Thursday, September 15, 2022

Le Col du Tourmalet

It's September 2022 and we are staying in Bagneres de Luchon for two weeks in the center of the Pyrenees. Because of its location Luchon has been a host town for the Tour de France on more than thirty occasions and there are many famous TDF climbs in the area. This year the big one will be the Hors Catégorie climb the Col de Tourmalet, with my nephew Jacques. The Tourmalet has been climbed in the Tour no less than 87 times so we will be riding in the tracks of the greatest riders of all time.

Our plan was to do some easier climbs first to find our climbing legs but after the first climb, the Col de Portillon, the weather did not look good for the following week so we decided to attack the Col de Tourmalet two days later.

We are doing the east to west route starting at Bagneres de Bigorre and ride up to Sainte Marie de Campan, the official start of the Col de Tourmalet, where we stop for coffee. From here to the summit is about 11.5 miles with 4160' of climbing at 7.4% average and 12% max grade.

Enough with the statistics, it is a beautifully clear but hot day. I put the bike in the 34/32 gear and grind away at the climb. I usually climb at about 1500 feet per hour (it used to be more!) and take a short break after each 1000 feet vertical. Three and a half hours of climbing requires a lot of patience. I watch my heart monitor. I can maintain 85% but 90% is not sustainable so then I have to back off. It is not a good day for me, I can still feel the the Col de Portillon climb we made a couple of days before - remember I live in the flat land called Florida. It's tough knowing you should be riding better but we grind it out with a couple of breaks before reaching the the ski resort of La Mongie.

Taking a break with the Pic Du Midi in the background

There we stop and sitting at an outside table have a beer in the sun. The chairs have cushions which is not insignificant! It is now just 2.5 miles at 8% to the summit. Up we go, I feel better, probably a combination of knowing we have it beat and the beer. A quick stop for a picture at the 1k to go sign, where we are encouraged by some cows, then finally the summit and there are our wives Jocelyne and Marie-Claude to cheer us on - a special day.

The Summit with Jacques

We do the photo stuff and descend to Luz St Sauveur where we have a nice lunch together. Then Jacques and I will make a big loop back to Bagneres de Bigorre. No way we're going back over the Tourmalet!

A Little History of Le Col du Tourmalet

In 1910 the Pyrenees were included in the Tour de France for the first time at the insistence of Alphonse Steinès who investigated the climb. 

Steinès started at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan with sausage, ham and cheese from the inn opposite the church and arranged to hire a driver from Bagnères-de-Bigorre. They made it up the first 16 km when the car broke down. Steinès carried on on foot despite a warning about bears. Later he mistook voices in the darkness for thieves but they turned out to be shepherds guarding their sheep. He paid one of the them to guide him to the top but the shepherd turned around when they encountered snow.  

Steinès continued on but things looked bleak. He had slipped and fallen into an icy stream and realized he could freeze to death in the night. Fortunately search parties had been sent out and he was finally found stumbling in the snow around 3 a.m. and taken to Barèges where he sent the following telegram to Tour de France organizer Henri Desgrange.

 "Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible".

In 1910 Octave Lapize was the first rider in the Tour de France to crest the Tourmalet. He called TDF organizer, Henri Desgrange, "the assassin".

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