September 21, 2012

Col de Marie Blanque


Hotel de l'Ours where I spent the last two nights is very bike friendly and also environmentally conscious. A great combination. Clearly cyclists know about it, because this morning there were 7 bikes in the office, and the owner told me they have had over 20. My front tire has had a slow leak, so before leaving I decided it was time to add air. It instantly went totally flat ... a broken valve. We walked over to the bike store, where they replaced the tube, filled it up, and sent me on my way. So I still have my spare, and now a firm front tire. It was later than I wanted by the time I left, though.

The ride across the D918 from Arette to the N134, was pretty, and flat. I thought about what I wanted from today's ride: beautiful rolling country, or a seriously steep climb that I thought might turn into a lung-splitting grind. Either climb Col de Marie Blanque from the west, or continue across just below it, which I knew as a beautiful rolling ride with some climbing and some fun descents from last year. Last year I climbed Marie Blanque from the east, the easier side and since then I have read account after account of how much tougher the west ascent is. Intimidatingly tough, I've read. Fearfully tough, I've read. I wasn't looking forward to a climb as hard as the Cols d'Iraty had been, especially starting late in the morning and anticipating climbing Aubique and Soulor tomorrow. On the other hand, if my memory of the climb up the east side was accurate, it would make a fabulous descent. I got to the intersection, thought hardly at all, and turned towards Spain. Over the top I'd go. When it came time to make the turn, all that thinking was just silly overthinking, there really wasn't any doubt about the decision.

The N134 is a busy main road but there was a good shoulder for bikes, and I wasn't on it long, maybe 5km. Turning east in Escot, the climb begins immediately, but gradually. The percent of grades to the top are: 2, 4, 5, 5, 8, 11, 9.5, 13, 12, 13. Perhaps because the easy grades start the climb, perhaps it was all in the shade, perhaps it's a head game, or I'm stronger, but ... it was never lung-breaking hard. I suppose I found a rhythm, never fast, but a rhythm, and just rode up the mountain. The success felt good. Also those grades may never have included much steeper sections. I noticed on both cols the other day that every single descending car smelled strongly of brakes. It is a distinctive smell, either asbestos, or something much like it.  No descending cars did today. That is going to be my new measure of steepness:  the smell of descending cars.

There were a few people on top, lounging in the sun or hiking. A few bikes came and went. And then a Garmin team van came up and parked on the side of the road, not in the parking places. The two men in it were speaking American English, and they stayed in the van, didn't get out to stretch their legs, look around, or do anything at all. It seemed odd, but I wasn't going to go over and ask. After a bit, a cyclist ascended fast, as in f.a.s.t. They jumped out, did something quickly, and he was on the way down the other side. The van followed soon afterwards. I have no idea what it was about, but it was fun to watch.

There is a monument on the top to the Spanish and French resistance fighters against the Nazis. History is never far away here. This particular plaque reminded me of the Basque fighters and smugglers during WW2.

 I stayed on top, eating my lunch, walking around a bit, enjoying the feeling of the sun on the back of my neck, not wanting to leave. I knew I wouldn't have a problem making it to the hotel at a reasonable hour. When the comfortable, relaxed feeling became one of "time to take a nap in the sun," I knew it was time instead to move.

The descent was breathtakingly beautiful, fast but never white-knuckle riding. Headed in the opposite direction, the views are very different than on the ascent last year. The Plateau de Benou is beautiful, flat or rolling high pasture with many hiking trails. There were also a few  camping cars and people sitting in lawn chairs reading while horses and cows graze around them.

From Bielle at the bottom of the mountain I followed the little road, the D240, up the Ossau Valley to Laruns, before returning to the D918 to Eaux-Bonnes, where I stay tonight. The ride from Laruns brought the beginning of the climb to Aubisque. This shouldn't have surprised me, but somehow it did. I guess the question is: where do climbs start? I missed the official sign. Gerry, this may look familiar from the Etape. But I promise, I ride it slowly.

Eaux Bonnes (good waters) is a spa town, which was probably at its peak of popularity in the 19th century, when people, frequently including royalty came from around Europe for the spa. It is still popular, and there is still a spa, but a number of the fine old buildings are for sale and there is definitely the feel of faded grandeur.

Tomorrow I'll climb Col d'Aubisque. The Cirque du Litor promises to be beautiful and links it to the Col de Soulor. I leave you with a photo of the interior of my hotel.


  1. Replies
    1. Me too ... and it is an environmental statement in favor of biodiversity. They were hunted and trapped to extinction, have been reintroduced from eastern Europe, and it is controversial; the sheep farmers generally don't like it. Much like wolves and ranchers in the western US.

  2. I don't remember that sign, but I don't remember much except my own suffering from the Etape. Still, thanks for thinking of me!

    Incredible scenery again. And great to see that all your training has paid off (yes, I'm sure that climb wasn't that hard because you are stronger this year). It must feel great.

    1. Didn't really think you'd remember it, but am in awe of your riding ... no, racing ... the Etape. Agreed, I think the training has really changed my riding and I owe huge thanks to the people I rode with who helped and taught me last summer.

      Any ideas about the Garmin van?

  3. The only idea I have is that someone is doing reconnaissance for next year. Possibly a little late-season climbing before they head back to N. America? Aucune idée, basically.

  4. I'd have taken that nap ...
    Interesting about the bears, but I'd be with the locals. I wouldn't fancy having a large predator roaming around on my doorstep, especially with livestock. I can see why people like to reintroduce animals to the wild where they've been wiped out before. It's a good idea in theory, but if there are more humans around now, then that needs to be taken into consideration too. Forgive my skepticism, but the reintroduction of the otter in England has had a devestating effect on people like us making a precarious living from running a fishery. We only hope the same thing doesn't happen here.

    1. Hi Steph,

      We are (as a species ourselves) facing so many terribily difficult and challenging questions. I think, though, that it isn't a question of locals vs. others, it is a question of some of the sheepherders (not all) vs. some of the rest of the local population. I've also been told that despite the graffiti, very little damage has been done to the herds, so it is not such a very hot issue now as it was a few years ago. Bears are usually omnivores and scavengers (these aren't grizzlys.) At home, feral dogs (and loose domestic dogs) do more damage to chickens, sheep, etc. than coyotes.

  5. I thought I'd follow you to Marie Blanque. Ghee, it brings back so many wonderful memories. :-) And these last four kilometers on the Marie Blanque were pretty tough! I am now looking forward to the weekend when I can return and read more about your summer of cycling in Europe. It sounds like you had a fantastic time.

    1. Hi! And in turn I am looking forward to reading more of your trips. Your site makes great wintertime (here) armchair traveling.

      My sumer cycling in Europe!! Eat my heart out and has been actually my 3 weeks in France! Though now four years in a row, so no complaints from me.


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