Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Cycling in the Pyrenees: My first ascent of the Col du Tourmalet


This is a long one guys, so go fetch a tea, a packet of biscuits and get comfy...


Growing keener and keener on all this cycling malarkey and being naturally drawn to mountains (read about all of that other stuff here), it wasn't long before I started researching the sport's greatest climbs. Also, being obsessed with France (we holiday there VERY regularly), it was only right that I started with the French Alps and the Pyrenees.

Now, I live in Coventry which is nothing short of flat, meaning I have to venture to the Lake or Peak Districts to encounter anything considered as a mountain pass. So, with no real experience of cycling up 'big hills', I didn't really know what I'd be letting myself in for.  Of course over the years I've watched the Tour and seen a bunch of crazy men race up most of these revered passes, but I wanted to understand more about what it actually takes to cycle up them and I was only going to get that by cycling up one or two of them!

Given the time I'd happily (try to) cycle up all of the French greats, but alas this wasn't going to be possible so I had to limit my search to something I could fit in with our next trip to France in the the Midi-Pyrenees. Looking at YouTube videos and reading trip reports I soon started to form a mental picture of the main group of monster climbs but, as I was going to be doing this alone and over 2 days, I'd be limited.

After much research (Velo Pyrenees is a good resource) I decided I'd mix it up with an ascent of the famous Col Du Tourmalet and the not so well-known road up to the Lac de Cap de Long - for its scenic appeal alone! I'd have very limited time, just one night in fact, so needed somewhere affordable but in easy reach of the hills. I'd left it quite late to book (as always) and struggled to find anywhere that wasn't fully booked and in the right place. Eventually I stumbled across La Caminade via a Google Maps search and a managed to book the night I needed with no trouble whatsoever.

With all this in place I just had to turn up......oh, and buy some new wheels, a cassette for climbing and a gilet.....oh, and maybe some hill training. My Dura Ace 9000 C24 wheels will be a subject of their own review but I also went for an 11-27 cassette as I guessed I'd need all the help I could get!

Our holiday came soon enough and on the third day I packed up the bike and the rest of the gear and headed off down the Peage to the hills - a 2 hour drive from our rental house near Saint Antonin de Noble Val. The plan today was fairly simple: I'd rock up at Campan and get straight on to tackle the Tourmalet, absorb the views for a bit and then put in a blisteringly fast, death-defying descent back to Saint Marie de Campan to collect the car and find the B&B. Simple? No, not so I'm afraid, as the Tourmalet had been closed due to the flooding that had hit the western slopes but the news from Gerald (owner of La Caminade) by email before I left was that the eastern ascent could still be made! It was ‘on’…

The trip down was fairly uneventful, except of course for the toll booth stops (where I had to get out, dash around to the passenger side, fumble with money, take a ticket and dash back to the drivers seat) and of course stopping to cram in some much needed carbs for later that day. I arrived at around 1pm (later than planned) and managed to park in one of the back streets behind the Town Hall. I was a bit nervous at this point and the anticipation was making me faff about, taking an age to do things I can normally do in minutes! 28 minutes later (28!!!!) I was decked out in Lycra, bike re-assembled, tyres pumped and jersey pockets filled with all I'd need for the next few hours. I clipped in, hit start on the Garmin Edge 810 and set off - seemingly in an upward direction from the first pedal stroke!

Unfortunately this first section of the ride is a bit of a blur in that all I remember is wonderfully smooth tarmac and the sound of my incessant panting! In truth I also remember thinking that the gradient was steeper than I was expecting and I'd need to slow down to make sure I didn't go out too hard - as is normally the case. I could describe my style of riding at the start of big route or a long day as "digital" because its either on or off and nothing in between.

I forced myself to settle down and enjoy the ride and suddenly the scenery started to soak in and the tempo levelled out as I warmed up and wondered what the hell I had to expect - I really can't convey enough how little hill work I'd done up to this point and I was anxious to make sure I got everything right.

The winding, undulating road soon reaches Sainte Marie de Campan (where most people start the climb to the Tourmalet) and the information sign for the Tourmalet loomed into view. At this point my heart sank as I read the sign to say: Col du Tourmalet - Ferme (closed for those who don't speak French) but the road to La Mongie (the Ski Resort at the base) to be open.


I trusted Gerald's information (he's a very keen cycling by all accounts) and having little choice I just pressed on in the hope that the sign was meant to indicate that the col cannot be crossed and descended on to the western slopes - as I'd previously understood it.

From here the road begins to kick up a little more, passing various farm buildings, chambre d'hotes and restaurants which eventually thin out to give way to forest on a stunning valley road. From here I could see that the ascent was shrouded in thick, low cloud and I was glad of my decision to cram the gilet in my pocket. There was little traffic today, both in terms of vehicles and cyclists, and I don't recall seeing anyone else until Gripp. Again, the gradient in this first section had averaged 5% and had me worried as I'd been feeling as though I'd been going a bit hard up to this point and with still 12km to go! The kilometre-spaced countdown signs taunted me with as I slowly rolled past!

I knew I had the hairpin section before La Mongie next and I also knew the gradient from hereon in was going to average 9%, top out at 10.2% and even more on the inside line of the tighter, steeper bends. I realised here that the technical details were largely irrelevant  - I was on my way and wouldn't be stopping until I hit the summit!

I must've settled in a little better after this as I found a rhythm which took me through the tree lined hair-pin and up to La Mongie. To me, this looked like a deserted “once-was” town now all the snow had gone and a little out of place compared to the mountains that surrounded it. In the winter season I imagine this is a very different place but I failed to see any appeal as I plodded on up past the various ski and outdoors shops, hotels, apartments and bars. Fortunately this bit didn't last and I was soon out the other side and left with the faceless apartment blocks sinking lower and lower as I continued the climb.


It wasn't long after this that I spotted the faded names painted onto the road and it was hard not to think about the incredible talent that had ascended this legendary hill. I don’t know whether this inspired or intimidated me! Here, the cycling traffic started to pick up as I began passing one cyclist after another, using each bobbing figure ahead of me as the next target to chase down!

By now I was working quite hard and my glasses started slip of my face and annoy me. Trying to take these off, secure them behind my helmet and trying to maintain momentum on a 9% gradient was nothing short of a chore. How the pros do this I'll never know!


Every now and then I'd glance down at my Garmin and spot my heart-rate, which gave me some hope that I still had more in the tank and could push harder if necessary - particularly as the kilometre markers were now displaying much more pleasing numbers! Annoyingly though, this introduced an unexpected dilemma...

Before putting rubber on tarmac at the Campan I just wanted to get up and get down and enjoy the experience but now, as the miles to the summit ticked down, I was suddenly thinking about pushing hard and seeing if I could improve my time! Luckily, realising this was a cocky, silly thing to do on the first ascent, I went back to just riding at my most 'comfortable' pace, watching my average speed plummet the further I ascended. The weather wasn't great and the low cloud added a thick silence to the whole affair with only the sound of rushing water in the clefts and tunnels breaking through the sound of my panting!

The road was in various states of repair, starting mainly at the La Mongie, but at points here it was almost all covered in fresh, loose gravel and not something I was relishing on the cold, fast descent!

Slowly and steadily I began to pass more and more people, all of whom (like me) were fighting through their own personal demons in pursuit of reaching the summit. Each time I’d say “bonjour” or “hello” but I only recall one response in particular – which said it all really: “c’est grave, non?” to which there could be only one response: “Oui”! This chap held my wheel for a time but there were no more words - just our rhythmic breathing until I looked around to find he’d dropped back and I was, once again, left to fight the battle alone. I was hoping we’d nurse each other to the top and have some sort of Anglo-French celebration at the summit but I never saw him again – not even at the top!

Suddenly, the 1km marker just appeared and a wave of relief and excitement took over. I suddenly found a burst of energy and almost involuntarily I was out of the saddle as the gradient kicked up in the final few bends with me dancing away on the pedals like a madman! There was one last wheel ahead of me and I made a decision not to chase it and just soak up the final 500 metres before the top. The clouds were thicker than ever and a cold wind pushed up behind me as I began to see the grey silhouettes of people in the road. Hoping it was a welcome party of my loved-ones, friends and fans I was most disappointed to find it was just two local Gendarmes who were seemingly guarding the summit. They waved me past and gave me a slow clap, which I still can’t decide if it was celebratory or patronising!

As if out of my dreams, I rounded the final bend and gave the final push to the summit plateau which was, unbelievably, bathed in sun with the most the most amazing vista opening out before me. Other cyclists had already made themselves comfortable above the famous “Col du Tourmalet sign and they clapped and cheered as I emerged from the clouds.*


The views to the west were just incredible and an ascent from this side would have been a completely different experience…..except of course it was closed!


Feeling quite proud, I unclipped and set my weight down on my jelly-like legs. Trying to look unaffected to my fellow cyclists, I made a poor attempt at a casual swagger to absorb the view and take some photos. I was tired and glad to be at the top and just stood and took it all in whilst the sun warmed and soothed my aching legs. More and people began to reach the summit and as they emerged it felt only natural and proper that I should join in the clapping and encouragement being dished out with gay abandon. A couple must’ve felt sorry for me as I tried to take my self-portrait with wobbly hands and kindly took my photo – making me look even shorter than normal!



I hung around for a while and looked in the souvenir shop,  the sounds of clapping and cheering could still be heard inside to mark the arrival of more triumphant finishers. I soon realised that I had to be going so, donned my Mavic gilet, checked my brakes and clipped in for the fun part – the descent! Sadly this was hampered somewhat as we were all instructed to await the arrival of a Convoi Exceptionel as it struggled its way up the mountain with heavy-lifting equipment, presumably needed for the major road repairs on the other side at Luz Saint Sauveur since the flooding. This 10 minute wait on the cloudy side just served to let the chill kick in and by the time we were given the all-clear I was shivering!

The descent was fairly fast and quite dangerous. In part this was due to my love of speed but also due to the poor traction caused by the gravel-ridden sections. Wherever possible I tried to keep my speed up but soon got stuck behind an elderly chap in a Fiat Panda, who seemed to love to drive in the middle of the road – as appears customary in France. Soon there was a queue of us itching to get past and I finally decided to take my chance as we hit a straight. Several others followed and it felt incredible to be hammering down the mountain and over-taking cars! Reckless perhaps but it was fun and I was caught in the moment.

As is always the case, the descent was over far too quickly and I was soon having to brake hard as I approached La Mongie once again. By this point my fingers and face were freezing so I decided not to stop for a drink and instead to press on to Campan and keep my momentum. The ride from here is nothing short of amazing as it’s a long, fast and sweeping descent which meant I was back at the car in no time and wanting to go back and do it all again.

Overall I’d enjoyed my first attempt at the Tourmalet and indeed at a proper “categorised climb” in general. I’d have to wait to reflect on the whole experience because I had to find La Caminade and prepare for the Lac de Cap de Long the next day. More on that to follow…

Here’s the Strava page for the ride:


* Its a crying shame that I can only imagine how epic I must have looked!

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