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12-09-2023 | Nicolien Luijsterburg

La Campilaro, a lovely stage race through the Pyrenees

If you're an experienced gran fondo rider wondering about your goals for next year, I highly recommend considering a stage race. CycloWorld's calendar offers several of these, providing a wholly distinct experience compared to one-day gran fondos. This distinction extends beyond the physical challenges, encompassing the social aspects as well. You'll find yourself forging connections with fellow participants and forming bonds with the organizers over several days. This year, I participated in La Campilaro, a stage race through the Pyrenees, featuring three exhilarating and demanding stages.

Day 0: Bagenères-de-Luchon

Both the first and second stages commence from Bagenères-de-Luchon, a picturesque village nestled in the southern reaches of France, near the Spanish border. It serves as an ideal hub for tackling renowned mountain giants while providing the convenience of not having to change locations daily during a multi-day event. La Campilaro kicks off with a thorough Thursday evening briefing covering route details, safety protocols, and practical information. This being the eighth edition of La Campilaro, each year featuring a distinct route, the event runs with impressive efficiency and meticulous planning. The information provided is crystal clear. To maintain its intimate atmosphere, the event limits participation to a maximum of 220 riders. Following the briefing, participants gather for the opening dinner, a delightful opportunity to acquaint themselves with their fellow riders, setting a pleasant and informative tone for the forthcoming three days.

Stage 1: Bagenères-de-Luchon to Superbagnères, 97km/2600m+

The excitement begins on Friday with Stage 1, a journey north over the Port de Balès, returning to the starting point before culminating with a demanding uphill finish at Superbagnères. In the interest of safety, La Campilaro opts for segmented timing rather than continuous timing from start to finish for this stage. Unlike some other events that segment only climbing portions, here, the timed segments encompass more than just the ascents, significantly enhancing the gran fondo experience. We embark from the village, and while the initial section through the valley remains neutralized, the pace intensifies once we exit it. The approach to Port de Balès presents challenging terrain with moderate uphill gradients, making it tempting to stay within the peloton until the actual climb begins. Yet, this requires considerable strength. The crucial question, as with any gran fondo, especially a multi-day one, is when to establish your own rhythm. After all, there's much ahead, and energy management is paramount. Port de Balès immediately steepens at its inception, causing the peloton to fragment into smaller groups. This nineteen-kilometer climb proves exceptionally irregular, featuring a mix of steep and slightly less daunting sections. With an average gradient of 6%, it's a demanding ascent. I find myself ascending alongside another female rider, and it turns out we occupy the second and third positions at the summit. Among the 210 participants in La Campilaro, which includes 27 women, this stands as a commendable achievement, especially given the event's challenging nature.

Photo: Leading the pack in the world champion's jersey © Emmanuel Grimault

Descending from the summit is neutralized, a welcome measure considering the narrow and technical nature of the descent, compounded by drizzling rain and thick fog. Visibility is reduced to a mere few meters at times. The day's finish, constituting the second timed segment, awaits atop Superbagnères, encompassing a grueling seventeen-kilometer ascent with a 6.6% average gradient. Regrettably, the fog persists, rendering the climb a scenic but obscured experience. Nevertheless, I feel strong and choose not to hold back. Tomorrow is another day, and seizing any available time advantage is pivotal. I reach the summit as the leading female rider, securing second place overall. It's a promising start, but now, I must navigate the cold and foggy descent back to the village, fortunately with my windbreaker readily accessible from the morning's drop-off bag provided by the organizers.

Stage 2: Bagenères-de-Luchon to Saint-Gaudens, 137km/2200m+

Day 2 unfolds with a hill stage, albeit a relative one. Absent are the monumental mountain passes, but the day still boasts 2200 meters of elevation gain, including the challenging Col de Portet d´Aspet, accompanied by several smaller cols like Col des Ares, Col de Buret, and Col du Larrieu. With rolling countryside interspersed throughout, this stage commands respect and strategic acumen, especially given the necessity of being in the right group at the opportune moments. Except for the initial twenty kilometers through the valley, the entire stage is timed.

While I'm holding up reasonably well, the lingering fatigue from yesterday's stage lingers in my legs. Regrettably, I can't bridge the gap to the leading women's group, which results in a substantial time deficit. My second place in the general classification remains secure, but the margin to the top spot remains substantial, making tomorrow's challenge all the more daunting. Fortunately, the organizers offer various recovery options that could be pre-booked. Opting for cryotherapy, a novel experience, proves beneficial. Three minutes in an ice-cold chamber purportedly optimizes muscle recovery for the following day. Time will tell.

Stage 3: Saint-Gaudins to Station les Agudes, 87km/2600m+

The finale arrives on Day 3, boasting the shortest distance in kilometers yet featuring two formidable cols: Col de Menté and a finish at Station les Agudes, a deviation from Peyresourde. I feel significantly better than the previous day—perhaps the cryotherapy played a role? The ascent up Col de Menté proceeds smoothly. By now, I've recognized that my primary competitor is a stronger climber, so, as on Day 1, I'm banking on my stamina. While I can't match her pace on Col de Menté, I maintain a close eye on her, keeping her within striking distance.

© Emmanuel Grimault

The descent is similarly neutralized, but as we reach the valley, the second timed segment commences. I find myself in the same group as the leading woman and discern from her body language that she's struggling. I position myself in her slipstream and decide to make my move on the shallower sections. Each time we encounter them, I successfully regain her wheel. It's an exhilarating back-and-forth, repeating until we approach a descending stretch leading to the final climbing kilometers. With determination, I launch an all-or-nothing attack, managing to drop her and secure first place with a 45-second lead. While it doesn't alter the overall standings, firmly cementing my second place, it's a thrilling victory!

That Grand Tour feeling

Though a mere three days, the experience feels monumental, akin to completing a Grand Tour. It's not just about the sporting accomplishment; it's about the camaraderie with fellow participants, the multi-day battle for classification positions, the hopeful anticipation of each new stage, and the culinary journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it and gained valuable insights. My heartfelt thanks go out to the organizers for a fantastic event. I eagerly await next year's route announcement.

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