Cycling in the Pyrenees

On July 14, 2015 by Peter

The possibility of cycling in the Pyrenees had been on my mind since we first started planning this trip (a mere two weeks before we departed, but that’s another story). Once we had picked our overnight stops and found suitable lodging, I turned my attention to finding bikes for us to rent. Since the Tour de France was passing through the areas where we would be staying, it seemed as if every road bike within a 200km radius had been rented months in advance. I sent emails or called every shop I could find, and they all said they had nothing available. Finally, perhaps taking pity on me, one of them referred me to a shop in Lourdes called Cycles Arbes, a shop run by a former Tour de France rider and teammate of French cycling legend Bernard Hinault. This was a tremendous stroke of good luck, because his nephew, Yann, might be one of the nicest guys in the area. He found two bikes for us and we were in business.

We drove the two hours from St. Etienne de Baigorry on Monday morning and picked up our new wheels. Allison got a brand new entry-level Felt road bike. I got an old Giant Defy, but it had wheels, some gears, and seemed to work (mostly). We loaded them in our dreadful Peugeot 2008, which somewhat made up for its appalling gearbox and suspension by swallowing both bikes without taking the wheels off, and headed off in search of scenic rides.

Since Allison hadn’t been on a road bike in a few years, we decided to start with the convenient and by all accounts lovely Col d’Ispeguy, which rose directly behind our lodging, the Hotel Arce. As with pretty much every climb in France, there is a detailed sign indicating the starting point and signs every kilometer updating you on your progress until you reach the summit. Perhaps it was the gorgeous late afternoon sunlight bathing the hillsides, or the mostly empty road, or the fact that we rounded one bend and were looking down onto a pair of falcons swooping in the valley next to us, or the stunning views of Iparla Ridge across the way, or all of these things, but the relatively short 8k ride up the Col d’Ispeguy ranks among my favorite rides of all time.

View to Iparla Ridge from Col d'Ispeguy

View to Iparla Ridge from Col d’Ispeguy

 

Summit of Col d'Ispeguy

Summit of Col d’Ispeguy

Coming home to a lovely dinner on the terrace at the Hotel Arce, next to the mountain river and under some spectacular trees, was a nice reward for our day’s driving and pedaling exertions. We were pretty pleased:

Hotel Arce Terrace

Hotel Arce Terrace

After dinner, I wandered around St. Etienne de Baigorry a bit, mostly to get a better look at the town church:

Church in St. Etienne de Baigorry

Church in St. Etienne de Baigorry

To top off an excellent day, there were fireworks in town. From our vantage point at Hotel Arce, they were exploding behind the old cathedral and beautiful bridge.

The next day, suitably warmed up (or perhaps not) from our ride up Col d’Ispeguy, we loaded the Peugeot and drove to Bareges, our next stop, and plotted our ride up the famous and scenic West side of the Col du Tourmalet. Our apartment Bareges was about halfway up the climb, so I decided to ride back down to the official start point in Luz-St.-Sauveur and then try to catch up to Allison or meet her at the summit. The ride down from Bareges to Luz-St.-Sauveur was a blast, even with dodgy brakes, but I managed to ride too far down, past the official starting point. Kicking myself, I finally turned around and began the longer-than-planned ascent of the Col du Tourmalet. At which point I realized that I did not have the ideal, or anywhere close to ideal, gears for the job at hand. I had planned to try to stay in heart rate Zone 2 — my all day, I could do this forever level of effort — for the part of the climb up to Bareges, and then maybe push a little harder for the second half of the climb to try to catch Allison. With the gears on my rental bike and the high heat, I could not hold anything close to the 100rpm I normally spin at, and as a result my heart rate shot up to the 170s almost immediately: Zone 4, my Olympic distance triathlon race level of effort. That was a little concerning since I had been injured for the past 6 weeks and hadn’t been training, but I had little choice but to press on. I was certainly not going to walk the nearly 20k and 4000+ ft of elevation to the summit, so on I went.

The first part of the climb up to Bareges felt endless because you can’t see the summit and you don’t have a good sense, despite the helpful signs every kilometer, of what lies ahead. I rallied a bit in Bareges before the grade kicked up again leaving town. Once I made it to the base of the ski area, I knew I would be fine because I could see the finish line — albeit way, way up the mountain and the road became more entertaining as it snaked its way around switchbacks with wonderful views back down the valley. I made it to the top, met Allison, and we bombed back down to Bareges, pausing to take a few photos along the way. There were some folks flying down the hill at 40+mph. This is one of the gentler gradients near the base of the ski area above Bareges:

Switchback on Col du Tourmalet

Switchback on Col du Tourmalet

Details of the ride here on Strava.

After exerting myself far more than anticipated, dinner was a priority. The options in Bareges are limited, but Chez Louisette hit the spot. Once we found it. Google Maps decided to route us up what can be best described as a sheep path, which the Peugeot was decidedly incapable of tackling. Actually, a good rider on a dirt bike would have had a hard time with that “road.” After a 17 point u-turn (to avoid driving the Peugeot off a cliff, even if that may have been what it deserved), we ignored Google Maps and found a real road that led us to the base of some ski lifts and Chez Louisette. The hearty cabbage, ham, and potato soup was a good start to replenishing our energy stores, and Allison’s steak tasted truly fresh. Perhaps the cow met its end that very day, which would help explain the startling number of flies buzzing around the vicinity of the restaurant.

After dinner, we drove up the road we had ridden earlier and over the top to check out the spectator support for the following day’s Tour de France stage. This iPhone panorama gives you a sense of the upper third of the climb:

Upper third of the Col du Tourmalet

Upper third of the Col du Tourmalet

Note the people camped out to watch the Tour de France riders fly down the descent the following day. At one point, I paused to take a publicity photo for Peugeot’s marketing people. I’m pretty sure they will agree with me that the Peugeot 2008 looks best from a substantial distance, and in lighting conditions where you can barely see it:

Peugeot 2008 publicity shot on Col du Tourmalet

Peugeot 2008 publicity shot on Col du Tourmalet

On the drive up, we had to pick our way through various herds of sheep and goats, and Allison got this hilarious photo:

Man and goat on the Col du Tourmalet

Man and goat on the Col du Tourmalet

There were camper vans and RVs parked bumper-to-bumper pretty much the whole way from La Mongie to the summit, and people were out painting encouragement and other funny things on the road:

Col du Tourmalet night before the Tour de France

Col du Tourmalet night before the Tour de France

Riders ascending from the East, as the Tour de France would do the next day, can look forward to seeing the “Cul (butt) de Tourmalet” as they approach the summit. The iconic statue looks pretty cool from most angles, even through the dirty windshield of a Peugeot 2008 in low light captured with an iPhone:

Cul de Tourmalet

Cul de Tourmalet

With that, we picked our way down through the roaming animals back to Bareges and the town’s Bastille Day party, complete with the worst DJ in history and fireworks launched 100 yards from where we were sitting. After the pretty solid light show, we crashed hard after a great day of cycling in the Pyrenees.

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