Jonathan Thomson’s Diary of his Epic 2021 Pyrenees Cycle Journey
In September 2021 Jonathan Thomson completed an epic fundraising event, cycling from Argelès-sur-Mer in France on the 13th September, on what he planned to be a journey of eight days, weather and other conditions permitting, covering 1,000km and involving at least 40,000ft of hill climbs.
The former Royal Marine, in his 70s, raised over £22,000 for PTSD Resolution. The charity provides therapy for the mental welfare of Forces’ Veterans, Reservists and their families. Treatment is free, effective and delivered promptly and locally through a network of 200 therapists nationwide, and also by phone and internet during the pandemic. Contact www.PTSDresolution.org.
Founded in 2009, and with 3,000 referrals to date, the charity delivers therapy in an average of six sessions, with 78% of cases seeing an improvement in reported symptoms to where the client and therapist agree that no further therapy is required.
This is Jonathan’s story of his epic Pyreneen cycle ride.
For Raid ’21 we elected to ride the first four days, Argelès-sur-Mer to Luchon, twice. This is the story of our 11 days of cycling through the Pyrenees over the period 6th – 20th September 2021.
Day 1 of our recce, Monday 6th September 2021
At about 9.20am this morning three cyclists, average age just over seventy, made their way from the beaches of the Mediterranean and headed west into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The route took us through ancient villages and along roads narrow and deserted. Lovely cycling.
After we reached the ancient town of Céret, through a brief maelstrom of heavy traffic, we went up and across the grain of jagged limestone country to our resting place at Ile-sur-Têt. The 80km with 3,467ft of climb for the day was a taster of the big hills to come. Tomorrow a slightly longer ride will take us deeper into those hills.
Day 2 of our recce
A day of two unequal halves. We cycled mostly on remote mountain roads covering 97km and achieving 7,060ft of climb all of which meant we were more than ready for the restorative cold beer which awaited at our finish in the small village of Comus, deep in the hills. The early morning climb on cold legs up through towering limestone cliffs was special, as was the constant variety of the countryside that challenged and delighted in equal measure. A very good day.
The long-distance cyclist is an observer of local life as it flashes past: a farmer getting in his harvest; village ladies returning home laden with shopping; students starting their new academic year; babies in pushchairs with attentive parents, and so on. We are privileged to witness normal life as we wriggle our way across the map.
High country tomorrow, with a hint of rain.
Day 3 of our recce
We awoke to a perfect mountain day - crystal clear and cool. Down in the valleys all was fog, but we didn't intend to go there. Instead, we went up, over a small col and down through the most lovely beech forest onto a wiggly up-and-down road that took us for 40km high above the valley below. A lovely ride.
But such easy cycling couldn't last - it was time to address the big hills. This we did by riding up the Port de Lers, on a climb that tested the best, then on to the Col d'Agnes which at 5,150ft was fully engulfed by cloud. From there two of our number swooped down the wide mountain road like a couple of Spitfires on the hunt until we all regrouped and finished together after a long day of cycling. For the record, we covered 125km and climbed 6,115ft.
Tomorrow is the last day of this warm-up as we cycle into Luchon through certain rain.
Day 4 of our recce
As we moved further west today, we came under the influence of bigger mountains, so the weather changed bringing with it the first hint of rain. An easier day saw us over the Col de Portet d'Aspet and then down the at times 17% incline through towering forests, dark and foreboding with deep ravines giving a real feel of a tropical jungle. On the way, we stopped at Fabio Casartelli's memorial, in part to pay our respects to a fallen cyclist and in part to prevent our downhill expert from hitting the same wall that so tragically killed Casartelli. From there we went through the lovely bobbly country to Luchon where we finished the ride. For the record, we covered 84km today and climbed 4,230ft.
So ends our four-day warm-up in preparation for our attempt at the cross-Pyrenees ride, which we are calling Raid '21 - mimicking the proper name of Raid Pyrénéen for such a venture. We will start next Monday, and cycle coast-to-coast. Today we parted company with my fellow pilgrims: Des, a superb cyclist despite his 60+ years, and the astonishing Bill whose abilities as a climber and very fast descender belie his 70++ years.
Reflections on our recce:
Over the last four days we have cycled 386km, which isn't that great a distance, and climbed 21,108ft, which provided a challenge. We spent most of our time on small, quiet, and rarely visited roads that snaked up and down and through villages of incredible age and interesting history. To do so was a privilege.
We contended with sun, a bit of rain and climbs that went from 14% up to 17% down. Despite all, we concluded that the greatest threat to our safety was gravel. As we came off the steep limestone hills of Day Two, we realised that the little stones under our wheels were in places millimetres thick. That doesn't sound much, but on the day, with sunlight producing a dappled effect, it was near lethal. We now give gravel a very wide berth if we see it in time.
And lastly, through the unbelievable support we've received day-by-day, we may have increased awareness of PTSD as a pernicious condition. If that's the case, our effort will not have been in vain. On Monday we start back on a Mediterranean beach and aim to cycle the whole way to the Atlantic with a slightly different Team. We will again be supporting PTSD Resolution.
Day 1 of Raid ‘21
A Team of Two set off from the Mediterranean this morning, heading for the Atlantic, eight cycling days away. As we climbed past the last of the olive groves, we entered thick Mediterranean oak. On a small bridge sat an old man dressed in blue who acknowledged our wave. He had been there a week ago. “Does he live in the forest,” we asked ourselves? Above Céret, from where Hasler and Sparks escaped over the mountains after the Gironde raid of 1942, much aided by the incredible bravery of the Resistance, we saw a cloud (the correct word apparently is Committee, but cloud describes what we saw) of Vultures circling on a thermal. They play an essential part in the ecology of the area. In a small village with a 1,000-year-old church, we were bombarded by a squadron of Swifts and wondered whether their ancestors had watched the church being built a millennium earlier. On our way down through the forest, we passed a small platoon of Pyrenean Ibex pecking away. They are more often seen on the Spanish side of the border. A wondrous day.
For the record, we covered 78km and climbed 3,445ft. Tomorrow we go higher, further, and deeper into the hills.
Day 2 of Raid ‘21
We were early in the scramble to get out of a busy Ille-sur-Têt this morning, which led to a long steady climb past limestone cliffs that would not have been out of place in an early Star Wars film. A lovely horse nodded knowingly as we passed him, and the ubiquitous yellow La Poste vans scuttled importantly about their business in and out of the villages as we passed by. After cutting through some quite amazing, jumbled jungly country we came off the hills for a quick lunch before a 45km climb up the incomparable Rebenty valley and so to our night's stop in the village of Comus. It was a ride of two halves, and at 97.5km with 7,057ft of climb, a worthy day.
Tomorrow we have a longer ride that will take us high into the big hills. Rain and steamy clouds lie in wait.
Day 3 of Raid ‘21
We slept at 3,900ft last night, so it was cold in the clear mountain air when we started out. A pair of sparrow hawks, silent and deadly, swept across our front on their way to an early breakfast. We turned down a small road into a lovely and steep beech forest and speculated that the local wild boar had lifted his great head, sniffed the air with his sensitive snout and realised we were not a threat. We progressed unhindered down a terrific 40km of up-and-down road. Lovely cycling in warm sunshine.
But the rubber hit the road in the afternoon with the ascent of the Port de Lers, a challenging 2,600ft climb, followed by the Col d'Agnés which was less of a climb but at 5,150ft stands higher. We were starting to address the big hills. From there was a long downhill run into our overnight stop in St Girons, giving us a ride of 124km and 6,135ft of climb. Not a bad day.
Tomorrow we head into worsening weather and hope to finish in Luchon which sits very much in the middle of the big mountains.
Day 4 of Raid ‘21
We scuttled away from St Girons early this morning in an attempt to beat the rain (we failed!), but we cycled up a valley that went ever deeper into the Pyrenees. Towards us came a stream of cars carrying workers and shoppers. Going in our direction were builders' trucks carrying all their gear, driven by men with callused hands, sunburnt faces and possibly a casquette perched on the back of their heads as a reminder of cycling glories long past. They were followed by a stream of white vans (why is the white van so ubiquitous?), carrying the plumbers, electricians and deliveries and they in turn were followed by the Functionaires with their clipboards on their way to take readings, make inspections or whatever. A fascinating view of the start of the working day.
For the second time on this expedition, the ride took us over the Col de Portet d'Aspet, not in fact a huge climb, then had us tumbling down through the spectacular forest, still steaming from its earlier soaking. And then on to Luchon and our overnight base after an easy day of 85km and 4,468ft of climb. Tomorrow we address the big climbs: Col de Peyresourde, Col d'Aspin and Col du Tourmalet. We'll need a good night's sleep!
Day 5 of Raid ‘21
Today was about cycling up big hills: the Col de Peyresourde; Col d'Aspin; and the Col du Tourmalet, a distance of 94km with 9,865ft of climb on a day of unexpectedly good weather. There was no chance of a warm-up as we left Luchon but went straight up the Peyresourde heading for low cloud, on which we banged our helmets, slipped through, and found ourselves at the summit in a little puddle of sunlight. As the day went on the clouds cleared, giving us some stunning views.
It was also a day of bangs and shocks. In the first few kilometres, we thought we were under fire but were in fact passing a roof being repaired with a very large electric stapler. Further up the road, a fighter jet passed low overhead with a tumultuous roar that nearly drove your correspondent into a ditch, such was the shock. When nearing the summit of the Tourmalet there was a huge bang. Had the jet returned ?? we asked as we, and two startled llamas that happened to be there, took cover. The origin of the explosion remains a mystery. Further down the valley we'd seen two newborn lambs, unusual at this time of year, and as we climbed autumn crocuses appeared in the fields. A very hard day with some magnificent views and strange happenings.
Tomorrow we tackle another big Col and then start our run for the sea.
Raid ’21 – Day 6
The mountains granted us a day of lovely weather yesterday and took their revenge today as foretold so accurately in Wednesday's local paper, shown above. As we mustered outside our hotel this morning the sky was illuminated by stunning lightning as thunder rolled around the hills. The clouds were low and threatening, and sure enough, we had a day of mostly rain. In fact, we were soaked.
We covered 111km and climbed 6,456ft mainly up the twin cols of Soulor and Aubisque which are joined by a road that dips from the Soulor and then climbs to the Aubisque, which is higher. We were in a peasouper and could see very little. The road was in places rough. To our right was a cloud-filled, steep-sided valley and we felt the need to keep away from its edge in case we fell hundreds of feet. At one place the road went through a short tunnel which cascaded water onto unsuspecting cyclists and at another a mass of sheep, guided by ferocious and malevolent sheepdogs, suddenly appeared across our front. Descending from the Aubisque was a challenge and we only felt safe when back in more familiar lowland territory. The mountains of the Pyrenees are very hard places.
Tomorrow we cycle in easier country as we start our approach to the Atlantic, aiming to arrive there on Monday morning.
Raid ’21 – Day 7 and we run for the sea
Our attempt at cycling the Pyrenees from coast to coast and over the big Cols succeeded late this afternoon. We were a day earlier than planned.
We left our last night's resting place in Oloron-Sainte-Marie down a lovely country lane and suddenly appreciated that after the extreme challenges of the high Pyrenees we were back in a France that we rather preferred with its more gentle countryside where cows and sheep live in fields and are not free to wander where they like to the potential detriment of the fast-moving cyclist on his flimsy machine, as is the case in the big hills. As we travelled, we began to realise that we could possibly do a long ride and complete the route, and not cycle tomorrow as planned, and that's what we did. Success!! We covered 138km and climbed a further 6,791ft, making this run to the sea anything but flat. Worth doing though.
Throughout the day we were stalked by rainstorms, as shown below in this picture of the western Pyrenees. We mostly avoided the rains, but not entirely.
Lots to think about as we assess this past 11 days.
Raid ’21 – Reflections
Most endeavours require a supporting cast, and this was no exception - it took 9 people to get me through the Pyrenees. Bill & Des, who did the first ride. Bill is nearer 80 than 70 and is tough and fit, showing that age need not be a barrier to doing things. We were accompanied throughout by Neil and Jim who both suffer from the effects of PTSD as a consequence of their service. They were a brilliant support crew. Jill back in London provided an essential administrative overview (a man on a bike can't do much on his own). Jez, who lost a lower leg earlier in life when serving was my cycling companion for the end-to-end ride and was superb. Lizzie, at home in Comus in the Pyrenees, provided huge support for the two teams as they passed through. Sammy was on the road for the main effort and helped keep us alive. And Peter, owner of the Branding Science Group provided enormous physical and financial support, so ensuring that every penny of the fundraiser went to PTSD Resolution. This was a Team effort.
For the record, by cycling from the Mediterranean to Luchon twice (with different companions), the total cycled was 1,135km with 65,328ft of climb. It exposed us to the remarkable French countryside, the tough mountains and its people who could not have been more helpful at every turn. And it raised some significant funding that will help men, women, and families as they combat the curse that is PTSD.
Thank you for your support, and for following our efforts.