As well as Eugène Dillon's audax ride, another 23 Orwells undertook the Raid Pyrénéen with the help of Marmot Tours. Siobhain Duggan stepped up to the challenge of trying to summarise the five days of cycling and cols, as well as the fun and camaraderie! Have a read below!


The Atlantic to the Mediterranean: across the Pyrenees with Marmot Tours

Siobhain Duggan

24 Orwell Wheelers take on the 100 hour Raid Pyrenean challenge - September 2015
Photos from all – Thanks to Dan for compiling

Monday 31st August was D-day, the day that all of us were due to fly to Toulouse to commence the Raid Pyrenees. There was an air of excitement and anticipation as all of us gathered in Dublin airport departures lounge. We had left our bikes and bags the previous Thursday with ‘Shipmytribike’ (there was a suggestion to rename it ‘Shipmyrealbike’ for those in the group not comfortable with triathletes taking over the cycling world)... so all we had to do was get ourselves to the plane. We all agreed that this was a fantastic way to travel!

But it all started many months before when in September last year Colin Caesar and Gar Connolly had a discussion about organising a small group to do the Raid Pyrenees (Raid is the French word for challenge). Colin did the research on a suitable tour company and Dave Hendron organised flights and transport.

The group quickly grew and there was no shortage of substitutes as there were the inevitable drop outs for injury and other reasons (I know the feeling all too well having had to pull out of a trip last year, we missed you all and you will get your chance... possibly with better weather!)

Mike Hanley set up a WhatsApp group and Lynda Haran organised a get-together in January where we all got to put names to faces. Both Brianne Mulvihill and myself were new to Orwell so there were a lot of names and faces at once but we were quickly welcomed into the group. John Kehoe suggested Andy Kenny's ‘2 hour hill simulation sessions’ through the winter and the training started in earnest. This was quickly followed up with a very structured summer programme from Gar which included Tuesday night hills, Sunday mountain hills and several sportives and multi day events designed to simulate what would be expected of us in the Pyrenees.

Gar's sessions were a great way for us all to mix and get to know each other and the camaraderie really motivated us all to train and work together which was very visible during the Raid itself. The infamous Beast and 12 and 14 peaks were excellent sessions to simulate what a day of climbing 4,000m would be like and to mentally prepare for being on the bike all day! I can highly recommend this to anyone thinking of doing such climbing in the Alps/Pyrenees/Dolomites.

So with all that training and preparation we were all set to start when we arrived on Monday night in Hendaye! We arrived to the hotel late, it was very hot and there was a torrential downpour of rain. We met our two guides from Marmot Tours – Alan Toogood and Debbie Devine – and YES they both lived up to their names, they were excellent and did a fantastic job looking after us throughout the trip! Eugene also joined us as he had arrived earlier that day on a different flight. In true Audax style Eugene Dillon was doing the 100hr RAID unsupported.

Alan and Debbie assured us that the rain was good as it meant the temperatures would be back down to more bearable levels and it would be dry in the morning. We got our Raid packs including excellent written instructions, maps, number for bike and card to get the stamps (called Tampons in French) along the way and we headed off to our rooms to do some final organisation and to try to get some sleep. Between the anticipation of the trip and the very humid conditions I don’t think many people got much sleep but we were all ready to roll out in the morning after a lovely breakfast albeit very early! It was still dark when we woke up!

We rolled down to the beach in Hendaye and it was a fantastic feeling to walk in the Atlantic Ocean and know that we were about to head into the Pyrenean mountains and arrive five days later at the Mediterranean Sea! The week we had all been waiting and training for had arrived, we could finally taste the challenge:

  • Day 01 Hendaye to Lurbe St Christau 160km with 2200m ascent
  • Day 02 Lurbe St Christau to Bagneres 140km with 3530m ascent
  • Day 03 Bagneres to Massat 170km with 3110m ascent
  • Day 04 Massat to Prades 145km with 3400m ascent
  • Day 05 Prades to Cerbere 98km with 620m ascent (740km total)

Before we knew it we had started the 100 hour challenge and fairly quickly we settled into smaller groups as we wound our way along the beautiful coastline towards the mountains.  Mid-morning we stopped in a lovely little town called Espelette to get a coffee and our first tampon just as the heavens opened. It soon cleared up and we set off although by the lunch stop we were fairly wet. Most of us changed at this point and we all had a lovely pasta with chicken. Dry, warm and refuelled we set off again and the second half of the day was a mix of dry and wet. We finished in a remote old style hotel in a place called Lurbe having completed 160km and 2,200m of climbing. We were now in the mountains and the real climbing would come in the next three days.

Even though we were changing hotels every day the stress was taken out of this as our bags were already in our rooms each day when we arrived. This makes a real difference when you are tired after a long day. We quickly fell into a routine of arrive, recovery drink, shower, clean bike, wash/dry kit and get ready for the next day, Dinner, stretching/foam rolling, phone/text and bed. There wasn't much time to do anything else.

At dinner Alan and Debbie would summarise the day and any highlights and they would then brief us for the next day. Some of the navigation was tricky and some didn't always heed the instructions they were having so much fun descending (Ronan Gill, Dave Maher…) so the few of us that had Garmins with the route pre-loaded became very popular!! 

Day 2, 3 and 4 were the real climbing days and it was with trepidation and excitement that we awoke on Day 2 knowing that this was the first day we would be really tested. The infamous Col de Tourmalet would come in the afternoon following a tough climb up Col d’Aubisque in the morning. It was on Day 2 that I started to get an appreciation for the % gradients.

Through the Raid we had a number of climbs of 20km ranging from 5% to 15% in places so it was all about pacing. Nearly everyone had some extra gears added to the back wheel which made spinning up the climbs at a steady pace much easier, this definitely saved our knees. The day was dry and we had some lovely views, particularly on Col de Tourmalet.

One of the big differences between cycling in the hills of Wicklow and the Pyrenees (or Alps etc) are the big long descents. It is hard to imagine how you can go from needing 1-2 layers whilst climbing to needing a full winter jacket, gloves, hat, etc. for the descent. Despite patchy visibility for many of the climbs and descents we were treated to some spectacular views and thankfully we had our resident photographer Dan Coulcher to capture those moments . Some of the descents were along long winding roads with lots of hairpins and we really felt like we were in the Tour de France as we whizzed down.

Col du Tourmalet (Day 2)

View from Col du Tourmalet (Day 2)

Day 2 saw some of us only arriving in at 7.15pm despite departing at 8.15am and only cycling for 7hours 35mins. This was a good learning as to how quickly the day can go so we resolved not to lose as much time during the stops for the rest of the trip.

Day 3 was a different day again. It was to be an undulating day with some hard climbs thrown in. It started with an immediate climb up Col de Aspin followed quickly by Col de Peyresourde with the final climb Col de Portet d’Aspet being the toughest, a 10km climb which kicked up for the second half. Unfortunately this was also the wettest day so we put our heads down and cycled.

The tough conditions also brought the group closer together as we sang, told stories and encouraged each other up the climbs. Prior to the trip I had expected to be on my own for a lot of the climbing but such was the camaraderie in the group that we all climbed in little groups joking and laughing our way to the summits. At the summit Alan and or Debbie would be waiting for us with a smile, our bags and plenty of supplies to replenish our stores. They would also advise us if we needed to put on extra layers. The advice was always bang on.

Some of the faster boys (Colin, Dave M, Brian McArdle, Pat O'Brien, Valdis Andersons, Brendan Kenny, etc.) would roll out a bit after the rest of us so we normally regrouped somewhere along the way and this also meant that we all got to cycle together at some point and the group normally finished the day within an hour or two of each other which made it much easier for the support vans (Alan and Debbie).

Stop at the van on Day 3

Quick bike repairs on the move (look at how well the vans are equipped!)

The only control of the day was in St Girons at 150km of the 170kms. We arrived drenched and cold so it was a very brief stop to get the tampon and have a quick tea or coffee. The bakery that we stopped at was like a swimming pool by the time all of us had walked in and out. The final 20km was a very gentle climb to our hotel. It was still wet and most of us got into small groups to work together. The finish was very memorable as the tough weather added to the sense of achievement; we had just one hard day of climbing left.

We were staying in a quaint hotel in the forest nicknamed the ‘doll house’ by our guides because there were porcelain dolls everywhere! Each night we were served an excellent three course meal. The food served in the doll house was very traditional. There was more than enough for everyone and the food was amazing, vegetable soup served with delicious croutons and fromage followed by beef bourguignon with chips and a purée of vegetables. The dessert was a gorgeous apple pie! We rolled back to bed.

Day 4 had three significant climbs Col du Port, Col du Paiheres and Col de Jau. Some found Day 3 the toughest, I definitely found Day 4 the hardest. Col du Paiheres in particular was 19km long with the last 10km kicking up. Gar took 19 jellies with the intention of eating a jelly per km. He shared some of his jellies while Peter Grealis entertained us and amazed us with all his energy as we made our way up the climb. This was the only day we didn’t have a proper lunch stop so we had bought our lunch earlier in the day and we ate at a small coffee shop half way down the long descent.

This was also the day that my homemade chocolate biscuit cake made an appearance. I am not sure if it was the cold or the sugar hit but we were all very giddy during lunch. In any case the laughter warmed us up.

In contrast to Day 3, the last 20km of Day 4 was a lovely descent to Prades where we were greeted with a glass of prosecco on arrival. This was also where we saw the first signs of coming back to the coast and the business and noisiness of traffic that comes with the coastal location. Everyone was visibly more relaxed and we had a great dinner followed by a champagne celebration to mark the occasion of Peter getting married a week later.

Day 5 dawned with blue skies and sun and we all gathered outside the hotel in short sleeves. It was the first time on the trip that we had to think about sun screen. We could almost smell the sea and we set off excited to finally see the Mediterranean. Most of Day 5 was on busy roads so we split up into smaller groups and made our way towards the coast. The main objective was to arrive at the finish within the 100 hours which meant we needed to arrive around 1pm. We had plenty of time but some of us chose to cut it a bit tight by taking an ‘alternative route’.

Those with some time to spare had lunch or some ice cream in Banyuls sur Mer where we had agreed to regroup and cycle the final 10km together. Dan had his own welcoming committee as his brother with niece and nephew met him there. The final 10km was a winding, undulating road along the coast. The views were spectacular and it was a fantastic way to finish the 100hour and 720km challenge. We were all elated and it was made all the better as everyone finished the Riad. Note: John K managed to have about ten mechanicals but Alan Toogood’s (living up to his name..) unrelenting support and resourcefulness saw John completing the Raid without much hindrance.

All we had to do now was get a group photo in the sea and hand over our bikes and bags to ‘shipmytribike’ before the real celebrations could begin. It was a fantastic trip and we all have so many great memories that will stay with us forever.

The RAID group reaches the Med!

Thank you to all the people involved in the organisation of the trip (Colin, Dave H) and in particular to Gar for ensuring that we all arrived fit enough not only to take on the challenge but to enjoy it too!

Thank you to Marmot Tours for their fantastic support throughout the trip – true professionals, they thought of everything, even driving us to various locations after finishing the trip.

Thank you to Orwell Wheelers for being such a great club to be a part of. Thanks especially to fellow member Muriel for her great support and never ending advice on what to expect and how to recover etc.. which helped us prepare for the trip.

And lastly thank you to the fantastic Riad group for making it such a memorable trip! And special mention to all the gentlemen on the trip for looking after the six ladies so well!

Valdis Andersons, John Blennerhasset, Colin Caesar, Dan Coulcher, Garret Connolly, Eugene Dillon, Siobhain Duggan, Ronan Gill, Peter Grealis, Michael Hanley, Lynda Haran, Dave Hendron, Breda Horan, John Kehoe, Brendan Kenny, Dave Maher, Brian McArdle, Richard McSherry, Brianne Mulvihill, Ciara Ni Fhlathartaigh, Pat O’Brien, James O’Callaghan, Stephen Ryan and Lucy Soden.

Orwell RAID group at the finish

Hendron's Hotties at the finish!