In his final post for this series, Wayne Jeff takes us through his ride up the east side of Col D’Aubisque. Thanks Wayne for taking us on your adventure with you!
The Aubisque is the second most climbed peak in the Tour, and can be reached from any of three approaches. I rode the Eastern side from Argeles Gazost via the Col du Solour (right of picture) but am told that the Spandelles approach is also an extremely good ride and I regret not getting time to give it a crack – next time? The 12km approach from Saint Savin to Marsous is an open and easy ride of mostly 3-4% grade with a short stretch of 7%. It is probably the busiest section of road that I travelled on during my stay, but it still feels quite relaxed and doesn’t present any safety concerns.
The road splits in the village of Arrens, where the traffic abates almost completely and it is from here that the Solour section starts in earnest with the road kicking up to 8%. It’s a fairly consistent climb, only briefly abating until the summit which comes after a tough 9% final km.
Half way up, the road was barred by three damn big cows standing in the middle. They have big horns around here as well, and when you are riding on your lonesome you start to wonder whether they are always here (and hence just observing) or whether it’s going to turn all Pamplona! In the end thankfully they were docile enough and moved when they eventually felt like it.
The Solour climb is set in very lush high-country landscape, with a good cover of trees keeping it cool against sun which was getting quite hot on the east facing slope. While it’s a solid climb, it is neither too long nor too steep and in the end hitting the summit is a satisfying feeling and affords some spectacular views.
From the Solour summit the road to the Aubisque is cut into the side of a cliff, and as you look across it’s scary. Over the Solour summit the sun had disappeared on the western side, the wind was gusting, there was a misty drizzle and the temperature dropped by what felt like 10 degrees. The thought crossed my mind that I might get blown off the cliff going across, as the “guard rail” is only a series of stones about 30cm high – not much comfort in the event of a slide out or a puncture!
The stretch across to the Aubisque is a short downhill followed by a dodgy unlit tunnel of about 150m which keeps the elevated levels of adrenaline pumping, and essentially the practice is to simply pray that you don’t come across any cars, rocks or animals. One guy I met told me he was brought down in there by a sheep once.
The final climb was an easy enough 3km or so at around 7-8.5%. A short grind to the top and voila! Time for a quick picture, (though a horse nearly trampled my bike which would have taken some explaining), and then hop back on and get down the very fast flowing descent. More a great ride than a great climb, but it was fun and had a bit of everything.
Enjoyment Score 8/10, Difficulty 6.5/10
This week, Wayne takes us through his Luz Ardiden ride – a much more palatable ride than last week’s was!
Luz Ardiden is a cracker of a ride; nice villages, cool tree lined-lower sections and good quality pavement. The gradient is solid and testing with plenty of switchbacks, great views, no cars (not a single one), and holds a place in Tour history (including where Armstrong was brought down by the lady with the shopping bag). Not sure if there are any more ingredients to a great ride, but Luz Ardiden has all these in spades.
The climb starts in earnest in the village of Saint Saveur, an easy 17km from where we were staying in Saint Savin. The first 2km are a reasonably gentle introduction of 5-6% up through some small villages. After this, the villages disappear and the road enters the forest. It starts to get a bit tough at around 8% and up to 9.5%. About halfway up the road starts to form into switchbacks and then with around 5km to go it rises above the tree line and the views across the valleys and up the surrounding peaks are a brilliant distraction from the discomfort that has set in. For the last 5km it’s possible to see the finish which serves as welcome encouragement. The last 2km is a bit of a celebration, the grade slips to around 6.5-7.5%. With the finish line in sight we saw a marmot waddle his fat ass across the road and into a borough in the slope.
At the top is a ski village, which in summer is as deserted as a Scooby Doo Haunted town (explains why there wasn’t a single car on the ascent). All the rewards are there though. It’s a big enough climb to feel like an achievement, the views back down over the switchback road are spectacular, and the quality road surface ensures a fun and technical decent. All up, a great ride.
Enjoyment Score: 9.5/10. Difficulty 7.5
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!)
As an enthusiastic cyclist and friend of Velobrand, Wayne Jeff was happy to share his love of cycling and his recent adventures through the Pyrenees with our readers. His first post is all about the basics; why you should go, where he stayed and the great advantages of a cycling holiday. In the coming weeks we will hear of his 3 rides up Tourmelet, Luz Ardiden and Col d’Aubisque.
from La Lanterne Rouge Cycling Lodge in Saint-Savin, France
For anyone who loves cycling, and who has not yet spent a week or so riding in the Alpes or Pyrenees, then the fundamental message has to be just do it! The reasons to do it are plenty, but let me try and make it a little easier to pull the trigger.
1. It’s a world cheaper than you might expect.
Staying at a cycling lodge and cycling in the Pyrenees (or the Alps for that matter) generally makes for a relatively cheap European vacation. Accommodation is a fraction of the cost of the big cities, and at E145 per night for 2 adults and 1 child, inclusive of breakfast, dinner and wine, it makes for an extremely reasonable week. Additionally the activities you are likely to pursue won’t centre on mindless shopping and “stuff” that you might empty your pockets for on the Champs Elysee.
2. Bike hire businesses make logistics far simpler and cheaper than they once were.
Most of the lodges have either direct relationships with bike suppliers, or will refer you to a friendly, trusted local partner, and all have fully tooled-up bike rooms. I hired a 2013 carbon Scott with Ultegra from the Ardiden Velos for E35 per day, which they delivered to the lodge prior to my arrival and collected after I left.
3. Even if you travel alone (or with non-riding family), there will be plenty of people to ride with, if that’s your preference.
At La Lanterne Rouge, we had four South African natives who now reside in various parts of the globe who had come together for a reunion week of riding. There were also two Dutch guys, an American, and three Aussies – a United Nations mix that is also typical of the cycling lodges. There is always a big spread of fitness levels, and it is never difficult to find ride partners.
4. You’ll get a French/Italian experience in these villages that is far more authentic than anything you’ll get in the major cities.
For me this is the biggest reason to try a cycling lodge. Fortunately, the best cycling regions in Europe are nowhere near the big cities (which have largely been drained of any sense of their unique personality by globalisation, television and the internet). Thankfully many villages and towns remain true to their origins and customs. The shops are local and eclectic, artisans (of hilariously divergent quality) still ply their wares, and though locals are very friendly and helpful, you will still need to rely on your French lessons and hand signals to get you by.
Although you won’t find a McDonald’s or Starbucks within 40km of these villages, you will find a Boulangerie that is still turning out bread at 9:30am, a small supermarket that stocks dress-shirts, pate d’canard, and local wines all on adjacent shelves. And nobody in the shop will speak enough English to be able to work out that all you really want is a packet of razor blades. Awesome!
5. Your family will love it also
I have always wondered if it is selfish to include a cycling village into a family trip, but if I ask my Paris-loving wife, or Disneyland-loving 11 year old son where they have liked staying most on our trips, it is invariably the lodges. Here’s why:
* Dinner and breakfast are catered for. You get up in the morning, breakfast is served. You come home in the afternoon, dinner is ready. There’s no thinking, no deciding what to have, no dressing up, no shopping or walking to restaurants. It’s all taken care of.
* The lodge owners love having you. Nobody has built a financial empire operating a cycling lodge. Proprietors do it because they like people, they love their village, and they like cycling.
* There are different things to do. Those that you just don’t get to do enough of at home, and never in the big cities. Whether that’s climbing across the tree canopies at an Acro Parc, visiting the local animal sanctuary, or waking up to the sound of cow bells. It’s just different, and everyone loves a bit of different.
* You are thrown together with other people from all sorts of places, who often have nothing in common with you other than a love of cycling. There’s a sense of community in the lodges, especially when everyone completes the mandatory end of day post-mortem on their rides or other activities. Great chats, big stories, plenty of laughs.
* The food is always good, and real. After a couple of weeks of travel you long for food that is homely. Oilve from La Lanterne Rouge is brilliant and always ensured we were well fed.
La Lanterne Rouge cycling lodge is in the village of Saint-Savin in the French Pyrenees and I’d say that it’s the perfect base for anyone looking to undertake a week and two of cycling in the Pyrenees.
The lodge operates to a standard “bed n breakfast” format, plus an excellent three course dinner included in the cost. The same price also includes wine and beer, which come in handy after a solid day in the saddle. The rooms are basic, but all with ensuites, very well maintained and of a reasonably generous size. They are very well priced and perfectly comfortable. I can highly recommend it.