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Exodus/RCUK trip – Classic Cols

It’s taken a while to get this review of the RCUK/Exodus Classic Cols trip together. It’s a busy time of year for the bike trade and there’s been plenty going on at RCUK HQ so please forgive the delay. There are hundreds of pictures from the trip and we’ll try to get them up in the gallery as there are certainly too many to get into this diary of our adventure…

For more information or to check details for 2006 (three similar trips are done each year to the Pyrenees with Exodus) please contact:
Vanessa Fowler at Exodus or call 020 8772 3929


Day 2 Foix to Oust
• Col du Port (1250m) 2nd Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’97, ’98 & ’02

• Col D’Agnes (1570m) 1st Cat

We all leave Foix in a slightly bleary-eyed peloton, it’s the first day and the weather looks a bit grim. We arrived the day before in the late afternoon so we had time to assemble our bikes… Apart from Alan’s, which was lost somewhere between Edinburgh and Toulouse, but it arrived (eventually) for the first day’s riding. Then have a few beers during a briefing for the week ahead. It all sounded great after a few Leffe’s, which set the tone for the week ahead…


The valley road is long and flat, we stop for a pee and look towards the hills ahead. The first Col of the trip is the modestly sized Col du Port and we all spread across the road. The sun starts to break through as we puff our way over the summit. Then on to bag our first proper 1st cat Col – The Col D’Agnes. A stiff but gradual climb and this is, already, far better than sitting in the office… We’re ahead of the usual schedule and we arrive at the hotel in Oust in the early afternoon. The hotel is ‘rustic’ and the meal in the evening was a long time after we arrived at the hotel. However it was a hearty feast and we’re all pretty tired so eventually turn in pretty early…

The highlight of the day had to be Phil’s Belgian champion’s jersey.


Day 3 – Oust to Audressein
• Col de Latrap (1110m) 3rd Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’03 & ’04

• Guzet Neige (1520m) 1st Cat

• Col de la Core (1395m) 1st Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’98, ’02, ’03 & ’04

Reality bites
Day 3 and the Col de Latrap seems a little easier. I’d managed to forget to change my sprockets before leaving the UK, so the previous day I’d strained away on a 11-23, doh. But thanks to Dave Stanton, who’d brought a spare wheelset, I now had a 26 sprocket, heaven. So at least I could sit down to climb. We descended the Col de Latrap for a few kilometres and then turned left onto Guzet Neige, it’s a pretty steady climb and the scene of many a Tour finale. For a moment I am Pantani, well at least in my mind… the pain payback is a all-round view of the surrounding area from the top.

The Col de la Core created a few problems for the RCUK editor…
I blew pretty badly half-way and had to tap over the last few kilometres, treating these hills with the respect they deserve is good advice and I think I over did it a bit on Guzet Neige (thinking I was Pantani, I ask you…).


It turned into one of those days on the bike that you really wonder why you do it. I was grovelling. Ibbo had stopped to wait for me, as I had blown pretty badly and he obviously wanted a chat. I couldn’t say much but he was in his usual chirpy mood, I was grateful for the encouragement, it got me to the top.

After the summit is a superb descent and I’m getting my legs back, at Castillon we finally stop for a coffee and beer, it was a lovely late summer afternoon and we sat in the sun warming up after the long descent. It wasn’t far to the Auberge and we were treated to a massive dinner at which we all managed to over-eat, so cue an Auberge full of farting cyclists.


Day 4 – Audressein to Luchon
• Col du Portet d’Aspet (1075m) 2nd Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’97, ’98, ’02, ’03, ’04 & ’05

• Col de Mente (1345m) 1st Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’98, ’01, ’02, ’03 & ’05

• Col de Portilon (1293m)

Hurry up Harry
Today Ibbo and I were late. As we had been on most days, but this day we were a way behind the main group of riders. This was mainly due to the fact that we were in a slightly better, but further away, Auberge than the others and managed to have a fabulous breakfast with loads of coffee. We got talking to a Canadian who was cyclintg across the whole range from Biaritz to Perpignan and before we knew it we’d forgotten the time. James arrived to collect our bags and informed us that the group left over half an hour ago. Oops.


It was a glorious day with a slight nip in the air as we set off in reluctant pursuit. We got to the Col de Porte D’Aspet and stopped to take pictures of the roads. On the descent of this hill is where Fabio Casertelli died. Now I’m not usually one for sentimentality but this is clearly a very special place, we stopped at the memorial and took some pictures. We agreed that it had a certain atmosphere, it was quiet, almost eerie and really peaceful.

The Col de Mente is a beautiful mountain topped off with a cafe that makes an excellent lunch. There’s still a fair way to go and the Col de Portilon means we have to leave France for a while and venture into Spain, not that you’d notice. We’re flagging a bit on the Portillon and I have to say it’s not the nicest climb, the descent is quite rough and we’re pretty glad to reach Luchon in one piece. When you’ve been in the mountains for a few days your tend to talk about food a lot and Luchon has some fabulous bars and cafes so we’re all pretty happy.

Day 5 – Rest(?!) day – Luchon-Supebagneres-Luchon
• Superbagneres (1500m)

You call that rest?!
OK, so it’s not far… We leave Luchon in twos and threes, before too long you’re climbing again. We are going very slowly today – trying to have a recovery spin… Superbagneres is a beautiful climb with views across the whole range of mountains and towards the flat lands beyond. You can see the curvature of the earth from up here, that’s how good a view it is. Although no one is in a rush we make the summit in an hour or so. David Stanton screams ATTACK!!! as he comes down the hill with Phil who’s wearing another retro woolen jersey. Dave is going very fast, smiling. Another ski resort at the summit and no cafe! so it’s straight back down to Luchon for Luncheon… A very fast descent with rolling hills at the base of the climb towards the town, with warmer legs, and a Col in the bag, we get back to the cafes of Luchon pretty quickly.


Bradley on the box

Lunchtime lasted for several hours, no climbs for the rest of the day! We’re chatting and watching Bradley Wiggins in the Worlds TT, he’s doing pretty well too. It’s actually very chilled atmosphere. Our ‘post ride recovery drink’ is a rather nice bottle of vin rouge, steak, salad, crepes and chocolate sauce. For some the rest of the day is spent washing kit and at the Internet cafe, working… for others the rest of the day is spent on the sauce. Then a big meal at a fabulous Restaurant at the end of the high street. A great day. We all loved Luchon.

Day 6 – Luchon to St. Marie de Campan
• Col de Peyresourde (1565m) 1st Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’98, ’01, ’03 & ’05
• Pla D’Adet
• Col d’Aspin (1490m) 1st Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’98, ’01, ’03 & ’04

Pla D’Adet!
Hangovers all round this morning, as we (sadly) leave Luchon and the long luncheon behind us. Seeing as Luchon is in a valley we’re climbing almost immediately. The Col de Peyresourde is a stinker, especially with lead-like legs and a need for more caffeine. The descent is open and fast, like most pyrennean descents you have a mixture of open fast curves and cambered hairpins. It’s like it was made for cyclists, which in a sense it was, the Tour has paid for many local authorites to metal the roads over the years. So these are our hills, they belong to cyclists and cycling folklore. We all feel at home, like a big adventure playground for lycra louts.

We’re on a ‘three Col day’ and next up is the Pla D’Adet – Armstrong famously kicked the crap out of the peloton here and Dave Duffield shouted it’s name and Armstong’s over and over. Guy P does a great impression. On the way up the earlier group are coming down and they’re looking happy, or perhaps that’s a grimace…

Going off in small groups is a great idea in the mountains, you can ride at your pace this way, however fast or slow you want to go. Most of us are medium paced plodders but the smaller group approach means that there is no need for re-grouping, you just keep going. James makes sure we all know were we are heading and always waits for the last rider where he said he will. The highlight of the day is the steady climb up to the picturesque Col D’Aspin, it’s a lush green hillside with great views. The late afternoon, late summer, golden sun casts long shadows across the road. I have to say it’s the most beautiful bike ride, it was a slow start but an epic day, most of us are finding our climbers legs although they hurt like hell. At last we manage to start enjoying them, a bit.

Day 7 – St. Marie de Campan to Argeles Gazost

The day’s Cols:
• Col de Tourmalet (2115m) H Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’95, ’98, ’01 & ’03

• Luz-Ardiden (1000m) H Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’01 & ’03

• Hautacam (1618m) H Cat – Recent Tour battleground: ’00

This mountain was in the stage two years ago, when Ullrich attacked on the Tourmalet and Armstrong crashed on Luz-Ardiden. The Tourmalet is literally hell, as a hill. From the hostel it’s 18kms to the top. The signs that mark the kilometres and percentage of gradient start early today – I’m beginning to hate them. We ride through La Mongie on the way to the top. La Mongie is a dump, no wonder Ullrich upped the tempo here I bet they couldn’t wait to get out of the town. The Tourmalet is long and the pace means holding a wheel is a desperate struggle, a grovel – treat it with the respect it deserves.

At the top it’s 10 degrees colder (at least) and there’s a brisk wind to add to the freezing fun. The cafe is suitably warming and suitably overpriced. The descent from the Tourmalet to Luz isn’t the nicest experience, as you are fighting the wind and cold as well as your tiring brake fingers. It’s very fast through Luz and to the bottom of Luz Ardidien – the longest downhill of the week. This is the climb that did for Ullrich in 2003, it all happened here and we’re trying to spot the places where riders were dropped and where Armstrong fell off…

What’s amazing is the point where he attacked and the the distance from the top it is. It sums up the confidence that Lance must have had, that he could get rid of the group and climb alone for so long. Luz is steep and long and quite hot. It’s also pretty pointless as we simply turn around at the top to descend to lunch. Which is an excellent 3 course slap-up in Luz.

Hautacam is a hill to far for most of us (mainly me, as I chuck in an attack early, then really regret it soon after) yes we’ve raced a few hills, but cruised most of them. Although we’re happy to be near the end, as we grovel to the summit of Hautacam, I kind of wish I could do a few more… my legs remind me that it’s horrid going up, but awesome coming down. I also love the Pyrenees, the views, the villages, the people – it’s gritty, yet beautiful. Above all it’s an area that loves cycling. So we sweep into the town square, like battle-hardened tour riders arriving at a stage finish – a fantastic feeling.

James Thompson
Our ride guide (pictured here securing Simon Old’s Hammond organ to the van’s roof rack) was James from Marmot Tours, he works for Exodus on these Classic Cols trips. He knows the area inside out. He waited at the top of the middle Col of the day for all the riders to arrive and made sure that we all had a fill up of water and enough clothes for the very chilly descents. He made sure our luggage was delivered to the hotel in the evenings, ordered the wine and food and generally helped us through the day. His experience of adventure trips is vast – from dog sledding and snow shoe-ing to hill walking and the Argieose bike marathon, he’s covered it all. Living locally means he can be on call all the time. He made our trip run very smoothly, he was never rushed or stressed and always had a smile. Thanks James!

All in all it was a great week of riding. The point to point nature of the trip means we tackled all the major Cols we wanted to make the trip feel like a mini Tour de France. All of these hills are etched with history and most still show the painted names of the riders that have passed by.

We all seemed to have a favourite Col too (Col D’Aspin for me) and also a least favourite (Col de la Core). As a pre-cursor to next year’s Etape it was spot on as all of us improved our descending and we came back tired but no doubt fitter. In true Exodus style it’s also a bit of an adventure too, the hotels, hostels and auberges are mixed, some very basic and some suitably releaxing – but when you’ve hammered over three cols in a day you really could sleep anywhere.

Everyday we discussed how hard it must be to race in these hills, it must be brutal. Respect oozes out of our tired bodies for the tour riders who do this day after day in the heat of summer – and a fair bit faster! But the trip was a wonderful way to wind down to the end of the summer, we had great weather every day (apart from the top of the Tourmalet) and wonderful company with a group of RCUK readers who really know how to have fun. The food was plentiful too.

Obviously for all of us on the trip the memories are tinged with a huge degree of sadness, Ibbo’s passing away on our return was a shock for all of us. He made his mark on every member of the party and I’m sure we’ll stay friends because he bonded the group and helped us all – which says a lot about the man he was. So, as we raise a(nother) glass – Chapeau Ibbo!

Ibbo and Dave discuss training

Powdrill nails another apple puff

The route in all its glory


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