Bird Stream

Entrepreneurship, development and (sometimes) cycling, often simultaneously, mainly in Nottingham

Col Du Tourmalet

Today I was Jérémy Roy

The plan today was to take in both ascents of the Col du Tormalet. We’re staying close (20km) to the start of the west ascent so and out, up and over, and back seemed like a ‘sensible’ plan.

The one challenge was the road closures due to the flood damage experienced earlier in the season between Barèges and Luz-Saint-Sauveur, the first section of the climb. The roads were closed from 08:00 to 12:00 and 13:30 to 17:30. So in order to make sure I was passed the roadworks before they closed I had to leave at 05:45 so I could descend back home during the lunchtime period.

This wasn’t so bad as it meant, after a ride to Luz in the dark, I had the climb to myself. It seemed no one else was fool as me. The climb starts pretty much straight out of Luz with 7-9% sections all the way up to Barèges. It was on this section that I discover the devastation the Le Bastan river had wraught. Fast melting, unusually high snow fall had ripped mercilessly through the valley tearing homes and roads apart.

As you go past 10km to go the road flattens to 5% which seems blessed relief at the time. As you round the bend at the end of the first flatter section you get a glimpse of your destination. The notch in the ridge ahead of you is the chairlift a few hundred metres south of the road pass itself.

After an easy section through the ski station at Super-Barèges things start to ramp up again and you can’t help feeling this is where it all starts to kick off when the Col is the destination for a summit finish. It’s at this point that the road painting starts to appear. Including a timely reminder that ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’.

More curious comes at around 5km to go when there is a Dutch section with names of national riders followed by what appears to be 500m of 1-3m long sperm. If I hadn’t been cycling I would have taken a photo so you’ll just have to believe me. Would love to know what it’s about.

Just at the end of the sperm, if you look up to your left you can see the observatory balanced precariously on the top of the Pic du Midi. Completely oblivious to your plight as all it’s attention is focused on the heavens.

2km is when it gets really serious. There’s a flat’ish section until a righthand hairpin at which point it’s a push skyward to the summit. Time to get into that pain cave and feel right at home as there is no respite now until the top. When you round the final lefthand hairpin under the chairlift any thoughts of an elegant, seated approach evaporate as the gradient, coupled with it’s position on the climb, require every muscle you can muster to overcome it.

I was alone on the Col at 08:30 when I arrived so a quick snap and straight down the other side to the ski resort at La Mongie, 4km below the Col, for what I hoped would be breakfast. Unfortunately all I could find open was a bar that was just serving coffee. A couple of short ones and I was off down what felt like would be the best descent of the day.

The 8km from La Mongie consisted of long straights and open corners that you could see through. I’m no dare-devil descender so didn’t push it, especially with some new wheels that I haven’t got used to yet, but I felt confident and enjoyed every minute of it. Maybe partly down to a masochistic pleasure taken in knowing I’d be coming back up shortly.

I stopped at Sainte-Marie de Campan, the start of the east ascent, turned straight around and started the ascent up. The first part is very easy, 3-4% easy, and at this point I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. One ascent done and feeling strong for the next one. Two things put pay to that confidence.

Firstly the sun. Although it was only around 10:00 this side of the valley was bathed in strong sunshine. The first climb had been in glorious, early morning shade. I’d taken great pleasure in watching as the sun first picked out the peaks on the opposite side of the valley and slowly crept down, illuminating them with a warm glow. This side was just unrelentingly hot. I remembered far more trees on the descent, though in reality the open sections just went past more quickly when I was hurtling down.

Secondly the climbing was quite different. This is purported to be the easier side but I found it a relentless 8-10% slog. Those long straights with open corners were reminiscent of the climb up Ventoux from Bedoin where there is no respite whatsoever for miles. I accept that I wasn’t necessarily approaching the climb with fresh legs but any dreams I had of arriving fresh at the top quickly disappeared.

As I approached La Mongie again I formed a loose agreement with a more senior French rider, sporting a local club’s jersey, a substantial grey mustache and astride a beautiful steel Colnago of some reasonable vintage. We worked together through and out of the inelegant architecture of the ski-station. It felt quite surreal with tourists arriving and going about their day, by now most things were open, as we laboured though the streets navigating the donkeys and goats that were hanging out like petulant teenagers.

When I said we worked together, what I meant was, I did what he did. This man who oozed cycling experience became my link to my purpose as I started to lose grip on reality a little. When he drank, I drank. When he got out of his saddle, I got out of my saddle.

With 3km to go, everything was hurting. What I thought had been the pain cave on the final 2km of the first ascent was actually a charming pied-a-tierre with sea views. Everything was hurting. I was having trouble focusing. I was empty. I was a pedalling automoton.

I finally lost his wheel on the last hairpin and found myself close to tears as walkers skipped gaily passed.

And then it was over. I was shaking. 2 cans of coke, a massive salad and a coffee as I sat bathed in sun outside the restaurant at the top soon restored me to some measure of health and sanity. Quick photo and then off down to make sure I made the lunchtime slot for the road reopening.

Another wonderful descent reminded me that I just love high mountain descents. There is something glorious about miles and miles of hurtling downhill.

The road from Luz to Argeles-Gazost, where we are staying, runs through a gorge and it’s here I had my Jérémy Roy moment. As I hurtled along the gorge through the rock-fall tunnels, pedalling furiously dragging the last drops of energy from my aching legs I felt like I was in a Pyrenean TDF stage. I been out on a breakaway in the high mountains all day, see Jérémy Roy in 2012 Tour, and was gunning for the finish in of the valley towns.

Then my back said don’t be so stupid, you’re 41 and somewhat out of condition.

Oh and there absolutely wasn’t a festival-come-market thing just below the Tourmalet on the west side that meant that roadworks and thus road closures had been suspended to ensure people could get to it.

So I needn’t have got up at 5:30 but I’m kinda glad I did.

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