A fantastic experience and a memory to keep forever

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by Peter Cossins

Grief-stricken by the loss of a good friend who loved riding in the mountains, Peter Cossins explains how he found some comfort by riding high into the Pyrenees

My good friend Clive died on Monday. Although he’d been ill for many years, his death came unexpectedly and suddenly. He was someone I always relished spending time with, a great storyteller who was able to find humour in almost any situation, one of those people who made you feel better about life and about yourself. I’m going to miss him immensely.

A few of those stories will be familiar to regular followers of the articles on La Course en Tête. Before falling ill, Clive had been a very keen bike fan and cycle tourist, and tales of his travels in Europe appeared on this site on two occasions, the first recounting how he made his own SPD-like shoes using a pair of old Adidas Sambas, a couple of pieces of shaped aluminium and with bitumen employed for sticking and waterproofing purposes. I’ve heard this story many times, and still find myself laughing when I think about it. The second described with equal hilarity the first encounters Clive and his four riding companions had with the Pyrenees, concluding with the tale of the horror he sparked amidst the couple who ran a B&B in Luchon when he arrived at their door with his face covered in blood.

“We were in the mountains, on a bike, me doing all of the hard work, Clive providing the commentary – the tale of his bitumen Sambas, of his nosebleed on the road into Luchon…”

These stories were just the first in a planned compilation of this quintet’s japes and scrapes across the mountain massifs of western Europe. Sadly, though, my dawdling as a consequence of the belief that we would at some point find the time to see this mooted book through to publication and Clive’s deteriorating health meant that we never got much further than the stories that appeared on LCET. There were plenty more to come. I always laugh when I think of him recalling a testy encounter with 30 German motorcyclists atop the Col d’Aubisque. Then there was the tale of him being picked up by the Italian police while cycling through a tunnel on an autostrada, being fined for the misdemeanour, and then sharing pastries and coffee with the carabinieri, all bought with the proceeds of that fine.

Clive’s stories were like favourite songs. You never tired of them no matter how often you heard them. You wanted to hear them because they were hilarious, but also because they transported you into the kind of mountain terrain that tends to be the setting for most legendary cycling stories, whether personal in nature or coming from the professional side of the sport.

News of Clive’s death sent me back to those two articles, and I was soon weeping tears of grief mixed with hilarity. Reading them, I decided to ride out to one of the places Clive and his pals had ridden to on their trans-Pyrenean raid. I guess this was intended as a kind of tribute, a remembrance of passing, both along that road from the magnificent Port de Pailhères down into Ax-les-Thermes, as well as from life into death. The truth is, though, that I didn’t really know why I was going. I simply wanted to be on a bike and to be somewhere where Clive had been on a bike.

From a small hamlet between Tarascon and Ax, I climbed first up to the Route des Corniches, reaching it next to the crumbling Cathar castle of Lordat, which stands sentinel over the Upper Ariège valley. Running high above the traffic-heavy N20 down in the valley, this is one of my favourite roads and it ultimately leads into one of my favourite climbs, the Col de Marmare.

It’s almost 12km to the top of this pass, located just below the Col de Chioula and, a little further on, the road that barrels down from the Pailhères, past the little ski station at Ascou and on into Ax. Unlike the Pailhères and another near-neighbour the Col du Pradel, the Marmare doesn’t make me feel like me feel like my bike has been transformed from carbon fibre to lead. Its gradient barely rises above five per cent, so I can spin a relatively large gear for the duration, making me feel like I’m still in my thirties rather than a few weeks away from sixty. Sashaying upwards through pine and beech forest, it’s almost a road to nowhere and is close to traffic-free, another big point in its favour.

By going this way, I wanted to feel that Clive was with me. I wasn’t going to see him. I never will again. But we’d talked about these roads, about our experiences on them, and it felt like some essence of him still remained in the stillness. Helped by the ease and regularity of the gradient, I kept to a steady tempo, hardly needing to change gear, the regularity of my breathing, speed and the slope ensuring that that sense of him remained with me. It was meditative, cathartic to an extent.

When I moved to the Pyrenees in 2016, I’d always thought that Clive would one day join me on these roads and we’d enjoy more adventures. Years of illness prevented that, but here we were riding the Marmare together. We were in the mountains, on a bike, me doing all of the hard work, Clive providing the commentary – the tale of his bitumen Sambas, of his nosebleed on the road into Luchon, of the late-night salvation provided by plates of spaghetti carbonara in Ax-les-Thermes, those German motorcyclists on the Aubisque. What better place could there be for me to remember him but on a climb like the Marmare, pushing a little harder approaching the summit, as you would when riding with a friend? Bragging rights are never forgotten, after all.

One particular thing Clive had said about his trip across the Pyrenees with four mates stood out. It was their first high-altitude cycling adventure and the Pailhères was their first big climbing test. They’d started up the eastern flank of the pass in the early evening. That side of the mountain is both extraordinarily tough and spectacular. You get your teeth kicked in by its severity, but it’s absolutely worth it. Reflecting on reaching the summit, he’d written: “I’d never been at this height outside an airplane. I’d never seen a sunset with a whole mountain range between me and the horizon. It was dead calm. Not a breath of wind. A fantastic experience and a memory to keep forever.”

At the summit of the Marmare, although I stood in a strong and biting wind, I had that same sense of wonder. Glancing down, in the direction of the Plateau de Sault, and then upwards towards the Col de Chioula, this was a memory to keep forever, cemented by the fact that it was Clive who had encouraged me to go up there. It wasn’t the same as riding with him, the pair of us sprinting to the summit, before descending into Ax for some ales, but we’d been up together. We now have this memory. I’ll keep it for both of us.

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