When I explain to people that I went to see Le Tour, everyone assumes that I have been in the Alps. Maybe because it’s closer to Poland, where I live. Maybe it’s because for the less than fanatical cycling fan, the Alps are where they imagine key Tour de France stages take place. This story, however, is not about the Alps.
Words and Images by Adam Baldy
Separating France and Spain; this mountain range isn’t the longest in Europe at just over 500km. Neither is it the highest with the peak of Aneto at 3,404m altitude. Yet somehow it became a crucial part of two Grand Tours: La Vuelta and Le Tour.
What exactly is it about these mountains that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, despite the obvious reasons such as a good geographical location as well as holding multiple stages of one of the biggest sporting events of the year? It was time for my friends and I to finally find out.
After travelling around 2,500km for what felt like an eternity (mostly due to being limited to 80km/h with a rather large bike trailer behind us), we finally reached our destination; the French city of Lourdes.
Known mostly as a catholic pilgrimage site visited by millions of people each year, the whole city lives and breaths its religious rhythm. Nothing during our stay there gave any hint of Lourdes being the city of Depárt for the 2018 Tour’s Queen Stage. We needed to search for its cycling Vibes elsewhere, and we knew exactly where – high in the mountains. On the passes with familiar and somehow mythical names like Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Abissque or Col du Soulour.
It was time for what I came here for; ride bikes with friends, drink enormous amounts of coffee, laugh and shoot some photos.
Col du Soulour + Col d’Aubisque
We started just after 9am with the intention of doing a relatively flat warm up loop with just a single climb that the pro’s would tackle as part of their assent of the Col d’Abisque; part of Lourdes – Laruns stage. Our goal was the Col du Soleur.
Both the French and the Italians (I can imagine them loudly arguing who was first) have this wonderful idea on how to utilise old, unused railway lines. They turn them into beautiful cycling lanes that cover hundreds of kilometres through valleys, surrounded by high peaks.
It was just that very kind of cycle lane that brought us to the base of the climb in Argelès-Gazost. After the first ten kilometres I was feeling the full force of the heat. The sky didn’t have a single cloud and there was no forest in which to retreat to the shade. The scenery was magical.
Being my first time in the Pyrenees, I was amazed by how different they are in comparison to the mountains I usually ride. Not as sharp and rocky as the Alps, not as rugged and bare as the Tatras. Instead the Pyrenees are covered with an almost CGI-like blanket of grass, on which various animals graze calmly; at the top of the climb we were greeted by a procession of horses.
This is where we sat and had our first mountain top coffee. We gazed out at the spectacle of parked camper vans ready to see their favourite racers fly by, yet it was still four days away! Taking the all around excitement, like children with new toys, we decided to extend our ride and continue to the Col d’Aubisque. Our warm-up ride would end up being 120km with over 2,000m assent. But every single km was worth it. The remaining road up the Col d’Aubisque especially cannot be missed with its unimaginable views.
Col du Tourmalet
The climb that is a synonym for ‘Le Tour in Pyrenees’ – the Col du Tourmalet. With 2,115m of altitude it’s the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Every single word of that last sentence is important; there are higher roads, but they are not passes. There are higher passes, but they are not paved. There are higher mountain passes in the Pyrenees, but they are not French. The Tourmalet is one of the most famous and one of the Tour’s most prominent climbs.
The top of the ascent is around 50km from Lourdes. The first 15km features a steady uphill at around 2%, but then after that it starts to bite. From Sainte-Marie-de-Campan the climb essentially begins. Eighteen kilometres with 1,250m vertical elevation and an average of 7% gradient.
It’s the kind of a climb that never eases. It’s constant the entire way up. Some people like it, some do not. I was feeling great, my friend Jan certainly wasn’t. It could have been the characteristics of the climb that did not suit him, as he said, or it might just have been that he needed to train more 😉
The way up is certainly beautiful. Not in the same way as the Aubisque, but charming nonetheless. Its real magic is revealed at the end, when the landscape opens up and you can admire the sharp and rocky peaks of the surrounding mountains.
A Taste of Racing at Luz Ardiden + Hautacam
At that point our group has shrunk with most deciding to take a ‘rest day’. Along with my friend Maciej we had an ambitious plan to climb both Luz Ardiden and Hautacam; neither of which featured in this year’s race, but both are challenging and for sure, beautiful.
The hardest part about our plan was the weather. Temperatures as high as 40°C; we felt every single degree of it. Even the white Podia jersey seemed to stop helping. The one advantage to this scorching temperatures; nobody else was stupid enough to attempt the Luz Ardiden climb, meaning the road was practically ours.
The prize at the top; breath taking views and a chilly breeze to cool us down.
Two stages of Le Tour de France + Col du Portet + Lourdes + Laruns
As much as we all love riding up mountains, we were all waiting for the next two days. Our chance to see the world’s best cyclists do what they do best.
Not only are you a part of a huge crowd where everyone cheers regardless of their team or nationality (football fans, take note!). But you are also surrounded by majestic mountains. What is more; you can ride your bike up there, which of course we did!
I ascended the Col du Portet with a portable speaker in my Podia musette bag. We climbed initially to rather energetic techno, followed by a collection of French classics (call it an eclectic taste). This was one occasion when cycling with loud music seemed appropriate; the crowd responded with high fives as we passed.
We made it to a suitable spot to wait for the magic to happen. At first, the stage in front of us was empty. Stories float around about what was happening further down the mountain; someone attacked, someone followed.
The tension grew. The caravan passed us. People were fighting over mayonnaise samples and other detritus expelled from the promotional vans. The buzz of helicopters gave us the sense that the race is getting closer. The sound rose with every minute. As you looked down the mountain you saw a small dot. Lone cyclists. The crowd tightens and then relaxes as they pass through.
As they got closer their kit colours became distinguishable, you recognise some of them.
Rafał Majka following Quintana. My heartbeat instantly rose and I began to cheer to will him on.
The GC group flew past. Riders I am used to seeing on Eurosport were just meters in front of me. Then the rest came. Fatigued domestiques, riding their ‘easy pace’.
Kwiato came by, surprised to hear Polish fans so far away from home. Then Marczyński, a pro from my hometown Kraków and then Sagan, but he seemed worse for wear. He had crashed earlier in the day.
As quick as they came, they were gone and out of sight.
The next day happend even quicker. We went to see the depart in Lourdes, and then rode to the finish in Laruns. We are able to ride there quicker than the pro’s (with the help of a more direct route) with enough time to see them sprint past us at 70km/h; a blur of light and colour.
… and that was it. Le Tour de France has left the Pyrenees. We saw its brief moments. I hear some asking ‘was it worth it’? Travelling all that way for some flashes of the race?
Was it worth it?
At the risk of sounding over-romantic; watching Le Tour is something special. It is the whole experience, the process to get to that point, the anticipation. The whole day of increasing excitement and curiosity, followed by an explosion, a grand finale of delight. I begin to understand these older people in their campers; waiting for days on the side of the road.
One day I will be one of them. Hopefully, with a bike on the rack.
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