16th September 2019
FURTHER | Philippa's Journal
Cover Image Credits: Greg Annandale
The route, format, terrain, and a few other elements about Further remained ambiguous long after most people had committed to the inaugural race. My desire to take part was fueled by a trickle of seductive photos and written pieces hinting at what it was all about, and a sense of those who would be involved.
In many ways, Further could be described as a very extreme cycling holiday. Each day of my race would include at least one incredibly challenging hike a bike to a minimum of 2000m, mountain climbs that seemed to go on for days, normally in sweltering heat. River swims and fountain head dunks at any given opportunity, all followed by dinner with fellow riders to reflect on the ridiculousness of the day. All of this set to a backdrop of the Pyreneen mountains, framed within a structure of 12 mandatory sectors linked by us riders. The sectors felt deliberate and revealing; a sublime landscape, a piece of history, or a sense of geographical place.
‘You’ve got 11 minutes to hit the treeline before the sun sets’ Camille warns me looking at his watch moments after I had slogged my way to the 2001m summit. Exhausted, I sat down on the grassy summit to take in the view and rest my weary legs, wondering where my promised beer was? The sun was slumping towards the horizon of silhouetted mountains, fading into the hazey colours of dusk. I’d made the sun set cut off - just - so I’d take a moment to enjoy the rewards. It felt earnt, given the sweaty, fly ridden, often pathless push to the top. A few minutes later I’m back on my bike, not carrying or pushing it for the first time in many hours.
Rolling into a town after dark with Ed and Chas we spy bikes propped outside a pizzeria. Soon 7 riders - a quarter of the field - were convened around a table comparing notes on the hike a bike and the effects of the brutal heat of the day. We ate pizza, rehydrated with coke, and beer as appetites and moods recovered. The intensity of day 1 left me worried as doubt crept in, murmurs of scratching round the table - I was intimidated by what lay ahead. After a couple of hours, restored and revived we parted ways. Chas opted to bed down behind a boulangerie, a few of us pushed up and out of the valley. 3 of our 7 had decided to scratch.
Leftover pizza for breakfast fueled me up the first big climb of the day -The Col du Port. At the top Ed and I had breakfast in the sunshine outside an auberge, speculating on what we thought the day ahead may hold. Best not to give these things to much though… the anticipation tends to be worse than the reality. We had two big climbs coming up, the second ending in a hike a bike over the 2540m Port du Rat from France into Andorra. This was another sector banned at night and I could appreciate why. It verged on the ridiculous summed up by Matthieu the following morning as he exclaimed ‘I wouldn’t go up there with anything less than hiking boots and my walking poles!’ For me The Port du Rat was physically the toughest section of the race. Bike on my back, I’d traverse 20 slow steps up the 40% of rock - stop, put the bike down, breath, look around, maybe roll my eyes, maybe smile, then start the process again. From the sublime to the ridiculous, back and forth for two hours until reaching the top. Another 20 minutes of carrying my bike back down the other side, my legs grateful to at least have gravity on their side, before hitting the road and descending into Andorra.
Rolling into La Massana I spot Eds bike at a restaurant, so join him and soon after Chas rolls in. The next sector - ‘the smugglers route’ which descends into Spain is banned to ride in the dark so we were in no rush to climb back up to the border that night. It was a relaxed dinner and we all seemed in good spirits, two of the significant 3 climbs were in the bag! I felt I was finding the headspace I needed to finish the race, feeling more comfortable with embracing the absurd. I’d surrender to the route, ready to be puppeteered - lead, pushed, hauled - the wander of what might be over the next mountain kept me motivated. As fellow riders dropped like flies, a sense of duty grew in me to finish the race. Camille expected only 20% of the field to finish… so if ever there was a reason to persist ; ).
Image Credit: 1. Philippa Battye
Setting off before sunrise I continued my climb to the Port Du Cabus on the Spanish Andorran border to the sound of jangling horse bells. I found Ed at the top of the 2300m pass where we waited for the sun to rise over Andorra before heading down the 20km off-road descent into Spain. Finding a cafe open, Ed, Matthieu and I sat at the bar drinking coffee with condensed milk and sugary pastries. Checking the whatsapp we were surprised and saddened to see Chas was scratching. Having opted to stay in a hotel the night before, a comfy bed may have been his undoing. Having spent the night in a gondola on a deflating mattress - I was fortunately left with little choice but to keep moving.
The Port D’Aula that afternoon was the last significant (but by no means last) hike a bike. With barely a path, just Ed in the distance as a moving reference point, I weaved, wandered, stopped often and struggled to the top of the 2260m summit. This tipped us over into France with incredible views of Mont Valier, and countless switchbacks back down into the heat below. The heat and my exhaustion peaked that afternoon. Climbing to the Col de Latrape I felt done, cooked, completely depleted, forced to stop often to lie down in the shade. Eventually reaching the top, I descended into Aulus les Bains welcomed by a super U where I’d inhale ice creams and replenish fluids. Recovered, I pushed onto Massat, my aim for dinner.
Image Credit: 1. Greg Annandale
Walking into the pizza restaurant in Massat, I found Ed sitting at the bar - full of pizza, leffe and coffee he was in good spirits and ready to ride through the night to the finish. I'd be needing a pizza and a drink before even entertaining such an idea, and was joined by scratchees Lee and Alice providing some light relief. I monologued the pros and cons of riding through the night, the insanity of sleep deprivation, the ridiculous of racing and what was the point of it all anyway. They nodded tight lipped, refusing to influence my decision making (not that I’d listen to them anyway).
They waved me off and I headed into the night, climbing up into the forest where I meandered east for hours between walls of wooded darkness. It was quiet and peaceful, and even the ominous rustles in the undergrowth didn’t break my exhausted calm. I’d bed down around 1.30am, once the track opened up onto flat grassland with the bright lights of Foix glowing below.
The final morning was the sting in the tail. No dramatic ascents of high mountain passes as such, but hike a bike none the less along the ‘Chemin des Bonshommes’. Given Emma P, Lissen, Emma O and I had now lugged our bikes up it, I think we should probably add ‘de bons femmes’ too. The final sector complete, it was back onto the plains below and an easy 40km flat smash to the finish. Approaching zero neuf I felt overwhelmed, it had been just 3 days since I’d left, but time had stretched and been amplified by the experience. As I edged closer, a small crowd of wonderful people cheered me in as I tried hard to hold back my tears.