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Special Travel interview with Allan Reeves of ‘France From Inside Tours’
France From Inside Tours specializes in cycling holidays in southern France, and one of their most popular trips is the epic Conquer the Pyrenees: cycling 12 days over 1000 miles and climbing over 100,000 feet from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and back. The company owner and lead guide, Allan Reeves, explains why this trip is so popular, it’s back for the 10th year.
Why is this trip such a unique experience?
It’s unique because very few people will ever lay claim to such an accomplishment. It pairs together vetted advanced fit cyclists with an extreme challenge, a 1000 miles and 100,000 feet in 12 stages. Take that challenge and place it in the Pyrenees, arguably one of the most fabulous places to bike. Go one step deeper, stick to the backroads, and discover the beauty and variety of the Pyrenees that 90% of the cycling tourists never see. Keep the group small for an elite high quality experience, stay away from the commercial varietal hotels, and have the owner lead the tour, who himself is French/American and an experienced passionate cyclist. Experience the Pyrenees from the inside, and ride them like the pros.
This is the view from the Tourmalet looking west, and as you can see it’s a blessing to have wonderful weather and visibility. The road down is 12 twisting miles to get to the bottom, and when you are up here you will be chomping at the bit to fly down this incredible descent. The Col du Tourmalet is legendary and considered the most epic and historical mountain pass in all the Pyrenees. And yet as you travel across the Pyrenees mountain range you will be astounded by the endless other magnificent mountain tops. It seems to never end.
When did you first start this tour?
I first organized this tour in 2006 and after 9 years I still look forward to it. It is ambitious, bold, magnificent, inspiring and imposing. It has beautiful landscapes, awe inspiring mountain passes, and cycling history rich and unsurpassed by any other region in the world. Simply put it ranks as some of the best and most exciting cycling you could ever dream of. Everyone comes away from this journey blown away, with great memories, an undeniable experience and grasp of what it’s like to ride the famous Pyrenees cols, and a real sense of pride for tackling one tough gutsy ride. Some riders are apprehensive about being able to finish, but by the end they are all wishing it could go on forever.
My clients say it best, “In one word ….Priceless! This tour far surpassed my expectations. The routes not only exposed us to the majestic and fierce climbs of the Pyrenees, we were also able enjoy the beauty and ulture of the different regions. A must do for any serious cyclist who wants to experience all of the French Pyrenees .”
There are 12 stages, the first 4, from left to right, take us across the Pyrenees foothills from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The following 8, from right to left , traverse back through the high mountains passes to the Atlantic. This year’s total distance was 1101 miles, and 113,872 feet of accumulated elevation, with a total ride time of 77.5 hours.
Where did the concept for this tour come from?
Personally I wanted to know what would it feel like to summit the famous cols of the Pyrenees. Better yet, how difficult and awesome would it be to ride from coast to coast and back? I created this trip because I had to find out. After the innaugral run I realized that this trip qualifies as a “bucket list” item for any serious committed cyclist. For many this ride is a culmination of their dreams, skills, fitness and personal goals. We’ve all seen the Tour de France and the Pyrenees on TV, watched countless battles racing up the cols, and we’ve wanted to ride those passes ourselves. The Pyrenees are mythical, so of course who wouldn’t want to experience the legendary climbs?
Cycling is a unique sport in that we as passionate amateurs and fans can ride in the same arenas that host the professionals. The pictures in this article speak volumes about the scenery and its beauty, but I have to say that they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to advocating the sensations of actually being there. In this case I like to say that dreams can come true. Again, the testimony from a client after completing the tour, “It’s a life changer… I can’t put into words the emotions and exuberance this trip brought about.” I guess that is what it feels like to summit the famous cols in the Pyrenees and ride from coast to coast and back!
Everyone is always eager to ride the big climbs in the Pyrenees, but the first 4 stages stay clear of the classic cols. Instead, for several reasons, the focus is on the foothills, along serene and quiet country roads that zig zag their way from village to village. Primary reason: time constraints. We only have 2 weeks, or more precisely 12 stages, to ride from coast to coast and back. The high mountains are too demanding to allow a traverse in 4 days, let alone 8, so we take the “low road.” But the low roads aren’t a “step down” so to speak. Rather, these roads are an opportunity to see another personality of the Pyrenees that isn’t steeped in high mountain activities and legend. I imagine you could call them the neglected but brilliant and beautiful siblings. When you ride on these roads you feel like you have traveled back in time, with old picket fences that line the farm fields and small country lanes. Again, though the foothills don’t enjoy the drama of the high mountains they do represent a distinct aspect and charm of the Pyrenees that is too often overlooked but well worth riding. Come see what 90% of the tourists never do, the hidden farms, villages, and splendid landscapes that are the inner workings of this region. It’s also just plain fun and challenging riding. And lastly it’s a great introduction and a way to ease into the trip – though averaging 100 miles a day for the first 4 days isn’t that easy.
How does it feel to complete this ride?
It’s hard to find the words to describe all the sensations and thrills of crisscrossing the Pyrenees on a bike. Sometimes you are just trying to keep it together to finish a climb or a stage, other times you are looking over the landscape pinching yourself because you just can’t believe how awesome it is. I can say that everyone comes away from this adventure feeling blown away. The physical effort is a huge accomplishment, and all the individual moments – too many to count – are memories for and of a lifetime. For me, and I’m guessing for my clients as well, because of my passion for cycling and being outdoors, a trip like this makes me feel truly alive. When riding across the Pyrenees, from coast to coast and back, I’m exactly where I want to be and nothing else matters! That’s a great feeling, a perfect oasis in life.
Ha! I plead guilty to the temptations of the high mountains. Even though the foothills are commanding in their own right, I found it lacking not to expose my riders to a major climb within the first 4 days of the trip. Therefore, stage 2 now includes the Col d’Aubisque, classified as an “out of category climb” in the cycling world. It took some shuffling on my part to create a feasible route, one in which the Aubisque was featured in the beginning of the day. The result, pure genius. Officially the day’s ride is an “ass-kicker” at 112 miles and 10,400 ft… and here to stay. David approaches the Col d’Aubisque on what was a perfect beautiful morning this year . . . oh the memories!
What do you think is special about your tour?
This trip has some exceptional features and qualities that testify to an amazing experience. For instance, I think it is really outstanding that the riders will complete the entire journey without ever having to ride in the sag-wagon. Two weeks without getting in a car and yet you will still travel over a 1000 miles! When was there a time when you had such an opportunity or experience? That is huge! Each stage goes from hotel to hotel, and never once does the trip call for travel time in the van. 12 stages to cover the distance from coast to coast and back, no easy feat, but requiring a very high level of fitness and ability. It demands determined rider focus and support, which I don’t compromise. Therefore a max group size of 12 people – perfect so the group can gel and develop a bond, the riders can work together, the sag-wagon can be there to support all the riders, and our service at hotels and restaurants is the best.
The small group size in itself is also unique. Two consistent comments I get from my clients is that they:
(1) have never been on a trip with such outstanding rider support, which they attribute to their success in completing the ride, and
(2) the great camaraderie they share out on the road and at the end of the day when they get to sit down and talk about the ride. Another special feature are the routes and the backroads that we follow. France is littered with fabulous and little trafficked roads that are a pleasure to explore, and these are the gems that make each and every stage a wonder. I can guarantee you that while we cross paths with other cyclists on the big cols, we never see other tour groups on the small backroads that are the hidden heart and soul of the Pyrenees. Let me quote a past client, “The riding was phenomenal. I knew what to expect since I have ridden in the Pyrenees before, but I was still blown away by the quality of the riding and just how quiet and off the beaten path we were.”
Part of the fun and challenge of designing the routes is to keep us on roads that are off the beaten path whenever possible. Even though this isn’t a detailed close-up of the map route, you can see how a stage meanders before reaching its end, and the profile of the course makes it very clear how hilly and mountainous it is. The ride starts at about an elevation of 1300 ft and climbs to almost 6000 ft at the top of the col d’Aubisque, and then it drops down and continues on through the foothills. All a lot of fun for the maniacal cyclist.
Tell me about the cycling skill necessary to be able to do this trip.
Certainly it is not for everyone. But to be clear this trip is not a race either. Riders need to be tenacious and committed. They can’t casually give up when the going gets tough. Everyone wants to ride the entire distance, and rightly so as that is a big part of what this adventure is all about. That being said, the people who do well are the ones who love to spend their day on a bike, love to suffer and push themselves, and thrive on endurance. If that describes you then this trip is your calling. Cyclists who are racers or who have experience with double centuries and multi-day rides are the type who have tested and proven themselves to be qualified for this trip. To put things in perspective, in the first 4 stages, which are in the foothills, we cover 428 miles and 32,400 feet of climbing, so obviously that demands experience and fitness. Remember, if it was easy it wouldn’t be fun!
What makes the Pyrenees interesting?
One of the interesting highlights of riding from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean is the change in climate and landscapes, as well as the “micro-cultures” – the Basque contrasted with Catalonia. While the “Pyrenees Atlantique” are lush and green, the “Pyrenees Oriental” – the Mediterranean side – are bathed in dryer climactic conditions, with vegetation typical of low rain fall and semi-desert regions. These two areas are counterparts of each other in setting and atmosphere. Hence there is both cultural and geographical allure, motivation for cyclists other than the history of bike racing in the Pyrenees or the challenge of the cols. One of my goals for this trip, and part of its appeal, is the opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of the Pyrenees regions. Therefore, every day of riding is distinct from the previous, each day’s route unique and exceptional, and each day’s destination somewhere different. There is a real sense that you are on an adventure exploring all of the Pyrenees. A sensation you can’t realize if you stay put in the same hotel for several days.
Another added bonus discovered this year, the Gorges de Galamus on the eastern end of the Pyrenees. The road, as you can see, is carved into the canyon walls. It is too narrow to allow for traffic to flow in both directions. Naturally there is a 5 minute stoplight to alternate the traffic and control the mile long passage. The base of the canyon is 600 feet below. On this day we covered 128 miles so we didn’t stop to sightsee, but I’m sure everyone made a note in their memory to back some day and check it out.
Tell me about the Mediterranean town and the first rest day.
The destination on the Mediterranean coast is the ancient, quaint, and touristic seaside town of Collioure, with history that dates back to the Romans. Over the centuries it has been an important bay and access to the sea, in part because it’s easily defended and well sheltered. It is also perfect for the locale of the first rest day. We take the day off to explore the sites, such as the historical water front castle/forte and downtown, all within walking distance from the hotel. The idea is to go easy and use the opportunity to rest your legs, enjoy the restaurants and local cuisine, and have refreshments overlooking the Mediterranean. Furthermore, because Collioure is a seaside town it meets the “coast to coast” standard of the trip! That may seem trivial, but I believe there is something poetic to the idea that you will dip your toes on both coasts.
The view of the town from the hillside overlooking the port. The town is perfect for the tour needs! On this rest day the group is free to roam, ramble and prowl about the port town and enjoy all the activities and views. Easy to do as the hotel is not more than a block from downtown and the beach.
The return to the Atlantic is via the high mountains. Tell us about that!
Right, let the climbing begin and let’s get ready to rumble! What I call “Part II” of the tour is the return back to the Atlantic and it is all in the high mountains, divided into 8 stages covering a little over 679 miles and 81,480 feet of elevation, far more formidable as the climbing jacks-up. But this is what everyone has trained and signed up for. Here’s where we get to ride many of the mountain passes seen in the Tour de France. Along the way we’ll discover what it feels like to ride the Col de Peyresourde, Tourmalet, Aubisque, and Bagargui to name a few (24 in all). We will challenge yourselves to ride an average of 84 miles and 10,000 feet a day. One tough and punishing ride after another, day after day, mountain pass after mountain pass, each day as magnificent as the previous, with breathtaking landscapes to make you feel as though you are living in a post card. There’s a 100 years of Tour de France history in these mountains and you get to live it. What a great feeling and such a high at the end of the day to have done all those cols. This is one really hard ride with some serious vertical, and lifelong bragging rights.The descents are epic too with well paved roads that zig zag there way down the mountains. Remember, an 18 km climb has an 18 km descent down the other side, simple straight forward physics!
With the first rest day over we are back at it and making our way to the high mountains. As always we stick to the small backroads that take us into the nooks and crannies of the Pyrenees. In fact this is a theme integral to the entire trip.
What makes this trip feasible as a rider?
The critical element is the van support and the level of backing that makes the difference. It isn’t until my clients have ridden the first stage that they understand the degree to which the van shadows the riders and provides them with steady access to food and drink, and their equipment. That means everyone eats and drinks continually throughout the stages and that makes an enormous difference to sustaining energy levels and promoting recovery for the next day. The key is to avoid an overwhelming accumulation of fatigue, and in my opinion fitness isn’t the weak link, all my riders are fit, but hydration and nutrition. If you get behind the 8-ball you are toast. I can almost guarantee you that if you didn’t have this level of support you would have a difficult time completing the course, or at the least you’d progressively find yourself limping your way versus attacking and riding aggressively.
We took over the front steps of the hotel in Quillan, no one was in a rush to to do anything, instead opting to forage and feed and drink from the van supplies, enjoy a beer or 2, and appreciating another wonderful day in the French Pyrenees. Life is good. Later, after everyone is all cleaned up, we will sit down to a copious dinner at the hotel.
What do you like most about the trip?
Actually the better question is “what’s not to like?!” There really isn’t a weak link to the Pyrenees. Every criteria by which you judge riding in these mountains comes out top notch. The pavement quality is outstanding everywhere, small backroads included. The beauty of the landscapes second to none. The variety of the terrain broad and deep. The challenge of the climbs tremendous. The descents outrageous. It’s almost like God designed the Pyrenees for cyclists. Take for example the fact that the absolute elevation of any pass never exceeds 7000 feet, so the air is always thick with oxygen and the only thing holding you back is your strength and fitness. Try riding in mountains at 10,000 feet and you are sucking wind, pedalling along feebly and feeling as though you have a fever. So maybe what I like most about it is the whole package. I can’t imagine a better cycling trip.
Stage 8: The Porte de Bales was the third of 5 climbs for stage 8 of the tour, and this day’s ride was statistically the most demanding of the trip with 14,400 feet of total elevation climbed over 93 miles. The profile is a daunting image that tells the tale, as we start the day at about 800 feet above sea level and we then ride over multiple passes that reach as high as 6000 feet. The first 20 miles from Mane to Aspet were as bucolic a scenery as I have ever seen.
Statistically the hardest day?
Each day in the high mountains is intense, and every mountain pass is exhilarating and beautiful. Yet stage number 8 of the trip stands out as it pushes the limits totaling 94 miles and 14,400+ ft of elevation over 5 mountain passes. The saving grace is the rest day that follows. This stage was inspired by stage 15 of the 2005 Tour de France, which Hincapie won. Even though it isn’t the same route, it still boasts 5 climbs. If you are smart you’ll be conserving your energy no matter how tempting it is to put the hurt on your friends. (the cols on stage 8: Col d’Aspet, Col du Mente, Porte de Bales, Col du Peyresourde, and Col d’Azet.)
The reason that everyone aspires to this tour is to ride the majestic mountain passes that they have seen so often in the Tour de France. It’s as simple as that, a mission and calling of sorts to all serious and devoted to cyclists. And the tour delivers with 24 high mountain passes. Accordingly that means multiple climbs each day as we make our way back to the Atlantic Ocean via the Pyrenees high mountains in 8 stages. Often times the passes, such as this one, named the Porte de Bales, are rustic and baron with little to no traffic.
What about the weather?
I think what you are really asking is what about rain? Some of the best weather, which as a cyclist I define as the least likelihood of rain, is between the end of August to mid September. I originally chose the dates of this trip – August 27 to September 11 – because I wanted to avoid summer vacation crowds. By serendipity it also coincides with the high likely hood of good weather – per what the locals say. So far that has been my experience and the proof is that every one of my trips has been blessed with 11 days of dry conditions and only one day of “on and off” rain. Much of the time the weather is hot and sunny with blue skies. I can’t guarantee that will be the case every year, but the track record is promising.
Do you have a favorite stage/day?
Honestly, all the stages are awesome. Sure, some are more challenging then others, but there’s a flow and character to each day that helps sustain momentum through the entire tour. France is such a beautiful country that there is never a dull moment, you’re always grinning wherever you are. Every stage is a test, and every day you’ll come up against moments that demand you adapt and overcome. I’ll let the words of a past client sum it up, “Any one of the stages in this tour would have been memorable, but to put them all together in a single tour was epic. It was without a doubt the most physically and mentally challenging cycling I’ve ever done on a bike. It was evident from the very beginning that this tour was put together by someone who understands what it means to be an avid cyclist. Every day there was something special about the route.”
Wow, a day like this in the Pyrenees makes you feel alive. The views are stunning and the cycling is exhilarating, and breathtaking (literally).
Tell us about the Tourmalet.
The Col du Tourmalet is undoubtedly the most sought after badge of all the passes. It’s first inclusion in the Tour de France goes back to 1910, with a total of 82 appearances since then. It rightly deserves the accolades and honours bestowed it, but I will let you in on a secret … there are many others like it, that is the suffering it dishes out. When you summit this pass you will feel exhilarated and proud, you will stand under the famous statue of the cyclist above the Tourmalet sign and have your picture taken, but you will know that you have already suffered as hard … and that there is still more suffering to come. By happenstance it is located about halfway between the two coasts, and summiting the col is symbolically the pinnacle of this tour and everyone’s efforts. Nonetheless, even though it has the backing of history and does rank as an hors de category climb, it is not all downhill from here back to Biarritz. Half way means half way, so up to this point you will have already climbed 12 cols, and still have 12 to go. In fact, stage 9, which includes the Tourmalet, also includes the Col d’Aspin and the Gavarnie. That’s right the Tourmalet is not the day’s only challenge.
Zone Pastorale, can you explain that to us?
The upper third of the mountains are the “zone pastorale” where the animals are in “open liberty,” which is another wonderful part of the character and ambiance of the Pyrenees. The farm animals are free to roam the mountains, as they have done for centuries. Farming and livestock raising was the primary economic activity of the Pyrenees for centuries, and it continues to this day. The melody of cowbells ringing and clinging in the background is one of the iconic images and sounds of the Pyrenees. Often times the animals are wandering on the road, oblivious of the human activity that surrounds them, and we are obliged to wait until they make room for us to advance. These scenes are typical of the high mountain passes. I always remind everyone to be vigilant of farm animals and their droppings when descending. You can put your trust and confidence in the high quality of the roads, but you never know what might be standing in the middle of the road around the next bend. Overall there is a pleasant sense of everyone coexisting and sharing the road amicably and patiently! Vive la France.
The area is a protected park and also a World Heritage Classified site. The Tour de France wanted to include it in the race one year back in the 80s, but the potential ecological damage from the masses of spectators prevented it from being realized. But that did not stop my group, as Stage 9 took us up to the top of the Cirque du Gavarnie, the third and last climb of the day after the Col d’Aspin and the Tourmalet. On the other side of the Gavarnie is Spain.
How did you discover the Gavarnie?
Ah, the Gavarnie! I have to admit I stumbled upon this climb. I was looking for a 3rd climb to add to stage 9 along with a run through a valley to stretch the mileage out for the day. Examining the Michelin map I settled on the Gavarnie because it seemed to meet those needs. The first year I included it was also the first time I went up it. I described it to the group as a “quick out and back” since it’s a dead end climb. Low and behold we were all in for a shock. The Gavarnie is actually higher in elevation than the Tourmalet, so the 20km uphill run up the valley followed by a 10 km steep climb was enormous. It added 3,500 feet to the day and 38 miles to the day (92 miles and 12,600 ft). I got a lot of playful ribbing at dinner that night for presenting the climb as something mellow. To this day I still tell people, with a smirk, it’s just a “quick out and back,” and that has become somewhat of a tradition.
In the town of Saint Savin is a wonderful hotel owned and operated by a lovely english couple, John and Jane. This is the view from the hotel looking south towards the canyon that leads to the Col du Tourmalet and the Gavarnie. Off in the distance, a kilometer outside of town and standing alone on the hill top is La chapelle Notre-Dame de Piétat.
Why the family Mom and Pop hotels?
What makes France and the Pyrenees such a pleasure is the overall small town feel, and a big part of that are the family owned hotels. In the same way that I stick to the backroads, I also look for hotels that reflect the character of the region. Commercial turn-key franchise types of hotels do exist now in France but they are exactly that “commercial,” or to be a little more dramatic, “empty vessels of commerce.” The Pyrenees mountains have a lot of soul and the unique local family hotels are a big part of that. As a small tour group I can take advantage of these smaller hotels. The variety of the hotels during the tour makes for interesting and enjoyable experiences. I enjoy the relationships and friendships that I have developed with a lot of the owners, and they are very accommodating and hospitable with my clients. It’s what I call “France From the Inside.”
Another stunning mountain top, the Col d’Aubisque, above Lourdes, and off in the distance the Col de Soulor and way off in the distance the Col du tourmalet. For the riders it’s an unending plethora of dazzling mountain tops. Sheep, cows, and horses roam freely to graze in the “zone pastorale.
Tell us about the special moments with Marcel, professional French cyclist from the 50s and early 60s.
Marcel lives about 20km from the town of Arette which is the destination of stage 10. Last year he met up with us twice, rode with us on part of stage 1 and again on stage 11 – up the Col du Bagargui, arguably the hardest climb of the whole tour, at the age of 84. Insane! Anyhow, this year I was only able to arrange to connect with him at the end of the day after the ride. It wasn’t preplanned, just spur of the moment. I called him to say hello and he insisted we come over. I expected he would invite us, that’s the way he is, but I was concerned about how to fit a visit in before dinner. Since he and I have become good friends over the past few years, I knew he would have been disappointed if we did not come. I couldn’t take the whole group, but luckily not everyone wanted to go so that made it easier and doable. I wasn’t sure my clients would enjoy it that much since they don’t speak French, but it turned out to be a mini highlight for them. Marcel is a gregarious character and he showed a lot of genuine enthusiasm and enjoyment in receiving them, as did his wife. They invited us into their home, served us wine and appetizers, and we all managed to have a robust conversation and a belly of laughs. It was a unique and personal moment for all of us. Then we high-tailed it back to the hotel in time for dinner!
Only a few of the riders from the group were lively enough after the day’s ride to come along for a side excursion and visit Marcel Queheille, the professional Basque cyclist from the late 50s and early 60s. In the basement and workshop at his house, an old photo of Marcel in his days as a professional behind us.
And the food on the trip?
We eat and we eat well! It’s hard to beat the food in France, and the Pyrenees are no exception. Thankfully, the primary reputation and appeal of France is their cuisine. Typical dinners on this trip include a salad, an appetizer, a main dish, cheese and desert. For example you might chose to begin your meal with melon and prosciutto, followed by a mixed salad, a main dish of pork filet mignon with roasted oven potatoes and thinly shredded vegetables, a dish of varied Pyrenees local sheep cheeses, and a desert of chocolate cake with vanilla crème sauce. Combine that with some red wine and you will be smiling from ear to ear. The hotels and restaurants in the Pyrenees are familiar with cyclists and their appetites, so they know how to take care of us.
On the last night of the tour, after the last day of riding, we go out for a celebration dinner. And like every dinner on the tour it is a feast, and as usual we all order desert. This, my friends, is one of the fortuitous blessings of riding a bike across the Pyrenees, from coast to coast and back, all you can eat, any desert and all deserts, and not a pound gained … rather the contrary.
Mission Accomplished. Before you know it, it all goes by so fast, and it’s the final day and you finish back where you had started in Biarritz … a gigantic loop from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea and back, totaling a 1000 miles and 100,000 ft elevation, in 12 days of riding. Now that is quite an accomplishment and thrill, and most definitely some bragging rights. The End!
• This trip runs August 27 to September 11, 2016, and costs $4200 per person.
– More info available at FranceFromInside.com –
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