I had limited sleep in the days leading up to the event. Packing, repacking, making lists of things you think you need when facing all possible weather conditions in the mountains. Kit and sock combo problems, bike checks, tyre questions. I knew that my form would be OK, but there’s always a constant internal doubt as to whether it will be enough. Even with a long preparation period, I still didn’t know if I was ready to conquer 100 cols in 10 days.
I rode 20,000km in the 12 months before the Cent Cols Challenge (CCC). I spent about 100 hours on the home trainer, and tried with limited success to eat a healthier diet. Planning to hit my form at the right time, I simulated long climbs in my basement, and was met with the usual issue of keeping the motivation high to repeat the intervals when it started to hurt. With my weight at 71.5 kilos, I was ready to go.
On arrival, three things played on my mind: bike assembly, check in, and ‘carbo loading’. A friendly hello to 20 riders from all parts of the world followed – some familiar faces, some CCC veterans. Everything seemed relaxed, but you could sense the tension underneath the surface and smiles. “How much did you ride this year?”, “What is the weight of that great looking bike?”, “Oh you have the titanium version of those pedals”, and the ever present phrase, “I didn’t train so much this year.” Right.
Day one started wet, but not cold. After 10 minutes of riding everything was OK – the tension disappeared. You know it won’t be easy, but everything will be fine. In the first couple of hours, there’s a lot of camera action and some pacing up and down in the group. And then everything settles the CCC way. Small groups of riders form themselves naturally and you begin the real journey over the next 10 days. Relationships start to take form and you become a team that supports each other. The tension of racing and dropping your new friends on climbs is always there, but you wait at the top and try to help out if someone is low on sugar.
As you begin to take in everything the mountains have to offer, you lose track of your normal life back home. Two hundred kilometre stages and 5,000 metres of daily climbing (or more) looks hard, but somehow it becomes doable as the days pass and your normal focus on emails, work, bills and cleaning the kitchen sink is pushed into oblivion. You get time to reflect, likely you begin to think about moving to a small town in the mountains, producing your own cheese, writing poems, painting and making radical changes to your life. You get the CCC “flu” and it stays with you forever – despite the limited rate of people who actually execute these radical changes. It might be all dreams and philosophy, but it happens to most people during these events.
The scenery of the Pyrenees did not disappoint. Unreal routes through deserted villages, steep ‘bucket list’ climbs, and beautiful views over what mother nature has to offer in the mountains. No traffic, just cows, sheep, llamas and goats. Meandering in and out of Spain via back roads and enjoying 12-hour days with great food stops and a crew that saves your life, knowing you just need a smile and lump of bread with nutella and jam – before you know it yourself. You might be shaking cold and wet with numb toes but you want to stay forever.
The Cent Cols Challenge is hard – make no mistake. You need to prepare. Some spend time in the van to get through, and others succumb to the usual knee problems or mechanical issues. The risk of crashing on a wet descent or meeting a bunch of sheep around the corner is ever present. Your hands cramp from the continuous braking down the backside of Col de Spandelles. You have to wake up with puffy eyes at 6am with a body that says “no thanks”. This is the essence of the CCC to me.
Personally I succeeded without any big issues. More than 2,000km with 51,000 metres of climbing, massive amounts of food, three punctures, a tyre and a set of brake pads worn out, a bike covered in shit from five different animals, and a body that strangely enough responded well to this challenge by getting stronger as the days went by. New friendships made, great photos, and memories that will last a lifetime. The badge and the KOM award for this year’s event is evidence of my own achievement – but this is not what the CCC is all about. I am sure I speak for all my fellow riders in the Pyrenees when I say it’s the people, the stories, and the suffering that make these trips so special. And the knowledge that you don’t have to be a pro to ride 100 cols in 10 days.
I have already signed up for CCC Cantabrico next year. I am infected by the CCC flu for life.
2017 is set to be a very special year for the Cent Cols Challenge. To mark the end of the first decade of the story, and to celebrate his 60th birthday, CCC mastermind Phil Deeker is challenging himself to complete the “Ride of a Thousand Cols” – ten CCCs ridden back-to-back, with just three days between each to plan and prepare for the next. Three of the ten trips – Corsica, Cevennes and Southern Alps – will run at a slower pace to help welcome new riders to the ever growing Cent Cols family.