After being crushed on our climb of Hautacam we seriously doubted the lucidity of our col climbing endeavors. Certainly it was foolish for us to conceive of climbing France’s Tour caliber slopes on any bike. But for us to try these climbs on full suspension mountain bikes and to expect to enjoy the process seemed connected to a mental warp. Were we mad to even try the climbs this way? Was the attempt itself a sign that we were destined to drive deeper into the throes of some compulsive insanity?
We had a full day to contemplate what had been wrought by our mental deviations. The weather in the Pyrenees had turned nasty. Hard rain, thunder, lightening, and fog were not what we wanted to experience on a climb up to Col du Tourmalet even with our mental derangement factored in. So, the day after Hautacam, we explored the region, in the rain and fog, by car and foot.
The weather gave us a chance to catch fog-shrouded glimpses of the Gavarnie Cirque and other parts of the Pyrenees surrounding Mont Perdu. UNESCO designates this portion of the Pyrenees, on both sides of the French and Spanish border, as a World Heritage Site. We will have to imagine that the UNESCO designation is warranted on this one. The closer we got, the less we saw. What we did see through the clouds as we drove into the village of Gavarnie was a jaw dropping semi-circular amphitheater of granite with periodic waterfalls swollen by the spring melt cascading down the rock face. We hiked closer, but we could only hear the thunder of the falling water. Fog had moved in and obscured the rock face and its falls. It was a beautiful hike, with the misty clouds muting the nearby trees and alpine streams, but maybe a cloud covered visit to Gavarnie Cirque was not what UNESCO had in mind.
Col du Tourmalet was near by so we decided to scout the ride by car. I’m not sure that was a good idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this was a bad idea. We crept up the endlessly steep and winding road first in thick fog. Higher up the fog gave way to dark clouds and a heavy pelting rain that was spiked by flashes of lightening from the cold thunderstorm rolling over the Pyrenees. Through it all, cyclists struggled on the road to get to the top of the col. On this day, riding Tourmalet embodied true dedication. Arriving at the barren scree and rock saddle that is the top of Col du Tourmalet, the air was cold and thin at nearly 7,000 feet and the rain felt cold and close to snow. Becky and I had serious doubts that we could ride up this beast. The road seemed impossibly long and steep. Perhaps the dark sky and heavy weather made it seem worse than it was, but still it was going to be hard, very hard.
The following day the weather cleared. If Col du Tourmalet had a Chamber of Commerce, this would be a Chamber of Commerce Day. It was time for us to climb Col du Tourmalet. I shaved my head clean for the first time in my life. Though I kept telling myself that shaving my head was just a practical way of cutting my hair while traveling, visions of Marlon Brandon in Apocalypse Now kept creeping in. Was the head shaving a symbol, as in the movies, of insanity? Were we about to do something truly wacky?
With the Kangoo loaded, we drove the short distance to Esterre. The sunny skies did not bring new confidence. We had our doubts. Negative thoughts sparked through our brains’ frequently embattled synapses.
“Our bikes are too heavy.”
“We are too old.”
“Maybe eating too many pintxos and drinking too much txakoli in San Sebastian, like the Basque, would not transform us into great bicycle climbers, like the Basque.”
“Will the sun shining through the slits on my helmet onto my newly hairless scalp give me the geekiest tan ever?”
There were some serious issues going on here and these racing thoughts just weren’t going anywhere good. Fortunately the negatives had to stop when we soon arrived in Esterre. We were at the base of the climb to Col du Tourmalet. We were ready to ride.
For this year’s Tour de France, 2010, Col du Tourmalet, one of the highest passes in the Pyrenees, will be ridden twice, one time from each side. The climb is rated as HC* from both directions. Our route, starting from Esterre, is part of the inconceivably difficult Stage 17 of the Tour that starts in Pau. The Tour riders will have covered nearly 100 miles and climbed around 8,000 feet when they reach our starting point for the Tourmalet climb. If we too had started in Pau, the climb of Col du Tourmalet would have been no problem for us. We would have been found in a bar Bielle slamming down pale-gold colored recovery drinks that taste just like beer. From Bielle, Col du Tourmalet would be 60 miles and a Category 1 and an HC climb away. The climb would not have been a problem. It would have been a pure fantasy.
But from Esterre, Col du Tourmalet was a problem. A climb of 4,350 feet in a little less than 11 miles was a big problem. Initially, though, things were not so bad. For the first half dozen kilometers, the signs on the side of the tree shaded road reported slopes averaging less than 7%. Even with our heavy mountain bikes, we were making good progress. After Bareges, the road turned steep as the trees thinned and we headed into the alpine terrain at the base of the ski resort. Aside from one kilometer with a slope of 5.5% that felt like it was going downhill, the rest of the route up the mountain averaged above eight percent. Everyone passed us.
“I’ll let you smell my bike,” one rider said as he crept by.
He was a Brit. The nationality figured, as the French are more polite. It would have been “I’ll let you smell my bike, s’il vous plait,” at least, if a trash talking French rider rode by. I was more shocked the comment than anything. But it was not like I could do anything about it. There was no way I was going to catch him and he wasn’t moving very fast either.
Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, we continued on as the air thinned and terrain turned to the low lush green grass of the alpine spring. All along the climb the sounds of “cowbells” attached to the grazing sheep near the road fille the air. The pastoral sounds were only broken when the occasional vehicle, mostly Tour team cars supporting riders on training rides or a European-style diesel-powered mini-motorhomes belching smoke in a death struggle to climb the hill in the thin air, passed by.
Approaching the top of the climb, the road turns steep, over 10% for the last kilometer. All vegetation disappears and loose shale scree now lines the roadside. We mashed the pedals the last few feet up to the saddle. Finally, we had made it to the top. In fact, we made it to the top faster than anyone climbing Col du Tourmalet on a full suspension mountain bike on this day. Becky was elated and emotional. I was drained. With relief, we joined the crowds of stooped over cyclists all photographing everything in sight. There were all varieties of riders. Super-fit elite riders, supported bike tour groups, a club of 60+ geezers, all bent over at the waist, celebrating their ascent of the more difficult opposite side, riders in the midst of long, crushing epic loops, and tourist riders, like us, just trying to make it up the climb. But none of the other riders were loopy enough to take 30-pound dirt bikes up Tourmalet.
The top of Tourmalet has amenities. The bar and restaurant at the top was full of riders. Along with some French Fries (“pomme frites”), I had to have a beer. It was not so much that I needed or really wanted a beer. I just felt like celebrating the fact that I could have a beer at the top of the climb.
All that remained was the descent. With our jackets on and zipped to the chin against the high altitude chill, we turned the bikes down the hill. For me, the descent of Tourmalet was done with vengeance. It was pay back after the endless suffering grind of the climb. With the mountain bikes, we could go all out. We were long since out of gears as we passed everything we met. Getting around the cars going down the hill was easy. The roadies we met along the way had no chance; we passed them so fast that I couldn’t even offer them the chance to smell my rotors. It wasn’t until we passed back through Bareges and the road widened and slackened enough that we couldn’t catch up to a car in front of us. We were back at our car in no time.
Our ride, the climb and descent of Tourmalet, with breaks and everything, took us about 4 hours. It was one of the hardest, perhaps the hardest road ride I have ever done. The next morning was going to come hard.
* In French HC refers to “hors catégorie” or “beyond categorization” in English, referring to the most difficult rating for bicycle climbs. “Hors catégorie” was originally used for those mountain roads where cars were not expected to be able to pass.