How to build your own RAID Pyrénéen

If you’re reading this you know what the RAID is (or you can read my previous post to find out) and you may be weighing up the options between buying an off the shelf tour with well established tour companies like Marmot Tours or whether or not to build your own.  A quick Google search shows that tour companies are charging about £900 for the tour once you’ve got yourself and your bikes to southern France. Well, we built our own and saved a few quid.  Here’s how.

Key points to consider:

  1. Support Wagon
  2. Transport
  3. Route
  4. Hotels
  5. Food & Drink
  6. Kit and stuff

Support Wagon

Unless you’re planning on using panniers (and we met a guy that was) you’ll need a support wagon to transport your kit around the route.  We were lucky that two of our friends are retired cycling fans so Dave & Terry drove a Land Rover from the UK with our kit, food and bikes from the UK.

Our crucial support team

Our crucial support team

The Landy was big enough to take 6 bikes (wheels off) and spares, along with a holdall each and some cleverly flat packed bags.  It was our second choice vehicle after our mate with a 6 seater van pulled out at short notice.  The van would have been better space and fuel consumption whilst remaining in a domestic class for the toll roads through France.  But the Land Rover was OK in the end.

Getting a return ferry ticket from Portsmouth to St Malo meant the fellas left Leicestershire at 9am for their early afternoon ferry.  They rolled on to French soil at about 10pm and stayed at a hotel on the Saturday night before driving  for about 10 hours throughout the following day to arrive in Hendaye within 30 minutes of the rest of us.

Transport

The four of us who were cycling got to spend an extra day at home before leaving for France.  We decided to take our hand luggage to fly with Ryan Air from Stanstead to Biarritz and used the bus from the airport to travel an hour or so down the coast to Hendaye.  We’d not really planned that part, but given that a bus costs us 2 Euros each and a taxi was going to be 70-80 Euros, the decision was easy in the end!

IMG_2588

Coming home was a similar affair.  We stayed in Cerbere for a night when we finished and caught the train up to Perpignan for an evening out before flying home from Perpignan airport.  The trains from Cerbere to Perpignan are hourly in the week but we missed the 9:39 by 5 minutes and had to wait 3 hours for the next one (which was no hardship and we filled our time with a swim in the sea and lunch & coffee from the little boulangerie in the town).

The well decorated station entrance at Cerbere

The well decorated station entrance at Cerbere

It’s only had an hour or so on the train to Perpignan and after a short taxi ride to the hotel we had a brilliant wander in to the old town of Perpignan which was a great way to unwind from the cycling before going home.

Route

Well, the route is kind of set isn’t it?  We built the routes having done a bit of research online then mapped it our on some Michelin maps (numbers 342, 343 & 344) to aid navigation for the drivers before plotting the routes on Garmin to take us from hotel to hotel.

The Carnet

The Carnet

We chose to do the 100 hour challenge so followed a classic segmentation of the route.  It worked well but took a long time each day so you need to have a slick system at the start and end of each day to remove any needless stress in the mornings and evenings.

It was a little difficult to find the routes mapped online and we ended up potting the route from this link from Marmot Tours but we had to amend day 4 as this route seemed to miss out the climbs after Ax-le-Thermes.  I’ve saved the routes I covered on Strava and if you ignore the odd wrong turn these should be a pretty good guide.

Day 1: Hendaye to Lurbe-Saint-Christau (98 miles)

Climbs: Col St Ignace; Col Pinodeita; Col d’Osquich

Summary: a steady start with a few short climbs as the road heads gradually upwards towards the mountains.  The last climb is the biggest but manageable at a reasonable gradient.

Tips: Don’t start too early from Hendaye as it means you need to start early on the last day to complete in 100 hours

Col d'Aubisque

Col d’Aubisque

Day 2: Lurbe-Saint-Christau to Sainte-Marie de Campan (85 miles)

Climbs: Col d’Aubisque; Col du Soulor; Col du Tourmalet

Summary: this is the Queen stage of the week.  The Aubisque takes you in to the Pyrenees National Park and it’s a full-on challenge.  Steep in places and a long drag in others it gives you a proper taste of what a real mountain is like.  The Soulor is a short lump by comparison but the main course is served when you reach the Tourmalet.  An iconic climb that get’s the blood pumping from the start.  Its the toughest high mountain of the week and the most rewarding too.

Tips: Lunch at the Aubisque is good.  Take lights for the very dark tunnel on the descent of the Aubisque and turn them on before you start going downhill (tricky to do at 40 mph). Restock with water at the bottom of the Tourmalet (there is a Carrefour at the base of the climb) but don’t hang around too long as the shop/café at the top closes at 7ish and you need to get your carnet stamped up there. Enjoy the descent …. it’s worth it

Day 3: Sainte-Marie de Campan to Massat (107 miles)

Climbs: Col d’Aspin; Col de Peyresourde; Col de Ares; Col de Portet d’Aspet

Col de Portet d'Aspet

Col de Portet d’Aspet

Summary: You start climbing immediately up the Aspin and it’s a serious leg warmer.  Not too big by yesterdays standards but don’t expect a walk in the park.  The Peyresourde has a nice café for an early lunch stop if you fancy it and the sweeping descent is fun.  Ares is a lower gradient than the others and is a lovely climb but the sting in the tail comes form the 4.4km long Portet d’Aspet which averages a 9.7% incline (but I couldn’t tell you where it drops below 15%!)

Tips: Get topped up with water whenever you can because the run in is quite rural and there are not many shops to call in to

Day 4: Massat to Prades (110 miles)

Climbs: Col de Caougnous; Col de Port; Col de Puymorens; Col de Lious; Col de Rigat; Col de la Perche

Summary: You pass Caougnous on the way to the stunningly scenic peak of the Col de Port and then it’s a long run to Ax-le-Thermes where the final big big climb of the tour starts. It’s 20 miles long on a busy road so be prepared for a long lonely haul up the Puymorens.  The descent is industrial and the roads are busy all day.  The final three Cols are easy in comparison to the previous days and the HUGE descent out of the Pyrenees would have been breathtaking if it wasn’t dark, wet and in roadworks!

Col de Puymorens

Col de Puymorens

Tips: Get your support wagon to stock up at the little Casino supermarket in Massat before leaving for the day. There is a little café just before a tunnel (currently under construction or repair) which is worth a visit to break up the climb to Puymorens but give it everything you have got on the way to the top – it’s your last test of the week.  Go careful on the roads on the stage because we saw 3 different accidents in the day.

Day 5: Prades to Cerbere (60 miles)

Climbs: Col Saint Pierre; Col de Ternére

Summary: A brilliant cruise towards the coast and the final two Col’s pass without breaking a sweat.  You can smell the familiar whiff of the Mediterranean and the landscape is entirely different to the previous 2 days as your Garmin finally logs a decent average speed.  We enjoyed a pint in Banyuls-sur-Mer and noticed that we’d done an extra Col (not listed on the route guide) during the spiky run in to Cerbere

Tips: Chill out but keep concentrating and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it.  The bars in Cerbere are welcoming and if you look around the corner from the sea view there is a little boulangerie and supermarket for basic sustenance before eating later (or a cheap breakfast)

The End in Cerbere

The End in Cerbere

Hotels

Our hotels were a mixed bag and selected for location first with cost and comfort coming as a bit of an after thought!

Hendaye: Campanile

You know what you’re getting at a Campanile.  It’s a little away from the town centre and beach and when we took a walk around on the Sunday evening there wasn’t much else open so we ended up eating here too.  The buffet starter was the star of the show and it was a good place to start the trip from.  We kept the bikes in our rooms as there was no storage for us, so it was snug but fine!

Campanile

Campanile

Lurbe-Sainte Christau:Les Vallees

This place could be nice when they finish it.  The rooms in the main hotel were a good standard and the price was great but the bungalow accommodation was average and the food was OK.  The guy running the place tried to bend over backwards to be as helpful as possible …. though still hadn’t handed us ay bedding at 11.30pm!  It’s a great location, slap bang on the route and offered bike storage and WIFI in the main building.

Sainte-Marie de Campan: Gite l’Ardoisiere

We had a quadruple room in this hotel made for cyclists right at the foot of the Tourmalet and half a mile from the start of the Aspin climb.  Secure bike storage, shared shower rooms and cycling memorabilia gave this place a unique feel.  But we had not booked dinner so had to use the other hotel in the village to dine in – which was great!

Massat: Hotel le Maxil

Hotel Maxil in Massat

Hotel Maxil in Massat

This was the best one we stayed in and a bargain at about £25 each. Good food in the evening, well furnished and beautifully styled.  Our rooms were in a building 100 yards down the road from the main hotel and contained a little kitchenette,  Bikes were stored in a garage across the road, WIFI was good and the coffee over breakfast was the best of the trip too.  It’s the sort of place you’d be happy to take your family to.

Prades: Hotel Hexagone

A dramatic arrival (the owner was quite angry about the fact he could not fulfil to booking and arranged to take two of the lads to a sister hotel 5 minutes away) was followed by a very average dinner and even more average breakfast.  But with only 60 miles to ride on the last day the fuelling was less crucial.  The rooms were basic with cardboard slide-to doors for the separate toilet and showers.  The lads said the sister hotel was like The Shining.

Cerbere: Hotel La Vigie

There’s not a huge choice in Cerbere but was chose well!  Every room has amazing sea views and it’s just a 5 minute walk from the bars in town.  Breakfast is expensive at 11 Euros but the town offers plenty of better options anyway so its not a problem.  The WIFI was good again and a great place to reconnect after a weeks cycling,

The view from my room in Cerbere

The view from my room in Cerbere

My main tip with all of these hotels is that you should book an evening meal in the restaurant when you book the room as they only stock up for the meals they know they are going to sell.  You should also check what time the restaurant closes as we were rushed to dinner most nights which caused needless stress after a long days riding!

Food & Drink

This is very subjective and depends on what sort of foods you are used to.  I tried to eat as much “normal” food that my body

A Rare Treay

A Rare Treat

is used to as possible. Most days I skipped the hotel breakfast and had a porridge pot that I’d taken with me (using the travel kettle I’d packed to boil the water).  Other lads took their favourite cereal and others relied on the hotel breakfast.  I still think my approach was best but did miss my morning coffee some days!

During the day I planned to be self sufficient.  Each morning I made up 3 pitta breads and filled them with a pot of salmon or chicken paste.  Halving the pittas and covering in foil I carried a few pieces at a time and reloaded from the Land Rover at each stop.

I also made up some couscous mixed with tuna (don’t forget a tin opener if you do this) which I kept in a tupperware in the car every day.  Some days this didn’t get eaten but it provided a good protein/carb snack when I grabbed a few spoonfuls at a time.

These more substantial pieces were supplemented with flapjacks, malt loaf and bananas throughout the days.  Occasionally I’d grab a packet of crisps or a different piece of fruit to mix up the palate too.  Most days the lads needed a lunch stop (I prefer little and often when I’m cycling but stopped with them anyway) so we found cafés at the top of Col’s or in towns whenever lunchtime came around.

We drank bottled water as a first preference but were served tap water when we stopped at bars and cafés for top ups so just got on with it.  I carried a part filled tube of electrolyte tablets but dearly wished I’d taken a little bottle of squash to break up the monotony of drinking the same drinks for 5 days!

Kit and Stuff

Final Day Kit

Final Day Kit

I took cycling kit to last 3 days and then took a travel sized bottle of handwash detergent to clean my kit after the first two days.  Drying was a problem but after a couple of nights and a few hours drying on the top of the car they were ready for when I needed them.

A gilet and arm warmers were good enough for most of the cooler scenarios but when the weather came in on the top of the Puymorens I was glad to have my rain jacket to hand to go over the top as it got very cold very quickly.  We did have great weather for most of the week so its worth airing on the side of warmth and caution when packing.

My Swiss Army knife came in handy (as usual), as did the travel towel, kettle and insect spray that I used for days and nights.  Sun cream is a must and an extension lead/multi-plug socket was essential when charging up phones, Garmins and everything else!  We obviously had a track pump, plenty of spares for repairs (including a spree front and back wheel) and a fully equipped toolkit.  I’ve already mentioned lights were needed on the descent of the Aubisque (a legal requirement apparently) and we used them at the end of the day on a couple of occasions. I’d like to have taken a better camera than the one on my iPhone to capture some decent shots of the landscape but my phone was OK for close ups & selfies.

We had a fair few pills and potions with us throughout the trip: chamois cream, Sudocrem, Voltarol, tea tree oil and ibuprofen are just a few of the remedies that helped us get through the trip!

The final thing to mention is that the RAID is administered by Cyclo Club Béarnais and you need to register with them using the instructions on their website

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