The only way is up
Tour de France fan Marcus Leach fulfils a lifelong dream of cycling in the Pyrénées – a picturesque region that offers something for the whole family
Gravel road above the Col du Tourmalet
I stop pedalling not because I want to, but because I have to. The dirt track that I’ve been riding on for the past hour suddenly vanishes under a snow drift, swallowed in its entirety by a swathe of white. I take a moment to catch my breath, which is easier said than done at 2,600m, and assess my options.
On the other side of the snowdrift the track reappears, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain that has fascinated me ever since I was a small boy. For three weeks every summer, I’d be captivated by footage of the Tour de France, watching competitors do battle on roads I could only dream of riding. Now, with no obvious, safe way to rejoin the track beyond the snow, I accept that on this occasion the mountain will remain out of my reach.
The Pyrénées have a long history when it comes to cycling, not to mention being a stellar touring destination. Its mythical climbs have been the setting for some of the sport’s most iconic conflicts, as well as the backdrops to many a broken dream. There are few places in Europe that hold such an appeal to those of us for whom two-wheeled adventures bring as much joy as touring in our motorhomes.
Looking back down Luz Ardiden
When Kim, my wife, and I sat down to begin planning our family’s Big European Odyssey, an 18-month journey through at least 28 countries, it was inevitable that our route would wend its way through the rugged peaks of these fabled mountains. Stretching over 400km (250 miles) from the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, and acting as a natural border between France and Spain, the Pyrénées are split into several regions, each with its own distinctive appeal.
Given the scope of our trip, we had the luxury of slowly crossing the entire range from west to east. However, it was the Hautes-Pyrénées that captured our hearts, because, as well as the sublime cycling on offer, it is an ideal touring destination in its own right. With so many famous climbs, plus a myriad of lesser-known roads snaking their way ever upwards, the difficulty lay in finding how to take in as many of them as possible, while sharing the magic of the region as a family.
There was a palpable sense of excitement in the motorhome as the faint outline of snow-capped peaks could finally be seen on the horizon, and with it the promise of a new adventure. Our travels had so far hugged the coastline of France, first traversing along the north to take in the war memorials, and then down the west coast to savour the tranquil beaches. But now, for the first time since setting off from Wales five weeks earlier, we were approaching mountains; they slowly grew larger as we headed towards Lourdes, until eventually they towered over us.
Behind Lourdes, a town famed the world over for the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Lourdes and the Grotte de Massabielle, sits the small but brilliant La Forêt Lourdes campsite, the perfect starting point for our Pyrénéan adventure. Not only is it the gateway to a cycling heaven, but it’s close to the pilgrimage town, as well as a host of scenic walks in the surrounding forests and mountains. While we are not religious, it was impossible not to appreciate the grandeur and craftsmanship of the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Lourdes, which was even more impressive against a sky turned golden orange by the setting sun.
As enjoyable as it was, our time near Lourdes was very much the hors d’oeuvre for what was to come, and we ventured deeper into the mountains. Set in the wild and beautiful Val d’Azun, with the mesmeric Lac d’Estaing farther up the valley, and surrounded by spectacular mountain views, Pyrénées Natura would be our campsite for the next week.
Rise to the challenge
Admiring the sunrise at the top of Hautacam
This was where my cycling began in earnest. The next few days followed a similar pattern as I rose early each morning, the world around me shrouded in darkness and the air cool against my skin, as I set off in search of summits that I’d long pined for. I could have left later in the day, such was the close proximity of any number of climbs to the campsite, but I craved the solitude to be found in the hours before the world awoke around me, watching the first slithers of light spill onto the horizon as night gave way, feeling the warmth of the sun as it slowly emerged from behind silhouetted peaks.
It was still relatively early in the season so, more often than not, I had the roads to myself, bar the sheep, cows and llamas that roam free here, oblivious to my presence as they nonchalantly grazed the lush green grass. Joyful ascents of Col du Soulor, Col d’Aubisque, Luz Ardiden, Cirque de Troumouse and Hautacam all paved the way for the region’s premier climb, the jewel in a crown studded with gems: the mighty Col du Tourmalet.
The Col du Tourmalet is one of the most famous – perhaps the most famous – Tour de France climbs, an ascent that has been used almost 90 times in the race’s history. It’s this very mountain that fascinated me as a little boy, sparking a life-long love for two-wheeled adventures. The road coils its way up the mountain like an angry snake, and at the summit sits the statue of Octave Lapize, winner of the 1910 Tour de France – a testament to those who have successfully tackled it. Yet, despite the legend of this road, it’s the almost unknown six kilometres of dirt track beyond it that fascinate me most.
As I have gotten older my passion for cycling has evolved, much like the sport itself. Now I take just as much joy from riding off-road as I do on asphalt, which explains why, upon reaching the traditional summit of the Col du Tourmalet, I didn’t stop for the traditional photograph. Instead, I turned left onto the old gravel track that leads all the way up to Pic du Midi de Bigorre at an altitude of 2,877m. I was suddenly alone, my mind free as my eyes feasted on the dizzying views back down into the valley, the silence broken only by the rhythmic crunch of gravel under my tyres.
With every pedal stroke I ascended towards a pocket of the mountains that few get to experience, at least on two wheels, savouring the sense of isolation. I rode on in an almost meditative state, a feeling of pure joy washing over me. Ultimately my efforts to reach Pic du Midi were in vain, because the snow drift, even at the time of year, was impassable. I turned back. But if I’ve learnt anything from years of cycling it’s that the allure of the mountains are only heightened by experiences such as this.
And so, as we left the Pyrénées behind, I knew I’d be back. New adventures awaited as our journey took us towards Switzerland and the promise of yet more tantalising peaks.