September 26, 2012

Col de Tourmalet

Today my plan was to visit the Cirque de Gavarnie, but tomorrow it is supposed to rain. That matters, because tomorrow I planned to ride Col de Tourmalet. So I switched the schedule up, and today rode to Tourmalet. Short version: that is a very long climb!

From Luz Saint Sauveur, the route goes immediately uphill, though for several kilometers at easy 3 or 5 percent grades. The entire climb is 18 km long, with an average grade of 7.8%. It doesn't descend, and is seemingly never flat. It simply climbs.

First it climbs through the forested valley, then into open pastureland. It  seems an odd time of the year for baby lambs, and these couldn't be very old, but I know exactly nothing about raising sheep.

It is the most frequently climbed pass in the Tour de France, and the highest in the Pyrenees. Climbs here are categorized, based on steepness and length, categories from 1-4. Then there is "hors categoire" HC. Harder climbs, above categories. Col du Tourmalet is an HC climb. This is used mostly for races, and originated with climbs that were supposedly too difficult for cars. That rule of thumb was definitely outdated by today's roads, there were plenty of cars! Still, though, an equal number perhaps of cycles.

The route reaches a large parking lot for skiers, and the pitch gets steeper as it rises into barren country. There was a lot of 8% or so climbing, the only double-digit climbing was the last bit at 10%. The top is at 2115 meters, or 6939 feet. There were lots of names left from the TDF, and some inappropriate graffiti, but this is the first time I've seen entire quotes stencilled onto the road. I stopped a switchback or two above for the photo.

You can ride these long climbs hard, pushing legs and lungs, watching your time and keeping records, whether alone or with friends. You can also ride them moderately, stopping for photos and to marvel at the landscape. For climbs I can ride frequently, near home, I do some of the first. But when I have crossed an ocean and will probably never return to a particular climb, I usually rubberneck and stop frequently for photos. Today I didn't stop often on the climb up, but also didn't race against myself. I will spare you odd images I took when moving. This is something I haven't mastered, and they are bizarre. Today I found a pace, stuck with it and rode up, and up, and up. Twelve consecutive miles is a lot of up! Happily for me, after the easy beginning very few kilometers rose above  8, 8.5% until the final push. Like I said, this is a long climb. It is not killingly steep. Steep enough to know I was climbing, though, for sure! Definitely climbing!

My best strategy is to get my head around the idea that I am going to be riding uphill for a long time, the hill isn't going to flatten out quickly, the hill isn't going to disappear, the hill isn't going to moderate, the hill is going to go up. So: find a rhythm, don't worry too much about speed, and just climb the hill. Descriptions of the climb say it takes 2 hours. That baffles me, who decides those numbers, where does an average come from? Certainly it took me longer, probably two and a half. Not as long as I anticipated. Of course, I was so committed to riding uphill, I probably would have told you I'd still be climbing mid-afternoon!

Eventually the scenery was extraordinarily spectacular, and I stopped for pictures.

The road was full of cyclists, some riding fast, many just riding uphill. One of the very fun things about riding in France is the number and variety of other cyclists. It isn't like home, when you might see a half-dozen other riders on a climb. Here there are dozens and dozens. And dozens.
I met 5 riders from New Zealand, one of whom took my photo. They had just the day before arrived here and were probably jet-lagged. That is a very long flight!

  It was very, very windy at the top, and the wind was cold. The souvenir shop was open, but the restaurant closed, and no one hung around for long in the cold wind. I bought myself a jersey in the souvenir shop and the very nice lady working there and I got talking, as she helped me pick a size. She asked if it was my first ascent, and after telling her yes, she filled out a certificate for me, which proclaims me as "Diplome du Grimpeur du Col du Tourmalet." It is official: named, dated, signed and stamped. Now, how cool is that! (Grimpeur du means climber of.)

When I climbed up to take the photo of the sculptor, two cyclists in Corsica jerseys saw me, and abandoned the traditional photo. One headed over to come up off the road, I took his bike so he could scramble up, and then I hopped down for this photo. Fun!

The top seemed higher, more desolate and wilder than other high cols I have visited. I suppose that was partly the lack of grazing animals, vegetation and alpine wildflowers. It was partly the cold gusty wind.

The descent was the longest I have ever ridden.

It went down, and down. And down, and down. And down some more. For whatever reason I always get a better sense of distance and steepness when descending, and I was just left thinking: what? I just road up all of this? Huh??? Really?! Me  ??? Wheeee-whooooo!

  The sides are often quite exposed, I wouldn't want to go over. And the cars, I will say again, were unfailingly polite. Many offered support and encouragement, never an impatient or angry horn. These sheep were a hoot, I suppose the warmth of the asphalt felt good! I've noticed the cars also are patient with the troupeaux ...which is to say, herds grazing, or in this case sleeping animals.

 I returned to Luz St. Sauveur, and am hoping for Cirque de Gavarnie, though the forecast is for a big front, lots of rain, delivered to us by this gusty wind.


  1. Congratulations on a great achievement, Suze! Having climbed Tourmalet, I can assure your readers that it is one tough climb (but you REALLY need to try out Ventoux now!). Again, thanks for the excellent photos because I saw none of that when I was there. And aren't those endless descents a blast!

    1. Thanks Gerry, I will graciously:-) accept all congrats!! Et, maintenant, Ventoux.... I could jump on a train to Avignon ..... but will stick with the plan, which is a plane home to family, friends, and work. Maybe next year.... ahh, dreams! Tourmalet was a blast, I think adrenalin or something moved me up it, and then I simply could not believe how far and long it descended! Yes, it was an absolute blast!

      Someday you might try the Pyrenees with blue skies, it is a different experience!

  2. I'm not sure how I found your blog, but I'm glad I did. Thanks! What a great trip.

    1. Stevep33,

      Thanks go to you for reading and taking the time to comment. It really is very cool to hear from readers, makes the writing of it more fun. It was a fabulous, incredible trip!

      BTW, from your profile, I think we share life in a state with a fairly short riding season and no huge climbs!

      Happy pedalling,

  3. Breathtaking, Susan! Wow! How will you manage to come home to our little hills?

    1. Ohhh, I'll manage ... they are, after all, our little hills! See you soon.

  4. wonderful pictures. I've vicariously enjoyed your trip. Thanks for the posts and pictures.

    1. Thanks for reading! It is astonishingly beautiful country, matched by the cycling culture.


Please leave a comment, it's great to hear from you and makes the site more fun and informative for other readers!