Col du Soulor, Col des Borderes & Lac d’Estaing

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Six, Lourdes (8th September 2017).

Somehow today was the final day of cycling in The Pyrenees, where has the last 6 days gone? I spent 30 minutes last night looking for a replacement ride for today, as we used up our planned ride when we extended our day out to Col des Tentes yesterday.

I eventually came up with a plan to explore some quiet back lanes, tackle a couple of climbs & then loop back to Lourdes – all in all, about 55 miles of riding with 5,500 feet of climbing. The ride started outside the hotel door & as our way out of town took us past the Sanctuary, we stopped to admire the view & take a few photos.

As soon as we left town, we found ourselves on quiet roads with views of the large mountains in the far distance. At one point, we took a wrong turn & found ourselves on a small gravel lane that took us past some unusual wooden sculptures, before ending abruptly at a tiny convent – Lourdes, as you might expect is home to many convents, monasteries, churches & religious orders. It’s a strange mix of peace & tranquillity, offset by chaotic parties of pilgrims.

Once we were back on the right road, a fast flowing river guided us down the valley, as we passed miles of maize fields, where the corn on the cob looked like it was ready to be harvested. These were the quietest roads we’d cycled all week & it was one of the few occasions where we were on relatively flat roads – it made for very relaxed riding.

At Lestelle-Betharrem, we saw signs for Notre Dame de Betharrem, so pulled in to find out a little more – it’s a church that is set right next to the river & it has a large plot of hilly land, where 19 chapels have been built over time & it was an incredibly peaceful & tranquil place.

We turned off the main road & headed along remote country lanes towards the lower slopes of Col de Soulor, which begins in earnest at Farrieres – I had it in my mind that this would be a great place to stop for coffee….. except it was a far smaller place than I expected & it was only a small village!!

From here, the Soulor climbs 2,950 feet in 7.5 miles, at an average gradient of 7.4% – this was the first climb of the week where the gradient was fairly constant for the entire climb & it made such a difference! I chose a gear & then spent the next hour & a half enjoying the views & stopping every now & again to capture the stunning scenery & get out the way of the local wildlife.

At the summit, we stopped for a lunch of waffle with Nutella & a coffee, before descending back towards Argeles-Gazost. We took a right turn after about 5 miles & headed up the climb of the Col des Borderes that we descended on Sunday. As we reached the Col, we made an impromptu decision to take a side road up to Lac d’Estaing – we had no idea what to expect on the climb, but the point of exploring is to find out what’s there! I was a little nervous of what lay ahead, as I was having problems with my gearing, the cables have stretched slightly as the week’s worn on & I could no longer use 1st gear – not the ideal situation for a weak climber like me. However, I didn’t want the ride to end yet, so we set off for Lac d’Estaing.

As we climbed, the surrounding forest protected us from the sun. After about 5 miles, we crested a rise & there before us was the lake & we weren’t disappointed! It’s a beautiful expanse of open meadow, with a lake at its centre. There are strict rules & regulations for using the area & as a result it’s in pristine condition. They were people fishing on one side of the lake, while at one end there were wild horses frolicking in the shallows – before today, I’d never seen a horse in a large expanse of water. This is a place that’s well worth a visit & I’m sure I’ll be back again at some point in the future.

Although we were still more than 20 miles from our hotel, the first 10 was downhill, so in next to no time we were in Argeles-Gazost for a well-deserved fruit tart & coffee. From here we took the same route back to Lourdes as Sunday, again it was slightly downhill, but into a headwind – for every ying there’s a yang!

In the end today’s ride was just over 68 miles long & had 7,000 feet of climbing – both numbers were bigger than planned, but it was our last day of riding, the sun was out & we were keen to make our adventure last as long as possible!

As it was our final evening, we popped into town to watch the sun set over the Sanctuary, then raised a glass to celebrate a glorious week of riding. I’m sure I’ll be visiting The Pyrenees again in the not too distant future.

Cirque du Troumouse, Lac des Gloriettes & Col des Tentes

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!

Piau Engaly, Lac de Cap de Long & La Route des Lacs

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Four, Lourdes (6th September 2017).

I make no secret of the fact that I use a website called for the majority of my research into where to ride on my Alpine Adventures (& now my Pyrenees Peaks too). Today’s ride is one that Will has called ‘the best road-bike climb that I have done in The Pyrenees’ – as soon as I read that, I wanted to do this ride!!!

St Lary Soulan is just under an 80 minute drive in the car, so it was another early start to the day. When we arrived the skies were leaden & the big mountain peaks were hidden from view, but we’re on a cycling holiday & will make the best of any conditions – it was dry & the winds were light, so it was a great day to be riding!

The early slopes out of Saint Lary Soulan are on a steadily rising main road (never that busy in spite of being an artery into Spain via a tunnel) that after 9 miles took us to La Plan, which is the start of the climb proper to Piau Engaly (the first of today’s 3 ascents), although by then we’d already clocked up about 1,600 feet of ascent. The clouds were low in the sky & even as I started the climb it was obvious that views would be restricted higher up, so we decided to simply enjoy the climb for what it was – a very consistent 7-8% gradient over almost 4 miles with plenty of switchbacks to make it fun.

As expected, the ski station was closed (we’d experienced the same at Superbagneres on Monday) & we were above the base of the clouds, however, we did see some eagles soaring on the thermals. We stopped just long enough to get a photo or two, ride around the resort & wolf down a banana, then we descended back to the main road & retraced out pedals towards St Lary. When we reached Fabian, we took a left up what looked to be little more than a single track road – in fact it was exactly that! This was the start of a truly awesome day in the saddle & whatever I write simply won’t do the ride justice, but here goes anyway!

Straight from the get go, the road kicked up to about 9% & it was a real effort to keep climbing – in truth, this is probably more to do with fatigue after 4 days of riding. We made our way up a narrow valley, with the constant babbling of the river helping to take my mind off the pain of pushing the pedals. After about 3 miles, we hit a stunning stretch of switchbacks, which meant that the slope eased slightly & also provided great views back down the valley.

As we reached a fork in the road we were met by the sight of a huge dam (Lac de Cap de Long) high up in the far distance & Lac d’Oredon directly in front of us where the Route des Lacs continued up to Lac d’Aumar & Lac d’Aubert . We chose to tackle Cap de Long first – approximately 3 miles in length it climbed around the lake below until eventually we were looking back towards the fork in the road some 1,500 feet below us!!!

By now it was gone 2.30pm, so we had a quick snack of Blueberry Tart & coffee, took some photos to help me remember this cycling paradise, then headed back to the fork in the road.

The final climb took us around the back of Lac d’Oredon & ever higher on a vehicle free road – cycling heaven! As we climbed, we passed goats that were either laid in the road or grazing on grass in the shadows of the pine trees.

As we ascended, we got views across the lake to where were we riding only 30 minutes previously. After a few final switchbacks, we reached a plateau with a couple of smallish lakes below us & the much larger & prettier Lac d’Aumar in front of us.

As we cycled along the edge of the lake, we passed ramblers on their way to Lac d’Aubert which marked the end of the metaphorical & physical road – in total the climb was only about 4 miles.

I took the opportunity to dip my feet in the pristine water & cool off as I took in the beauty of the surrounding scenery.

From here it was all downhill – we stopped briefly at the café on Lac d’Oredon for a quick espresso, then we retraced our way down the single track – the descent was very technical with lots of blind corners & steep stretches, so it required full concentration the whole way back to the main road – from there it was an easy 5 miles back to the car.

This has been by far my favourite day in The Pyrenees this week – what an amazing ride! I can’t sign off without saying a huge ‘Thank You’ to Will for sharing his epic cycling adventures.

Col du Tourmalet & Col d’Aspin

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!

Col du Peyresourde, Superbagneres & Col du Portillon

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Two, Lourdes (4th September 2017).

The plan is to explore all the major Tour de France climbs within a reasonable distance of our base in Lourdes – the weather forecast was changeable, so we decided to commute to Bagneres-du-Luchon, some 80 miles away & hope for the best. By the time we’d parked & got ourselves sorted out it was about 10.45am, so we knew we were in for a late finish too, as we had big plans for the day. The great news was that our gamble had paid off, as the sun was shining when we arrived in the town that’s twinned with Harrogate.

Bagneres-du-Luchon is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise – during the course of the day we saw parapenters, gliders, mountain bikers, hikers & rafters in addition to road cyclists. We were aiming to ascend 3 different mountains, all of which have featured in the Tour de France. First up was Col du Peyresourde (used in the Tour on 64 occasions since its debut in 1910), at 9.5 miles in length & a height gain of 3,081 feet, the gradient averages 6.1%. The climb is fairly constant, with views of the huge Pyrenean peaks all around. Although the road is a main road, traffic was minimal, so there were plenty of opportunities to stop & admire the architecture as we rode through small villages. We found a public water fountain at the halfway point, where I needed to fill my empty bottles – it was a humid day & I pretty much leaked sweat all day!!! Sorry, too much detail….

As we neared the summit, the famous Peyresourde hairpins came into sight – there was still graffiti on the road from 2016, which is when Chris Froome attacked over the summit in 2016 & won the stage as he pedalled whilst sat on his top-tube.

We stopped briefly at the summit to enjoy the views & take a few photos – sadly the Crepe stall didn’t open on a Monday, so we were soon descending back to B-d-L for a quick lunch of baguette & patisserie. The café owners kindly filled our bottles for the afternoon’s first challenge.

Our next challenge was Superbagneres, which is a ski station high up above Bagneres-du-Luchon. The climb is 12 miles in length, with a height gain of 4,000 feet, so the gradient averages 6.3%. It doesn’t sound much, but there are some flatter stretches, so this also means there are stretches of +10% to test the legs! It’s been used in the Tour de France on 6 occasions, most recently in 1989, when Scotland’s Robert Millar (now known as Philippa York) won the stage.

The first 4 miles were next to a river & there was the constant babble of water, which was a real distraction from the hard work of climbing! The next 4 miles were through thick forest, so there were only sporadic views down to the valley floor below. As it’s a ski resort & it’s September, we hardly saw any traffic – bikes definitely outnumbers cars! All of a sudden the forest ended & we had huge views across the valley – we were even able to look all the way down to B-d-L, thousands of feet below! By now we were also exposed to a blustering headwind as we continued to wend our way ever higher towards a massive hotel in the resort of Superbagneres itself. As we reached the summit, my fears were realised – a ski resort in September doesn’t get many visitors, so the café’s were all shut!!!

The upside of a really long, steep climb, is a lightning quick descent on a near deserted road. At one point I saw my speedo top 45 mph, before I had to start braking for the next hairpin – it was a fast, fun, but straightforward blast back to B-d-L. Having taken 1 hour 45 to climb to the summit, it took less than 25 minutes to descend!

After a quick espresso (& another recharging of my water bottles – I drank x8 bottles of 0.75 litres on today’s ride) we set off for the day’s final challenge. The Col du Portillon has featured in the Tour de France on 18 occasions, most recently in 2014, The Col marks the geographic boundary between France & Spain, so I took the opportunity to snap a photo of a Spanish summit as well as French one!

The climb itself is 6.3 miles long, climbs 2,178 feet & has an average gradient of 6.5% – it sounds easy, but again the lower slopes are very shallow, resulting in the final 5 miles averaging 8.4% (& a nasty stretch of 13%!). As we looked up & across the valley, we could just make out Superbagneres, in the distance. We were in forest for the entire climb, so it was almost impossible to get a scenic photo, although I managed to get a few album fillers. I’d love to come back here again & explore the Spanish side of the mountain, as the climb is supposed to be amazing. The descent was another non-technical one on quiet roads (fast in other words!) & we were back in town before we knew it.

This was a special day in the saddle, we rode for 5½ hours & climbed 8,800 feet in 57 miles – 3 epic Tour de France mountain summits in a road cyclist’s paradise. The original plan was to have a meal in B-d-L, then drive back to Lourdes & head straight to bed. We finished riding about 6pm & nowhere was serving food until 7pm, so in the end we jumped in the car & drove the 90 minutes back to Lourdes & have just returned from devouring a cracking pizza.

Col des Borderes, Col du Soulor & Col d’Aubisque

Pyrenees Peaks – Day One, Lourdes (3rd September 2017).

Before I start my review, let me introduce my new heartthrob – Domino. She’s a brand new Trek Domane SL 2018 model & what a beauty she is! The short story is my original bike had a crack in the carbon fibre frame & it was replaced under Trek’s Lifetime Warranty. I want to say a huge THANK YOU to Ryan from Mud Dock Cycleworks & Cafe for working incredibly hard to ensure was Domino ready for the trip & to Dan at Trek Bicycle UK for sorting out the warranty claim quickly. Without their help, I wouldn’t have had a bike to ride.

The first task of the day was to check out the breakfast facilities, so we turned up at 7.30am & were impressed to find that everyone has designated tables & that coffee, croissants, fresh French sticks & OJ were delivered directly to us!! All we had to do was choose our own cereals & jam / honey / marmalade! I’m delighted to report that our hotel is everything I’d hoped for & more – in addition to the excellent breakfast facilities, I have an enormous ‘single’ room, luxury shower, room to store everything & decent wifi.

We arrived in Lourdes at 10pm last night, so we needed to build our bikes before we could start today’s adventure. As a result, we set off at about 9.15am under bruised grey skies – it was still cool enough to need arm warmers & a gilet as we took the cycle path out of town & followed the river upstream towards Argeles-Gazost. We stayed on the path a bit too long, but as a result we were able to see a time trial race at very close quarters, as proper athletes on expensive machines whooshed past us as we pootled along the road!

The detour only added a couple of flat miles & we were soon on the right road up the early slopes of Col du Soulor, as we got our first view of the Midi-Pyrenees. We took a left turn onto a quiet back road, to take in an additional ascent of Col des Borderes to warm up the legs. By the time we were 5 miles into the climb, we were ready for a coffee stop & although we were on a fairly deserted road, we stumbled across a camp site with a café that was open – although there was no cake, the coffee was very welcome after 20 miles of riding. The final part of the climb went up in ramps, ranging from a very enjoyable 5%, up to a lactic acid building 16% in one instance – certainly not expected! My introductory photo of Domino was taken at the summit of the first climb.

After a brief descent, we made our way back onto the Col du Soulor, for the final 11km of the climb – this was first used in the 1910 Tour de France, at the end of a 300+ km stage! It’s a steady gradient all the way to the summit & with pretty views in every direction, the miles quickly passed. At the summit, we had our first experience of animals in the road, as a herd of cows strolled across the road without a care in the world – we also learned that they have right of way, as they had no intention of stopping!

After a quick ham & cheese baguette, we were on our way to Col d’Aubisque (all day I had Chris Rea’s Auberge in my head – not the best ear-worm to have!). The first couple of miles were downhill, before the road gradually started climbing again towards the heavens. There were huge drops down to the valley floor on the right hand side, so with a howling crosswind, we rode on the English side of the road where possible!

Before we knew it, we’d made it to the summit of our third Col of the day. Being a regular Tour de France route, there was a display of massive yellow, green & polka dot bikes, to represent the Tours major jerseys.

At this point, the hard riding was over for the day, we just had to negotiate the wild horses on the road during the descent (& brief climb) to Soulor, before a fun 12 mile swoop back to Argeles-Gazost for a quick refreshment stop. We then jumped on the cycle path for a gentle 10 mile ride back to Lourdes.

We were back in Lourdes before 4pm, so took the opportunity to explore a bit of the town on bike – we found the incredible Sanctuary, where pilgrims were queuing to up to enter the church. All in we were in the saddle for just over 5 hours & we clocked up 64 miles, with 7,000 feet of climbing. The perfect start to our Peaky Pyrenees adventure.