Day 2 of my official bike tour started early, as our guide, David from Europeds, wanted us to get on the road to beat the heat and the traffic. Our goal today was Gavarnie, a UNESCO World Heritage site since it is so spectacularly beautiful. Our ride plan for today was about 25 miles of steadily climbing road to reach the town of Gavarnie, and then 25 miles of descending on the same road to get back home.
Once on the road, there was no doubt that you were in the French countryside. Picturesque fields, country cottages, and the odd manor or 2 dotted our route:
But then the road started to pitch up just that much more, since the lower part of the road to Gavarnie was also the lower part of the Col du Tourmalet! On our way up, we passed about a mile of Nike Chalkbot emblazoned road, and actually saw the crew setting up the actual Chalkbot to write even more in preparation for Tour Stage 16 (sorry, I couldn’t get a picture since cars were whizzing by, but it kind of looks like a paving machine). My tires had a definite yellow tinge after rolling up this section of the climb:
A little further up the road, in Luz St. Saveur, the road to Gavarnie diverged from the road to the Tourmalet, but we made a quick stop to re-gather our spread out group. As you can see in this photo, the road was jam-packed with cars and cyclists all day; when the Tour is in town it seems like the whole world descends on these sleepy little towns, but everyone seems to coexist peaceably (for the most part).
But onward and upward we climbed, until we finally started to see our destination (back where the snow-covered peaks are in this photo). I tried not to stop for photo ops every mile or so, since I wanted to keep my momentum going, but I couldn’t pass up this shot of a classic Citroen parked in front of this awesome vista:
Finally we arrived at Gavarnie, tired but not totally wiped out (which was the plan for the day after all, as we have more mountains to climb later in the week). Gavarnie is a spectacular little mountain town set in an equally spectacular setting. Here is the gateway to the town itself, where we chilled for a while, drinking from the icy cold spring water fountain, and listened to the tales of a 77 year old French man who had also ridden up that day and really enjoyed talking to our group.
And what ride in France would be complete without a stop at a little cafe, and today we found one with an unbelievable view. What you see in the background is the real tourist draw in Gavarnie, the Cirque du Gavarnie. The Cirque is a massive u-shaped array of peaks (some still snow-covered), that are covered with icy cold waterfalls, including the massive waterfall in the center of this picture:
Here’s a little closer view of the Cirque (well, and me and my Fuji, of course), which shows the remarkably blue river that flows from the waterfalls:
To get this closer view, we had to ride cyclocross-style on a gravel road (plus avoid donkey droppings). This place was packed with families making a day of it on the many hiking trails and picnic spots–if you ever find yourself down in this area of France, I can’t recommend enough stopping by Gavarnie.
Then it was time to head back to the hotel, down the same roads that we had ridden up. But a few of us decided to take a litle diversion to the top of the peaks, up 12km of paved and gravel swithbacks at about 10% average grade. I bailed out after about 6km (saving my legs for later in the week), but apparently the view into Spain from the top was amazing, at least according to the couple in our group riding the 40 pound tandem (and yes, I do feel like a big wimp now). Oh well, I did get this picture from where we stopped, looking back down into the valley:
After the long and winding descent (sadly into a headwind, which made it a lot less fun), I got cleaned up and headed into town to watch the finale of Stage 15. Needless to say, the town was overrun with cyclists, as were the bars. I squeezed into a local watering hole to watch a tiny TV, but it was still great fun to watch with a big crowd. The funniest part, for me, was watching the reaction of the people at the end of the stage. No, I’m not talking about people getting riled up about whether or not Contador should have attacked Andy Schleck when his chain jammed–nope, I’m talking about the fact that the french guys standing in front of me waited for French champion Thomas Voeckler to win the stage, and then unceremoniously left right afterwards, not caring one lick what happened to the yellow jersey!
Now the amazing part about staying in Argeles-Gazost is that Tour is going to roll right through town on the next 2 stages! Below you can see the route arrows already up in the town square–watch out for this nasty little zigzag when the Tour comes rocketing through on Tuesday!
Oh, but I’m won’t be watching the Tour in town tomorrow! Nope, it’s up early for our crew, and off to the Col d’Aubisque, which literally starts right from the edge of Argeles-Gazost (I told you this town was right in the thick of things):
I’ll be up on the side of the road, camped out with my group, and all the other lunatics that make watching the Tour so much fun. I’ll be wearing this jersey, if you can pick me out from the throngs. So wish me luck, and keep an eye out for me during the race coverage. But don’t worry, I’ll take lots of pictures and video and document the whole experience, from the caravan, to the attacking leaders, to the last straggler making his way up the mountain. It’s going to be a long day, but totally exciting. See you at the Tour!