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Classic climb: Col d’Aubisque

In-depth
28 Apr 2021
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Why the Tourmalet’s rugged and historic next door neighbour deserves its own place in the spotlight

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

On a sunny day, with vast green slopes close at hand and picturesque mountainscapes beyond, the Col d’Aubisque is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in the world. As you climb its steep but stunning final slopes the only blip in the vast calmness is likely to be the sound of your breathing as you battle the incline.

It’s the same with many other classic climbs, of course, but somehow particularly here it is hard to comprehend that this oasis in the Pyrenees has been the scene of some of the most thrilling and captivating action in bike racing.

Its serenity is amplified by the fact that it doesn’t feature high up most lists of ‘must-do climbs’, thanks to its bridesmaid status to the nearby Tourmalet.

For example, the Aubisque was there on 21st July 1910 when the high mountains were first included in the Tour de France, but it was the second mountain to be climbed after the Tourmalet.

It was at the top of the Aubisque that Octave Lapize, winner of the Tour in 1910, famously shouted at the organisers ‘Vous êtes des assassins!’, yet it is at the top of the Tourmalet that his statue rests today.

The Aubisque is also the second most used climb in the Tour… behind the Tourmalet. And no one remembers second place.

 

Highs and lows

When the spotlight has swung onto the slopes of the Aubisque, it’s often during a stage that has provided incredible drama.

Take Stage 16 of the 2007 Tour, which finished on the summit of the Aubisque for only the third time. The day began with Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov leaving the race after it was discovered his blood had been tampered with.

Then came an incredible battle between Michael Rasmussen in the yellow jersey, a young Alberto Contador in the white jersey, Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans.

Contador kept springing away with thrilling, stinging attacks, but Rabobank’s Rasmussen brought him back every time. Leipheimer, Contador’s Discovery teammate, was on the offensive too and Evans was a lurking, grinding menace.

But nobody could break the Dane and with a kilometre to go ‘The Chicken’ accelerated and distanced them all, crossing the line first and tightening his grasp on yellow.

Yet there were boos from the crowd as Rasmussen mounted the podium on top of this spectacular mountain pass.

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The reason for the heckling was his missed doping tests before the Tour. In an interview with Ned Boulting after the stage he followed the Armstrong line of defence, saying, ‘I have had 14 tests in this race and all of them are negative,’ before going on to say in reference to the discord, ‘Now I know what Armstrong has been through for seven years and my respect for him is just increasing day by day.’

That night, however, in the light of fresh allegations that he hadn’t missed the pre-Tour tests because he was in Mexico as he had said, he was expelled from the Tour by his team.

 

If that day in 2007 provided as much controversy as captivating action on the road, 3rd September 2016 was all about the racing.

As you can guess by the date, this was not the Tour de France but the sole time that a stage of the Vuelta a España has finished atop the Aubisque.

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First there was the feelgood story of the winner on the day. Dutchman Robert Gesink, afflicted by numerous injuries during his career and even the recipient of heart surgery in 2014, finally crossed the line in front of everyone else on a Grand Tour stage.

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Then there was the action behind him. While Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome were battling for the GC, Orica-BikeExchange decided to go on the rampage.

Having placed three riders in the break, Simon Yates then attacked over the top of the Col de Marie-Blanque, meeting up with his teammates in the valley so they could lead him out to the Aubisque.

It was beautifully executed and the move produced one of the most thrilling day’s racing in recent memory.

Only 16.6km to go

On both of those occasions the peloton ascended from the west as we are. Although the climbing starts in Laruns, things really get going about 3km outside the centre of town as you swing off the D934 onto the D918. It’s a wide road but you are mainly cloistered by the trees at this point.

If you’ve forgotten to fill your bottles, the small settlement of Eaux-Bonnes (good waters) would seem like an excellent place to top up on refreshment. Yet despite only being a small collection of houses, you’re subjected to a curious tour round a one-way system that goes up and round a park as you follow the road.

 

After this brief glimpse of civilisation it’s back into the trees and a gradient of just over 6%. Another 3km further on, however, you reach the steepest pitch of the climb (around 13%) and from here to the top the average incline is a punishing 8%. 

The only bit where the slope seems to relent is as you round a big left-hand hairpin at the ski resort of Gourette with about 4km to go.

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After this you head back into the trees for a kilometre, but then you’re released into the beautiful uplands for the final push to the summit.

It’s not a climb that’s abundant with hairpins, but the ones it has seem to stand out. And none more so than the one on which the Restaurant Les Crêtes Blanches (the white peaks) perches. Never before has so square and unremarkable a building been elevated to such stature.

After you have rounded this switchback the drop to the left recedes a little. You still feel like you’re high up in the mountains thanks to the peaks on the other side of the Ossau Valley, but the road moves away from any precipitous edges.

At the top you won’t be short of room to stretch out as there’s a vast car park that flows off into the distance like a tarmac infinity pool.

In fact it is only matched in size by the bicycles that stand on the summit, because on the other side of the road stand yellow, polka dot and green bikes in a frame size that even 6ft 8in Irish ex-pro Conor Dunne would struggle to swing a leg over.

A couple of cafes are also on hand for refreshment and it would seem wise to fortify yourself before the descent so as not to re-enact the Aubisque’s most famous incident…

In 1951 Wim van Est, the first Dutchman to wear yellow, plummeted towards Tarbes trying to catch those ahead. He crashed twice and on the second occasion fell so far into a ravine that he looked as small as ‘a buttercup in the grass’, said teammate Gerard Peters.

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His team had to sacrifice 40 tyres knotted together to a towrope to haul him out, dazed but relatively unscathed.

Still, we would recommend emulating the flying Dutchman Gesink rather than the flying Dutchman Van Est if you tackle the Aubisque.

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