ANOTHER GREAT COURSE, SHOWCASING THE BEST OF THE PYRENEES
By Yannick Drangowski
Get ready for another festival of cycling on narrow roads, wild country and steep climbs! Once again the organisers are serving up a good helping of the best the Pyrenees have to offer, in a very challenging event designed to suit the climbers. Here are the key features of the 2017 edition:
- Two summit finishes: the first on the short but in places brutally steep col du Portillon on stage 4 and the second on the equally tough climb to the Hospices de France on Stage 6;
- The time trial on Superbagnères, used for time trials by the Tour de France in 1962, won by the ‘Eagle of Toledo’ Federico Bahamontes and again in 1979 when the Badger in person took the honours;
- Practically every iconic climb in the western Pyrenees is included. One of the few missing is the Hourquette d’Ancizan, but since we climbed it twice in 2016 this is not too great a loss!
- Two nights in Pau and three nights in Bagnères-de-Luchon are very welcome, reducing considerably the fatigue due to changing hotel every night.
The bottom line: get plenty of climbing in between now and next August, come with a 32-tooth cassette and enjoy one of the biggest challenges in cycling.
STAGE ONE SUNDAY 13TH AUGUST
ANGLET – OLORON-SAINTE-MARIE 174KM | 3450m ∗∗∗∗∗
Now classic for the start of the Haute Route Pyrenees, the Basque country sets the tone with a very tough first stage. The rolling hills with innumerable short steep climbs make it hard to get into a rhythm over the 70km or so leading to the first major climb, the col de Bargagui (1,330m). Beware, the first part of the climb includes the col de Burdincurutcheta (1,135m), as hard to climb as it is to pronounce. You’ll need the small ring to get up 4km at 10%. Narrow road, steep slopes, wild countryside, this is a great way to get started before the big one of the day, the col du Soudet (1,540m). This is a long climb, well known for the ever-changing gradient and the battle you’ll have to make to subdue the 12% slopes.
The final descent to Oloron would be a formality if we weren’t in the Basque country: be careful here, it’s dangerous. You’ll need to stay vigilant all the way to Oloron and keep your eyes open for the pitfalls. It often rains in this region and if it happens on the day, you will remember this stage all your life!
In a welcome change from the past two years, the transfer to Pau should only take 45 minutes. It would be a pity not to take a quick look around the town first, however, an old Roman town with a lot of history, Oloron is spectacular indeed!
STAGE TWO MONDAY 14TH AUGUST
PAU – PAU 157KM | 2800m ∗∗∗∗
Let’s do it again, like we did last summer… Stage 2 is a repeat of Stage 2 in 2015 and most of last year’s Stage 2. Hard to complain however, it is a classic Pyrenean ride with amazing scenery, three iconic climbs, and not the least.
But first we must ride from Pau to the mountains: a 50km roller-coaster ride similar to Stage 1 brings us to Escot and the foot of the col de Marie-Blanque (1,035m). Just over 1,000m high, doesn’t sound much does it? And yet… Marie-Blanque is one for the pure climbers, the 55kg lightweights who fly up the steepest slopes. If this applies to you, you can look forward to the 4km wall at 11-12%. If not, make sure you bring the 32-tooth cassette.
The descent will bring us to the majestic col d’Aubisque (1,709m). This is one of the monuments of the Tour de France, and one of cycling’s greatest climbs. The first part through the forest to the hot springs at Eaux Bonnes is straightforward. The road then gets steeper before a short respite in the ski station of Gourette. From there on, we change sides, enter the high mountains and enjoy a regular climb, with magnificent views over the Ossau valley before the road flattens out at the summit.
The descent is breathtaking, especially around the Cirque du Litor (photo). The road is literally carved into the side of the steep slopes. Better not to miss a corner. The last few kilometres climbing to the col du Soulor (1,469m) don’t present any challenge but are absolutely magic for their natural beauty.
There’s a vertiginous descent from the col before the long slog back out to Pau.
STAGE THREE TUESDAY 15TH AUGUST
PAU – TARBES 152KM | 3100m ∗∗∗∗
Another long stage, with the climbs concentrated in the middle. Tarbes – visited for the first time on the Haute Route – is only 45km from Pau, but we are taking the scenic route…
Only two climbs today, but big ones both. The approach to the col de Spandelles (1,378m) is up a long, narrow valley before the climb proper, just over 10km at an average of 8.4%, with ramps at 10% and more, again and again! The road is narrow, bucolic and in poor condition, probably the only reason it has never been used by the Tour de France. Beware of the very dangerous descent to Argelès-Gazost, which will almost certainly be neutralised.
We’ve written extensively about the col du Tourmalet (2,117m) elsewhere. Certainly the most famous climb in the Pyrenees, the col has been used more often by the Tour de France than any other. This time we’ll cross it west to east, from Luz Saint-Sauveur to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan. Long and difficult, it merits its legendary status.
In 2016 the riders had to dodge around the llamas blocking the road…
The descent is steep and fast until Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, often dangerous with livestock on the road, and then more of a false flat until Bagnères-de-Bigorre. From here it is only another 25km to Tarbes, but be ready to stand up on the pedals, it is by no means all flat!
STAGE FOUR WEDNESDAY 16TH AUGUST
TARBES – BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON 123KM | 3900m ∗∗∗∗∗
Don’t be fooled by the shorter distance. This is a huge amount to swallow in one day, and the col du Portillon as dessert is likely to give indigestion to some!
The day begins by returning back up the valley to Bagnères-de-Bigorre and Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the real hostilities begin.
The climb to the col d’Aspin (1,489m) is the easiest of the day, in spite of a few steeper pitches that punctuate the approach. Take advantage of the summit to admire the view and the steep descent, which brings us down to the Vallée de l’Aure and a short respite of 10km to spin the legs for the last time today. From now on there are three climbs in succession with no transition.
The climb to the col d’Azet (1,580m) is on a typical narrow Pyrenean road, 10km at 7.5%. Over the top we go for a fast descent before banging our heads up against the Peyresourde (1,569m). Unusually for the region, this climb is very regular, at a steady 7%, and the road is wide and in good condition. As such, it sometimes gives the disagreeable impression of cycling through treacle…
Who can forget Chris Froome’s remarkable descent down the other side during the 2016 Tour, when he surprised everybody by attacking over the summit? You have been warned – the descent is ultra-rapid: don’t forget to brake when you reach the switchbacks above Saint-Aventin!
We’ll arrive in Bagnères de Luchon like a TGV but immediately run up against a wall, the col du Portillon (1,293m). If you want to go to Spain you are on the right road, but before sitting down to a plate of tapas you’ll have to make a serious effort. The climb is fairly short, at 10km, but very irregular with numerous ramps at 10% and even 14%. On a hot day the shady forest and many waterfalls are very welcome.
STAGE FIVE THURSDAY 17TH AUGUST
BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON – SUPERBAGNÈRES 18KM | 1170m ∗∗∗
Bagnères-de-Luchon is a great place to be for the time trial. This is the stage that many people treat as a rest day. If you look up from the centre of the town, you’ll see the cable-car pylons leading to Superbagnères (1,860m). Yes, it’s up there you have to go, 1,170m higher up, on your bike. Looking at the slope on this side of the mountain, you’ll soon understand why the road curves around behind to find a way up.
It’s a great climb, in three parts. The first is the circumvention of the mountain, the same way to the Hospice de France planned for Stage 6. The road is wide and very irregular, with an initial ramp at 10%. The road then forks right into the vallée du Lys and initially climbs in a straight line, but with just as much irregularity, before a few life-saving switchbacks. This is the hardest part to get through. Once out of the forest you can attack the final part, where a magnificent view will perhaps make you overlook the difficulty of the final kilometre.
STAGE SIX FRIDAY 18TH AUGUST
BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON – BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON 131KM | 3600m ∗∗∗∗∗
Today is a massive one, and it starts from km0. First up is the Port de Balès (1,755m). Expect 20km of climbing, initially quite steady, then quickly becoming steep and variable, like so many Pyrenean climbs. You’ll soon be left to your own devices to toil up alone in the way only cyclists truly appreciate. It’s a lovely climb for the wild, natural feel, perhaps a bit less for those who don’t enjoy steep slopes. Look out for the descent, the road is steep and in poor condition and it would be best not to miss one of the many bends that tighten up sharply.
The col des Ares (797m) follows on rapidly, nothing to write home about, and the same can be said for the col de Buret (599m) that some probably won’t even notice.
After another short descent you’ll ride through a narrow, damp valley, beautifully cool in the summer, which brings you to a crossroads where two of the big Tour de France climbs begin. Today you’ll leave the Portet d’Aspet on your left to attack the col de Menté (1,349m) on your right. It’s not a huge climb but will certainly hurt your legs and won’t amuse everybody with its slopes at more than 9%.
Back to Luchon, but take advantage of the flat to spin your legs, because the Race Director has kept a nice little surprise up his sleeve for the end. The Hospice de France (1,379m) is a well-known place for hikers, but not many people dare go up there by bike, especially after 120km and 4 other climbs… Check the climb profile on the internet, the last 3km are drenched in red ink, never a good sign! Bon courage as we say in French!
STAGE SEVEN SATURDAY 19TH AUGUST
BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON – TOULOUSE 156KM | 1300m ∗∗∗
It is a long way out of the mountains to Toulouse, and the only serious barrier is the col de Menté (1,349m), that we will have climbed in the other direction the previous day during Stage 6. You might therefore be tempted to think that once over the col – a minor matter of 10km at 9% – it’s all over bar the shouting.
The reality is quite different. The foothills of the Pyrenees are far from easy and numerous climbs are hidden in the plain on the way to Toulouse. Over the millenia the river Garonne has carved out several alternative river beds and valleys that have to be crossed, and after a week in the high mountains, these need to be taken seriously. Be ready for the change in pedalling style, very different between the mountains and the plain. Your legs could be very surprised by the effort needed to get to the finish line in Toulouse.
The best strategy is to join a group of at least ten persons of the same level, and ride to the finish together. Don’t forget to buy a beer for whoever pulls the hardest!
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