The Tourmalet dominates even the mountainous landscape in which it sits. Crowned with sheer cliffs and phone towers it is hard to not be intimidated by the prospect of climbing it. Ominous, dark clouds wreathed its summit and there was a frisson of nervousness amongst our small group as we readied ourselves at the base.
Overnight a storm which shook the windows had passed over and the reports were that there could well be more of the same on the way. We were certainly going to get wet but there was a chance that it could get epic in ways we couldn’t predict.
With the weather so doubtful this was the first of the many climbs we’d tackled over the last two weeks that Stef decided to not take his camera equipment. So with a bike that was many kilos lighter we were all expecting great things, an effort worthy of Pantani.
The rain set in only briefly but with the climb kicking in it was more a pleasant distraction than an obstacle. As the trees thin there are glimpses out across the valley and you get some sense of how high you’ve climbed. The last 12 of the 19 kilometres of the climb do not dip beneath 8% – tiring but the evidence of the effort helps.
We’ve been riding almost every day, always up, but each climb has something new to show us. If you were not already breathless the scenery would steal it anyway. We have discussed how somewhere in France there must be boring countryside, mediocre suburbs and ugly industrial estates. All evidence to date would indicate that it’s just not the case – it’s all been beautiful or epic or charming, sometimes all three at once. I wonder how many years I would have to live here for the backdrop to become ordinary — I suspect it could seduce me for life.
As with many of the climbs in France each kilometre is signed with both the altitude and the average gradient of the coming kilometre. The jury is still out about whether this helps or hinders your mental effort. As we ground up the Porte de Bayle a few days earlier the gradient reading increased incrementally with each kilometre – in some places having been amended by passing cyclists keen to warn those who followed.
Some of the group elected to simply not look at the signs, certain that knowing the next kilometre was steeper than the last would not deepen their resolve but just unhinge them. The signs are just one of the small details that remind you how deep cycling goes in French culture.
As we reached the final kilometres to the summit of the Tourmalet a front of cloud had engulfed La Mongie behind and below us, chasing us up the slope and reminding how lucky we’ve been. The summit was busy with celebration and activity. In other places, claiming a mountain top as your own may be sullied by others doing the same – here, on these iconic slopes, it only deepens the sense of achievement. Again – something unsaid but shared.
Cyclists from all over the world and of all abilities are here conquering the peak – some in tears, some with barely a sweat, all with some personal, internal glory made a little deeper due to the race having crested this summit only 24 hours before.
The history of the Tour on the Tourmalet is long – it was first included in 1910 after a Tour organiser got lost on its slopes overnight, prompting a search party and a report that the inclusion of the pass in the Tour was ‘perfectly feasible’. On these slopes Eugene Christophe famously welded his broken fork back together in a forge in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan before pushing on up the mountain.
We put on extra layers quickly. The front was pushing up the mountain and our savouring of the challenge completed could be only brief. The descent was like diving into a green pool. We’d all seen these slopes from a helicopter – switchbacks with unforgiving edges dropping into steep valleys. To be there taking those sweeping corners yourself after coming over the summit was a pure pleasure.
By the time we’d reached Luz-Saint-Saveur at the western base the summit is engulfed in cloud and we discover we’d managed to find the space between two fronts rolling across the jagged spine of the Pyrenees. Stef, unchained from his 6kg anchor of camera equipment, floated up. He estimated a 1kph average increase – around 10% which fitted fairly closely into the percentage of overall weight he’d lost without the gear.
This is the last of the climbs for this trip. While we’ve seen very little coverage of the race and have less immediate knowledge of the attacks and bucklings of the riders than if we were red-eyed, watching through the night in Australia, we have experienced it. Each ride has shown us a little more of the history and culture of the race itself and each effort given a profound sense of the strength it takes for the peleton to race up these beautiful but daunting mountains.
More from Matt & Stefano
– Day 0: The Ultimate Job begins!
– Day 1: Conquering Alpe d’Huez
– Day 2: Having a moment on the Col du Glandon
– Day 3: An interview with pro photographer Mark Gunter
– Day 4: First contact with the race and climbing the Col d’Izoard
– Day 5: The madness of the publicity caravan
– Day 7: An interview with John Trevorrow: his career, the Tour de France and Australian cycling
– Day 9: The fans, festivities and towns of Le Tour