A little Tour de France

May 20, 2015

After a long break from any big adventure it was time to pack up the bike and head out to the south of France for a little Tour de France of my own. The plan was simple, 6 days of cycling – coast to coast across the Pyrenees from Biarritz to Perpignan over some of the infamous climbs of the Tour de France.

Going in May was a perhaps a bit early on in the season with the biggest of all the climbs in the Pyrenees (the Tourmalet) still shut from winter. However, it did mean that we had all the other roads pretty much to ourselves.

The first day saw us start from the beaches of Biarritz and wind our way up through the countryside to Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Planned as a slightly longer day to get us into the mountains it turned out to be one of the hardest days and despite not taking in any notable climbs, we still managed over 2,000m of climbing in temperatures over 35°C!

Starting at the Atlantic

Starting at the Atlantic

The second day is when we started going into the mountains properly, with the main aim of the day the Col d’Aubisque, an Hors Categorie climb going up to 1,709m. Again with another roasting hot day we took it at a leisurely pace taking in not one, but two cake stops along the way. As we were in the Basque country it was rude not to eat a couple Gâteau Basques! The climb itself is absolutely stunning and we had it all to ourselves. When we got to the top we found of why as the road to the Col du Soulor was shut due to repairs after the winter, but we could squeeze through on bikes if we were careful. This was by far the most stunning climb of the trip and I’d recommend going up if you’re in the area, even if it’s just for the view.

The Col d'Abisque

The Col d’Aubisque

Day 3 was another tough day in the saddle with the temperature not showing any sign of cooling down. A day of two big climbs followed starting with the slightly easier Col d’Aspin which nicely wound up the mountain through some much appreciated shade. At the top we were greeted by one of the best descents I’ve ever done as the road dropped back down to Arreau.

The descent from the Col d'aspic

The descent from the Col d’Aspin

After lunch the Col de Peyresourde was on the menu and this was probably the toughest climb of the trip despite being only a category 1 climb. Every day it was around the 2/3 o’clock point that the temperature peaked and this nicely coincided with the steepest climb of the trip. Another beautiful descent followed taking us down the valley into the Victorian spa town of Bagnères-de-Luchon, the closest we would come to the Spanish border.

The next day was a shorter day to act as a bit of a rest taking in the Col de Menté (another great descent) and the Portet d’Aspet as we rolled over into the next valley and to Saint-Girons where we could take a little breather. By day 5 the relentless temperatures had dropped and we were climbing into the clouds at points but luckily the rain eluded us. The wind had picked up but fortunately it was with us for the majority of the day as we cut through the steep sided valley around the Pas de Souloumbrie giving the day an eerie feeling before arriving in our penultimate destination, Ax-les-Thermes.

Climbing through the clouds

Climbing through the clouds

Unfortunately by the last day of the trip our luck with the weather had run out and we set off into a drizzle and we knew we had a long day ahead of us. With no warmup the route saw us head up to the highest point of the trip at the top of the Port de Pailhères at 2,001m. As we climbed the wind was also getting stronger and as we passed the ski station the rain started to turn to light snow but we were protected from the worst of the wind by the switchbacks.

By this point we were fairly committed to the route with any detour involving probably another 100km and an extra day on the road. As the road plateaued out was when things got really tough. Visibility dropped and the snow was starting to settle on the road. Strong cross winds whipped across the road so we had to get off and walk the final 1km to the summit in blizzard conditions. Finding a little stone shelter at the top we scrambled to get all the clothes we had on us on and wonder what the hell we would do.

In the shelter at the top

In the shelter at the top with snow on the handlebars

We had a 1,200m descent ahead of us but the road seemed impassable, we decided that the best thing was to power through and walk down to a point where we could safely get back on the bikes and descend down into hopefully some warmth. Luckily we made it safely down to Mijanès where we found a little bakery that made us some much appreciated hot chocolates and we reflected on what we’d just been through and tried to warm up.

Already well into the day we still had over 100km to do to get to our final destination and two more climbs but none to the same altitude as where we had just been. The rain came and went but already soaking wet the descents were the hardest points trying just to keep warm. Another 50km or so saw us reach the top of the Col de Jau, the point from which the rest of the trip was all down hill. Another chilling decent was in order before we came across a cafe to get some much needed food as it was already 5pm at this point.

The final climb of the trip!

The final climb of the trip!

I don’t know if it was pity or disbelief but this lovely cafe took us in put the heater on, gave us blankets and probably the best meal of the trip so far, or at least the most appreciated! After warming up we still had 50km to go to but the sun came out and we dropped into the valley heading straight for Perpignan. The wind that battered us at the top of the Port de Pailhères earlier in the day pushed us along a dead straight road cutting through miles upon miles of orchards at speed as we were peeled off our layers as they dried out and we warmed up. We arrived in Perpignan 11 hours after we set off that day but we made it, we had crossed the Pyrenees.


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