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Cycling the famous Tour de France cols of the Pyrenees

Written by Fiona

July 20 2011

Poring over the maps and graphs of the day’s cycling, our group digests both a huge breakfast and the statistics. Four magnificent mountains in the French Pyrenees. Four long, and often steep, ascents up four famous Tour de France cols. Four superbly fast but tricky descents.  A total distance of 107km. A total ascent of 3215m (that’s almost two and a half times the height of Ben Nevis!)

Closer inspection of the ascents reveals numerous hefty gradients of 9 per cents, 9.5 per cents, 10 per cents and even a 10.5 per cent. That’s an average of 10.5 metres of climbing for 100 metres.

And then someone in the group pipes up: “Oh, well, it’s not all that bad. I can see a few 7%s. There are even some 5%s and 6%s. Nice and easy!”

This is how each day starts on our Marmot Tours cycling holiday, summitting numerous cols made famous in the Pyrenees by the annual Tour de France. The Marmot trip is slickly organised with pre-planned routes, graphs, maps, descriptions, luggage transfers, comfortable en-suite accommodation, a tour leader (James) with van support, as well as breakfasts, evening meals, lots of snacks and a ready supply of water.

Cycle tour of the Pyrenees

The group comprises 16 people. Our part of the ensemble includes nine cyclists who all know each other through cycling and triathlon clubs in the Glasgow area. There are three couples in the larger group. One couple has travelled from Australia. There is a fairly wide span of ability and fitness, but everyone is keen to make it up as many cols as they can each day.

The “basic” daily route organised by Marmot Tours caters for the less fit or less experienced, and offers “escape routes”, whereby it’s possible to head along a flatter valley route instead of cycling every single col on the programme.

The “Classic Cols Challenge” is at the other end of the scale and caters for, well, “cycling nutters” with between two and four col summits every day for six days, up to a total of 16 cols over the week.

Many of the cyclists are somewhere in between pretty-damned-fit and nutter-fit.

Fortunately the progression during the six-day trip allows for our legs and brains to grow used to the many hours sat on our bike saddles.

How we started on our cycling tour of the Pyrenees

Day one was billed a “gentle introduction to riding some of the Pyrenean cols”. One col ascent, Col du Chioula (1430m), for the basic route; or Col du Chioula and an additional ascent of Plateau du Bonascre (1380m).

The first ascent was described as “agreeable” and “leisurely”! Certainly, the graph of the Col de Chioula featured nothing more ominous than 5% gradients. But it was still a total ascent of almost 19km with a sustained uphill and no let-up for the leg muscles.

Bonascre, on the other hand, might be only 8km long but much of it was very testing with two kilometres of 10% gradients and several 9%s. This was our welcome to the serious challenge of cycling the high cols (or mountain passes), often in blazing sun but frequently accompanied by the most amazing views.

Day two featured three possible routes and three possible cols. Plateau de Beille (1800m) and Col du Port (1250m), as well as Col de Saraille (942m).

The Plateau de Beille featured in this year’s Tour de France on July 16. On the last of the big Pyrenean stages, the pros were faced with six tough tests: the Col de Portet-d’Aspet (see Day 3 for us), the Col de la Core, the Col de Latrape, the Col d’Agnes, the Port de Lers and the finish at the Plateau de Beille.

These climbs might not have the same notoriety as the Aubisque and Tourmalet but the cumulative amount of climbing still makes for a great stage.

It’s also worth noting that on the four occasions that the race has climbed up Beille that winner has gone on to be the overall victor of the Tour in the same year. (Marco Pantini in 1998, Lance Armstrong in 2002 and 2004 and Alberto Contador in 2007 for al your Tour buffs.)

In this year’s tour, Jens Voigt pulled off something of a heroic ride after crashing twice, while Jelle Vanendert went on to become the victor of the stage.

Back on our somewhat less speedy Tour, the third day saw us cycling from the overnight stop at Lorp Sentarille through gorgeous rural French countryside. There was an abundance of col options in this day, with numerous choices for easier or more challenging days. Most of the Glasgow group were keen to go for the full monty taking in the Classic Cols Challenge route via Col de Porte D’Aspet (1069m), Col de Mente (1349m) and Col du Portilllon (1293m).

“Brilliant,” I mutter to the G-Force. “A day without any 10 per cents. Only a few seven per cents and eight per cents. And there’s even a flat section. This has to be an easier day.”

Er, wrong! The total distance for this day is 105km and a total ascent of 2255m. If someone said to you in the morning that you would be cycling uphill for almost half of the 105km you might be inclined to retort with a big fat “No!”.

Not on the Marmot Tour, however. As if we have no power to resist, we all set off every morning to follow the route as directed, slogging up many kilometres of ascent, holding on for dear life during dozens of kilometres of hairpin infested downhills and then cycling some more through valleys and glens.

The tour continues

On Day Three we’re also reminded that as well as triumph during the Tour de France there have been many tragedies. While descending the super steep west side of the Col de Portet d’Aspet – there are two stretches of 17%! – we stop to take in the monument that marks the spot where Fabio Casartelli was killed in a crash in the 1995 Tour de France.

It’s at the end of each day, while eating an evening meal together, that we reveal our own stories of glory and upset.

There were sorry tales of punctures, blow-outs, run ins with cows, crazy near-misses with cars, sightings of massive vultures and weather so changeable it could be Scotland.

But there are also stories of fabulous scenery, sky-scraping mountaintops, courteous drivers, great chats and camaraderie, good gossip, amazing crepes and delicious, long lunches.

Day four was officially a rest day. Some chose to lie down and sleep for the entire day. Others headed up one col. Those who are still hoping to complete the Classic Cols Challenge took on a tough two-col day in chilly and overcast conditions, topping 1775m Port de Bales (where Schleck famously dropped his chain only to be left behind by Contador), as well as Superbagneres (1804m).

And then comes the toughest day of the trip, Day Five. We’d read the notes over breakfast. We’d taken in the graphs. But still it all seemed too much to comprehend as we eased ourselves into our bike saddles for another day of uphill pedalling. Ahead were the four massive cols of Peyresourde (1569m), Aspin (1489m), D’Azet (1580m) and Pla d’Adet. There was an allegedly “easier” option of “only” the Col du Peyresourde and Col du Aspin. And also another “slighter tougher” three-col option.

Even with a “rest” day in my legs (I only did one col on Day Four) my body felt fatigued as we set off from the lively spa town of Luchon and immediately uphill towards Peyresourde. The G-Force and I cycled this col last year and we couldn’t decide if it was helpful to know of the hell that our legs would be put through… or not.

Our line of Glasgow cyclists stretched out uphill as we all settled into our own pace. Sometimes we cycled in twos and threes, but in the end we mostly cycled uphill on our own, privately persuading our leg muscles to push onwards, stopping when required, cursing the aches and pains, but also relishing the fabulous views.

I actually think I preferred the uphills to the downhills. Whipping downhill for up 20km at a time resulted in sore hands from braking, a sore back from being in one position for too long and a big chill.

But throughout all the hard work, up and down, it was the massive sense of achievement and the truly spectacular views that more than made up for the effort.

By the end of Day 5, and whatever option we’d each chosen, every one of us was exhausted but still smiling. The chat over the evening meal was of “toughest kilometres of ascent”, “fantastic views”, “horrifying descents”, “amazing descents”, “pure madness”, “extreme hunger”. And all said with wide eyes and big grins.

With the “toughest” day of the tour under our belts, Day 6 had to be easier. Didn’t it? But looking at the graphs and charts on that morning there appeared to be even more serious climbing to be done.

The CCC cyclists were facing 3670m of ascent over 125km and including the infamous cols of the Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden and the spine chilling Hautacam. Even the “basic” route was a big outing. Climbing the Tourmalet alone is no small feat and includes some 29km of uphill cycling, with numerous sections of 9%s and 10%s.

As it was the final day many of the group were aiming to do all three biggies. First Tourmalet (2115m), then Ardiden (1720m), then Hautacam (1535m). After the first two cols I seriously doubted my ability to make it to the top of Hautacam. My legs ached, my back and shoulders were causing me serious pain and I was mentally drained.

The sun was also very hot, and so much so, that after just 2kms the G-Force turned round and headed back downhill with words that I won’t repeat in this blog. Watered down he said: “I just can’t face it.”

But I knew this would be the last big mountain for this year. Added to this, I’d always wanted to cycle Hautacam after seeing the Tour de France riders tackle this notoriously beastly hair-pinned climb on several occasions. It was on the Hautacam that in 2000 and amid very tough weather conditions, Armstrong set up his victory of the Tour.

Then at around the five kilometre mark something inside my head simply said: “Actually this is alright.” It was tough and the steep sections were extremely steep but the views were tremendous and thanks to the camaraderie of several of my cycling pals the climb passed much faster than I imagined it would.

And it seems the G-force wasn’t to be beaten after all. Just as a group of us – including everyone from Glasgow, as well as Shiny Starry Sky (a doctor), Eager Eric (an architect) and Awesome Aussie Adrian (a surgeon) – began our descent from the top, there was the G-Force pushing his pedals round and round over the final 500m of the climb. I’m not sure he was grinning but he certainly looked quite pleased with himself.

James, one of the founders of Marmot Tours, was somewhat surprised to find that a total of five of our larger group had completed the entire 16-col Classic Cols Challenge during the week. Three of our Glasgow riders, including Willie the Wisp, Never-Say-No-To-A-Cycle Lee and Cool- as-a-Cucumber Craig, also took the Classic Cols Challenge honour. They each went home with a Marmot cycling jersey, knackered legs and a much greater respect for the Tour de France riders who complete most of our week’s route in a day or two of racing!

This year was my second cycling in the Pyrenees and while fitter than the previous summer I still can’t quite take in how fast the Tour riders tackle the mountains and how far they ride over just one day. Watching them riding the Tour on the TV it is impossible to comprehend how strong and fit these guys must be. Really, you have to go there and ride a few cols to find out for yourself.

* Marmot are highly recommended and offer a range of cycle tours in the Pyrenees and the Alps. (PS This wasn’t a freebie hol!)

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