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The Devil's Pitchfork: Big Ride

Trevor Ward
8 Jul 2016

The Pyrenees have more than their share of classic, leg-shredding climbs, and on this ride Cyclist takes a stab at four of them.

On the drive from the airport to our base at the foot of the high Pyrenees, Chris Balfour is telling us the tale of the Frenchman who rode to the top of Port de Balès to watch a stage of the Tour de France and never returned home. 

‘His remains were found down a ravine a couple of months later,’ Chris says. He also tells us that several Slovenian brown bears were introduced to the slopes of the surrounding mountains a few years ago. Whether the two events are in any way connected remains unspoken.

Although things have improved considerably since the Tour’s first visit to the Pyrenees in 1910, when third-placed finisher Gustav Garrigou voiced his fears about ‘avalanches, road collapses, killer mountains and the thunder of God’, Chris’s words are a reminder of how wild and inhospitable this part of France can be, despite its proximity to fancy restaurants and superfast broadband. 

‘Anyway,’ he adds, ‘don’t worry about the bears. If you’re going too slowly it’s the vultures that will get you.’

We arrive at the village of Bertren, where Chris and his wife Helen run their cycling tour company Pyractif. On a wall of the dining room in their converted 18th century farmhouse is a wooden pitchfork. This tool was the inspiration for a particularly challenging route the couple devised for their guests, called The Devil’s Pitchfork – and it’s the reason for Cyclist’s visit. The ‘handle’ is the long, straight 26km road along the valley from Bertren to the spa town of Bagnères-de-Luchon. The ‘prongs’ are a series of classic Pyrenean climbs that start in the town. The only person to have successfully completed the full challenge in a day is Helen.

Over dinner we suggest a slight modification to the route, which basically means removing the boring ‘handle’ bit and starting climbing just a few kilometres from the front door by taking the classic route over the Port de Balès, which the pros tackled this year at the Tour during stage 16. We will then descend down the other side – the first ‘prong’ – before climbing the second, the Col de Peyresourde, which was also on the 2014 Tour route on stage 17. 

After turning around and descending into Luchon, we’ll tackle our third iconic Tour climb, to the ski-station of Superbagnères, before returning to the bottom and attempting our fourth and final prong, an uncategorised climb to the Hospice de France. It sounds suspiciously like a plan, even if the original pitchfork-shape on the map now resembles more of a headless chicken. The Devil’s Fowl it is, then…

Before and after

As a pitchfork veteran, it’s Helen who will be doing the ride with me. Her stick-thin limbs mean that when we stand next to each other we look like the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ pictures on the box of a miracle slimming product. She promises to be gentle with me on the climbs. When I see her and Chris loading boxes of snacks, sandwiches, cans of Coke and a home-baked chocolate cake into the support vehicle, little do I realise that most of this will be for her (including virtually all the chocolate cake in one serving). Unfortunately, none of this ballast will slow her down. She is plainly blessed with the metabolism of a nuclear reactor.

The climb to Port de Balès starts at Mauléon-Barousse and threads its way up a narrow, twisting gorge before emerging onto a luminous green carpet of pastureland 17km later. The road is pinched close in places, hemmed in by a rock wall on one side and a seemingly fathomless, tree-cluttered drop on the other. The gradient averages nearly 8% but occasionally twitches up to almost double that without warning. We don’t see another vehicle for the whole climb.

There are regular markers counting down the distance to the summit and indicating the average gradient for the next kilometre. They appear oddly urban and incongruous amidst the encroaching wilderness. ‘It’s pretty remote up here,’ says Helen. ‘There’s zero phone signal and on previous visits I’ve seen boulders that have blocked the road.’ 

I have come mentally prepared for the regular, jolting shifts in gradient that, according to seven-time King of the Mountains Richard Virenque, make the Pyrenees ‘aggressive’. So I settle into a gentle spin in the small ring and make the most of the early morning shade. There are still three climbs to come after this, one of them even longer and higher, and Sean Kelly’s voice is already in my head urging me to ‘make the calculation’, which in my case means taking it easy and preserving energy.

Eventually we emerge above the treeline and into a bowl of pastureland dotted with bell-toting cows the size of bungalows. The incline slackens just as a herd of cattle decides this would be a good time for a mass retreat from the upper to the lower slopes on the other side of the road. Heeding Tour organiser Henri Desgrange’s 1910 warning to riders to ‘redouble their prudence all through the mountains because horses, mules, donkeys, oxen, sheep, cows, goats, pigs can all be wandering untethered on the road’, we squeeze our brakes and weave slowly through the horns, bells and twitching tails. 

About 4km from the summit we see a rickety wooden building on our left. It’s a mountain refuge, one of the few signs of human habitation we’ve passed since starting the ascent, and Helen points out the little cubicle overhanging the edge of the ravine. The door is flapping open to the elements and I can see a hole in the floor with a drop down to the river 30 metres below. This rugged landscape is no place for a nervous disposition if you’re caught short. 

Soon afterwards we pass the 2km-to-go sign. In the absence of a blue plaque, this is the only reminder of ‘chaingate’, the 2010 incident when Alberto Contador was accused of attacking Andy Schleck after the Luxembourger had dropped his chain. But it could have been worse for Andy – he might have needed to use the toilet instead. 

Alone in the mountains

From here on and over the summit the road surface is significantly smoother. Nearly 6km of new tarmac was
laid on the eve of the Tour’s first visit here in 2007, but still the sense of isolation is inescapable. There’s nothing up here, just a sign announcing our height (1,755m) and a wind that cuts like a knife. We stop to put on some extra layers and I manage to steal a piece of that homemade chocolate cake before Helen hoovers it all down, and then we clip back into our pedals. 

Our downhill momentum, however, is stalled when a flock of goats suddenly darts out in front of us. The delay allows us to contemplate the topography of the route ahead. After a couple of tight coils, we can see the road unfurling in a long, lazy wriggle down the length of the valley. We will also encounter two tight hairpins about halfway down, and there will be a sheer drop to the valley floor on our right for most of the way. Helen’s local knowledge throws in another piece of useful information: there is a pinch point and 90° right-hander in the village of Mayrègne. 

By now the goats have cleared the road and Paul the photographer is getting impatient over the walkie-talkie: ‘Whenever you’re ready, I’m waiting for you at the first hairpin.’ What he neglects to tell us is that a patch of loose gravel is also waiting for us. But for the grace of God – and my peerless bike handling skills, obviously – I almost emulate Wim van Est who plunged into a Pyrenean ravine during his first Tour in 1951 and was only saved by landing on a ledge 20 metres below. Incidentally, the grainy, black and white footage of the aftermath of van Est’s crash (available on YouTube) makes sobering viewing.  Although remarkably unscathed physically, the rider looks distraught at how his Tour debut has ended – but that may be as much a result of the proximity of the TV cameras as the shock of his accident. A large number of spectators helped rescue him by making a chain of spare tubular tyres to haul him from the ravine. 

His pride may have been dented, but the watch he was wearing amazingly wasn’t, and the watchmaker Pontiac later exploited this fact in an advertising campaign that included the slogan: ‘Seventy metres deep I dropped, my heart stood still but my Pontiac never stopped’. (Notice how the height of his fall has also been increased.)

It’s a long, fast drag down to Mayrègne and it’s tempting to let my Garmin tick past 60kmh, but in view of the drop-offs I keep it sensible and negotiate the village’s tightly packed houses and parked cars without incident. Shortly afterwards Helen advises me to switch down to the small ring: the next right is immediately uphill. It’s the start of our second ‘prong’, the climb to the Col de Peyresourde.

This climb couldn’t be more of a contrast to the Port de Balès. Instead of being hemmed in by rock and foliage, we now have wide open views across rolling pastures to snow-capped peaks. The road is smooth and spacious, but keeps us on our toes with a gradient that regularly fluctuates between 6% and 11%. The final few kilometres are marked by a series of hairpins that offer views back down the valley, which former rider and Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc described as a ‘moss carpet’. He also said it was a climb that ‘makes you want to lie down on the grass next to the sheep and cows’, though I think he was referring to the lushness of the landscape rather than the demands of the gradient.

I, however, prefer to pull up a seat next to Helen outside the hut dispensing crepes that marks the 1,569m summit. We get speaking to the owner, who introduces himself as ‘Alain du haut du col’ – ‘Alan of the Mountain Pass’ – and produces a succession of hand-carved wooden puzzles in between servings of omelette, frites and crepes. After all the physical effort of the morning, I’m now confronted with the mental challenge of trying to arrange three blocks of wood into the letter ‘T’ or build a pyramid from a set of wooden balls. I wonder if this could be a new classification for Tour riders – a jigsaw-patterned jersey for the rider who solves the most puzzles at the top of each mountain pass? 

After lunch we ride back down the same road, but the experience is totally different. Once beyond the hairpins, the road is pretty much straight for the rest of the descent into Luchon. It’s only later when I upload my data that I see that I topped 90kmh on the way down.

We spin through the leafy streets of Luchon, past the Town Hall, which has been given a good scrub in honour of its 52nd hosting of the Tour de France, and the spa baths, before the road tilts upwards again and we are on our way to the third ‘prong’ and biggest climb of the day – just over 19km with a gain in elevation of 1,200m to the ski station of Superbagnères.

Poor old ‘Super B’

By now a froth of clouds is bubbling up behind the mountain peaks and there is a threat of rain – a perennial hazard in the Pyrenees – that adds to the sense of foreboding as we start the long haul upwards. Once past the turn-off for the Hospice de France, which we’ll be revisiting soon enough, the road crosses a bridge and we start a merciless grind. 

Between breaks in the trees, the views to the distant, cloud-wreathed peaks are impressive, but there is still something dispiriting about the climb. Partly it’s the realisation that we’re putting in all this effort just to reach a dead-end. The road leads up into the clouds, but instead of a magical kingdom all that awaits us are the skeletal remains of an out-of-season ski resort. Then there’s the lack of road signs. We have only our Garmins to reassure us we are actually making any progress. 

Compounding this sense of desolation is the knowledge that Superbagnères has been ignored by the Tour for 25 years, ever since Robert Millar won the last of the six mountaintop finishes it has hosted since 1961. It’s a demanding slog, surely a test worthy of any Tour. But, for whatever reason, poor old ‘Super B’ hasn’t captured the race director’s imagination in the same way as Alpe d’Huez or Ventoux. 

The toughest section, which averages about 9%, is the final set of hairpins. The Grand Hotel, whose ornate 1920s facade lives up to its name but is strangely at odds with its mountaintop eyrie, is suddenly within touching distance. By the time we arrive at the car park, another biting wind has whipped up. Chris has mugs of hot tea and pieces of cake at the ready. As we zip up our wind jackets for the descent, he tells us he and Helen had planned to hold their wedding reception in the Grand Hotel before the start of the winter ski season in 2008. ‘But it was closed for staff training,’ he says forlornly. As we look at the clouds moving in and watch the fast food stalls rapidly pulling down their shutters, his words seem a fitting epitaph for the moment. 

Creaking to a halt 

The final ‘prong’ is the 6km climb to Hospice de France, which, Helen warns me with masterly understatement, is ‘a bit cheeky’. It’s a narrow, twisting road that leads to a popular hiking area and the site of a 14th century shelter for religious pilgrims. Up until this point, we’ve conquered two HC climbs and a Cat One, so I’m feeling a bit cocky about something that the Tour has never even considered worthy of including. But my self-satisfaction soon dissolves when I find my legs creaking to a virtual standstill on the first of several ‘cheeky’ (ie, 16%) ramps. 

Each succeeding ramp disappears behind a wall of trees so that I’m unable to quantify exactly how long I need to sustain my effort and endure the agony for. There are no roadside signs to tell me how much further I have to go. When I look down, the kilometre counter on my Garmin doesn’t appear to be working – I seem to have stalled on 105.2km for the last hour. 

Most ominously of all, Helen – who has been a constant chatterbox during the previous climbs – has fallen silent. This is serious. Eventually, she pulls ahead, and all I have for company is a fat bluebottle taking a breather on my bars.

Eventually, the climb’s only hairpin offers the briefest breather. A column of water spilling down the roadside rock face is also a psychological boost, though I’m not sure why – because it sounds like thunderous applause?

Then I spot something painted on the road. It’s not the graffiti of a cycling fan but the technical data of a highway engineer: ‘300m’. 

This simple squiggle jolts me into action like a shot of caffeine. I stand out of the saddle and churn through the pedals: ‘200m’. I raise my head from the stem and squint through beads of sweat: ‘100m’. Under a canopy of trees, I can see the road flatten out and a sign that finally, joyously, announces ‘Hospice de France’.

It’s effectively all downhill from here, but the pitchfork has one unexpected extra invisible prong waiting for us – a block headwind in the valley all the way back to Bertren.

Chris and Paul have taken pity on us and try to provide as much shelter as possible by motor-pacing us, but the road isn’t always wide enough. This is when my extra bulk comes in useful. I may not be the most aerodynamically efficient shape in the world, but I punch a decent-sized tunnel through the air for Helen to take advantage of. Having emptied the van of all its edible contents, she is low on fuel and grateful for the tow. 

The remaining 26km are counted off painfully slowly, but at last we make it into the driveway of Pyractif HQ. And as if I needed proof it had been a challenging day, eating-machine Helen is too tired to finish off her pizza and glass of wine at dinner a few hours later. 

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