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The old one-two: Pyrenees Big Ride

In-depth
24 May 2021
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This French rides hits you first with the 2,208m Col de Tentes and follows up with the 2,088m Cirque de Troumouse. The result is a knockout

Words: Pete Muir Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

From the door of our guesthouse, our ride starts with a 45km climb. It’s gentle at first, maybe only 3%. Nothing too punishing on fresh legs, and the coolness of the morning ensures we skip briskly along a main road that is free of traffic at this early hour.

In these opening minutes the climb is just sizing us up, throwing the occasional exploratory jab to see how we respond. It’s in no hurry. It knows that this is going to be a long fight and it is saving its big punches till later.

Equally, I’ve appraised my adversary and I know that if I’m going to last the distance, I’ll have to fight smart. There’s no point trying to smash this climb into submission.

Instead I’ll need to channel my inner Muhammad Ali when he fought George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974: conserve energy, soak up the punishment and aim to still be standing when your opponent has nothing left to give.

The mountains of the Pyrenees are so steeped in cycling legend that it would be easy to assume that there are no climbs left to discover.

The list of Tour de France classics includes the Tourmalet, Aubisque, Soulor, Peyresourde, Cauterets, Superbagnères, Aspin, Hautacam, Pla d’Adet, Port de Balès, Plateau de Beille, Luz Ardiden… and on and on.

And yet on this ride we have our sights set on two climbs that can match any of those for stature, but are still relatively unknown to the cycling fraternity.

Full of surprises

First up is the Col de Tentes, which at 2,208m is higher than the Tourmalet. It sits right at the southernmost edge of France, in sight of the border with Spain.

Officially the climb is 30km, starting from the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, but we have 15km of gentle uphill to tackle before we get to the start, which is how we come to be facing a 45km ascent right out of our front door.

From Luz-Saint-Saveur the road rises 1,524m to the summit at an average gradient of 5% but, as with most big French climbs, the stats don’t tell the full story. The real climbing hits in the last 10km, where the average tilts up to nearer 9% with a maximum of 12%.

The Col de Tentes is followed by its neighbour, the Cirque de Troumouse, which reaches 2,088m at its summit.

This climb also officially starts from Luz-Saint-Sauveur and similarly involves an easy first bit followed by a more brutal final section, although in this case the punishment begins with 15km to go. Its average gradient of 5% over 28km helps to obscure the truth of the long stretches at 10% and above in the final push to the top.

In terms of distance the climbs rank as the first and third-longest in the Hautes-Pyrenees, and both climbs would be considered hors categorie were they to feature in the Tour de France, but neither has.

The reason is that both are roads to nowhere, ending at a car park and with little space or infrastructure to accommodate the circus of a Tour stage finish.

But this, in its way, is something to celebrate. While the hordes go and pretend to be Octave Lapize, sweating up the Tourmalet and hurling insults into the mountain air, the climbs of the Col de Tentes and Cirque de Troumouse remain blissfully free of cycling traffic.

Or car traffic, for that matter. That means there are no crowds of col-baggers, no gift shops, no monuments to past heroes of the Tour – it’s just you and the mountain going toe to toe.

Seconds out, round one

In my corner I’m fortunate to have Jamie Wilkins, a British former cycling journalist who has reinvented himself as a guesthouse owner and cycling tour guide, based in the village of Villelongue, just south of Lourdes.

Jamie is the kind of rider who eats HC climbs for breakfast, and his name sits high up on a number of Strava segments in the area. He’s also riding a bike that weighs about the same as one of my shoes, so I’m slightly worried that he will simply float off into the distance and I’ll never see him again.

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But Jamie is the perfect host. He finds the sweet spot between speed and effort, and I simply stick by his wheel, enjoying the sounds of rubber fizzing on tarmac.

The road is flanked by steep cliffs on one side and a slow-moving river on the other. There’s not much room to manoeuvre but thankfully the few cars we encounter are courteous to cyclists.

The hills around us are an exceptionally vibrant shade of green, testament to the amount of water and sunshine this region gets, and the roads are as smooth as a billiard table, thanks to the power of the Tour, which passes this way most years.

In Luz-Saint-Sauveur we ignore the signpost directing us towards the Col du Tourmalet and continue south on the D921, following the signs for Gèdre.

By now we are formally on the climb to the Col de Tentes, although I have to say I don’t notice any great difference in gradient. The increase in effort is so marginal that it is barely perceptible, although I can’t help but feel a certain heaviness creeping into my legs.

This is how the climb works – it turns up the heat in tiny increments so you don’t realise that your energy is slowly disappearing like steam from a simmering pan of water.

The further south we go, the more remote the landscape becomes. Hills start to close in on either side. The road narrows and the white line down the middle disappears. In the distance rocky peaks come into view on the horizon, looming over the greenery of the surrounding slopes of firs and pines.

After 23km we arrive in the town of Gèdre, and a pair of switchbacks signals another notch of increase on the gradient dial to around 6%.

It’s here that the road splits. At a junction, one signpost points left towards the Cirque de Troumouse and the other points right towards Gavarnie. We go right.

Come out swinging

It’s another 6km or 7km to Gavarnie, where the climb of the Col de Tentes starts in earnest, but by the time we arrive in the pretty town I notice that we have already accumulated over 1,100m of ascent.

That could explain why I’m feeling so tired, and yet the proper climbing hasn’t even really begun.

Jamie suggests a stop for coffee before we attack the slope, but on this day in July the cafes are all packed with tourists, so we decide instead to delay no longer. We fill our bidons and pile into the fray.

A sharp left-hand bend marks the point where the road pitches up to the gradient we can expect to encounter for the rest of the climb. A signpost warns me that the next kilometre averages 8.2% and it’s the first of 10 similar signposts I will have to pass before I reach the summit.

By the second kilometre the trees have thinned out to just a few patches, and by the third we are in a world of rock and grass, towered over by massive slabs of grey stone.

The punches come thick and fast now, sapping my energy and exposing my weaknesses. Each switchback offers a moment’s respite as the road levels out for a few metres, and then it’s back out of the saddle for another round of punishment – pow, pow, pow!

On the lower slopes, clusters of beige cows observe my performance with studied indifference. They’ve seen enough riders trying to test their mettle on this mountain, and the sight of a couple more is nowhere near enough to put them off their chewing.

A little higher up, where the grass is a bit tougher, the cows give way to sheep and goats. They pay us no attention at all, even when we need to swerve to avoid them as they wander listlessly into the road.

Higher still come the marmots, looking for all the world like either giant hamsters or tiny beavers – I can’t decide which.

Unlike their bovine and ovine neighbours, the marmots seem to really enjoy the sight of a cyclist getting beaten up by a mountain. They pop up onto their hind legs to get a better view, before scuttling off up the slope, possibly to reserve their place to watch the next bout.

Apparently there are bears and wolves roaming the Pyrenees as well, but I guess they’re just not big sports fans, or they have better things to do on a hot afternoon in July.

As each kilometre marker arrives I strain to see if the gradient is going to relent at all, but each of them promises nothing but more of the same.

This is a beautiful but bruising arena, and by the time I finally roll onto the summit I’m feeling a touch punch drunk. I collapse onto the grass, grateful at last to have reached the highest point of the ride.

Jamie, meanwhile, looks like he’s spent the day with his feet up on the sofa. There’s barely a bead of sweat on his brow, and after a short break and a bite to eat he turns to me and says, ‘Ready for round two?’

Sucker for punishment

There’s nothing to restore the spirit like a fast, slaloming descent down a perfect road on a sunny day. By the time we’ve retraced our steps for 17km back to the junction at Gèdre, I’m feeling positively rejuvenated.

We turn off the main road, following the sign for the Cirque de Troumouse, and begin on the second arm of our Y-shaped route. Immediately it delivers a sucker-punch to the guts.

This time there’s no warm-up, no gentle introductions. The road simply pitches up to 9%, forcing me out of the saddle and taunting me with the realisation that I haven’t recovered quite as much from this morning’s efforts as I had come to believe.

This climb feels more remote than the last one. The road is a mere strip of unmarked tarmac creeping through a deep gorge, hemmed in by steep banks of shrubs and dotted with the occasional tumbledown stone barn.

There are no kilometre markers this time, so it’s harder to tell how far there is to go.

It meanders for a while, sometimes steep, sometimes almost flat, until a stone bridge over a river marks the point where the road finally makes up its mind and resolves to stay at around 8%-9% for next 4km.

The added gradient sees the introduction of the first hairpins on the climb, and we zigzag our way through about 15 of them before the slope finally eases and we roll into the car park of the Auberge du Maillet cafe.

It feels very much like the summit, and my legs are wishing it was, but there is still more to come. Beyond the car park, the road continues to wind upwards out of sight beyond the ridgeline, but a barrier ensures no cars are allowed to drive it.

From here, any tourists wanting to discover what is over the horizon will have to take a little train that gets pulled by a tractor. That, or ride a bike.

The last 3km are the steepest of the day, tilting up beyond 10%. They are also the most beautiful, skirting around and over rocky cliffs that guard the exit to the valley, and eventually emerging into a magnificent cauldron of cliffs that form a perfect circle – a cirque – around us.

At last, there is no further to go. I unclip and lean against a fence to take in the view. My legs are wobbly, but the mountain has punched itself out and I am happy to see that I’m still standing.

It has been a fair fight, with just the right combination of passion, pain and pride. I think we’ll call it a draw.

Break for the border

Follow Cyclist’s Y-shaped route in the Pyrenees

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/105france. We started from the front door of our guesthouse in the village of Villelongue, about 20km south of Lourdes. Head south on the D921 for 23km, passing through Luz-Saint-Sauveur, until you arrive at the town of Gèdre.

Follow signs to Gavarnie and, once there, turn right at the junction onto the D128, followed shortly after by a left turn onto the D923 signposted to the Gavarnie-Gèdre ski resort. Climb for 10km until you arrive at the Col de Tentes.

Retrace your steps back to Gèdre and at the junction follow signs for the Cirque de Troumouse on the D922. Climb for 12km until you reach the car park at Auberge du Maillet, then continue upwards on a road barred to motor traffic at peak times for another 3km to reach the Cirque de Troumouse. Return to Gèdre, and then head back along the D921 to Villelongue.

Food for sport

When in the Pyrenees, try these…

Need a fill-up?

After a hard day in the hills, order a big bowl of garbure. A traditional southwest French stew, it can contain almost anything, but expect ham, cheese and cabbage. It’s more peasant grub than haute cuisine, but will fill the hole excavated by 3,000m of climbing.

And for dessert?

If you’re still hungry, ask for gâteau à la broche. This delicious mess of butter, eggs, flour, cream and sugar is like a cake cooked on a rotating spit over an open fire. The end result looks more like spiky coral than food, but don’t let that put you off.

Something from the wine list?

If you like a good, punchy red, the local appellation is Madrian, which is produced just north of Lourdes. Perhaps the best-known Madrian is Chateau Montus, which is velvety smooth. For white wine lovers, the nearby region of Jurançon produces decent dry and sweet wines.

The rider’s ride

Argon 18 Gallium Pro Disc, frameset £3,599, approx £11,000 as built, zyrofisher.co.uk

Argon 18 loves to cover its bikes in meaningless phrases, such as ‘AFS Argon Fit System’, ‘Optimal Balance’ and ‘Horizontal Dual System’. Most exasperating was watching my sweat drip on to a top tube emblazoned with ‘Experience The Fusion’.

Thankfully the ride quality makes up for the verbiage. The Gallium Pro Disc is as stiff as a plank, which I was thankful for on the long climbs, but it’s not too harsh thanks to the inclusion of 28mm Zipp Tangente tyres and a skinny 27.2mm seatpost.

The short head tube makes for a racy setup, but the Press-Fit 3D system allowed me to add a bit of height, and Argon 18 claims it is much more rigid compared to using standard spacers. Certainly the steering was crisp and confident.

The Sram AXS groupset was impeccable, and the 12-speed (10-28t) cassette married to a 48/35t chainset provided a huge range of gears. I would have sold my soul for a 32t sprocket, but I can’t complain about the lowest 35x28 gear given that the bike weighs just 7.46kg.

Buy the Argon 18 Gallium Pro Disc now

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airport is Lourdes, which is serviced by Ryanair, so the flights are cheap but adding a bike to your luggage is pricey. From Lourdes it’s about a 30-minute drive south to Villelongue. Toulouse airport is served by more airlines, but then you’re looking at nearer to two and a half hours’ transfer time.

Check flights to Lourdes now on Expedia

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at Escape to the Pyrenees (escapetothepyrenees.com) in the sleepy village of Villelongue. Former cycling journalist Jamie Wilkins and his partner Kitt Blackman have done a beautiful job of converting an old barn into a guesthouse with four bedrooms, all en suite and all well appointed.

Book your stay at Escape to the Pyrenees on Booking.com

Home-cooked food is delicious and plentiful, and there is a workshop and large garage for storing bikes. Guests can opt for self-guided or fully supported riding, with a huge range of road and gravel routes on offer.

Thanks

Many thanks to Jamie for his excellent guiding skills and for letting me hide in his lee for large chunks of the long final stretch down the D921.

Also, thanks to Kitt for driving Cyclist’s photographer around all day with saint-like patience, and maintaining a constant flow of tasty treats to keep energy levels up.