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BCT Marmotte Pyrenees 2017

Author: Tim Blewitt, 07/09/17

Col du Tourmalet

On Sunday 27th August 2017, Pat Hackett, Cheryl and Tim Blewitt represented BCT in the Marmotte Pyrenees cycling sportive. The event was run for the first time last year and is an equivalent challenge to its famous long-running sister event La Marmotte in the French Alps.

The weather was kind with scorching hot days before and after giving way to a mostly overcast sky that provided very reasonable cycling conditions overall.

The ride began at 07:30 in the beautiful Pyrenean mountain village of Luz Saint Sauveur with legendary cyclist Miguel Indurain initiating the race.  After a few miles around the town to loosen up cold muscles, the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet began.  This mountain is a favourite of Tour de France organisers since 1910 and has an average gradient of 7.4% over its 18km length.  It took a couple of hours for the BCT riders to attain the summit after maintaining a steady but sustainable pace where the iconic statue of Le Géant was a very welcome sight at the top.

Marmotte Race Start

Following an enjoyable sweeping descent, it was straight up the next 18km climb of Hourquette d'Ancizan.  The published gradient of 4.5% was somewhat misleading as the first few miles were fairly flat or even downhill, all of which made the later climbing slightly more tiring than expected.

The feed station at the bottom of d’Ancizan was somewhat sparse with a choice of fluids including water or an unnaturally bright blue menthol flavoured syrup that resembled dental mouthwash.   Cyclists who ran out of energy would at least have fresh breath.

During the third climb of Col d’Aspin, the sun had broken through the early afternoon clouds and the delightful country park surroundings were dotted with weekend picnickers.  At that point, sunbathing with a glass of Bordeaux and a baguette of local soft cheese was a much more attractive proposition than slogging up the next 12km at 6.5%.  At the top of Aspin however, there was a slightly surreal sight of a herd of cows crashing through rows of parked bicycles to lick salt off the legs of weary cyclists.

The fourth of five climbs involved the ascent of Tourmalet from the reverse direction and it took a lot more resolve to drag tired legs to the summit once more.  At this point, the pressure of a cut-off time was looming with riders compelled to reach the Beaucens feed station on the other side of Tourmalet before 18:15.  The BCT team reached Beaucens with 20 minutes to spare and relief was mixed with all sorts of other emotions at the thought of the imposing 14km of 7% climbing up the final mountain of Hautacam, also used occasionally in the Tour de France. 

During the climb, the notoriously fickle weather turned dramatically for the worse as a mountain storm blew in.  After over 12 hours in the saddle though, Pat, Cheryl and Tim finally crossed the finish line at the summit of Hautacam and were rewarded with a baseball cap, commemorative finishers medals having already run out much earlier.  It was perhaps a measure of the challenge that from over 2000 starting cyclists, more than 900 failed to complete the 104-mile course with over 18,000 feet of ascent.

There was no time for celebration or even for a photograph as the icy rain forced the cyclists to begin the dangerous descent on slippy road surfaces with cold, cramped and exhausted muscles.  Fortunately, back at Beaucens the last shuttle bus was still waiting for stragglers and as the last light of the day rapidly disappeared, the relief of avoiding cycling another nine miles uphill to Luz Saint Sauveur in pitch darkness was overwhelming.

Next day, Pat, Cheryl and Tim visited the nearby holy pilgrimage site of Lourdes to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary for delaying that shuttle bus just long enough.   And they were even inspired to take part in the nightly candlelit ceremony at the famous cathedral until a timely thunderstorm separated the truly faithful and sent tourist non-believers scurrying to the nearest bar.

After so many “never again” moments the previous day, the large glass of strong La Goudale beer on a luxurious leather sofa in the hotel bar was balm for the soul.  Maybe, just maybe.  Marmotte Alps next year anybody?


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