A Steady Diet of 9%
Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Slug, and QOM Hunting with GFNY Champ Jill Patterson, — The GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet Experience
Working systematically outward from Paris — let’s just call it the Center of France even if that’s not mathematically true, all corners but two have now been touched. (GFNY Grand Ballon I am looking at you!) This French soul that has been growing within me since high school (and accelerating for the last 10 years) has seen so much, tasted so much, climbed so much, and experienced as much as it can handle. But it’s always ready for more.
And so now, the Pyrenees. A unique, rugged, rustic, and stunning region of Southern France provides history, challenges (cycling), and nature. Like a much larger, much more grandiose version of the Catskills or Adirondacks (just to draw a comparison — go with it, you’ll be happier, I promise), the Pyrenees tower out of the seemingly untouched countryside, skyward, into the clouds. Visually stunning these peaks become real in a hurry once you point a bicycle at them and get to know them up close. And so our story begins….
Located in the Haute Pyrenees region of Southern France, the city of Lourdes is famous as a haven for Catholic pilgrims seeking inspiration and hope based on the healing miracles the city has been associated with for over three centuries. As a high school French student at a Catholic high school, Lourdes was one of the key aspects of French history we were taught, and so heading in, I had an idea of what to expect. Nestled in a small valley along the blue, flowing waters of the Ousse River, it is also at the center of the Pyrenees cycling universe and home to the crown jewel climb of cycling, Le Col du Tourmalet. The GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet covers this iconic climb, and like its Alpine sister races, GFNY La Vaujany, and GFNY Alpes Vaujany, would put just about every iconic climb in the region on offer for anyone who was able to get there early enough to take advantage.
The origins of this trip started with an idealistic concept of “the French Double”. To hit the GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet race, and then motor up to Vaujay with the GFNY France team and follow it up with a defiant second attempt at the GFNY La Vaujany. As the race was initially published it seemed extremely achievable until the racers in the area begged to extend the course at GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet, and what was 100km/2,330 meters climbing race became 157km/3,300 meters climbing extravaganza. Daunting to say the least as La Vaujany is similar in scope climbing-wise, with a car trip and maybe 3 days of recovery before the climbing began again in earnest in the French Alpes. As of this writing, I am happy to report that Jill Patterson and Matthias Van Aiken are on their way to Vaujany to make it actually happen.
Other life commitments intervened and made my decision for me, and so it would be GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet only. But that would certainly be enough.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
True to the cliche about planes, trains, and automobiles, the Americans set out from JFK Terminal 8 on the Tuesday before the race. The fast and direct 7-hour flight to Paris would be the easy part. To get to Lourdes would mean a TGV or slower train from one of Paris’ larger stations, Gare Montparnasse, nestled somewhere around the 14th and 15th Arrondissement (district), in Paris. A far reach from Charles De Gaulle airport (CDG), by either train or automobile and with two bikes and somewhere upward of 6 bags in tow. The fastest route to Lourdes was our best option to save part of Wednesday in Lourdes, assemble bikes, and know what was in front of us. With rides planned for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the earlier our arrival the better. I got to work on the SNCF app and was able to get a pair of tickets on a 4-hour ride with only a few stops. Other options would leave later, take longer, (and also involve large-scale pain in the ass transfers), and put us into Lourdes close to 23:00. Doable but not the best. No matter — we wouldn’t let that happen. We were on schedule — even early — to land at CDG at 6:14 AM giving us almost 4 hours to collect bags, get in a car, and get the 1 hour across Paris to Montparnasse. Or so it says here on page 6 of the instruction manual.
Cleverly concealed in the instruction manual is the time bled out of you by baggage elevator operators going on break and locking the elevator to where your bikes are, major multi-car crashes on the A1, and every, single traffic signal in Paris. After a long wait for bikes to come up from the nether regions of baggage claim, we were starting to fall behind schedule. Although we didn’t know it yet, not having looked at the traffic. With a 10:05 departure from Montparnasse, we got an Uber XL right outside the arrival area, and we both thought we were seeing things when it mapped our travel time at 90 minutes. We would be cutting it extremely close. We got the van loaded with some improvising for the big stuff, (a gentle description I can assure you), and made our way out of the airport in a steady and ugly rainstorm. I had never seen Paris so grey, and dismal. The accident traffic added to the malaise, not to mention the hives I was trying to conceal from my travel companion as we got closer and closer to departure time, but seemingly no closer to the station. As if we could control it, both of us mapping the journey on our own phones, watching the arrival time change like a stock-ticker. Moments of elation at the time moving earlier were quickly taken away, and then finally we were off the highway and onto the city streets of Paris.
Watching the champ experience the sight of the Eiffel Tower for the first time was a short bright spot as it was both a cool moment, and a sign that we were almost there, and we might actually make it. For most of the car ride, I was watching the clock, thinking of new backup plans, and getting ready to put on my lemonade stand uniform so that we could make lemonade out of the lemon we were about to be handed. And as it suddenly seemed most dire, we were there. Rushing up the escalators, knowing we could board up to 2 minutes before departure, they were scanning boarding passes as we got to the platform. We had made it, and suddenly after an acrobatic and anaerobic effort to get all the bags up the stairs where our seats were, we were settled. It was time to find a cup of coffee and close my eyes in that order. We were leaving Paris behind and would be in Lourdes by the afternoon.
A Different Kind of Pilgrimage
The Lourdes station was busy, the town seemed to be active, and as we exited the station planning to attempt the 15-minute walk to the hotel with all bags in tow, a beacon of relief appeared. There was GFNY HQ pickup in progress with HQ team members heading in from Italy, and having boarded our train in Bordeaux. I don’t think the team knew we were on that train but helped us get our stuff to the hotel, get checked in, and find the bike room. Having gotten settled, the smart thing is always to put the bike together. Shake it out, and make sure it’s all working. What got broken, what did you forget? All of those questions would be answered. By 7:30 or so, we had both bikes assembled, but my shift cable had come away and so I had two gears available. That would not make it for this terrain, (or any terrain, my name is not Eddy), so we figured out a nearby bike shop, and made a plan for the morning.
In the meantime, the bike room. The Hotel Gallia & Londres presents itself as a “bike hotel”. And it didn’t disappoint. The bike room sported a turf floor, trophies, photos, and jerseys from past glories (including a GFNY La Vaujany jersey from 2021), alongside a signed green jersey from the tour (I didn’t see who or when). As you entered, greeted by the flawless cedar paneling, a cycling wall map of the Pyrenees gave an orientation. Lockers, bike hangers, and tool racks are handy for getting the bike together and doing the work that goes into getting ready for the shakeout. No bumbling around the bed-chamber, but a real, pro, set up for getting ready to experience one of the literal and figurative high points of Global cycling.
A little quiet exploring of the Lourdes evening, a sandwich, (and later a pizza), and a 23:00 work call would make this a truly long day. close to 28 hours with some cat-naps in between. Waiting for my call, I unpacked and readied myself to meet the group at 10:00 the next morning. Our first adventure would be Luz Ardiden.
Thursday — Luz Ardiden
The evening came and went like a thief. I found some sleep and was ready to tackle what was ahead. Arriving at Bikes&Py just after they opened, their mechanic was able to reseat my shift cable within ten minutes. We spoke with the owner as we browsed through this beautiful shop, grabbed a few CO2 cartridges, and some chain lube, and were off back to the hotel to meet Matthias for the ride out.
My teammate and friend Matthias Van Aiken, (who also had a late arrival and late-night), was here to work in support of the race, lead the rides, and also do the race on Sunday. To frame this setup, I was now cycling out to a major HC (beyond category) climb, with two elite cyclists who have had top 20 and podium finishes around the Globe, including GFNY races. I would be able to watch and learn for a time, but most importantly, get some feedback from each of them about the climbs, the race, the course, and everything cycling. An insider's perspective is that even traveling to as many races as I do, is not always right there for the taking as it now was.
Taking the green path out along the Ousse River, and out to the main artery that connected Lourdes to most of the area climbs, was a fast and satisfying way to wake up the legs, and get back in form. I had not been on a bicycle now in at least 10 days, and so I was in a minor state of panic about my ability to rise to the occasion. But it felt good. There was sunshine, conversation, and everything great about cycling until we finally arrived at the foot of Luz Ardiden.
Without getting into too much detail the argument at the foot of this climb was not about whether or not to do the climb, but which route to take. Jill had heard from friends of hers, that the best parts of the iconic climbs were always to NOT follow the routes that Le Tour de France follows, but rather the other sides. Having seen a few of the routes taken by Le Tour, and some of the alternatives, my own view is that it depends on the climb. But in this case, I was game. To give you a good idea of the skill level I was dealing with, Jill’s idea of a souvenir from a new country she is visiting is to score KOM/QOM for a particular climb. Before we even set out, Jill was fully in tune with what she needed to do to bring home the bacon on the first climb but had some doubts about whether she could do it.
Moving across the pond to Europe provides a very different level of competition than we see in North America. Jill was not allowing herself to be lulled into a false sense of complacency about her own skills, but rather going into each effort with respect for the European climbers that had come before her. She would take this approach all the way into race day — taking nothing for granted. This, friends is how a professional prepares.
Finally, we agreed, that we would take the road less traveled. Jill was grinning from ear to ear as she exclaimed “Oooh it’s a steep start”.
“How steep?” I asked.
“Very!” She replied.
She and Matthias were quickly away and fading out of sight. I was mumbling to myself as I started to granny gear it up. Mumbling to myself. “Very!’ Thanks Champ — really helpful”. As my contemplation of the grade evolved, I was passed by a local about my age shredding up the climb on a flat bar e-bike. It was here that I started to count the dollars, shoes, helmet, bad-ass carbon frame, groupset, blah, blah, blah — all to be completely housed by an e-bike, as the sound of the voices and sights of Jill and Matthias faded away.
We were on the back side of Luz Ardiden, and like many other climbs, would meet the main road to the summit somewhere around 5 or 6 kilometers away from the top. Because we went the “non-Le-Tour” route to the summit finish, I don’t have official stats, other than roughly a 7.5% average grade, over about 14km. Making a right turn from out of the wilderness with about 4–5km to go, onto one of the beautiful ribbon-like roads I came to love so much in the Pyrenees, the climb began to wind and switch back in a beautiful way. Cyclists with huge grins on their faces descended most riki-tik from the summit one by one, and sometimes in pairs. About 1km from the top, I had to take a guess and make my way left or right. I chose left, unaware that at the summit Matthias and Jill were watching me choose and willing me to go left. Stopping only to answer a text from Matthias, I let him know I was not far to go.
Meanwhile, at the summit, the wind was kicking, and the temperatures were about 10 degrees lower (Fahrenheit) than where we started. As I hit the summit, we were able to take some photos and quickly make our way out. The great news about the ride was that it was mostly downhill and flat from here. In fact, that was a theme throughout the week. When you got to the top of the mountain, you were usually halfway home. (The fast half).
Jill was dubious about her time up the mountain and as of yet unsure if she would grab the trophy for the climb. So we made our way down, and headed back to Lourdes, for stretching, lunch, and coffee. Upon entering the bike room at the hotel, all of Jill’s data reconnected, and there it was. QOM for Luz Ardiden via Viscos. BAM — souvenir achieved for the champ, everything else would be gravy.
And Speaking of Gravy
Tooling around Lourdes the night before on foot, in search of a place to sit, practice my French, and order something great for dinner, I was, as I often am, hampered by my own lack of confidence. While I work at understanding and speaking French, I know what to say, when to say it, but as soon as I am presented with a person and they speak rapidly, fluidly, my confidence heads out the back door and often leaves me stammering like an idiot trying too hard to fit in. But such is a city of miracles. The waiter at the brasserie across from the hotel deduced from my French that I was American, and introduced himself as being from Portugal, the same area that was home to GFNY Portugal in 2018. We had a lot to talk about.
And as he introduced me around to his colleagues, he pointed out the sign that made me feel right at home. The 4/5 Express train sign read “Uptown and the Bronx”. Dinner was going to taste good. And as the week evolved, my confidence slowly returned. I would continue to use this brasserie as a comfortable place to sit and enjoy as I did in having coffee with Matthias that afternoon after Luz Ardiden. Breaking from my habit of a black coffee my friend from the night before presented me with a noisette. A foamy, milky latte with espresso in a larger cup. I never drink coffee with milk, but I was compelled to have two.
Friday — Col du Soulor
We were tapering down over the course of the week. It was Luz Ardiden, an 80km ride, followed by Col du Soulor a 60km or so ride with a little less climbing, and then it would be the mighty Hautacam on Saturday. With a little more confidence, (at least for me), we rolled over to Palais de Congres where the race would start and finish on Sunday. This was also, naturally, the site of the GFNY expo which would likely be open by the time we returned from the climb. Not as far away as Luz Ardiden, the approach to the Col du Soulor would start directly after the green path, and follow through several towns before getting to the difficult bit.
One of our GFNY Ambassadors, Alejandro joined us on this ride (and the next). A cyclist in great form, and with a big smile, he was a very welcome addition to the group.
My first Friday mistake — as we wound our way through the hills of the town at the foot of the climb, was trying to hold the wheels of the other three as we made our way up. Really I was trying to make sure I wouldn’t get lost, and even though I had the route, wanted to make sure that they would be able to find me if they needed me. It was utter folly as they sped up past the more steep bits, and onto what would become a steady climb through a more populated area than we might be used to seeing at this stage in a climb. At 16km and a 4.5% average — this was deceptive. The first 8km of the climb were pretty easy (except for the short steep bits at the beginning), and some even downhillish (but you always pay for that). With about 8km to go, it really kicked up. There were small steep kicks, steady grades, switchbacks, and amazing scenery. With each push of the pedals, I was another stroke closer to the Sun and it was making its presence known. My bike was getting lighter and lighter, as I drained both bidons on the climb.
Before getting to the steeper, more difficult part of the climb, I texted Matthias my location so that he could see where I was the whole time. With about 5km to the top, I stopped and texted again. “5KM to the top, please feel free to descend and stop for a coffee, and I will meet you when I descend”.
Matthias texted back right away. “There is a cafe at the top”. Something to look forward to. The group seemed to have taken it a little slower and weren’t waiting as long for me on this climb, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t break that 8km per hour average barrier on the steep sections. This would persist in the race on Sunday and has led to some introspection about my training regimen that I am looking forward to proving myself right on.
A relief for anyone that doesn’t have their climbing legs — the Col d’Abisque was closed. Seeing that “Ferme” sign was a helpful portent to knowing the group wouldn’t want to press up further. On my arrival, we met some sheep, took more photos, and dumped two Cokes into my now empty bidons for the ride home. It was at this point, that I was considering saying “I think I’ll skip Hautacam tomorrow”, when Jill told me — “we are going to skip climbing tomorrow, it could be too much before the race.”
No argument here.
I hate descending. I don’t hide it. But this descent was the most fun I have EVER had descending. Not as technical as the day before, it offered a wide road and a lot of chances to accelerate, pedal my way, stay warm, and stay close to the group on the way down. It made the ride back on the green path that much more pleasant.
Needless to say, upon our arrival, more souvenirs were revealed for Jill. A tie for the top slot on the QOM.
The VIP reception would be this evening, a chance to connect with the great GFNY France team, and generally just hang out and enjoy the atmosphere of this great hotel.
Saturday — The Slug Hunter
Our Saturday ride, just the four of us out on the green path and back was one of the reasons that I started cycling. A chance to do something truly enjoyable, with people that are truly enjoyable. A light atmosphere, for taking photos, doing intervals, spinning out the two days of climbing before, and enjoying the sunshine. There would be time later for bike prep, pinning on jersey numbers, and all the nattering nervousness of the night before the race. But first — SLUGS! In starting an argument with Matthias about whether there are black bears in the Ardennes (I was wrong, there are not), Jill had decided to do a few fast intervals in search of her favorite animal as a kid. Slugs. I had no idea how she would find slugs along a bike path at 28km per hour, but somehow, as we caught up to her, she was standing on the side of the road, photographing — yes you guessed it — a slug. Prior to this specimen, she had spotted a perfect slug in motion, a slime trail, moving across the green path. But tragedy struck before she could photograph it and another cyclist went right over it. And so the great Pyrenean slug hunt of 2022 was now complete. Who knew. Slugs. But such was the light mood and humor of the ride, a perfect way to unwind before what would be a difficult day on Sunday.
Race Day — Col du Tourmalet
Let me split this for you into two bits. I will go back and forth as my experience was different from my fellow travelers. With an admission of full-body fatigue that started prior to the GFNY NYC World Championship, my work life, personal life, and athletic life — they were all fighting for my attention. The athletic life is the easiest cut in any scenario where a choice needs to be made, and so my training was not where I would have wanted it to be to do the full course. On the train ride from Paris, I received a text from Uli.
“Dialed in for the medium”.
“Yes, until I am filled with false self-confidence during the group rides”. (I wouldn’t be).
Uli took the opportunity to remind me that the medium course in this case was the original full monty for the race. After hearing from many that a longer course was more desirable, the distance and climbing were doubled to include Col d’Aspin, and a lead-in to Col d’Aspin that was described by everyone I talked to as “brutal”. Coming into GFNY La Vaujany in 2021 I was much more fit, much more ready, and it still took me over 8:40 to finish it. The fact is, if you are not climbing like this all the time, there is very little that can get you ready for the mental and physical commitment you need to make to suffering. Given my time at GFNY Cannes (slower than I had hoped), and my cutoff at GFNY NYC World Championship, I had yet to ride a full 160km (100 miles) in 2022. Today would not be the right day to try that. Not with 4000 meters (12,000 feet) of climbing. It was a recipe for disaster, and so I resigned myself to the medium distance with the hope that I could make the best of it.
The last text from Uli simply read “you still get the Tourmalet and 2000+ meters of climbing”. This was no joke. 2000 meters is a lot on a great day in normal cycling terms, and I had not done that since March in Cannes.
Meanwhile, Up the Road
Meanwhile, up the road, Jill and Matthias started out with the front groups and were able to follow the wheels to the course split about 25km into the course. This is where the fun began. With the small and steady Col du Bidalet in the rear view, they started up one of the more challenging pieces of the road on the long course. Jill and Matthias ran into several steep walls and a whole lot of climbing for about 20km before hitting the Col d’Aspin, one of the signature climbs in the race. This is where the field “shattered” to use their words. Staying with Jill for as long as he could, Matthias made sure to let her know that as far as the women’s field was concerned, she was completely alone.
Matthias began his own race against the clock here as Jill commenced her run for the podium. Once again, taking nothing for granted she pressed herself through the most difficult parts and onto Col d’Aspin looking to recover prior to hitting the Tourmalet.
Meanwhile, Off the Back
Confident that I was dead last in the medium field, several riders passed me with wide smiles. For sure, I thought, they are thinking “well at least he is last now”. But somehow I was doing a little better than I thought as I approached the split and then on to where the more subtle climbing began in approaching the Col du Tourmalet. This was a scenic ride through and through, and knowing that I would slow down on the climb I did my best to keep a steady pace and apply a little time trialing know-how to the flat sections. I was passing some riders here and there, and so actually began to regain a little confidence. There was no pressure on, no clock to beat, no sweep vehicle to outrun. It was just me and the Tourmalet. Meeting several friends along the way, I stopped for a photo at the base to mark the occasion. I would do my best to not stop again until the summit, and I do mean the summit.
I was now on to the climb, and feeling great about it. I knew that when my odometer read 51km I would be at the top, and halfway to the finish, the suffering behind me.
Meanwhile, Up the Road
And so alone, the Champ faced the sheep. Held off from descending the Col du Tourmalet as an entire flock of sheep decided to take their lunchtime constitutional. With no pressure from the field, Jill took her time getting past the sheep (with a fabulous video of the crossing) and began the descent. The storm was rolling in and the first bits of the Tourmalet descent was fairly technical. Getting down to a safe spot would ward off getting cold and allow her to keep her momentum into the finish, working with other racers she met along the way.
Meanwhile, Off the Back
To a champion such as Jill, the climb is the climb. Sometimes it’s a little harder, sometimes it’s a little easier, but it’s always what’s expected. Uphill, until it’s downhill. Back off when you need to, pound it out when you can.
I tried to take the “pound it out when you can” approach to the early kilometers on the Tourmalet. Fairly easy until about 13 kilometers to go, and it allowed me to make a little time, and maybe get a little ahead of myself in predicting how fast I could finish. At 18km and 8.5% on average, the East side of the Col du Tourmalet was as difficult a climb as I have ever experienced. Long enough, steep enough, technical enough. The elements played a role here as I got into the steady diet of 9–9.5%. At one point so frustrated by the grade continually being reported by the road signs as 9.5%, I finally thought “why do you have these damn signs, why not one big sign that says “hey Langsamer — it’s 9.5% the WHOLE WAY”. But it wasn’t. After 5km — 6km of 9% it finally began to relent.
But as it relented two distinct senses arrived. The beauty, and the approaching weather. While difficult, Col du Tourmalet near the top was also one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Pushing past the ski stations and hotels at Mongie, the raw beauty of the Pyrenees was suddenly on full display in cinemascope. I could see the GFNY banners at the summit. I wasn’t far. As experienced on past climbing adventures, seeing the top means you are closer than you think, even though it appears to be light-years away.
But with the wind in my face, it was hard to believe. I had to finally, reluctantly, put a foot down to zip the vest. The wind was aggressive and fighting me in my battle to the top, and then, as fast as it came, the wind was at my back via the next turn. Pushing me up the next segment, I realized it would be to my side next, and then my back, and then my side. With 500 meters to the summit, the names of pros scrawled and painted on the road provided some entertainment to keep my legs motivated. I was finally approaching the banners when I asked one of the team. “Ou es le sommet?” (Where is the summit — I was thinking this was maybe a little short). “Voila” he replied as he pointed. I stood up and took the last 80 meters to the summit. Stopping at the sign, I took a few photos. The sign was small, covered in stickers. I went back to the aid station for a Coke before descending.
Meanwhile, Up the Road
At this point because of the course differences, I didn’t realize, that Jill was actually behind me coming up the climb. As if watching a Christopher Nolan movie we were in parallel flashback scenes. But I didn’t realize it until I descended. As I descended, I got to the second or third turn hearing a moto with a siren. He passed me and waved a flag. The lead rider then passed me as if I were standing still. I expected more, and so hugged the right side of the road fearing that I would be interfering with the race. But the field, as reported earlier, was shattered. I finally reached a bend with parked cars and thought about pulling off. Just then I looked up the mountain and didn’t see a large field coming, so I pressed on. Shortly thereafter, Cedric passed in the director's car “Allez, Allez” — as he passed. Along with, I think, two more riders vying for top spots.
Jill was likely about to get started on the battle of the sheep.
Meanwhile, Off the Back
The clouds were getting darker, the roads wider, me faster. I was gaining confidence, and as I was soaked with welcome rain (now that I was at the foot of the descent), I tried to make up time on the long road back to Lourdes. With some twists and turns, some kickers, and some very anxious riders passing me for placement in the long course, I finally arrived at the finish line.
Meanwhile, Up the Road
About 15 minutes later, Jill rolled in. The undisputed champ of GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet she had earned another jersey and another top step. She came prepared, respected the field, did the work, and earned the finish. It was a joy to watch!
It was time to pack and leave France. On Monday morning the three of us had breakfast and discussed the race. It was time to make a fast exit to the fast train. On to Paris. It would be a long day of trains, finding hotels, and making arrangements to get to the airport the next day. The Fear of Missing Out growing with each step toward Paris was quickly eclipsed by the joy of knowing I would soon be sleeping in my own bed for the first time in roughly three weeks. Whatever GFNY La Vaujany might have held, it was better to be home. And soon, I hope, back to Florida, running and cycling, and next year, France again if all goes well, and who knows what else. By making it to GFNY Cannes, and combining it with GFNY Lourdes Tourmalet, I filled my French soul for now and created a custom GFNY French Double.
Worth noting that Jill managed a clean sweep of both of her French races. We are so proud of you champ! Thanks for taking me along for the ride!
And to all on the amazing GFNY France team — MERCI BEAUCOUP!