If you love cycling you will definitely want to visit the Haute Pyrenees in South West France. Using the excellent maps that are easily available, you can design an endless variety of routes, lacing down river valleys, across corn fields, through forests, up and down hills and mountains and over cols.
A quick Google search will tell you that a col is “The lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, typically affording a pass from one side of a mountain range to another”. When cycling in the Haute Pyrenees, a high point… is definitely cycling over a col.
Yesterday I cycled Col du Tourmalet with my husband. Two middle-aged South Africans with middle-aged mountain bikes and a good dash of determination. After a week of cool grey drizzle, our chosen day dawned with the promise of sunshine and warmth. We started out from our village just south of Tarbes, and had a nice flat warm up down the D8 to Bagnerres de Bigorre.
After that, a gentle climb up the Campan valley, still in morning shade, to reach the pretty little village of Ste Marie de Campan. Ste Marie de Campan is a pivot point that you may know from watching La Tour de France (I’ll blog about that another time). It’s where the routes of Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet meet and cyclist wiz around a corner pegged by a brave little restaurant-bar.
From that point the climb up Tourmalet officially begin, with sign posts and gradient markers for each of the 17 km.
It started easily enough with a not too taxing section up the Valle de Gripp, reaching the small settlement of Artigues without much trouble. Cyclist on road bikes in lycra outfits wizzed passed us, with a friendly “Bonjour!” and a pleasing wiff of cologne. As one of the few female cyclists around, I also got a couple of “Bon courage!” which my husband had to do without. From Artigues, the hard work really started with a windy forested climb that popped us out near the ski resort of La Mongie. Out of season, the resort is a base for mountain walkers and high summer grazing for cattle, sheep and yes… some lamas.
We had a break at La Mongie – eating banana, raisins, chocolate and bread. Then off again at a steady slow pace and in the lowest gears, through the switch-backs that not a moment too soon popped us out at Col du Tourmalet (2115 m). We enjoyed a brief, cold and blustery break at the top, surrounded by cyclists, motor bikers, and other tourists.
Then it was off down the 17 km descent. This may sound easy compared to the ascent, and it is in one way. But it has challenges of its own, especially if you get vertigo and need to ward off the feeling that you are about to tumble over the edge! The descent down a col can also be icy so we took a couple of breaks to thaw and enjoy the view. The route passed through the spa-ski-ing-hiking village of Bareges, clinging to the valley sides, then landed us quite suddenly amongst the shops, tourists and traffic in Luz St Sauveur.
From here, about 15 km through to one of my favourite French towns, ArgelesGazost. We took a break at a sunny sidewalk café for cappuccino ice-cream (me) and a petite bière(my husband) before the home run through Lourdes and up the charming D7 towards Tarbes.
Here are a few of my survival tips for amateur col cycling:
- Choose your col by taking time to ponder the various cols and routes on a good quality map, e.g. Michelin’s no. 342Hautes-Pyrenees-Atlantiques 1:150 000. You will be spoilt for choice. May it will be the short(ish) ascent up Col du Soulor from the east, joined to Col d’Aubisque by the breath-taking sweep of Cirque du Litor. Or perhaps Col d’Aspin with its bare-mountain, head-down descent into Arreau. Maybe you want to start with one of the smaller cols, such as Col desPalomieres which goes up through the Barronniesfrom the north before descending into Bagneres de Bigorre. But who can refuse the Big Daddy of French cols, Col du Tourmalet?
- Don’t see cycling a col as an assault on the mountain, see it as a journey to be planned, enjoyed and re-lived many times afterwards.
- Check the weather before setting out, and keep your eye on it throughout the day. My experience is that the weather in the Hautes-Pyrenees can change very quickly from sunshine one moment to rain and even hail storms the next. At the same time, it can be overcast on the flats, and sunny on the mountains. So check out a good weather site such as http://fr.webcams.travel/webcam/1256568861-M%C3%A9t%C3%A9o-Pic-Midi-(looking-to-North-West)-La-Mongieand be prepared to change your plans if the weather looks harsh.
- Make sure you stay hydrated. Cycling with its associated sweating and quick evaporation can drain you of fluids. Take at least two water bottles. Drinking water is not always that easy to find along the way. Next to the church at Ste Marie de Campan there is a drinking fountain with lovely fresh water.
- Take a few layers of light clothing so you can adjust for temperature changes between the muggy flats, windswept col and the (often) icy descent. A sports rain jacket also gives a sense of comfort when the clouds start rolling in. And don’t forget the sun cream.
- Keep your energy levels up. A high-carb meal like couscous the night before, then plenty of snacks along the way during the cycle, eaten in small portions. I like banana, plumpy golden raisins, chocolate bars and peanuts. Yesterday’s left over baguette helps as a simple filler.
- And finally, if like me you are not a super athlete, just a middle-aged mom with a love of adventure and the occasional challenge, remember: slow and steady wins the day!