After successfully topping the Leisure participation competition for 2015, Eugène Dillon was presented with his winner's jersey last Saturday night. Below, he recounts sealing the win with his independent attack on the Raid Pyrénéen.


Raid Pyrénéen

Eugène Dillon

My story of the Raid is different to that of my clubmates. I had signed up at the very start when the idea was first aired. However my good friend from my MSc Karsten was to get married the weekend the Raid started so I pulled out and Breda took my place.

Later on I discovered that the Raid would start on a Tuesday giving me time to make my way from the wedding in the Netherlands to the start. I put my name on the waiting list and booked my flights. I studied Stephen McNally’s Raid report like a bible and had nothing but respect for the speeds and talent of the man. I wondered could my form from so many sportives be enough. The thing I feared the most was heat.

At the start of August, a place became available through Marmot Tours, but after speaking with them they were unable to accommodate my flight transfers so I decided to do it self-supported at the same time as my clubmates. I would not interfere with Marmot Tours but could enjoy the company of the guys.

Day 1

On the Tuesday morning, a massive Orwell peloton rolled through Hendaye to the seafront, dipped our toes in the Atlantic and took the coast road to Saint-Jean de Luz. The gang formed several groups and we turned inland tackling a small hill and rolling down for tea and the first stamp in our carnet at Espelette. The rain poured down over the next section to Saint Jean Pied de Port where we lunched and many of the guys went to the support van and put on different jersey. We took off in a small group and bantered away until we hit the slopes of the Col de Osquiche. We paused at the top before heading off.

Close to Lurbe Saint Christau, the group dwindled as Pat O'Brien, Valdis Andersons and Gar Connolly put in digs. I struggled somewhat but tried to clamp on. Dave Maher was there too. The four cornered a bend ahead of me but slowed and I regained contact. The hotel appeared on the left.

Day 2

The following morning Dave Maher and I left late because I was slow getting my saddlebag ready or else I was talking to the owner of the hotel and her mother. We left about ten minutes after the last of the gang. I gave a frantic chase for about 30km, went into time trial position. We got to Laruns and the gang were all stopped for a coffee. We downed a quick coffee and headed off with Brian, Pat and Valdis. The lower gentler gradients of the Aubisque passed in nervous anticipation. We got through Eaux-Bonnes and shortly after Brian put in a dig. I let Pat and Valdis head off and held my ground the rest of the way up. I climbed through a dense fog to the sunlight at the top. We stopped in the café on the summit and had lunch.

I hopped on the bike and started the descent solo. I shivered on the way down and welcomed the Soulor to warm up. I buzzed through all the little villages and tipped on the edge of Argelès-Gazost heading toward the Tourmalet through the Gave de Pau valley. The road tipped up as the valley of thick vegetation closed in on me and I looked over my shoulder to see a gang approach. I was sure the red polka dot jersey of Brian Mc was first wheel so I pulled in and waited. When the group passed by, I looked at them in disbelief that they weren’t my guys. I decided to catch up to them and to my surprise they were Dutch. We chatted first in Dutch, switched to English and then I switched back to Dutch because I wanted to throw in a bit of cycling banter. We passed through Luz Saint Sauveur and started the Tourmalet. I decided to let the guys go on. Next I chatted to a guy from Cardiff Tri as he shot up the hill. I was all out of water and food and had a crisis when the fountain in Barèges was turned off. Shortly after I called into a roadside café and got a sandwich made up and refilled the bottle. I didn’t know if the guys might have passed while I was in the café. I got back on the bike and struggled for a good five kilometres. With about four kilometres to go, I was climbing out of the saddle and I felt good and started to enjoy it.

The final kilometre though was still unrelenting. I passed a girl wheeling her bike and she looked at me and said ‘het is zwaar’ [trans: It's hard!]. I said ‘jij kan het doen!’ [You can do it!] I heard a chorus of encouragement and looked up and her friends were all looking down from the summit. We edged further to that barren landscape and out of view and support from her friends. As I gapped her I looked back and continued the encouragement ‘kom op, kom op.’ The road cut sharply to the left with one final deadly ramp and ahead of me was a big gang of a cycling club from the Netherlands. I looked at them as I struggled. There was no glory or grace; I couldn’t hide the difficulty of finishing off that climb. But they all cheered me on and gave me strength. At the top, I pulled into the café exhausted and ordered a coffee, a pain au chocolat and a magnum ice cream. I was too tired to speak to those wonderful people who gave a lone cyclist support. While I was recovering I looked over my shoulder and saw the girl about to leave with the gang, waving and gesturing a thumbs up at me. It felt nice to experience something with other people. As I started moving on, Debbie from Marmot Tours pulled across the road and eagerly took out a camera to catch one of my clubmates. I looked and saw Dave Maher powering up the final ramp by the café in his Paris-Roubaix jersey. I was impressed with his composure. We talked a moment before I hit the road. I descended to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Outside a boulangerie, I filled my bidon with the recovery powder, drinking it while I searched for the Rue Alfred Cazalas before succumbing to asking in the Tourist office. It was opposite the Boulangerie.

Quoi, mais j’etais là et je ne l’ai pas vu.” [What? I was there and I didn't see it!]

Mais c’est pas grave monsieur, vous êtes fatigiqué.” [That's okay sir, you're tired!]

Day 3

The next morning I left with the slow gang, Hendron’s Hotties. When we hit the Col de Aspin, Mike Hanley, John Blennerhassett and I gapped the guys, keeping in mind the rest of the day. At the top I put on my raingear jacket and dropped down the descent, continuing through the town of Arreau and up the Col de Peyrersourde. I stopped for lunch in Luchon. When I turned off a busier road, the next section was very nice countryside. The rain started sparsely on the Col de Ares and increased on its descent and on the undulating roads that followed. I felt companionship in that rain. The droplets on my face provided relief. It’s the conditions I excel in. It was much much easier to do the trip self-supported in rain than it would be in soaring heat. The rain eased off but the climb up the steep Col de Portet d’Aspet was so dark in the heavy clouds. The sky opened up again.

My mind was awash with memories of the tough cycles with my brothers. I felt that cyclotouring as an 18 year old provided me with much bigger obstacles. The rain eased off on the run through all these small towns in the Bouigane and Lez valley. I arrived in Saint Girons and asked in a pharmacy for a stamp. I found the road to Massat. The sky opened up again as I made my way through an industrial zone and along the Salat and Arac rivers. Before I knew it, I was in Massat. Mentally drained – broken, emotional, dark - but with hope, hope for the good legs I had, for the ease of climbing out of the saddle for entire climbs, the control on the descents, and something about this place, about the man who owned the hotel, his bar, the organic health food shop nearby, the people I met en route, and the support of my friends and clubmates at home. This lifted me out of the loneliness.

Day 4

I left early the next morning and hit the Col de Port. After the climb and descent of the Col, about 30km in, I hit the aforementioned busy road with Andorra bound traffic. It was a case of head down for the next 30km. After a stop just before Ax-les-Thermes, where I sat down and looked into space with a cappuccino and a pain au chocolat, I turned off the road and started the long climb of the Col du Pailheres. It was the final major climb of the trip at 2001m and it was foggy at the top. Free of stress, I enjoyed the climb and did most of it out of the saddle.

In the thick fog at the start of the descent, I got a fright when I found a camper that parked right in the middle of the road in front of me. I got past it and descended to clear road again. The countryside was rich and green. The hills were covered in a green carpet of vegetation. It was really landscape to experience. A small left hand turn and I was climbing again on the Col du Garavel. A cyclist appeared ahead and I caught up to him. It turned out he was English and was doing the Raid with a saddlebag too. We had a nice chat. On the descent I found a water fountain in a small town which really cheered me. I continued on and found myself on the Col du Jau. I really enjoyed this climb.

Afterwards I descended through that lovely green countryside into the town of Prades. The feel of the town was different and suggested I had crossed a cultural divide.

Day 5

The following morning I left Prades toward Perpignan. I met the coast at Saint-Cyprien and saw the Mediterranean for the first time on the trip. Some of the coastal towns were busy and it was slow getting through them but the undulating sections on the twisty coastal roads were worth the hassle. I arrived in Cerbere and immediately sought out the SNCF station where I got my stamp and a train ticket for Perpignan. With some time to spare I cycled to the seaside and bought a coffee in the Dorade café.

I took the train, cycled from Perpignan centre to the airport, dismantled the bike, and was delighted to meet my clubmate Kevin Connaire in Dublin airport. We drove to Sligo and rode the short distance of the Yeats200 sportive the next day. I had great banter with him and some of the guys from Innisfree Wheelers, particularly Rod and a few of their young lads. The weather was better in Leitrim than the whole week in France. I was delighted to be home.