My wife and I spent a majority of August on our honeymoon in Europe. Most of it was spent eating our way through Spain, but we did plan some cycling in the French Pyrenees. A slightly masochistic idea, tackling world class mountains as seen in the mountain stages of the Tour de France. The Col du Tourmalet, poorly translates to “Bad Detour” or more correctly “Distance Mountain”. I believe the former sounds more fun, so I am going to stick with Bad Detour, which happens to be the highest paved mountain pass in the Pyrenees and Stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. While we DID NOT ride the nearly 100 kilometers the Pros do prior to our ascent, we earned back the lions share of calories consumed south of the Pyrenees.
Day 1: Sunday, August 19
Arrive in Luz Saint Sauveur around 2 PM, and drop bags at the hotel, then head directly to the bike shop to pick up two beautiful carbon road bikes. The valley beyond the shop, in the direction of the Col du Tourmalet, has an ominous tone and rainy forecast.
The gentleman who readies our bikes recommends a ride south towards Gedre and Gavarnie, offering dryer and less challenging conditions to spin out the legs. Having spent the last seven days feasting on Spanish tapas, wine and beer, with varied amounts of sleep, I am hesitant to push the envelope with a late start up what would likely be the most challenging climb of my life. With waning daylight, a threat of cold rain and unknown energy levels, we opt for the easier ride towards Gedre.
It turns out to be the right choice. The goal is to ride for an hour out or as far as we can get until we hit the forecasted rain, whichever comes first. The ride is a slight up hill to Gedre. Clearer skies and glimpses of majestic mountains invigorates the spirits and Adair and I wear massive smiles on our faces. On the far side of town we find a short, but challenging climb with some nice “S” turns that mimic one of the many of the Tourmalet. Forty five minutes in, we find ourselves gaining elevation, with mountain clouds looming closer overhead. We get through a spectacularly windy road and decide to turn around.
The return trip is quick, having ascended a thousand feet or so, it is a short downhill spin home. It feels great to get back on a bike, expand the lungs and pedal with fresh legs with nearly ten days off bike. Unfortunately my anxiety grows as we get into the hotel. I check the weather app to see what our remaining time has to offer. Monday wet and Tuesday wetter.
Will we even be able to get the desired mountain climb in? Will our limited gear be able to get us through less than ideal conditions? Packing two weeks prior placed constraints on what we anticipated needing and what reality would bring us. Weather in the mountains is fickle at best and finding room for cycling apparel, to account for every scenario, was not an option with limited luggage space.
Day 2: Monday, August 20
We wake up early anticipating an early ride to beat the expected rain. Peering into the valley of the Bad Detour, we find angrier looking clouds than the previous day. The bike shop guy gave us a tip and said to look through the valleys and ride towards what looks most promising. It appears that we will be doing a similar ride as yesterday through Gedre with an option to go towards other potential climbs.
Today’s ride is a refresher of the previous ride, but with limited views. Low hanging clouds and fog block the majesty of the Pyrenees. Fortunately the mental images remain and we enjoy the ride nonetheless, attacking climbs more aggressively than the day before. We get to a literal fork in the road, where a small patch of what appears to be sun and blue skies in the direction of the uncharted territory. The decision was easy and we pedal hard up an extended climb.
Without GPS or local knowledge of the area, we see where this route takes us. The climb is challenging, the air becomes more raw as we start to access the lower limit of fog and the hanging clouds in our search for the sun. At a certain point the mist becomes heavy, our clothes are more damp and visibility dissipates. We must turn around. Adair and I are not necessarily done riding for the day and so we decide to go back towards Gavarnie as long as we don’t hit clouds or significant rain.
I am very happy to go back through the windy road from yesterday. The ride to Gavarnie is only a few more miles then our previous turnaround point. The town is nice, small even compared to Luz Saint Sauveur, with many people in hiking gear. We cycle to the end of town, deciding on which cafe to warm ourselves with coffee. Having been going nearly exclusively uphill all morning, we are damp from sweat and fog. It feels great to stop, but the moisture in the air and raw temperatures in the 50s leave is freezing. We order the biggest coffees available and hide from the open front door to the cafe. The hot drink helps and a chance to rest the legs is welcome.
We turn around and make quick work to get back to our hotel, finding the slight downhill just as pleasant as the day before. We stop at a remote private farmer’s market and peruse her wares. In-house cheeses and meats look tempting and the various cool wood crafts and leather goods look awfully warm. Without space to carry anything, we opt to move on and get into a warm shower.
After the shower we must decide on a plan to feed ourselves. Do we go to a restaurant in town or pick up some items for a picnic lunch? Tomorrow’s forecast looks terrible, rain all night and through the morning into the afternoon. What if we grab snacks and drive to the top of Tourmalet? At least we would get to see it. My heart sinks a little further as we peer up the valley towards our desired destination. This morning wasn’t the best chance to do the ride, but is tomorrow going to be any better?
We stop at a market and grab meets, cheeses and bread before driving to the top. The ride is wet, foggy and curvy. A few cyclists in rain gear are pushing uphill adorned in rain gear. Mountain sheep and cows appear unaffected as we cross paths next to what must be sheer drops off the mountain side. What we see next is spectacular. We push through the top of the cloud at the top of the mountain pass. Blue skies and sunshine!
I had a sneaking suspicion that the summit was high enough to push through the cloud coverage. At 2,115 meters, we find just that. We park the car and go enjoy the sun that has evaded us for the past 24 hours. Views are outstanding. The thick clouds cover the valley below like a down blanket. This blanket is not one that evokes the warmth of being wrapped in goose feathers on a cold fall morning, but one that dampens all that it touches and would provide a bone chilling descent for any who dare to cycle back to town.
This discovery gives us hope. Hope that we can get through any clouds or fog. That it can be warm and sunny past the gloom of the ever present clouds. As long as tomorrow’s rain subsides at some point, maybe, just maybe we can press on and cycle to the top. We head to the bike shop and look for warmer and dryer clothes for tomorrow’s attempt. Adair buys a waterproof shell and some gloves. We download an even better local weather app and pray the rain stops with enough time for us to climb and return the bikes prior to the shop’s close.
Day 3: Tuesday, August 21
Overnight it rains about 3 inches. The sound of heavy rainfall in the valley outside of our french doors is cool and relaxing on the eve of our last day. We are up early again to peer up and down the valleys. Clouds and rain everywhere. We breakfast at the hotel while another inch of rain falls. After breakfast we attempt to take advantage of local thermal baths to kill time during the rain and have a warm soak for our tight legs. Everyone else in town has the same idea. Baths are full when we arrive and no one else is admitted to the spa. We head back to our room to watch Netflix and stare out the window, hopeful for a break in the weather around lunch time.
We finish the season three finale of Stranger Things and the light outside of the room brightens. We peer outside to drying conditions as our eyes try to do the same.
Its happening! The chance to ride is upon us! My heart begins to pound as I throw on my cycling kit. We fill water bottles, fill pockets with snacks and grab our bikes. The first mile is downhill from our side of town. We make a right turn in the middle of town to start a nearly 13 mile nonstop ascent. The first few miles of uphill is not very demanding. Regardless of the effort my heart continues to knock well above what is physically required. The anticipation of completing THE climb is overwhelming.
After months of planning we finally spin uphill as views expand and scenery becomes increasingly stunning. Adair struggles a bit with finding her appropriate climbing cadence, her heart rate and breath moving too quick for comfort. After a brief rest on the shoulder of the road, she pops the chain off of her bike, getting the chain caught in the rear cogs, the likes of which I have never scene. We get it back on and before we know it are in Barèges, the last town before the top.
Adair finds her climbing pace and feels comfortable pushing off from town. Just in time as the terrain steepens, winds increase and Tourmalet earns the Bad Detour moniker. It doesn’t make a difference. The majesty of towering mountain peaks, brilliant blue skies and fresh air take the sting away from the never ending uphill battle. The wide, beautifully paved roads also provide many opportunities to pull over for taking in the surrounds and snapping a few (hundred) photos that will never do it justice. Soon we find a ski school that will be our last chance for water.
After chugging a bottle or two, we press on. While less than half the mileage remains, there is a surplus of elevation to be climbed. Climbing at a slower pace eventually turns to a stop as sheep herds provide fodder for traffic jams. This is a first for us having to now contend with both cars and roaming livestock! The cars are respectful, as they always appear to be in France, while the sheep were a bit skittish. To hurry them along, I begin to hoot and holler as I ride behind them, pressing them up the road and eventually into open hillside. Unfortunately this is not a single occurrence. For a few miles I find myself breathless attempting to pedal uphill, while barking at animals and circumnavigating cars that cannot pass the pack.
On the far side of the valley, we leave behind our fuzzy friends and find huge ‘S’ curves and new perspectives on the vast expanses taking the focus away from burning legs, pounding hearts and exploding lungs. The end was not in sight, but fiendishly hidden behind unending turns. Having driven it the day before, we have a good idea of where the last turn and climb are, but how to long to get there by bike was unknown. Fairly regular signage gave hope that we were in fact closing in on the end.
The final turn held the steepest section. I had no idea how I was going to tackle it. Would I be in my highest gear and out of the saddle, cranking to the finish? Would the months of training, outdoor riding and teaching indoor cycling classes push me to the top? How painful would this be? Could I manage it with the power and grace of a Pro? While the latter was certainly not the case, neither was the former. I make the final push in the saddle and pop up when my bike slows, returning to the saddle when the terrain flattens out.
I made it! Holy smokes! Three hours of uncomfortable fun in a fairy tale picturesque place, without going through one cloud. I hop off my bike and walk to the main lookout for views of conquered climbs and wait for my wife. Two and a half days of questionable weather and we didn’t pass through one cloud. I throw on my rain jacket to keep warm and snap a few photos as Adair presses forward somewhere below. How much longer will this challenge last for her? How is she feeling, mentally and physically. I ready my camera to record the finish of her first outrageously large climb.
Minutes pass and clouds form on the other side of the mountain. Temperatures drop as cars continue to appear around the final corner. Did she stop? Should I go find her and join her to the top? Am I ready to do that last climb again? Fortunately I do not have to, as I see a helmet and a familiar blue jersey appear. I snap a few photos, but realize that some motivation would be useful. I jog about a quarter of the way down to meet her and do my best impression of a Tour de France spectator screaming and waving my arms in celebration of what she has done and is about to do. With grit and determination she makes one last gorgeous grimace and pedals through the finish line!
With a sigh of relief and a satisfied glare she hops off the bike. I run up and give her a huge hug as we turn towards the recently traversed valley below. I take her bike and prop it up against mine as we celebrate our accomplishment. Non stop smiles and embraces follow as we recount the mornings uphill battle. Photos that will never give the true depth of the experience are taken in hopes that looking back at them will stir the memories and emotion of the day. Adair admits to me she was close to crying when she reached the top. This was not necessarily tears of joy, nor were they tears of sadness, but emotions spilling over after pushing yourself for hours on end to get to a place that less than 24 hours prior did not seem possible.
Now the easy part. We bundle up and make our descent. For thirteen miles we do not have to peddle, but put our hands to the test constantly pulling on the brakes, allowing us to maneuver turns and cars safely. Adair somehow meets up, yet again, with our sheep friends. Now we find the clouds. Mist rolls into various parts of the valley as we take turns descending and stopping for photos of the other. Some photos are clear in the spectacular weather, others we look like specters ready to evaporate at any moment.
In what seems to be a blink of an eye, we are back in town at the base of the climb. We stop into a cafe for a warm drink, a snack and perhaps a celebratory beer, peering back into the valley that has all but disappeared with thick clouds. Our heart rates have returned to normal, but the smiles will not leave our faces. What an unbelievable day! How perfectly did the time in the mountains and each day of cycling workout? How amazing was that climb? How incredibly well did Adair handle the Bad Detour?
One question remained on both of our minds, what mountains do we climb next?