Pyrenees Peaks – Day Three, Lourdes (5th September 2017).
I was super excited (to quote pro cyclists the world over) this morning, as today’s ride was a loop straight from the hotel & we were taking in two more Tour de France climbs. The first climb needs no introduction, the Col du Tourmalet (The Distant Mountain) has featured in the Tour de France on more occasions than any other mountain since 1910 – a total of 85 times. There was the opportunity to also add a bonus ascent of the Col d’Aspin, which has featured a on a mere 73 occasions!
The route started on quiet country roads, as we twisted & turned between fields, with big views of the Pyrenees in the background. The first 10 miles took us in a similar direction to our Sunday ride, but as we reached Argeles-Gazost we took a left turn & started gradually gaining altitude as we followed Route de Luz up a small river valley. By the time we reached Luz Saint Sauveur, we were 20 miles into the ride & had clocked up 1,600 feet of climbing & the serious stuff hadn’t even begun. We decided to stop & have a quick pain au chocolat & espresso while we gathered our thoughts for the big challenge ahead – from Luz St Saveur, Col du Tourmalet is 11.8 miles long, gains an altitude of 4,606 feet & has an average gradient of 7.4%.
The early slopes are very gentle & provide an opportunity to take in your surroundings (big mountains on all sides!) & get into a rhythm for the climb ahead. I know from many previous experiences the key to long climbs is slow & steady at the start, as you can’t recover if you expend too much energy early on. There are a few pretty villages lower down, but as soon as we passed through Bareges, we left civilization behind.
By now the gradient has reached a fairly consistent 7-9% – I far prefer this to a constantly changing gradient, which seems to deaden my legs in no time! The views by this point were spectacular, as it was possible to make out the summit café way off in the far distance & also look back towards the parapenters who were riding the thermals. Once again, the cows & sheep have complete freedom of movement & it’s the responsibility of drivers & cyclists to get out of their way.
All that remained was to tackle the final 4 miles, as I started climbing the ‘back wall’ of the mountain – effectively riding switchback after switchback up what would have been a sheer drop if the road wasn’t there. The engineers had built one final hurdle for me to overcome, as the final ½ mile or so ramps up to 10%. Having researched the climb in advance, I knew this in advance, so had a bit of energy saved up (not much, but enough!). After 2 hours & 20 minutes of effort I was at the summit & it was time to celebrate with a fanta citron et tartelette du myrtille (lemon fanta & blueberry tart) as I took in the massive views in all directions & got a couple of souvenir photos.
As we continued over the summit & commenced our descent, we bumped in to a herd of llamas! I had to get a photo, as I knew no-one would believe me without the evidence! We also stopped briefly in La Mongie Ski Station for a quick lunch of chicken salad baguette. Although I was going downhill, this looked the more difficult side to climb, as we fairly flew down the mountain through long, sweeping bends. At Campan we decided the legs were feeling good & we should also climb Col d’Aspin – it’s 8 miles long, gains 2,106 feet & has an average gradient of 5%. This is all a little misleading, as all the serious climbing is done in the final 4 miles, where it averages 8%. Most of the climb is through pine forest & the smell was amazing, although the views were somewhat limited as a result. The other remarkable feature of the climb was how peaceful & quiet it was – traffic was light & it was great to hear nothing but the sound of the bikes changing gear as we climbed.
Once again, the views from the summit were beautiful & it made the decision to ride the climb so worthwhile. I enjoyed a few more moments of quiet contemplation before getting a photo of the summit sign as a memento.
We fairly flew down the descent again (back the way we came this time) & I stopped briefly on the lower slopes to get my photo taken between two dolls/models – they were everywhere in Campan, although I haven’t yet found out why there were so many of them! This really wraps up the interesting part of the ride – at this point we were 60 miles into the ride & all that remained was the final 20 miles of the loop back to Lourdes & to be honest there wasn’t anything memorable about it – there was also nothing wrong with it either, we’ve simply been spoiled for stunning scenery today!
Col du Tourmalet & Col d’Aspin has been one of my favourite days of riding in the high mountains of Europe. It lived up to its billing as the Queen Stage of the Pyrenees Peaks adventure & I still have three more days of riding to look forward to!