With four kilometres to go from the top of this climb, I have a decision to make. I am in heavy fog, visibility is minimal and it's late in the day. Although I am on a supported event, I am off the designated course, for as the day has gone so well I've had time to squeeze in another climb. This is going to get close to the most climbing I've ever done in a one day. However it does mean I am effectively without help as the organiser would not be too impressed with having to rescue a rider who has purposely deviated from the route. It's going to be getting dark soon, and if I have a problem I could be in trouble. I am however prepared, I have food, water, lights, warm clothing and id on me but more importantly I know the mountain. We had climbed the road up to Superbagneres five days ago. I had forced cutoff times in my head to achieve to allow me to continue. If I get behind schedule at any point or the conditions worsened I would turn around. The road is deserted, no one else is up here. With two clicks to go it is down to just a few metres of visibility, a phrase is constantly in my head, "the goal is not to summit, success is to return from a mountain safe". One thing is on my side though, it is not cold, in fact it is so tranquil, very eerie and bleak, but the mountains were certainly being my friend today, so I press on.
It's day 8 of the 10 stage Cent Cols Challenge in the Pyrenees, and as the profile above shows it's been quite a lumpy stage! It's my 6th Cent Cols in fact and as it turns out, the toughest yet. Although I've tried to hide it, I have been struggling on more occasions than expected, but it has been such beautiful suffering. The Pyrenees somehow make epic so peaceful. We have been extremely lucky with the weather, although we got a bit cooked in the heat in the first week, we have had only a couple of hours of rain. Previous visits to the Pyrenees have been plagued by successive torrential downpours that reduce riders to shivering wrecks day in day out. The route has changed since I was here for the 2011 event. This time we seem to be finishing more stages in the dark, and the total elevation climbed has seriously increased. It is the first time this route has been used and the listed climbing figures were certainly lower than they actually were but it has been a very special journey through this wonderful area. It has been so savage in fact that only six riders are currently on course to complete the whole route. I think the total ten day col count is nearly 120! All the classic of course - Pailheres,Tourmalet, Jau, Peyresourde, Aubisque, Marie Blanque, Port de Bales but as with all the Cent Cols routes it's the previously unknown climbs that highlight a day or the back roads we take. Like the quiet road parallel to the more common way up the Peyresourde, or the rural rough roads over the Croix Blanche and Col du Couret, and an unforgettable day in the Basque area (super steep climbs). I find these events go way beyond physical capabilities, you need to engage a mental attitude on par with the road ahead of you. Never expect or accept an easy option. I believe many of this group would have been physical capable of the task but may have just lacked that mental strength to just tough out the moments (or hours) that seemed unbearable. One rider showed phenomenal mental commitment, he broke two ribs in a crash on the morning of stage one and still completed about 80% of the 10 days! Hard as nails. I have again been blessed with that lucky combination of riding with old friends and meeting new companions, a few that I hope to meet up with again soon, I have made some very strong friendships here and in previous years. I have shared it the closest with my room mate, where the oddest or trickiest moments have been the funniest. 2066 kilometres and 50,100 metres of vertical climbing in ten days is so much easier with banter, skylarking and of course ridiculous quantities of food. The size of the field (usually about 30 riders) and the half dozen staff means that by day three or so everybody knows everybody's name and you really feel part of a close friendly group, trying to help everyone succeed. The organiser and him team have set it all up so well for us, without them, such an challenge would be impossible. We have done so many climbs, some were a breeze, some an almighty struggle. The event is so intense you have no time off the bike for anything other than to eat, sleep, endeavour to stay awake during the nightly briefing and to arrange ever increasingly elaborate feats of engineering excellence to wedge, suspend and oscillate the hotel's bathroom hair dryer to dry your kit by it's self (many a fuse has been blown).
Come on Simpson, your mind is wandering, concentrate, it must only be one km to go now. I am effectively cycling blind in this fog. On the previous ascent last week the sight of the large Shining-esque hotel at the summit of this ski station had dominated the last few kilometres and I had riders for company, this evening I can see nothing, so much so that I suddenly see the col sign marking the summit out of the corner of my eye as I pass by it. Job done. Although the Pyrenees don't get to the dizzy heights of the Alps, I am up at 1800m and in this fog at the end of a long long day in the saddle, I feel like I'm up high in the clouds and I immediately think of my friend who died 10 years ago, I feel so close to him at this moment. Up here on my own I am not embarrassed to speak out loud to him, "Sam mate, life is so beautiful, I wish I could be sharing it with you". I start the descent with tears in my eyes but a smile soon overrides my sorrow. Thank you Pyrenees you have kept me safe and given me and all the Cent Cols riders such an uplifting experience. There are no limits, reach for those clouds.