Day 5 and another damp morning though Meteo de France are predicting sunshine from 9am so time for a hearty breakfast before another special climb; the Col du Portet is the highest paved road in the French Pyrenees, topping out at 2,215m. The section from Soulan-Espiaube has only been paved since 2018 when it was used in Le Tour. The climb is 16km at an average gradient of 8.7% climbing over 1,400m.
The climb is in two sections; the first half follows the 'main' road to the ski resort of Pla d'Adet as far as Espiaube where the Route de Portet branches off. The first section is probably the worst - just a kilometre after kilometre of 9 and 10% gradient, though it was made slightly easier by being constant, unlike the Hautacam that did have a few variations. It was probably 10 degrees cooler than when I rode the Hautacam so a direct comparison a little tricky but the main stat is that it is 0.8% steeper. 0.8% may not sound like a lot but see what your mortgage payments would be like with an extra 0.8% on top!
When the Route de Portet is reached there is another bonus; there is a checkpoint as motor traffic is barred between 10am and 5pm, though there were a few official vehicles on the road with me, either farmers or people checking the winter sports infrastructure. But to think that these last 2 days I have enjoyed almost closed roads. This section is a little gentler than the bottom half but the wind was making half the switchbacks extremely hard and when you get near the top, there is an unlit tunnel with a bend. Just what you need. One thing I have considered this week though is changing my gearing. I have the first iteration of Ultegra Di2 that Shimano only guarantees up to a 28 tooth sprocket, though Erik has said he has a customer successfully running a 30. I am fairly sure that the front chain ring 34 cant be reduced. Climbs like the Hautacam and Portet are tough when your lowest gear is 34-28 (well they are for me). Winterfold Hill may be 22% but it is only 22% for about a hundred yards so hopefully when I return to the mountains next year, I will have a 34-30.
The summit is a little underwhelming; a car park at the ski station. A little like the Hautacam. There were plenty of cars here as this is an excellent area for walking. The trails are quite well marked, but visibility can soon drop in the mountains so if you do fancy some hiking, always bring a map. The road does actually continue down into the next valley as a gravel track and a mountain biker can meet up the Route des Lacs, but for us roadies it is time to put on an extra layer (it was very windy at the top) and start the descent. Despite being a closed road, care must be taken on the descent for rocks, sheep, cattle and struggling cyclists zig-zagging upwards.
When I reached Espiaube, I decided to continue the 3km to Pla d'Adet which is also connected to Saint-Lary Soulan by two cable cars and is also a popular base for summer hikers. I even saw a lady taking her Bengal Cat for a walk. Taking a cat for a walk I hear you ask, well it was on a lead. They are very expensive pets!
By the time I returned to Saint-Lary I had only ridden 26 miles but with 1,600m of climbing (and descending). The plan would have been to have lunch and then explore a couple of quiet roads, probably the Vallee du Riomajou which has an old monastery. Tomorrow's ride would, weather permitting, have been a big loop incorporating the 3 first category climbs of Hourquette d'Anzican, Col d'Aspin and Col d'Azet with about 3,000m of climbing but with Covid cases rising dramatically in France (though not around here) and the government increasingly likely to add France to the quarantine list and not wishing to endure 14-days of self-isolation on return or get caught in a mad scramble for the last place on a ferry, I changed my ferry booking and started for home. It was early afternoon when I left, so I just brought forward my Friday night stop-over in Bordeaux forward. It was too late in the day to drive all the way home. My original plan for the Friday was to drive over the Aspin to Ste-Marie-de-Campan and ride the Tourmalet from the opposite side from the other day, but sadly not to be.
Overall a week with mixed emotions. Many people have had their holiday plans ruined by Covid but I was lucky enough to get away. I missed out on a few things (Luz-Ardiden, the last few km of Troumouse, climbing both sides of the Tourmalet and the 3 climb loop at Saint Lary) but the main objectives of this week were met - Gavarnie & Troumouse, Route des Lacs and Col du Portet. It would have been worth it just for La Route des Lacs.
Most of my mountain riding has been in the Alps rather than the
Pyrenees, mainly as they are easier to get to. The Pyrenees suffers a
little from just generally having fewer roads resulting in more
out-and-backs rather than loops. Saint-Lary Soulan is a lovely little
town and you could use as a base for a full week riding
|The start of the climb - 16km at 8.7%|
|The checkpoint at Espiaube (there was a lady on duty)|
|The highest paved road in the French Pyrenees and probably the steepest|
|Pla d'Adet had also hosted Tour finishes|
|And a Bengal cat on a lead|