With the treat of a surprise birthday party for my 40th I decided that I did not want to be close to home and decided to go away cycling and taking onthe 9 epic climbs of the Pyrenees as listed in the Band of Climbers poster.
Arrived in Lourdes to be greeted by Jacques holding up a sign with my name on it, I have always wanted this and it has took nearly 40 years to finally make it! His wife, well I assume it was, as they did not speak a word of English, was holding up a picture of the motor home that we had hired and seemed more excited than me about it, I was just thinking “that looks a little big to me”. Luckily for me the language barrier saved the awkward question of “have I driven in France before?” to which I was going to have to yes and crashed while on the wrong side of the road!
Back at Jacques place he was going over the finer details of the motor home showing us important features such as switching the interior lights on and less so about the actual mechanical features of the vehicle. Anyway he seemed like he was happy that he cover all the aspects of the van before we went inside to sign the paperwork for the hire.
The plan for the first night was not drive too far but just to get a feel for the vehicle before we ventured too far. I noticed there was a camp site down the hill, only about 200 meters so thought a good start but after Jacques had poured a large glass of port we did not even get out of his garden and stayed the night!
After visiting Lourdes for an evening meal we concluded this is not the best place to visit in the Pyrenees but more of a “tick the box” exercises. It seems for some reason that the only food you can get is pizza and it is full of what I thought were nuns but after seeing them drinking beer with blokes it seems they were nurses!
It seem that Jacque and his wife did not want us to leave as they prepared breakfast for us. Sitting down at the table I thought we were going to have cereal as had bowls in front of us but it would appear this was for the tea or coffee! After pouring it I then pondered how are we suppose to drink it and looked at the teaspoon thinking it is going to take ages but luckily Jacques just used the whole bowl so I followed!
As we set sail down the hill they were both smiling and waving as we left, I could not help thinking that they were going to be on the phone to the insurance company straight away for a newer model!
The first leg was to head southeast and our destination was Genos to tackle 2 climbs in that part of the region. It did not take long before I got into the swing of things with the van although I was always cautious not to get the van in a tight spot where I would have to reverse so it was more of a case of “point and shot”.
We found a convenient campsite to park for the first night while I plotted the route for my first days cycling in the hills.
I obviously enjoyed a few beers the night before after the trauma of driving the motor home for the first time so did not awake as early as had plan but managed to get going and crack out the first two cols’ on my list, Col de Peyresourde & Superbagneres. These were tough but not unachievable although I had not factored in getting back to base meaning I had to climb back over one of the summits. I was pleased to find a café at the top where I have a much-needed coke and crepes!
Arriving back the plan was to head to the top of the Col de Tournament to camp on the eve of my 40th birthday.
Not having looked at the map before hand it meant that we ended up having to tackle both the accent and decent of the Col de Aspin before the final push to the summit of the Col de Tourmalet. I couldn’t help thinking what would happen if we just “plopped” of the edge, which looked a hell of a long way down! Luckily we made it to the top and the view was stunning.
A couple of other vans had also decided to pitch up at the same location and they all seemed to have wedges under the wheels, Jacque obviouslyomitted to give us these!
Well what a way to spend the night before your birthday, 2400m above sea level! This beats any surprise party in a village hall!
Monday (My Birthday)
The morning started with the most beautiful sunrise over the mountain ranges as far as the eye could see! Opening the door to experience the freshness of the morning air to be confronted by a group of hungry alpacas! It’s funny in the Pyrenees because you never know what animal you are going to find at the top of the summits, so far we have had horses, cows to add to the current family of Alpacas!
The free wheel down to the bottom of the climb was a chilly one but the views were breathtaking! Dodging a few varies animals on the decent I reached the bottom where I turned around and made the long accent back up the to the top. As the sun rose further in the sky my temperature became to rise and I had to relent and take my base layer off only to be passed but French riders coming past in arm warmers and bib longs!
With the red light on the toilet, this we guessed rightly meaning it was full we headed back to our next destination of a campsite for the evening, which turned out to be a lovely little village called St Lary.
Now I had assumed that the toilet cassette consisted of a complicated filtration system turning it into pure filtered water to dispose of but alas the stark reality hit me like a brick, as I emptied the cassette, not the way I wanted to be spending my 40 years on this planet!
Now it seems that the food choice around the Pyrenees is either Pizza or Tapas but not being in Italy and have Tapas for lunch I fancied something different for my birthday meal. Luckily we stumbled across a lovely restaurant with a full “normal” menu! Being known as Jimmy 2 steaks in the past I went for the 5 meat dish which basically consisted of every animal possible, perhaps they just take one from each mountaintop?
Well that was it, 40 had been and gone and as expected felt no different!
Today’s challenge was “Lac de cap-de-long” which on paper looked relatively easy but due to the usual miscalculation of distance and feet of climbingthis proved a little tougher than originally planned but the views were stunning looking over the lake and well worth the climb!
Having completed the climbs on the east side it was the long trek west navigating what felt like a small house back over the 2 biggest Cols. Having a break halfway for a coffee Birgit tried to make friends with one of the local cows although was not so accommodating knocking her to the ground with it’s horns!
Our camp for the night was at the top of the Col du Soulor and after a couple of beers if was an early night ready for the next day!
Getting up early meant I got to see the sunrise, which was stunning over the mountaintops. I wrapped up warm and settled in for what I thought was going to be a long decent only to find this lasted less than a mile before I was on the accent of the Col d’Aubisque. Another epic fail in my preparation of the area by not knowing that there is only one accent of the Col du Soulor! This meant I reached the summit of the Aspin earlier than planed and could only find one stray Frenchman to take the obligatory summit photo!
Rolling back to base camp AKA the campervan I thought I could cheat and have my photo take with the Col du Soulor sign but would only be cheating myself so stopped for refreshments and rolled down to the start of the climb and made my way back up carrying the French Stick that I had purchased in town.
After lunch it was time to make our way to the last location of the trip and headed to Luz-St-Sauveur. The beer in the Pyrenees seems stronger than back home and this defiantly showed tonight after have a couple of Kwak beers which is a Belgian Beer served in it’s own special glass and was 8.4%!
After waking up not feeling the best from last nights beer the reality sunk in of knowing I had to tackle 2 tough climbs today! The first was Luz-Ardiden, which was a stone throw from the campsite meaning I was straight into climbing with a pounding head. This was a lovely climb with plenty of switchbacks although not much at the top other than a shut down ski resort.
The next climb was the Hautacam, which was one of the bigger ones in the Pyrenees and I was really starting to feel it but dug in. The weather was hot today and had planned to refill my bottles at the top but found out it was another “ghost town” ski resort with nothing open!
We met up with some friends from Café Cadence back home who were out here with Classic Roads cycling tour company and enjoyed a couple of light beers this time before the last days riding tomorrow which was going to be the biggest to date.
After riding on my own all week it was lovely to go out with a group and also ride on the flat for a period of time which I have missed coming from Norfolk!
I only needed to tackle the Col d’Aspin today to complete all 9 climbs for the week however due to the location of the start point we had 2 choices, either climb the Tourmalet twice to get to the Aspin or ride 60km round to the Col d’Aspin then back over the Tourmalet once to get back one. I went for the later.
It was great to have the full support of the team at Classic Roads who did a great job of looking after the whole group and me. There knowledge of thearea was spot on and there was nothing that you would have needed that wasn’t carried in the van.
We stopped for a fully provided lunch spread before we reached the foot of the Col d’Aspin, which in reality was not that bad. We did however have to negotiate the cattle in the middle of the road who where also making the accent to the summit. Even with my tired legs we managed to beat them to the top!
Now just the small matter of climbing the other side of the Tourmalet that I have not yet climbed and it would be me home and dry. Being the highest summit and after all the climbing that had come before then this was quite tough for me. Getting to the top was always going to happen for me, failing injury or death but seeing the faces of the group members who made it to the top made it quite emotional as for some this was just an amazing achievement and a memory to treasure.
Feeling like a pro riding down the other side it was time to pack up the bike and get the motorhome , which was now called snail, back to Lourdes safely and us onto our flight home.
I had an amazing week and wanted to say thank you to Birgit for all the lovely food she prepared for when I returned back from riding.
Looking forward to getting my next poster from Band of Climbers!