This week on our Guest Blog, Wayne Jeff takes us through his climb up Col du Tourmalet. Enjoy!
If Saint-Savin is a bit hard to locate on a map, the nearby centre of Argeles Gazost isn’t, and lies ideally as the starting point for the rides of Hautacam, Tourmalet, Solour/Aubisque, Spandelles/Aubisque, and Luz Ardiden. No car is needed for any of these and it’s only a short drive or 40km ride to Col D’Aspin, Marie-Blanque and a few others. It’s perfectly located.
The Pyrenees are also very quiet in terms of cars (because essentially the roads go nowhere) and I don’t think I came across a single truck. The climate is generally good, and the scenery is beautiful, which makes for some very nice cycling.
Tourmalet (Eastern Side)
The Tourmalet is the most climbed pass in the Tour and, straight up, it nearly killed me! I had originally intended to climb from the Western side, which is a short ride from Saint-Savin, however the road had been washed away a couple of days earlier by storms and the Eastern side was the only route open. I am not sure which route is harder. I will only say that I found it to be a complete cow! Harder in my mind than Ventoux from Bedoin (though the fact I’m fatter, older and was on a standard crank-set didn’t help).
I started from the town of Compan, where the road rises up at a gentle 2% for 6km or so. The traffic which was quite heavy heading out to Bagneres de Bigorre seemed to abate from Campan and was quite pleasant going. At Ste Marie de Compan the road splits, left to the Col D’Aspin, (an entirely more palatable road), with an innocuous veer-right that plonks you onto the lower slopes of the Tourmalet. The sun was out, anticipation high – happy days.
The first 4km or so sit on a modest grade of around 4% as the road passes through a few small hamlets and it is easy enough to stay on top of the gears. As I approached the town of Gripp there was the biggest doberman I’ve ever seen staring me down, but he let me pass and (under cover of that small distraction) the road turned upwards to 8.5%. Not having done any research, I didn’t realise that this is as flat it would get for the next 12km.
The lower slopes are forested and don’t afford much of a view beyond the occasional glimpse into the valley below. It was colder than I expected for late June and I could see the vapour from my breath, yet I was sweating like a dog only ten minutes after Gripp and had already peeled off my gloves and armies.
It was relentless. There are no rest points, no friendly switchbacks to take a quick breather, just an unrelenting 8.5 – 10% grade. At each kilometre there is sign in French that advises the average grade that you can look forward to for the next stretch. Somewhere around 2km from La Mongie the signs read a 10% and it all got a bit depressing.
The ski town of La Mongie is 4km from the summit and I had blown to the point of just doing what I could to keep the wheels rolling.
The km signs cease after La Mongie, and at points near the top it pinches at 15% and 17% and my front wheel popped up a couple of times. Thankfully these sections were quite short!
In the end the summit appears quite suddenly around a corner and over sharp little rise. And that’s it, no fan-fare, no km or so of nearly-there-celebration like Alpe D’Huez, just a sudden “there you go sunshine, you made it”.
I can’t say I really enjoyed it much. In terms of rewards, the views from the top are vast but they seem a bit unspectacular to my eye for the effort I had put in. The decent was damn cold and a bit slow and sketchy due to gravel. Maybe the only reward is the simple tick in the box, which in the case of the Tourmalet is plenty, and in itself a fair enough take-away.
Enjoyment Score 2/10. Difficulty 9 (9.9 if you are carrying a few kilos!)