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Pyrenees: Big Ride

Two classic climbs and a hidden gem make this ride a fantastic introduction to the Pyrenees.

Jonathan Manning
1 Dec 2015

A spiral of 50-plus vultures is rising from the valley floor like giant soot particles lifting from a fire. I’ve heard somewhere that a sixth sense allows these creatures to detect a carcass from four miles away. As we emerge from a tunnel hewn through a cliff face below the Col d’Aubisque, I fear they might be able to sense my pummelling heart rate and decide to move in for the kill.

‘There must be a dead body or a dying creature nearby to have so many vultures together like that,’ says my riding partner Marc Bruning. I feel a chill go down my spine.

Pyrenees mountains

We’ve just tackled the Col du Soulor, gaining almost 600m in just 7km at an average gradient of 8%, and the climbing isn’t over yet. Ahead lies the Col d’Aubisque, 235m closer to the heavens at an average gradient of 6.5% but including spikes of up to 18%. Tour de France organisers rate this a first category climb, closely following the second-category Soulor. Together they form a fearsome tag team, the first sapping your energy before the second lands the knockout blow. Maybe both cols are in cahoots with the vultures. Oh well, on a wing and a prayer…

Local knowledge

It’s early morning – well before the heat of the day reaches furnace temperatures – as we roll out of St Savin, a pretty village centred around a beautiful 11th-century abbey. With me are Paddy McSweeney, who runs Velo Peloton Pyrenees, a cycling lodge and bike hire business, and Marc Bruning, director of sport in the Hautes Pyrenees. They’re a formidable pair. Marc keeps off the winter kilos as a champion cross-country skier, while last year Paddy rode up Hautacam 100 times, squeezing the legendary 1,000m ascent between work and family commitments.

‘The first 96 ascents were terrible, but it got easier after that,’ he says. I’m not sure he’s joking. His first ride up was on 2nd January when the snow was shoulder height along the roadside, and he completed the century in December.

‘The summer heat makes everything much worse,’ adds Paddy. ‘I really enjoyed autumn, going up at the end of the afternoon and coming down again with lights on the bike. I could be up and back at home within two hours.’

As training rides go, it’s about as good as it gets, and explains his easy cadence as we spin through villages slowly waking to the morning. One of them is Sireix, the unlikely ancestral home of the Swedish royal family thanks to Napoleon having decided to place a crony from the village on the Scandinavian throne.

Pyrenees horses

The Gave d’Estaing is our constant companion in these early miles, a stream as clear as mineral water, freshened by cascades from the Cabaliros mountain above. Cabaliros has a peak that reaches more than 1km higher than anywhere in Britain, but around here it’s unremarkable. The same could be said for the Col des Bordères, a climb that would be famous in the UK, but one that’s a tiddler in Pyrenean terms. This is of little consolation to my legs as they get their first taste today of serious ascent with 2km at a gradient of 10%.

The Haute Pyrenees is a rugged land where stone farmhouses hunker down under slate roofs without any of the tweeness of wooden Alpine chalets. We ride past three generations of a family raking hay by hand, and if it wasn’t for the denim it could be a scene painted by Constable.

A brief plateau ushers in a blistering descent, before we catch our breath in Arrens-Marsous, where a wind-up waterpump gives us a chance to refill our bidons before two of the classic climbs of the Tour.

Soulor first featured in the Tour de France way back in 1912, two years after its taller neighbour the Aubisque, and has been a regular thorn in the side of pro riders ever since. We’re tackling it from the supposedly easier approach, but its Top Trump card would still note a 7km climb at an average 8% gradient. For Strava glory we’d need to try to push the needle to 18kmh and beyond, but instead we’re barely breaking double figures during the steeper stretches as we settle in for the slog skywards.

We pass a roadside honey stall, decorated with yellowing magazine pages dedicated to the sticky stuff’s health-giving qualities. Marc tells me of a honey farmer he knows nearby who looked up one day to see Miguel Indurain and one of his Banesto teammates enter his shop. The pair proceeded to buy up the entire stock of royal jelly. 

Pyrenees farmhouse

And still we climb. Road signs tick off every hard-earned kilometre and advertise the gradient for the next 1,000m – cycling’s equivalent of tearing the pages off a desk calendar. It’s bliss when I miss a sign and enjoy the surprise of its successor revealing that I’m closer to the summit than I thought. But when the ramp hits double digits it feels like the next sign will never come. 

We’ve already breached the treeline, and there’s only patchy heather and coarse grass to the left and right before rock takes over. It’s as if the mountain has burst through a green velvet cloak, Hulk-style, to beat its chest in an uncontrollable rage at the landscape below.

Eventually the tarmac stops rising and a road sign marks the summit of Soulor. The views are spellbinding, a 360° panorama dominated by the Balaïtous massif. Trouble is, the Aubisque lies straight ahead. The Aubisque has featured in about 70 Tours de France, making it a staple of the Grand Boucle’s visits to the Pyrenees, eclipsed only by the Tourmalet as the region’s most popular cycling challenge. It’s a magnificent pass from any direction.

What’s more, the brief stretch of road between Soulor and the climb up the Aubisque makes for a scintillating ride. From a distance it’s the merest pencil line of grey, clinging to a cliff face in the Cirque du Litor, a giant arc of rock and scree that plunges hundreds of metres to the valley floor. Sheep graze at impossible angles, horses wander freely, while cattle lie by the verge. Somewhere below us is the only cellar in the Hautes Pyrenees where dairymen leave their cheeses to mature. Blessed are the cheesemakers, I recall as we pass an optimistic trader trying to sell the local sheep-milk cheese from a rickety picnic table with only a flimsy parasol for shade. 

Life on the ledge

Pyrenees fountain

The road turns out to be little more than a ledge, chiselled from or blasted through the rock, and a short tunnel is so cool and damp it’s like riding through nature’s very own air conditioning. Then the Aubisque starts to bare its teeth. With the promise of lunch at the top, my cadence seems to improve, and truth be told it’s not a difficult climb as we gain about 350m over the next 8km – the scenery improving with every turn of the cranks. Slowly but surely, the col cafe enlarges from a tiny speck until we roll on to its terrace – a welcome haven amid a saw-tooth horizon. 

On the corner of the terrace is a bust of Lucien Buysse, winner of the longest-ever edition of the Tour de France   and one of its toughest ever stages, back in 1926. Riding 326km and taking in four hors catégorie climbs in the cols of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde, Buysse averaged 19kmh over 17 hours and 12 minutes in the saddle. Oh, and it rained throughout. In the shadow of his statue, I decide not to mention the twinge in my calf.

Opposite us are three towering bicycles painted yellow, green and polka dot in tribute to the Tour’s principal jerseys. They are such a familiar sight from television coverage of the race that I have a strong case of deja vu even though it’s my first time here. It’s strange, though, to see them without the hoopla and hysteria of thousands of fans milling around their spokes, cheering on the peloton.

Pyrenees corner

A more muted hubbub of excitement is rising from a hillock opposite, where a small group of twitchers have their telescopes trained down the valley. A solitary lammergeyer, also known as the bone-crusher vulture, is gliding serenely towards them on its vast three-metre wingspan. As its name suggests, this huge bird feeds on bones, dropping them from a height onto rocks and then spiralling down to consume the marrow and bone fragments. To digest this exacting diet, its gastric juices are almost pure acid, registering 1 on the pH scale. I do my best to look in rude health as I sit for a cyclist’s platter of ham baguette, Orangina and espresso. Marc orders his baguette without butter and then strips the fat from the ham before eating it, which tells you all you need to know about our relative body fat percentages.

I turn instead to Paddy, a former elite amateur road racer in Ireland, to ask for his advice on how best to train for mountain ascents. He moved to the Pyrenees from Ireland only a few years ago and has seen a United Nations of riders pass through his doors, drawn by the irresistible appeal of iconic Pyrenean climbs.

‘Everyone always arrives with a list of the routes and mountains they want to climb during the week, and by day two it’s gone out the window,’ he chuckles. ‘It’s much harder than people think. The best training is to ride hard for an hour on the flat, ideally into a headwind.’

Bolstered by the hours I’ve spent battling headwinds on the flatlands of Lincolnshire, I feel optimistic as we saddle up for the second half of the ride and its one major climb. Just before we leave, Marc points to the horizon, where it’s just possible to make out the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. This is a summit with a distinctive aerial mast, but its neighbour the Tourmalet is smothered in slate grey cloud.

‘There’s  a storm coming,’ warns Marc, ‘Let’s get going.’

Pyrenees cows

We’re heading back towards Soulor, and if the descent of the Aubisque is a reminder of the gradients we’ve tackled, it also comes with a sense of trepidation thanks to the infamous Wim van Est crash in the 1951 Tour (see box on p62). I grip the brakes and feel relieved when I’m caught behind a flock of sheep sauntering down the middle of the road and blocking traffic. When the descent of Soulor starts with a headlong dive into a stunning rocky amphitheatre, I’m hit by a case of the Thibaut Pinots as I watch Marc and Paddy carve elegantly through the bends.

It still feels urgently fast though as I lean into hairpins, weight on the outside foot, desperately trying to look at the exit of bends rather than the five metres in front of my wheel. We pass cyclists coming the other way, many of the older riders hanging their helmets off the handlebars as sweat streams down their foreheads. When the slope finally levels I glance at my Garmin to spy a new top speed of 75kmh. Paddy and Marc must have been triggering speed cameras on their way down.

Saving the best ’til last

We regroup in the Ouzom Valley, where the river flows shallow and white, before bracing ourselves for the Col des Spandelles. This might sound like a 1960s Motown backing group, but it deserves the limelight as it climbs for almost 10km, much of it at an average 9% gradient. 

The road is narrow and its surface isn’t in the best condition, with patches of gravel and potholes in our path, but at the speed we’re riding, it’s easy to steer around the obstacles. The ascent is also blissfully quiet compared to its Strava-advertised neighbours; only three cars and no other cyclists pass us. It feels like a hidden gem, with all the physical difficulty of a hors catégorie climb, but none of the usual madness or stench of car brakes. 

Pyrenees climbing

With no race history to its name, there aren’t any signs to advise riders on the impending kilometre count, so the road beyond every bend remains a surprise. Views open and close through its wooded slopes with a magician’s sleight of hand, and I absolutely love it. There’s a feeling of being a pioneer as the road approaches a slab-sided wall of rock without any indication that there will be a way through or around it. A lizard basking on a sun-baked rock scuttles away as we approach, and Marc mentions that this is one of the few places where bears still roam in the Pyrenees. It’s exhilaratingly wild.

When finally there’s no road left to climb, we pause to gaze back at the Aubisque, where the yellow walls of the lunchstop cafe seem to glow against a murderous sky. Peals of thunder chase forks of lightning across the valley.

Paddy and Marc have seen these warning signs before and waste no time in hitting the drops and hurtling down the far side of the Col des Spandelles. I can’t keep up, but nor do I linger. There’s nothing quite like a descent with serious jeopardy to sharpen downhill skills, as I find myself bunny hopping drainage channels in the road at 50kmh. We blaze through the local spa town of Argelès-Gazost, and tackle the modest ascent to Saint Savin in the big ring as bruised clouds fill the sky overhead.

The first fat raindrops fall about 30 seconds before we reach base, and I’m safely stowing away my bike as the deluge begins to a bass orchestra of thunder. My Garmin reveals we’ve squeezed over 3,300m of ascent into barely 90km of riding. It wasn’t the longest day out in the Pyrenees, but sometimes the best experiences come in small packages. And those vultures never got a feast wrapped in Lycra.

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