Riding the Pyrenees

Bruce Swales

Early this year a mate of mine in NZ suggested we meet up in France in June and ride several of the Cols in the Pyrenees. As our respective non-cycling wives would be coming along we decided to keep the rides to two with a day in between to stave off the risk of them saying no to the trip.  Frank had climbed alp d’Huez last year so suggested we did col d’Tourmalet on one day and the cols Soulor and Aubisque on the other day. Who was I to argue with that?


As these were all HC climbs I thought I better do some serious training in the lead up. All was going well until 6 weeks out and I had [another] heart attack. At around the same time my mate Frank had given himself a hernia.  How was a couple of sick old farts now going to tackle 3 of the top LeTour climbs?  Never say you can’t do anything so instead of canceling the trip it was full steam ahead. My cardiologist reluctantly agreed so long as I promised to keep my heart rate below 80% of my HRmax. I resumed very light training initially and only managed to get in a couple of Fabers and Rifle Range Roads before departing.


My wife and I were having a week in London beforehand, and a week in Barcelona afterwards so I decided not to bring my bike. Frank was also not bringing his bike and had sourced a good bike rental shop in Luz-Saint Sauver, which is at the bottom of Tourmalet.  Here we could rent 2015 Scott Solace disc brake models for around 50 euro for a day.

We flew into Toulouse and were met by Frank and his wife in a rental car and went on to the old city of Pau, where we would base ourselves (mainly so the wives could find interesting things to do when we were out riding). After a carbo loading pasta dinner it was time to sort out clothing for the next day Tourmalet climb.   As these are alpine rides the weather could be fantastic or it could be wet and very cold, so I had brought along my ANZA kit plus a thermal undershirt, arm warmers and a light rainproof jacket. The forecast was for a 6C start, warming up to 18C during the day.

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The morning duly arrived and we were off to pick up the bikes. The climb basically started at the bike rental place and we were straight into an 8% climb, which never really let’s up.  The climb to the top of Tourmalet is 20km and averages 8-9%. There are several switchbacks nearing the top and a final albeit short climb of well over 10%. The scenery is fantastic and we were  periodically serenaded by sheep bells (yes, cow bells on sheep).  We made it (at an embarrassingly slow pace for reasons earlier explained) and after a high-5 and obligatory photographs we had a double espresso at the cafeteria at the top, which had only opened for the summer season a day prior.  The descent back down was nothing short of exhilarating (and very cold) with my average heart rate over the decent being almost the same as during the ascent. Total climbing for the day was 1401 metres.

The next day was a rest day with the wives so we planned a picnic in the alpine lake area, which involved a drive over the Col d’Aspin (next time I will ride this).  At the top of Aspin we stopped to take photographs along with about 20 cyclists who were being eyed up by a herd of cows.  One of the cows didn’t like me, probably as I wasn’t wearing lycra, and at very short notice attacked me leaving a rather large red mark on my stomach from its rather large horns.  We drove down Aspin into the valley where we chanced upon the Route du Sud (TdF warm up race) coming through a village. The police stopped us well beforehand so we had time to get cameras ready whilst figuring out what race this was (we didn’t know it was Route du Sud at that time and only later that night learned it was and that Contador and Quintana were both in it).  So I now have a video taken on my HP of Contador and Quintana riding near the front of the peloton! Contador won that stage and went on to win the Route.

The following day was the day for Soulor and Aubisque.  We drove with the bikes to the village of Saint-Savin, to start the climb up Col d’Soulor.  The weather was perfect with a forecast of 30C.  From Saint-Sauvin the ride starts with about 3 km of rolling hills before commencing the 18km (approx) climb up Soulor. Again, the average was around an 8% but quite doable – you just need to find your own rhythm and pace and stick to it. We reached the top of Soulor, took the obligatory photographs and had a coffee and chat with 3 dutch riders. It was then on to the summit of Aubisque, which is a 10km ride along a stunning winding alpine road with sheer cliff drops.  This stretch starts with a descent for a kilometer or two, a relatively flat middle section and then a 3km or so climb up Aubisque at an average of 6-7%. About half way along the middle flat section is a tunnel, which had been partially blocked by a cattle truck full of sheep being offloaded for summer grazing on mountain slopes. Whilst cars could not pass we could – so, onwards and upwards.


At the top of Aubisque it was time again for obligatory photographs – this time with the ‘3 big bikes’ we have seen on TV during LeTour, followed by a ham and cheese baguette lunch and coffee at one of the two cafés at the top. After some banter about the forthcoming rugby World Cup with a bunch of Irish cyclists it was time for the descent. The descent was even more exhilarating than Tourmalet as some repairs to the road had recently been made and there were patches of loose seal to keep one on his toes.  A total climb of 1509 metres. The weather was absolutely picture perfect all day, with no clouds.  It was warm enough that I did the whole day in just my ANZA kit with no inner or arm warmers, but plenty of sun screen was absolutely needed.


We returned the bikes to Luz-Saint Sauveur and then back to Pau for a celebratory drink or 3, and dinner.  All good things come to an end and the next day we were on to Barcelona for the remaining leg of our holiday (with no riding).

Our goals were achieved but I will definitely go back for more in the future. These are mountains where Tours have been won and lost, and cycling history made!


1 thought on “Riding the Pyrenees

  1. Great story Bruce! It’s inspiring that you could complete the trip given the issues you had in the lead-up. Thanks for sharing.

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