Rob Ennals > Travel > Simon and Rob Invade and Conquer France

Day 7: The Tourmalet

Barages -> Arreau


  • Second half of Tourmalet: 965m
  • Col d'Apsin: 610m

And at 7am we arose.

Simon's guidebook informed us that "Tourmalet" means "wrong way". It apparently acquired this name because people used to consider it to be a really silly way to cross the Pyrenees. This is due to its being high, steep, and usually blocked up with snow. The first two points however make it ideal as a cycle climb.

We whizzed up the remaining half of the Tourmalet, accompanied by a torrent of other cyclists. I had been speculating that my 140UKP Dawes mountain bike was the grottiest bike ever to climb the Tourmalet, and was mortified to discover a man on his daughters old Raleigh mountain bike. Simon's Cannondale was also outclassed in the "flash bike" field by loads of slick, expensive looking race machines. In such company, Simon's bike felt positively cheap.

On reaching the top, we had a beer, took some cheesy photos, and went looking for a spectator spot. Having found a spectator spot, we now realised that we had five hours to wait until the Tour would actually arrive. I wondered if perhaps we had allowed a little too much time.

As we sat waiting, more and more bikes steadily climbed up. Despite the huge numbers of people climbing the mountain, we only spotted two other people with panniers. This gave us a warm glow of inner hardness. Enormous cheers went up for anyone young, anyone wearing Orange, or anyone cycling fast.

The enthusiasm for Orange was because we had sat down in the middle of a crowd of Basque separatists. In addition to liking Orange, the Basques seemed to dislike the police. As a police-bike went past, they waved nationalist flags and chanted "ETA ETA". This continued until the police had passed, at which point they reverted to "Incy wincy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini".

Simon revoked his plan of supporting US Postal...

Pyrenean mountains are strange. Despite being twice that height of Ben-Nevis (a mountain on which people die of exposure), we were very hot, and Simon was getting sunburnt. I tried to maintain a position under the shadow of a cable car, but gave up when the shadow moved into a patch of thistles (which were somehow much nastier than normal thistles).

The Tour was proceeded by a strange caravan of publicity vehicles for the race sponsors. Some of these vehicles were giving out useless plastic objects, and all of them seemed to be occupied by people who looked thoroughly bored. Simon commented that driving solidly for three weeks inside a giant teapot probably gets rather dull rather quickly.

Adding together all the sponsor vehicles, support vehicles, police vehicles, and vehicles with no obvious purpose, there seemed to be a vast number of cars, given that the Tour is supposed to be a cycle race. Cars were probably outnumbering cyclists by around two to one. Even when the race finally arrived, they were surrounded by cars and motorbikes belonging to various teams and TV companies.

The actual race was great. There were no barriers to hold back the crowds, so the bikes got so close that we could potentially touch them. This was particularly true for where I was standing, which was on the inside of a bend that riders wanted to cut. My view was quite restricted, and I was often unexpectedly buzzed by riders, including several which went under my armpit while my arms were raised.

The race having passed, we paused a while to watch the end of the race on a TV belonging to the Basques, and then began our descent. The spectator cars had occupied their time well, creating a massive traffic jam leading all the way down the mountain. Not wishing to waste our precious altitude, we took the dubious route of driving down the left hand side of the road, swerving out of the way whenever anything came the other way - It felt just like being back in Blighty.

As we went on, the traffic cleared a bit, but was still going a little slower than we wanted to go (around 30mph, rather than the 40+ we were wanting to do), we thus joined a pack of other cyclists tearing down the mountain, pulling out to overtake any large vehicles that were going slower than we wanted. The other vehicles were very helpful, with coach drivers waving us past when they could see the going was clear, but it still felt very scary. The general "weirdness" was amplified by the fact that the Basques were very excited as a Basque rider had won the stage [Simon - and has since tested positive for EPO...]. Everyone was cheering, and hooting their horns. We decided that it was probably wise to be Basque supporters, and so did some token cheering of our own.

On reaching the bottom, we decided that we hadn't really cycled very far yet, and, although we had done a big climb, it had been hours and hours ago. We thus decided to do the next col along - the Col d'Aspin. At the top of this climb, we ran into Eric again, and decided to join him in finding somewhere to camp in the next town.

Following our normal pattern, we flew down the mountain at silly speeds. Eric decided to take a rather more sedate approach, and on arrival at the bottom, told us what lunatics we were, and how much our rear panniers had been swinging in the wind.

From the bottom of the mountain, it was a short glide to the municipal campsite in Arreau, at which we stopped. As we came into the campsite, I made a pathetic excuse about my new brake blocks not stopping me as hard as my previous ones, and that being the reason I had been slower than Simon down the decent. Simon moved to quash this claim, and said he would show how quickly he could make my bike stop. Thus motivated, he got on my bike, built up a speed, squeezed my brakes as hard as he could, and broke my rear brake cable. We all agreed that if my brake cable was going to break, then a nice flat town was probably the best place for it.