Just back from France, and a beautiful trip.
Some of you know I was going to attempt to climb the Tourmalet---one of the toughest climbs of the Tour de France. Something really crazy as those of you who ride with me know hills are not my friends.
This is something my cousin François, an avid cyclist, had been coaxing me into doing for years now. I never felt ready, always wanting to drop a few pounds… I would be in better condition next year. Well, after a few years of procrastinating, it was clear the pounds would not go away, and it would become harder and harder to make that climb instead of easier…
So this year was the year. I would climb the Tourmalet with François. When I told my friend Gary from Montréal (you may remember him, he rode with the BCC a few times) about this crazy idea, he absolutely needed to come along, so the three of us met in Barèges, in the Pyrénées.
Here’s how it went:
At 9:30, we left from Barèges. Yes, this is cheating quite a bit. It cuts the hike by almost half.
If you start down at Luz St-Sauveur, it is a 1404m climb over 19km to reach the top at 2115m.
From Barèges it is an 884m climb over 11km. Still, you have to deal with a pretty constant climb, no breaks, and a long stretch at 8% with the last km at 10.5% and a wall at 13% for the end.
Needless to say this is a hard climb. We have nothing even close to this here. The scenery is breathtaking as much as the actual grinding up the mountain.
By the time we reached the top, I was content with the effort and amount of pain inflicted. I took in the immensity of the scenery. Yes, we really came all the way up from down there!
I was pretty happy because I was in good shape, still within the realm of known pain for me.
That was about to change.
After a quick break and taking a few pictures, François directs us to the other side of the mountain. We are going down to Sainte Marie de Campan. 17 km. 1268m down. 7.3% average. In disbelief, I state the obvious: -‘But if we go down there, we will have to climb back up!’ François smiles and just says: ‘Yes’.
So here we go. I’m not super confident as I’m on a borrowed bike. My bike’s gearing is not suitable to this kind of terrain. You really need a compact or a triple for this. But the bike François lent me is a little long for me and the hoods lower than I would like. So I’m holding on for dear life, making sure I don’t miss a turn and beat everyone down to the next “lacet”. Hands and arms hurt by the time we reach the pretty little town at the bottom of the mountain. Who knew going down would also be hard?!?
Here we are. Still morning and we are in Sainte Marie de Campan. What could we do…?
Well, François has this great idea. Let’s go up to this other “col” or pass. It’s small, tiny pass---- a piece of cake. Col d’Aspin. Only 642m over 12km. 5% average. Nothing. Gary is all gung ho, and I’m not going to wait for them on a terrace with a beer, so I reluctantly follow them up the col d’Aspin.
By the time we reach the top, I’m pretty much out of juice. And I know we have to do the Tourmalet, all of it this time, if we want to get home to Barèges.
So we wrestle our bikes back from the cows that thought our seats tasted really good and salty. (There was one that insisted on licking François’ seat, and he had to take it by the horns quite literally to get it to stop!) And we are on our way back down. We stop in Payolle for lunch. A welcome break. Salad with ham and cheese.
And we are off again. Down to Sainte Marie de Campan. We fill our bottles at a beautiful fountain by the church. A group of maybe 20 young energetic Spaniards is there, I take a picture for them. That would be the last we would see from them for a while, as they quickly started their assent of the Tourmalet in a concert of chatter. We were on our way, at a more modest pace, for the last climb of the day. From that side, it’s a 1268 m climb over 17.2 km at an average 7.4% and parts at 10%. I knew it would be tough, but I really had no idea how tough it would be.
It’s the middle of the afternoon. The sun is strong. I’m drinking as much as possible, but still rationing my litre and a half of water, wanting to keep some for the last half of the climb.
I’m getting tired. Worried.
I’m thinking about those extra pounds I’m dragging. How I should have trained for this. François is taller than me and weighs 65kg. Me, 90!!! That’s why I don’t see him anymore…
By the time we get to La Mongie, I have nothing left. I have to have a break. Get my heartbeat to a manageable pace. We are 8km from the top. My companions are much faster than me and are nice enough to wait for me there. I fill my bottles, and we are off again.
This mountain is huge. Is there not another gear on this thing? No. That’s it. 6 km/h. I’m giving all I have. Can I do this? I’m not sure at all. I’m dreaming a taxi picks me up. I may not finish this thing. Every km is a lifetime. One last one. I pass a Spaniard. One that was at the fountain at the bottom. He is on the side of the road, in pain, with leg cramps. Doesn’t look like he’s going to make it. Bummer so close to the top. I don’t have cramps. I’m just out of steam, and tired. I’m still moving. Barely. But moving.
In the end, I join my friends at the top. I think they were not expecting me anymore by the time I got there. 2794 m of vertical climb in a day. Way more than I had prepared for (if only mentally). What a feeling. You are on top of the world. You have conquered the mountain and yourself. It is a great satisfaction, a feeling everyone should find one way or another.
The descent back to Barèges was quick and liberating. Parts of the road were straight enough to reach 70km/h without pedalling! You forget all the effort and enjoy the moment where you fly down to the valley in picture-perfect scenery. By 18:00 we were home. A good stretch and a shower. What a day. I’ll never forget all the ups and down. Physical and emotional. Thank you François, for this great opportunity. And Gary for your support. You guys pushed me past what I thought was my limit. I’m happy I did this with you.
Would I do it again? Well… I think I would need to lose a few pounds and get in better shape before I attempted something like this… maybe next year?