As we have different perspectives about going over the Pyrenees, we thought you might like to hear from both of us:
Cycling south from Toulouse in pouring rain, I was praying that the weather forecast I’d used to persuade Clare to go over the mountains would turn out to be true.
This is the forecast that I’d shown her for the week ahead together with words of encouragement like … “Perfect conditions for a mountain adventure. How hard can it be? We’ll always regret it if we don’t.”
To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea how hard it might be.
Secretly I was hoping that bad weather would mean we had to take the coast road around the Pyrenees and along the Spanish coast to Barcelona. However, as this window of opportunity opened up and I realised the sense of achievement we’d get by going over the top, I began to prepare myself for a mountain crossing.
I googled potential routes and found one on the website of a cycling holiday company that we could join at Bagneres-de-Luchon. OK, it meant riding further away from Barcelona through the middle of the Pyrenees and it included four mountain climbs (rather than one) but they didn’t appear to be quite as steep. Plus we would cycle on quiet roads through lovely countryside – perfect!
I carefully plotted the routes and did all the calcs declaring these climbs not as steep as Prior Park (one of our local hills in Bath) but just a bit longer! They averaged ‘only’ 6-7% gradients with the first one being the steepest.
Thursday – Luchon to Arties over Col du Portillon
Friday – Arties to Sort over Port de la Bonaigua
By this time I’d convinced myself that it was the right decision to follow Andy’s new route but only had the first mountain climb in mind (as he had said the others were easier). Despite his detailed analysis of elevation, incline and stats, I prefer to not look too far ahead and just tackle what’s in front of me. One day at a time! I did, however, point out that this first climb was going to be six times longer than Prior Park Hill!
As we pedalled up the valley towards Luchon on our last day in France, the mountains grew bigger and the river flowed stronger. The sun was shining, my legs felt good and we were on cycle paths for most of the way.
The closer we got to the mountains, the higher they looked and the more nervous I became. I had a sleepless night wondering if we’d done the right thing.
By Thursday morning (Day 38) we were heading up the Col du Portillon on that first climb. This pass has featured in the Tour de France several times and winds it’s way 700m up through 10km of pine forests to a height of 1292m. I must admit it was a bit steep at times (13.9%) but it was incredibly beautiful.
As we whooped with delight at the top, Clare confessed that she’d enjoyed it more than she’d expected to. Phew!
The moment I had anxiously waited for had arrived. It was freezing cold as we set off from Luchon and the incline graph Andy had showed me the previous evening kept racing through my mind. Had I reached the red, orange, blue or green phase? Not knowing what these really meant was probably a blessing in disguise as I arrived at alpine pastures and the sound of cow bells more quickly than expected. A long climb punctuated with steeper ascents then took us to the top.
Much to my surprise I had made it with some energy to spare. A moment to savour. As we cruised down the winding road into Spain, the Aran valley opened up and we were soon enjoying our first Spanish tapas.
After lunch we faced a long slow climb back up to 1100m which I found a lot harder than Clare. As she ate the miles up I rather limped into the delightful village of Arties.
On Friday morning (Day 39) the mountain road led us up through Baquiera ski resort to the mountain pass of Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m. This is a climb of 1000m over 16km and was part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour.
Not quite as steep as they day before but it did go on and on and on. The last 5km were dominated by switchbacks which I rode up as fast as I could to the summit. It was only when I looked down at Clare emerging from the tree line that I realised just how high we were.
Have you ever felt delirious with exhaustion? Well I did today. Throughout the climb I could hear my daughters voice repeating in my head “Jeez, why put yourself through this?” As I looked up, all I could see were yet more hairpin bends above.
Two hours of leg throbbing and brittle determination got me to the top – I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the moment and the beautiful scenery around. No whooping this time!
Predictably Strava recorded us as amongst the slowest cyclists on these climbs. Was it the stops to admire the view? Or to munch a banana and recover? Or was it the extra weight we were carrying including such essential kit as a new beard trimmer, a keyboard, 2 iPads, a sketchbook and pencils along with the hairdryer, the pillow and the Pilates balls.
Nurdishly, I worked out on bikecalculator.com that the panniers equate to an extra 1% apparent gradient. This climb was an average 6% gradient, with our panniers it felt like 7%.
Who cares about Strava? We’re touring cyclists.
Snaking down hairpin bends on our descent was incredible. A sense of freedom to both legs and mind. It was surprisingly cold as the alpine air whipped past. Cruising at a speed of up to 50km/hour we descended into the magnificent Aran valley, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking view.
On the steeper sections we practised descending techniques we’d been told about – inside leg up and braking alternately front and back to stop the brakes heating up too much. Occasionally I had to pull both of them hard at the same time. The sudden smell of burning rubber and the realisation that it can only be coming from your own brakes is not a great feeling!
Once again, Clare was stronger in the afternoon. Perhaps I pedalled too hard at the top of the mountain and burnt myself out? Perhaps I’m just not as strong as she is?
We now have two choices. Go over the mountains for the next two days or head down the valley towards Portugal. No choice really – I’ll just have to pace the climb better to keep up with my wife in the afternoon. Here’s the profile for the next two days:
Sunday Plan – Sort to Coll de Nargo
Monday Plan – Coll de Nargo to Solsona
Now feeling re-energised after a rest and three huge meals yesterday, the thought of another 1000m of mountain climbing doesn’t fill me with quite such dread. I’m so amazed how much I’m eating!
But I have come to a realisation:
Some people are made for cycling in the mountains, others are made for pedalling along canal paths.
I like canal paths!
I think she secretly likes cycling in mountains …
No I don’t …
At least the weather forecast came true!