First, the facts
A raid or randonnée is a multi-day cycling challenge. The Raid Pyrenean or Pyrénéen, if we're going native, traverses the Pyrenees (obvs), starting from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast and finishing in Cerbère on the Mediterranean. The route covers a distance of 720 kilometres, taking in 18 cols and a total elevation of over 11,000 metres.
The challenge was created by the Cyclo Club Béarnais back in 1950. For a meagre £15 they'll send you a finisher's medal and certificate on receipt of a carnet, stamped at various checkpoints along the way. Cheap as frites, as they say. The rules stipulate the route has to be completed within 100 hours.
In effect that means you've got four full days riding at your own pace, then four hours against the clock on the final morning to make the time cut. In Tour de France terms, a hilly stage, three mountain stages and a team time trial. It's a challenge for sure, but with sufficient preparation and application, it's well within the capabilities of the keen and committed amateur. One would hope.
Most people riding the Raid these days – and that's about 300 every year – choose to do so with the support of a professional tour company. We looked at a number of operators including Marmot Tours, Stuart Hall Cycling, and Sportive Breaks. There wasn't much to choose between them in terms of price or itinerary. All run two to three trips a year. In the end, we chose to go with Bike Alive, a small outfit based in the Pyrenees. The write-up on their website suggested real insider knowledge of the route and a genuine passion for the Pyrenees. The clincher: they had places available on our preferred dates.
Four broleurs signed up: myself, Barry, Felix and Paul 'Tiptronic' Tippett. We expected to be joined on the trip by another six to ten riders. Sadly that wouldn't include my little broleur, Andy, who was settling his family into their new home in the US. Barry and Felix chose to hire Pinarellos, but I preferred the idea of riding that distance on a bike my backside was familiar with.
Flying to and from Toulouse was the most convenient option, given I'd be travelling with a bike box from Gatwick. Although that did mean a 2-3 hour minibus transfer (included in the cost) either end. Biarritz and Perpignan would have been the closest airports to the start and finish respectively, but I didn't fancy taking my chances in a Wizz Air twin-prop.
Trepidation, training and tactics
The deposit was deposited in October 2021, allowing a full seven months to ruminate and prepare. Naturally, I made a solemn vow to scale new heights of fitness – as you do. Ambitious but achievable power and weight targets for the forthcoming months were calculated. I then set about falling just short of them with unerring discipline.
Fair dues, I rode lots. Well, marginally more than I had in previous years, but still conspicuously less than my compadres, who were racking up an intimidating number of winter miles. Rather than trying to keep up, I chose to mix things up as much as possible to avoid boredom or burnout. I ventured off-road most weeks, did some rowing and tried the ski erg in the gym (horrific), and even started yoga classes to build some core strength and flexibility. Useful, I figured, for successive long days in the saddle. It at least helped me become familiar with sensations of severe discomfort and shame.
Spring sprung and some weeks it felt like I was the only person not in Mallorca. However, a month before the off I was fortunate to squeeze in a few days riding in the mountains around Nice. It was an invaluable opportunity to tackle long ascents like the Col de la Madone and get used to riding tired. As an added bonus, I also got to try out riding when hungry, cold and wet. Experience I hoped I wouldn't have to draw upon in the Pyrenees.
For months I took copious quantities of magnesium, garlic oil (odourless), and turmeric to help with recovery and blood flow. Two weeks out I began an experiment with BeetIt beetroot shots to boost my blood nitrate levels. A few days before travelling, I added spirulina tablets to help me ride at altitude. The toilet bowl looked like something from a particularly gruesome episode of CSI, but
Talking team tactics over beers the night before, we all agreed the best approach was to rein it in, stick together, and go as fast – or slow – up the first climb as we were likely to crawl up the last. At least that was my recollection of the plan. Let's see how that panned out.
Raid Pyrenean Day One: Hendaye to Arudy
Distance: 182km | Elevation: 2,493m | Cols: St. Ignace, Osquich | Strava Route
The official Raid Pyrenean route begins beachside at Hendaye, but we set out from our hotel in Irun, a small town just a few kilometres over the border in Spain. Raiders who go all-in choose to dip their toes in the chilly Atlantic waters, but by the time we'd lined up for a group photo, it was a good few minutes past the official 9am start time, and everyone was itching to get going. Some more than others.
I assumed we'd roll out together, but turned to see a couple of our companions speeding down the seafront. Paul and Barry set off in hot pursuit, like Wout van Aert and Matthieu van der Poel off the front of a peloton, standing up in the pedals as they punched over the first coastal climb and out of sight. Best-laid plans, hey?
A more gentlemanly grupetto formed and rode at what we termed "vineyard pace" through Basque country. A bit like Wales, only warm and dry. Road signs in both French and Euskera, the distinctive Basque tongue. Rolling hills dotted with alpine-style houses, their beams, doors and shutters painted either forest green or rusty red. Creamy-coloured cows lining the route, bells tinkling.
We turned inland to take on the smallest (by far) of the Raid's 18 categorised climbs, the Col de St Ignace. A pyrenean pimple, easily overcome. It was getting extremely hot by this point, with Garmins registering 38 degrees as the midday sun reflected back off black bitumen. After a welcome ice cold coke break in Espelette, we approached the Col d'Osquich and the group splintered as we battled up the climb for the coveted red and white-chequered jersey – awarded to the first rider to reach the picnic at the top.
Our support team, the indomitable Donna and Derek, had laid out a fine spread in a shady lay-by at the summit: bread, cheese, cold meats, tomatoes, rice and pasta salads, salty crisps and soft drinks. A feast worth sprinting for and the high point of the day – literally, at 500m. Their hilltop hospitality saved us having to wait around in cafés to be served and also meant we were free to air our baking feet without judgement and to peel sweat-soaked jerseys off our backs to dry in the sun.
The descent was benign, but as the road began to climb again through the forested foothills of the Pyrenees, I could feel the fatigue creeping in and was grateful when Barry dropped back from the group to escort me home to the hotel in Arudy. Day one done. A quarter of the distance chalked off. I can assure you, the first bière pression went down exceptionally well.
Raid Pyrenean Day Two: Arudy to St Marie de Campan
Distance: 115km | Elevation: 3,240m | Cols: Aubisque, Soulor, Tourmalet | Strava Route
The second day of the Raid is short, but far from sweet. It starts gently enough, with a half-hour warm up to Laruns, before a couple of sharp hairpins mark the start of the ascent. The Aubisque is the first climb of the Raid that feels genuinely mountainous. The point at which you think to yourself, "game on". The road rises at a steady eight percent through a series of snaking turns, each revealing a more tantalising view of snow-capped Pyrenean peaks in the distance. I'm not generally one for a cycling-selfie, but felt compelled to try and capture the magnificence of the moment.
There's a car park and café at the top where shattered cyclists regroup to feast on omelette and chips and take photos of the giant steel bicycles. Motorcyclists do the same, although I reckon that's a bit cheeky when they've cheated their way up, with engines and all. Still, I'd much rather have been wearing lycra than leathers in that heat.
The views on the winding descent were even more stunning than those on the way up. No chance I was attempting a selfie at 50+kph though. The Soulor felt like a mere speedbump on what's effectively a 30 kilometre downhill run to Argèles-Gazost.
By the time we reached Luz-Saint Sauveur at the foot of the Tourmalet, I was ready for a spot of lunch, but the group was already well up the road and I was reluctant to fall any further behind. I made do with a banana and rode on, clinging to the occasional shadow at the edge of the road to avoid the infernal heat.
Sweat poured from every pore. Who knew the backs of your hands could perspire so much? Feeling suffocated by the heat, I first dispensed with my HR monitor chest strap, then stripped off my sodden baselayer and dumped it in a nearby wheelie bin.
Nobody would wish a mechanical on a fellow-rider, but I felt nothing but relief when a few kilometres later, I spotted the rest of the gang up the road. Misery does indeed love company. A broken spoke meant a wheel change for Paul. Felix and Barry had seized the opportunity to take a break and I happily joined them. It was the first time I ever watched someone fixing a mechanical, thinking "no rush".
Feeling strong, Felix gradually distanced us, bagging the day's Prix de la combativité. With any chance of a competitive time up the climb gone, Paul, Barry and I chose to take a time-out at a roadside shack for ice cream and coke, marvelling at the views down the valley that the clear blue skies afforded us. A couple of kilometres further on, a gurgling mountain stream proved equally irresistible and we pulled over to plunge sizzling pink feet into the freezing water, half expecting them to hiss and spit on contact.
Over the final few switchbacks, as you approach the ski station at the summit, the Tourmalet ramps to over 10%. It's Hors Catégorie horrible. Doubly so in the heat. Unquestionably one of the toughest climbs I've taken on and thoroughly deserving of its fearsome reputation. But, like all climbs, it eventually ends. In this case with a couple of cold beers at the top. The back of day two was broken, as were we – comprehensively. Thankfully, we were able to freewheel most of the remaining distance to the finish at St Marie de Campan.
Raid Pyrenean Day Three: St Marie de Campan to Seix
Distance: 157km | Elevation: 2,792m | Cols: Aspin, Peyresourde, Ares, Portet d'Aspet | Strava Route
Day two features the headline-grabbing Tourmalet. Derek and Donna assured us day four was the hardest of the Raid. Wedged between the two, Day three doesn't get so much attention. The middle child of the challenge.
It certainly deserves some plaudits. The Col d'Aspin at the start is a beautiful climb, possibly my favourite of the entire trip. It helped that we rode it in the relative cool of the morning, but there was also plenty of shade and I managed to go at a decent clip, paced by Ian and Mike. The reward was another breathtaking descent to the bustling market town of Arreau, where we sat at a café by the river, drank coffee, ate croissants, watched the world go by and dreamed of living and cycling in France forever. Or was that just me?
Next up, the Peyresourde has a similar profile to the Aspin, just much longer, at least ten degrees warmer, and as a result, considerably harder. Only the thought of crêpes and a cold coke at the top kept us going. That and Derek's solemn promise that the rest of the day was a breeze by comparison. "All downhill from here fellas, all downhill". Hmmm...
It was anything but downhill, but climbing the Col d'Ares proved manageable enough – especially with the metronomic Ian pacing me. However the last climb of the day, the Portet d'Aspet, is a proper horror. No wonder Derek – who's ridden the Raid no less than eight times – had blanked it from his memory. The gradient gradually increases from the standard issue eight percent, up to ten, then twelve, before pitching up to 16 plus. One-by-one, we hauled our sorry carcasses up in suffocating heat, each escorted by a cloud of indefatigable flies.
At the top, we threw ourselves down on a grassy patch by the minibuses, radiating heat and emptying bottles of water from a nearby trough over our heads and feet. After a somewhat sketchy descent, we organised ourselves into two groups (Fast and Vineyard – I chose the latter) in an attempt to conserve what little energy remained and rolled on to the finish in Seix.
Raid Pyrenean Day Four: Seix to Prades
Distance: 177km | Elevation: 3,399m | Cols: Port, Port de Pailhères | Strava Route
Over breakfast, we tried to convince ourselves this was actually only a 135 kilometre day, on the basis the last 40 were all downhill. Not sure anyone was buying it, but there was certainly some comfort to be drawn from knowing there would be no more major climbs once the fourth day was done.
Not that you'd mind more if they were all as delightful as the Col de Port, nestling in the heart of the lush Ariège region. Its gentle five percent gradients felt almost soothing compared with the shockers of the previous day. Speaking of soothing, a liberal nightly application of Sudocrem to my undercarriage meant I was reasonably comfortable "down there", but Felix cracked me up when he commented his nether regions resembled those of a red bottomed baboon.
By this point it was official as well as blindingly obvious – we were riding in a full on heatwave. Sporting fixtures were cancelled and outdoor events across the south of France had been banned. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would be foolish enough to venture out in the noonday sun. Come to think of it, even the mad dogs were cowering in the shade. Just us, then.
We took an opportunistic picnic break in a lay-by just before Ax-les-Thermes, joined by our friends, the flies. A last chance to take on fuel before the monstrous Port de Pailhères ahead. By this point we'd devour anything that wasn't a banana - a fruit I will now always associate with suffering.
The group splintered in familiar fashion as we hit the climb, with everyone assuming their usual positions. Will and I managed to hold a very pleasant conversation, the diversion helping the first few kilometres go a little quicker. I'm sure I even recall a stretch of downhill. But as the elevation and temperature rose, the chat evaporated. I was now refilling bidons at every opportunity, tipping one down my neck and the other over my head, probably getting through seven or eight over the course of the climb. In an inspired move, Donna even bought a bag of ice cubes, which we gratefully pressed to our necks and wrists.
Despite the best efforts of our tireless support crew, some of the group were now suffering in the intense heat. The gap between front and back stretched and the elastic eventually snapped. As we waited at the top, word reached us that the affable Paddy, in particular, was struggling. He'd been nauseous the previous evening and unable to stomach food all day. To his eternal credit, he refused vehicular assistance and pushed on to the summit. But with the last major climb of the Raid vanquished, the next was to prove a hill too far and he very reluctantly withdrew.
It was a sensible move. Attempting a 30 kilometre descent down a dual carriageway, while suffering with severe heat exhaustion, could have been the death of him. The more skilled descenders reportedly found the 10% gradient, winding roads and oncoming traffic exhilarating. For me it was a nerve-shredding, disc-squealing, shoulder-jarring nightmare, which I couldn't wait to be over. Give me a nice bit of uphill toil any day of the week.
The beers we enjoyed by the pool of the Best Western in Prades that evening tasted extra good – almost celebratory. It felt like Palm Springs as the sun went down. After experiencing some more "rustic" accommodation along the way, it was a joy to sleep on comfy beds between crisp white sheets with proper air conditioning.
Raid Pyrenean Day Five: Prades to Cerbère
Distance: 93km | Elevation: 588m | Cols: Mercifully, none | Strava Route
Nothing to fear today. A lovely long descent, followed by a pan-flat run to Cerbère. Well, perhaps more Le Creuset griddle pan, with a few ridges to add some sizzle to the finish. No lazy lunch or impromptu picnic stop. This was a race against the clock – and only the clock, not each other, of course.
Resplendent in team jerseys, most of the group managed to keep their discipline, everyone taking a solid turn on the front, with just the occasional solo breakaway. Finally, the "Vineyard Group" had some actual vineyards to ride through – although ironically we were now trucking along well above traditional vineyard pace. The vines gradually gave way to olive groves, maritime pines and palms, signalling the proximity of the sea and our journey's end.
We hit the coast at St. Cyprièn and swung a hard right down the coastal road, under the flight path of Perpignan airport and past Argelès Plage. Ben, possibly the politest man in the peloton, reminisced over bucket-and-spade holidays of summers gone by. Then on through a succession of charming coastal towns, duly noted as holiday destinations of summers to come. My one regret was not making an espresso stop at one of them, just to pause and savour the moment.
I wasn't ready for the Raid to be over. The aches, pains, trials and tribulations of the previous four days were already fading from memory. In fact I felt stronger at the finish than I had done at the start. In the style of a grand tour rider, it seemed I'd ridden my way into form, punching over the final few climbs the way Barry and Paul had attacked the first. At the final summit, the group regrouped and we rolled into Cerbère together.
The beers flowed, medals, certificates and stamped carnets were handed out, then we lingered over a long lunch before packing up for the transfer to Carcassonne. In a muck sweat after wrestling bikes into boxes, the Mediterranean looked a whole lot more appealing than the Atlantic a hundred hours earlier. This time around there was no hesitation in taking a dip. The perfect way to end an incredible trip.
The other brother
Cycling in Annapolis has a lot going for it. Pothole-free, bike path-laden roads, great weather (barring the odd thunderstorm), considerate drivers, pristine beaches and marinas, and Quiet Waters Park, where you have to keep a lookout for meandering tortoises and grazing deer wandering across your path.
But what it doesn’t have - and what Steve’s epic Raid ride really made me long for - is mountains. Or hills. I’d even take a hillock. Here, a speed bump is an incline. This part of maritime Maryland makes south London, let alone Kent or Surrey, seem like a virtually impassable, snow-capped range.
I miss the crisp air of the mountains, the sense of achievement in conquering a Tourmalet or Ventoux, the jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas, the switchbacks, the hairy descents... I even miss the moments of crippling self-doubt where you question whether you have the mental and physical strength to make it to the top. That’s what makes cycling so brilliant.
Plans are already in motion for Steve to visit the US and a weekend break in some mountains. I honestly can’t wait. Both to ride with my big bro again and to take on a bigger challenge. But I may have to swap the Dogfish Head IPA for some beetroot shots if I want to keep up.