The Dream: You arrive at the Pyrenees, the mountains drenched in summer sun, their sheer splendour teasing you to get your bike from the van and start to live your dream; to scale the same dizzy heights as Wiggins, Indurain, Merckx, Nibali, to suffer as they suffered, to wipe the sweat from your brow as the summer sun punishes you for daring to climb closer toward her. To rise above it all and stand upon the summit, looking down on cycling history.
The Reality: You arrive at the Pyrenees, you can’t see a bump in the road let alone a mountain and the sun is nowhere to be seen. You throw up your tent as quickly as possible in an attempt to beat the rain. The bikes stay in the van as you sit there in the bar looking at the lumps of ice smash against the ground and the flashes of lightning illuminate the sky.
Well OK, you could just about see a bump in the road but there really where huge pieces of ice falling from the sky and rain you wouldn’t believe. All a little disappointing as it was clear our first ride would have to wait until the following day.
Myself, Ian and Roberto had booked for 3 nights at Camping L’Oree des Montes (I highly recommend it) at the base of the Col d’Aspin. Unfortunately the weather forecast was pretty grim for the whole 3 days, but despite this we remained quit upbeat and began re-planning our routes as we sat there sipping at our beers. With the forecast of more persistent rain the following day we decided to move our Tourmalet day to the Sunday and ride up the Col d’Aspin instead.
Having re-planned our riding schedule (generally shorter rides to avoid the rain) we went back to check the tent and thankfully it had withstood the down pour. Of course, as I had planned the trip Ian made sure there were plenty of jovial digs about the miserable weather being all my fault. That evening we headed into Bagneres de Bigorre for dinner and found a great little Pizzeria; eating Italian rather than French felt justified considering Nibali had just won the Tour de France. And yes! it was raining.
The rain and thunder storms continued on and off throughout the night but despite the claps of thunder and the sound of the raging river just 20m from the tent, we all managed to get some sleep.
DAY 1: Col d’ Aspin (1490m) & Hourquette d’Ancizan (1564m) – www.strava.com/activities/174370732
When I awoke (relieved not to find us floating down the river in the tent and that our trip wasn’t going to end up being more like a French version of three men in a boat) the rain had stopped and by the time the other two were up and ready (they were obviously using the bad weather as an excuse to sleep in), the roads had even started to dry. We rode (clad in almost full winter clothing) down to St Marie de Campan for breakfast, a very French affair involving coffee and croissants. Now fuelled, we headed back up the Col d’Aspin, ready for our first Pyrenean climb.
We had agreed to ride the climbs at our own individual pace, so this invariable meant Roberto disappearing into the distance, Ian pulling slightly ahead of me on the lower slopes and me plodding along behind, just managing to keep him in sight.
It was pretty overcast with patchy low cloud which actually made the climb very atmospheric.
All was going well but with just over 1km to go, DISASTER! Roberto was by the roadside up ahead with a puncture. ‘Not a real disaster’ I hear you say, but the disaster was that my Strava segment time would be ruined (just kidding, I gave up caring about my segment times ages ago). Even so, we stopped and helped Roberto. Well actually we didn’t help at all, we just sat there watching him and moaned about our ruined segment times.
Back on the bikes we finally reached the summit, we’d just ridden our first Pyrenean climb and it felt great! The views from the top down the valley were awesome and it was also encouraging to see breaks in the weather and even the possibility of sun. The descent of the Col de Aspin down to Arreau is great and I really enjoyed whizzing down at 70 plus kph, although with traffic and cows you have to be careful. At the bottom of the climb Roberto had another puncture but no disaster as it wasn’t on a Strava segment 😉
We didn’t really know where we were going once down the Aspin, as we thought it would be raining so expected a short ride. Buying a map seemed like a good idea, so we purchased one in Arreau and Roberto suggested heading back up the Hourquette d’ Ancizan. This proved a great choice. Last ridden in the 2012 Tour the road is pretty much traffic free. Again my strava segments would be ruined as we approached the climb via a side road and not the main turn (thanks Roberto). However, I created a new segment and have the KOM as nobody else on Strava has approached the climb from that side street (10km’s long, averaging 8% – www.strava.com/segments/7849751 ). Not many people can say they have a KOM on a Pyenean climb so I’ll make the most of it while it lasts, which won’t be long as Ian will take it away from me as soon as he gets round to registering on Strava 🙁
The climb of the Hourquette d’ Ancizan was great but the descent was just as amazing, as the views are truly stunning. It finally brings you out back on the Aspin and just a few km’s from our camp-site, where showered and refreshed, we enjoyed a beer and took the piss out of Roberto for forgetting to bring any underpants (he had swimming trunks) and talked about our day on the bike and our tactics for the Tourmalet (which for me and Ian was simply how not to topple over at such low speeds).
Day 2: The Col d’ Tourmalet – www.strava.com/activities/174998038
I’d been looking forward to this day for months, steeped in history and myth the Col d’ Tourmalet is just something special.
We would be riding it from the slightly easier side, beginning at St Marie de Campan. Having our usual breakfast at the bar at the foot of the climb, we were all keen to get going. Amazingly the weather was perfect with crystal clear skies. Although it was early (8:20) to my surprise there were very few cyclists around and as it turned out, not one cyclist overtook me on the way up the climb. Climbing the Tourmalet is truly something special. It’s long, it’s hard, it’s beautiful but it’s the stories like Cristophe repairing his bike at the Forge below in St Marie de Campan that make it that bit more special.
Roberto forged ahead (no relation to the forge of Cristophe) , Ian kept within view and 1 hour 55 minutes later, we stood together at the top of the Tourmalet. We’d done it! It’s a great feeling and one I will never forget, even now I can’t believe I’ve done it. Like I said, I hadn’t been overtaken by any other riders all the way up and there weren’t many people at the top. After a quick photo shoot and a coffee we decided to head down the other side a little way. After a couple of Kilometres we headed back up only to find it packed with cyclists. Pleased that we had already taken our pics we headed back down.
Col’ d’ Toumaelet Summit
In hindsight, perhaps we should have ridden all the way down the other side and climbed back up. I think I could have just about managed it (easy to say now) but instead we went back down and took a pleasant little detour by the river. I was actually up for riding more and fancied climbing up to Hourquette d’ Ancizan the other way, but I succumbed to the offer of a beer at a nearby bar and that was it for the day.
View from the Col d’ Tourmalet
Day 3: Col d’Pyresourde & Col de Val Louron-Azet – www.strava.com/activities/175518692
It was amazing that up until now not one drop of rain had fallen whilst we were riding, but on the morning of our final day our luck seemed to have run out. It had rained all night, not heavily as before, but it seemed a lot more persistent. By the time the other two had arisen the rain had actually stopped, but the low grey clouds didn’t inspire optimism.
We packed our damp muddy tent, stuffed the van full to the brim and set off to Arreau, with the idea of coming back to take a shower before heading back to Spain.
To our astonishment the weather didn’t look too bad on the other side of the Aspin, even the sun was trying to break through. By the time we had parked up and prepared our bikes it was almost sunny. After all that rain could we actually manage 3 rides without a single drop of rain touching us?
Our route took us up the Col d’ Pyresourde which was a really enjoyable climb. Arriving in our usual formation we found that all the photographable signs were being hogged by a group of Asian riders, who were taking their ceremonial photos in their various choreographed poses. It was great to see and that’s one of the reasons riding the Pyrenees is so good; you are sharing an experience with people who have come from all over the world to climb these mythical Cols.
Eventually getting our turn to take a few (less pre-rehearsed) snap shots, we then headed back down the way we came. Instead of carrying on to Arreau, we took a left toward Lac de Genos Loudenvielle. This is a truly beautiful ride, which for us was enhanced by now perfect weather and skydivers drifting down to the lake from above. On the other side of the Lake is the Col d’Azet Louron which, like the Pyresourde, appeared on Stage 17 of this year’s Tour de France which was won by Rafal Majka.
Whilst all the climbs we had scaled so far never really went into double figures, the Col d’Azet seldom seemed to go below them. It’s a real ‘Hairpin-bender’ and pretty tough. After about 6km it levels off a bit. Here once again my Strava segment was ruined. The climb bears sharp right to the summit which I had planned to do, but just as I was about to turn I saw that Ian and Roberto had gone straight on to Val Louron, so I continued straight on (thanks Roberto). Realising our mistake we took a few pics and went back and finished the climb. I think we will see more of this climb in the Tour as it does sort the men out from the boys and also offers spectacular scenery.
So that was it! our last climb completed. We raced back down to Arreau, our first real stretch of flat riding since arriving but seeing the time realised it would take too long to go back to the camp site for a shower. So, to the obvious interest and perhaps even delight of two old women over the road, we changed our clothes, eat by the van and then headed for a sweaty drive back to Spain. 7 hours later we were back in Gijon unloading.
I then drove home, more than happy that THE DREAM HAD BECOME REALITY!
I still find it amazing that not one rain drop fell on us while we were riding. The Pyrenees is wet, even at the height of summer. The good thing is it mainly rains in the afternoon so you can often squeeze a dry ride in.
My opinion of cycling the Pyrenees? Bloody amazing! I enjoyed every moment of it and is a must do trip for any keen cyclist. It’s even better if you do it with two great guys like Ian and Roberto even if they do blame you for all the rain. – We will return!
So how do the climbs compare to those in Asturias? Well every climb we did was tough but they’re not as tough as many in Asturias. The main difference is that in Asturias, although generally a little shorter, most climbs have some really high %age ramps, often taking you well into the double figures, there’s also a lot less traffic in Asturias. If you ride the Pyrenees, you certainly wouldn’t be disappointed if you then came to Asturias in respect to both the climbs and the landscape. The main difference though is the 100 year long history which goes with climbs like the Col d’ Tourmalet, which does make the Pyrenees that little bit special.