637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Tour de France. Live. My week in the Pyrenees with LeDomestique Tours.

Earlier this year a company in the UK called LeDomestique Tours ( got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do an event with them in the UK. Due to some scheduling  problems the event never materialised. 

A view from one of the mountain tops
However, LeDom (as they are known to me) also graciously invited me to come to their base in the Pyrenees for a week of my choosing to check out their facilities and do some riding in the massive hills that surround the area. After consulting my (rather busy) schedule, I selected their "Watch the Pros" week. It fell at the end of my track camp in Majorca and I would be in need of some long road rides so it seemed like a perfect fit. And of course, there was also the chance to view 2 stages of the Tour de France up close and personal as they rode through the area!

LeDom is the brainchild of soon-to-be husband and wife, Rob and Laura. Just over a year ago both were working for a law firm and realised they wanted out. After a lot of thought and planning, they handed in their notice and headed for the hills of southern France and began running cycling tours out of their base in the Pyrenees. A year later and the business is starting to pay dividends.

They have a very simple yet effective set-up. They collect you and your bike from the Toulouse airport (2 hours away) and house you in their spacious chalet. Tours are generally between 3 and 7 days but they can accommodate virtually any length of stay that you want. They house you, feed you and provide guided and fully supported rides through the local mountains. Or you can go off and explore on your own if you choose – packages are available to suit any budget.

Laura takes care of the house and does all the cooking, whilst Rob drives the support vehicle. It's incredibly convenient as you can pack all your gear in the car and refill your water bottles or collect food at any time. Rob just drives up the road ahead of you and is never more than 10 minutes away. On certain days he'll even drive you and your bike to some of the climbs further afield that may be out of riding range. In all honesty, the level of support provided is greater than I normally get on a squad training camp!

I was met at the airport by Laura and settled in for the 2 hour drive to home base. Laura was incredibly inquisitive about my cycling exploits, asking loads of questions about my preparations for the Paralympics. This is one of her charms – distracting me from the long drive by forcing me to talk about myself for 2 hours! But it's always a pleasure to chat with interested parties.

We arrived at the house and after a quick tour of the spacious premises, I very quickly built up my bike as I was keen to get out and explore some of the local countryside. Rob soon arrived and agreed to take me out for my inaugural spin. But rather than do so from the comfort of the car, he joined me on the road on his own bike. Rob, despite his protestations, is an accomplished cyclist on his own having ridden the Race Across America (RAAM) last summer as part of a team from his former law firm. It was probably on this trip that the idea for LeDom Tours first was born. 

Rob and I spent the next hour climbing up one of the easier local climbs. And yet it was longer than anything I had ever done in the UK. It was a great way to tickle my appetite for the days and climbs that lay ahead. At the top, Rob turned for home, and I descended down the opposite side of the climb and down into the valley below. I was able to trace part of the route that was to be used in the Tour's visit the following day. Camper vans lined much of the road on both sides – a constant reminder of the festivities that were to follow in less than 24 hours.

Me and some of the other guests taking in the Tour
Returning to the house, I was introduced to the rest of the guests – a mixture of riders that had been there for a while or just arrived as I had done. Some had been there for over a week, having participated in the Étape du Tour while others had just arrived for a couple of days in the hills. All-in-all, a very good and fun bunch of guys.

Dinner was served to the group by Laura who, it has to be said, puts on a good spread. The food is plentiful and tasty and provides the right mix of fuel you need for the long hours in the saddle. And there's even a tasty desert to satisfy the sweet-tooth. After dinner I was able to sit around chatting with the other guests until it was time to turn in. I had one of the bigger rooms all to myself in the upstairs of the house. Each floor actually has it's own kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities just in case you need them, however if you drop your dirty clothes with Laura at dinner time, they are washed and dry for you the next day. That's service that's tough to beat.

The next 2 days were spent watching the Tour. I have done a separate write-up for this as it was an event in itself). See my post "Taking in the Tour" for details.

After the Tour had left the area there were still several days of riding to enjoy. A new set of guests arrived as most of the previous group departed. During these last few days I got the advantage of Rob's first-class guidance. We did some of the local climbs first before jumping in the car and driving out to the base of the Tourmalet for one of the biggest days of climbing. In fact, it was to be the single hardest day of climbing I've ever done!

Top of the Tourmalet
On this day we traced part of the route that the Tour had followed a few days before. Climbing the Tourmalet was a daunting task, especially as we drove over it before actually riding it. The sheer height and length of it was scary at first, but once on the road it was a lot easier. It's a long climb – almost 20km in length – and it took me an hour and 45 minutes of non-stop riding to reach the summit. But slow and steady wins the race. This is the secret to many of these big climbs – pacing. Just picking a pace you can manage for the length of the climb. Definitely useful to have a power meter for this!

Reaching the top we stopped for a quick bite to eat before starting the epic descent down the other side. Much of the road is sweeping and the bike easily approaches speeds of up to 50mph. Good descending skills certainly help, as does good judgement. It helps to know where to brake and how to corner (whether sweeping or hairpin) in order to minimise speed losses. But the descents are what make the climbs worthwhile.

Top of the Aspin
From the bottom of the Tourmalet, it's a short trip along a valley before the ascent of the next hill, the Col d'Aspin. We had actually ridden the climb on the Tour day so I knew what to expect. The nice thing on this day though, was with much less traffic on the road, the descent on the far side was much faster and unhindered by slow-moving cars.

The final (7th) day of climbing nearly broke me. Rob and Laura (both in the lead car) took us up an even bigger climb than the Tourmalet. But by this point I had reached my limit. The other riders (who I had easily left behind me on the climbs on the previous days) pedalled away from me with ease. Each time I reached the car I wanted to climb in and go home. And yet, up and up I went. And it was worth it. At the top of Lac de Cap de Long is a huge lake and hydro-electic dam. The views are stunning also. And the satisfaction of knowing I had made it all the way up under my own power was the ultimate reward.

That was it for riding for me. Myself and my 2 fellow riders spent our final afternoon in the local town of St. Lary – a pleasant village full of cafés, fresh meat and cheese shops and souvenir spots. You can tell it's a hopping place in ski season, but equally enticing in the summer.

And so, it was time for me to return home. I had done over 38,000 feet of climbing in 7 days. As someone who used to fear going uphill (because of the effort required) I left with a sense of security, knowing that I had ridden up some of the harder climbs in the world. And what has it done for my fitness? Well, after taking off one day to rest up, I hit my local 10-mile time trial course and rode a personal best time on it. Followed by another one a few days later. It seems all this slow uphill stuff can help you go fast on the flat too!

All in all, if you are a cycling enthusiast and relish the challenge of riding some big hills, with little pressure and in a relaxed atmosphere, I can't recommend LeDom Tours enough. The service they gave me was second to none. There is little doubt in my mind that the benefits that just one week of riding with them has given my preparations for the Paralympics is enough to put me over the top (pardon the pun). I was able to push myself beyond what I though possible, for days at an end, and came away a better rider for it.

I have promised Rob and Laura proper thanks should I win any medals in London. But I'm not waiting until then – I'm saying it now: THANKS!!!

Now... bring on London!