Regular readers of this website will be confused - normally my mountain
trips are the first week of September and you would have thought after 12
years it would be set in stone. But this year I had to change so opted
for a August week in the Pyrenees.
When I booked this, I was expecting to be travelling during the summer holiday peak so mindful of not wanting to arrive at 10pm, I split my journey with an overnight stop in Bordeaux before reaching my first base for 3 nights t Argeles-Gazhost. It is possible to drive here in a day but is risky with heavy traffic and potential bottle-necks at the Peage (motorway tolls) so I took the prudent approach. As it was other factors have reduced the volume of traffic on the roads. If you have a moral aversion to motorway tolls, then there is no way you can get this far in one day.
It was less than 3 hours from Bordeaux and luckily my room was ready so a quick change and I was off for my first ride taking in two climbs; Cauterets Pont d'Espagne and the more well known (by cycling fans) Hautacam.
The Pont d'Espagne is a beautiful national park that is off-limits to Le Tour; there was a stage finish in Cauterets a couple of year ago but even the mighty ASO cannot get a stage to finish 8km further up. I have been a couple of times before; once as a child on a family holiday and once more recently with Jane. Well it was 12 year ago and I celebrated my 40th birthday with a hike and chairlift ride when visiting the famous waterfall. I believe that the name 'bridge to Spain' arose from it being one route taken by people escaping Nazi occupied France. The protection of the national parks is vital and as much as I follow Le Tour, I am all for some places being out-of-bounds.
Anyway on the cycling; there is a Voie Verte (greenway) to Cauterets but it has a gravel surface so not suitable for the Madone with 23mm tyres so I took the road. It was an great re-introduction to climbing with a gradient not exceeding 6% until a couple of km before Cauterets when the obligatory 10%+ section appeared, followed, as they always are, by a small descent into the town. Originally a thermal spa resort, Cauterets welcomes hikers, cyclists, Via Ferrata-ists and pretty much anyone who enjoys the outdoors. The 8km section above Cauterets was a little harder but the gradients were helped by the views, especially the waterfalls. Or cascades as they call them here.
Descending back I had a quick lunch stop before heading back to Argeles-Gazhost for the main climb of the day, the Hautacam. I have driven this before and even had a go on the summer toboggan ride at the top but this was my first time on a bike up here. The heat of the afternoon (over 30) was a factor but this was the hardest climb I have ever done. The stats are 13km at 8% but I cant remember much respite but can recall plenty of sections in double digits. The breeze that I rode into earlier in the valley had no affect here; it was like cycling in an oven. Or maybe in a shed without a fan with the doors closed in the summer. But on real 15% gradients, not virtual ones. This is why I have a rule of always carrying 2 water bottles - large ones as well. Anyone attempting this on a single half-litre bidon is an idiot. As the climb starts in a low valley and there are no snow-capped peaks to see, the view wasn't even all that good to start, though it was certainly pretty spectacular at the top.
Just when you thought you'd seen it all, there was a cattle grid on an 8% gradient. The heat must have been getting to me when, as a car passed me just before a stubborn cow was standing in the middle of the road, I shouted "he's not moo-ving mate" and continued to laugh at my own joke. But the Hautacam had the last laugh; I finally reached the car park where Le Tour always finishes only to find out that the tarmac road continues for another 1.2km climbing another 115m, but what could I do. I had to continue to the Col de Tramassal and guess what, the road climbed a little higher to a car park. So I did that as well. Hats off to the 5 people who have won tour stages here, it is absolutely brutal. At least with only one road up, I don't have to do it again! The descent was pretty good though and I was soon back at Argeles-Gazhost already looking forward to Day 2
Map (new window)
|Profile (as ever from gpsvisualizer.com)|
|The Cascade du Cerisey above Cauterets|
|The entrance to the National Park|
|Apparently you are allowed to drive up here|
|The old Lourdes to Pierrefitte-Nastalas railway line is now a cycle route|
|Approaching the summit of Hautacam, the views across the valley|
|The Col de Tramassel was not quite the top, see the car park in the background|