First Things First: Why the Pyrénées?
The Haute Route Pyrénées doesn’t have the ‘big name’ feel of the Haute Route Alps; that allure of Alpe D’Huez, the Glandon, Madeleine and the handful of bucket list climbs. However, that by no means makes the Pyrenees a lesser event.
Choose the Pyrénées and you get a very different week. The peloton is a touch smaller, and life feels a little more relaxed – the event village is a little less hectic, and somehow, the atmosphere feels more convivial.
Perhaps this vibe is in part due to the nature area itself. Rather than staying in big ski stations such as Serre Chevalier and Courchevel (a couple of the Alps’ host towns for 2019), which can feel a little devoid and inhumane in the off-season of late summer, in the Pyrénées, you stay in homely and ‘real’ mountain towns, namely Pau, Bagnères-de-Luchon, and Argelès-Gazost. The valley roads of the Pyrénées are that bit smaller and less hectic than what can feel like very busy, functional highways in the Alps, and the towns you pass through on the road are more likely to be full of authentic boulangeries and epiciers than tourist shops and Carrefours. It all seems to calm the peloton and make you feel a bit more at ease.
For me, the Pyrénées is one of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ve visited; the greens of the meadows are a green like I’ve seen nowhere else, the forests feel more wild and teeming with life, and the mountain roads feel so authentically rustic and rugged, you can sense that they were built by farmers and tradesmen, not the owners of ski resorts and local councils.
A visit to this amazing part of the world is always as breathtaking off the bike as it is on it, and its beauty lies in the fact that not many people seem to appreciate that – it’s relatively untouched by tourism, and long may it stay that way.
Into the parcours:
All the hidden elevation
Sure, the total climbing in the Pyrénées route of 18,350m is less than that in the Alps, and the route boasts less of those Alpine style 15km+ climbs. But it’s not about how big they are, it’s about how they make you feel (said the actress to the bishop).
Take a look at stage two in the Pyrénées as an example – 2,900m of ascent, but only one major climb, of the Port de Balès. Take out the 1,185m ascent of this Hors Categorie monster when climbed from Mauleon Barousse, and that leaves you over 1,000m to get over, spread though what looks like about seven uncategorised kickers in the middle of the stage. Those little fiends will likely be ridden in a pack, at speed, luring you in to riding hard over each one, not settling into the tempo you might force yourself into over one climb of 1,000m in the Alps. Riding like that can burn matches, and it can hurt.
Additionally, take a look at stages one, six and seven, and draw your eyes away from the big cols. There’s plenty of rollers in there to take your mind off of the fact that you’re ‘missing out’ on some of the bigboys in the Alps.
The big summit finishes
The routemaster of the Pyrénées has added a couple of nice but nasty twists to 2019, a couple of new summit finishes on classic climbs. The Tourmalet and Port De Bales are must-do ascents; I think they’ve featured in all three Pyrenees events I’ve ridden to date, both due to their ‘bucket list’ status and due to the sheer necessity of crossing them from a logistical point of view. They’ve never featured as summit finishes however, and both will be epic. I don’t like to use that term too liberally but I think this genuinely deserves it.
These climbs don’t get classed as Hors Categorie for a joke. The Tourmalet from Sainte-Marie de Campan– the side we climb on stage four – is 17km at 7.4%, and the challenge is as much mental as physical. The first half of the climb is on a wide, heavy road with long straight pitches, creating the illusion that you’re not making any progress for minutes at a time. Furthermore, this bottom half doesn’t give you much of a changing view and it can all feel a little soul-destroying. The top half is a brute though, one you get there, steep, twisty and airless. A climb to gut out rather than savour.
The Port De Balès is a climb totally opposite to the Tourmalet – it’s old, wild, ragged and stunning. From Mauleon Barousse – the side we summit on stage two – the road Initially passes through a narrow gorge before progressing to dense forests, then finally opening out to huge open planes at the summit, it’s a real journey. The meadows at the summit are an idyll; blankets of vivid green that somehow feel as though they belong about 1,000m lower down in the valleys, somehow incongruous when 1,800m in the air. The climb is beautiful, but it’s real tough. As opposed to the largely linear gradient of the Tourmalet, this side of the Balès fluctuates; a steady drag at the bottom gives way to stinging 11% ramps interspersed with short respites. It’s a long old climb, and combined with the 120km of rolling terrain that precedes it, will make for a day to treat with respect – even if there only is one major col on the profile.
The non-more Pyrenean
If you want to know what makes for true Pyrénéan climbing, what it is that makes the cols here so different to those of the Alps, there’s three archetypes of the range within the route.
As a perfect encapsulation of all that’s so wild and magical about the Pyrénées, the Spandelles captures it best. Stage 5’s TT up this climb takes the opposite side to that which Haute Route has climbed before, and looks to be the easier of the two, with a draggy plateau half way. However, having seen it on numerous descents, the climb is every bit as beautiful as Haute Route’s typical approach from Ferrieres. Wild and desolate, on rough and ragged roads that seem to be little more than a farm track and certainly not designed for mass-traffic, you climb through a dense (pine?) forest that doesn’t offer many views but is absorbing nonetheless. It feels a world away from civilisation, a throwback to another age. The Ferrieres side is is perhaps my favourite climb ever. I hope the side from Argeles, which we will Time Trial, is as good.
Shortly behind the Spandelles for Pyrenean-ness is the Horquette D’Ancizan, sandwiched in the middle of stage four. We climb the tougher side, but hopefully it doesn’t distract from being able to take in the beauty of this pass. We have climbed the opposite site – that which we will descend – many times, and livestock rules the road; with cows, donkeys and sheep rambling around the road, you’re likely to have to dodge or give way to an an animal that weighs more than you do at some point. On the side we climb, the roads are narrow and quiet, and in this case, steep, opening out onto huge lush meadows that have the feel of being from a fairy tale.
And last, the Hospice De France, a gnarly rollercoaster up to 1,379m. Many Pyrénéan climbs don’t feature the steady grades of the perfectly-constructed roads in the Alps, and this epitomises that, with the bottom half constantly fluctuating, climbing, plateauing, climbing, descending a tiny bit, before finally giving way to the stinging grades at the summit. It’s a bit of a bitch of a climb, and made a super-tough summit finish in 2016, and will polish off a very tough stage three suitably.
Double Aubisque and Bales
We double up on two of the most classic climbs in the Pyrénées – the Aubisque / Soulor and the Port De Balès. I’ve already talked a bit about the Balès and we’ve done both sides in one week before, I think, so I’ll focus more on the Soulor / Aubisque here.
Firstly, I hope the descent off the Aubisque on stage six is raced. In the Alps, a lot of descents are neutralised due to overly-cautious local authorities and the issue of busier roads due to the higher volume traffic in the region. However, we typically get more raced descents in the Pyrénées and it would be ace if this is one of them. The road off the Aubisque down toward Laruns, is wide, open and swoopy (you know what I mean), on nice smooth tarmac. Going down it should be a lot of fun and make for an exhilarating part of the day.
Sticking with stage six – we’ll need this nice long descent described above, as nearly all of the 38km before it will have all been uphill, over the Bordères, Soulor, and Aubisque. I’ve never been up the Bordères, but judging from Mike Cotty’s great video (link below) it looks a classic Pyrénéan road; green, twisty, narrow, and ever up and down. As Mike says, it’s more of a ‘ride’ than a climb as it is as much uphill as it is down, but there’s a few kicking ramps in there that will make you know you’ve done it.
The best part about riding the Aubisque/Soulor double header is the tiny balcony road that connects them, known as the Cirque du Litor. It skirts across the side of an inspiring cliff face, taking you through rough-hewn tunnels that look as though they were made by man rather than machine – a throwback to another era (as is much of the Pyrénées as a region) – and though a little sketchy as a descent with very little in the way of a wall or barrier holding you in place, it’s a piece of road like no other. Fellow mountain man Mike agrees with me in his video, so be sure to watch it.
The climb of the Aubisque on stage seven is both forgettable yet somehow awesome at the same time. It’s fairly wide and functional, and would be just as at home in the Alps. However, it never seems to become boring or tiresome, and the top three kms are mind-blowing. You find yourself on the side of a huge bowl of mountains with the valley below you, making you feel tiny, and no matter how hard you’re suffering, you cannot help but look up and take it in. It’s mega.
Climbs at the START!
You’d better take your rollers with you so you can warm up in your hotel room, coz three of the full stages (and the TT, obviously) go uphill from the gun. The Balès on stage three, Peyresourde on stage four, and the Bordères / Soulor on stage five kick off within a stone’s throw of the event villages, and may make for an unpleasant experience on heavy legs.
I’ve found in the past that the legs take a while to loosen after the initial stages of Haute Route; sometimes a long neutral roll out is a blessing as it allows the aches and pains of the previous day to be span out and loosened off. Contrastingly, it seems that stages that go uphill from KM0 are carnage. The front end of the pack jostle to be near the front as the timing mat approaches, and the initial ten minutes or so of the climb are taken at an unsustainable sprint; the proximity of the field winding riders up to a frenzy of adrenaline and bravado. As much as you tell yourself not to, you cannot help be drawn in. Except in 2019? Nah, doubt it.
The stage towns
Call me lazy, but the simple logistics of the Pyrénées week is a huge bonus. Only three stage towns is a huge change from Haute Routes of a few years ago, where six or seven venues was the standard – that is, moving location more or less every day except for Time Trial day. Some mornings, especially when the fatigue is kicking in, every extra second in bed is a bonus, and even the most minor added stress of packing up your bag and dragging it into the reception of your accommodation can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Additional to the bonus of only three stage towns is the fact that they’re all pretty nice. Pau is the capital of the Bearn Pyrenees; a large town / small city mixing historical architecture and features with a fair dose of modernisation. It’s pretty quiet and chilled, with plenty of places to eat and easy to navigate. I’d take that over a head-scrambling metropolis like Nice for a functional visit where you just want simplicity such as that on the Haute Route. Argèles-Gazost is nice enough – a small mountain town that feels a little run down in places but is full of authenticity and character. Bagnères-de-Luchon – our base either side of stage three – is an absolute stunner however. Along with Saint-Lary-Soulan, it’s the place I’ve most enjoyed staying across all the Haute Routes I’ve done, whether they be in France or Italy. An old spa town nestled in a towering valley with beautiful old promenades and open spaces, it’s a dream. Somewhere to look forward to. It feels relaxing and homely, and somehow makes you feel at ease.
That’s all folks! Hope you find this interesting / useful, and maybe see you in Pau?
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