The Pyrenees is a mountain range that’s far away from our dear old Alps, and we don’t know much about it, either out of laziness or local chauvinism, but we have to admit that nothing up to now prompted us to go and explore the mountains in Occitanie, bordered on one side by the ocean, and to the other by the sea.
As far as I’m aware, apart from the Transpyr, a MTB Raid that has been going for over five years now and is still little known, and the Lourdes DH World Cup, an event with access restricted to a handful of selected riders, MTB events in the Pyrenees are relatively rare, especially for All Mountain Raids / Marathons. This year, the Lourdes VTT club stepped up to organise the first Pyr’Epic, a race format that looked immediately intriguing: a 2-day race with a total of 9000 metres of descents and 4500 metres of elevation gain in 120 km of trails!! So, not surprisingly, there was no problem filling the 250 places available and, in fact, they were all snapped up in just one evening! I was lucky enough to get a place and had the honour of taking part in this first year of the race, which turned out to meet all our expectations.
So on Friday 2 September I arrived at the sacrosanct town of Lourdes for an evening devoted to logistics. We were given our race numbers, our bags were checked, the bikes were loaded onto trucks and taken up La Mongie for the start on Saturday morning, there was the usual pasta party and a few pages of the second testament for bedtime reading and then off to sleep. The alarm clock went off at 4 p.m. on Saturday morning. After breakfast at the hotel, we got our travelling bags ready and we were off to La Mongie. We arrived at 6 for the traditional briefing, along with cake and coffee, the weather was fine, and everything set for a great day!
We waited our turn to take the telecabin up to the Pic du Midi, the symbolic starting point for a race of this calibre, and got a glimpse of all the hostility and immensity of the terrain we would be riding through for two hectic days. What can I say, except that it was magnificent – sunrise at 3000m, the bikes already waiting for us at the starting area, it was like a dream (some competitors were still probably trying to wake up!). The atmosphere seemed slightly unreal, but it was time to come back to earth, we got ready, lined up and were off, each rider setting off in turn across the rocky slopes, a tough place to start, and there were already punctured bikes on the side of the track… We’d have to take it easy on the bikes… Then we arrived at a magnificent trail through the mountain pastures, but still fast and full of traps… A mistake could be costly… I tried to get my bearings, wake myself up and gradually move up the peloton, since the day began with a long descent, which was quite a positive point for me! Almost 2000m of descent before the first feeding station, with a few short but challenging climbs. It was hard to raise your eyes from the ground, and we spent a large part of the first descent going through the woods, so we hoped we weren’t missing too much scenery. The race was hotting up, the gaps were getting bigger and the descents were often faster, with a nice series of tricky bends ahead of us before we followed a long path round the mountain to reach Luz. After a short passage of carrying/pushing the bikes we arrived at the first feeding station, and then it was time for the day’s big climb, beginning slowly on a path going round the mountain, which was also tricky, then a road, then a track before the climb got so steep we had to carry the bikes for quite a while through the fields to reach the Col de Riou. We were glad to get our breath back after a climb that really got to us with the length and the heat, before we went down to Cauterets along a long Alpine-style descent – quite a lot of soil/stones in the undergrowth, which took their toll because of the speed we were going – then a short, very tough climb half way through the descent before the fast, steep finish and we came to the sign for Cauterets, a few hundred metres before reaching the stage arrival again.
It was 1 p.m. and I was happy with the day, no big mistakes, I managed to keep something back for the next day and finished 23rd. Lunch at the food truck provided by the organisers, mechanical adjustments and storage for the bikes in the reassuringly well-guarded telecabin station, and then off to the hotel for a well-earned rest, a short swim in the pool and a visit to Cauterets before a second pasta party with a great atmosphere supplied by the Lourdes MTB club. Everyone was looking tired, but with big smiles on their faces.
Sunday, up at 5 a.m., the start is above Cauterets, a simple breakfast in the telecabin station, and another magnificent sunrise at the top of the resort. Today the start was given in the order of classification – a big source of motivation! We set off one by one along a great mountainside path, through mountain pastures where each rider would soon have the chance to choose their own trajectory. A wrong turn cost me 5 minutes – I’d gone too far down and I had to carry the bike through the obligatory pastures to get back on track. A bad start, but no matter, I tried to catch up on the long 1500m descent, the stage today was meatier than the day before’s, more hilly, more climbs, more descents as well, but the weather was still just as hot. The first climb up the Col de Couret where I managed to move up the classification a little, but keeping a reasonable pace, a short break at the food station and then we went down into a magnificent forest, along a path where everything went well, I caught up a few more “fighter planes”, but they’d take their revenge when the route started back uphill again…
The route to Ouzous was long and tough, even though there was only one short, brutal climb, what was hardest to handle were the long, slightly uphill stretches along the tracks, and there the big pedallers all came into their own. My 30-tooth chainring wouldn’t let me go any faster, inevitably the gap opened up, even when I pulled out all the stops in the steep and tough descent through the woodland, there was nothing doing… At the second feeding station, we all felt intimidated by Le Pibeste standing before us, and which looked like the day’s big difficulty, with over an hour carrying the bike (so practically 1000m) in blistering heat, we’d be needing all our motivation and to put up with a lot of suffering. The track began to rise, some hikers cheered us on, it never does any harm! The summit seemed out of reach, always hiding behind a berm, I went up with a group of riders and a little conversation helped to bear up more easily… At last, we saw the end of the climb, « just 5 more minutes to go », we were told, which was reassuring, and gave us fresh motivation. The slope stopped rising, and a wild descent through pine trees helped us forget the climb. Because of the loose soil we could manoeuvre the bikes, the scenery was wild and the track required us to let go of the brakes. It was a big relief to arrive at the third feeding station, but another tough climb still awaited us: carrying the bike in the hot sun to get to Béout, it was mentally tough, but we knew that the end was near at hand and we’d arrive in Lourdes. I did the climb with a group again, which helped me persevere and reach the last descent more easily. The last descent started off with a tricky slide of rolling stones, then a nice part through the woods with a few uphill sections to overcome before arriving in Lourdes. It was a relief, but we still had to face the last stage of the Pic du Jer, the scene of the Lourdes World Cup! A quick bite to eat before we got in the telecabin and set off for the last highlight, and not the least of them, with a few treacherous bends and an endless steep climb before the final part on the blue piste to round off the day nicely, with a few rising sections, to relax the muscles, everyone seems to enjoyed it!
The second day was over, I finished 19th, and was very happy with the result, a weekend with no major snags, everything went well from beginning to end, the Lourdes club gave us an unforgettable raid, impeccable! For the atmosphere, the organisation, the route or the weather, everything was faultless for this first race, and they’ll need to be creative to do as well again next year!
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