What’s it like to climb the Tourmalet?
This year we have been lucky enough to get out of the duckhouse a fair amount. Our second trip to the mountains saw us support a ride that crossed the Pyrenees from Perpignan to San Sebastian via some spectacular scenery and some excellent climbing. The two highlights being the Col De Porte, a regular feature in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the iconic Col Du Tourmalet. The highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and the most regularly used climb in the Tour De France; a road steeped in cycling history. So having done Alp De Huez earlier this summer, we again answer the question, as if you don’t know the answer, what is it like to climb the Col Du Tourmalet?!
The lower slopes of the climb, looks tepid from here...
Clearly not that easy. We ascended from in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, one of the small villages on the D935 to Bagneres-de-Bigorre south to the higher Pyrenees. A small village in the foothills of the mountains where a statue of Eugene Christophe stands to commemorate his incident in the 1913 Tour De France when he stopped in the village to have his forks welded back together and was subsequently disqualified from a winning position in the race because in those days riders were not allowed to be supported! To climb this mighty Col and think of the people climbing it over 100 years ago on unpaved roads is humbling. Di2 mechs and carbon wheels suddenly seem laughable.
Looking back down the valley to where you have come from!
The lower slopes of the Tourmalet traverse along woodland and grazing meadows and pick up a long ascent through the trees before the switchbacks begin. The ascent continues and the vista becomes spectacular back down the valley as you near the kilometres and the galleries before the ski station at La Mongie where the climb becomes 10% and 12% the toughest of the climb.
Exiting the ski station rock screes replace woodland and grass and you know you are high. The day we rode it was cold too, 3 degree on the top, so the temperature change was notable. Not devastating when actually going up but certainly something to note! The snowline seemed low that day and indeed upon summiting there was the snow line was no more than 30 feet from us, a dusting confirming that winter was beginning to show its face.
The mountain begin to get barren after the ski station but it has already shown its teeth.
As you grind your way up the end of the climb comes into view. A small cutting in the distance, the road graffiti becomes more and more prominent and it is clear that you are riding in the shadows of legends. What a wonder of cycling, sharing the same road as the giants of the sport. The chances of me playing football badly at Wembley are non-existent, similarly the RFU won’t let me get a team together to play at Twickenham but here we are grinding up a stretch of road where the history of the sport has literally been written.
The final hairpins to the finish. Steep kicks to the teeth.
The last three hairpins are very steep, especially the inside line but you are soon in sight of the very top and the line that donates the finish of this epic climb. A stop at the café at the top remind you again of the history of the Col. Pictures of riders like Coppi and Armstrong adorn the walls as do bikes from over a hundred years ago that have reached this barren pass. The temperature outside reminds you of the exposure and isolation of the place. It is now only the descent left. Fortunately without wooden wheels, on good quality tarmac, reliable brakes and at least some protection from the elements and otherwise (your scribe came down in a jersey, gilet, long sleeve top, waterproof and a sweatshirt!) It was chilly!!
Just a reminder of where you are, in case you didn't know!
What was it like to climb the Tourmalet. Pretty incredible.
The route we took is available here: https://www.strava.com/routes/6583960
Average grade: 7.4 %
Length: 17.2 km
Height start: 847 m
Height top: 2115 m
Ascent: 1268 m
Maximum: 10 %
Our point to point between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was with Just Pedal UK, organisers of cycling events and holidays (www.just-pedal.com), supporting Bridge2aid, a charity supporting emergency dentistry in East Africa (www.bridge2aid.org)