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Cycling's best climbs: Port de Bales

27 Nov 2019

The scene of one of cycling’s most infamous moments, the Port de Balès in the French Pyrenees may look cuddly but it has a vicious bite

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

The banner strung tautly between two buildings declares ‘Port de Balès: 19km de bonheur’ with a small abstract picture of some cyclists next to it. Even those optimistic sorts who blithely mix colours with whites in a 40-degree wash might question this assertion.

I mean, I’ve been known to enjoy a bit of climbing and invariably get a warm glow of satisfaction when cresting a summit, but the notion that this Pyrenean climb will provide an entire 19km of happiness seems a touch unlikely.

Then you set off from Mauléon-Barousse and, for the first few kilometres, a suspicion creeps over you that just maybe this will be unremittingly pleasant, because the gradient is almost non-existent.

The single-lane road, the D925, meanders along the valley floor to the village of Ferrère – a collection of houses that is sleepy on the same level as parents of newborn babies. Look out for the small bus shelter on your right that has some books set into a nook in the wall.

I should think you could make your way through quite a few volumes before any transport materialises.

Leaving the comatose metropolis behind, you continue to potter along this leafy lane, with the River Ourse to one side. Something that appears to be a large, empty, possibly haunted youth hostel appears on your right, then the trees close back in again and there’s nothing much more of note to interrupt the sylvan silence until you cross a small bridge with 7km under your wheels.

So far, so bonheur, but from this point your level of happiness will be in direct proportion to the strength of your legs, because the final 11.7km of the climb averages a stiff 8% according to Strava (not that Team Ineos’s Pavel Sivakov seemed to notice the gradient as it took him just 35min 28sec when he climbed this stretch in June this year).

Beauty and the beasts

The road feels as though it narrows a little more now, sucking in its sides as it scales the flanks of the valley. A craggy rock face emerges to your right, while the beech trees remain on your left. Although the tarmac twists and turns, it rarely switches back on itself in this section so the effort feels sustained as you climb.

Such is the wild nature of the road that it’s no surprise to learn that it was just a track until the 1980s, and the surface was seemingly only really tidied up in 2006.

There is at least some reading material to keep you occupied, although it’s mostly a little repetitive, the graffiti artists sticking to their theme with an admirable tenacity. 

The topic at hand is bears, with ‘Non a l’ours’ (‘No to the bear’) being the chosen slogan. It seems local farmers do not wish to be sure of a big surprise when they go down to the woods. Teddy bears and their picnicking on livestock are unwelcome.

Slovenian brown bears were first re-introduced in 2006 and there are thought to be about 40 roaming the Pyrenees. Given their small number it is unlikely you’ll see one, but then photos of your cousin’s ill-advised ‘puce wardrobe’ years are also rare and yet the possibility of unearthing one is nonetheless a touch unnerving. 

Just not cricket

Anyhow, as the altitude piles on so a few evergreens begin peppering the previously deciduous woodland and when you reach a concentration of hairpins you know you’re nearly out of the woods altogether.

The final 2km of the Port de Balès is the most spectacular part, and also the scene of the climb’s most infamous moment. It occurred in 2010 during its second appearance in the Tour de France (the first having been in 2007), when the race was celebrating 100 years of the Pyrenees’ inclusion in the route.

It is Stage 15 and a 25-year-old Andy Schleck of Team Saxo Bank, wearing the yellow jersey, has just attacked out of what remains of the bunch. He’s got a gap and only Alexander Vinokourov in the turquoise of Astana seems able to follow.

Then, disaster. While pedalling hard, out of the saddle, Schleck’s back wheel suddenly hops in the air as his drivetrain jams. He sits, his legs spin uselessly as the speed evaporates and he coasts while looking down at his chain.

It’s while Schleck is in this obviously stricken state that Alberto Contador, lying in second place on GC, stands on the pedals, almost brushing shoulders with Schleck as he sweeps past.

The cameras now show the young Luxembourger off the bike trying once, twice to put his chain back on. Meanwhile the Spaniard is flying up the road and looks back once, twice towards his immobile rival.

By the finish line in Bagnères-de-Luchon, Contador has taken 39 seconds out of Schleck. The margin between the two in Paris six days later? Perhaps unfortunately, it is exactly 39 seconds.

Opinion remains divided to this day as to whether El Pistolero should have adhered to an unwritten rule and declined to take advantage of the race leader’s mechanical issues.

Contador certainly tried to absolve himself of any impropriety, claiming after the stage that he was already attacking when the incident occurred (are you attacking or catching up when you’re behind?), that he was unaware of Schleck’s problem (perhaps he thought Schleck was stopping to examine the wildlife) and that he never looked back (probably just a crick in the neck).

What certainly was against the rules was the level of clenbuterol found in Contador’s blood taken two days later and, after much talk of dodgy steak, Schleck was eventually declared the winner of the 2010 Tour de France in February 2012.

Final stretch

The controversy neatly stitched the Port de Balès into the tapestry of the Tour and it has made another three appearances since then, every time in this north-south direction.

The southern side, which sweeps down past the foot of the Col de Peyresourde, arguably has even better views, but it has never been used in the Tour because the idea of descending this steeper, narrower, rougher and altogether more dangerous northern side in a race is not a particularly pleasant one.

Tackling the final 2km to the top is likely to be what you really remember about this climb, because the views over the grassy landscape are stunning and it’s dizzying to look back down on the tiny grey scratch of a road on the green slopes below.

At only 1,755m in height, the Port de Balès isn’t a giant and the summit looks more like you’ve arrived in the Lake District than the Hautes Pyrenees, but it is beautiful.

To say that it provides 19km of happiness might be a stretch (especially if you shift like Schleck), but there is something very satisfying and rather special about this quiet climb.

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