I've heard about extreme climbing cycling tours for a long time. It was a part of the Rapha company -- Rapha Travel. After Rapha was acquired, Rapha Travel became an independent business called Cent Cols Challenge (CCC), and its founder (the legendary Phil) managed it. Recently, the company was bought by another cycling enthusiast - named Adam. He himself rode this tour with us. It's evident that he genuinely loves these tours and strives to preserve them. He and the whole crew did great!
This year, I decided to participate in the Pyrenees tour. I wasn't confident that I was ready, but I decided to give it a try. Cycling is my weakest discipline in triathlon and I wanted to improve it at CCC.
The tour lasted for 11 days: 5 riding days + 1 rest day + another 5 riding days. During this time, we covered around 1800 km. (1118 miles) with an elevation gain of about 47 km. (154199 feet). An average day was 180 km (112 miles) with 4700 (15 4100 feet) meters of climbing. I ended up doing slightly less because I missed one day due to illness. We spent about 100 hours on the road. The winner of the 2023 Tour de France finished the race in 82 hours. So, our group spent even more time in the saddle! Importantly, this is not a race, but a tour.
There were 12 people in the group. Usually, there are up to 20 participants in this event. I was the only newcomer who rode all 10 days for the first time. There was an option for 5 days, and another newcomer completed it. Once you try something like this, it's hard to stop!
The participation cost was 4700 euros. This included on-route support, accommodation, and meals. To these expenses, you needed to add flight and transfer costs. In my opinion, the tour is absolutely worth the money!
All participants had good to very good preparation. The average age was 45 years old. Each had their own story.
Group motivation worked well. I could never have done such a volume myself.
One of the participants from a previous tour shared their preparation volume. In the 9 months leading up to the start, from January to September, they trained like this:
- 18 hours per week
- Distance of 12,500 km
- Elevation gain of 225,000 meters
- 176 training sessions
- 47 sessions over 5 hours, 18 over 7 hours, 3 over 9 hours
In my opinion, that's a lot. I haven't done anything similar! I logged roughly 5000 km. (3100 miles) this year before CCC.
Two minivans supported us. Usually, we had two feeding points. Places where we were fed and could take extra items from our bags. Importantly, there were many springs along the route where we could refill water bottles. Many of the water fountains were several hundred years old!
Mechanical support was always present on the route.
We hardly ever rode in a group. There's not much sense in that in the mountains. We started together (first a slower group -- Grupetto at 7:00 am. I was a part of this group) and about 40 minutes later, a stronger one. On the first major climbs, the groups separated. To avoid getting lost, we had the route loaded onto our bike computers. It was crucial for the computer not to die! Not all models last 12 hours. Nevertheless, the gaps at the finish between the fastest and the last riders were rarely more than two hours.
We were extremely lucky with the weather. There was only one rainy day. But even in such situations, the temperature difference could be from 10 degrees Celsius in the morning to 35 degrees in the afternoon. According to experienced folks, the weather can be very capricious with rain, hail, and even snow.
There was no special recovery program for us. At dinner, we took turns using a Theragun massage gun. Sleep was the key element of recovery. Each evening, we washed our cycling gear. During the first week, I only used one kit.
An average day lasted 10 hours. My longest day was 12.5 hours in the saddle. Every day, we moved from one place to another. We rode both the iconic passes known to all cycling enthusiasts from the Tour or Vuelta (Col du Tourmalet, Col du Aubisque) and magical forest roads that even locals hardly know. On these roads, there was almost no traffic.
My bike bag didn't arrive on time, so I rode a rented Open bike for the first 5 days. If the size had been 100% mine, I wouldn't have had any questions about it at all. It’s a perfect bike. I rode the second part on my own bike - a 10+years old Cervelo S2. The bike weighs 7.5 kg. (16.5 lbs). Water bottles and the saddlebag add another 2 kg. (4.4 lbs).I had a Compact crankset and a cassette of 11-28. I would have been happier with an 11-34 cassette.
A mistake with equipment or clothing choice can be very costly. If you forget to use lipstick, your lips crack by the end of the day. If you choose the wrong level of sunblock protection, your nose gets burnt.
During the race, I lost about 2 kg. (4.4 lbs) I didn't have a power meter with me, and Strava calculated it. On average, it was around 180 watts. My weight is 78 kg (170 lbs), and I'm 184 cm (6.1) tall.
How much does fitness improve after such a tour? Endurance definitely improves, and speed drops. Experienced folks say that a couple of weeks after the tour, there's no power in the legs, but then fitness returns.
Often on the route, I listened to summaries, audiobooks, and podcasts. The combination of physical exertion and intellectual engagement was amazing!
Three participants, including myself, didn't complete the entire tour, so we didn't earn the finisher's cap.
Great video from the company founder.
Cent Cols takes place 3-4 times a year. Usually in the Alps, Dolomites, Corsica, and Pyrenees. I'll definitely be back!"