Raid Pyrenean Cycling Challenge - Article

If you're thinking of attempting the RaidPyrenean then you might find these notes helpful.
I'm writing them just days after finishing a successful RP with Marmot Tours, but please understand, I am not an expert.  These are personal thoughts - stuff I was thinking about while my legs churned out the miles.

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I wrote a day-by-day blog while riding, which you'll find here.  This article is at the top, so just scroll down. 

The RP is one of many 'Raids' devised by local French cycling clubs but it seems to have caught the imagination of cyclists, perhaps because it has such a clear narrative - Atlantic to Mediterranean staying as close as possible to the border with Spain. 

There are two versions; one for touring cyclists carrying all their kit and one for supported riders.  I was one of the latter when I rode it in June 2013.  If you're thinking of tackling it self-supported, check Paul Cass' contribution in the comments below.  Near in mind I am absolutely no expert! 

"Am I good enough to finish?" If you're considering the RP then this is probably the key question you are asking yourself, but unfortunately, there is no simple yes/no reply.  "I have seen people of all ages, shapes and sizes successfully complete this raid", said one of our guides over a welcome beer.  That's encouraging. 

Yet I was later told, in every group of twenty riders, roughly two fail to finish.  That's exactly as happened to our group.  Apparently knee pain is the most common reason for failure.

I genuinely, honestly did not know whether I could do it.  It was not until my legs had pedalled to the top of the Col d'Aubisque, at the start of day two, that I began to allow myself the entertain the possibility that I would succeed.  

Even then, I left it to the very, very last night to buy my "I've done the RP" bike shirt.

Perhaps this will help you get your hear around the magnitude of what's involved. 

The details and maps are below, but think of this challenge as four, century rides (100miles) on consecutive days over hilly terrain.  Just as when training to run a marathon you don't have to run a marathon, when training for the RP you don't have to ride 4 x 100 miles on consecutive days.  But you do need to train.

At it's most basic, the training for the RP is about time in the saddle.  If the longest you've ridden in training is two hours then you're going to struggle when you're faced with consecutive 100 milers.  Work up to it gradually, but in the month before your RP your weekly long ride should be at least eight hours.

I took training very seriously indeed.  Probably too seriously, but that's just me!

I had two sessions with Dr Garry Palmer of Sportstest, which I've written about here and here.  Garry tested me, deduced my precise heart rate training 'zones', and produced the programme around which all my training was based.  I even bought an indoor turbo trainer. 

There were physical benefits, in that I lost weight and trained my body to metabolise fat more efficiently.  

Yet equally important were the psychological benefits, because I was sure I was doing the right training to succeed.  I completely understand this approach is not for everyone. But it worked for me. 

If you're considering the Raid, then you have to give some thought to the how you'll actually do it.  During the many, many hours I spent on my bike, I pondered the 'best' way to do this challenge ride.  I used to be a keen touring cyclist but I'm not convinced panniers are best suited to this route. 

Ultralight road cycling with a tiny rucksack could work, but only if you have a stable weather pattern.  

Otherwise you would need so much kit, to cope with the potential extremes of temperature, the tiny rucksack would be of a size which might be a pain.

Probably the best way would be in a group of two or three riders, so you can take turns drafting, supported by two friends in a campervan in which you all could sleep.  

The support team would follow your route, providing food, water, kit and sunscreen at the bottom and top of each Col.  If they spoke French and were trained masseurs then so much the better!  Assembling such a fantasy team in the real world is unlikely, which is why I turned to Marmot Tours.  I need to say right here and now I have no connection with the company, I paid full price and I'm getting no benefit in kind from anything I write.  But I thought they were great.

Marmot Tours says around 350-400 people attempt the RP each year.  Of them, around 300 are British (why us???) and around 200 travel with Marmot.  I'm sure there are other really good operators out there, and when you're assessing their relative merits, be sure to ask this question - "how many support vans do you use per group".

Marmot use two vehicles, and having seen it in action, this system is clearly more than twice as effective as one, and here's why.  

Big cols split groups like nothing else.  In the pro peloton a gap of more than forty minutes can open between the front and rear riders, so imagine what happens to a big bunch of amateurs whose shape, size, ability and experience can vary hugely.  

Despite re-grouping at cafes and lunch stops, early riders can be at a hotel before 6pm while the slower riders don't show up until well after 8pm.  Or later.

One van is effectively a hotel bag transporter.  It either whizzes to the hotel, in which case the slow riders are unsupported on their last big climb, or it waits, leaving the fast riders unable to shower, change and eat dinner.  If there's an emergency (on our trip a rider was taken to hospital) then, with one van, everyone else is on their own. 

The two guides who accompanied our Marmot Tours trip have done this so many times, they know exactly where to park the vans and how to leapfrog each other.  

Before a long hot climb there was almost always a van waiting with food, water and sunscreen.  

By the time we were on the Col, one of the vans was waiting with more food and warm kit for the descent.  

By nature I like to be self-sufficient, and take all my food & gels into a sportive, yet so efficient was this two-van system that I rarely carried more than one gel and two bars and then only for long climbs. 

If you're thinking about doing this Raid with a tour operator it really is worth doing your research.

2013 was a wet spring throughout Europe.  The Giro d'Italia cancelled a mountain stage, and Niballi won in a blizzard.  "Bring all your winter kit.  ALL of it", warned the email which arrived a week before our RP was due to start.  Huge levels of rainfall in the Pyrenean valleys meant huge quantities of snow at high level.  Winter just didn't want to stop. 

Snow on the Tourmalet
A Marmot group which started just one day before us began in torrential rain, so all things considered, we were fantastically lucky.  We started on Tuesday 11th June and had just one afternoon of heavy rain (see the day by day blog), sweltering under a baking sun for the rest of the trip.

The high passes were still choked with snow.  The road between the Aubisque and Soulor was closed to all traffic and only opened to bikes a couple of days before we arrived.  Had it not opened the detour would have been horrendous.

However, the Tourmalet was closed from the side we intended to climb.  

As you'll read in the blog, day 2 necessitated a 30km detour, going down one valley, around the bottom via Lourdes, and back up another, so we could climb the Tourmalet from the side which was open.  Had both sides been closed, Marmot had negotiated an alternative contingency route with the official organisers.  But let's be honest, it wouldn't have felt like a true RP without the Tourmalet.

[Edit: within days of returning to the UK there were serious floods in the Pyrenees. As I write I don't know if subsequent groups have completed the Raid]

Talk of gear ratios makes my eyes glaze over and I don't claim to understand.  So I'll keep this very simple and try to get it right.

My Specialized Roubaix came, like many modern bikes, with a ten-speed compact derailleur and standard Shimano gearing.  

The lowest climbing gearing I could achieve was 34 (small chain ring) on the front and 28 (biggest cog) on the back.  I rode many of the Pyrenean Cols last year, and while I managed fine, I felt the cumulative punishment on my knees might be too much.  

I decided I needed a cassette (the collecting of cogs on the back) in which the lowest gear had at least 30 teeth.  

Nevis Cycles, my local bike shop, reckoned they could fit such a cassette but said Shimano warned it might not work too smoothly.  

However, if they also fitted a longer, mountain bike derailleur, it would definitely work.  What's more, they could fit a cassette with 30 and 32 tooth rings. 

I went for this option and didn't regret it once.  In fact, my only regret is that Liz now wants the same combination on her bike, so more money.

After the bike, shorts are the single most important piece of kit.  I took two "good" pairs (Assos F1 Mille) and two "normal" pairs (Specialized - half the price) for the easy days.  Mistake.  There are no easy days.  

I used the Assos shorts on each of the first four days, washing them carefully each night in the bath and leaving them to partly dry in the room overnight.  

Everyone was doing the same, so the Marmot lads would take the wet kit off us in the morning and hang it out to dry at feed stops.  

They even carry a clothes horse for this purpose along with a dehumidifier so they can set up a drying room in a hotel after particularly wet days.  Oh, and since one pair of Assos shorts looks much the same as another, name tags are a great idea.

When it's sunny you need very little kit, just arm warmers and a windproof gillet for descents.  The moment it starts to rain, or a cold wind blows, then the game changes completely.  

I have no intention of giving you a kit list because you can work it out for yourself, but think wet and very, very cold and you won't go far wrong.

I was fortunate enough to have been picked for the Science in Sport Winter Academy, giving me access to some free products, some discounted products but most importantly, expert nutrition advice.  This really helped my training and you can read more about it here.

However, on the RP you need a mix of sports products and real food.  

Our guides emphasised the need to stop regularly, rest the legs, and have a coffee and real food, warning that people who tried to survive on gels and bars usually regretted their decision.

Hotel breakfasts would be supplemented from a box of (very good) cereals carried by the Marmot team.  

I'd usually start with GO Hydro in one bottle and GO Electrolyte in the other.  I'd top these up during the morning, gradually diluting them.  I felt the Go Hydro was more important, so I'd ensure I had a full bottle before each long, hot climb, but I'd deliberately empty the GO Electrolyte, replacing it with plain water so I could pour it down my neck when I started to overheat without everything turning sticky.

I'd have a mix of GO Energy gels and bars for during the day, although I'd not eat more than two of each.  I was pleased I took some other brands of bars too, ones I had left in my cupboard, because you quickly get sick of eating exactly the same thing. 

Lunches were, in order; mushroom omelette and chips; a cheese filled baguette (wasn't enough); a plate of twelve small sugar/lemon crepes; two cheese and ham sandwiches (first meat in ages) one eaten at the bottom of a col and the other put in the van to eat at the top.  

I had a sachet of REGO Rapid Recovery on arrival at every hotel and a sachet of REGO Night Recovery before bed.

The Marmot vans also carried jars of sweets, M&Ms, salted nuts, flapjack bars and fruit.  

Each of us remarked how wonderful it was, at times when we were running low on energy, to see the Marmot van hove into view with the guide holding a chopping board of cut cake and cool, sliced melon.  We were spoiled!

On the blog I published a mix of data from my Garmin and from the organisers, all of it in metric.  Now I'm back and have downloaded all the data I can offer a little more detail in miles.

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Day 1: Hotel Campanille, Hendaye to Hotel Le Bon Coin, Lurbe St Christau
99.7 miles - 6,786 ft ascent  - 15.9mph av speed - moving for 6:17:01

Day 1 Raid Pyrenean
Day 2: to Hostellerie d'Aste, Aste, detour via Lourdes
103.3 miles - 11,977 ft ascent - 11.7mph - moving for 8:50:04

Day 2 Raid Pyrenean
Day 3: to Hostellerie des Trois Seigneurs, Massat
107.5 miles - 9,997 ft ascent - 12.2mph - moving for 8:46:58

Day 3 Raid Pyrenean
Day 4: to Hotel Pradotel, Prades
92.8 miles - 11,249 ft ascent - 10.3mph - moving for 9:01:57

Day 4 Raid Pyrenean
Half Day 5: to Hotel La Dorade, Cebrere
58.6 miles - 1,844 ft ascent - 16.6mph - moving for 3:31:10

Day 5 Raid Pyrenean
If you'd like to see more detailed maps of the whole route, elevation profile and more statistics, I've put them all together in a PDF which can be downloaded by clicking here.

As things come to mind I'll add them to this article.  But please remember, I'm no expert.  

I've done this once, slowly, and close to the edge of my ability.  

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These are just the thoughts that drifted into my mind during those long days in the saddle.  

If you have detailed questions, I'd highly recommend talking to the team at Marmot who've built a business around this route and pretty much have it nailed.


Douglas Wilcox said...

Well done Simon! I must say sometimes I am grateful for having bad knees! :o)

Anonymous said...

Great effort, well done. The Assos cycling shorts, are they really worth over £100? I thought my £60 DHB pair were expensive!!

Simon Willis said...

Hi Anon

The first time a sales person tried to get me to spend over £50 on shorts ("FIFTY POUNDS ON SHORTS!!!") I walked out of the shop.

Yet for me the Assos are worth it. It's not a brand thing - there's no big logo - they're just more comfortable for long rides than my DHB bibs and my Specialised bibs.

I guess the question is this - how sore is your backside after riding 100 miles in +30deg C in your DHBs, and could you go again the next day?

If you have positive answers to both, the the Assos are probably not worth it for you, stick with the DHBs.

Incidentally, I left home with just 1 pair of Assos but after four weeks on holiday with Liz, riding in Italy and France, I bought the second pair. Nothing was as comfy in the heat.

Hi Douglas - a VERY belated thanks for the kind words. I missed your comment while I was away.


Unknown said...

Great blog and advice. I'm riding RP with Marmot in September this year (14) and will be rereading your blog many times between now and then! I'm also writing a blog of my own at if anyone is interested (and if you will permit me the link?!)
Kind Regards,


Simon Willis said...

Hi Paul - very interesting looking blog you have there. I'll follow it as I try to shed the Christmas weight-gain.

You'll have a marvellous time with Marmot. I want to do somthing different this year, but I fancy the Raid Dolomites fror next year.

Enjoy the ride!

Mahe said...

Impressive. You are very modest Simon - like you I think this is right on the edge of my ability. But your average speed on most days is mightily impressive. I have just averaged over 17mph on an Etape in Scotland today - but 75 miles and just over 5,000 feet of climbing. And that is a single day!!
What sort of averages were you putting in for medium to long rides before you headed off to do the Raid? Thanks Ian

Simon Willis said...

Hi Ian

My average speeds weren't so great on the RP. I just looked at the files. 15.9mph, 11.7mph, 12.2mph, 10.3mph and 16.6mph (the last half-day was largely downhill dash to the coast).

In the four weeks leading up to the RP we were on holiday in our campervan in Italy and France, but the weather was awful so we didn't get too much riding. 65miles was a good day.

Typically in the weeks leading up to this trip I'd do two 30ml rides and a long ride of between 65 and 85miles (one went to 107miles). In the days between I'd also do some threshold work on hills, so I was riding most days in all weathers.

Over the previous winter it was all low heart rate zone training on the turbo with a long ride of up to 65ml when the weather allowed.

I found that using the a training plans Dr Garry Palmerof Sportstest worked out for me, tailored to my zones, gave me a lot of confidence and helped me drop a lot of weight. ( How much it actually helped with my fitness I'm less sure, but I felt I was up to the task.

What undoubtably helped was the approach of the Marmot team.

Starting early, finishing quite late, and being fed constantly throughout really made this manageable. Their advice not to rely on sports products (gels etc) was invaluable, and solid food also helped.

It was exactly the wrong approach to take three weeks later on La Marmotte of course, but for the RP it was great.

Unless you have an injury, then I reckon the Marmot lot could probably get most reasonably fit club riders through the RP.

My average for the Etape Caledonia in 2012 (the previous year when I was 20lbs heavier) was 17.6mph if that helps give you a comparison.

All the best


Paul Cass said...

Great blog, took me back a few years to my RAID. Thought I'd share some thoughts for riders who might consider doing it solo and/or unsupported.

I was 45 and had trained for The Marmot that year, which went ok, and thought I'd give it a go while I still had some residual fitness. Rode in August of that year and the weather was fine, I mean fine for riding, not too hot, mainly overcast and damp for most of day one. I didn't really see the sun till the fourth and final day after descending from Andorra.

I guess the main concern is a major mechanical and fortunately I didn't have one. If you did I'm sure there are bike shops to get you going again. Make sure your bike has a good service before and obviously take everything you need for minor fixes.

What to wear? As the weather was good and I wasn't planning on doing much in the evenings I just took 2 sets of bibshorts and short sleeve tops, arm warmers, light rain jacket (essential on the descents!). For the evening: flip flops (for weight and size) long shorts & a t shirt. Needed to keep it to an absolute minimum as I had to carry everything on the bike in a large rack mounted Carradice saddle bag.

Logistically the hardest part for me was figuring out how to get a bike to the start and from the end. Clearly there's no way you can take a rigid bike box as it will be marooned in Hendaye so I got a decent padded soft bike bag and flew to Biarritz. Now, I should probably just have got a large mpv cab to take me from the airport to Hendaye but maybe I was just saving money and decided to put the bike together at the airport, fold up the bike bag, bungee it to my carradice and ride there. Not a pleasant journey especially over bumps when my 'luggage' tended to touch the rear wheel, nevertheless I made it so it is possible.

The plan was to wrap up the bike bag, bungees and clothes I'd worn on the flight and mail the whole lot Poste Restante to Girona where I was getting the flight home. I had no idea if the package would arrive within 5 days but figured that if it didn't I'd have to just sort out a cardboard bike box at the airport. I'd guessed that it would be a faster delivery if I posted from Spain so I stayed in Irun just over the border and sent it from the post office there as soon as I arrived. I even took plastic and wrapping tape with me as I didn't want to faff around looking for that when I arrived. I guess it would be better to do this on a weekday, not sure if they were even open at the weekend.

The ride itself was immense and so satisfying, I still vividly remember every major climb and the route and plan to do it again one day soon, maybe with a riding buddy next time :)

Who knew that every cafe and bar has a 'tampon humide' as required on the RAID Brevet card. Happy to discover they all have a rubber stamp to evidence your progress.

I split the ride into 4 days and stopped at Arudy, Bagneres de Luchon, Ax les Thermes and Cerbere. Usually comfortably finished before sunset but did get extremely stressed at the end of day 3 when my brain stopped functioning and I couldn't find the hotel in the dark!

The day after completing it I rode to Girona and, yay, my bike bag and stuff had arrived at the post office. Stayed one night in Girona and rode to the airport, packed up bike and flew back, exhausted and relieved it had all gone without a hitch.

Anyway, if you're thinking of doing it ,on your own or as part of an organised tour, stop thinking and start preparing because you must do it :)

Simon Willis said...

Paul - there's some really useful information there Paul. I'd like to take it out of the comments and turn it into a "guest post" with your permission. Any photos which could go with it please? will reach me.

Thanks very much.


Paul Cass said...

Thanks Simon, yes please feel free to. I think I must have a photo or two, I know there's one of the bike at the top of the tourmalet, I'll send it on once I find it, cheers. Funny, just thinking about the photos reminded me of a crash I had on the last day on the road up towards Andorra. While on a very open road I was faffing around with my Garmin and road straight into a plastic bollard planted right on the edge of the road, luckily not too much damage!

Lucas Faure said...

Very impressive post Simon! You have given a detailed description of the Pyrenees cycling. This is one of the most recognized cycling routes in France. I enjoyed reading this.