Friday 7 October 2016

Day 6: Saillagouse to Canet-en-Rousillon: Mountains, Gorges and the Sea (C#47)
103 miles, 2,700feet

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We'll be up there in a couple of hours!
I woke  early this morning at around 6:00am. Immediately I began to wonder what the day would bring. Sitting out yesterday afternoon’s storm in the cafĂ© when I had seen a snow plough heading up the road we would be riding in about two hours time, as well as snow covered cars coming down the other way I was a tad concerned that we might be in for a tough and potentially dangerous ride. It was still pitch black when I slipped out of my bed to peer over the hotel balcony. Not even the silhouettes of the mountains were visible so I couldn’t tell if the snow was still there or not. All I knew was that it was very cold as my breath formed dense vapour trails around me. I guessed that it was well below freezing.

After about half an hour the tops of the mountains slowly appeared and I could just see that they were dusted with a light sprinkling of snow – rather like icing sugar on a sponge. Another good sign was that the sky seemed almost cloudless so hopefully any frost on the road surface would have melted by the time we started riding. And slowly but surely the eastern sky grew lighter and lighter. Was it too much to hope for a clear dry day on this the final stage of our Tour?

By 7:30 I was dressed and heading across the village square to a nearby brasserie for breakfast. (Our hotel had closed for the winter so wasn’t offering any food, just a bed and a shower for the night.) Entering the brasserie I felt like a regular customer as I had enjoyed a great dinner there the night before and it was also where we had sheltered from the storm when we first arrived in Saillagouse yesterday. I received a cheery "Bonjour" from the owner so I really did feel at home. And the excellent French breakfast – croissants with jam, pain au chocolat, fruit and strong, black coffee were just what I needed to set myself up for the day ahead.

With breakfast behind me I returned to our hotel, packed and loaded my bag on to the van and retrieved my Bianchi. After five days of riding it needed a bit of tlc so I gave the frame a thorough wipe down, cleaned and oiled the chain, checked the gears were changing smoothly, inspected the brakes and put some air in the tyres. Then, emerging from the front of the hotel into the courtyard I looked upwards and was treated to the sight of a clear, blue sky with perfect visibility. I just knew this was going to be a good day and possibly even a great day.

Views don't get much better than this
One of the defining features of this Tour has been how each day seems have been even better than its predecessors. Just when you think things can’t get any better, whether it is with the riding challenges or with the scenery, something new and breathtaking occurs. At this rate I’m in danger of exhausting my vocabulary of superlatives!

The profile for today’s final stage was totally different to the previous five stages. In a nutshell it started with a climb of around 3,500 feet over the first ten miles followed by a descent of 8,000 feet over the next 80 miles. With a total distance of 92 miles, the team had suggested that we ride on at the end so that I could complete another century in my 60 Series. This seemed like a great idea and for me, it would be fabulous to ride it with some good friends. Completing a century with the 'Elites' would be very special indeed. Well, enough of this blether. What about the ride?

The Elites celebrate the last climb of the Tour
We clipped in and headed upwards out of Saillagouse. Already the road surfaces were drying in the sun so frost was unlikely to be a consideration. As we gradually climbed upwards we could see the mountains on our right swathed in bands of cotton wool white cloud. Yet again, the views were spectacular and it was quite an effort to avoid stopping continuously for a photo. Eventually we reached the top of the climb and after a short flat stretch we stopped at a small information centre to enjoy a round of espressos and celebrate the completion of our last major climb of the Tour.

Infused with our caffeine shots we remounted and set off on what was likely to be the longest descent I had ever ridden. The first section of the descent was on fast, smooth, wide, dry roads with excellent visibility ahead. The sweeping curves meant that it was virtually unnecessary to use the brakes. Instead this was an opportunity to relax and let the bikes lead the way finding their own courses downwards. It’s hard to express the feelings and sensations of descents like this. I’ve filmed quite a few sections and I hope that the results will better capture what I experienced than I can with mere words!

After about 20 miles the character of the surrounding countryside changed dramatically. Instead of riding down a wide, gently sloping valley floor a change in the geology signalled the start of a deep, forested gorge. Now we were on an different sort of descent altogether – narrow roads, tight corners with wet patches in the shade where the sun had yet to penetrate. Riding here required much more concentration and close attention to bike handling. Although it was still about letting the bike do most of the work, it was also about keeping speeds in check. Basically riding involved pedalling out of a corner into the straights, braking as late as possible, then leaning and freewheeling through the apex of the bend before starting over again. And always trying to look about 20 yards ahead at the line to be followed with an eye open for the possibility of oncoming traffic. Left hand bends are easier as you can see further round them; with right hand bends there is always the possibility of the bend tightening up into a curve of 180° - or more! To give this some context, I took nearly an hour from the start to the end of the gorge, descending about 3,000 feet over 20 miles.

Mark gets a bit carried away in the Gorges de St-Georges!
We stopped at the bottom of the gorge where the rock faces closed right in and for a couple of minutes were almost speechless and drunk on the euphoria of the descent. For me, this had been totally exhilarating. As we gradually recovered the power of speech the banter turned to suggestions of riding back up to the top and repeating the descent. If only! Sadly, we still had 50 miles to reach our destination plus that extra 10 to knock off another century.

Emerging from the gorge the ride took yet another turn. Now we were in a wide open valley with distant cliffs. Mile long straights, surrounded by vineyards with occasional small villages where people were lunching outdoors were the order of the day. And our approach to riding changed too. It was time to go into time trial mode and the six of us, resplendent in our yellow tour jerseys, rode wheel to wheel in line in the classic team time trial formation. Amazingly, we were still going gently downhill and for mile after mile we spun along almost effortlessly at 18-20 mph.

Gradually the outskirts of Perpignan got nearer and nearer and we passed by heading towards the Mediterranean coastline. Arriving at our destination, Canet-en-Roussillon, we were still a few miles shy of the desired century so we rode along the coast and back to claim the missing few miles enabling me to bag my 47th of the year. This ride marked two other significant events though. In addition to being the 47th of my Century Series it was also my 100th all-time recorded century. But much more than that it was a landmark ride for one member of the team. Vince clocked up his first ever century so I was really pleased for him and proud to have been a part of it. Welcome to the club Vince!

The Elites - together as always
As always with the last day of a Tour I have mixed emotions. And the end of this tour is no exception. As I reflect on the last six days I feel so privileged to have been able to enjoy such spectacular riding and share it with such great friends. So, as I have already wittered on for far too long I would just like to say “Chapeaux et merci beaucoup mes amis!” or “Sombrero y muchas gracias a mis amigos!"

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