First Anti-Clockwise Britain Circumnav Completed - Video

I'm delighted to say the team of three lads who were kayaking around Britain, the wrong way around, have completed their circumnavigation.

There were many teams going around Britain this year, but these lads caught my attention for two reasons.  

Firstly, they're from the same Northumberland fishing village as me, but mainly because they were attempting an anti-clockwise circumnavigation.

I wrote about them early in their trip after being contacted by one of their support team.  I don't have the video here, so click over onto the BBC website to see three very happy young men.  Here's their website.  93 days too - amazing!

The Road to Hope - cycling far NW Scotland

Earlier this year we did some sea kayaking on the north coast of Scotland.  

As we drove the road from Lairg to Tongue, listening to the Eurovision Song Contest on the van radio, we both remarked what a great road we thought it would be to cycle.

So given a couple of days of good weather and no work, we headed back there in the van.

We parked beside the filling station / shop in Lairg where, I was told, vehicles are often left overnight.

We had our normal road bikes which don't take panniers.  But that was no problem. Continues

Les Cabannes - Route des Corniches

Route des Corniches, Col de Marmare & Col de Chioula, 70.9km, ascent 1383m

This sounded a cracking ride when we read it in Graeme Fife's book, our 'bible' for this trip. 

The problem is, it's a linear ride, from Tarascon sur Ariege to Ax les Thermes.

With no convenient mionor road at a low level, the only way to turn it into a loop would be to come back along the hideously busy N20.  

Being skimmed by truck drivers tanked up on Red Bull is not my idea of fun.  

So we decided to skip the first section and turn it into an out-and-back route, visiting two cols. 

It worked well and certainly gave us an introduction to the Eastern Pyrenees.  This area feels very different to where we've ridden until now.

The attractive town of Les Cabannes was our base, staying first at an Aire (with toilets) and then at the municipal campsite, where pitches are very small and are mixed with long-stay residents.

I can't recommend this site and feel we might have been better off at the local Camping a la Ferme, just across the river in Verdun.

From Les Cabannes, the initial climb through Verdun, past that camping, is the toughest of the day, and follows the route of the Areogoise Cyclosportive (end of June). 

The hairpins are good, there's lots of shade, and soon you're on the Corniche, which my dictionary translates as "cornice". 

The name is frequently given to roads which cling to the rock, and while this route doesn't exactly live up to that death defying promise, it is a lovely ride, passing through many high, attractive villages.

At Lordat you can decide to descend to the valley and try your luck either on the N20 or prospecting a back-roads route to return.  Feeling refresh, and tempted by the signs to Col de Marmare, we pressed on. 

Talcum poweder cable car - seriously
Ever wondered where talcum powder comes from? 

Me neither, but the answer is, "here".  Incidentally, who uses talcum powder nowardays?

Anyway, there's a huge mine ontop of this mountain, where this precious commodity is dug out of the ground.  Amazingly enough, it is a tourist attraction with regular public visits, presumably from talc enthusiasts.

We were not tempted by this dubious delight, but we did ride underneath the industrial cable-car which passes across the road.

This carries buckets of the stuff down to be processed in the industrial town of Ax les Thermes.

It reminded me of the similar system near where I grew up, which carried waste from the coal mines of Ashington in Northumberland and dumped it on the top of huge slag heaps.

Pretty soon you're through the last village of Caussou, and you start a long, long climb to the col. However, the road is very quiet and the gradient very easy, so it's actually a delight to ride.

The col is merely a route to somewhere else, in this case the slightly higher Col de Chioula just a few kilometres further.  This is a ski station with a pretty good cafe, although when we arrived we were slightly surprised to find an ambulance waiting for cyclists.  

It seems we had stumbled onto the route of a Triathlon for which the ambulance was providing emergency cover.

We returned by exactly the same route, and although this was most definitely an out-and-back route, it didn't feel like it.

Or perhaps it just felt completely different to recent rides which have just gone straight to the top of a col and back down again.  Which was, of course, Liz's whole point in us coming to ride here.

So that's the end of these blog posts about our Campervan & Cols trip to the Pyrenees in June 2012.  To read all the posts (in reverse order) click here.

Our journey didn't end here - we spent a lot more time in France, walking and cycling, but I'll not bore you with those details.  

The whole idea of writing this, with GPS tracks and campsite suggestions, has been to present a useful source of information for anyone planning a similar trip.  If you've found it useful, a quick comment to that effect would be make me 'appy.

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Bagneres de Luchon - Col de Peyresourde

Col de Peyresourde 31.3km, ascent 980m

We had a day off yesterday, relaxing in a subterranean steam room, the "Vaporarium" that's unique to Bagneres de Luchon.

I don't think it helped the muscles much, but it was relaxing in general.

"Luchon" as it's usually known is a superb base for all manner of cycling.

From early July (next week as I write) the gondola from the town centre will be open to mountain bikes.  This gives easy access to 70km of colour graded trails that descend from SuperBagneres ski resort.

There are loads of great road climbs too - SuperBagneres, Col du Portillon to Spain, Port de Balles, and of course the Col de Peyresourde.  

My planning for this Campervan & Cols trip only took us as far as Luchon, the end of the Western Pyrenees, because I didn't know how we'd feel at this point.  Would we want to keep riding Cols or head to the beach?

Turns out Liz has had enough of days when we just ride up to a Col and whizz back down, and she's looking for some touring-type rides which visit quaint villages.  We'll not find that type of ride here among the big mountains, so after today we'll move on.

But not before I ride the Peyresourde.  What a classic!

Never ludicrously steep, it pulls out of Luchon towards the town of Garin, which all the books will tell you is not named after the first winner of the TdF.  That is just a coincidence. 

This was the first major climb of our trip without kilometre markers along its length.

There's one at the start saying 14.5km to climb, which is wrong, it's less than 13km from the sign. The next similar sign, with 3km to go, is correct.

Above Garin there's a lovely open space with a small chapel, and ahead you can see the long, long zigzags that lead to the Col.

Perhaps the Vaporarium had done me more benefit that I thought, but I found this a relatively easy ride and was up and down in under two hours. 

Bagneres de Luchon - Backpacking Port de Venasque

When we packed the Campervan weeks ago back in Scotland, we put our hiking kit in a big bag.

We remembered to bring large, backpacking rucksacks and a small tent with us because we knew that somewhere we'd want to spend a night camped high in the mountains.

This was that time and place.

I'd climbed the Port de Venasque from the Spanish side many years ago, and because I knew the countryside around it was spectacular, I was certain it would feature in any multi-day hike.

Years ago I'd spotted a 4-5 day route described by Chris Townsend and tackling Chris' route was in the back of my mind.  However, we decided that was too long for this Pyrenean visit, being more a holiday in its own right.

A single overnight would suit us better on this occasion, and anyway, there was a storm due in less than two days.

Hospice de France
So I turned to Kev Reynolds Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees which describes a long single day hike from the Hospice de France, which now a refuge.

I felt this single-day walk could easily be split into two days, so that is what we did. 

We spent the night in the van just below the large car park at the Hospice where level platforms, with rather steep access, have been created.

In the morning we only just made it into the large car park before the whole thing filled up - there would be a lot of people hiking from here.  If you want to walk from here get into the car park before 8am.

Refuge de Venasque
We tackled the walk in the opposite direction to that described in Kev's book, going straight into the tough climb to the Refuge de Venasque with laden sacks.

That seems a bit daft but there was a reason - we weren't sure about the availability of water at our chosen campsite.

If the guardian of the hut told us there would be no water, we'd have to carry it from the hut, but fortunately there was lots.  And I think the walk worked well this way around.

The cleft in the ridge is every bit as dramatic as I remembered, with stunning views from the Port de Venasque (2444m) across to Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees.

On my first visit here, I remember a guide telling me this route was regularly used during the Spanish Civil War by foreigners coming to fight with the International Brigades against Franco. 

Sorry about the initial wind noise in the video below - it does die down.  (story continues)

We hiked to where we intended to camp, but it quickly became clear the Port dera Picada was too rocky and windy as a campsite.  

However, the meadow below the Pas de Eascalette looked lovely, with tiny lochans and lots of shelter. 

It took seconds to decide that this was home for the night and soon the tent was up.  

The ultra-light single-skin hooped tent with sewn groundsheet is a Rainbow 2 made in the US by, run by Henry Shires and is excellent for this type of hiking.  

A full moon illuminated the entire mountainside and it was chilly by morning, even inside our sleeping bags. 

Soon the sun warmed the tent and we were on our way, heading down through sheep-filled meadows.

Curiously, three goats were sitting amongst a huge herd of sheep, looking for all the world like they were the ones in charge.  

It was a gradual, pleasant decent followed by swift drive down into Luchon and the Pradelongue Campsite (one of the best so far) to shower, do laundry, email and sit out a couple of days of rain.  

Bagneres de Bigorre - Col d'Aspin & Col du Tourmalet (again)

Col d'Aspin & Col du Tourmalet. 62km, ascent 2035m

The Aspin, from the western side at least, is an easy climb.  To make a good day out, it really should be combined with another Col at least.

So what are the options?

There's the Col de Peyrousade, if you can sort out transport or fancy a really long ride.

Less well known than the Aspin, but higher and more remote, is the Hourquette d'Ancizan which allows you make a loop around the town of Arreau - tat would be a leg tester.

My choice was to tackle the Aspin first, and then climb the Tourmalet again, this time from the south side. That sounded like a suitable challenge.

These and other routes are contained in a brochure called 20 Circuits Velo available at Tourist Offices in the area for 3 Euros.

Leaving our campsite at Bagneres de Bigorre we drove to Saint Marie de Campan, the junction where the Aspin / Tourmalet roads split, and found an Aire a few metres up the road.  It's in the Aires book but it feels more like a car park by the side of the road.

Pic du Midi in distance
The ride up the Col d'Aspin from here took less than an hour and I never needed my granny ring. It was a genuinely lovely ride.  

We hit cow rush-hour on the way up, but a few slaps on their backsides got us through. 

The cattle here seem to have an itinerary for each hour of the day, moving at set times from lower to upper pastures without intervention from their owners.  Or, for that matter, any particular consideration for road users.

The ride down was very chilly, with a cold wind now blowing from the north. We'd had rain with thunder yesterday and there was a sense it might return.

The Tourmalet from the east starts gently and lulls you into thinking it might be like this all the way up. 

Llama slalom
But somewhere along the way, the road gradually steepens and you realise you're panting for breath in the red zone. 

No cows on this road, but there was a herd of llamas. 

'Slaloming llamas on the Tourmalet' would make a good title for something. 

Through the rockfall tunnels we've seen so many times on the TdF coverage and through the un-lovely ski station of La Mongie from where the cable car whisks tourists to the summit of Pic du Midi. 

This last section is... you know, I can't remember much about whether it was steep or not, but it felt good... all the way to the summit.

Where there was an 'enthusiastic' crowd conforming to their national stereotype.

A large posse of German cyclists, all in perfectly matching yellow strips, were drinking beer outside the summit cafe, dragging chairs into the middle of the road to block traffic and generally making complete arses of themselves.  

I'd ridden much of the way chatting with a lad from Frankfurt (that's him with the llamas) who, on seeing his countrymen's antics, did a pretty good job of appearing to be French.  

So having ridden it from both sides, which way up the Tourmalet is harder?  

The one where you ride another col first.

Tomorrow we're off the bike and tackling a spectacular two-day backpacking trip across the border into Spain.

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Bagneres de Bigorre Ride 1 - Easy Loop

Bagneres de Bigorre area. 49km, 1019m

"We just go up a Col and then roll back down!", complained Liz. "Can we ride a nice loop somewhere?"

Prompted by that request we drove from Luz Saint Sauveur to Bagneres de Bigorre, where I'd spotted on the Michelin road atlas some nice looking roads to the east of the town.  

It also happens to be a good place from which to ride the Col d'Aspin but that, of course, is entirely incidental.

We found a good campsite in Camping Le Monloo which was walking distance from the town.  Saturday is market day in Bagneres de Bigorree, and if you're here with a good bike, don't ride to town. 
The place is heaving with people, stalls spill out onto the street and you'd hardly be able to wheel a bike through the crowds.  You certainly wouldn't want to leave it locked anywhere either.

But take a couple of rucksacks to carry back all the excellent fresh produce.

Do you think he uses that toilet roll?
So it was around 2:30 we went out for a nice, "gentle" recovery ride in the Pyrenean foothills. 

I'd bought a €3 cycling route booklet at the Tourist Office (20 Circuits Velo) and, sure enough, the roads I'd spotted on the map were indeed recommended cycling routes.  

However, there were few clues as to the gradients on the roads or the length of the climbs.

Where we went isn't important and frankly I doubt if I could retrace the route, although the GPS track is below. 

We made decisions at cross roads as we came to them. But it was a little tricky staying on track with only a photocopy page from the road atlas to navigate by (there are no topos in the Tourist Office booklet). 

While we covered less than 50km, we climbed more than on some of our days riding cols! 

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Luz St Sauveur - Luz Ardiden. Video.

Luz Ardiden. 32km, 1052m

For the first six kilometres of this climb I thought there wasn't much to say about it.

You ride up a road with quite a few zig-zags, occasional villages perched on bends, then you'd freewheel back down again into Luz.

What more could there be to it?

Then at the half-way point, everything changed.

The thick mist I'd been riding in since Luz (for which lights were a reassuring addition) melted away.  The tree line ended.

There were no cars - not one.  And abruptly the climb took on a life of its own.

These weren't just hairpins, these were roller coaster switchbacks, dipping into re-entrants, curving around spurs, flipping back on themselves and always trending upwards.

It felt easy to ride, but that's possibly because I had lots of rests when I kept stopping to take photos. 

With the sea of white cloud still clogging the valley, the peaks rising like islands, and the sinuous road weaving towards the sunlit uplands, it felt close to heaven.  Watch the video and you'll hopefully see what I mean.  (Story continues below).

Except when you get there, it's a dump. The ski station is a monstrosity and it's owners have scattered the usual detritus of metal on the mountain, as out of place as a fish in a bike race. 

The descent wasn't as fast as others, there are far too many bends, but it was oh so much fun. 

Hitting the fog, the temperature dropped 15 degrees, and the rain jacket came on, over my wind-proof gillet and arm-warmers. 

After another 6:40 start I was back in Luz just after 9am, having ridden in the cool of the day and experienced a superb temperature inversion.

On the way down, a marmot watched me from its sunny spot on a low wall, only jumping off as I ventured a little too close for a photo. 

Realising he'd jumped down the wrong side of the wall, two wee claws immediately appeared, scrabbling for purchase on top of the concrete before sliding off.  

I checked to see the little fella was OK, as he grumpily made his way to a lower gap in the wall.

I had thought this would be a tick-list ride, little more than a chance to see the place where Lance Armstrong rode that incredible comeback after clipping a spectator's musette, and where Jan Ulrich had waited rather than attack. 

I was completely wrong. Luz Ardiden is an utter classic.

While I was enjoying myself, Liz had packed the van for our next move. 

She announced she was tired of rides which just went up then down. She wanted a day-tour, more like we'd done a the start of this trip. A quick look at the map and I found what I hoped would be the ideal spot, Bagneres de Bigorre.  So that's where we head next.

Which just happens to also be a great place from which to ride the best side of the Col d'Aspin...

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Luz St Sauveur - Col du Tourmalet

Col du Tourmalet 41.2km, 1446m

What a ride!

The King Col of the Pyrenees, it's worth five stars in anyone's book, including one of our two 'Guidebooks', Tour Climbs by Chris Sidwells.

(The other book we relied upon and recommend is the superb Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees by Graeme Fife).

You can read all about the long history of the Tourmalet in such books (first major col in the TdF 1910; the 'blacksmith' incident'; and much more). 

So as I write, sitting in our van an hour or so having finished, I'll just share some quick thoughts.  (I wrote this at the time and I'm publishing it weeks later)

The first decision is where to start.

We climbed it from the west because we've just come from Gavarnie (see yesterday).  

From this side, a purist would begin the climb back in Argeles-Gazost from where we rode the Aubisque and Hautacam.  

Or perhaps from Pierrefitte-Nestalas?  Indeed, the Topo maps in the €5 pack (available at all Tourist Offices in the valley) start the Tourmalet climb at Pierrefitte-Nestalas, which is linked to Argeles by a cycle track, making the ride 64km with 1655m of ascent.

However, we're staying at the recommended Airotel Campsite in Luz Saint Sauveur.  This town is higher and nearer the Tourmalet than Argeles-Gazost, so is riding from here cheating?  

I don't care.  We chose to ride from Luz because the road-ride between Pierrefitte-Nestalas and Luz did not look at all pleasant.  

It's a busy, busy road, thronged by tourists, coaches, campervans, lorries and other traffic heading to Luz and Gavarnie beyond.

What's more, the 18.6km climb indicators by the side of the road mark the Tourmalet ascent from just outside Luz, so they obviously think the climb starts in this town. 

Yet again we started early, with wheels rolling by 6:40am.

Yesterday afternoon's temperature topped 35c leaving us northern Europeans wilting. There was no way we wanted to be on this climb in full sun.

Consequently, we were among the first to the summit, reaching it in 2 hours, just before the coaches, motorbikes and motor homes decided to challenge their mechanical engines to the same effort. 

A feature of the Tourmalet climb from this side are the long rising straights, punctuated infrequently by several hair-pin bends. 

Seeing the rising road stretch ahead could have been demoralising, but I found it jolly good fun, although there were two distinct halves to the ride. 

The first led through villages and beneath shady trees on what I'd call 'normal' roads, the every day stuff of cycling in France.  The early start meant the sun was still behind the mountain for a lot of the time and the road remained cool.

After the first ski station at 9km it's clear you're now on a 'mountain' road, lined with lush pasture and a somewhat rougher surface.  Despite all the bends in the photos, there really are more rising straights than switchbacks.

At the top of these the famously stark, rock landscape emerges.  It all feels strangely familiar, having seen the TdF go over this Col so many times on TV. 

The cafe wasn't open, but police and firefighters were going in for a meeting of some kind, possibly in preparation for this year's tour.

I waited on the summit while Liz caught up and we had the usual photo-fest.  By this time we were definitely not alone.

All sorts of motorised tourists were arriving to have their photo taken on this famous Col.  Only the cyclists had the satisfaction of knowing they'd reached it through their own efforts.

I'll never play football at Wembley or rugby at Twickenham. But I have cycled some of the toughest stage of the toughest sporting event in the world.

Gavarnie - Le Taillon by Breche de Rolland. Video.

The Breche du Rolland is a large gap in the ridge wall, and reaching it seems to be the goal of any fairly able hiker who visits these parts.

Some (ie, me) go a little bit further and climb the adjacent peak Le Taillon, as it's reckoned to be the easiest 3000m peak in the Pyrenees.

Below the Breche is a mountain hut, and I'd hoped we could stay there.

We'd climb out of the valley to the hut on them first day, stay overnight, then tackle the Breche and Pic early the next morning with firm snow.

However, the hut was fully booked, even in late June, so we switched to plan-B.

The Camping Car Aire above Gavarnie has a water tap and some sandy trees, so we camped there, sorted kit and packed rucksacks.

Overgrowing road from Col du Tentes on right
It's close to the Refuge des Granges de Holle, and there was a steady stream of GR10 walkers.

The following morning we drove to a very high car park in the National Park (so no camping overnight) at Col de Tentes (2208m) starting our walk at 7:15. (This would be a superb road ride).

With much less height gain than hauling out of the valley, it's the easy way to the Breche Hut which we reached at 09:15.

The first section of the walk is along a road which was intended as a route to Spain.

However, the Spanish side was never built, and the French side is now impassible to vehicles, gradually disappearing below rock falls and overgrowing vegetation.  It seems popular with mountain bikers as a fast, exciting route to Spain.

Descending waterfall
Hiking to the Breche Hut there's just one tricky section where you climb alongside a waterfall, sometimes through the water itself, hauling on fixed  chains for protection.

Actually, they're far more useful on descent when the melt water has increased.

All the overnight guests had left the Breche Hut by the time we arrived and the staff were cleaning before the influx of day visitors.

We immediately started up the loose scree slope to the Breche itself, making a note to descent by the snow.

Over a lip, and the last haul to the Breche involves a diagonal climb up and across a glacier.

Early in the morning we felt crampons were needed so we stopped to fix ours. I noticed many other people managed without.

We also used our ice axes, and these were very reassuring in case of a slip.  Yet again, most other people just used poles.  We'd brought very light ice axes and flexible crampons, which we've had since hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2002.

Even though our excellent and highly recommended Inov8 Roclite Boots are too flexible (ie comfortable, like slippers) to be sold as suitable for crampons, they worked just fine in the softish conditions we faced.  The crampons stayed fixed.

Breche hut in late afternoon with many day-visitors
All of a sudden Spain lay below us.

We were looking through the Breche, down a route which three backpackers had just taken, heading towards the Ordessa Canyon.

They were headed down, but I still wanted to go up.  I was itching to climb Le Taillon.  

Liz was put off by the fact I started on the wrong path (again - whoops!) and it was yet more scree, which she hates.

The guidebook reckons the summit climb should take less than an hour and a half, and once I was on the correct track, a wide, obvious path, I could really motor.

The climb gets steep, with one of two hands-on moments, but it's never tricky and there's no exposure.  And the views from Le Taillon are superb.  Watch for yourself.  (the story continues below)

This whole route is a long up-and-down-in-one-day, whch explains why most people use the hut. The whole thing took us eight hours, although we took our time on the descent.

We considered spending the night in the Col de Tentes car park, but it's inside the National Park and wondered whether a ranger might move us on. 

So we remained there until about 9pm, when the heat of the day had gone, and then drove down to just outside the National Park.  

We pulled into a flat area near a ski-lift, and woke to the sound of cow bells right outside our windows.

We needed a rest day and a campsite, so we headed down the valley to our next cycling base, Luz St Sauveur.  The king col of the Pyrenees lay ahead - the Tourmalet.

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Argeles-Gazost - Hautacam

Hautacam & Col du Tramassel 45km, 1280m

There's not a lot of character to this ride.

It's a short, steep, switch backing test of legs to a dull ski station, then a whiz back down.

Er... that's it.

But it has a name that one remembers from the (few) appearances in the Tour, so it's very popular with cyclists. 

Leaving Argeles Gazost at 8:20 one Sunday morning (Hautacam is signed from the town), I was among the first to the summit, but passed many, many riders on my descent.

Initially through trees an a few villages of little interest, then a big led-hand bend offering stupendous of the valley below, and you're on open slopes to the top.  Switchbacks can be found anywhere, some of which have a really steep +11% kick to them.

I was passed by tens of cars and vans, all loaded with mountain bikes, all heading for a big junior competition on the summit.  Which strangely, is not called "Hautacam".  

The Hautacam climb-markers end at a large car park, and the's a Tour de France finish line sprayed on the road at its far end.

However, the road climb, and now new climb-markers, keeps going a further kilometre or so, up a good road to the Col du Tramassel.

Here there's a cafe, yet another car park, and on my visit, lots and lots of VTTs.

I didn't spend long up here.  I just took a couple of photos, pulled on my arm-warmers and gillet, then started back down.

I was back at the van before 10:30, and ready to leave.
Because after a few nights in Argeles-Gazost, we were getting itchy wheels.  We both felt it was time to do some hiking, except this time I'd try to lead us up the right mountain.

So with ourselves washed and all batteries charged at the campsite we headed for Gavarnie.

Gavarnie is one of the most spectacularly located towns in the Pyrenees with stupendous scenery all around. As a consequence, it has paid a high price.

Most summer days this small town is utterly overwhelmed by coach loads of tourists and other visitors like us.

Most are content to totter up the track to the main view point.  Some perch precariously on the backs of horses and donkeys (don't get me started) then wobble back down again having ticked Gavarnie off their to-do list.

Fortunately, there's a large Aire de Camping Car (in the book) just above the town with a water supply.  So that is where we headed to sort hiking kit, crampons and ice axes, ready for an early start. 

What's this about? We took our campervan down the Pyrenees this summer, riding classic cols and hiking great walks. Now I'm sharing the info about best campsites for the best rides.

Strontian Show 2012

 A lovely summer day in the village today and a good turn out for the show.

Argeles-Gazost - Col d'Aubisque & Col du Soulor. Video.

Col d'Aubisque & Col du Soulor 71.1km, 1788m

Finally, we reach one of the classic climbs of the Tour de France... and it turns out to be two climbs, of two Cols, each 10km apart.

As I say below, between the Cols was some of the best riding anywhere.  But the first quyestion is where to stay.

The two big campsites in Argeles Gazost were not our kind of place - we felt they were too noisy, crowded with small pitches.

So initially we drove to Camping Pyrenees Natura well outside of the town. Secluded, nice bar/bistro and slightly expensive.
However, I felt it was too far from the base of the climbs I wanted to ride, although I subsequently met a rider from here who felt it was fine.

We found another quiet campsite much nearer Argeles Gazost called Soleil Pibeste campsite at Agos-Vidalos and this is where we rode from over the next few days.  As it turns out, there are loads of campsites in the valley and on the D 918 up to the Cols, but Google doesn't seem to find them.

Agos-Vidalos is a good base because; it's far enough out of town to avoid most of the traffic, which now uses the dual carriageway bypass; it's an easy flat ride into Argeles Gazost; there's a back road and a cyclepath up and down the valley.

In one direction this cyclepath goes all the way into Lourdes, a city we visited as a recovery ride. Oh, and in late June, we had no problems getting a place on any campsite.

OK - riding the Aubisque.  The hardest part of this climb seems to come right at the start. 

Getting out of Argeles-Gazost is a slog up a steep, busy road.  An early start is essential to avoid the campervan and other tourist traffic.  We left at 8am, no riders passed us, yet loads of even earlier starters came down before we reached the top.

Surprising as it may seem, this climb felt much, much easier than our earlier routes. 

They were short and steep, whereas this climb is spread over 30km.  On a 10-11% gradient I'm mashing the pedals in granny gear with no attempt to spin, but I spent a lot of this climb in second gear.

The route comes alive at Arrens-Marsous, two lovely conjoined mountain villages. 

The 7km countdown markers to the Col du Soulor appear, along with the inevitable hairpin bends. 

Soon enough though the top is in sight with a series of cafes and ski infrastructure.  

But don't stop!  

The Col d'Aubisque is 10km and 235m of height gain away, and between the cols is some of the most spectacular riding anywhere in the world.

A 2.5km downhill is a pain (especially coming back!) but the route is fairly flat after that, rarely climbing at more than 6% and often nearer 4%. 

There's an impressive rock arch to ride through and a short stretch of tunnel in which care is needed as the surface is rough and wet. 

Finally, a short steeper haul to the summit and you're done.

This summit is a busy, busy place.  

There are two cafes (or is it three?) and lots of tourist coaches.  

I was trying to snap my own photo on the summit, when I was approached by some Japanese tourists who wanted their photos taken... with me!  I think they confused me with someone else, someone younger, lighter and altogether a much better bike rider perhaps?  

Certainly the (many) other French cyclists milling around the car park watched this impromptu photography session wearing expressions which mixed confusion, disbelief and barely disguised hilarity.

All the things you've seen on the helicopter shots from the Tour de France are there - except the huge crowds.  Most noticeable are the three giant bikes decorated in the colours of the three main TdF competitions.

What you might not have seen before is the herd of horses, which seem to be semi-wild.  

All traffic over the Col came to a complete standstill as they made their way from the pasture into the car park.

They look lovely, until they start scratching themselves on your wing mirror.  

Those matted coats can leave marks on a metallic paint finish like skates on ice.  We watched as they wandered, unhindered but well photographer, around the large summit car park.  

They enjoyed the attention and enjoyed the treats from tourists even more.

If you whizz straight back to Argeles, then the 'official' route is 60km with 1380m ascent.  That is according to the topo guides which you buy for €5 from the Tourist Information.

These state that a 'regular rider' (a 'Confirme') could do the round trip in 2:10-3:00 hours.  

If, when you get back to the Col du Soulor, you're still feeling fit, turn left and return to the valley via the Col de Spandelles (1378m).

I rode up to the Aubisque in 2:20 but we stopped for pizza on the way down.  Which is a story in itself.

Eating out in France is difficult if you don't eat meat.  

We thought we'd be safe with a goats cheese salad, but I struggled to translate part of its description on the menu.  

A neighbouring diner came to my assistance, "it is with a gizzard of some kind" he said.  Ahh.  Pizza it is then. 

The vultures would have loved it.  A dead lamb I'd noticed lying beside the road going up the Col du Soulor had, by the time I returned, become lunch for a huge flock of different raptors.  

It was a genuine feeding frenzy, but initially I was too far away to capture the scene on my wee compact camera.  Later I rode lower to catch the aftermath of the pushing, squabbling and gorging.