We stopped at the Laurent Fignon Centre outside Bagnes di Bigorre in the Hautes-Pyrenees as part of a tour of the area. It’s a Mecca for cyclists because of its associations with the Tour de France. “Would you like me to take you on a circuit?” said a fit and gorgeous man. Of course I said yes (while resolving not to tell him that I was just 4 months out of chemo in case he changed his mind). After a very short while on the flat we began a long, slow ascent over huge rolling hills. The clean, bright air smelt of rich earth, healthy woodlands and the scent of sage wafted up to us in tantalising patches. My new friend stopped after about half an hour to show me the church town of Beaudéan. This was the hometown of Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey. He was Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeon and the person responsible for the introduction of the first flying ambulance in a battlefield. We passed the place where Eugene Christophe (the famous first rider to wear the yellow jersey of the Tour De France) fixed his broken bicycle fork and the public spring where old-style competitive Tour de France riders topped up on water before the ascent to the Col du Tourmalet.
It was incredibly difficult. I had not ridden up mountains since well before I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. That was partly because I hadn’t felt well enough but also because London is mostly flat and even hills are hard to find. My heart hadn’t worked this hard pumping blood for well over a year – and I felt it – and my legs felt so heavy that I thought they might stop. But as the ride got harder so did my determination not to let my new friend down. During one of many stops (I pretended that they were to drink but actually needed the rest) I realized we were doing part of an Etape for this year’s legendary Tour de France! After that, the pain didn’t matter. Nor did the thirst that came as much from the post-chemo sweats as the effort of the ride.
It wasn’t till I felt the change of altitude; that buzzing, almost spaced-out but not-unhealthy feel at the back of my head, that I realised with wonder how high we had climbed. The view was stunning; the rich greens of the lowlands contrasted wonderfully with the purple-grey mountains still dusted with bright white snow and I felt a sense of achievement mingled with considerable relief.
What a journey! What a buzz! And oh my, what incredibly hard work! I knew then, in my heart mind – and also in my leaden legs – that the awful time I had last year was over. My recovery from chemo would be another great challenge and an exciting journey as well.