Allez allez Tourmalet!

Allez allez Tourmalet!
Just two hours drive from the surf of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the small town of Argeles-Gazost. This is stop two of a family holiday across southern France to Nice. Arriving at our cabin resort with pools and water slides the kids excitement is off the scale, while mine is saved for the L’Etape des Pyrénées bike hire establishment right next door.

Quelle surprise mon cherie .. well not quite since I’d been planning this ‘coincidence’ and packed my kit in eager anticipation of topping Col du Tourmalet just 10 days before the Tour whip through it themselves. Armed with my sketchy French, I make myself known at the bike hire shop and soon come out with very fine, if not rather orange, Orbea.

Next day I’m up early to beat the heat and my building excitement I’m creeping out the cabin to get going. Col du Tourmalet has featured 81 times in the Tour, more than any other climb. From Argeles-Gazost to the top it is an average gradient of 7.4%. I start along the valley floor at a gentle gradient surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrénées. It’s all very pleasant with passing fields, chooks and little farm villages until you reach the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, where it goes up a notch and you start to realise there are mountains above the hills.

Lacking a pre-ride coffee as not wanting to wake the family, I stopped at Luz for a quick boost. Forgetting the French name for a piccolo, which is also not a Cortado, I get blank looks from my garçon, so under pressure I instead defaulted to the cappuccino .. what came was a bowl of coffee with a floating blob of cream in it.. then I remembered .. it’s a noisette in France!

The extra sugar hit was in fact welcome, since back on the road the gradient, like the temperature, was rising and it’s a long straight steep drag up the valley out for Luz-Saint-Sauveur. I rounded on a few other cyclists, gaining on two Brits I heard them say ‘it’s only 19 km to the top’ .. but what a 19km, the gradient is now a minimum of 7%, regularly nudging nine and 10% and it’ll be just under two hours to the top from here.

Traffic is light, in fact it was really quiet so I wondered if I was on the right route, having the year before trundling up Alp du Huez, also 10 days before the Tour, where it was like rush hour with motorbikes, cars, motor homes and the Dutch all settling in to their corner - so it was a joy to just have the wind in your ears and a few scattered cyclists for company.

As soon as you get to the first of the ski lifts the roads starts to need the use of the switchback to deal with the contours, and by now it’s mid morning and it’s nudging 30 degrees and any chance of shade has gone.

The reward is you now start see the full majesty of the Pyrénées, gone are the foothills which are still a significant size, but now this is a proper alpine view and with it the road narrows to what is really a single lane. There is a small and disconcerting half metre stone wall that had appeared on my right at the edge of the road, that does little to steady the nerves on its clear lack of ability to arrest a fall. In fact my mind has already determined that it would only serve to better propel my over the edge into free fall of you so much as caught a pedal on it.. good job there are no oncoming tractors.. wait a minute. WTF! They’re busy preparing the roadside of the Tour.

By now more switchbacks, more height gained it’s a steady 9% and with three kms to go I’ve gone from riding to surviving, I’m out of water, I’m over my energy bars and I’m overheating.. but the top is there.. I see it, all the other cyclists learing over the edge. The thought of a cola with a noisette chaser urges me on and then there you are, a final 10% switch to the top, I can imagine the crowds on the day, I’m out of the saddle and with a flourish it’s done.

The top is an impressive sight in all directions. It’s tight on space, just enough for a cafe and a tiny souvenir shop to perch with small car park hidden just down on the other side of the Col, so it has a nicely exposed outlook, worthy of the effort for sure.

I chew the fat of the climb with a bunch of Brits, an American and a Queenslander in the shade of the cafe deck over the obligatory order of cola, coffee and cake and laughing at how we all at some point were overtaken by the lady on a shopper e-bike with pannier bags laden with her daily shop.

The downhill requires the ability to surpress all that caffeine and sugar to navigate the switchbacks, but with a clear view ahead, no cars on the horizon it’s super fun, and I am quite impressed with the handling of the Orbea.

After the switch backs it’s the long straight ish downhills back into Luz-St.Sauveur .. all up 29 minutes of downhill and still no traffic on my shoulder. Then cruising back along the valley floor to Argeles-Gazost wind in the sails. Even though it’s the same route up and back it’s actually quick satisfying seeing again the road you toiled up eaten up.. it puts a smile on your dial.

All up 76km return, 1,744m verts in 4 hours and recovery time in the pool with the family, with the odd water slide thrown in for good measure, wood fired pizza and a bottle of rose.. a day of champions.