2010 Cima Coppi Tour – Day 13 – Laruns > Bagnères-de-Bigorre

That morning, while I was tying the laces of my cycling shoes, I was breathing a little more deeply, and slowly, than perhaps I normally do. The pauses, seemed to be that-much-more elastic. What were normally glances were approaching stares and colour seemed to be slipping away from saturation as my world became more black and white.

The roll out of Laruns, first south, and then bending east, on the Rue de Gerp toward the D918 was literally a slow and patient roll. The town seemed asleep and although my heart raced with a nervous energy, I wanted to take it all in. It was cloudy, thick, wet and humid with a slight chill in the air. What could potentially develop into a downpour, held, clinging onto the dark clouds which hugged the mountainside. It felt like I was going to another time in some far off foreign land. After all, this place, the road to the base of the 1709m Col D’Aubisque had enough history to be another place from unfamilier time. This route that would eventually wind over the three timeless giants – Aubisque, Soulor and Tourmalet – wasn’t just a series of roads. It was a immense stadium, and the rocky peaks and jagged faces of these mountains were it’s walls. This was home to some of the greatest epic battles in the history of cycling and the Tour de France. It was as if I were trespassing onto the pitch of the old Wembley stadium, or gently skating on dimly lit ice at the old Montreal forum, or leaving my unwanted footprints in the clay at the old Roland-Garros. It felt like I shouldn’t be, or couldn’t be there, that history wouldn’t allow it. But instead, I was. And the mountains looked down, nearly claustrophobic in their stature as if to mimic the crushing presence of the thousands of screaming fans that, when the time comes, adorn it’s slopes, presenting a path-too-narrow for the exhausted to cut through. And the road looked down, with an eerie ghostlike-presence of the riders of the past and present, their names stained into it’s dull grey surface, Hinault, Pantani, Merckx, Anquetil, Bahamontes, Coppi and Schleck. And every. last. tree. leaned over and looked down, the ones in behind still rustling in a wind-stirred chatter about the riders, the times, the records and the happenings, which made these slopes famous. And as I turned left, passing the sign marking the start of the first hors catégorie climb on the day, and the road began to ramp up, they all leaned in a little closer, and further down and whispered in unison: “Kid, you better be ready.”

Final Numbers for the day
Laruns > Bagnères-de-Bigorre: 120km (837km – 6 days)
3 Cols – 1709m, 16, 2210m (3310m gain)
Average speed: ??? not recorded
Time: ??? Aubisque – ~1:15, Tourmalet – ~1:35
Bike Map: 485650

For more description and photos

There are few things in cycling more beautiful than a mountain ascent, and few efforts in sport more masochistic. I still to this day cannot adequately articulate what makes it so incredible. What desire explains the repeated sacrifice that we are willing to make to ascend through the clouds on some remote mountain road with no more than a little gear and a massive effort. Whether you’re a fast climber or a slow climber, it hurts us all the same, we all love to dread it, and secretly want it. For it is sublime.

The early km’s up the Col D’Aubisque early in the morning, for me, was so ripe with the blind euphoria of a rabid TdF fan it could have been flat. So much for taking it all in. I was like the president of the glee club after my smile and teeth had been freshly prepped with botox and petroleum jelly. Are you kidding me? I’m climbing Aubisque and heading for Tourmalet in the same day? It was spectacular. My head was spinning faster than the pedals. The Col d’Aubisque is a truly beautiful climb. It is quite steady with 3 separate km-long sections peaking at 10% and it’s picturesque, varied and challenging. It even messes with you, as at the steepest section, a short ramp up to 13%, the sign on the right side of the road shows the icon of a car going downhill. Just in time for you to think “That’s odd, I don’t remember…oh…ouch.” the road informs you that sign isn’t completely to be trusted.

On this day, Aubisque was little more than a heavy cloud. As I climbed into Eaux-Bonnet I felt the ceiling was closing in and by the time I had worked my way through the second of three 10% sections into Gourrette I needed fog lights. What that means, most often, is that the top of Aubisque is the most welcome reward. One km out of Gourette and I was feeling the sun again as it streamed through the broken upper limits of cloud. The last three and a half km’s were in full sun, with a spectacular view of the low clouds snaking through the Pyrenean valley below. This sudden weather change motivated me to abandon the touring pace and the idea of saving energy for Col du Tourmalet, the day’s main course, and instead to hammer through the last 3.5km. I loved every painful minute of it. Aubisque. Check. Some of the best 1h 14m and 36 seconds of my life.

I spent a good amount of time at the top of the Aubisque and then headed for Soulor, which from this western approach is mostly downhill and then a short two km’s up again. Unfortunately for me, Solour is just short enough to have been swamped in cloud and freezing cold. I had a coffee, took some photos and took off. The decent was frigid and even with the wool jersey keeping me warm enough, my hands and legs were freezing. My water bottle cracked when I took a drink. The weather below wasn’t great either, so I hammered through Argelès-Gazost and onto Luz-Saint-Sauveur for lunch at the base of the Tourmalet.

Col du Tourmalet (2110m) is the highest paved pass in the French Pyrenées and it was first introduced in the Tour de France in 1910, marking the centenary edition of the Pyrenées in this years Tour. I went to Italy for the 100th Giro, why not to France for 100years of Pyrenées? The Col du Tourmalet is the climb, in my mind, which epitomizes the Tour de France and is far and away the most popular climb in the races history. In one hundred years (1910-2010), it has been used in nearly every Tour de France, including twice this year, appearing 74 times of a possible 89. The Tour, of course, was suspended for a total of 11 years during the two World Wars. 3 more times is has been partly used with ascents to the ski resort at La Mongie. The western ascent of the Tourmalet, considered to be the slightly more difficult of the two, is also more popular, and was used 15 of the first 18 times. By comparison Aubisque (1710m) has been crossed 42 times and featured 45, Alpe D’Huez (1860m) has been featured 26 times and Mont Ventoux (1912m) a mere 14.

That’s a lot of history and significance to digest along with a Chorizo panini. As I sat within view of the 0km marker eating my lunch I watched rider after rider somewhat hesitantly approach the start of the climb. Soon after them it was my turn. After the first km at 3.5% the Tourmalet is surprisingly consistent. Over the next 10km of the 19 total, it hardly changes at all holding strong at around 8% +/- about .5%. Then once you reach the ski resprt at km 10 it flattens for about 1km to around 5% only to resume is consistent 8% on the other side. Once you get in a rhythm the Tourmalet doesn’t shake you from it. That is, until the final km. This is where the hurt really digs in. After 18km of climbing at about 7.5% average, you tired and the first ramp into the final km is tough and it’s well above 11%. Then suddenly the road, although crooked sideways, flattens out quite significantly for about 300m. This is a short-lived welcome relief as the final 500m of the Tourmalet is very very steep, probably around 12-13% bringing the average back to the magic 10.2%. A very painful climb up the ‘king of the mountains’ – Col du Tourmalet – in 1h 34m 13s.

I relaxed at the top and re-fueled before descending in the bitter cold to Bagnères-de-Bigorre when with about 1km to go it started to rain. I was fortunate to escape the day without getting wet, but even more fortunate to return to the Pyrenees and tackle the Aubisque, Soulor and Tourmalet triple-bill. I spent the rest of the evening reflecting on the climb exploring the town and looking forward to a much needed and deserved flat-day to Saint-Girons.

Final Numbers for the day
Laruns > Bagnères-de-Bigorre: 120km (837km – 5 days)
3 Cols – 1709m, 16, 2210m (3310m gain)
Average speed: ??? not recorded
Time: ??? Aubisque – ~1:15, Tourmalet – ~1:35
Bike Map: 485650

Aubisque - Finally out of the clouds I could take some pics.
Under that is Laruns, above it is incredible
Finally, Aubisque...the first of three that day
The Tour de France has been here a few times.
Back down into the clouds to Soulor and Luz-Saint-Sauveur
The famous 'tunnel' to Soulor in the clouds.
Col du Soulor was swamped in, cold and wet.
No pics up Tourmalet, once you start, you don't wanna ease up. And when I'm tired, I can't count - #3.
Plus, it was cloudy going up, then clear, then clouds came in 5 minutes later. Very windy!
La Mongie ski resort on the cold and long descent down.

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