Sometimes the Gods smile on you and everything comes out perfect. Here the climb up the east side of the Col d'Aspin on a day that couldn't be better. Wow!
Stage 9 of the Pyrenees 1000 mile challenge is a classic hardcore day of climbing over 3 legendary mountain tops. The course is situated in the center of the Pyrenees mountain range, and it takes us over 3 famous climbs: the Col d'Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, and the Col du Gavarnie. At this point in the tour, halfway across the high mountains, we will have ridden a lot of majestic and fierce climbs on some of the best cycling roads in the world. And what a great feeling at the end of each day to have done all those cols. Now with four more stages left we know what to expect, and we can understand the need for all the training before the trip, as this tour is not for the casual rider. Every day has challenged us and that is what we expected of the Pyrenees. Stage 9 does not disappoint.
The Col d'Aspin is the first challenge of the day, followed by the Col du Tourmalet, and lastly the Col du Gavarnie, an out and back climb that is preceded by a 12 mile run up a deceptively difficult but gorgeous valley road. The saving grace once you've reached the summit of the Gavarnie is the 27 miles descending to finish the day(spoiler alert, there is a 1.5 mile climb at the very end to the hotel).
This is one of those days where you are either climbing or descending, not much else in between. It's is also a day to manage your energy output and intake correctly, otherwise there's a good chance you'll burn yourself out before you hit the final 10 km of the Gavarnie, which is a ruthless climb. I've ridden this stage enough times to know the feeling of dread at the base of the Gavarnie (and I am not talking about the 12 mile run up the valley after the tourmalet). My advice just go, don't hesitate and debate in your mind whether you have anything left, just go. You'll be proud of yourself once you get to the top. Also, the bottom half of the descent off the Col d'Aspin to the base of the Tourmalet can be fast and furious but it requires a lot of pedaling to keep your top speed up because it is a combination of a series of drops with sections that almost level out. In other words it's the type of descending that requires effort and attitude as though you are racing. At least I like to ride it that way.
As you can see this route covers a much smaller range in the high mountains than any of the first 4 stages in the foothills that allow us to get from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in days. Though stage 9 is a long stage at 92 miles, it remains clustered in a small geographical space.
The view of the Tourmalet mountain top from the top of the Col d'Aspin, looking west.
At the top of the Col d'Aspin you can see the Tourmalet, it's the high peak off in the distance. The mountain pass everyone rides is actually just to the left of the granite peak, so to access the peak there is a fireroad. Typically most people think of the Col du Tourmalet as the highest pass in the Pyrenees, but it isn't. The Tourmalet peak may be the highest point, but the pass is not. In fact the top of the Gavarnie is higher than the Tourmalet pass (see stage profile image above). Maybe this is a trivial detail, especially considering that all the passes on this day are magnificent, so who cares, have fun, ride your bike and find out what it is like to climb these stellar peaks. Enjoy the scenery, such as the livestock animals that are free to graze all about the upper mountains, and do your best to keep up with or put the hammer down on your cycling buddies.
This is a photo of the Col du Tourmalet about 2 miles from the summit. The ski town of La Mongie is just below. It doesn't show in the image, but the grade varies between 8,9, and 10 percent.
The Col du Tourmalet is undoubtedly the most sought after badge of all the passes in the Pyrenees. It’s first inclusion in the Tour de France dates back to 1910, with a total of 82 appearances since then. It rightly deserves the accolades and honours bestowed upon it, but I will let you in on a secret, there are many others like it, that is the suffering it dishes out. When you summit this pass you will feel exhilarated and proud, you will stand under the famous cyclist statue that sits above the "Col du Tourmalet" sign and have your picture taken, but you will also know that you have already suffered as hard on this tour and that there is still more suffering to come.
Here is the view from the top of the Tourmalet looking down the west side. Ha! You can't even see the bottom because it's 12 miles down the road, but that means 12 miles of an excellent descent. Unlike the Col d'Aspin descent that is interrupted by a flat stretch in the middle, this descent is about controlling speed the whole way down. No need to pedal.
Oddly enough when we reach the summit of the Tourmalet we've only covered 33 of the total 92 miles for the day. It would seem that at this point we should be done with over 50% of the stage, but the halfway point is at the bottom of the Tourmalet descent when we turn left to make our way up the next valley to the Gavarnie. This is a big day and worth every once of effort. Cycling at its best, especially when the weather is clear and the views can be enjoyed.
I have to laugh, Richard here is at the beginning of the Gavarnie climb, maybe a mile and a half into it, and his view of what's to come is blocked by a massive granite wall. In other words he can't see what's coming. As he rounds each turn he'll expect to maybe see the end, that's the way it was for me my first time up. But it just keeps going without mercy. The first time I took the group up this way I described the climb as a "quick out and back." I got a lot of friendly abuse at dinner that night for misrepresenting the truth, but hey I didn't know. I do now! Let's get ready to rumble!!
Here is the view of the twisting turning road up to the Gavarnie peak. It's basically 9,10,11 percent grade the entire 10 km. It's a wicked climb, I've only ridden it twice, and I can't say if it's better knowing what to expect or not knowing. Just put your head down and pedal, and probably a good idea to drink a Red Bull at lunch before the climb.
Le Cirque du Gavarnie is another of the many wonders in the Pyrenees, a massive concave shaped granite wall carved out by an ancient glacier. The area is a protected park and also a World Heritage Classified site. The Tour de France wanted to include it in the race one year back in the 80s, but the potential ecological damage from the masses of spectators prevented it from being realized. But that does not stop my group, as Stage 9 takes us up to the top of the Cirque du Gavarnie, the third and last climb of the day after the Col d'Aspin and the Tourmalet. On the other side of the Gavarnie is Spain.
Ah the Gavarnie, it just keeps going and going. I advise everyone that comes on this trip to have a compact crank set up with a rear cassette that has at least a 27 or 28 gear. On this climb, whatever you have, I can guarantee you'll wish you had more. The top of this climb represents 12,000 feet for the day. Wow! The other key to success on this day and this tour is to eat and drink a lot throughout the rides. Those that don't pay the price.
And this my friends is the destination at the end of the day, the village of Saint Sauvin near Lourdes. Like usual a hefty dinner at the hotel to help recover for another gnarly day to follow. See you in the Pyrenees!
Trip dates: Aug 27th to Sept 11. Cost $4200. More details here.