With the recent announcement of the parcours for Haute Route Pyrenees and Alps, I thought I’d share some quick (and throwaway) observations, highlights, and things to look out for on these routes.
Whilst I’m far from an expert when it comes to the geography and topography of the Pyrenees and French Alps, I do know a few bits and pieces having spent a fairly chunky amount of time riding there. As such, I thought I may as well share some of this experience in the hope that you might find it interesting…. Or not.
So, being the first race of the two, let’s start with the Pyrenees. Alps to follow later….
If you’re riding the Haute Route to bag the most famous cols in cycling, this parcours reads like a who’s-who of famous Pyrenean climbs. The Aubisque, Hautacam, Tourmalet, Port De Bales, Peyresourde, Aspin. All there. You’ll be able to throw that bucket list out of the window once you get home after this race.
The Tourmalet – the ‘terrible mountain’. Twice.
That bucket list will be even more redundant at the end of the Haute Route Pyrenees thanks to the double appearance of the Tourmalet, the daddy of the Pyrenees in both reputation and prestige.
I think I read somewhere that it’s impossible to traverse the length of the Pyrenees without crossing the Tourmalet due to the relative scarcity of roads in the region. It was almost inevitable that we would climb the ‘terrible mountain’ once in the week, not just due to the infrastructure of the region, but also because a trip to the Pyrenees without the Tourmalet would be like a bike with no saddle. Just wrong, and a bit twisted.
Although the road traversing the col can be busy, and the ascent from the West, starting in Luz-Saint Sauveur, can feel kinda boring until the second half, you cannot help but feel exhilarated and intimidated by climbing such a mythical col. Climbing it twice in two days, once from each side, is both a massive test and an exciting feature that is more than just a gimmick. It will be refreshing to tackle it from Campan in the East on Stage Three for a change as well – I seem to remember this being a little greener and varied in feel.
The Big Boys
The Pyrenees are well known to be lower in elevation than their VIP cousins in the Alps. However, this parcours has dished up some of the highest roads in the range. As mentioned – The Tourmalet, twice, climbing from both sides on successive days – the Cap de Long for the TT, and the Portet, which tops out at a bewildering 2215m. That’s four ventures beyond the magical 2,000m mark (indeed, all are over 2,100m); that’s probably the four highest road climbs in the region.
But size isn’t everything (he said)
On the theme of elevation; there’s a few smaller climbs on there that you may dismiss. Don’t.
The Col de Labays on Stage One – which is actually the majority of the ascent to the more famous Pierre St Martin ski station – looks relentlessly steep. The Marie-Blanque, also Stage One, is a leg-breaker, with kilometre after kilometre at around 12% bludgeoning you out of your finely prepared pacing strategy. And the little kick in the nuts on Stage Six, the summit finish on the Peyragudes; despite being only about 3km long, is awful at the end of 130km thanks to its multiple ramps of around 12% (we rode the exact same Stage in 2016 – I’m not just guessing here!). Let’s hope Haute Route don’t make us finish on the 20% airfield strip that saw Romain Bardet take the stage in this year’s Tour de France stage that finished up there…
A gem of a climb within Pyrenees’ glistening crown of wild, wonderful and breathtaking roads.
There’s something about this climb that is truly like nothing else. A narrow, beaten track, with lunatic off-camber bends, rough and gravelly surfaces, and constantly fluctuating grades. It’s a tough ride, but the environment really is enough to take your mind off it. Through dense and luscious woods which feel teeming with wildlife and rare species, but also with some open sections giving expansive views on the valley you’ve just climbed from, it really is something else. I doubt you’ll have ridden anything like it before. Up there in my top five climbs.
The Cap De Long
On a similar note to the Spandelles….
The Cap De Long is thought to be the most beautiful climb ever to have featured on the Haute Route, winding it’s way through a gorge in the Pyrenees National Park. Being a protected area, there’s no ski stations, tourist shops, or cafes to clutter the beauty… this is a long way from the hectic tour-bus ravaged evirons of the Alps.
Going into the climb ‘fresh’ for the Stage Five Time Trial should hopefully allow time to drink in the mesmerising forests, streams and waterfalls at the bottom and the huge dam and lake at the top. The climb first appeared on the event as the summit finish to a hardcore four-climb stage in 2016. I was being smashed by the bonk baton at the time of climbing it back then, and so mostly stared at my stem as opposed to taking in the views.
It’s a long climb – 24km and 1360m of ascent – with an easy start but grippy top half – but there should be plenty of distraction us from the pain. Practice focussing on the world around you and not the hurt in your legs when climbing the Spandelles in Stage Two; you want to have perfected the art for the Cap de Long.
Stage Four, and the Col du Portet
Stage Four covers 100km and climbs over 4,000m. Do I need to say much more?
Oh yes, maybe I should – that day finishs atop the Col du Portet, perhaps the ‘toughest climb in the Tour de France’.
The Col du Portet
The Col du Portet will appear in the Tour De France for the first time ever in 2018, and, according to some journalists, including author of books ‘Mountain High’ and ‘Mountain Higher’ Daniel Friebe, this could be the ‘toughest ever climb in the Tour De France’.
The Tour has never visited the col to date as the top half of the road currently features several unpaved sections. However, in recognition of the importance of the race and the revenue it brings, tarmac is supposedly being laid especially some time in Spring. Having never ridden a gravel road – yet alone a gravel climb – in anger on a road bike, I am sort of hoping tarmac will be laid. However, having watching Mike Cotty’s awesome video which captures this climb in all its current wild and remote majesty, will some of the character of this remote and unkempt climb be lost beneath a layer of fresh road?
One thing that argues in favour of the road being tarmacked is, anything that makes the climb easier is a bonus. The stats – 17.0km at 8.3% – speak for themselves. This is seriously hard. To reach the Portet, you climb around 9km to the Pla D’Adet, then turn off up a side road to complete the remaining 8km to the summit of the Portet.
The ascent to the Pla D’Adet alone is tough enough. We rode up to ski station as a summit finish in 2016, and it wasn’t pretty. With unrelentingly steep grades and mentally torturous arrow straight ramps, it’s an absolute monster. And being south facing and butted against a cliff face, it can be unrelentingly hot. That day in 2016 was in fact an exact same parcours as the planned Stage Four for 2018, except this time we go beyond the Pla D’Adet to the Portet, adding another 700m of climbing…
Let’s leave it there.
The not hilly bits
Some of my favourite parts of the Pyrenees Haute Route events from past years have been the parts away from the mountains; the hectic racing through the rolling hills of the Basque country in Stages One and Two.
I was a little concerned that this may be lost given the movement of the opening stage from Anglet to Pau. However, both Stage One and Two of 2018 have retained those characteristic rampages through the foothills. Just because the profile of these sections look flat, don’t expect them to be easy. Everyone will be fighting to hang into the bunch, and there’s some sharp kicking ramps around there. It will be frenetic.
The things that remind me why the Pyrenees are the best place in the world.
We’re being truly treated with our host venues this year. A double stopover in Pau, Argeles-Gazost, and Saint Lary Soulan is awesome not just because it lowers the stress of frequently moving location. All three of these venues are brilliant examples of what contribute to the Pyrenees being perhaps my favourite place in the world.
The 12th Century city of Pau, despite being the capital of the Pyrenees Atlantiques Departement, is not a big, hostile metropolis, and boasts beautiful historic quarters and largely feels serene and welcoming.
Argeles and Saint-Lary are beautiful little Spa towns; tranquil little communes nestled inside dominating enclosures of mountains. Saint-Lary in particular is stunning. Whichever direction you go out of this little town, there’s an amazing climb waiting for you.. it’s up there with Bagneres De Luchon as future places for me to go to, and to never come back. All of these venues are proper mountain communes. No ski resorts, tour busses or Irish bars. The way the mountains should be.
That’s it for a quick look. There’s loads that could be said but (a) I can’t be arsed and (b) you wouldn’t read it if I wrote it anyway…
Want to know about the Alps? Keep checking back on the blog, will be a week or two.
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Photo credits – Haute Route, Col Collective, Cycling Weekly and, umm… Google