It’s October 23rd and I’m on route to the Pyrénées for one last mountain soirée before the winter kicks in for good, and to see what lies ahead on the road of the Etape du Tour.
The lack of urgency from the Hertz staff as we go through the motions of collecting our rental car work in our favour, giving me time to see if organisers ASO have announced the route. With an imaginary drumroll getting louder and louder in my head finally the web page loads and like magic before my eyes the words ‘Pau-Hautacam. 148km. July 20th 2014’ flash up on screen. Relief. Our predictions were correct and stage 18 of the Tour de France looked like an absolute classic, including the legendary Col du Tourmalet. We laden our rental donkey down with bike-box, kit bags and camera equipment and hit the road Fiat Kangoo style. In less than two hours we’d be in Pau.
In true Etape fashion the start will be fast, nervous and, with 10,000 riders bunched together on narrow roads, dangerous. Watch out for speed bumps on the approach and exit of each village, a lack of focus during these early stages could easily catch out the unaware.
Just 100km from the Atlantic Ocean and with some of the most beautiful landscapes you could ever wish to imagine Pau is a regular fixture on the Tour de France calendar, with restaurants and hotels aplenty. On paper the route looks straight forward enough. A rolling first 60 km before the big-gun climbs take over the charge. It’s easy to skip over these early undulations, dismissing them as “nothing to worry about” but the reality is a strategy like that could quite easily take more out of the tank than you may otherwise expect, subsequently leaving you short of gas before the end. In true Etape fashion the start will be fast, nervous and, with 10,000 riders bunched together on narrow roads, dangerous. Watch out for speed bumps on the approach and exit of each village, a lack of focus during these early stages could easily catch out the unaware, as could the 5.5km Côte de Bénéjacq after 28 km and the 2 km ascent of the Côte de Loucrup coming at 56 km. Although neither are life threatening, unlike the Tourmalet-Hautacam double, it’s definitely worth keeping in mind that the road out of Pau is anything but flat.
Turn It Up Load
I’ve ridden the Col du Tourmalet several times over the seasons and still it never fails to inspire. The mystic that the highest road pass in the Hautes-Pyrénées holds, along with countless two-wheeled battles that have been played out on its slopes, make it a true icon of cycling. I make a point of eating and drinking on the steady drag through Bagnères-de-Bigorre and up to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan where I pass the sign “Ouvert”. It’s unseasonably warm for the back end of October and despite having a Kangoo and a kit-bag full of winter clothing I’m still in shorts which is a pleasant surprise. As I exit the village the road rises to around 4.5% gently soothing my legs back into a climbing rhythm that prepares me for the 17.1km ribbon of Tarmac that I now face to the top.
I thought it was going far too well and, in a moment, the wind shifts direction to meet me head on, chilling the beads of sweat on my face and brow whilst the road simultaneously kicks up another notch to 10%.
I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the purest mountain air, and try to settle into a consistent pace keeping my heart rate away from the redline. It’s wise to try and conserve energy over the first 4 km when the gradient is more gradual. As I climb higher the trees drop away to reveal a 360 degree marvel of mountain landscapes including a cascading waterfall at Aizes that I slow my pace for to appreciate fully. Such is the natural beauty of my surrounds I fail to realise that the road has now reared up to 7.5% gradient. Preferring to keep my legs turning at a higher cadence I’ve fitted a compact chainset which means I’m able to stay on top of the gear – preventing it from turning into a grinding war of attrition. I thought it was going far too well and, in a moment, the wind shifts direction to meet me head on, chilling the beads of sweat on my face and brow whilst the road simultaneously kicks up another notch to 10%.
With no shelter it’s a welcome reminder to respect the elements and prepare accordingly, ensuring you have adequate kit come rain or shine. In the height of summer you could quickly become toast should you fail to stay hydrated. Today the elements are man-made and as I leave the ski station at La Mongie, with 4 km to go, I’m getting a royal blasting from the artificial snow machines. Fortunately it’s short lived and as the road twists and turns towards the sky I lock my attention towards the final hairpins counting down the metres to the 2,115m summit.
By now the wind has picked up and there’s a definite chill in the air so I make a quick pit stop to put on leggings and a lightweight jacket. Particular caution is needed on the steeper upper section of the descent, especially with no guard rail in sight. I tuck low to reduce drag and increase my velocity, carving each bend as I free-fall towards the Gorge de Luz but my downward trajectory is slowed on approach to Barèges. I roll along stunned by what I’m witnessing. Houses in ruin, torn off the side of the mountain, bridges being completely rebuilt and over 5 km of new road under construction following torrential flash-flooding last summer. It’s a sad sight and despite the repair work taking shape there’s still a long way to go before life is returned to normal.
Beam Me Up Cotty
Making the most of the long valley descent I take a moment to relax and let the bike do the work beneath me knowing that with every kilometre that passes I’m that much closer to Hautacam. The sun now hangs low above the mountain backdrop and, with no lights on my bike, I know that there will be little time to enjoy the view before it sets. Although shorter in length than the Tourmalet, at 13.6km, Hautacam is very much its own beast and after 134km in the saddle one that clearly knows how to bite. Immediately the gradient pitches up to 7% and in doing so sends a surge of lactic acid to my legs.
Although shorter in length than the Tourmalet, at 13.6km, Hautacam is very much its own beast and after 134km in the saddle one that clearly knows how to bite.
I find it hard to break into a solid rhythm, as the road ramps up further still before finally tapering off and allowing me to recover for a moment. Only for a second mind you, just 2 km in and it’s already hit double figures, now 10.5%, with little sign of respite. It’s this constant changing of gradient that can really mess with your head and sap your strength fast if you don’t ride sensibly. This is where it’s especially important to ensure that you’ve fitted a low enough gear otherwise you could find that you’ve bitten off more than you can comfortably chew.
My focus remains locked on to my Garmin like Superman eye lasers. Another 8 kilometres pass and the gradient still hasn’t dropped below 7.5%. I know that it can’t be more than three or so km’s to go but it’s far from over. A steady lefthand corner signifies the steepest part of the climb, tilting up to 12%, before swinging off to the right and over a cattle grid. From here on in the road opens out and you can practically smell the finish line. Now is the time to give everything you’ve got all the way to the top. I duly oblige and by the looks of it just in time. A storm is brewing up above, the wind howling at 1,520m elevation where I finally come to a standstill to end the day. I take a final look to the horizon, savouring the last moments of light, the view is magnificent and come July I expect it’ll be even better. Bon courage!
And So The Tourmalet was Born
The Pyrénées were included in the Tour de France at the insistence of Alphonse Steinès, a colleague of the organiser, Henri Desgrange. Steinès first agreed that the Tour would pay 2,000 francs to clear the Aubisque before returning to investigate the Tourmalet. He started at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan with a feast of sausage, ham and cheese and arranged to hire a driver called Dupont from Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Dupont and Steinès made it the first 10 miles, after which their car came to a stop. They started to walk but Dupont turned back after only 600 meters, shouting “the bears come over from Spain when it snows.” Steinès set off. He mistook voices in the darkness for thieves. They were youngsters guarding sheep with their dog. Steinès called to one. “Do you know the Tourmalet well? Could you guide me? I’ll give you a gold coin. When we get to the top, I’ll give you another.” The boy joined him but, content on his single gold coin, turned back. Steinès rested. He considered sitting it out until dawn but realised he’d freeze. Slipping on the icy road he fell into a stream, climbed back to the road and again fell in the snow. Exhausted and stumbling he heard another voice. “Tell me who goes there or I’ll shoot.” “I’m a lost traveller. I’ve just come across the Tourmalet.” “Oh, it’s you, Monsieur Steinès! It’s close to three o’clock. There are search teams out looking for you.” The organising newspaper, L’Auto, had a correspondent at Barèges, who took Steinès for a bath and provided new clothes. Steinès later sent a telegram to Desgrange. “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly feasible.” And so the Tourmalet was born. Frenchman Octave Lapize may beg to differ, the first man over the mountain in 1910 publicly vented his anger to race officials yelling “Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” (You are murderers! Yes, murderers!)
Legends and Liars
There’s no doubting that riding a stage of the Tour de France will always be a huge achievement, especially one as beautiful as the 22nd edition of L’Etape from Pau to Hautacam. Le Grande Boucle has visited the the Tourmalet 82 times including three summit finishes at La Mongie ski station in 1970, 2002 and 2004. Whilst Hautacam has featured four times so far, each occasion provided thrilling racing, creating stories that live on forever more. It was here in ’94 that Miguel Indurain showed that there was more to the quiet Spaniard than just time-trialling. Two years later Bjarne Riis made the remaining Tour contenders look like amateurs as he continually surged forward, pausing to eyeball his competitors, before delivering the final kick to secure victory at the summit. In 2000 Lance Armstrong lead a ferocious charge up the mountain in pursuit of Javier Otxoa, catching and distancing a lead group containing Richard Virenque and Fernando Escartin. Unfortunately we’d find out in subsequent years that many of these performances were more than wind assisted.
Good Time Keeping
Climb Stats – Total elevation for the stage 3,300m
Making it Happen
For further advice on any aspect of the ride or preparation contact Mike Cotty directly on Twitter at @cottydale.