The Circle of Death: Big Ride France

In homage to one of the most famous stages of the Tour de France, Cyclist takes on five legendary passes for one mammoth day in the Pyrenees

Words Jamie Wilkins Photography Chris Storrar

There is no more famous a chain of mountains in cycling than the Circle of Death. More a jagged line than a circle, the chain connects the Col d’Aubisque, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde, running through the heart of the French Pyrenees.

It totals over 5,000m of climbing and a version of this route has featured in the Tour de France an incredible 45 times.

To a great extent, the creation of this five-piece was geographically determined – the Pyrenees is a narrow mountain range and if you want to go over the high points, as opposed to around them, this is the only way.

Indeed, the Col du Tourmalet made its 90th appearance in the Tour de France this summer, explaining its nickname of ‘L’incontournable’, the unavoidable. The Tour de France Femmes visited too, and so will the Vuelta a España.

The Tour debuted this mighty combination in 1910 on the first ever high-mountain stage, running the other way, before the entireGrand Boucle reversed direction from 1913.

As the race began to modernise in 1930 and leave behind its ultra-endurance origins, stage distances were reduced and routes varied more often.

The Circle of Death, however, continued to appear in its entirety and was the scene of some iconic performances, including solo, Tour-winning raids by Jean Robic in 1947 and Eddy Merckx in 1969 – the former a come-from-behind GC flip, the latter an emphatic stamp of authority on a race already gripped by the jugular.

These days, the ‘Circle of Death’ title is given to the major Pyrenean stage of the Tour, regardless of direction or climbs included. But our ride today is the original, the template – the Circle of Death in its purest, most brutal form.

Let the games begin 

Our route starts on the outskirts of Pau. Under normal circumstances, the pro peloton would roll out from the handsome city centre, but today it is too busy with morning rush hour traffic, so instead our Grand Départ is from a petrol station forecourt at a junction of the ring road and main route south.

There’s no cheering crowd or commissaires’ cars, and Tadej Pogačar is a no-show, but I am joined by a good friend, Dave Janes, who is a beast on a bike and was my regular training partner before I moved to France.

He’s about the only person I know who would jump at the chance to take on a challenge like this. Drizzle in Pau necessitates rolling out in jackets but we have faith in the forecast.

We’re quickly onto a smaller road that winds through and over the Pyrenees’ thin smear of foothills and into the mountains proper. We’ve a long day ahead so we aim to keep the pace high, falling into step and swapping long turns as if we’d been riding together only last week, not last year.

Ominous clouds are lingering over Laruns, where the Cols de Pourtalet and Aubisque begin. The former breaks for the border with Spain, the latter leads into the Circle of Death. There are no fiery gates, though.

Instead, the Aubisque begins gently, easing us into the day’s climbing and its own 1,190m of ascent. The gradient stiffens after the shabby spa town of Eaux Bonnes – it doesn’t look so bon these days – so we keep an eye on our power output to ensure we don’t burn too many matches too soon.

We climb in the dim light of heavy tree cover, emerging occasionally like a whale from the deep, before plunging back inside. The ski station of Gourrette brings a key change.

From here, the road is wilder, as if it’s fighting a battle to cling to the side of the mountain, which in turn is doing its best to hurl it into the abyss, a bucking bronco in granite.

The iconic hotel at 2km to go, usually visible from a great distance, only comes into view as we near it, but we can see across the valley to the slopes that are dark and brooding in the shadow of the clouds.

The summit of the Aubisque is chilly and the usually sensational view is limited, so we pause only to don jackets and stuff in a rice cake to chew as we descend.

As if by recompense, the famous balcony road around the Cirque du Litor is free from cloud and delivers the awe that was missing from the summit.

The wet road dictates caution though, lest we follow in the wheel tracks of Wim van Est, who plunged off the side in the 1951 Tour while in yellow and, having defied death, had to be rescued by his team using a rope made of spare tubular tyres.

In the years since they have put up a plaque, but not a guardrail.

Little climb, big climb

From this side, it’s only a short climb to the twin peak of Soulor. Happily the descent is dry, because it’s one of the very best: a high-speed, writhing rollercoaster.

It’s followed by a fast, gentle, pedally descent along the valley, then another 4km of fabulous sweeping corners that I can only assume were designed purely for the grins.

We pass up the option of a cafe stop in Argelès-Gazost in favour of stocking up on supplies to eat on the move. To that end, we stomp along the valley, shedding layers and swapping turns, flying right past the village where I live before diving into the beautiful, steep-sided Gorge Luz.

To the right of the narrow, twisting road is the Gavarnie River, its energy contained by huge boulders like security at a mega-concert. This river has overflowed before, taking out sections of road a decade ago, but won’t be allowed to do so again.

To our left is a rock face. It’s merely a backdrop, static scenery, until we glance up to see the steel catch-netting and the rocks within it, some the size of suitcases.

Only then do we appreciate that the scenery could reach down and swat us like flies. The Col du Tourmalet begins from the very centre of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, denoted by a small wooden sign on a wall and a collection of famous riders’ handprints in the pavement.

A sign reminds us that we have 19km of climbing to do. The road is wide and the gradient firm, toughening further either side of Barèges. It’s only at the ski station, halfway up, and the first switchbacks that we get two significant views.

One is back down the climb, finally showing us how far we have come and how high we already are. If you’re suffering, it’s a double morale burger with cheese right when you need it.

But just before you take a big, greedy bite, it gets snatched from your lips by the other view, that of the summit, a towering wall across the horizon, no longer abstract and somehow further away than ever because of it.

At the well-known hairpin where this new road, built in 2011, rejoins the old road, Dave and I stop and take a moment at a little cairn of rocks I made to commemorate a friend and teammate of ours, Fran Eddolls, who died of brain cancer in 2020 at just 28.

The cairn contains a photo and enjoys a spectacular view across the valley over the climb, gravel roads and MTB park that Fran would have loved to ride. We climb in silence for a while until a sharp increase in gradient at the 2km-to-go sign sparks lighter conversation once more.

On neither side is the Tourmalet a kind climb. In this direction it’s longer and the sting in the tail is even more nefarious, with the last 2km averaging 10% and the ramp from the final hairpin hitting 15%.

Three down, two to go

I love climbing both sides of the Tourmalet equally, but the descent to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is easily the better way down. Thesurface is smooth, it flows, and there are some sweeping bends that can be taken at high speed once you know them.

It peters out at the bottom, serving as a post-stage turbo trainer cool-down for our adrenal glands and a warm-up for our legs. Both are useful because, after turning right at the base, the Col d’Aspin starts immediately.

The first 5km are easy until we reach the beautiful bowl at Lac de Payolle. From there, the road climbs more steeply, with a set of four big switchbacks slashed across the face of the hillside and through the evergreen forest.

This late in the day, the usually busy car park at the summit of Aspin is empty, heightening the panoramic view that includes the Pic du Midi de Bigorre high above the Col du Tourmalet behind us and the Col de Peyresourde in the distance ahead.

To the north, our left, a colder bank of cloud tumbles over the ridge, lemming-like, to be wiped from existenceas it meets the warm air on this side. Thanks to some excellent resurfacing three years ago, the descent of the Col d’Aspin to Arreau is fantastic.

There, the valley splits; south heads towards Saint-Lary-Soulan and another cluster of fabulous climbs, including Lac de Cap-de-Long, which was the star of issue 42 of Cyclist.

We’re going south-east instead, through Arreau and out into the pretty Louron valley on a deserted road. We’re immediately climbing again, now for the last time. It’s a 10km drag up to the official start of the Col de Peyresourde.

Perfect ending

The sun is low and the valley shaded, but as we climb we haul ourselves back into the rich glow of golden hour. We’re now 175km into the ride, with 4,500m climbed.

I could tell you about the pain, the suffering, the thousand tiny chainsaws shredding our legs. Or I could tell you about the dawning revelations that come from testing the human spirit in the crucible of nature.

I could tell you all of these things, but they wouldn’t be true. This isn’t an odyssey, a rite of passage or a pilgrimage of self-discovery – this is pure joy. Of course it has been tough, but we’ve planned for this, we’ve paced ourselves and fuelled properly, and as we make our way up the Peyresourde

I simply bask in the view down the valley, honey-tinged in the late-afternoon light. This is as good as cycling gets. I’m high from endorphins, and when the ride finally ends in Bagnères-de-Luchon after a descent that flows like single cream, the sensation remains.

It may be the Circle of Death, but to me it feels a bit like heaven.

Circle of friends

Moments of pro drama in the Pyrenees

1910 Organiser Henri Desgrange
takes the Tour de France into the high mountains for the first time. The danger and difficulty leads the press to dub the route ‘The Circle of Death’.

1938 Belgian Sylvère Maes crushes his opponents in a reverse version of Cyclist’s route on his way to winning the Tour by almost 27 minutes.

1947 Frenchman Jean Robic breaks away alone across the summits of the Circle of Death to win Stage 15 by ten minutes. He will win the Tour without ever wearing the leader’s yellow jersey. Two years later, when the stage direction is reversed, Robic will win again

1969 Eddy Merckx reigns supreme. At the start of Stage 17, Merckx has a comfortable lead on GC and just needs to stay with the pack, but instead drops all his rivals over the Tourmalet and rides solo for 130km to win the stage by 7min 56sec

1983 Philippa York – then Robert Millar – gives Britain its first taste of high-mountain stage success on the Circle of Death, beating Pedro Delgado to the line by six seconds.

1995 On a descent of the Portet d’Aspet, Italian Fabio Casartelli dies after crashing into a concrete barrier. The following day’s stage is neutralised and the peloton rides in procession.

2012 The last time the Circle of Death stage followed Cyclist’s ride. French favourite Thomas Voeckler wins the day, although Bradley Wiggins holds onto his GC lead, which he will keep to Paris to secure Britain’s first Tour de France victory.

The squiggly line of death

It might not be a circle, but it is a killer

To download this route, scan the QR code. We started on the edge of Pau on the N134. It’s a major road but not unpleasant.

If you’d rather skip it, begin at Gan, 4km south, where the route splits onto the N2134 side road and then the D934. At LouvieJuzon continue on the D934 for faster progress or take the parallel D240, which is always deserted.

Pass through the centre of Laruns and follow signs for the Col d’Aubisque on the D918.

Cross the Aubisque and Solour and descend to Argelès-Gazost. Follow signs for Cauterets and Luz-SaintSauveur onto the D921. At Luz-Saint-Sauveur follow the D918 over the Col du Tourmalet and descend to Ste-Marie-deCampan.

Turn right and go over the Col d’Aspin, then turn right into Arreau, taking the D618 southeast to the Col de Peyresourde. Fork left at a roundabout, signed for the Peyresourde and Luchon.

The route finishes in Bagnères-de-Luchon at the end of the Peyresourde’s descent.

By the numbers

Abacuses at the ready

198 Kilometres ridden
5,113 Metres climbed
6,083 Calories burned (according to Strava)
12 Times the Tour has used this exact route
45 Times the Tour has included a version of the Circle of Death in either direction
11 Years since the last TdF Circle of Death stage

 

The rider’s ride

BMC Timemachine Road 01 Two,
bmc-switzerland.com
The Timemachine Road 01 is BMC’s dedicated aeroroad racer. While the high mountains are usually the preserve of its sibling, the Teammachine, this bike can still hold its own.

Think of it as a GC contender in the Bradley Wiggins mould: you’ll buy it for its aero speed, but you’ll be happy to take it on big climbs.

To keep things aero, the bottle cages blend into the frame, and the space between them is filled to help with airflow and also provides a handy storage compartment.

Naturally, all the cables are hidden, and the cockpit and tube shapes are wind-tunneloptimised to prevent the air being such a drag.

All this focus on aerodynamics hasn’t come at too much of a weight penalty. At 7.88kg the bike is light enough to climb well (although I reckon they could save some weight from the name) and the ride is good in most ways, even if it isn’t the most precise descender.

In general, it looks like a rocket and rides like one too. And thanks to Favero for the Assioma Duo pedals that supplied my power data.

How we did it

TRAVEL

The Pyrenees are easily accessible with direct flights to Lourdes from London or Paris, depending where you’re flying in. There are also airports in Pau and Toulouse.

If you’re flying into the UK, you can also take a ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and drive for around eight hours, or catch the 24-hour ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in Spain, and then drive four hours to Pau.

ACCOMMODATION

Gratuitous plug alert! It just so happens my guesthouse is right in the middle of the route. It’s set up for cyclists and we offer fully catered stays, with homemade ride snacks, GPX routes, a fully equipped garage, comfortable rooms and delicious meals.

Ride self-guided or join one of our guided and supported tours. If you’d like to take on the Circle of Death yourself, we can recreate this exact ride, including transfers and support car.

For Details go to escapetothepyrenees.com.

THANKS

Many thanks to Terry for driving the photo/support car and Dave for joining us. Thanks also to my partner Kitt for looking after our beautiful baby, and the gear suppliers for getting everything here on time.

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