The Cent Cols Challenge has a near mythical aura and a fearsome reputation.
Often described as one of the hardest amateur events in cycling, riders must pit themselves against the mountains of Europe’s great ranges, tackling 100 cols in just ten days.
It’s the brain child of Phil Deeker, who came up with the idea in the year of his 50th birthday as a way to spend his time doing what he loved most – climbing mountains on a bike, and sharing that passion with others.
When Phil got in touch with us about the possibility of partnering together to provide the Cent Cols Challenge with their kit, we jumped at the opportunity.
Albion and the Cent Cols Challenge share the same fundamental belief – that riding your bike in the great outdoors, and pushing yourself to your physical and mental limit, can be both a life-affirming, and life-changing, experience.
So for 2019 and beyond, Albion will be providing exclusive kit to the riders of the Cent Cols Challenge. We’ll also be bringing the event to life through film, photography, and stories from the road.
By way of an introduction to Phil and the Cent Cols, we asked him about how the event came to be created, the roads that make it special, his experience riding in Britain, and what he looks for in his cycling kit.
Where in Britain are you from? Did you grow up here?
Rather ironically I grew up in the Surrey Hills, which have now become the weekend destination of choice for so many London cyclists. Coldharbour, Leith Hill, to be precise. I learnt to ride a bike where the only options were to grind UP or fly DOWN. The less control involved in the latter the more thrilling was the fun!
I don’t ever recall seeing a cyclist dressed ‘fast’. I had no idea there was actually an official sport built around the bicycle!
How did you get in to riding, and why did you gravitate towards the style of riding that you and the Cent Cols Challenge has become known for?
A change of job (which brought me back to the UK after living in Belgium & France for 20 years) meant that most of my days were spent behind a desk. For the first time in my life, my days were indoors and inactive. I had become obsessed with my first race-bike when I was 11 years old, and since then had almost always owned a bike, but was always unaware of the sport itself. I just loved riding my bike. 30 years on, the seed found the light: a daily commute on a newly purchased ‘hybrid/city’ bike became my redemption, keeping me both fit and sane! Within five years I was riding a titanium Omega (now Enigma); had ridden most of the Cycle-sportives in the UK, and just as many Audax rides; had ridden my first mountain (Montagne de la Lure in Haute Provence); and had completed my first Etape du Tour ( 240kms from Limoges to St Flour).
But most importantly, in cycling I had found my perfect way to combine a love of nature and sport, with ‘speed sensations’ thrown in as an irresistible bonus! To spend a day indoors and inactive has always felt to me like I just chucked away a precious day in my life. To ride outside from dawn-to-dusk, in untouched nature, with others, brings with it a feeling of thanks and wonder each and every time: “wow, what a gift that day was and YES I’ve made the most of it!” I’m a simple man!
“To spend a day indoors and inactive has always felt to me like I just chucked away a precious day in my life.”
How did you come up for the idea of the Cent Cols Challenge?
The more I rode in the mountains, the more I realised that this was where I felt most at one with myself, the bike and with others doing the same thing. I had my 50th birthday looming on the horizon and I saw this as a chance to indulge in my new passion, without knowing quite how. A magazine news brief about a French guy who was planning to ride 100 cols in two weeks using routes created by a club called the “Club des Cent Cols” resolved the issue. Thanks to my wife, Claire (who subsequently worked tirelessly on every CCC event for the first six years!) I completed my own version of this, with Claire driving the support car: 300 Cols in 26 days. Naturally I returned to ‘normal’ life with a changed perspective. The idea of creating an event that could provide a chance for others to ‘achieve the impossible’ and to see things differently, and that might pay some of the bills and allow me to ride my bike A LOT was soon born. Thanks to Simon Mottram’s (CEO of a two-year old company in London called Rapha) belief in, and support of, my crazy idea, the first Cent Cols Challenge was held in September 2009.
You’ve spent more time on a bike than most. Were you active before you started cycling in any other sports?
As said above, I loved sport at school and have always felt more comfortable outside than inside. I have no problem at all with spending many hours ‘alone’: I only feel alone inside, or in a city, never when outside and feeling nature around me. I have built three houses and have grown several tons of vegetables over the years, so physical activity has always been central to my feeling of well-being!
You talk a lot about how powerful cycling can be. How do you think cycling has changed in the past five years and do you think it’s been positive?
I am not sure I am well placed to answer this one. I ride alone a lot, apart from weekly rides with my faithful buddy Walter Beckers, and I am not a club rider. Concerning amateur riding, a trend I have seen over the years in the riders who take part in a CCC is what I would call an evolution from the competitive style of riding, which is probably an inevitable way of improving as a rider, to a ‘discovery’ style of riding. Of oneself, of nature and of each other. The camaraderie that grows (usually) on a CCC event is one of it’s attributes which I most enjoy witnessing. We try to ride WITH each other, not AGAINST each other! I guess the whole adventure/gravel current trend is about the same thing. If I have anything to say about this, it is more that I think cycling still, perhaps now even more so, can be practised in so many different ways, that each of us can find the best way of expressing him or her self. It’s growing popularity is a nice bonus for those of us who used to feel like another type of social misfit!
“I have built three houses and have grown several tons of vegetables over the years, so physical activity has always been central to my feeling of well-being!”
What is it about the mountains that calls cyclists to them, do you think?
I could write pages on this one. Another time. I think it’s something to do with a) setting and achieving a visible (usually!) goal; b) leaving our worldly worries ‘down below’ c) experiencing the power of nature and venturing out of your comfort zone d) bringing back a “trophy” ( a slightly disrespectful way of recalling the experience, in my own mind!) and e) the promise of the thrilling descent once over the top. I could go on….!
Do you have a single favourite mountain pass to ride? If so, which is it and why?
I STILL answer this oft-asked question with: Mont Ventoux. I could also go on for hours on this one! To be brief, I have ridden it well over 50 times and can remember most of those rides individually. Each a new experience. I have a very fond spot for Provence. The Mont Ventoux is it’s King. It is alone. It does not belong to a range of mountains. It provides a perfect example of what climbing a mountain is about: it is broken up into well defined ‘steps’ with a vegetation that changes so noticeably with the elevation. It can be the most hostile place I know of to try and ride a bike. I have respect for this mountain like no other. But in the end, this is just a personal thing. I am not declaring this as The Best. It’s just (my) Best!!
If you had to choose between the great European mountain ranges – The Alps, The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees – which one would it be and why?
The Pyrenees, without any hesitation. I have spent more time there than anywhere else on my bike. I love its genuine rural soul; it has not been spoilt by (too many) ski-resort atrocities. I love it’s music: gushing water, randomly chiming tones of cow and sheep bells. It is more technical to ride than most areas: climbs are less predictable, less regular. Roads surfaces are everything from perfect to perilous, which is all part of it’s the challenge to us riders. This bad-road factor is also one of several signs of how vulnerable this region is: I have met more and more hotel, café and shop owners in recent years who talk of their struggle to survive. I will do all I can to bring more riders to this area to help these people, and so too that the roads themselves do not ‘die’!
Have you done much riding in Britain? If so what is your favourite place here to ride?
I rode a lot in Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset when I lived in Salisbury for ten years. It was in this area that I ‘grew up’ as a cyclist. I love the Purbecks in particular. I also rode a bit in south Wales which is sensational too. I rode the stages of the Tour when it was in Yorkshire. I would love to ride in Scotland. That is still on my list and I’ll tick it one day! Great Britain has so much for us, but I just can’t get used to that many cars around!
People often refer to the Cent Cols events as life-changing, what is it about the Cent Cols Challenge that makes people feel that?
Hard to be brief once again here! Many CCC riders return. They say there is nothing else like it. They talk about the special CCC Bubble: they tell me how it is harder than most other events but that they somehow always manage not only to complete it, but to actually enjoy it too! Ten days when you have nothing else to focus on than riding your bike, enjoying company of others (in a small group), eating as much as you want, and experiencing some pretty ‘spiritual’ highs is not that easy to find elsewhere, I think! Yes, they have told me it has changed their lives too. I think this has most to do with the non-competitive nature of the event. They have time to look sideways. They are not tourists though: you have to give all you got. But you ride together, not against. You become so tired that you are your most ‘raw’ self. The truth in your life becomes apparent. I think that is what “changes”…
This year will be the 10th Anniversary of the Cent Cols Challenge, in the year of your 61st Birthday. What keeps you going?
a) That feeling you get once you are into the second part of a 200 km ride. b) My love of being up there, in the mountains. c) My attraction to roads that go up. They call me and I can’t resist, despite knowing that it will hurt and I might swear at them. d) The fun of sharing this with others, from all over the world. People I would never otherwise have shared something with. Something that is greater than us. Sharing something that you don’t need to explain, sell or introduce, other than laying out a how-to-use manual based on safety and self-preservation!
“You become so tired that you are your most ‘raw’ self. The truth in your life becomes apparent. I think that is what “changes”….”
With 4 more ‘Phil’ years left of Cent Cols, what do you hope to achieve in that time?
I would like to find someone to carry on the event after I stop. I have “achieved” enough for myself (You are only as good as your next ride!!). It will be about finding a way for others to have a chance to experience the Cent Cols Challenge. I owe this to others. I could just shut up shop. I thought I would. Someone told me that would be selfish. He is right!
Riding something like the Cent Cols places huge demands on the participant’s kit – what do you look for when making decisions about kit for a long day in the mountains?
The two most important qualities by far are:
a) comfort and b) flexibility. The latter being the critical one. I dress by layering, so that I can manage the change in body temperature that results from a potential outside temperature range of up to 35°C. An item of clothing must have that magic balance between wind-block and breathability. How materials do that is a wonder to me, but one that is so essential to riding well and cheerfully. Over the last ten CCC years, mismanagement of clothing is by far the #1 factor causing riders to abandon part of a stage.
You’ve been using Albion kit for a little while now, what is your favourite piece of Albion gear that you’ve used so far?
In line with my response to the previous question,
for a) (comfort) I would say the bibs: excellent hugging fit and padding comfort
for b) (flexibility) the long sleeve jersey: enough wind- block and shower resistance to be able to stay warm when the weather changes without overcooking when the sun is out. A mid-season gem!
Tell us about the trips you’ve got planned this year?
Four challenges about which I have just started a unique series of posts on Instagram & Facebook. I’ve never done this before. it’s an interesting exercise in finding ways of presenting each one other than listing climbs and saying that it is a bit harder than the other one!
The CCC Appenini: only the second time it’s been held. In 2017 it provided many of us with some very rich stories to dine out on as well as being a total revelation to most of a part of Italy that is less well ridden. Remote, wild and very Italian!
The CCC Northern Alps: I love to search out a way of combining the bucket list climbs with totally unknown ones. This, I think, is what many CCC riders come back for. They know route design is what I love doing most, and it seems that I have a nice way of doing that! To combine the iconic and the unknown in the same stage is a winning formula. I use and abuse this one! This event route is one of my ‘best’ examples of this, I think.
The CCC Dolomites: the beginning of the end. This is the last time I will run this one. The end has to start somewhere….not that I was in a hurry to cross this one off. It has ALWAYS been the event I have been the most relieved to finish and also the most rewarding. Such are the demands and generosity of this great range of mountains. We spend actually more time outside of the Dolomites National Park than in it, but even remote back roads in the Velonese hills are steeped in that special Italian aura, operatic in their soul! Drama is there in the rock outlines; in the road design; in the people themselves and in the climbs. Start a 200km stage with the Zoncalan and end it with the Tre Cime and then let’s talk!
The CCC West Pyrenees: I cite this one as the “hardest of them all”, even though there are less vertical metres overall than the Dolomites or on Cantabrico. Statistics never give you the full story! I LOVE this one. It is also my favourite of them all. Yes, there are some steeper than steep roads. Last year, I announced that stage two last ended with a climb that I can only call a “Beautiful Monster”. Some slept lightly that night. Yet afterwards, ALL said that it was both the Hardest and the Best climb they had ever ridden. It’s name would mean nothing to you. Few ride there. As many observed, “we saw NO other cyclists today!!”
If you’d like to ride the Cent Cols Challenge, head to centcolschallenge.com to find out more.
Photography by Jered Gruber.