So, the trip is complete! For those of you who wish to skip to the chase, the bare bones were:
14 classified cols
Somewhere between 40,000 and 68,000 vertical feet climbed, depending on whose computer you asked
9 sets of tired legs
Practically no rain
- clickable details for the climbs
Nearly £1,500 raised for Tom's Trust
to date, with donations still welcome:
A more detailed account:
We’d all arrived safely, with bikes, in Biarritz on Wednesday, put the bikes back together, and met our guides, Neil and Gareth. Thursday started with wet roads, but blue skies, and continued in that vein, as we departed Biarritz for 70 miles and a gentle introduction to the foothills of the Pyrenees. We crossed our first classified col, the Col d’Osquich, but at 507m and a moderate 3% average gradient, this really was a pimple compared to what was to come. We established a number of routines on the first day – counting the number of stray dogs spotted, and comparing this to the number of berets sighted, eating baguettes for lunch, laundering cycling kit in hotel washbasins, not sleeping very well, and taking the mickey out of Dan for his OCD bike-cleaning (needed on the first day, but with no rain and temperatures in the thirties for a lot of the rest of the trip, not so much later on!)
(Biarritz, and the Atlantic; The view from the Col d’Osquich)
A more serious proposition – fewer miles (~65), but more climbing – a lot more. A 12 mile roll-out from Lanne-en-Barétous saw us riding past the sign announcing the start of the Col du Marie Blanque. This started easily enough, but the signs indicating the average gradient for each subsequent 1,000 meters gave progressively worse news, with the final four km averaging over 10%, with the penultimate averaging 13%. I was suddenly glad of my new compact chainset and 28-tooth bottom gear, that had seemed so ridiculous back in Cambridgeshire. We were briefly held up by a herd of goats, but eventually reached the summit, refuelled and regrouped. Certainly a proper introduction to mountain climbing. This topped out at nearly twice the height of yesterday, at 1035m. Not the highest we’d get this day, though… Our first proper descent gave us a chance to brush up on cornering technique and sample some of the amazing scenery offered by this part of the world. At the bottom, we were helpfully instructed to turn right towards the second climb of the day, the Col d’Aubisque. This is a proper mountain. A regular on the Tour De France since 1910, it climbs to 1709m and is ten miles long. The start was fairly steady, but the 8th kilometer averaged 10%, before levelling out to ‘only’ 8% for pretty much the rest of the ascent. It’s quite bizarre cycling past piste markers and under (and over!) ski lifts. A fantastic descent was interrupted by the short side of the Col de Soulor (looked a lot harder on the way down!), and it was downhill pretty much all the way to Argelès-Gazost for more laundry.
(Top of the Col de Marie Blanque; TdF tribute at the top of the Col d’Aubisque; View from the top of the Aubisque)
The big one. Today we’d tackle three big climbs, including the high point of the trip, the Col de Tourmalet, where we’d ride over the highest road in the central Pyrenees, at 2,115m. The climb started almost as soon as we’d departed, with a gentle rise up the valley towards Luz-Saint-Sauveur. The main climb starts on the other side of the town, and is 12.5 miles at an average of 7.4%. Like the Aubisque, it has featured in the Tour De France since 1910. To show that cycling officials haven’t changed from those times to the Olympics – in 1913, Eugène Christophe broke his forks on the descent, and repaired them in a forge in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan after a 6 mile walk. Riders were not allowed assistance in those days, so he did all the work himself, only to be penalised because a boy had worked the bellows for him!
The climb of the Tourmalet was pretty tough. The upper slopes offer no protection from the sun, and the steepest portions come at the end, with sections at 10%. The views, when I remembered to look up from the road, were spectacular, as the single-track road, still daubed with graffiti from stage 16 of this year’s Tour, wound its way seemingly at random up the mountain (stage 16 featured all three of this day’s climbs, plus the Aubisque). The descent was great fun – an hour and twenty minutes climbing, seventeen minutes going down! Next up was the Col de l’Aspin – 1,489m, at 5% for 8 miles- but the final 3 miles average 8%. More spectacular scenery going down, before the final climb of the day, the Col de Peyresourde, the top of which marks the boundary between the Haute Pyrenees and the Haute Garonne regions. This was fairly similar to the Aspin, although a little higher (1,569m), a little steeper (6.6%), but a little shorter (6 miles). It too had its steepest sections towards the end, aside from a nasty short 11% section at the bottom. A quick coffee at the top, before the descent into Bagnères-de-Luchon, which had hosted a stage finish of the Tour in July. It had been an epic day, passing over three real mountains, with some amazing scenery.
(The view from the Tourmalet; Above a ski-lift - so wrong!; Local wildlife at the top of the Aspin)
Nothing as high, or as long, as the previous two days, but a good twenty miles further to cover, at 87 miles. The relatively easy Col des Ares (797m, 4%) warmed us up after a very chilly start – 5 deg C in the shade of the valley, before the short and sharp Col de Portet d’Aspet (1,069m). This was the descent where 1992 Olympic Champion, Fabio Casartelli, lost his lift in the 1995 Tour De France. A memorial is near the foot of the climb, and we paused to pay our respects. The climb itself is short, at less than three miles, but very steep at 9.6%, with sections at over 12%. We turned one corner to be faced by almost a wall of road! After that, there was a long gradual descent to Saint-Girons, before a long, gradual ascent to the foot of the day’s final climb, the Col de Port. This was eight miles long, rising to 1,249m, but at a moderate 4.7%, and we tackled that with relative ease, before descending into Tarascon-sur-Ariège for the night.
(Fabio Casartelli memorial; Col de Portet-D’Aspet sign; View from the Col de Port)
The final day – the Med! Only four smaller cols – but 128 miles to cover. We passed into the wilderness of the Pyrénées-Orientales, where we would not see another vehicle, save our support van, for hours at a time. It being a Monday, and in France, most of the villages we rode through were deserted, shops closed, very eerie indeed. We had a fantastic descent from the first pair of climbs on a newly-resurfaced road, overtaking campervans on super-smooth tarmac, before lunching in the town square at Quillan. The approach to the penultimate climb took us through the Aude Valley, with some amazing rock overhangs, and plenty of signs for white-water rafting. We tackled the Col d’Aussieres, shortly followed by the Col des Auzines, and that was the climbing for the trip done. Just another 50 miles to cover! The descent down the Tet Valley to the plains below, and the return to civilization, took us past the amazing rock formations of the Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet – worth a Google (we didn’t stop for pictures). Now we were back in civilization, and had to deal with traffic again for probably the first time since Biarritz. It was a long old run, past plenty of vinyards, first to get to the coast just south of Perpignan, and then to our final destination at Collioure, arriving just after 7pm, having started at 8.30am – a long day in the saddle. The beer and tapas that the hotel had laid on were more than welcome.
(Deserted roads; Top of the Col d’Aussieres; First glimpse of the Med; Collioure)
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far – thanks for reading. The trip really was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. That I’ve raised some money for Tom’s Trust is a bonus – if you haven’t donated, here’s that link again!
More photos here