Back in September 2010, four exploring virgins attempted a wheeled assault on the summit of Canigou. We failed, but this is no way reduced the intensity of the experience. And we’ll be back, it’s unfinished business.
The plan was hatched by Si – ex Pat, long distance business owner, newish Dad and full time architect/builder/labourer on a fantastic old farmhouse deep in the Pyrenees – for a three day unsupport ed out and back trip, taking in the 15,000+ feet of climbing, 100+ kilometers of dirt and white roads including an epic 15k descent leaving plenty of time for frolics and beer.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Like all great plans, it entirely failed to survive first contact with the enemy. Assuming the enemy didn’t mind hanging about for a couple of hours while shit attempted to locate together. Dave and I had travelled from the UK and were packed, keen and ready to go on the stroke of the agreed 10am start. Si was having one of his famed dithers, while the remaining member of the scouting party was lost on the other side of the valley.
Rob – another ex-pat, fellow ST4 rider and all round top man – apologetically rolled into the next village some 90 minutes later, whereupon Dave was forced to drop back to Si’s house to retrieve something forgotten. Looking at his scowl, I’m thinking it was his sense of humour.
Finally. We leave Can Gelys at 650m heading for a late lunch under the shadow of the Tor De Batere some 900m vertically distant. The riding is easy enough, first a road climb from the village, then a white road heading for a visible transmitter on the horizon. What makes it hard is the weight of a pack three-day stuffed with clothes, riding gear, food, sleeping bag, spares, more spares, energy bars, kitchen sink, etc accumulating a mass of 10k attempting to turn you turtle.
Hot as well, 20+ degrees at 10am, another 10 come lunchtime under a blazing sun pitched high over a sky so blue it must be CGI. Lots of time to look at that as we pedal slowly upwards. Last night we had an acclimatisation ride on which I’d aerobically struggled. Blaming this on a 3:30am start, I expected today to be better. So far, so bad as even the lowest gear felt like bloody hard work.
We stopped as the path forked with Si – who has reccie’d this section – declaring the straight up option a total horror. Instead we abandoned bike and pushed up through dense forest on a trail that looked like it’d be proper fun the other way. After what felt like a very long time, we topped out on an old mining trail having a pleasing gradient delivering some proper speed.
Too soon we hit a clearing with the transmitter right in front of us. Below Si’s house was visible bringing on some “we can see your front door from here” camera mugging, while above – oh so far above – was the brooding peak of Canigou. It looked a long, long way away. There’s a good reason for that, it was.
First, Lunch. Another 45 minutes climbing – for me in the granny ring again – on a white road reflecting every one of the sun’s rays. Already it was apparent that a different mentality when substituting “quest” for “quick loop”. We had all day, so rushing seemed entirely inappropriate and, in my case, entirely implausible.
The Tor De Batere is a hilltop beacon, one of many stretching close to the border with Spain. The whole ridge would light up if Spaniards were seem forming armies anywhere visible from these high points. And then somebody’d would call someone else a greasy frenchie and the next thing you know heads are being lopped off. There are more authoritative histories if you’re interested.
We discussed what an absolute bugger building the Tor would be with sixteen century technology while munching lunch sheltered in a shady spot. By the end of the day, I’d have happily swapped my 21st century pimped out Mountain Bike for a shovel and an order to shift 50 tons of dirt.
After the briefest of road descents, we hit a tarmac gradient leading off to the fabled “GR10” dirt track. It looked awesome on the map, stiff climb to crest a high ridge, then a 5km plunge back into the valley before a repeat up and down placing us within 4k of our destination for the night. It was barely 2pm and the general feeling was beer’n’medals were – at worst – three hours away.
So we quit before we started. A massive youth hostel policed the end of the tarmac and served ice cold full fat coke for the righteous. Sufficiently fortified with a couple of those we headed out out into the burning heat of the afternoon, and headed up past the scars of extensive quarrying.
Setting off in the saddle and in good spirits, soon we were off again as the trail switched from traversing to directly up the spine. Vigorous pushing was rewarded with stunning views and the applause – accompanied by some bemused looks which should have probably told me something – from walkers coming the other way. The top brought even 360 degree vistas, one slice of which was Rob wincing at raw flesh where his skin used to be. For some reason he appeared to be sporting bobbi-socks which had allowed SPD shoes to rub away at his heel.
Never mind, it’ll all be downhill from here. Well yes, but – if one were viewing this from a riding context- no.
The next four hours were absolutely the most unpleasant I have ever spent on a bike. Or with a bike to be more accurate. Physically hard, mentally soul destroying, occasionally terrifying, apparently never ending. We rode a few hundred yards before the rocks spat up impossible obstacles to wheel over. Still more on that off, we expected things to get easier when contouring was replaced by gravity.
It was worse, so much worse. Huge rockfalls blocked the trails leaving no option but to push and carry. All this on a 45 degree slope with body puncturing granite waiting for any kind of fall. It took us an hour to make the valley floor, before which I’d succumbed to all body cramp slowing progress even more.
Climbing back out was even worse. Stepping carefully over huge dry waterfalls, bike on the shoulder, praying cramp didn’t hit on the crux of the move. Now the exposure was properly scary. 3 second tour to the torrents below leaving just enough time to scream.
At times like this I tend to shut down my external personality and descend into bloody minded negativity. After a pedal had smacked my ankle for about – oh – the hundredth time, I shouted to anyone who might be listening “Fuck it, I’ll take the fuckers off, it’s not like I’m fucking using them is it? Tell you fucking what, I’ll chuck the whole fucking thing down the fucking mountain. That’ll fucking teach it!”
Everyone else seemed to faring a little better, but Si reckoned he could feel the hate for not reccie’ing this trail. To be honest, I blamed him but then I’ve never been good at taking responsibility for my own actions. We found a freezing stream to wash hot heads in, tired bodies were lowered onto rocks, energy bars chewed, salt drinks drunk, options considered.
There were none, we just had to get on with it. There are no easy choices here. We’d seen no one for an hour, we were – best guess – three hours from where we needed to be which coincided with the sun going down, we were all in various states of disrepair and the trail was a broken mess of unridable shit. Glad I came, this is ace. Feel the irony.
Flickering images looped in my minds’ eye; immobilising injuries, benightment, unstoppable cramp, alien abduction. The last one looked pretty damn rosy especially after we emerged from the trail to find a couple sat by a hiking hut. What’s it like he way you’ve come we asked our question full of hope, the answer crushed that “Worse, you’re not thinking of riding up there are you?“.
Well no, we’re pushing. Rob and I shared some desperate laughter deciding who had the most amusing cramp. Dave and Si pushed on believing we could cut off this hell-trail onto a blissfully man made surface only a few k’s on. And this is exactly the time you realise how fantastic your friends are. I’m now in a pretty dark place, and it’s not somewhere people want to visit unless having their head bitten off fits in with their travel plans.
Everyone knows this and they uncomplainingly put up with my whinging offering all sorts of solace and promises of beer soon. Rob’s in agony with his shoe stripped heel, Si is feeling terrible about bringing on four hours of misery, and Dave is normally the one who blows his stack first. Luckily I beat him to it.
Finally it ends, oh fuck me, thank you god, is that a gate, tell me that’s a fucking gate. We’ve been chasing mirages for 90 minutes and I’m so far past broken, staring at the front wheel and plodding slowly is max velocity.
It’s a gate but we’re not done yet. Another 400m of climbing to an alpine lodge sheltering under the mighty peak of the Canigou. Sensibly everyone wants to wait, take stock, stuff some food in, stretch, rest and then go for it. But I’m way past rationality and I barge past rudely, engage granny gear and bloody mindedness and get on with it.
The sun is sinking behind the muscular shoulder of the Mountain and amazing things are happening with granite filtered light, but for me it’s all darkness and misery. Just. Get. It. Done. Nothing else matters. Just make this stop.
Dave catches me half way up and we have a northern discussion about what a piss poor performance Si and Rob are making walking the trail. I know exactly why Dave is telling me this, and I know I’m shallow enough for it to be effective. We stop a couple of times but after hours of pushing, there is no way I’ll be dismounting again.
A local barrels down the trail in a 4×4 and shouts from the window it’s only 200m. He lied. Bastard. It’s another kilometre of cramping muscles and fading strength before the heavy traffic of people and cars inform of an endgame in sight.
Nearly. Jesus, is this some kind of fucking test? The cars all park up but there’s a 100m of climbing to do to the lodge. My determination to ride it is lost to cramp, and we wait for Si and Rob so we can finish this together. It gives me time to take in our surroundings and the first thing of note is there appears to be nothing above us. We’ve climbed to 2150m and that’s the top of the world round here, except for the final scramble to the peak.
That’s for tomorrow, tonight we’ve a far smaller task but it doesn’t feel like that. We push, push and push some more passing astounded campers puffing heavily with stuff they’re carrying from their car. I’ve almost forgotten the back-pack already, but have refused to remove it for the last few hours in case I cannot face shouldering it again.
Some unseen trigger sees us all re-mount for the last few hundred yards. The feeling of relief at finally making it is mitigated by a weariness I’ve never felt before. 9 hours to cover 30k, at least half of those off the bike. Hardest thing I’ve ever done by a bloody long way. Never want to feel like this again.
The guys head inside to get room keys and find the bar, while I’m left hugging trees after suffering cramp in my stomach muscles. I never even knew I had muscles there. Obviously we’re on the third floor and that must be the world’s slowest ascent. Throw kit in room, quick rinse with a flannel, ignore shower in favour of the bar.
Receive four huge beers. Look around at Si, Rob and Dave. Realise we’ve done something not many people will ever get the chance to do. Suddenly we’re all laughing and Si tells us how we’ve cracked the hard part of the trip, and it’s all going to be super easy from here.
He lied. I almost knew then he was lying, but we were in high places, the sun setting behind a proper mountain and I had a full glass of beer to share with my friends. This is the stuff of life, you cannot taste the highs until you’ve wallowed in the low places. Already the pain of the day was fading.
“Never in Doubt” we toasted each other. H’mm maybe.