David’s Tour du Jour – Climbing the Tourmalet

Day 4 of my sojourn in France, and it was time to tackle the Tourmalet.  This was a rest day for the Tour riders, so our group would have the roads all to ourselves (and probably 20,000 of our closest friends).  Yes, the grey and drizzly weather didn’t stop many people from hitting the road for an epic bike adventure.  Our route for the day was a 70 mile loop that was a classic Europeds tour: start from our base in Argeles-Gazost, tackle some rolling French countryside on the way to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, then start climbing at Campan and cruise up the “easier” eastern side of the Tourmalet, then dive down the other side to Luz-Saint-Saveur and back home.  Sounds so easy, right?

The early part of our route was truly beautiful, just what you dream French country roads should look like.  We passed through quaint villages, pastoral fields, and roads carved through forested hillsides. It was the kind of scenery that you see the riders of the Tour de France roll through and wonder if it truly exists, or if it is just a trick of the camera.  Well, it’s out there, and it’s a ton of fun to ride through!

Of course all of this countryside cruising works up quite a hunger, so it was soon time for a pit stop at a cafe in the quaint village of Bagneres-de-Bigorre:

Fueled up and ready to go, it was time to get back on the road.  Just outside of Campan, the road starts heading up, and never lets up until you make it to the summit of the Tourmalet.  But we were definitely on the right path, judging by the elaborate road chalk left by the fans during Stage 16 of the Tour (which passed the Tourmalet just the previous day, in the same direction we were riding today):

These handy roadside signs let you know the suffering that was in store ahead (the totals for the Tourmalet in this direction are about 16km with an average gradient of 8%):

Up and up and up we climbed (although at this point I was basically alone, struggling along in my 34-26 gearing).  I’d show you some pictures of the scenery, but the fog was so dense that I could only see about 30 feet in front of me.  I just kept turning the pedals over, churning out the kilometers at a steady pace of about 6 miles an hour (I’m not kidding).  Oh wait, I did have one picture of scenery to share; well, more specifically, it’s a picture of livestock:

Finally I straggled in to the ski resort of La Mongie, which serves as a last respite before the final ascent to the summit of the Tourmalet.  Whereas on the lower slopes the climb seemed kind of deserted, with only small groups of cyclists passing me in either direction (plus leftover campers on the side of the road), once up to La Mongie it was plein du monde, as they say here in France.

As you can see on this map, after La Mongie the real classic climbing starts, with wide open vistas and switchbacks galore:

And better yet, the skies opened up for us as we neared the top, revealing some fantastic vistas (as well as a clear view of the summit, oh so far away!)

I found myself stopping for photos every kilometer or so, just because the view was too amazing to pass up (that and because my legs were about to fall off):

Only 1 km to go, but it’s a long one!

I made it to the top, eventually, to be greeted by quite the scene of exhausted but happy cyclists and hikers:

The obligatory summit sign photo was definitely in order on the Tourmalet (while rocking my cool Tyler’s team kit):

There’s even a nifty little cafe at the top, to give you that extra sustenance for the way down the other side:

And when I say down, I mean it!  The eastern side of the Tourmalet looks like you are dropping right off the side of a cliff (and incidentally, is the side where Contador and Schleck battled it out, mano a mano, in the final climb of Stage 17).  This may be the highest point of the Tour, but you go down in a hurry from either side.

But speaking of Schleck and Contador, I’ll bet they never climbed the Tourmalet on a tandem… with panniers… while wearing flip-flops and boat shoes.  What can I say, other than I told you that people will ride anything up these climbs over here!

The summit achieved, it was time to get headed home.  As I said, the eastern side of the Tourmalet is generally regarded as the tougher ascent, but it was certainly a slippery and gnarly descent as well.  You can see the twisty-turny madness in this map view:

And it didn’t help that the fog rolled back in as we started our descent.  Combined with the other hikers, bikers and campers filling the roads (going both directions), along with the fact that the outside of the road was generally a sheer cliff face with no guardrail, we definitely kept our speed dialed back to a reasonable rate (unlike many other people, including the brash rider who flew past me only to hit a bump and go straight over his bars at about 40 miles an hour–not a pretty sight).

But as a bonus for descending at a mellow pace, we were able to spot Didi the Devil making his way up the road to the Tourmalet, and he obliged by posing for this sweet picture!  What a perfect finish to the day!

OK, so we still had about 20 miles to go at this point, and it started raining, but it was still a fantastic 5 1/2 hours in the sadlle.  When I watched the riders rocket up the Tourmalet during Stage 17, I could pick out the spots where I had just been, and be even more impressed by their abilities!

Speaking of Stage 17, you can check out my photos from the stage on our Facebook page, starting with this photo.  I’ll have a blog post up soon, but we’re on the move tomorrow so my post may be delayed a bit.  We’re headed north from the Pyrenees, up to the wine country around Bordeaux, where we’ll settle in to eat, drink, and watch the decisive time trial on Saturday afternoon!

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