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.

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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 big views of the big 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 now-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 pedaled whilst sat on his top-tube.

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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 a 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 are 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!

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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!

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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 our 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.

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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.

Col de Beau Plan & Col du Telegraphe

Amazing Alpine Adventures – Day Ten, St Jean de Maurienne.

Our final day of this year’s Alpine Adventure, so we decided to mix another secret climb with a real Tour de France legend. This morning we took a short drive to St Michel de Maurienne & parked up – from here we would be enjoying two separate rides.

 

The Col de Beau Plan loop isn’t one of the well-known climbs in Maurienne valley, but it’s a treat of a 16 mile loop. As we reached the right turn for the Telegraphe & Galibier, we turned left & almost immediately the road started rising. The first ½ mile or so is through residential housing, but in almost no time the buildings are replaced by fields & open grassland.

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Going upwards & out of town, it became obvious we were heading to some fairly remote countryside & it was unlikely that we’d see much in the way of traffic – cycling heaven in other words! As we continued to climb, we could make out Les Karellis & L’Albanne ski resorts from our day out on Saturday. To begin with, they were up above us on the opposite side of the valley, but as we continued climbing the difference in height steadily reduced. In addition, we also had amazing views of the Fort du Telegraph & beyond, towards the mythical Col du Galibier.

We took a slight detour on the recommendation of someone staying at the hotel – it was with the disclaimer that the views would be amazing, but the road had been recently resurfaced. As we were climbing, the loose chippings were a mere inconvenience & didn’t detract from the detour in any way.

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Having left town, it took more than an hour for us to see our first car, the roads really are remote & wild! The detour took us to over 2,500 feet above the valley floor below & also opened up views to the Orelle mountains some 3,000 feet above us. We were well & truly above the tree line, with the main crop appearing to be hay – the perfect opportunity to do some hay bale surfing (of sorts!).

As we reached the Col de Beau Plan, there was a side road off to the right & it would have been rude not to explore – it was a wide two lane, which wouldn’t have looked out of place as an access road to a ski resort, but after about 2 miles, the road simply stopped – we hadn’t passed a single building, so it’s a mystery as to why the road was built!

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We descended back to the Col & continued over the summit & had a fairly sketchy descent for a mile or so, as there was gravel on pretty much every corner. We were still in the back country, although every now & then we rode through tiny hamlets as we continued losing altitude. Somehow we managed to bag our 2nd Col of the day as we descended towards St Martin La Porte, the Col de Beaune. By now, the single track had become a proper road & for the last 3 miles we zig-zagged our way to the outer edges of town & back into the main street.

It was almost 1pm, so time for lunch – we found a great place where the Plat du Jour was roast chicken, chips & salad. Needless to say we filled our boots & inside 30 minutes were ready to start our final climb of the trip.

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All that remained was to visit the Col du Telegraphe, as we’d seen it during Saturday & Wednesday morning’s rides. This is the first part of the legendary Tour de France double act of Col du Telegraphe & Col du Galibier which, when combined together is the biggest ‘bottom to top’ climb in France.

 

We headed back to the traffic lights in the centre of town & this time headed right & immediately crossed the River Arc, which marks the start of the climb. From here we would ascend 3,200 feet in a little under 7.5 miles. The first 1.5 miles are through quiet villages until the forest takes over – for the next 6 miles the road would twist & turn through the birch & pine forest, however as the sun was directly overhead, there wasn’t much in the way of protection available.

The climb is a consistent 7% to 8% & is a favourite training climb for the professional teams – today we saw the Fortuneo-Samsic team going through their paces – their star riders (including last year’s Polka Dot Jersey winner, Warren Barguil) are currently taking part in the Tour de France. The guys we saw training absolutely powered up the climb in their ‘Big Rings’ while chatting & laughing!

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Every now & then the Telegraphe allows you views to the opposite side of the valley & we could clearly make out where we’d been riding only a few hours earlier! One of the neat things about Col du Telegraphe & the nearby town of Valloire, is that they make a different straw man every year – when I last visited he had a wood cutters axe, however this year the theme is skiing, so I stopped at the summit of the col to get a photo. We also made time to enjoy a final espresso & fruit tart stop – I chose apple, Sean appears addicted to Myrtille (blueberry)!

All that remained was to turn around & then descend the 7.5 miles of twists & turns back to the valley floor below. I feel so very fortunate to have enjoyed 10 consecutive days of cycling, as I’d accepted that my injuries & lack of fitness would likely limit me to shortish rides every other day. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed having them, Salut!!

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