Climbing in the Pyrenees: Calais to the Tourmalet and Back Again

With the arrival of August came the arrival of a two week holiday for myself and Mr Brennan. Destination: Chateau du Rupert.

Rupert moved out to the base of the Pyrenees a couple of years ago, and we’d yet to make a pilgrimage to the home of one of Redhill Cycling Club’s most valued (ex)members, so combining a trip with some training for our bodies and rest for our brains seemed like an excellent idea.

I have indeed ridden in the Pyrenees once before, aged 21 (yes – I have been blogging THAT long), with cages on the pedals of my very first bike, a pair of non-padded TK-Maxx Cycling shorts and trainers on my feet. I don’t remember a great deal of the riding, only that it was hot and there was a lot of stopping. This was my first trip with any knowledge of ‘how to climb on a bicycle’ and I found myself both amazed that I managed it five years ago, and that so many riders flock to Mallorca on an annual basis when there are many less congested, more monstrous climbs to be bagged in France.

The drive there…

Maurice loves my music collection (not)

Maurice loves my music collection (not)

We were the first visitors to Chateau du Rupert in Ibos, near Tarbes, to choose to take the Eurotunnel to Calais and drive 700 miles across France. We like a good road trip and the route gave us a couple of opportunities to ride some easier miles in the flatter lands on the way.

Having ridden the RideLondon 100 on Sunday, my legs enjoyed a rest on Monday as we drove to our first stop, at Saint-Junien in the Limousin region. I’d taken it relatively easy at RideLondon, not particularly enjoying the huge crowds and masses of unfamiliar wheels alongside copious amounts of road furniture, but I still had 115 miles in my legs at a smidge over 20 miles per hour.

I was promised Tuesday’s ride would be pretty and easy – and we did indeed loop around the very pretty ‘Parc Naturel Regional du Perigord Limousin’, a casual 35 mile jaunt. Unfortunately, my legs still felt a little heavy, so I just hung around the general vicinity of Maurice’s wheel, dropping off at the sniff of an incline but happy to enjoy the stunning views through and around the forest.

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Our hotel provided a beautiful dinner – another excellent hotel booked via Expedia around 2 hours from arrival. Maurice’s road trip strategy works like a charm every time.

Wednesday’s drive took us down to Nogaro, or more specifically Luppe-Violles – my legs felt renewed, which was handy as the promised 40 mile loop grew to 50. The sun was high in the sky and fairly unrelenting over the final section, making for a sensation not dissimilar to riding into the force of a hairdryer on max, but a dip in the hotel pool remedied the effects.

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Back in the car, we made the final hot and sticky miles to Ibos, and sailed through the wide open blue gates of Holiday Home de Rupert, where cold beer and an awesome barbecue awaited.

Col One – Col du Soulor

We didn’t hang around to ride, and Thursday was the day for Climb Number One – Col du Soulor – a ‘baby’ climb at just 12km and an ascent of just under 1,000 metres.

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Every ride during the week began with a gentle roll along a flat network of country lanes, lined by fields, currently largely populated by sunflowers. The sea of yellow soldiers all seemed to be facing the ‘wrong way’ – obviously it was in fact the right way. Just beyond the flat roads the blue shadows of the mountains loomed – seeming far in the distance, but in fact usually just a 20 mile spin away.

Rupert hasn’t been riding as much since moving to France (he’s been mostly creating Chateau du Rupert), but he’ll always be in possession of a pair of powerful pistonesque legs, so the ride out to the climb had me questioning the intelligence of setting out to ride with Brennan and the powerhouse that is Mr Burbidge. At every bend, roundabout, junction, or other reason for slowing down. I found myself with burning quads as I tried to make contact with the back of the two person ride ahead – but I was still there with the gang by the time we reached the base of the climb so all was well. There were a few ‘Surrey Hills’ type climbs along the way which Rupert and Maurice smashed it up – I’m not sure who got there first so I’ll leave that for them to settle!

You can climb the col from Etchartes (North side) or from Argeles (East Side) – we want from the North, which is shorter but steeper, but does at least feature a stunning start alongside the L’Ouzom river, providing a beautiful view and a gentle breeze.

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It wasn’t a cool day – somewhere between 25 degrees and 30. The climb averages at 7%, with a max of 9%, and the km markers start at 12km to go.

The heat was oppressive as the upward incline began, and the climb was no baby. In Mallorca, where most of my bicycle climbing education has taken place, the climbs are long, but feature the odd descent, a flat bit, a little variation. Col du Soulor just keeps – on – going – up.

At every bend, I prepared myself for a moment of freefall, a little respite, or even a flatter section – but it never came. Col du Soulor just winds around the mountain mercilessly, with little shade along the way. Not far from the summit, we broke into the cooler area above the clouds, and  I watched a bird of prey circle into the mist whilst a photographer caught its image. I joked internally that I best speed up or it might mistake me for a carcass.

The land either side of the road is lusciously green, and there’s no particular point (that I remember) where it becomes unbearably steep. There are a few tough ramps in the final 3km, but as a whole, it’s just long, and fairly unchanging. At the top, there’s a café, serving the best tasting ham and cheese baguettes you’ll ever find.

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Ploughing down the Col du Solour was a just reward, though a fairly bendy ascent with plenty of technical handling to come in. We took the cycle path from Argeles Gazost to Lourdes back, it’s an old railway line – flat but windy without fail, so a perfect opportunity to prove I still had a tiny bit of gas left in my legs when it came to my turn to pull on the front.

A couple of miles from where the cycle path spits its users out in Lourdes, there is a small ice-cream/drinks cafe – which we visited a grand total of three times, in three rides – a perfect pitstop and well recommended.

Lac des Gloriettes

On  Friday, Rupert’s sister and her boyfriend were visiting, so after a dip in the 50 metre pool in Tarbes we drove up to the Lac des Gloriettes for a walk/hike around the dam.  You could wonder for miles around the valley, the ever changing landscape offering plenty to entertain even the shortest of attention spans.

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A trip into Tarbes led to a great dinner, much wine,  and an outdoor clubbing experience as the local radio station entertained the crowds.

The following day (Saturday) we awoke to perpetual rain. It was joked that “the Michelle would need to be exercised”, so I was allowed to jump into the lake just outside Lourdes – Lac du Lourdes – where open water swimming is free for all from around 8am until 7pm.

Where in England you might need to drive some way, and slot into a two hour time available, between more lucrative water sports, here swimmers could enjoy the expanse of the water at any time within daylight hours.

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A walk around the lake was 6km, so when I noticed a fellow swimmer cutting a line directly out and weaving round one side of the lake to get back, I followed him. The outside of the lake is lined with trees and the water was warm like a tepid bath – despite the rain I could have gone without a wetsuit.

We then did some touristing at Lourdes. I’ve never been a fan of Catholicism’s desire to generate money from its followers desire to escape unknown atrocities after death. It was good to see, but it reminded me of that story in the Bible where Jesus finds people trading in the temple and it’s destroyed. Whatever it is faith should be about, it’s probably not charging people silly money for statues and other souvenirs. I saw at least ten people begging outside the holy area, and wished it were possible to break off bits of the ornate building to feed those who actually need sustenance.

I couldn’t handle another ‘out out’ night, so suggested bowling. It was going so well when I started with a strike… but then it transpired Rupert has powerhouse arms as well as legs and Maurice is a little more accurate with his aim than me…

Hautacam

I was told the evening before our Hautacam ascent that it was 13km long, and steeper than Col du Solour, at 8% average – with some 15% sections thrown in towards the end, yet a final 2km stretch that is largely flat. The information came from a blog somewhere, served up by Google, and the source of this information is without a doubt incorrect.

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I approached the climb with reservation, aware that I was going to need some extra legs ready and waiting for when the 15% ramps decided to bite. The road wound around the mountain, and kilometer markers stated ‘average 8%’, ‘average 9%’, ‘average 10%’. It occurred to me for a fleeting moment that perhaps this looming 15% around the corner was in fact an entire km of ‘average 15%’. If that was the case, there was nothing I could do about it, so I carried on.

There was a section around half way that became notably steep, Rupert was sitting just behind me but I think when I sounded like I was going to hyperventilate he decided to go on ahead and I decided to knock it back a gear. The average 10% sections where notable, but other than the one hard pull at around 7km, I can’t say I noticed anything as brutal as expectation.

Unfortunately, the second untruth in the description was that the final 2km was flat. As I rounded the summit, I found myself willing this imaginative flat section to arrive, but it never did. In fact, reaching the top of the Hautacam sign, I realised you could even continue to climb up the neighboring Col du Tramassel if you so wished.

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The only way back down the Hautacam is to descend the road you came up – hence it’s been used as a summit finish for multiple Tour de France stages. Come to think of it a google image search would have shown me there is no 2km flat stretch! We decided to take the ‘scenic route back’, taking the ride to 67 miles with 8,699 feet in total.

The roads back were rollercoaster-esque – with one longer ascent of the Col du Lingous and then multiple power punches that gave way to sweeping descents. My legs were absolutely shattered, but the ride was well worth the detour.

The village had a firework display in the evening – it was very – village. The bumper cars gave us all an opportunity to batter each other off the bike, too – fueled by a couple of beers – obvs. This was definitely a riding holiday, not a training holiday, I noted happily, as I finished off a strange tasting yellowey liquid served to me when it transpired Ibos doesn’t ‘do’ gin.

Aquensis

Monday was to be the ultimate recovery day – with a trip to the Aquensis thermal spa in Bagneres de Bigorre. The spa contains a huge ‘Great Basin’, with whirlpool jets and water curtains, and a top floor deck with jacuzzi’s, sun loungers, and saunas.

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We came out with pummeled necks and looser legs, and stumbled into a café for lunch before visiting Pau for a wonder around the Chateau gardens.

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Tourmalet day

Ah – of course the recovery day was just as much about preparation. The plan for Tuesday was to attack the tallest climb in the Pyrenees – the crowning glory that is the  Tourmalet.

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You can climb from Luz Saint Sauveur, or from Sainte Marie de Campan. We went from latter – the former being much more congested thanks to the mass of individuals who would rather drive up a climb and arrive bleary eyed, to stretch their legs at the top for ten minutes before getting back into the car.

The ascent actually begins when you are around 22km from the summit – but the road remains gentle and the km markers don’t begin until you reach Saint Marie Du Campan. We stopped here for coffee and used the handy fountain to fill our bottles.

From here, we agreed to climb the 12km to La Mongie, where we’d meet for coffee (which turned out to be lunch) and then finish the last 4km. A bit of a cop out, I know, but we were on more of a holiday ride than a training ride and I was also aware that Maurice and likely Rupert would otherwise be sitting at the summit waiting for me for far too long without the stop.

Maurice zoomed off like the whippet he is immediately, and Rupert and  I climbed together for some time. The first few kilometers are fairly tame, with markers announcing averages of 5% and 6%. This is quite reassuring, as the length of the climb decreases and the tougher 9% and 10% sections don’t come until you’re closer to 10km to go.

This was the first ascent I’d used my power meter for, so when I pointed out I was pushing about 250 watts on the ramps, we agreed that was a bit too much going on my FTP, so I watched as Rupert sped away and I didn’t see him for a bit.

As we got closer to La Mongie, I met him once again and we stuck together. Initially as I passed him I tried to say ‘One Leg at a Time’ – but it came out ‘Oneblahblahblaeugh’ – not ideal. We must have slowed the pace because soon I could talk in entire sentences, perhaps a little lazy.

Thanks to an article by Jonny Cooper in the Telegraph, I had the pleasure of muttering ‘Vindaloo, Vindaloo Na Na’ in my head along the way, whilst Rupert adopted ‘in the navvyyyy’ which had been played at the base of Hautacam just a couple of days ago. As you do. You find some strange places in your brain on a long climb, especially when it’s stiflingly hot.

With around 2km to go until the town, the climb ramps up and you’re treated to some long stretches where you can see exactly where you’re going, and there is little protection from the sun. With temperatures at 29 degrees Celsius, this wasn’t welcome heat.

Somewhere here I lost contact with my pace maker, but eventually the town came into view and we parked the bikes next to a café.

I refrained from dessert, which probably explains what happened next. Boarding the bikes, Maurice disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and I sat behind Rupert for around 500 metres, before putting a little effort in. I joked that I’d see him again in about a kilometer, and set about trying to hold the effort close to FTP.

The offending dessert

As I pulled further away, the markers pushed me on – 3km to go, and the road weaved around the summit, whilst names of Tour de France pros danced on the road under the beating sun. 2km, and a tight hairpin forced me out the saddle as a truck load of tourists descended in their dull but air conditioned capsule. 1km to go, a photographer took a snap of me and then tried to give me his business card as I rounded the hairpin. Half a mile to go, and I’m pretty much on the limit. The famous statue came into sight and I sounded like I was close to cardiac arrest when I crossed the imaginary line, located Maurice and stood by the summit to admire the miles of switchbacks we were to descend.

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At the top, Maurice passed me, saying: “Take it easy, it’d take us a long time to come back to you…” – logical, yes, charming, no! But I do like a man who tells it like it is. We did meet up at a couple of towns along the way to regroup. Rupert descends like a demon, Maurice is pretty handy, and I’m usually happy to have reached the top and more concerned with getting down safely so their were gaping gaps in our peloton of three.

We made one stop in St Sauveur – a fairly large town which is utilized pretty heavily during the ski season, but which also houses several bike shops. One such cave of delights contains a fantastic array of Tourmalet themed jerseys and memorabilia. The guy who manages it seems definitely very British and would be a great source of information should you find yourself lacking a tour guide who knew the local roads as ours did.

The descent was long and sweeping. Very long. We began descending at 35 miles and I don’t think I pedaled that much until, oh… 55 miles? There aren’t too many technical bends and even I was able to release the brakes and let fly for a bit, though once again the cars along the way blotted my enjoyment a little as they tried to use as much as the road as possible, not realising that a cyclist might need more space on a tight bend.

The ride home was intercepted by a local, who became a bit of a carrot for Rupert and Maurice, so my tired legs got a thorough thrashing on the final 10km stretch home – well worth it.

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We have every intention of returning to the Pyrenees. After a few years spent visiting Mallorca on an annual basis I’ve always been tempted to look outside of the Spanish island to find some more vaired riding – and the French mountains have a lot to offer. There are tourist traps along the way, but nowhere near the congestion you’ll find in the cycling Mecca.

Of course, a huge thank you to our tour guide, Rupert, for ensuring we saw all the very best local sights, and feeding us amazing food over the last week.

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The Drive Back to Calais

Of course, the adventure was far from over. On Wednesday, we drove on to Vic-Sur-Cere – a pretty town at the edge of yet another National park. We had dinner on the terrace at a strange little restaurant, run by a lovely lady who seemed intent upon explaining to us that once-upon-a-time many birds came and attacked the building, and that the man over the road was 102-years-old. As you do.

It rained heavily overnight, and we assumed the dribbles in the forecast were done and finished. How wrong we were.thunder

Leaving our hotel, with packables packed in case ‘there were showers’ (oh how naive!), the road led us straight – up. The plan had been to seek out an easy spin, so neither of us really expected to reach a sign with the word ‘Col’ preceding it.

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The view, almost, made it worth it..

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On we ploughed down the next descent, as the rain began to fall. It got heaver as we we climbed once again, passing tough leg-press hairpins that seemed close or above the 20% mark. All this, only to find ourselves at the mouth of a farm track. By this point there were fireworks in the sky, and the narrow lane had rivers running around the gravel.

The only way back was down – down the hairpins we’d labored up.   The ride was fast becoming a car crash affair. We negotiated ourselves back onto the main road back to the town, and accepted the fate of 5 miles of almost dual carriageway before clambering into the car, which was waiting for us in the hotel car park. It’s safe to say that gravel strewn, river path was well and truly the scariest descent of my cycling career, thus far.

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Tired of the rain, we drove to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, where we had dinner with my sister and brother-in-law. They happened to be nearby, and the town upon the river is a stunning place to visit.

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Unfortunately, there was more rain – ALL day on Friday, so we used the wet day to drive to our final stop – two nights in Les Andeleys, which lies around 3 hours drive from the final destination – Calais.

Saturday’s ride was pleasantly flat, if a little windy. We’d both had time to rest our legs following exertions of the previous week and were feeling fairly full of beans as we rolled our of the rather posh ‘La Chaîne d’Or’ (where dinner is £40 a head, but there’s an epic creprie serving galettes which are much cheaper and very yummy).

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Our ride followed the river and looped inland. There were a couple of hills, but nothing to write home about – mainly long expanses of exposed roads and cross winds to endure, but stunning views to enjoy in return, plus, some amusing town names.

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There seemed to be only only one  way to complete a ride in this town – and that was to ride the short, hard climb to the Chateau, which offers a quiet, peaceful view of all that goes on below. A perfect place to reflect upon a beautiful two weeks, and prepare for a return to normality on Monday.

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