😲).
Having got up and over the two big climbs of the day, and hit the first 100km in 6.5 hours, I was feeling good and optimistic. The only wrinkle was my phone, which was playing up after all the rain the day before. I use it for navigation, and if I couldn’t follow the parcours correctly, my ride wouldn’t have counted. It was the thing that stressed me out most all day. It was being very temperamental charging, and then losing battery very quickly. I put it on airplane mode and turned the screen brightness down to preserve it for as long as I could, but it seemingly died with about 100km to go.
I stopped at about 10pm to charge it at a hotel whilst munching on frites and being stared at by the other customers (I liked to believe they were full of admiration!). Unfortunately, I couldn’t breathe any life into the phone and I was resigned to trying to navigate using my watch at night which can best be described as a little vague!
Although I was out of the high Pyrenees, there was still the 500m climb over the Col D’Ispeguy into Spain and then back over the Puerto d’Otxondo. Miraculously my phone came back to life for about half an hour which allowed me to navigate around the tricky gravel roads in Spain, but finally died on the downhill after Otxondo but I felt confident I could get back from there – well I would have to!
Flying around a couple of roundabouts at the end of the downhill I saw the best sight a cyclist can see at 2am in the morning – the flashing red lights of other cyclists! Dan and Nico had stopped for a conflab, and when I turned up there were hugs and high fives all round – only 40km to go in 4 hours!
We agreed to ride together to the finish, but I was still in the zone and full of adrenaline, so I quickly pulled away from them. After taking every wrong exit at a roundabout, I got a little pissed off and decided to stop, finish off all my peanuts and wait for them. Amazing how a bit of food can help you in those situations when you’re starting to lose it – lucky I’m such a glutton!
It was a lovely relaxed ride in, knowing we had plenty of time in hand, and we were even accompanied by a dog for about 5km! Sharing that moment with other people I had bumped into over the last 7 days made it extra special – quite something… We rolled in at about 4am and were greeted by Rory and a gathering of volunteers, media guys, other riders and Dan’s wife brandishing a bottle of champagne. Hugs all round, a few tears and amazement in realising what we had just pulled off.
It was the perfect ending to an extraordinary race. I’ve had some epic days on a bike before, but this was a new level. I had never pushed so hard, for so long, without needing to stop. I was “on it” – 100% focussed on the goal and completely in the moment. It’s one of the reasons I ride a bike – to remove all the distractions in my life and be, for want of a better word, “present”. And to do it in the Pyrenees, over some legendary climbs – well, it just doesn’t get better.
So I’ll return home with a new confidence and maybe the realisation that I truly am a cyclist – even if I don’t look like one!
A quick thank you to other riders who I shared a laugh with and who helped keep my spirits up, especially Karl, Paul, Michal, Mark, Hector, Julien, Dan and Nico.
And to all of you who have followed me, dot watched and given me encouragement (especially Linda, Mum and Ma) – I could feel your eyes on me as I climbed the final hills knowing I couldn’t give up. It has meant so much and helped me continue when I wanted to quit.
Final race numbers
Time: about 90 minutes under 1 week!
The final results take a little while to come out as the organisers need to check that everyone has gone the right way and to award time penalties to anyone who messes up.
In the end, there were 95 solo starters of which 41 (43%) made it within GC. 19 (20%) finished outside of GC and 35 (37%) scratched.
My final position was 37th after starting time adjustments – 6 days, 22 hours, 27 minutes. For comparison, the winner did it in 4 days, 7 hours, 28 minutes!
I don’t really care about my final position, just making it into GC was good enough, incredible in fact, given how little specific training I had done and my unfamiliarity with the bike. I was on such a high for about 2/3 days afterwards – Biarritz was buzzing and everything felt so visceral. However, the incredible high was met by an incredible low for a couple of days when I got home.
It took me a good couple of months to feel normal again. People would say that my general low mood was because I had lost my focus for the year after doing a big event. But it felt deeper than that, more physical than mental – always hungry, always tired, always at a low ebb. I think a big problem is that I didn’t take proper care of my recovery straight after the race which I believe prolonged the time I needed. Plus my knees and pelvis haven’t been quite the same since – plenty of work to do before #TCRNo8 then!
Would I recommend TPR to other cyclists? Yes, of course, if you like cycling, you have to go the Pyrenees – race it or tour it, it’s incredible countryside. Would I do it again? I’m not sure, there are so many adventures to be had out there. Having said that, I’d like to go back when I’ve stopped racing and take a little time over the “Route du Fromage”, with a couple of empty panniers and a cheeky bottle of vin rouge…!