Pyrenees Peaks – Day Five, Lourdes (7th September 2017).
Today we took the third & final commute of the week. It was a 30 minute drive to Luz Saint Sauveur which is a mecca for road biking climbs – within 10 miles are Col de Tourmalet, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Col de Soulor which have all hosted Tour de France stages.
The original plan was to cycle out to Cirque de Troumouse, take a short, but steep detour up to Lac des Gloriettes, then if the legs were feeling good, also climb Luz Ardiden. We started riding in very, very light rain & under slate grey skies. It seems like the days here are very much like my climbing legs, they take a while to brighten up in the morning!
As the road leaves Luz St Sauveur, the road climbs a valley & regularly criss-crosses the river far below. Low cloud & the threat of rain meant the road was far quieter than expected, as normally loads of tourists would use this road to get to Cirque de Gavarnie – a UNESCO site. It also meant that the views of the high mountains were also hidden. After 6 miles there’s a turnoff signposted to Cirque de Troumouse on a small single track road & it’s here that the ride started to get fun. As we turned into a new valley, the sun popped its head out & it was time to get rid of the arm warmers & rain jacket.
The road climbs at a fairly consistent 6-8% as it twists & turns by the side of a gurgling stream & after a couple of miles, the valley widens out & the track is in the middle of meadow land. This continued for another 3 or 4 miles, before we reached a toll booth, where cars had to pay to climb the remaining 5 miles to Cirque de Troumouse. Cyclists & pedestrians are free to continue free of charge! The road began to rise steeply up the side of the valley & soon we were in sheep & cow grazing territory & we could hear marmots calling to each other. There’s a café half way up this section, so we stopped for a slice of fruits of the mountain tart & a coffee.
There were now only 2.5 miles of switchbacks between us & the car park at the summit – stunning views awaited us, including our first sight of snow on this trip, way up above. I took a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful surroundings (there were more sheep than people).
The descent was on a rutted & bumpy track, so there was no danger of going fast, as the surface was covered in loose grit & gravel, plus there was always the chance of meeting a car on a blind corner. This was still a really enjoyable descent, it simply required full concentration!
I’d read on one of Will’s blogs that on the way back there was a great detour up to Lac des Gloriettes, a hydro-electric dam. This was too good an opportunity to miss, although it required significant effort, as the 2 mile climb never dropped below 10%. The views were well worth the effort of reaching the dam! At this point I floated the idea of changing our plan for the day & extending our trip up the valley to Port de Boucharo, via the Col des Tentes, rather than riding to the ski resort of Luz Ardiden.
Col des Tentes is a 6 mile climb that rises to 2,208 metres, making it the highest paved road in the French Pyrenees (even higher than the mighty Tourmalet!). It’s set in stunning scenery & had hardly any traffic on it – the wildlife far outnumbered the cars. The climb has markers every kilometre, so you know how far is left to go & what the average gradient is for that section (this is common in The Alps & Pyrenees), but someone had fun when they made the signs, as every single gradient counter was wrong – this had to be somebody’s idea of a joke, as the steepest sections were marked as 1.2% average, while the shallower sections were marked as 10.2%!!
The early slopes of the climb were through woods, then meadows & as the road wound its way ever higher, this changed again & it resembled a moonscape. Along the way, we had to dodge our way through herds of sheep & cows, as they clearly own the roads around here! After about 75 minutes of effort, we finally made the summit – this was the first time in many years that a single 5 mile segment took more than 60 minutes to complete, which shows how tough the climb really was. I forgot to refill my water bottles when we left our coffee stop, so had also run out of water about two thirds of the way up the climb – schoolboy error!
At the summit, the car park was pretty much full & there were hundreds of ramblers, hikers & families out enjoying the walk out to Port Boucharo – this is the French/Spanish border & although I fancied crossing it, I didn’t want to fight my way through rush hour, so in the end we gave it a miss.
We had to negotiate the cows & sheep on the descent back to Gavarnie, where we stopped for a quick coffee to warm up from the fast & cold descent from Col des Tentes. From there we were back on a wider & smoother road all the way back to Luz St Sauveur. This ended up being our largest climbing day of the trip & was another real adventure in the wilderness of The Pyrenees!