CENT COLS CANTABRICO

Words and Images by Jered Gruber
When I was a kid, I went to the pool and looked up at the high-ish diving board. No way. That’s impossible. A few minutes later, after much internal coaxing and cajoling, I was on the edge of that same diving board. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath…and jumped.

Some years later, I ended up on a dead tree in the middle of a bayou in Louisiana. Ashley assured me that it was “no big deal.” Standing there, perched like the exact opposite of a bald eagle on a dead branch at the top, I didn’t feel it was anywhere close to “no big deal.”

I stood there for a couple hours…well, 10 seconds. I looked down at the water — such a long way down! It was impossible. Who would ever do something like that?

I went to climb down, but Ash stopped me. She reassured me.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath…and jumped.

It was out of this world.

As a kid, I remember the first time I saw x’s and y’s on the chalkboard at school. I wasn’t in English class. I panicked. This was impossible. How could anyone ever learn algebra?

The first time I picked up a golf club, I clank, clunk, clonked my way around for a few hours. It was hopeless. This is impossible.

Germany as a fifth grader. We visited my dad there, and the people spoke this outrageous-sounding language. How could anyone ever understand it? Impossible.

I picked up a bike, rode it down the street, joined a group…and then we came to Freeman Hill. It had to be the biggest hill in the world. If not the biggest, certainly the steepest. Impossible.

One by one, those impossibles all fell to my stubborn onslaught. What I didn’t have in natural-born ability, I had in stubbornness — by the truckful!

As I’ve grown older, the basic impossibles have retreated to the outer reaches of my world. The basic act of living has made many impossibles not quite so impossible. And with that, my world has grown smaller.

On a bike, the things that were once daunting and unassailable opponents in a citadel high above my rocking shoulders were now normal. There isn’t a climb I can’t ride. There isn’t a ride I can’t do. It’s all possible.

Except for Rapha Travel’s Cent Cols Challenge. That’s impossible.

The first time a friend told me about the Cent Cols Challenge, I laughed at them. The average Cent Cols is approximately 100 cols, 2,000 kilometers and up to 50,000 meters (164,000 feet) of climbing. The average day is around 200 kilometers and 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) of climbing. For 10 days.

I’m not sure about my exact words, but they went something along the lines of: “What kind of idiots would subject themselves to something like that? It sounds terrible.”

I continued in that fashion for quite some time. It was one of my favorite things to mock. It sounded like the perfect Strava-era excess. I’ll win the climbing challenge this month! All I have to do is ride eight to 12 hours per day, and I will win! It sounded like excess for the sake of excess. I’m all about extremes, but this blew my idea of outrageousness right out of the water. So, because I couldn’t conceive of it, because I deemed it impossible, I made fun of it.

Phil Deeker

This is where the inevitable “until” gets dropped. Indeed, that was until we met the man behind the craziness: Phil Deeker.

We spent a week riding with Phil in Corsica a couple of years ago, and over the course of that week, my opinion on the idea changed.

The Cent Cols pre-dates Strava by decades. The idea was born by some audacious Frenchmen back in 1970. The rules for the game followed two years later: to become a member of the Club des Cent Cols you have to climb 100 cols, five of which must be higher than 2,000 meters (6,561 feet). But no time limit.

That sounds nice, but nothing too outrageous. It took Phil Deeker to come along to turn a meandering idea into a spiritual, driven quest.

In terms of a life and what importance cycling plays in it, Deeker took his good time arriving at the bike. To ask Phil about his previous jobs and work is to get lost in a wonderful web of tales — pyrotechnician always gets the most play, but his work as a deejay in the ’70s is my favorite. Phil didn’t come to the bike until his early-40s. It didn’t take long for the addiction/love to take hold.

In 2007, he set himself a challenge: to ride 300 cols in France in the span of 30 days. Phil being Phil, he did it in 28. The end result of his efforts? Three hundred cols, 4,500 kilometers riding through the Alps, Pyrénées and Cévennes…and 82,000 meters (269,000 feet) of climbing!

Looking back on the experience, he reckoned that month on the bike changed him as a human being and he wanted to share the experience — but a little more humane version of it (pause for laughter). Phil being Phil put a time limit on it and turned it into a 10-day spiritual pursuit.

If you meet Phil today, you’ll know what he’s talking about when he says it changed him. I’ve never met a calmer man, a man so completely at ease with the world around him than Phil. To ride next to him is to tread softly in the shadow of a Zen master. To put it simply (and probably less eye-rollingly), it just feels good to be around Phil. It feels like you’re riding within the welcoming arms of a gentle soul-hug when you ride next to Phil. He has that something that brings people to him, that something that makes people do things they otherwise would never, ever do (a slippery slope, no?). He brings out the best in the proverbial you — and I’ll happily say that I want to be better when I’m around Phil. Not sure why, I just do.

It didn’t take long before I went from outright skeptical to committed attendee at a Cent Cols Challenge. (Note: Before riding the Cent Cols Cantabrico in northwest Spain, I had done a grand total of three rides like the “typical” Cent Cols day…in my whole life.)

In medias res

I’m riding completely bonked riding into a block headwind. We’re going maybe 20 kilometers an hour — downhill. My neck is killing me, my Achilles feels broken (I know that’s not possible, but my exhausted brain is convinced that I’m suffering from a fractured Achilles) and my knee is hollering. I’m miserable.

We come to the second feed of the day: lunch. Ian and Louise have put together a meal to bring a rider back from the brink. Two burritos later, the company of some good people, some much needed time away from my bike — you know, 30 minutes — and I’m feeling better. I get back on the bike and roll off smiling.

Then comes the rain, the wretched, cold rain.

Then I hate it all. I absolutely hate it.

Two minutes later, the rain breaks, the sun blasts through, and I’m warm and beaming. I’m in heaven — and there’s no place I’d rather be.

That’s a pretty typical day with Rapha Travel’s Cent Cols Challenge.

Minutes

We leave the hotel every morning at 7:30. Bags have to be in the car by 6:40. Ashley and I set the alarm for 6:15. One sleep cycle on the phone makes it 6:25. Hurry the hell up and bags out to the van at 6:38. Not 6:40. Phil is unhappy. Phil says 6:40, but he means 6:35. He gives us a stern look, and we feel like little kids caught elbow deep in the cookie jar. Suitably chastened, we bow our heads and promise to do better. Phil being Phil, he follows that instantly with an “I love the pictures from yesterday! Wow!” Our heads perk back up, all smiles.

The next day, we get our bags out at 6:35. We weren’t last. We were proud. I’d go so far as to say that my still-mostly-asleep self felt like a fucking boss.

It’s the little things.

Finish a 10-hour ride and still able to form coherent sentences while standing up? Boss. Made it to the final feed stop of the day, not dead last? Boss. Ate my body weight in peanut butter-and-jam waffles at said feed, then downed it all with a liter of Coke with Aimar laughing at me the whole time? Boss. Correct selection of clothing on a cool, sometimes wet, sometimes hot day? Boss.

I take a moment to pat myself on the back for all of these things, because all of these things are worth feeling good about. I’m not saying a celebration should be forthcoming or anything, but I’ve begun to take great joy in the tiniest things.

Kevin took that idea so seriously that he celebrated his birthday twice. He thought Day 2 was his birthday — then wondered why his family didn’t call him. As he was falling asleep, he realized that his birthday was the next day. He smiled. Two birthdays! Only on a Cent Cols. Then again, Kevin is the smartest absent-minded person I’ve ever met, so it’s possible that that’s a regular occurrence for him.

Surviving

№1 rule of the Cent Cols: don’t pay attention to the full totals of the day — 230K and 5,500 meters of climbing is enough to make Alberto Contador weep. So, if you’re one tenth as talented and ride an even smaller fraction of that, it’s best not to take the whole into account.

Break it down. Every ride has three rest stops: Feed 1 (I think of it as breakfast), Feed 2 (lunch) and Feed 3 (I call it my early dinner). That breaks the day into four parts. Ashley eventually landed on the idea of units. Unit 1 = the ride to the first feed. Unit 2 = the ride to lunch. And so on. With three days to go, she started the countdown: 12 units to go.

Each unit could stand entirely on its own. I think the hardest unit was one that was almost four hours’ long with 2,000 meters of climbing in less than 70K. It was unbelievably hard.

Take it unit by unit. That’s the best bet. Otherwise, it’s too big and overwhelming. Each day is the biggest yet. Each day is meaner and steeper and longer and more “superlativier” than the last — which, when coupled with the alarming rate of my body’s deterioration, it makes for an unsettling macro forecast.

The units are a cute countdown method. On a normal climb (less than 10-percent grade), it’s just an exercise in patience. If you keep pedaling, eat and hold on to that positive mental attitude, you’ll get through.

It’s not like that with the steep climbs though, and Cent Cols Cantabrico is made of steep climbs the way bread is made of flour. The steep climbs call you out. They demand a duel in the middle of the town square with the whole word watching — it’s a no-holds-barred brawl, except your opponent is about as unyielding as, well, poorly laid concrete up a Spanish mountainside in the middle of nowhere.

(Cantabrico Rule: if the pavement changes from asphalt to corrugated concrete, do yourself a favor and shift everything to the left. Tout à gauche, as the French speakers say. Little ring, easiest gear.)

Once the road turns to concrete, the gradient will tip right up at over 20 percent in the next 0.02 seconds. You can’t win in the normal fashion. There will be no knocking out the cursed slopes of the Collada Espina. The Espina is going to beat the living crap out of you, but if you take her blows (as Phil says) and absorb them, you can fend her off…and maybe get the verdict on points by the top. It’s never a pretty victory on the walls, but we can’t all be supermodels.

Or, you can fight

Which brings me to Chris. Chris is an ex-rugby player from Australia and looks the part. He runs on a different thermometer than the rest of us. His core temperature is approximately 25 degrees warmer than mine at any given moment. He put a rain jacket on once during the Cent Cols. I was convinced my doom was nigh. I went looking for an Antarctic explorer’s parka. Thankfully, he complained that it was way too warm, so my normal rain jacket was okay.

Also, his mettle is at a different level. Remember how I talked about dancing with the climb, avoiding those punches, trying to win by avoiding a knock out? Not Chris. Chris winds up and hits back: haymakers, upper cuts, jabs…. He doesn’t stop. He fights each climb, battles it and beats it into submission. He whales on it.

No climb better represented that than the Espina, which Phil so annoyingly said “is as rich in gradient as it is in beauty.” If I can have just one middle finger to offer up to Phil for the rest of my life, it’s to take issue with that phrase. Rich in gradient? Phil meant to say: “The Espina is the steepest climb any of you have ever seen. You really should consider taking a ride up it. Otherwise, settle in, because the next mile is going to take an hour.”

Nightmares

I wake up multiple times each night — almost fully awake. Night terrors. Is it 6:30 a.m. yet? I’m scared of that alarm like I’m scared of Freddie Krueger. I dream about it.

For the first time in my life, I’m happy to wake up multiple times each night though — because it means it’s not 6:30. Pop up wide-awake at 2 a.m.? Oh man, that’s great, I still have four-and-a-half more hours of sleep to go. And I pass back out with a smile on my face. The little things….

This is nuts.

I have an Irish friend who told me a funny saying this past year: “I feel sorry for the person who doesn’t drink — the best he will feel all day is when he wakes up. I just get better.”

I feel like that right now. I feel like I’ve been binge drinking (binge riding?) for days. The hangover is all-encompassing, and as I lie there in bed, I wonder if maybe today is the day that my body tells me to go fuck itself. I get up, if only because I don’t want to be that guy (peer pressure is great in trying times). I mumble through breakfast, chewing slack-jawed, wondering how much caffeine it would take to make me feel better. I briefly consider cocaine or a close encounter with death to stimulate some adrenaline.

When I get on the bike though, I start to come alive. I don’t feel great, but I feel manageable. The fatigue is polite enough. It lets me do my thing, but as soon as I finish, it comes down like a summer thunderstorm. I might have felt pretty good that last hour, might even have been joking and laughing, but as soon as I put my bike down — boom, lights out. The fatigue is back, it’s at the steering wheel and I’m a lumbering pile of worthlessness.

Dear diary, what a day it’s been…

My opinions of this thing evolve each day — hour by hour. Yesterday was by far the most fun. Today isn’t so bad. I think I can handle this. A little while later: I will never, ever do anything like this again, and I will actively discourage anyone from doing it. A little while later, I love it!

Day 5 was everything it was said to be. Every single climb was hard — my guess is that 90 percent of the 5,200 meters we climbed that day were steeper than 10 percent, with a lot over 15 percent…and a troubling amount over 20 percent.

Cantabria is a punishing region, but the roads are wild and wonderful.

My knee has been brutalized. It hurts in the saddle, and it hurts worse out of it. If this were anything else, I’d quit and take at least a week off the bike. Instead of a week off the bike, I ride 10 hours, then 11, then nine…. It doesn’t get any better, but I learn to manage the pain. I want to see this through.

Dale’s tale

Dale missed the start of the CCC Cantabrico, because his bike was lost in transit. On any normal trip or ride, that would just mean missing a couple of days. No big deal. Frustrating, but, oh well. Dale, however, was not to be deterred. He started days behind and then rode day and night to catch up. He slept four hours each night, spent hours on the phone dealing with some difficult business issues and probably spent the better part of 16 hours per day on his bike.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Dale had a mechanical on some maniacal road, flipped over his bars and fractured his collarbone. He got up. Kept going.

Dale eventually gave up, but in a group of hardened men and women, his story blew minds.

A hundred doors slammed in his face that week, but he kept on until it was physically impossible for him to continue.

Ash’s superpower

Before we started the Cent Cols, I wasn’t certain in my own chances, and we were both unanimously uncertain in Ashley’s. Turns out, she’s the perfect Cent Cols rider: steady, consistent, unwavering.

That is, until she gets to Hour 8. If you ever get the chance to do an eight-plus-hour ride with Ashley, watch out for that time when you’re supposed to be clocking out from work — it’s like her legs get wind of the overtime hours and kick into overdrive. The next hour is a blur of unexpected speed, big smiles and lots of fun.

On Day 6, after a long, tough day, Ashley came alive on the final climb — eight hours in. She rode to the top of the dead-end climb, then set her sights on a statue of a bear up a wall of grass a few hundred meters distant and what felt like a skyscraper above us. In that moment, there was no fatigue. She wasn’t 60 hours into by far her biggest week ever — she was fresh and alive and completely in that moment. She didn’t fight her bike up that hill…. She pushed and pulled, for sure, but the outcome never seemed in doubt. It was smooth, assured; it was fantastic to watch.

We never would have found out about Ashley’s superpower if it weren’t for the Cent Cols. Thanks, Phil!

Challenge

The Cent Cols Challenge lives up to its name. It’s not a tour. It’s not a vacation. It’s often not even fun. The name says it all. It’s a spiritual quest. I left it with what felt like a limitless horizon of what is possible on the bike…and, if I’m feeling slightly more expansive, I feel like more is possible in my life as a whole.

Success is not a given. It doesn’t matter how strong, how long you’ve ridden or what you’ve accomplished, nothing measures up to 10 days, back to back to back et cetera, on the special roads of Phil’s dreams.

Rob Woolley is a great rider, but it took him multiple tries before he finished his Cent Cols; and we were happy to be a part of it. I didn’t technically finish my first one. I missed out on two out-and-back climbs. I couldn’t have done better. My knee gave out on me on Day 5. It was all I could do to make it through a shortened version of the day. No big deal — it was only 190K and 5,500 meters of climbing.

I skipped a climb on the second day. I regret that. I didn’t get it at that point. It was still just kind of an amusing escapade. The weather was terrible. I thought it was insane to even consider going up…so I didn’t.

I didn’t get it. I’m still not quite sure what It is. But I think it has something to do with giving in to the crazy, the unknown, the seemingly impossible. It is close to insanity, but still with one foot firmly planted in the real world. It is crazy. It is impossible…until it isn’t.

The CCC renders the impossible, possible. It has changed how I feel about myself, and what I think I can manage. I’m excited to move forward with this, because it feels like some sort of superpower for the not prodigally gifted. It’s a superpower earned from sheer donkey-like actions. I’ve always said that the donkey is my spirit animal. Never have I felt so in tune with the ass.

The Cent Cols completely broke me down. It broke me to this base level, where everything that was normal about a bike ride was turned on its end. It crippled me. It melted my motivation to take pictures…it even extinguished my smile for a time. I should have stopped, but by the time I was limping, by the time the frown had set in, I had given in to It. I kept going. And going. Each day, I’d say, “Well, I’ll probably be climbing into the car soon.” But each day I kept going. I wanted to see it through. I wanted to be a part of It. And it got better from there. The smile returned. The knee pain remained, but when my head was good, the knee hurt just that little bit less, enough to take it on. That’s why I’m sad I missed out on those two climbs. I got a big gulp of It, but I want every last drop.

Looking back

When it’s over, there’s this feeling of knowing something else, something that the normal person doesn’t. Phil told us a secret over and over across northern Spain: Everything is possible.

I will go back. One year to the day after starting our first Cent Cols, we’re planning on going back. We swore we wouldn’t do it. I knew I was lying. Ash only recently understood that she was lying.

It will be fun sometimes. It will be terrible at other times.

It will be a lifetime in 10 days, a life each day. Success at the Cent Cols doesn’t come from power. It comes from taking it one pedal stroke at a time, taking in each moment, slowing everything down, zeroing in on just the essential. Nothing else.

As Phil wrote: “Mountains are not Trophies — they just take us UP, so that we can see our lives from another perspective. Rarely do we stay long at the top; it’s not our place. Our place is the present moment, the ephemeral. Receptive to the moment but in movement and in quest; poised, ready to face something bigger than us: hungry for it, not fearful of it; fueled by that inner warmth that comes from achievement. / Few understand. Maybe these words are deluded waffle (with a speculoos filling, of course), but somehow, they make sense to me. They might do to you, but no one else. They are still asking ‘WHY?’ / Long may we remain misunderstood!!”

In 2017, Phil is going to turn 60. He’s going to ride a thousand cols. Ten Cent Cols back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back. It was hard for me to write out 10 backs. Impossible, right?

I won’t do all 10 of them, but I hope I can be a part of at least a bit of It.

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