Looking for cycling heaven? Then head to PyrActif…immediately.

There is nothing better to do on a bike than cycle up a mountain. No, not the Surrey Hills on a wet Saturday or the Ashdown Forest on a very wet Sunday. I mean a bright, sunny, 25 degrees kind of day, cycling up something over 1000m. I remember my first Col – Alpe d’Huez on a hot summer’s morning in 2012. The battle of body against machine, the stunning scenery, the knowledge that you are cycling in the shadows of the greats. I loved it.

In the summer of 2017 a group of friends and I stayed with the cycling holiday company, PyrActif, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, roughly 20km north of the famous cycling spa town of Bagneres de Luchon and about an hour’s drive from Toulouse airport. PyrActif is run by Dean Thompson and based in the sleepy hamlet of Bertren in a beautiful, large 19th century farmhouse, offering bespoke cycling holidays with some of the world’s most iconic climbs in easy reach. It offers complete cycling immersion.

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During our week at PyrActif, a typical day started with breakfast, laid out in the long, wooden dining area. Dean, the most modest and warm hearted of hosts, brought out vats of coffee and, in true cycling style, all the breads, cereals, dried fruits and jams you could need for a long stint on the saddle. Talk centred around the climbs and routes that lay ahead and our stomach churned a little with nervous excitement.

We cycled out from Masion Garrigou each day along a quiet road in the base of the valley, wide fields on either side, with the heat of the day starting to rise as we craned our necks upwards to look up at the mountain passes.

My favourite Col of the week and the one that best sums up the Pyrenees is the Port de Bales – a wonderfully grim and remote 19km climb with numerous sections topping over 11%. The northern base of the climb (Mauleon Barousse) is about 15 minutes ride from PyrActif and before you reach the start you find yourself cycling through sleepy villages with the Tour bunting still on display across the streets with flashes of yellow, green and red polka dots. There is a remoteness to the Pyrenees that is difficult to find in the Alps. Everything is more rugged, more down to earth, more humble. This was epitomised by us, with our carbon bikes, Garmins and isotonic drinks being overtaken by a middle-aged man on an old steel framed bike on the lower reaches of the Bales. His calves were like hunks of chiselled mahogany as he slowly cycled away from us after a friendly greeting with our envious faces following his path upwards.

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The climb winds its way up a narrow track, only made passable by Tour organisers in 2006 in their quest to find new climbs to challenge the riders. You find yourself snaking along up the gully with waterfalls spilling down, seeking stretches of merciful shade as the gradient and the summer heat take their toll. Eventually, a few kilometres from the top, the climb opens out to a wide, beautiful, bleak vista of farmland with the rattle of cow bells on the breeze. I don’t think a single car passed us on the way up and trust me, we took our time. Tour fans will remember Alberto Contador controversially riding away from Andy Schleck on this section in the 2010 edition when Schleck suffered an ill-timed mechanical. The climb tops out at 1755m and we spend a few minutes breathlessly taking in the view and scoffing down whatever was left in our back pockets before the bob-sleigh ride down the southern side of the Col, your teeth starting to chatter from cooling sweat as we plummet down into the spa town of Bagneres de Luchon – a sleepy, friendly place with a plentiful supply of great cafes to have lunch and weigh up the merits of taking on another Col before heading home.

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We finished each day exhausted back at the farmhouse, drinking beers in the back garden and sharing stories of the day before Dean cooked the kind of hearty three course dinner that you spend the final stages of the day’s cycle dreaming about. This was accompanied by a few bottles of local wine as we eventually crawled into our own bed to repeat the whole life affirming experience the next day.

 

Building pace and distance.

Since being able to run again I have desperately been searching for two things: pace and distance. Before the Achilles rupture I was clocking half marathons in 1:20hr and a marathon in about 3hrs. When I look back on this time I was running almost every day and playing basketball, football and tennis on an infrequent basis. I had built up a depth of endurance from this along with completing distance running events on a regular basis.

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Regaining the ability to run decent distance and a respectable pace is something which cannot be rushed. Starting at 1 minute running, 2 minutes walking for 10 minutes I am now at stage where I can run for 18km without stopping at 4.30km pace. Whether this is good progress or not I am not sure but there are a few things I would suggest to people about to go through the same process of seeking to regain a running standard somewhere near where they were before the Big Bang happened.

1. Don’t worry about pace.
When you first start again don’t worry about raising your pace too quickly. Pace is dangerous for your Achilles and I found that focusing on distance was far more rewarding. Distance could be increased more systematically over the first few weeks as you start you start to run for five, 10, 15, 20 minutes without having to walk. The joy of this was the realisation that you can run again and that your Achilles does work. Having spent so long on crutches and in a boot you forget the reassuring feel of sweat dripping down your face as your legs creak into gear. I spent the first weeks and months simply raising the distance a few kilometres each week, building my confidence in the tendon and making sure any pain felt in it was “good pain”.

2. Continue with your physio exercises.
When you start running again it is easy to forget about the heel lifts you have mastered over the last year or so. You think, “finally, I’m back to normal”. You’re not. I quickly learnt that whilst your Achilles may be “better” the rest of your core and leg muscles have diminished significantly. Hip, knees, glutes, calves, I’ve had more niggling injuries post Achilles rupture then ever before. My bad leg resembled an emaciated twiglet when I started running again so these injuries were no surprise. These injuries have stopped me from running frequently since I started again and are a source of persistent frustration. I spent more time with my physio dealing with these then looking at my Achilles. The exercises prescribed, along with continuing the heel lifts were and are crucial in building core strength and keeping my Achilles healthy. As I write this the arch of my bad foot has just started playing up – I’ll add it to the list. I continue doing heel lifts now, a year after I started running again and have exercises for my hips (which caused me months of pain that) which I do irregularly. People often ask me, “is your Achilles better now?” and it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that will never be truly better, just as good as it can be and to do this you must continue your exercises.

3. Build pace gradually.
The dreaded Garmin. God, I hate that thing. I found mine at the bottom of the drawer a few months after starting to run again. There is no escaping the numbers on that thing. You think you’re flying along, on for a PB and then you take a look at the Garmin – nope, not even close. There is no escaping those dreaded digital numbers but they are crucial for building pace back into your runs. Much like with distance, small increments are important here to ensure allow your Achilles, and the rest of your body, to adapt to the new demands. One thing I have found that’s had a big impact on raising my pace has been 1km shuttle runs, repeated five times. Back in my glory days I could run 4.15 per km pace easily. That was just above jogging pace for me. After a few months building distance I decided to start focusing on pace. At the time I was able to run 4.45 per km pace just about comfortably but not for long. I decided to set 4.15 as my target for the shuttle runs. I found a flat, straight stretch near my home and quickly increased my pace until it read 4.15 on the Garmin. Get to 1km, stop, pant, kneel over, keep the vomit down. Repeat for 5km and you’ll quickly see the benefits but listen to your Achilles – if it’s not happy with the increased pace then ease off and find one that it is happy with.

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