The numbers are staggering, almost funny to look at. It feels like someone might have made a typo, maybe added in an extra zero or two along the way.
10 days across what felt like every road on the western side of the Pyrenees. 2000 kilometers (1240 miles). 50,000m (164,000ft) of climbing. 100 hours of riding.
That’s kind of what the Cent Cols Challenge is all about—taking what I consider normal, even sane—and then throwing it right out of the window, starting over, and rebuilding the house of possibility.
What Is It?
The idea of the Cent Cols Challenge 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 over 2000m (6561ft).
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 2007, he set himself a challenge: he wanted 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? 300 cols, 4500 kilometers in the Alps, Pyrenees, Cevennes, and 82,000 meters of climbing.
Looking back on the experience, he reckoned that month on the bike changed him as a human, and he wanted to share the experience - but a little more humane version of it. Phil put a time limit on it and turned it into a ten-day pursuit of the horizon.
In Real Life
It sounds really nice but in practice, it hurts. Everything I ever imagined that could hurt on the bike—plus more—ended up hurting at some point: hands, wrists, forearms, knee, achilles, feet, lower back, upper back, middle back, neck, all of it.
The hours stack on each day, and with each passing hour, the precision excavation of your old self goes continually deeper. And then, at some point, the nerves are exposed. I’m just bare. I cried a few times during the CCC. I’m not entirely sure why; there would be these moments where these great heaving sobs would just well up from inside, the tears would flow, and I’d descend. Riding down swooping, wonderful turns with monster views, this weird little human crying the whole way down. I don’t know why.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a crier, so the fact that half of my cries in the last few years occurred in such a small period of time has to mean something
At the end of the seventh day, I fell apart completely. My body closed up shop and left me a heaping pile of nausea. I didn’t throw up, but I couldn’t eat at all. I arrived at the hotel after dark, crawled into bed and laid there. I eventually made it to the shower for a tradition reserved for only those most desperate of post-ride periods: sitting on the floor as the water rolled over me. I sat there and felt sorry for myself for a while, mustered up a little energy, and crawled into bed.
I slept fitfully, painfully, and woke up in the morning empty. I managed to shove down a little bread, got kitted, and got on my bike with the full intention of getting into the car in the first hour.
But my legs worked. Somehow, despite the 7000kj day the day before followed by no food, I functioned. I was frustrated, empty, exhausted like I’ve never been before, so of course I rode harder and harder. I had music in my ears, and with the early sun just over the mountains in front of me, I rode into the light, crying all the way.
I’m not sure if this is a good advertisement for the Cent Cols Challenge, but it at least highlights the final C in that series. It obliterated my comfort zone and humbled me to my core.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done by a long ways. At the same time, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done on a bike. Despite the early starts and late finishes, minimal sleep, and my body revolting on a constant basis, I found joy in each day.
Every day, we saw the sun come up. We watched the light gently touching the upper mountains as we climbed in the dark and got that first feeling of sun after the first climb. We watched the light change to white and ugly in the middle of the day, then followed it as it fell upon the horizon, electric in its colors, and then—on at least three different occasions—we rode on in the dark. I never knew how much I loved riding in the dark.
I loved the feeling of being a part of such a huge undertaking, riding and laughing with companions. One of my favorite moments of the odyssey was a final, remote 30-minute climb on the French/Spanish border with my Bluetooth speaker belting dance tunes in the tunnel of darkness, lit only by our little headlights, not a soul around.
There are so many reasons why the Cent Cols is a silly undertaking —really rational reasons—but at the same time, the reasons for doing it are the kind that keep me up at night. I’m dreaming about the next adventure, the next chance to push my boundaries a little farther, and maybe, just maybe catch a little bit of that feeling that only comes when I’ve been broken down completely, and it’s just me, pedaling along, feeling everything in the best way.
A Note On Gearing:
This was my third Cent Cols. I rode the first one with an easy gear of a 34x32. That was ok, but I wanted more. The second one, one year later, I rode a 34x36 easy gear. That was good, but I wanted more. This year, thanks to the wonders of the AXS mullet build, I rode a 38x50. It’s a comically easy gear for most road use, but on the tiny, steep roads of Phil’s imagination, with the fact that you’re doing ten hours a day back to back to back forever, suddenly, that 50 as an easy gear makes a whole lot of sense. I had never considered that riding a 10-50 cassette could work for road purposes, but after spending a hundred hours on it, I realized just how nicely it DOES work, especially in the mountains. I spent a considerable amount of time pedaling at speeds below 20kph. When I went much faster than that, it meant that I was descending, which meant that I was not really pedaling. Plus, that 38x10 isn’t all that shabby for going fast. Once again, Cent Cols broke me out of my ruts.