After taking us through the Marmotte, we've dug out another of Stephen McNally's narratives. With planning underway for a 2015 Raid Pyrénéen, this piece will make you want to head along if you don't already!

Raid Pyrénéen 2005

Stephen McNally

The Raid Pyrénéen was first attempted in 1949 by two members of the the Cyclo Club Bearnais in Pau. High temperatures forced them to abandon their attempt to ride from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Cerbere on the Mediterranean.

The first successful attempt took place the following year and since then almost 5000 people have undertaken the route under the rules of the Cyclo Club Bearnais.

To formally partake in the ‘Raid’, an application must be made to the Cyclo Club Bearnais in Pau, and the official control card (carnet) sent out must be stamped at specific points along the route, and one ‘secret’ control performed by one of the club members who can appear at any stage. To earn the coveted Raid Pyrénéen medal, one has to simply send back the fully completed stamped carnet, to prove that the Atlantic to Med Pyrénéen crossing had been accomplished within the allowed 100 hour window.

I had come across the Raid on a French cycling website in early 2004, and decided there and then that this would be a great goal to aim for in my efforts to get back on the bike after many years in the cycling wilderness! I hadn't cycled seriously since my few years with Sorrento CC in the mid 80's. Luckily I managed to persuade an ex-Sorrento clubmate, and good friend of mine, Wil Smith, to have a crack at the Raid too.

So here we stood a year later in Hendaye, a small tourist town, right at the very bottom of the French Atlantic coast, a stone’s throw from the Spanish border - Despite all the hard training, and all the many miles ridden over every hill and mountain in Wicklow over the last year, the over-riding feeling as we congregated at 9.00am on Monday 20th June 2005 was one of nervousness and trepidation. True, I had trained hard, but the mountains we were about to face over the next few days were just so much longer, steeper and higher than anything I had ever seen before. I had calculated that on the 2nd day alone, we would climb almost 4000m of vertical ascent!

Support for the trip was being provided by Andy and Julie Bake from Sporting Tours, and at Hendaye, everyone chipped in €10 so they could fill the hired support car with bottled water, and hoards of bananas, fruit cakes, biscuits, apricots etc... This turned out to be a godsend as our route was to take us far from any towns and supermarkets on several occasions over the course of the week.

Stage 1

We set off at 9.00am on Monday morning and the route took us about 14km along the coast to St Jean de Luz, before finally turning inland and saying goodbye to the Atlantic ocean. Despite being an overcast day, temperatures were still 22 to 24 degrees, and it was humid. After several slight delays as we got used to the Sporting Tours maps, and inadequate French signposts, we hit our first hill at about 24km, the Col de St Ignace. This hill, although less than 200m high had the effect of stringing out and splitting the large group of 38 into several smaller groups that would more or less stay together for the day. I ended up in a group of between 10 and 12 cyclists, with whom it turned out I would not only spend the rest of the day, but the rest of the week.

After 46km, we stopped at a café in Espelette to have our carnets stamped, and took the opportunity to order a lovely strong espresso coffee. The group I was with was a mixture of serious racing cyclists, mountain bikers, and even an IronMan triathlete. One of the guys, Pete Richardson, was in training for his 9th Étape de Tour. We had been advised to stop for lunch in a pretty town called St-Jean Pied de Port at 85km, but we kept going when we arrived there, no-one really seemed too pushed about stopping.

The first real col of the day came at 112km. The Col d’Osquich was 500m and this stretched the group considerably. We stopped at the top where Andy and Julie were waiting with the car fully laden with the aforementioned water and cycling fodder. Although it was a cloudy day, the humidity and the climb took it’s toll, and it was great to be able to drink a plentiful supply of water and refill the bottles before we pushed on again. After a lovely fast sweeping descent, we got our carnets stamped again at a café in Tardes at 140km, and took the opportunity to have another of those beautiful strong coffees.

We pushed on afterwards, the pace quickening as we got closer to the finish of the stage at Oloron St-Marie. After slight difficulty finding the hotel once we reached town, we finally rolled in to the hotel carpark at about 4.00pm, and had to wait for over an hour for the coach to arrive with our bags. This wasn’t a problem however, as we just sat around the hotel pool, chatting and drinking water etc… It was a nice opportunity to get to know the members of the group...

Later in the evening, after showering and what was to become the routine chore of hand-washing of cycling shorts, jerseys etc.. we all met for a well-earned beer and dinner at 8.00pm. It had been a great day’s cycling. The group I was with were all of a similar fitness and strength level, and the fact that the group had stayed together all day made it that bit easier too.

Much of the talk around the dinner table however was not of today’s ride but of the daunting cols lying in wait for us the next day. As several from the group were in training for the Étape in July, which was to go over the Col de Marie Blanque (1100m), I decided that I would join them in this early diversion on Tuesday’s stage to add yet another infamous Tour de France col to the week’s conquests!

Daily stats: 163km in 5’55” (Average 27.5kph)

Stage Two

We all knew that today was going to be the toughest day of all, and it didn’t surprise us in that regard.

We left the hotel at 8.00am, as the forecast was for hot sunny weather. After a nice 10-15km of flat roads, we started out on the Col de Marie Blanque. This was a 10km climb, the first 5km was steady at about 5-6% gradient, before it reared up to between 11-13% for the last 5km. We climbed as a group initially, but as we got nearer to the summit, the group totally fragmented. It was very very tough climb, but the views were spectacular from the sunbathed summit, and could easily see the clouds and mists we had climbed through below us.

Every km on these big climbs, there was a signpost at the roadside, specifically for cyclists, showing altitude at the top of the climb, current altitude, and percentage gradient for the next km. I was going to develop a real love-hate relationship with these signs over the course of the week. They were a great way of breaking down the climb into sections etc.. but as you can imagine, the last thing you really needed to know after a gruelling 10% km, was that the next km was 12% !! The descent off the Marie Blanque was hairy to say the least as much of it was through a really thick fog, with visibility down to 20 metres at times, which isn’t much fun on a bicycle at 60kph ! All the cows wore the traditional heavy bells around their necks, and it was eerie to be descending through this thick soupy fog, the only sound was the loud eternal clanging of the cowbells, and the cows, nowhere to be seen due to the poor visibility. We eventually got down to below the cloud line and were rewarded with the welcome sight of the support car soon after we reached the valley floor again.

After stocking up on water and food, we pushed on and after a short flat 10km cycle into the town of Laruns, we finally started out on the foothills of the dreaded Col d’Aubisque (1790m). The climb started gently enough with gradients of ~6%, but after 6km of climbing, we were averaging 10-12% gradient every km. The sun had come out now, and the combination of the day getting hotter and hotter, and the increase in gradient really started to take it’s toll. After about 16km of relentless climbing, passing a ski-resort after 12km, we finally reached the summit for a well-earned coffee, a sandwich and about 2-3 litres of water. I was eternally grateful to Julian Bray from London on this climb, who stayed with me, and paced me to the top perfectly. Julian was also training for the Étape and was to finish just outside the top 100 in the event several weeks later...

Smith and McNally at the summit of the Col d’Aubisque

We took some photos at the summit, and started off down the descent, after donning gilets to prevent us getting too cold. This was a truly incredible descent, with some of the most breath-taking views we had seen to-date. The only scary moment was when we rounded a bend at speed to find the road ran into a 200m avalanche tunnel, which was in pitch darkness with the road streaming wet from underground streams. This was not the time to be wearing sunglasses, but taking them off involved momentarily taking ones hand from the handlebars, which obviously presented it’s own risks !! The next climb was the Solour (1450m) which came within a few kms. It was at the Solour summit where our route diverted from that of the Étape. The descent from the Solour was fantastic, and the road surface was excellent.

We sped along the valley floor for about 10km before beginning the 12km drag up the next valley which was to bring us Luz St-Sauveur from where the daunting Col de Tourmalet (2115m) began. By this stage, the sun was high in the sky. Temperatures were over 35 degrees, and the lower slopes of the Tourmalet were really really hot. Also, the road had recently been resurfaced, and you could actually feel the heat radiating up from the new tar, as well as the sun burning down on your back. It was becoming really uncomfortable. The Tourmalet rises steadily at gradients of between 7-9% for 18km, and is a real strength sapping climb. The last km is over 10%, and is a real test of mental and physical endurance. All the way up, many valid reasons for stopping flash through your mind, but you just push on and on, climbing at speed as slow as 8-10kph in places ! I stopped about a third of the way up the climb at a fountain in the village of Bareges, and sat there for 10 minutes. I drank several bottles of water from the fountain, before totally immersing my head several times in an effort to cool down before I set off again. Matt Price, our resident IronMan, was my saviour on the Tourmalet, and set a great pace for me.

The feeling of relief and satisfaction upon reaching the summit is only surpassed by one of total exhaustion, both from the climb itself and from the heat. My mind was definitely wandering on this climb, as I was forgetting people’s names etc.. while sitting at the café at the top, names I should have known well, as I’d spent the last 2 days in their company.

The walls on the inside of the café on the Tourmalet summit were adorned with some amazing Tour de France photographs and memorabilia from present day right back to the early 1900s, the most impressive exhibit was the Tour de France winning bicycle from 1910. One look at this boneshaker put our efforts in perspective. In reality, the guy riding this bike (Octave Lapize) probably went up the Tourmalet quicker than we did ! We ate, drank, rested and took some more photos on the summit for approx 30 minutes before once more donning our gilets and arm warmers, and setting off down the descent on the far side of the mountain. The descent was strewn with gravel for the first few km, which meant we had to descent very carefully, until we had passed the ski-resort of La Mongie, which is a truly ugly clump of buildings indeed. It is best described as resembling several of the Ballymun towers perched on a mountainside. I guess it must look better in the winter, as it’s a real eye-sore in the summer !

After La Mongie, the road conditions improved, and it became a real fast descent. From the top of the Tourmalet, it was 15km downhill all the way to our hotel in the small village of St-Marie de Campan where we finally arrived at about 6.00pm. We were fed particularly well that night, the hotel owner, Jean Bernard was obviously well-used to providing ‘cyclist’ portions of pasta etc…

It was on this very descent in the 1913 Tour de France, that Eugene Christophe crashed after his forks snapped. Half running, half stumbling, cutting through the undergrowth on occasions to cut away a bend, eventually Christophe reached St-Marie de Campan. Finding a forge, he lit the fire, shaped a piece of metal and repaired his bike - all under the watchful eye of Henri Desgrange, there to see he didn't cheat. When Christophe asked a small boy present to work the bellows, Desgrange fined him 10 minutes - despite Christophe having, by this stage, already lost about four hours!! The old forge building is still there, with a commemorative inscription added by the French state - the building is now an official monument.

Many people from the group struggled today, some not finishing until after 9.00pm, and 3 or 4 of the group climbed off due to injuries, exhaustion etc. An early night was definitely called for after such an tortuous day and the next day, Wednesday, contained another 3 major climbs, and the weather was to be even hotter again.

Lying in bed that night, my mind wandered back to the tortuous climbs we had been over that day. It is difficult to put into words what climbing these big cols is really like. The heat is oppressive and there is no relief from it at all. The gradient is such that you cannot let up once from forcing the pedals around and around, and this can go on for more than 2 hours, by which time your legs are burning with pain. You drink as much as you can, pouring water from the bottle over your head provides only temporary relief as within 100 metres, the oven-like heat envelops you once again… I drifted off to sleep and didn’t stir until the next morning.

Daily stats: 145km in 7‘23“ (Average 19.5kph)

Stage Three

Wednesday started at 9.00am with an immediate ascent of the Col d’Aspin (1489m). This was a 10km climb, starting gently enough, but rising to a steady 9% for the last 3-4km. As it was a lot cooler at this early stage of the day, the climb was very manageable. By the time we reached the summit, the sun was beginning to warm the day up and the view was spectacular.

The descent off the Aspin was one of the best yet, with many sweeping bends and long straights. Visibility of oncoming traffic was very good on most of the bends which also helped. After a short run through a valley after passing through the small town of Arreau at 25km, we arrived at the base of the Col de Peyresourde (1569m). This was a 14km climb, fairly constant at between 6-8% most of the way up. On the way up, we passed an infamous corner where Jan Ullrich had mis-judged the bend on the descent and had spectacularly disappeared off the road behind a safety barrier during the 2003 Tour de France when descending with Lance Armstrong. The heat was becoming quite intense at this stage, and by the time we crested the Peyresourde, even though it was still early in the day, it was just as hot as it had been on the previous day. We stopped for a while at a café at the summit, and replenished water and food from the support car for the journey ahead.

We pushed on through the ever increasing heat, the Col des Ares (797m) was our next climb at approx 90km hadn’t been spoken about much, and as a result, came as quite a shock. It wasn’t the toughest of hills, probably averaging about 5-7% for 6-7km, but it was tough all the same, especially in the midday heat. As we rested for a while at the summit, feeling rather pleased with ourselves, when Alexandre Botcharov from the ‘Credit Agricole’ sponsored Pro-Tour team came by in a whir over the top of the hill, out training. He looked to be travelling at about twice our speed, and made it look so effortless. It certainly put us in our place !!

A further 10km down the road, we finally came to the Col de Portet d’Aspet (1069m). This was a climb I had feared since first seeing the Raid route. It was one of the shortest climbs all week at only 4km, but was also the steepest by far. Gradients averaged about 16-17% all the way up. After only 500m of climbing, we passed the monument to Fabio Casartelli, who had tragically died after a crash descending the Portet d‘Aspet in the 1995 Tour de France. Casartelli had been preparing to take a sharp left-hand bend, flanked on the right-hand side by square concrete blocks designed to prevent cars skidding off into the ravine, just beyond where the monument stands today. Suddenly a couple of riders fell in front of him. Casartelli was thrown off, and slid on his left side towards the precipice. While other riders involved in the collision suffered back and leg fractures, Casartelli’s momentum was broken by the impact of his head on one of the concrete blocks and he died in the helicopter en-route to hospital.

Monument to Casartelli

We spent several minutes at the monument, and it was sobering to look down the hill at the sharp left-hand turn knowing the tragic drama that had happened there just 10 years ago. There was no avoiding cycling to the top of the hill, so we pushed on without much delay. This turned out to be a real grind of a hill, forcing the pedals around slowly. I passed the time by counting the pedal strokes, from 1 to 100, and started at 1 again. I had counted to 100 many many times when finally, the summit unexpectedly appeared around a corner. A quick burst of adrenalin and I accelerated to the top. We spent about 15-20 minutes at the top, where the support car was there fully laden with water and food. Andy and Julie were having a hectic day, as several people had climbed off today with heat exhaustion and dehydration. It seemed they just spent their day buzzing forward and backwards on the day’s route collecting people and bikes etc.. One poor guy even had to be brought to hospital to go on a drip to rehydrate.

By this stage, the temperatures were 37-38 degrees, and the descent contained many hairy sections where we rode through ‘pools’ of melted tar on the road. We continued on to St. Girons where we stopped in a café for a quick coffee and had our carnets stamped. From here, it was a gentle 30km incline all the way to our hotel in Massat. Some of the group obviously felt strong, and the hammer went down and the pace quickened up as soon as we left St. Girons. I opted out, as the legs were feeling heavy at this stage, and I knew we had another long day ahead of us the next day. We eventually rolled into the hotel car park in Massat about an hour later. It had been a long hot day, definitely hotter than the previous day. We ate a huge meal that night, probably the best meal of the week and retired to bed early as we planned an 8.00am start the next day to avoid the afternoon sun as much as possible. The weather the next day was forecast to be even hotter, and local TV and Radio were issuing warnings to stay indoors between noon and 4pm to avoid the heat - No chance !! Over the course of dinner, several more people started suffering the after-effects of the heat and decided not to start the next day. By this stage, I think we had about 8-10 people who would spend the rest of the week in the coach.

Daily stats: 170km in 7‘07“ (Average 23.2kph)

Stage Four

Thursday began as planned with an 8.00am departure from Massat, where we found ourselves immediately on the lower slopes of the Col de Port (1249m). This climb rose gradually for about 13km, averaging 5-6% all the way. This climb certainly stretched the legs after the exertions of the day before, but being so early in the day, it wasn't too hot, it was actually quite a pleasant climb. We regrouped at the top, enjoying a really magnificent view back over Massat and beyond. After the descent off Col de Port, we rode along the valley until we passed through Tarascon, where we picked up the main N20 road, carrying a lot of Andorra-bound traffic. We were to spend a lot of today on this road. This meant that, although the road surface was excellent, we had to spend much of the day in single file.

After 40km, we arrived at Ax-les-Thermes where we stopped for some food and water in a local supermarket. After feeding and watering ourselves, we pushed on, and immediately started onto the longest climb of the week, the 30km col de Puymorens (1915m). This climb was a real strength sapping drag, although luckily, at approx 25-27 degrees, temperatures were definitely lower than the previous two days, which helped ! After almost 2 hours of climbing, passing through l'hospitalet, we finally arrived at the summit. Again, Matt Price was the guy I had to thank at the summit of the Puymorens. He set a great steady pace that was a huge help indeed...

At the summit, at 70km, we were glad to see Andy and Julie in the support car. We didn't waste much time, ate and drank from the car and pushed on, after donning arm warmers and gilets etc.. We could see big dark storm clouds and loud rolls of thunder gathering to our right, and as we started the descent, the first rain of the week started falling.

It was a spectacular descent, dropping us from over 1900m to approx 1500m in about 15km. The road then took us across a plateau at this altitude, passing through several towns and villages until we came to Bourg Madame after approx 110km. During this time, the rain caught us from time to time. We seemed to skirt the worst of the storm, but could see the huge storm clouds gather over our right shoulder all the time, and could hear the rumbling of thunder again and again. Just after Bourg Madame, the road continued undulating for about 20km, before reared up slightly again for what was to be our final 'Col' of the trip, the Col de Perche. This climb dragged on for approx 5km, until finally we arrived at Mont Louis, from where we knew the final 40km descent all the way to the stage end at Prades began.

This was truly the most fantastic descent I have ever (or probably ever will) cycle on. It was spoilt slightly by traffic, a headwind and what had become fairly steady rain at this stage, but nonetheless, it was amazing to descend for 40km non-stop. About 6km from the finish at Prades, the rain had stopped so we stopped at the picturesque walled town of Villefranche, and sat in a lovely little square at a café and enjoyed a well-earned coffee and a sandwich. We also took a few photos of this beautiful town, before finally remounting and riding the last few km to Prades.

We arrived at Prades at about 5.00pm and after parking the bikes, and carrying our bags up to our rooms, we went through the by now familiar routine of showering, hand-washing and hanging up our cycling gear and a welcome beer, before sitting down to dinner at 8.00pm. Thursday had been a great day's cycling, not anything like as hot as the two days previous, and we went to bed knowing that we were almost 'home' with only 100km to do the next day with no more big climbs ahead of us, just some minor undulations on the coast road to our final destination, Cerbére.

Daily stats: 164km in 6'39“ (Average 24.6kph)

Stage Five

We set off on Friday morning at about 8.15am after a 7.30am breakfast. The 100km route was to take us on a nice gently descending 60km run to the coast at St. Cyprien, followed by 40km of a very scenic coastal road all the way to Cerbére just at the Spanish border. This coastal section of the route was described as undulating from beautiful seaside villages and towns up to cliff-top height, and back down again in a repeated manner all the way to Cerbére. As we were to find out, these 'undulations' were to be a real sting in the tail for us, as the last of these climbs was approx 4-5km in length, rising to over 150m just after Banyuls-sur-Mer, and was to be the very final climb of the entire Raid Pyrénéen.

We set off from Prades at a good fast pace, working well, taking turns at the front averaging about 38-40kph all the way to the coast. We started with the usual group of 7-8 riders, but quickly, the group swelled in size as we swept up other riders and groups with our fast pace. By the time we reached St. Cyprien, the group was up to about 20 riders !

As we moved on to the tougher coastal section of the route, things started heating up, both in terms of temperature, and also the pace. I think that several of the group secretly fancied their chances of being the first into Cerbére (yours truly included it must be said !). This increase in pace split the large group up totally, and the last 15-20km of the route was very tough indeed, culminating in the killer 4-5km climb after Banyuls. The first finishers completed the stage in 2 hours, 50 minutes, I finished about 2-3 minutes down, but stragglers from the original group of 20 were still trickling in for 30-45 minutes.

It was yet another incredible day's cycling. We rode down to Cerbére town centre and enjoyed an ice-cold beer and a sandwich at a café, before taking the mandatory photos of the group, and riding back up to where the coach and the support car had parked. We had to towel ourselves down, change out of our cycling gear all at the roadside, and pack the bikes into the bike boxes for transit to Perpignan airport. The 90 minute coach trip to the airport was quiet, many people either tired after a long week, or deep in their own thoughts and memories of the week... We arrived at the airport at about 3.00pm, and said our goodbyes to several of the group. Some others were flying to the UK, so further goodbyes were said in Stansted before we transferred to our Dublin flight. We finally landed in Dublin at 10.00pm, and despite all the amazing memories of the week just passed, it was great to put my head down on my own bed at last that night!

Daily stats: 96.5km in 2'54“ (Average 33.3kph)

Cerbére at last!


The actual finish itself brought very mixed emotions. Relief after having completing such an arduous event within the allotted 100 hour time limit, but mixed with a definite sense of sadness, as our Pyrénéen adventure was finally over, and it was the end of a week spent in the company of some great people. Steve James from Wales had offered to create a website for everyone to share all their photos on and to facilitate further messages and communications between us all. This proved to be a great idea, and made it possible for each other's photos to be shared amongst the larger group. I went to see U2 in Croke Park on the Saturday night, less than 24hrs after arriving home, and although it was a great gig, standing for the required 2-3hrs was tough!!

It was soon after completing the Raid in 2005 that to maintain the fitness levels I had built up in training for the event, I decided to join Orwell Wheelers, and it’s all been downhill since then!