Yesterday Chris Froome picked up a third Tour De France title. He’s been impressive and has left some memorable moments on this tour, not least his his run up Mont Ventoux. The internet responded to this magical moment and provided footage of Froome’s run set to the Rocky soundtrack, which unfortunately was taken down by the grey suits. At the time of writing a rather nice alternative set to the Titanic soundtrack was still out there.
Another great moment was his descent into Luchon when he won stage 8.
Figure 1. Froome in the descent of the Peyresourde, sitting on the top tube. Source: www.sporza.be
Interestingly, a group of researchers presented evidence that this position was less aerodynamic than just sitting in the drops. I’m not convinced by their results and I’d be amazed if Sky hadn’t already tested a number of descending positions in the wind tunnel. Anyway, I digress. As the title suggests, I was lucky enough to be out in the Pyrenees to watch stage 8 of the Tour De France. My Dad happened to be friends with a guy who has a chalet near the village of Bareges, which is on the Tourmalet climb. It took him a while to work up to it but coupled with the odd poke now and then, he went and organised it.
The Tourmalet is the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and has been included on the tour more than any other pass and for good reason. It’s a superb climb from either side. We were on the slightly longer western side. This is a 19km stretch that climbs 19km from Luz St Saveur at an average gradient of 7.4%. Our chalet was a few km into the climb, and precisely 13 km from the summit- I know this because we had this sign directly opposite the chalet.
You can hire bikes in Luz St Saveur where Ariden Velos offer a nice selection of Scott bikes. Kris, Sarah and I hired Ultegra equipped, Scott CR1’s. It’s best to pre-book them around Tour time, as they get pretty busy.
Bareges is a half an hour drive from Lourdes airport. We arrived in time to find a little french bistro with a somewhat entertaining host. The next morning Kris and I were dropped off at the bike shop which was situated at the bottom of the Tourmalet. We could then get straight out onto the climb. Sarah would pick up her bike later that week and do the same climb. Two weeks after my ironman and I’m still a little tired so the plan was not to take the next week too hard. Out of the rental shop and we were straight into the climb and my heart rate seemed to be 10 beats higher for the perceived effort I was putting out. My body had got used to rest of late. The gradient felt pretty steady though and we had a compact which was nice. It’s so different to England where the hills are short and steep. Here, you just find your gear and you’ll hardly change out of that gear for the next hour or so. Just make sure that you can comfortably spin that gear. Otherwise you’ll be grinding for a while so to speak !
After 25 minutes we passed our chalet to the cheers of the group who had already found a nice comfy spot to watch the endless procession of cyclists. It was getting close to lunch so Dad probably had a bottle of red popped by then.
It’s amazing how many people are cycling up the tourmalet all day long. Obviously Tour De France week is particularly busy! This does make it more fun when you come to cycle. Particularly when it’s your first day and your legs are relatively fresh so you spend the entire climb passing people.
At 4.7 miles from the bottom you hit the centre of the small villages of Bareges. There’s a supermarket there if you’re suffering! A couple of miles past that and you hit the bottom of the mountain at the ski station. It’s pretty flat here and you can look up and get a decent view of the switchbacks. It’s here that you feel you’re actually onto the mountain part, despite the fact that you’ve been climbing for over 45 minutes. Incidentally, if you’re descending in the opposite direction, those last couple of miles after the ski station and before Bareges are potentially the fastest with some 8-9% gradient, smooth roads and corners that don’t require braking.
From the ski station you have about 8k as the road winds it way its way up to the summit. The last few hundred metres are a little steeper and there were people popping out to take your photo and then give you their card, so you could look up the pics on the web later. They cost about 13 euros – Here’s one that Kris bought showing the incredible view in the background.
I’ve never climbed a 2000m+ mountain before. It takes a while. We had pretty decent weather – about 25c, which meant that it wasn’t too cold at the top and we could descend without sticking on any extra clothes. The climb up took about an hour and a half that day. I enjoyed the view all the way up. One day I’ll come back and suffer myself up for a quicker time but not this week.
I averaged over 30mph coming back down the chalet and that included passing a few cars on the way down. It’s definitely the best road I’ve ever descended. The road cleaners were going up it every day and it was super smooth. I got to do the descent three times and each time you remember which bit you don’t need to brake on, and get a little quicker.
Lunch back at the chalet and I was keen to get some more miles in that afternoon. I’d spotted the Hautacam nearby; another hors category climb that has featured on Le Tour. I set out but I hadn’t really thought much about the distance to it and how much climbing there was going to be. I reached the mountain after 15 miles and worked out quite quickly that it was going to be a long hard journey back. I’d been going downhill all the way from the chalet. I was also low on fuel. I knew I didn’t feel that great at that point, and I had one or two gels on me. I’d be a bit late back, but it was a long way to come to turn back before doing the climb so I set off up the climb with a Nike slogan attitude.
The Hautacam is 17.3km long with an average gradient of 6.8%. However, this hides the reality that actually you have an easier start and spend more like 13km at an average 8%. It also fails to mention that the average bounces between 6 and 13%. It didn’t take long for me to find I was very low on energy. I went through the little gels I had and crawled my way to the top. It was hot and I was knackered and getting to the top was hard. It’s a good job I had a cog on the back the size of a dinner plate. There wasn’t a lot at the top but I managed to refill bottles from the toilet (not literally the toilet) and buy a pack of boiled sweets. I stuck a load in my cheeks like a hamster about to hibernate before setting off on the chilly descent.
The drag back to the chalet was long and painful and I felt my left knee begin to give me pain, which made it more depressing as I thought I’d given myself an injury on day 1! You know you’re pretty knackered when you get off your bike and stand by it for a while to contemplate the last 10 minutes of the hill which is exactly what I did.
I was in the doghouse when I got back. It was about 8pm and everyone had gone out to dinner. I picked up the text message from my phone that I hadn’t brought with me, managed to text my food order, and headed out for a much needed meal! I’d climbed over 10,000 feet that day and just hoped my knee would be ok for the rest of the week.
I took it easy the next day whilst Kris popped off to ride the Hautacam on his own. That night we had a little drive up the Tourmalet. It was the night before the Tour was to come through, and Camper vans lined the road for most of the way up. We got to the top and this time I had my camera so we could pose by the statue and record some of the awe-inspiring views.
We did it earlier…honest !
The Western side with amazing views
The team minus Kristian…where did he go??
Pub with a view
We awoke on Saturday morning to a constant stream of cyclists heading up the Tourmalet. The atmosphere was good and my knee didn’t feel too bad either. Before coming out I’d made a fair few changes to bike position, one of them being cleats. I had another play with these as I think they’d contributed to the niggle in my knee on Thursday. I then cycled up to Bareges to pick up some milk, before heading down to Luz St Saveur to pump up the tyres at the bike shop. It was quite nice cycling back to the chalet on Tour de France morning and suprisingly the niggle in the knee seemed to have gone. Great! Back at the house and Dad was ensuring there was enough liquid refreshment to see the tour come through.
Before the tour comes through you get the parade, which is called the caravan. It’s a bit like watching floats come by at a fair, only they travel a bit faster as they’re on a schedule and they look a bit more professional than your average home decorated lorry.
They also give out lots of free stuff. The freebies are generally tack although the king of the mountain hats are cool. We got a his and her’s…
And Mum and Dad got a his and hers sprinters hats…
Be prepared to cheer hard for a good half an hour, catch as many goodies as possible, and bear in mind that some of them are like missiles so keep your eyes open.
You then have a little down time before the riders come in. It didn’t take too long though and the guys were ahead of schedule, which nearly caught us out whilst we were speculating on the best viewpoint. First to pass was the legendary Thibaut Pinot.
But it wasn’t long until the Sky train was here
Then the team cars with their bike bling came through.
Gotta love the Look bikes
If you’re lucky you’re in the right place to catch a throw away bottle…
The really amazing thing about watching the tour is that you can get so close to the riders. This always causes issues and was a nightmare on the Ventoux stage where they decided to bring the finish down the mountain due to bad weather, causing an even higher concentration of lunatic spectators.
Saying that, its great that you’re not watching from behind security barricades like you’d be forced to in other sports. You can get so close you can feel the suffering. The day before on stage 7, Steve Cummings rode solo on the Col D Aspin and won the stage. Efforts like that are hard to recover from the next day and his head really was hanging.
Half way up a mountain and unless the name is Peter Sagan, you’re probably going to see the sprinters come through at the end. Here was Cav in the green jersey, suffering with his fast twitch muscle fibres. In fairness, even the sprinters are going quick as they need to finish within a time limit. The time limit is usually based on the type of stage and is a % of the winners time.
Watching the Tour is pretty awesome. Make sure you’ve got a bit of shade, plenty of liquid refreshment and find an uphill mountain route or they’ll go by in the blink of an eye!
Once the drama was over and the beer had worn off, I got a quick ride from the Chalet to the top of the Tourmalet and back. The following day Kris and I did a 63 mile loop which bought us up the other side of the Tourmalet. It’s slightly short but steeper. As it was, the weather was scorching. My Garmin was measuring 36 degrees on the open parts of the climb. There were quite a few stretches with no shade. A lot of people suffered that day. The weather broke that night and we had thunder and lighting, with a lot of mist in the morning.
It’s worth bearing in mind that even if you’re heading to the Pyrenees in June, bring a weatherproof. Fortunately I had a friend who was retiring his bike for the next few days and was willing to lend his weatherproof which meant I could get in a couple more climbs. One of these was the Col de Tentes which the bike shop had recommended. At 29.3km and at 2208m it’s higher than the Tourmalet but the weather was more ‘English like’ and I felt pretty good. I really enjoyed this climb and cycling through the lazy animals who shared the road.
The descent was awful though; lots of gravel on the road. and the descent was a tad sketchy.
The following day I got a ride up the Luz Ariden. As I started I had a couple of guys come by in full matching kit with legs that had been chiselled from rock. Turns out one of them was French pro Julien Morice who got a bronze medal at the 2015 UCi world track championships. The Luz Ariden in 14.7km with an average gradient of 6.9%. It got wetter further to the top. Too wet for the French pros who turned back to find other drier mountains. Thankfully Strava was able to tell me this as otherwise I’d assumed they had got to the top and back whilst I still had a couple more km of climbing which doesn’t do a lot for your motivation. They clearly had the right idea though, as there wasn’t much to see at the top..
I’d definitely recommend a trip to the Pyrenees, and even better time it with a Tour de France stage to get the best of both!
Have to say a big thanks to the old man here for organising the accommodation. Just the Isle of Man to do next time now Dad.