Climbing mountains

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

Phil Deeker, talisman and founder of the Cent Cols Challenge who in 2017 celebrated his 60th birthday by completing his Ride of a Thousand Cols, tries to define what exactly sets these events apart from all the others.

Photo of Phil Deeker

It’s taken ten years for me to arrive at a version of understanding, possibly a correct one, of why so many riders tell me that the Cent Cols Challenge is like nothing else out there. Why they say that it has changed their way of riding a bike. Why some say it has changed the way they lead their lives.

When I created this event I had no plan for where I wanted to take it. My aim was just to offer committed cyclists an opportunity to do something that seemed impossible and would perhaps take them beyond what they thought themselves capable of, just as I had done in 2007, when I designed my own challenge of 300 Cols, ridden in 26 days, and which then led me to my idea of the Cent Cols Challenge.

There is a kind of alchemy that can occur on these events. It may not happen every time. It requires pro-active input from those who come in search of this simple magic. We have ten days of intense, intimate sharing for this to happen.

A lot can happen in ten days: weather could be an even fiercer challenge than the gradient; some riders will start strong and confident and then later experience a descent into very dark places. But the most significant change over the ten days is how we all get to know each other, help each other and respect each other. In a state of acute fatigue, but also of inebriating elation, we become naked, spontaneous and emotional beings who, in normal life, are very seldom are so honest with others.

There are no winners, no losers. The patient determination and pure physical strength that each of us needs to find within is so great that any sense of competition is quickly replaced by a solid sense of a common goal. The individual sense of achievement is in direct correlation with the overall achievement of the group itself.

A bond grows between us as we help each other through the dark moments and revel in the satisfaction found in the sharing of the present moment. There is nothing else we would rather be doing; nowhere else we would rather be, when things are going right!

There are three basic ingredients which create what I call the Cent Cols Magic, which act together both within the individual and, perhaps more importantly, within the group.

The first is The Mountains themselves.

In winter I have two very good reasons to train for the Cent Cols season:

-one is to suffer less and enjoy more when riding long hard days in the mountains;

-the other is so that I feel WORTHY of the mountains. I want to DESERVE access to them. I love the idea that as I train in winter on my home roads, the mountains I will be sharing with others in the summer months are hidden, often inaccessible, under their white winter cloak. They will allow us to meet them for just a few months of the year. They keep me humble and command respect. Their beauty, their grandeur and their sense of eternity attracts me. But I know that I need to accept their violence and anger at times too. Like cathedrals, they give us an opportunity to look up to something greater than ourselves, but also to look within.

The second is The Roads. We’re cyclists, not mountaineers. We sign a deal with the roads to follow their lines, sometimes eagerly following their attractive curves to the top; sometimes, in an act of blind trust, knowing little about where they are taking us. Some have stories written on them, others are crumbling indications of a time when they were still served a purpose to the local community. Some we glide over, others shake our bones. They each have a unique way of leading us up, and then down: they lead The Dance – we follow.

The third is The Bike. The Mountain is our goal; The Road is our guide; The Bike is our tool. The first two only reveal their special magic through the channel of our bike. A long day in the saddle in the mountains can often create a sensorial-overload, such is the intensity of our dialogue with the bike.

I have tried to put into words how the magic of these three ingredients works within us, but inevitably I think, there has to be a part of unexplainable mystery. Strangely, despite our sense of wonder about the Mountains and an almost child-like fascination with the Roads, I have come to think that the mystery actually resides in the Bike. Only fellow cyclists don’t have to explain “The Why”. We all just get on our bikes and ride. Another case of the greatest mysteries being found in the smallest of things? I’m happy with that!

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THE FINAL TWO (PHIL) YEARS

2021

  • May: Corsica.
  • June : Rhone ( new event), Southern Alps
  • July : Lombardy 21 ( one-off, new event).
  • Sept: Piemonte, East Pyrenees.

2022 : The “Retirement Ride”.

  • Starting in June, ending in October, with a break in August, seven events ( six with ten stages; the final with five stages) will make up the 65-stage 650 Cols route ( to mark Phil’s 65 years in 2022). Starting in Verona, Italy and ending in Santander, Northern Spain, this ride will cover the following regions :-
  • Piemonte, Southern Alps, Northern Alps, Ardeche, Cevennes, Massif Central, Langeudoc, Catalunya, East Pyrenees, West Pyrenees, Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, Picos de Europa.
  • Each stage will be a unique, new route. These will be designed during 2020 and each week a new stage will be revealed on this website.