Day 9 - Sunday 21st - Campan to Argeles Gasost - 51.5 km and the Tormalet
The BIG one
The Tourmalet, as already mentioned is the most famous climb in cycling. 2115m, nearly 7000 ft and we were starting from 800m. So our biggest ever net gain at over 1300m. I'd done it three times before, but always from the other side and I feared that this was doing it the 'hard way'.
I reckoned on a three-hour climb for me, and so planned a 9.00am start, I didn't want to get there too early. The others had other ideas and most were ready for the off well before that, having eaten breakfast at the campsite bar. I watched them set off one by one, I was quite happy to be at the back - we'd all get there in the end and in time for a bit of lunch at the top.
So I set off alone - this first part being relatively easy for a couple of k and then steepening - perfect. Once again it was a very pretty climb, the sun was shining, I was doing what I loved the most and all was well with the world. I felt fitter than ever, really hitting a good rhythm and piling on - I even had a little sing-song to myself. As it steepened to 8%, then 9% and for a km 9.5% (all marked on the km signposts) I kept in second gear.
I was breaking every rule in the book... Pace, pace, pace! - what was I thinking of? Very quickly I found myself approaching La Mongie at 1600m and I realized I was in serious danger of 'blowing'. I was already feeling tired as I rolled up into the god-awful eyesore of a ski resort with its neo-Stalinist architecture and tacky souvenir shops. But that didn't stop me from pulling up outside a bar and sitting down and drinking 1/2 ltr of lemonade and eating a banana.
Rested I started to get on my bike as Allan pulled up looking unflustered and better than I felt - he too was going to have a break - wise man...
Girding my loins I remounted and continued through the concrete sprawl of La Mongie - this eyesore being twice as big as it was last time I climbed here 5 years ago. The other b
ig change was just as unpleasant. I'd chosen to climb on a Sunday because I'd hoped there'd be lots of other cyclists around. As it was there were a few but outnumbering them by some distance were camper vans. These underpowered, top-heavy things lumbered up spewing diesel exhaust and came down with stinking brakes. The biggest things on the mountain (lorries and coaches are banned), what had five years ago been a quiet climb was now like some caravan club outing - I'm sorry if I offend anyone but these things shouldn't have been on the mountain. Looking up, La Mongie seemed to extend up whilst the concrete monstrosities at the top multiplied downwards. The km posts lied to me as well - 3 km to go, 300m climbing an average 8.5% gradient. Now the French aren't the greatest cartographers in the world - but now their maths seems to be falling apart. It was sure as hell felt like 10%, bottom gear and working hard. In fact, I was now beginning to suffer from my foolishness earlier. I was starting to cool down, my breathing and work rate falling as I tired - I don't think I was getting the 'bonk' but just running out of steam. But I wasn't worried, I could see the top, I knew I could make it, so just concentrated on staying as smooth and steady as I could. The danger is that as you get tired you lose your rhythm and start 'stabbing' at the pedals which wears you out.
Anyway, sure enough, I got to the top to be greeted by most of the gang sitting drinking beer. Behind me was Allan, Andrew, and the usual two suspects, but one after another they arrived, all looking fresher than I felt, including Evelyn who'd only dropped 45 minutes on me during the climb... Meryl looked disgustingly fit and unflustered in particular...
We ate at the top, took the usual pics, but though it had to be done I don't think it was anyone's favorite, busy, ugly and neglected by turn. The hideous sculpture of a cyclist - who looks like he's just been kicked in the nuts - dominating the scene. It just emphasized my belief that climbing up the other way, from Luz St Sauveur is much nicer.
One noteworthy thing about the top is a small plaque under the 'suffering cyclist' sculpture. It commemorates the first time the Tormalet was part of 'Le Tour' in 1911. The winner of the stage had to cycle over the col at a time when it was a dirt track, on a single-speed bike. The stage only finished after 360 km. It took 14 hours. Reading it made us all feel very, very small...
Suitably chastened we then did the easy bit - very quickly...
Swinging into Luz we stopped for coffee and bun before even more downhill to the campsite at Argeles. This was a huge affair (cheap too) with swimming pools, bars etc. But it was very poorly signposted and we had to ask directions. When I asked the owner why there weren't any signposts she said that all there were lots of signs if you'd come from the other direction where most of their custom came from... Think about it...
That evening we found a lovely restaurant who also agreed that Rob and Allan could watch Manchester United and Arsenal try to kick each other off the park - Not a good advert for British football, especially that missed penalty Rob:-)