The Tourmalet Epic
The day started off poorly, one it was raining and two my cleats decided to crack it and would not let me clip in. Our departure was delayed as I conducted some roadside surgery to fix the issue while the others stood out of the rain.
We had a horrible headwind for the 24km to St Marie, a little village at the base of the climb. Mike, P and I groveled our way there. Our legs were still feeling smashed. Not surprisingly really, we have covered quite a few kilometers over the last few days.
So the Tourmalet. Many say that this is the hardest climb, as it is the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees at 2115m. You can tackle this beast from two sides – one starting from St Marie and the other from Luz-Saint-Sauveur.
They both dish out their fair share pain.
We started our ascent from the St Marie side first.
I was going to give this side a crack and then ride easy with P on the other side. For me, similar to my attempt at Luz Ardiden a few days earlier, I’d say rather than the climb itself – that it was the the conditions broke me the most.
I started off hard – we as hard as I could with smashed legs, with the knowledge that the first 4km were relatively “easy” at an average gradient of about 4%.
Once this easy part was over, the real climbing started. I found it hard to sit in a comfortable rhythm, there was a howling headwind and the rain was not letting up. I was groveling, wondering if i’d actually make it up to the top. I just kept ticking along, forever blinking to get the salty water out of my eyes.
As I climbed higher, it got colder and the rain turned to a sleety hail. I was approaching La Mongie, a ski village about 4km from the summit. My mind was playing games with me, I considered turning around, I was cold, but I pushed on and tried to keep a solid tempo….well that was until I cracked and decided it was time to put my arm warmers on, pulled them out of my pocket only to realise they were inside out. Bugger. I tried a couple of attempts at turning them inside out whilst still keeping tempo but failed. The rain and wind was so strong that I was struggling to take one hand off the handlebars.
I decided that I had to stop.
This was going to ruin my Strava QOM attempt. But, the last thing I wanted was hypothermia! A minute later, I’d turned them inside out, awkwardly heaved them up my wet arms and was rolling again. Wow. In that time my legs has seized up and were screaming.
Only 4km to go. Thanks god.
Visibility was not that great, I was in the hurt box. That was until a car came past me full of a family. They were supporting their dad who I had passed half way up the climb. They drove along side me yelling “allez allez” as encouragement. I was getting my second (head) wind. I had 1 km to go, they speed off, kicking their son out of the car and the boy proceeded to run along side me until I crossed the line! So cute! He was so happy for me to get over the line. One of the great things you see over here is that kids are so into cycling. On every climb you see boys and girls, 8 years old on massive bikes, climbing faster than you. Its great to see.
Anyway. I reached the summit broken and cold. Questioning whether we would actually descend and climb the opposite side, especially in those conditions. I didn’t enjoy the climb at all. Our support vehicle was at the top with our warm clothes and food. I was the first up, so had first pick of the delicious hot chocolate and banana bread that our hosts had prepared for us.
20 mins later P, Mike and I were all huddled in the car, trying to decide if we would risk the weather and go down, then back up the other side. We would make the decision once we descended, and reached the town of Luz.
We were ready to go and bumped into the one and only Jenny Macca! Such a small world!
The decent of the Luz side was breathtaking. The weather on this side was the complete opposite of the St Marie side. The sun was out and there was a crisp, blue sky. I would say that this descent rivals Col du Aubisque in terms of beauty. Because of the change in conditions, the decision was made that we would go back up. This side was slightly longer that the first, and with 100m more of elevation gain. We were still feeling smashed, so we rode together, taking it easy, taking photos and just taking it in.
I’d highly recommend climbing this side of the Tourmalet over the St Marie side. Although less popular, it is definitely the most beautiful.
We got to the top, navigating rogue sheep along the way, and descended back into the cloud on the St Marie side, starting our journey home. 24km home, with a downhill tail wind. Thank god! After 100km and two sides of the Tourmalet, I was not sure if i’d actually make it home.
We stopped off in a little town called Bangeres where we bought some cheese, ham and a baguette and proceeded to demolish our little picnic whilst sitting on a pot plant out the front of the Patisserie! That baguette was the best thing we’ve eaten all week!
Well that was the best way to end an epic week here in the Pyrenees. 123km, 3400m elevation, 6 hours in the saddle. Off to Nice next for some sun, and then to Bormio in Italy for some more climbing action.