Scaling the giants of the Pyrenees
Ashley heads to the Pyrenees to tick the Col d'Aspin, Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet from his bucket list
Think about the major climbs of the Tour de France - what location springs to mind first? Chances are, you’ve just answered 'the Alps'. If you didn’t, fair play to you. But it’s unsurprising, really, considering the Alps are usually the spot where most of the crunch-time GC action takes place in the Tour de France.
However, right now, the Alps are where I’m certainly not. Instead, I’m in the saddle, pumping my legs away on the Col d’Aubisque. Attentive students of the Tour de France will note the Aubisque is in the Pyrenees, ‘other’ major mountain range of the Tour. And, despite my personal predilection towards the Alps, it strikes me just how lucky I am to be scaling a stunner like this.
With skies pearlescent blue in the late September sun, afternoon air temperature still reaching 20 degrees (it’s even warmer on the blacktop), set on quiet out-of-season roads and to the soundtrack of the clink-clink-clink of cow bells dotted all the way up the mountain, it’s the scenario you dream of when searching for a cycling holiday with some real climbs to test your mettle.
It’s almost rude not to ride up a climb like this as fast as you can. Much like a visit to Alpe d’Huez usually prompts a full-bore attack from the start line in Bourg d’Oisans up to the ski resort finish to see if you can clock a sub-60 minute ascent, I feel obliged to do the Aubisque justice by riding at a high tempo from bottom to top. It’s how I think many cyclists earn their often-masochistic stripes: when faced with a challenge, it’s always about how fast something can be done, rather than if it can be done.
Of course, as I sit and write this now, it’s easy to recall the best bits of a journey when you look back on it seven months ago through rose tinted spectacles, when the suffering also dished out by those climbs is a distant memory. Yet a trip to the Pyrenees should be on every cyclist's bucket list.
'A gentle welcome'
"Today is a gentle welcome to the Pyrenees," says Xavier Lopez, CEO of Bike Basque, our hosts for our trip in September 2016.
Of course it is, Xavier. Of course it is. On the parcours for our first day is a ride out into the valley to the base of the Hourquette d’Anzican at Payolle (a 9.7km climb with a five per cent average gradient); before a drop back into the valley and an ascent up the eastern side of the Col d’Aspin (11.5km at seven per cent).
Neither are the toughest in the Pyrenees by a long way, but to ride both back-to-back on an opening ride proves a real shock to the system. The fresh autumnal morning on the Hourquette, as we ride through the forested bottom half, keep the temperature cool, allowing you to focus solely on finding your climbing rhythm.
Thankfully, rumours I’d heard of the Pyrenean climbs being a touch steadier in their gradient prove accurate - there aren’t many punches in the gut to contend with, just a consistent drag the whole way to the summit. There’s an exception – isn’t there always – a short drop around three quarters of the way up, complete with a Frenchman in a Peugeot flagging me down frantically. I wonder what’s ahead, until I come across a group of donkeys standing in the middle of the road, chilling out, as you do.
It’s a sign of the openness of the Pyrenees, a national park in France, that animals and cattle are often seen straddling the roadside, much like you find on moors in the UK. Sounds of cowbells ring out between the mountainsides, and you need your wits about you as you round quick bends and get stuck into the short mid-climb descent. It’s over before it’s begun, though, and we're on the way to the summit of the Hourquette, breaking out of the tree line into wide-open vistas that put me in mind of the Col de la Colombier, an Alpine climb I rode on the Etape du Tour.
Cresting the top - I’m careful to make sure I ride over the finish line and down a few metres on the other side to complete the Strava segment - we re-group to take the obligatory summit sign photo - and, more importantly, to refuel and reload water bottles. I haven’t eaten or drunk as much as I should have, but fill the bottles to the top with water from the support car anyway, and chomp on an energy bar and banana.
Next, it’s down the other side on a moderately technical descent. A good choice to get your eye in, as it turns out, complete with the odd cattle grid, small patches of loose gravel and blind curves. It’s ideal preparation for the coming descents over the following days, because while not the fastest or easiest, it helps you acclimatise to the varying road conditions you can experience in the Pyrenees.
Survival and suffering
After a short roll through the valley, it’s up the Col d'Aspin. One of the more well-known ascents of the Tour de France, it’s featured in the race more than 70 times since the summit was first crossed by Octave Lapize in 1910.
It’s here we get a real taste of true Grand Tour mountain riding. While the air remains cool, the sun beats down with a ferocity equal to a (glorious) midsummer day in the UK, and we’re all suffering.
Heat is an underrated adversary, especially when you time your trip to avoid the baking temperatures of June, July and August. Be warned, September (and even May on the other side of the summer months) can be particularly warm - especially to Brits unused to the weather of the south of France. Sun cream, water and salt/electrolyte replacements are your allies here, even at the end of season, when the majority of tourists have gone home.
The Aspin from the eastern side is a stickier affair, switching back six times on its way to the summit. The road is well-paved - a hallmark of French mountain passes - with patchwork well integrated into the main road surface. The cowbells are back, too, as cattle moves to shady areas.
No such luck for me; the Aspin is less sheltered than the Hourquette and that sun is beating down. I unzip my jersey, and settle down as my knee, suffering as a result of a nagging injury picked up a couple of weeks before the trip, begins to cry out once more.
You can see the summit of the Aspin with four kilometres of the 11.5km ascent remaining, which offers hope and despair in equal measure; you need to focus on the road in front you – little steps, as they say.
Riding in the high French mountains, if you haven’t before, requires a change of approach in the way you ride. These aren’t climbs like we get at home, where you can attack from the bottom and hang on to the top of your local 3km climb. Instead, you’re generally faced with prolonged gradients of between 6-10 per cent for up to 25km. No respite, and that’s not taking into account the warmer temperatures and thinner air on the 2000m+ peaks.
Eventually I crest the summit, welcomed by Xavier and a rustic lunch of baguette, ham, cheese and a couscous salad. It’s simple, but actually suits your appetite having just climbed atop a major Pyrenean mountain and makes for an appreciated change from sticky energy gels and bars, or generally richer café or restaurant nosh.
A descent follows back to Payolle – where we started the Hourquette – completes our mountain loop of the day, following the valley road (now a gently descending false flat, complete with tailwind off the mountains behind) back to the hotel for a well-earned shower, and chill out time in the sun before dinner at the hotel restaurant. Even on this first day, a 'gentle opener', it's been well earned.
The Col du Tourmalet - a biggy
The next day dawns, clear and bright as the sun shines against the mountainsides, shining on the peaks in the middle distance. Today is Tourmalet day, and the ride planned also acts as a transfer to our next hotel in Argelès-Gazost.
Point-to-point, with an ascent of the Tourmalet from St. Marie de Campan, we pack our things into the support car, and ride out to the base of the climb, where we encounter the statue of Eugène Christophe, the forks of his bike in triumphant hand, freshly forged after a failure on the descent in 1913.
Photo taken for our personal albums, we begin the climb. Slightly annoyingly, the Strava segment actually begins at the junction just before, so if you’re wanting to ride it as quickly as possible, you’ll need to forgo stopping at the statue, or ride back down to restart the segment. After all, if it's not on Strava...
The Tourmalet is a different beast to the previous day's climbs - 17.2km in length, with 1,249m of ascent from the statue of Christophe, at an average gradient of seven per cent. Whatever way you look at it, you’re in for the long haul. It takes me 90 minutes of pedaling to crest the top, past the ski station at La Mongie, under snow shelters complete with Tour graffiti. My saving grace is the steadiness of the ascent, and incredible scenery as I pass the out-of-season ski station to take my mind off the lactic building in my legs and thinning air.
The climb takes your breath away. The sheer peaks and rockfalls can’t be ruined by the construction activity going on to prepare for the upcoming ski season. Cows still line the route, complete with bell ringing, looking at you inquisitively as you roll past as if to say, "And what do you think you’re doing, climbing my mountain?"
The Tourmalet is one of those climbs that brings out a rider's spirit – you find it within yourself to encourage other riders on the road, even though you’re hurting too. I stick to my own enforced pace, riding past several elderly-looking French club riders one-by-one, hauling themselves up the mountainside. I can only hope my snappy 'Bonjour' greetings and “allez, monsieur/madame" calls are welcomed, and my superior speed encouraging, rather than quietly disparaging.
At the top in this early-off season (for cyclists, anyway) the café at the summit is closed. And, after a short while, the cold air at the 2,115m peak suddenly hits. I wrap up and when the support car arrives, having helped service some of my fellow tourers below, I put on everything I can, ready for the descent.
It’s a wonderful descent down to Luz-Saint-Sauveur – one of the highlights of the entire trip. The road winds down the mountain, with clear views further down the road and into the valley, allowing you to attack bends and cut off apexes safely on the cambered corners. As the road straightens out, I easily spin out on my Peugeot rental bike complete with compact chainset, topping out at 70km/h. The sheer scale of the landscape, complete with the excellent road surface, makes even this seem slow. I want more, but it’s tantalisingly out of reach as I overtake cars and tractors (who are more than happy to indicate me through) on the way down the quiet road.
A coffee stop in Luz-Saint-Sauveur tops off the afternoon, before we roll into Argelès-Gazost, to the quaint, family-run and quietly delightful two-star Primerose Hotel.
Sealing the Pyrenean deal on the Aubisque
Day three is the best of the bunch and just so happens to be my birthday. With day four due to be truncated by nasty weather, the weather gods pull out all the stops for our trip through the countryside – it’s not all about the mountains, you know – and as a group we’re beguiled by the foothills, meandering through small villages and getting caught by farmers herding sheep and cattle between their fields.
By the time we reach the town near the bottom of the Col d’Aubisque in Laurans, we’ve already covered 65km and, for the first time on the trip, my knee feels ok. Stopping for coffee in the local town – a market is on, and I buy myself some pizza from a local farmer as well (gratefully shared by the group) – we roll to the base of the Aubisque.
The Aubisque has seen action from both the Tour and Vuelta a España in recent years, and it’s difficult not to see why - it has real character. The gradient consistently nags over its 16.8km length, and this is no easy seven per cent average, with areas that pitch to over 12 per cent. The Aubisque is a 'grippy' climb, and we’ve arrived in the heat of the afternoon.
Cue a lot of sweating; I’m grateful for the salty serrano ham on top of my market pizza at the bottom, as well as my full water bottles. I settle into my rhythm as best I can, ready to enjoy - and endure - a climb which seems to combine the best features of the previous days' riding. Sheltered switchbacks lead to a quirky one-way system in Eaux-Bonnes, before the road pitches upwards again.
In the more open roads, you get incredible views of dramatic rock faces as you approach the ski station at Gourette. I’m slowly dragging in a French club rider merrily spinning his 32t rear sprocket, and I arrive at his back wheel here – but I can’t get past. With my body flaring up once more with fatigue, I can’t trust myself not to hurt it further by accelerating past and gapping him, so I try sitting on his wheel for a while.
About Bike Basque
- Bike Basque offer a range of cycling tours in the Pyrenees, Basque Country and Burgundy. Visit the Bike Basque website for more information.
Alas, I can’t, and the previous two days' efforts leaning more on my healthy left leg begin to take their toll. He just begins to gap me, and I fight in vain to hold the wheel. ‘François’, as I come to call him under my breath, is simply stronger than me on this day. I’ve burned my matches, and with the need to at least try to look good and strong (we’ve got some photographers tailing us on this day), I’m beginning to suffer.
The top takes an age to arrive, with an unkind hump around a switchback in the last kilometre (even more unkindly filmed by the photographer’s drone), but when it does finally arrive the hostel at the top is welcome relief. Rolling over the still-visible Vuelta finish line, complete with slightly faded Cofidis road paint, I park my bike up and promptly buy myself a Magnum.
Well, if you can’t treat yourself on this trip to the Pyrenees, on this climb, on my birthday, then when can you?