Beyond the barriers of the pro peloton, Cyclist heads to the Hautes-Pyrenees (with thanks to VeloTopo Custom Cycling Tours) to discover roads free from the pressure of the sport’s biggest races. Equally stunning as their more famous neighbours, the Cirque de Troumouse and Col de Tentes should be part of every cyclist’s bucket list.
Words: Zoë Clayton-Smith
Photography: Marcus Enno
The day starts in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, just one of the many Pyrenean hubs and our base for the day. The streets are bustling with cyclists and, in keeping with the theme, we’re readying ourselves for a big day of climbing. Cycling shops seem to be on every second corner – for last-minute supplies and post-flight tune-ups – but a souvenir bidon is the only necessary bit of kit we need to collect.
Luz has over half a dozen real ascents (two of which we’ll tackle today) within pedalling distance, but hop over the eastern range and you’ll find yourself in Saint-Lary-Soulan, featured in Cyclist #42. The only thing standing in the way is that little climb called the Col du Tourmalet. These two Pyrenean valleys aren’t day-trip sorts of places – there’s simply too much great riding to be done.
With so many options nearby, rider numbers promptly dilute across the region. The result: it feels like you’re alone on these ascents most of the time. As mentioned, proximity to the climbs is barely a few pedal strokes away, so there’s little reason to rush off in search of up too quickly. With that in mind we bask in the late-summer-morning sun for a little longer and order another round of coffees and croissants. It’s hard to say no when these perfectly folded bundles of pastry joy cost a reasonable €1.50 – around half the price of the moisture-ruined variety I’ve too often endured back home.
Today’s menu also warrants a top-up of energy, because with two HC-ranked climbs for the mains and more than 3,000m of ascent for dessert, I need to shovel it in when I get the chance.
Climbing, not climbing
I already feel a bit of heat in my legs from the slow 13km drag up the winding gorge alongside the River Gave de Pau, trickling along 30 metres below. The light is eerily dark for 10am as we grind along the 3% gradient, the early sun hidden away thanks to the vast rock walls towering above us. We’re only minutes into the ride, but I’ve got to note down the name of this climb. ‘You’ll know when we reach the start,’ chuckles our VeloTopo guide, Jean-Philippe (JP) Soulé, as I duly place my phone back in my jersey pocket.
The road is narrow, but at no point do I feel squeezed by my surrounds – whether they be of the natural or petrol-powered variety. Vehicles pass with respect and distance, and while this warm-up is a little tougher than expected, it’s not made any harder due to the passing motorists. Cheap croissants, courteous drivers… I could get used to this.
We pass the picturesque Bridge of Napoleon, which according to JP was built out of the last French general’s love for the region. Its usage has changed a little since it was erected in 1861 (when it was a little more functional), but as we hear another bungee jumper scream with delight into their fall, I’m confident Mr Bonaparte would be proud to see it still bringing joy to the area.
Beyond the bridge and through the pretty village of Gédre, and it’s here the legs are truly awake. A couple more switchbacks offer some sharp efforts ahead of the next left turn. Another left and we begin the climb to Cirque de Troumouse.
Now we climb
The gradient immediately goes up a notch as we turn onto the D922. The road zigzags, and with each pinch, the Gave de Héas – the head of the river – slowly drops away. ‘Now we’re climbing,’ JP chuckles. It has been a solid 40 minutes of up (note: up, but not climbing) and considering I’m more of a 5-10min climber, those $7 croissants sound pretty good right now. ‘But don’t worry about this one, the next one is where it will really start to bite,’ he adds.
At this rate, according to my oxygen-starved calculations, we should reach the cirque in around an hour. An hour! I reach for the phone to jot a few on-bike notes and instead pull out a Clif Bar, which seems equally appropriate. Today is all about the long game, and while we couldn’t have asked for a better day – there’s not a cloud in sight – the exposed roads mean the temperature is rapidly heating up. Today is not a day for working up an appetite ahead of dinner. Forget to eat now and dinner might not ever arrive. The rushing river, destined for Pau some 90km away, flanks our right and looks awfully inviting, but so does kicking back in the Jacuzzi this evening. Enough with the distractions – there’s 15km of climbing ahead.
We reach the hamlet of Héas and I’m a little perplexed. The road appears to be coming to a premature end, but just as I start to back off the pace, I prematurely believe we’ve ridden farther than I thought. JP takes another left through a tollbooth and, without so much as a wave to the ranger (entry is free for cyclists), he ploughs on. The guard box signals the entrance to the Pyrenees National Park and the final 10km of ‘real climbing’ begins.
My mind is blown as I stare at the Cirque de Troumouse towering above me. Tight lacets snake along with countless grazing sheep dotting the sidelines. Our proximity fails to register with them; they’re in their own little world. My cycling comrades Alex, JP and Yumi Soule have pushed on, but I’ve got these views for company.
The open landscape makes it easy to see how much altitude I’m gaining with each 180 turn, and I tear myself away from the numbers on my screen. I’m not using it for guidance and I shouldn’t be concerned about my wattage right now, not with such beauty around me. The road seems to end again as we reach the plateau, but I was tricked once before. Le Maillet sits in the splendour of the cirque, and it could be the best scene I’ll ever encounter on a bike ride. For a few metres the road dips down, but we’re not at the summit just yet. There’s another 3km to go.
The final pinch
The four of us take on the final 13 bends – I’ve done my research – together as JP leads us over a cattle grid and to the base of the real final push. The climb is definitely far from over and the air suddenly feels thin as we tip over 2,000m above sea level. My legs instantly turn to jelly. I twist my Wahoo off its mount and put it in my pocket. This placebo effect can work both ways, I tell myself.
There’s a mountain ‘train’ full of people powered by a small farm tractor, and much to my delight, we’re climbing faster than these walkers who are being transported to the top. ‘Sprinten, sprinten,’ shouts a small child from the carriage. My German is limited to schnitzel and stein, but I understand enough. Sadly, my young friend, sprinting would be a very bad decision right now.
I breathe a sigh of relief as I see what appears to be the final crest and realise I’ve really made it this time. I take in the vast openness of fields among the mountains and, for a moment, enjoy the serenity of hearing little else but my heartbeat. I spot a statue of the Mary the Blessed Virgin sitting on a small hillside in the distance and hope that, along with protecting the shepherds and sheep that reside in the cirque, she’ll also grace me with safe passage on the way down.
Gilets on, we rapidly drop down to Le Maillet for a coffee and a tartiflette – it’s hungry work, all this climbing. Just as I start to relax, casually counting the many small waterfalls streaming off the towering peaks, it’s time to saddle up. One climb down, another one to go. Bidons filled, it’s time to move.
It doesn’t take long for the caffeine to hit the system. The climb didn’t feel overly technical on the way up, but heading down is a different story. The speed, combined with the uneven surface – barely noticed in the upward direction – is probably a bit beyond my abilities. Hallelujah for disc brakes (and spare pads in the van). Things get a little more sedate as we blast through Héas where the gradient eases, and it’s not long before we’re back on the main road. It’s almost time to start another ‘climb to the climb’. My legs already feel like lead, and with more than 1,000m of climbing still to go, I’ve fully grasped the seriousness of this particular ride.
We enter the bustling town of Gavarnie, and rather than turning left into the village to admire the Cirque de Gavarnie and Falls, we continue right onto the second climb of the day, the Col des Tentes. That said, it’s definitely worth taking time to visit – or return later to – this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’re told it’s home to the tallest waterfall in Europe and a viewpoint of Roland’s Breach, a large gap in the mountain on the French and Spanish border. Legend has it the natural gap was cut by Count Roland in an effort to destroy a sword that had lost him a recent battle.
I jot down a few of these notes, check my pockets are laden with snacks and gingerly pedal through the town towards the start of the climb. The temperature has really picked up now, the afternoon sun searing down. Even the sheep are taking refuge in the shade of overhanging rocks. I’ve never been so happy to cycle into a headwind as the cool mountain wind does just enough to keep the sweat out of my eyes.
The team sense I’m struggling in the heat and generously keep me company on the way up, spurring me on. I’m thankful for their encouragement but also feel mildly sorry for myself as the incessant chatter continues for the climb’s duration. I contribute on the odd occasion with an expletive or two. Averaging a constant 8% most of the way, the Col des Tentes is relentless. Thankfully, I’m hit with the odd shot of adrenaline as the gradient is signposted for each following kilometre. Past the ski station and I’m treated to a next kilometre of just 6%! A few minutes later, the payback is immediate: another kilometre of 8.9%.
Bridge to Spain
A huge wave of relief floods over me as I reach the car park, although disappointingly I can’t find the usual mountain sign with the altitude stamped on it. The VeloTopo van has pulled up and has cold drinks at the ready, but the oasis gives way to more road. Surely not, I say to JP. ‘This is the Port of Boucharo, a crossing point of the French Pyrenees into Spain. Another of Napoleon’s ideas,’ JP explains. ‘While the French did their part, unfortunately it’s a road to nowhere as the Spanish didn’t hold up their end of the deal.’ As we stare across to Spain, listening in awe as JP recalls tails of his mountaineering youth in this terrain, the cloud rolls in, lightning flashes and some thunder crashes nearby. It’s time to go.
The descent is faster than the previous and a little bumpier. The guys leave me in their dust, but the only way is down and that headwind is now at my back. Flying by the sheep still sitting against the cold rock walls, it’s the way down to Gavarnie that makes all that effort worthwhile.
I’m spurred on by the knowledge that our ride will end with a sampling of gateau a la broche, a delicious local cake. After a few high-speed kilometres down to the valley, we’re greeted at our afternoon tea stop (lunchtime has long passed) by the cutest little dog. We follow our noses to the farmhouse to find the local cake cooking on a spit over an open fire, and immediately order two servings. As we top it with ice cream, order a couple of ciders and kick back at the end of the day, I can’t help but think that this climbing thing could be for me after all.
Zoë Clayton-Smith is a cycling journalist who will gladly ‘sprinten, sprinten’ for a good tartiflette
The route we took
Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks
Download and follow this route at strava.com/routes/22432791. Head south along the Route de Gavarnie and steadily climb through the valley towards Gedre. Turn left after 12km and head upwards until the road runs out at 2,069m above sea level. Make a U-turn, throw on a vest for the descent and at the bottom intersection merge left and ride south-west towards the tourist town of Gavarnie. Ride through town, turn right and then a sharp right onto the D923. The climb of Col des Tentes rises a little higher than Troumouse, and its views are equally magnificent. Reach the top, take a breather
and savour the long downhill run home.
The writer’s ride
Cervélo S5, $14,500 approx (modified specification), cervelo.com
The latest Cervélo S5 turned heads during its launch. Those bars, prodding out like a double-pronged fork, ruffled a few traditionalist feathers on first look, but 12 months on its function has trumped any questions around the aesthetics. The S5 is a proven WorldTour winner with Team Sunweb; closer to home, the men’s Australian Track Team, aiming for gold in Tokyo, have been building their endurance across the summer aboard the speed machine. This particular S5 features a full Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 groupset with a couple of small changes from the original specification including an upgraded power meter crankset and a change to the tubeless-compatible C24 9100 tubeless-compatible wheels.
By the numbers…
Hours of travel from Sydney to Luz to purchase a €1.50 croissant
Weight in grams of gateau a la broche consumed
Minutes needed to take the QOM up the final stretch to Troumouse. I’ll be back…
Calorie intake required to offset this ride
Distance in miles of the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition, completed by the adventure man, JP
How we got there
The best way to reach the Pyrenees is to book a return flight to any major European hub. From there, hop across to Toulouse and make the drive to any number of Pyrenean valleys. It’s around two hours’ drive from Toulouse airport to our starting location in Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Return flights to Toulouse are available from around $1,700 from any major Australian airport. Expect around 27 hours total flight time if travelling from Sydney.
The popular tourist town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur offers a huge range of hotel options from basic through to luxury. At the insistence of JP, due to the scrumptious food on offer, we stayed a little further down the valley at Logis Hôtel l’Arrieulat Auberge des Pyrenees in Argelès-Gazost. The connected restaurant offers some of the best food sampled during our time in the Pyrenees. VeloTopo also has numerous alternatives.
A huge thanks to the team of JP and Yumi who invited Cyclist to take on two stunning rides in the Hautes-Pyrenees – the first of which featured in Cyclist #42. VeloTopo offers a range of customised trips in the Pyrenees, Alps, Corsica or any place you’ve had your eyes on for some time but haven’t found the best way to tackle. These rides also wouldn’t be possible without the support of Shimano, Lazer helmets and the folks at Rapha who supplied Cyclist with all the kit required to ride in ultimate comfort while slogging up HC-ranked ascents.