2002-09-03, Oloron - Sainte Marie-de-Campan
We got up at 06:30, had some breakfast and got on our way by eight o'clock. We could see the mountains at the horizon and although the weather had got worse, we could see the mountain peaks.
It had turned out that there were two different routes for the first 20 kilometres that day. One option was to take the default route from Asasp to Arudy and Laruns. The second option was to continue to Escot and then go over the Col de Marie-Blanque to Laruns. Both routes were the same distance, but the Marie-Blanque option was said to be very beautiful and the climb something special. At the supper the day before the question had come up who would go the default route and who would go via Marie-Blanque. I had found myself raise my hand in favour for the Marie-Blanque option.
Col de Marie-Blanque
Light rain stared to fall on the road from Oloron to Asasp and some of the guys put on their rain jackets. There were about ten of us who had chosen the Marie-Blanque option and Ray, one of the tour guides, accompanied us. Five kilometres after Asasp we turned left on to the small road up to the mountain pass.
In the beginning the road climbed gently in the woods and there was cattle moving around freely along the road. At one point there was a black bull standing just beside the road. I realised that my eyes were fixed at my front wheel and that I was hardly breathing when I passed it. Was there anyone wearing a red rain jacket …?
It is not uncommon that the Marie-Blanque features in the Tour de France and for the first time we saw the small boards each kilometre indicating the distance to the summit and the gradient for the next kilometre. I soon developed a love-hate relationship to these kilometre boards. On one hand it was useful to know how far we had to go and how steep it would be. On the other hand the mountain was just there in front of you, so why bother about the figures? Sometimes it is better not to know what lies ahead.
The last four boards showed 11, 9.5, 13 and 11 percent respectively. Slowly, very slowly, we wound our way up the mountain. At the top after nine kilometres, we asked ourselves whether we had burnt our best powder before the two main climbs of today, the Aubisque and the Tourmalet. We did not stay too long, for the rain started to fall, so we put on our rain jackets and started the descent.
Erol at the Marie-Blanque.
Peter and Bob were the first ones to leave, followed by "US Postal Peter". The rest of us followed after a while. The rain increased and US Postal Peter crashed just before a hairpin. When the rest of us got to him a French car driver had already stopped and offered to take Peter to the nearest town. Ray examined Peter and after his bruises were taken care of and the bike readjusted, we all continued downhill in the pouring rain.
We met the coach just before Laruns and topped up with food and water to continue towards the foot of the hill. There is a road junction after Laruns, where one way goes south to Spain and the other turns left towards Col d'Aubisque. There is a hotel at the junction and I realised that I had stayed at this hotel with my wife a couple of years earlier when we had crossed the Pyrenees by car towards northern Spain. At that time I had had no idea that we had been staying at the foot of the Aubisque.
Ian and Erol in front of the coach outside Laruns.
I rode the first kilometres together with Erol, Jim and Dave, a cyclist from Jersey. These guys would become my co-riders and close companions over the next couple of days.
The climb from Laruns up to Col D'Aubisque was roughly 15 kilometres and the road climbed from 520 to 1 709 metres above sea level. The gradient over the first half varied between six and eight percent, and increased to somewhere between eight and ten percent during the second half of the climb. In the beginning a light rain was falling but as the time went on it turned more and more heavy.
After a few kilometres we went through a small town and went around the main square. During the manoeuvre we got a short downhill slope in the middle of all the climbing. Jim and I rode slightly faster around the square and created a gap to Dave and Erol. Jim used extremely low gears and found a good rhythm. We passed several of those who had not chosen the Marie-Blanque option. A kilometre before the top Jim upped the tempo and I was not able to follow. Just then I passed Robert who struggled up the mountain. The last few hundred metres an icy wind swept over the summit and blew rain mixed with hail in our faces.
There was a café at the top, so we ordered soup, sandwiches and coffee to get warm again. Some of the guys sat down around the open fire. We got our cards stamped twice, once for Col d'Aubisque and once by a representative from the Cyclo Club Béarnais. During randonnees it is common to have a secret control and afterwards we realised that there are not many other options than the Aubisque to put such control during this raid.
Robert in the café at the Col d'Aubisqe.
After pausing for 50 minutes we left the cottage and found that the rain had stopped, clear skies could be seen between the clouds and the road surface was getting dry. The spirit started to come back.
Richard from Australia, who was living with his wife in Californa, Dave, Erol, Jim, and I set off. The road went along the mountainside with a valley to our left and more mountains beyond it. We paused along the road, took some pictures and enjoyed the ride.
Col du Soulor
After a while we reached the Col du Soulor. The two-kilometre climb at 6.5 % was no obstacle compared to climbing Aubisque in heavy rain. We took it easy up to the summit and continued downhill on the dry road with the sun now blazing hot from above. The road was fairly straight so the pace was between 50 and 60 km/h down to Argelès-Gazost. We made a brief pause to check the map and then continued the ride, now considerably slower as the road wound its way up along the Gorge de Luz. After five or six kilometres we saw the coach and stopped to refill our water bottles. The road went on upwards and the last kilometres to Luz-St Sauveur were pretty stiff. After passing the village we started the actual climb up towards the Col du Tourmalet.
Col du Tourmalet
I had heard lots of horror stories about the Tourmalet on this trip and thankfully most of these proved to be wrong. In hindsight the arithmetic of the climb was pretty simple, you had to climb from 750 up to 2 115 metres in 18 kilometres, i.e. 7.6 % average gradient. The climb had more or less a constant gradient, except for a steep part after Bergès, a flat part in the middle of the climb and the last kilometre, which was about 10 %. However, I did not know these facts as I started the climb.
Jim, Erol, Dave and I passed Luz-St Sauveur without stopping and started to climb the Tourmalet. The first kilometre boards showed 6 % but were soon replaced by 8 % ones. I found a rhythm that suited me well and took the lead. After six kilometres I threw a glance back for the first time during the climb. Only Jim was with me. We continued and after a while Jim increased the speed and created a gap I could not bridge.
Outside the village of Bergès we met a funeral procession. What seemed like all inhabitants of the village must have been there. I spent a few moments thinking about other aspects of life, but then the reality came back on me. After passing the nine-kilometre board the 8 % suite was interrupted by a 5 % climb. It almost felt like going downhill, but I did not increase the pace, but took the opportunity to eat a banana and a piece of an energy bar.
I saw Peter and Bob sitting in the sunshine and eating ice cream at a café seven kilometres from the top. Jim stopped to fill some water, but I did not dare to get off the bike, since I was not sure I would be able to get going again. The sun was still shining, but clouds were forming and it was getting remarkably colder.
As a result from all horror stories I had brought some energy gel for the last six kilometres. Although this part was not worse than any other part so far, I decided I could have it as well as carry it with me. 3.5 kilometres from the top I took the gel and one kilometre further up the road my body started to protest about having a full package of energy gel on an empty stomach. For a while I was not sure on which side of my body the gel would end up, but eventually everything turned out all right. To my delight the slope did not get any steeper until the very last kilometre. The board showed 10 %, but by then nothing really mattered; I was just going up that last bit to the top.
Thunderstorm on its way towards the Col du Tourmalet.
Ray was at the top with the car and told me to get going, because there was a thunderstorm coming our way. He took a picture of me at the Tourmalet sign and I went in to the café the get my card stamped. Right then Jim turned up and we looked around in the souvenir shop. Peter and Bob turned up, got their cards stamped and went on without loosing any time. We realised that we should get going and set off down the mountain.
After a couple of kilometres we passed the ski resort La Mongie and we were soon down in the woods again. We made it to the hotel before the rain came over us.
That night we were staying at the hotel Les Deux Cols in Ste Marie-de-Campan. When I entered the hotel I met Aussie Dave in the bar, already showered and in plain clothes. He had skipped the Marie-Blanque, hardly stopped at all during the day and arrived forty-five minutes ahead of us in the second wave. I took our bags to the room, got out of my bike clothes, had a shower and went down to the bar for a whisky. My legs did not feel good at all.
Cyclists dropped in one by one or in pairs all the time. Most were tired. Robert and Ian came after a while. I went out to join them in the street. Robert had climbed both the Aubisque and Tourmalet with a too heavy lowest gear. Ian had given his rain jacket to US Postal Peter after his crash on the Marie-Blanque and had cycled to the coach before Laruns in heavy rain with not much protection himself.
"I don't like this a bit" were Robert's first words as we met. "Let's talk about that later" I said, "drink this", and Robert drained a large whisky, still standing across his bike in the street outside the hotel. After Robert had taken a hot shower and changed clothes we went back to the bar. Not everyone had returned yet. The last guy came in around a quarter past eight and the dinner was served some 20 minutes later. I had no problems in falling asleep that night.
The day in figures
Distance: 147 kilometres
Climbing: 3 890 metres
Time on the bike: 7 hours and 36 minutes
Average speed: 19.3 km/h
Black graph: Altitude (m)
Blue graph: Speed (km/h)
Red graph: Heart rate (beats/min)