A Busman’s Holiday to the Shoe Factory;
Peering out of the window, Chalabre, our new home was shrouded in mist. The mist laid heavy on the rooftops and gave an eerie feel to the morning. I was hoping to get a sense of my new surroundings, as we had arrived late the previous evening in near darkness, but this was not to be.
Our home for the week ran by Toni and Dave is a fantastic rustic old building, formerly a shoe factory, supplying the area well into the mid 60’s. The building is large and sprawling with various add-ons of differing ages. On every wall, there are amazing works of art and cycling memorabilia. Every space is large and airy with high ceilings. We have a space for yoga and core work, workshop with an area for turbo sessions, a vast dining room and communal area with a big wood burner.
Day One, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
70 Miles, 4,757 feet climbing – Strava
Day one, gentle yoga followed by a fantastic breakfast and delicious French coffee. Then into the workshop to get the bikes sorted, we all love a bit of bike fettling, right?
As we stepped out into the quiet street the chill of the morning air hit us, the mist lingered, the air cold and damp. However, it wasn’t long before the very thoughtful Coach Dave warmed us up. After a warm up we re-grouped. With a subtle cough, as subtle as a Yorkshire man can be, Dave demanded our attention. His orders – “Ride up the next hill, which is only about 7 kilometres with a gentle incline of around 5%”. Easy I thought, but here comes the kicker, “as fast as you can and note your heart rate during the climb.” Reaching the summit I felt as bad as I had expected, but my heart rate was okay, a steady 165 and I recovered quickly, heart rate soon settled down.
The rest of the day was glorious, as one would expect from cycling in rural Southern France. Quiet roads, very few cars, smooth tarmac, and stunning views.
As we swung into Limoux for lunch, stomachs grumbling the sun was shining, and the air was warm. We sat in the towns central square and gorged ourselves on pizzas, omelettes and chips and buckets of French coffee. The banter had started, and the group was beginning to gel, adversity brings people together. Our morning hadn’t been a beast by any means, but it had been tough enough and set the tone for the week to come.
The rest of the day was much the same, but hillier. The format seemed to be fast TT style riding on the flat sections and pushing ourselves on the climbs till our legs fell off, and they did on several occasions.
On our return, Toni laid on tea and delicious homemade cakes, all very welcome. Slumped on the sofa the group was quiet. Maybe reflecting, maybe looking ahead and thinking OMG or like me, just lacking the energy to do anything other than eat and drink.
Day Two, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
78 miles, 5,413 feet climbing – Strava
Yoga didn’t seem as gentle as it had the previous day. With subtle moans and groans, it was apparent yesterdays ride had taken its toll. However, after a short warm-up, some light jazz, and Coach Dave’s unique sense of humour we were all in good spirits.
The group was starting to become very comfortable in each others company. Coach Dave’s individual style had set the tone, and friendly banter was the order of the day.
Each morning would follow a similar pattern, a hearty breakfast, faff time, and a theory session. Each session focusing on our training needs, making these sessions uniquely tailored. Today’s topic – heart rate zones. Taking in to account our heart rates on yesterdays hill climbing sessions we started to build a picture of our training zones.
As we stepped outside, once again there was a chill in the air, but today we knew it would not be long before we would warm up.
The riding started gentler than the previous morning, no hideous hill climbing just a few steady paced ‘through and off’s.’ However, it wasn’t long, and the climbing began, fortunately, at a slightly slower pace. We were rewarded with stunning views and warming mid-morning sun as we escaped the grasps of the tree-lined ascent.
After a fantastic descent, it wasn’t long until Coach Dave broke the bad news. It was time for another hill climbing session, again, monitoring our heart rates, with staggered starts based and our performance yesterday.
With a height gain of 1300 feet, it was a tough session. As I hit the top of Col de St Louis, I could feel I had worked hard.
As we descended Col de St Louis, there was a slight change to the weather, landscape and flora and fauna. The temperature increased a few degrees, the landscape noticeably dryer and flora and fauna more Mediterranean.
With more climbing comes more descending and it wasn’t long before we were at lunch. More coffee and more overeating trying to replenish the 4000 odd calories I was likely to burn today.
From lunch, we headed into the Gorge De Galamus, as found on Dangerous Roads.com. On leaving the cafe, it was evident the wind had increased, as we rode out of town we hit a strong headwind and a hill. At our first re-group spot, I was nearly in tears “I can’t cope with another 40 miles of this” I thought. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the steep-sided gorge gave us a much-needed respite from the wind and happiness was restored.
Another great descent before the final ascent of the day – The Esperaza, small in stature with a steady gradient but always, always at the end of a tiring day.
With 78 miles in the bag and over 5000 feet of climbing it was home for tea and medals.
Day Three, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
55.8 miles, 3,599 feet climbing – an easy day – Strava
0800 hr – Yoga
0830 hr – Breakfast – The large dining table laid full off French delights was a sight for sore eyes after two days of hard riding. Each day Croissant, pain-au-chocolat, a selection of cereals, fruits and cheese, today’s special frittata, yesterday pancakes, bacon, and maple syrup.
1000 hr – Climbing technique, specifically – standing. Apparently, we are not standing enough while climbing and this doesn’t make Coach Dave happy.
Day three was to be an easy, steady loop with lunch in Mirepoix.
After a gentle warm-up, we worked on our technique. Our instructions were simple – climb the next hill standing up, only sit if necessary, a big gear may be required. After 20 or so minutes I reached the summit, legs burning but my rear was thankful for the rest.
After a relatively easy day, it was great to return home to tea and cakes with a roaring wood burner, with time and energy to read, reflect and chat.
For me, its all about the people. By now we had gelled very well. The banter continuous, sometimes unrelating but always in good humour. We got on well and our attitudes towards cycling and our goals for this week were in line.
The group consisted of seven, including me. Six guys and Sarah, the lone female of the group. On the road, the group would occasionally split into two subgroups. At hills or faster sections, we would divide into these subgroups, regrouping at junctions. Often Coach Dave would hold back the faster riders, at the bottom of a hill or the junction and we would have Time Trail to catch others.
Day Four, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
65 miles, 5,200 feet climbing – Strava
0800 hr – Yoga – it’s getting easier
0830 hr – Breakfast – A full table again
1000 hr – Chat about Cadence – time to spin those legs super fast
After a more leisurely day yesterday we had another stonker ahead of us today. Coach Dave had planned an ascent of the Col de Montsegur at 1059 meters (3474 ft).
But before that, we had forty odd miles of riding and plenty of climbing to squeeze in. The first few miles consisted of more ‘Through and off’s’, but on this occasion, we had to sprint to the front of the group with a high cadence, as high as we could manage without bouncing. Bouncing would make Coach Dave unhappy.
It was a beautiful sunny day, clear and calm and not too hot, perfect for climbing. Our ascent of Roquefixade was stunning, amazing vistas to our right, as far as the eye could see and towering giants to the other. Perched high above us, the monastery, watching over weary travellers.
After a short descent, the climb to Col de Montsegur started, gently at first but not for long. At points, the climb hit 11% and held a steady 6% to 9% for the majority of the upper slopes. Once again, at the top, the views were stunning, no time visit to the monastery for us. A chill hung in the late afternoon air and with 20 odd miles to get home, we donned jackets and hit the road, rewarded with a super fast descent, nearly all the way back.
Day Five, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
75 miles, 4,072 feet climbing – Strava
0800 hr – Yoga
0830 hr – Breakfast
1000 hr – A looking at a training calendar
A relatively steadier day, as tomorrow, apparently, will be a cracker. Still, a good few miles planned though, around 70, all thanks to James. On our first night Coach Dave quizzed us on our goals and aims for the week. James, in his haste, stated he would like to get in 70+ miles a day. There it was, set in stone.
The day was set to be lumpy but no significant climbs. We enjoyed a relaxed, sociable first half, until lunch. The afternoon started pleasant enough until we paused at a junction. We were offered two alternative routes home. I should have learnt by now, never go in the group with Coach Dave, but this is what I came for, to train, to ride hard and fast, to get fitter. The holiday, for want of a better term, is billed Fitness Week. So, off we went in our two groups. It wasn’t long before the paced had raised and this was no longer a sociable ride.
At some point, I can’t remember when I heard a call from behind me. “FFS, why do we have to f*c’ing time trial everywhere?” Turns out it was Ciaran, the time trialist of the group. His Stava description for the day TT Everything… Never the less the pace didn’t ease, and we continued to time trail everywhere until we arrived home.
Day six, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
46 miles, 6050 feet climbing – Strava
Today was to be our shortest day but with the most climbing. We would climb the Plateau De Beille at 1780 meters. The previous evening Coach Dave introduced the Plateau De Beille, reading excerpts from The Great Road Climbs Of The Pyrenees
There are French hard men who say the Plateau De Beille is on par with Mont Ventoux and very few people who have cycled up it have a nice word to say about the brute.
I went to bed reading Simon Warrens, 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour De France. The Beille featured in La Tour in 1998 and was categorised as HC.
The Plateau De Beille receives a solid 8/10 in Simons book and is described as “As solid as they come.”
The climb is 15.8 kilometres with a maximum gradient of 11% and a height gain of 1255 meters and in winter is a ski resort.
We drove out to the start of our ride, the climb was too far from our base to ride there and back.
The day started flattish, but with a small hump to get over before our proper climb. At a mere 3000ft, the unnamed hump split the group and seemed a little unnecessary given the day we had ahead of us. With a short descent into Les Cabannes, we had time to stop for coffee and refuel before the climb.
As in previous days, we staggered our start, in the hope we would all arrive at the summit reasonably close together. We had agreed to wait at the summit for photos before the descent back to Les Cabannes.
The climbing started in earnest as soon as we left the village with some tight hairpins at a steady gradient of 8 and 9 per cent for around 9 kilometres. Shortly after, we hit our first section of 10%, with pacing in mind I took it easy, not wanting to go into the red so early on. Then respite, the gradient easied, but only for a few seconds. With a succession of flatter sections, relief washed over me, but the relief was short lived each time, and each time the wall of punishing 8 and 9 per cent loomed.
The sight of riders ahead spurred me on, despite every fibre crying out to stop and rest. But the worst was still to come. 13 kilometres in, when one’s legs are done in and your energy reserves depleted, as if some sort of sick joke, you are faced with a ramp of 11%. Get this done and you can tell yourself, the worst is over. With a short 2k of 5 to 6 per cent and the smell of the summit in the air, a Second Wind breezes through me, giving me the motivation and a burst of new found energy to hit the summit on a high.
After congratulations and a quick look around the plateau, we saddled up and freewheeled the 15 kilometres back to Les Cabannes for coffee. The descent was fast and fun, but with some ‘moments’ on the tight hairpins.
After coffee, it was a fast group ride back to the van and our lift home, unless one wanted to ride the 40 odd K back to the ranch… We all jumped in the van and buckled up, cycling done for the day.
I completed the official climb in 1 hour 25 minutes and 30 seconds. The fastest time recorded is 44.06 by Thibaut Pinot, the French professional cyclist.
Day Seven, Saddle Skedaddle Fitness Week
Our final day and departure day. Time to relax and sightsee. After a layin, Chauffeur Dave dropped us at the lovely city of Carcassonne
After a couple of hours sightsee and lunch our transferred awaited to take us to the airport. After an amazing weeks cycling and making a whole bunch of new friends it was to be leaving. But we know, because of cycling there is a good chance we will meet again.
The days pass all to quick
The miles pass all to slow
But memories and friendships will linger