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Day 3
2002-09-04, Sainte Marie-de-Campan - Massat

After breakfast we got our equipment, loaded our bags on to the coach and prepared ourselves for departure. Robert got going immediately, but I waited for Erol and Jim, so we started around 08:20. The weather was good, but the air was still a bit cold and the road was wet after the night's rain.

Col d'Aspin

The climb up to Col d'Aspin began as soon as we had left the village. The road climbed from 860 to 1 489 metres above sea level in twelve kilometres and the gradient was between 5 and 6 percent most of the time.

In the beginning the landscape was open and we could see the road wind its way up. After a while we were surrounded by trees and the air became chillier as we could not get any direct heat from the sun. Erol took it easier for a while so Jim and I continued on our own. All the time we passed cyclists that had started before us. With 1.5 kilometres to the summit we came up to the clouds and a few hundred metres before the top we caught Dave. Erol passed us just as we were about to reach the summit. He was doing some heart rate based training and had ridden the last couple of kilometres at outrageous speed.

We had a brief pause and continued downhill. The slope was rather technical and fun to ride. After a while we got below the clouds and could see the sun again. In a wide 180-degree turn we saw a flock of horses on pasture. We caught Robert and continued to Arreau at the foot of the mountain, where we stopped until all of us were together again. Without thinking too much I rode out on the D929 towards Col de Peyresourde but Dave and Richard soon noticed that it was not the right way. We checked the map and agreed to take the road through the town, so we turned back towards Arreau.

Col de Peyresourde

The climb up Peyresourde started as soon as we had left the city centre. The road climbed gently the first eight kilometres, but the last ten were quite tough. The sun was blazing hot and I realised I was wearing too much clothing. The usual group, i.e. Erol, Dave, Jim and myself, started our journey towards the top.

I could not find a good rhythm and it seemed that neither could Erol and Jim, because after a while they dropped back. Dave seemed to have found a formula how to tackle the mountain and sailed away ahead of me. He was extremely strong on this climb. I was hovering between Erol and Jim on one hand and Dave on the other. All the time we were passing other cyclists, most of whom were riding touring bikes or mountains bikes loaded with cycle bags. I thought it was enough to carry the weight of my body and bike up the mountain.

The Col de Peyresourde was 1 569 metres above sea level and the road climbed 600 metres along the last eight kilometres. When we reached the summit we met Peter, who had been there for a while. We stopped by the car and had some bananas and fig rolls. As we stood there Aussie Dave came over the top, picked up his wind jacket from the back pocket and went on without stopping, with a broad grin on his face.

The road up to the Col de Peyresourde.

Peter, Dave, Jim and I got on our bikes and set off after him. The road down the mountain was awesome. The line of sight was splendid and there were not many sharp bends. I tried not to lose too much ground to Peter, but it was simply impossible. He did not seem to have any mental barriers when going downhill. He stopped at a crossroad to check the directions, but soon passed me again.

When we got to Bagneres-de-Luchon we found Aussie Dave in a roundabout, checking which way to go. After consulting the map for a while we found the right exit, the five of us formed a pace line and upped the tempo. The road was going slightly downhill the 20 kilometres to Chaum where we planned to have lunch. When we got there the village turned out to be completely deserted, so we decided to press on and stop at the first open restaurant.

Col des Ares & Col de Buret

We reached the first open restaurant after climbing up towards the Col des Ares. It was a picturesque hotel so we parked our bikes outside and climbed the stairs up to the restaurant. We got a table at the patio where we could see the road, so we could see when the others went past. We all ordered the same three-course menu in order to get the food as fast as possible. Someone wanted the beef medium rare, but the rest of us explained that if you ordered your beef anything but cremated it would not have been in contact with a frying pan. Or as Dave put it: "If you order your steak medium, they chop off the cow's head, wipe its ass and serve it on a plate".

Meanwhile Richard had joined us and with his arrival the French organisation got into a
deadlock. We sat there waiting, but nothing happened. We got the main course half an hour after the salad and by then we had seen most of our fellow riders pass by. We threw the food down our necks, skipped the desert, paid and got on our bikes.

We climbed the rest of the Col des Ares together. Two motorbikes overtook us at the top and Peter immediately followed the wheel of the second one. I followed Peter, but at a somewhat bigger distance. After little more than five kilometres ride downhill we started to climb up to Col de Buret. It was a short climb and soon we caught two other guys from our group. The weather had so far been splendid, but now clouds were formed in the sky.

Col de Portet d'Aspet

After going down for a while we began the approach to the Col de Portet d'Aspet, 1 069 metres above the sea. Peter and Jim set off at a faster speed than Dave and I could follow, so we rode together at our pace. We reached a three way cross, where the road to the right went up the Col de Menté and the road to the left was towards the Col de Portet d'Aspet. Immediately after the crossing the road made a turn right around a rock. After the turn, on the left hand side was the memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who won the 1992 Olympic road race and died on this spot during the 1995 Tour de France. Ahead of us the road raised like a wall. I got into my lowest gear and was about to use whatever momentum I had to keep going, but then changed my mind, since I wanted a picture of the memorial with me back home.

The Fabio Casartelli memorial.

Dave stopped as well and we took some photos. Then we got going again and we were not going fast. Portet d'Aspet climbed not more than 420 metres in 4.5 kilometres, but the first half of the climb was definitely much steeper than the second half. The road wound its way up through the woods and it was probably very beautiful, but my focus was on keeping the bike in an upright position. The gradient was horrendous. Dave and I climbed the mountain together, at a pace around 8 km/h on the first part. The road flattened after two kilometres and the ride became somewhat easier.

Dave towards the Col de Portet d'Aspet.

The car was parked at the summit and we saw some familiar bikes outside the café, but we did not stay long. Aussie Dave, Jim and I set off together for a nice descent and when the slope flattened John joined us. Aussie Dave upped the pace and got a gap. Jim and I tried to catch him, but he was too strong on the flat course. We gave up after a few kilometres and continued at a more comfortable speed.

When we paused at a junction twelve kilometres from St Girons we saw Dave, so we waited for him. Dave, Jim, John and I formed a pace line all the way to St Girons, where we would get our cards stamped. We found a bar at a roundabout where we also got some snacks and something to drink. After a while some other guys joined us and when everyone had got their cards stamped we set off for the last 28 kilometres to Massat.

The road wound its way slightly uphill, but we kept a good pace. With less than ten kilometres to go we passed Robert and Ian, who had been doing well. After climbing half a dozen cols the last two days I could not help seeing this distance as a part that just had to be done, but at least it was easier when there was a bunch of us sharing the workload. A light drizzle started to fall over the last kilometres, but we reached the hotel and had time to put away our bikes before the rain came over us.

We stayed at the hotel Les Trois Seigneurs just outside Massat. Our bathroom was equipped with an automatic hand dryer, so we put all our damp cycling clothes there and got it going over night.

The day in figures

Distance: 170 kilometres
Climbing: 2 850 metres
Time on the bike: 6 hours and 56 minutes
Average speed: 24.5 km/h

Black graph: Altitude (m)
Blue graph: Speed (km/h)
Red graph: Heart rate (beats/min)