Week At The Pyrenees – Back To The Old Col
VecchioJo goes to the Pyrenees and falls in love all over again.
Let me get this straight from the off, I bloody love the Pyrenees. I’ve been here probably more times than anywhere else in Europe, or the World even, on both road and mountainbikes, done an Étape – got wet and emotional, rode the route of a later Étape not on race day – got tired, I’ve ridden from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the pointy spine of the mountain range on a Coast To Coast trip years ago and had one of the best weeks of my life, and just plain old-fashioned ridden around a lot, and fallen in love. So if I gush please indulge me.
Most of this deep affection is the fault of Pyractif, a cycling holiday company that’s been based out of a large farmhouse in Bertren in the Hautes-Pyrenees for almost 20 years. It caters for both mountain and road cyclists, although nowadays it’s mostly roadies, itchy to ride the classic cols of the Tour and maybe do a bit of Etape preparation. And who can blame them as it’s the perfect base if you want to tick off a Who’s Who of famous Pyrenean cycling climbs; Tourmalet, Bales, Peyresourde, Super Bagneres, Aspin, Aspet, Mente, Plat d'Adet, Luz Ardiden and Portillon are all within easy striking distance. Knock your little colour co-ordinated cycling socks off. I’m like an over-excited hyperactive child on too many orange Smarties to be back here after almost a decade, my legs are fidgety at the promise of some mountains, and I’m keen to see how Pyractif is fairing under the change of ownership with Chris and Helen since I was here last.
As is the tradition of cycling holidays there’s the quick post bike-build ride out before supper to check that everything works, crack open the legs after cattle-pen traveling, wake the body up from the early start afternoon nap and fire up an appetite. We’re handed a map of a short ride that goes up a little hill, down a little hill, up to a picturesque hilltop cathedral village for a beer and then home in time for tea. It’s like a pack of cute puppies have been let out in the garden to play, there is sprinting, silliness and far too much holiday exuberance, you wouldn’t want anything less.
The first proper ride of the week is quickly decided upon as a scamper over the Col des Ares and the Col de Mente, a steady 50 miles so as not to demolish the legs for the rest of the week, and a gentle and polite way to break a few Pyrenean col cherries. A short warm up along the Bertren valley and we’re into the first climb of the day, at about eight and a half kilometres long with an average gradient of only 3.9% the Col des Ares is not a climb of any note when it comes to statistics and it hardly registers on any Tour de France rider’s heart-rate monitor but that doesn’t make it an any less worthy climb. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of my favourite climbs, ever. If I was being effervescent. This may have something to do with it being the traditional “First Climb Of The Holiday” so always has smiley positive and fluffy happiness connotations, but personal memories aside it’s also an ascent that’s easy on the eye and able to be done at a chatty pace through the trees so doesn’t scare newcomers.
We drop down the other side after deciding that it would be a spiffing idea to detour off route for a bit and head to the village of Aspet for coffees. And maybe something from the patisserie. There’s the cheeky little climb of the Buret to contend with but that’s merrily dispatched before the final descent towards town and contesting the sprint up the steep ramp into the central square. Because it’s what you have to do. Coffees and croissants concluded we head back the way we came for a couple of kilometres and turn down the valley along the cheekily undulating road towards the base of our next climb, the Col de Mente.
But before that we veer left and climb for a few hundred metres up the Portet d’Aspet to look at the Casartelli Monument, a large marble statue of a bike wheel placed grandly just above the corner where the young Motorola rider and Olympic gold medal winner crashed during the 1995 Tour de France. It’s a sobering place that demands hushed conversation and respect, I leave a little piece of energy bar for Fabio, as I’ve done in the past, and bite my lower lip. Any one of us. Any one of us.
We wheel back down the hill, past the plaque and bunch of flowers that mark where Casartelli actually hit his helmetless head, and press onto the Mente, starting from where we are at the Pont de l'Oule it’s near enough 11km long, but there’s a significant descent a few kilometres in so the first grunty lump of hill doesn’t really count and the climb proper starts at Ger-de-Boutx, with 7 kilometres to go to the summit. Initially climbing steeply through the village it settles down, although that term is somewhat relative, and after negotiating a series of switchbacks sometime later hits the trees and levels off to the top where there’s a café for hot chocolates, Cokes and chips.
About halfway up the climb the real beauty of the Pyrenees reminds itself to me. It’s not an awesome panorama of mountains, it’s not a hard but beautiful climb, it’s not a fun descent, it’s not a series of perfect serpentine corners, although all of those exist, this beauty lies in the silence. Slow down a little so that your breathing isn’t filling your head and your heart isn’t thumping against your chest, or even put your foot down and stop, and all you can hear is quiet. No constant white noise of traffic, no overhead drone of planes, none of the annoying background hums of modern life that we have become desensitised to but pack the gaps in our heads. It’s something that doesn’t seem to happen in the crowded, busy, extreme Alps. Just silence. Calm. It’s a rare and wonderful experience, something to be savoured as waves of deep peace wash over me with each pedal stroke. Mountains. Quiet. Happy.
Did I gush?
We swoop giggly down the Mente, managing to avoid crashing like Ocaña did in 1971, and drop into St Beat where it’s been anything but quiet. The area was devastated by floods earlier in the year and the town is still showing the scars with boarded-up shops and a dejected atmosphere. Of less importance but more relevance to us the bike path along the river back to Bertren is chewed with washed away banks and is still covered with flat dunes of sand from the overflowing river calling for unexpected and impromptu cyclo-cross skills. All in a day’s fun.
Things are ramped up a smidge for Day Two as the Peyresourde is on the menu. At 1,569 metres high, it’s a bit taller than anything yesterday and the total mileage to get to the hill, survive it, and then get back home is more too. There is some discussion about which way round to do the loop as both directions have their benefits, in the end the strategic placement of coffee stops wins the day and we vote to ride anti-clockwise, which also means we climb the Peyresourde by the prettier, and shorter, side. Not that this was planned. Oh no. Turning left out of the house we follow the D26 as it loops all the way round north and west, for a mountainous area it’s a pleasingly gentle and undulating road, through corn fields and deserted villages, empty roads where distance between cars is measured in minutes rather than metres. Happy miles pass, knee and arm-warmers are discarded as the sun makes its presence felt, we only get lost once.
The pretty stops as we turn onto the unpleasant main road that takes us to Arreau, it’s a busy stretch, but not as bad as the A272, and a reminder that people actually have to live and work in the Pyrenees rather than the place merely existing for the pleasure of tourists. Our paceline climbs steadily up the valley, past the base of the Aspin that we wave at for another day and turn left into Arreau for pre-col coffees and croissants.
Pedaling out of town there’s a sticky 10km drag to the real meat of the Peyresourde, which has a further 8km or so of steeper up to the summit. There have been showers on this side of the mountain so the tarmac is wet and with the sun beating off it and heavy clouds bumping the mountains on the right it’s all very atmospheric while the road wiggles and turns through the trees on the lower slopes, and when we break out of the trees and into open pasture, gently weaving through green fields and clonking Alpine cattle, it’s all rather wonderful and why I’m here. Why we’re all here.
Reaching the summit in a shower we chat briefly with an Englishman that’s doing the Pyrenean Coast-To-Coast fully panniered up, there’s a brief moment of jealous until we look at the load he’s hauling over the mountains and we turn back down for a hundred metres to the little off-shoot road up to Peyragudes, which was used for the first time in the 2012 Tour De France, and where Chris Froome famously forgot what a domestique was supposed to do.
The descent off the Peyresourde into Luchon is as fast and fun as I ever remember it to be, which is what makes it my least favourite way to climb the mountain, and it’s always a chuckle to be reminded that French drivers, on the whole, will pull over when they see you suddenly fill their rear-view mirror at 45mph. We decide that we’ve earned a snack at the bottom but thanks to the unique way French restaurants are run, refusing to serve food at any time past lunch, combined with their infamous customer service it takes us several efforts just to get a coffee and crepe, just as the rain starts hammering down. We eek things out as long as we can before manning up and heading out into the damp, which thanks to the unique way mountain weather behaves it’s completely dry within a kilometre.
No-one’s entirely sure how it happens, but the 25 kilometres down the valley back home, into the wind, end up as an six-man team time trial, which given the thickness of the headwind is probably a good thing overall as it would be a tedious struggle on your own. It certainly means we get back for beer, cheese and random meat product snacks in swift order, and we get a Top Ten on Strava on the segment for our troubles, which leads to some gushing.