First taste of the Pyrenees

Think six road bikes, six bristolians, one van, many bottles of red, a heap of patisseries and many, many tagadas – all in six days of conquering mountains.


Day 1: Cauterets, Point d’Espagne 1485, 5km, 8.5%

An acclimatisation ride in the mountains took us to do the 2015 Tour de France stage finish climb of Cauterets in the Lutour valley. None of us were prepared for quite how hot it would be and so we soon saw why the locals prefer to get out early before the sun reaches its full strength. The climb was quite gentle up to the town and we mostly stayed together as a group of six, although occasionally the guys might motor on ahead and then wait for the rest of us to catch up. Intrigued by the signs for Pont d’Espagne only another 5km or so away, we continued to climb, hitting some lovely switchbacks up the valley and passing a  waterfall. Thankfully these shaded forest roads gave some relief from the sun and we were soon at the top – not quite the viewpoint or border that we were speculating but a chance to refill on water before enjoying the descent back down to Cauterets and Argelès-Gazost, our local town in the base of the valleys. A patisserie re-fuelling stop ensued, followed by the 10km climb back up to our village of Arrens-Marsous which I rode with Hana as the guys raced off (perhaps they were anticipating the post-ride stubbys). An important and very enjoyable recce ride to get used to the kind of heat, gradient, descending and local landmarks that we’d be riding with for the next six days.




Day 2: Col du Soulor 1474m, 7km, 8%, Col d’Aubisque 1709m, 16.6km, 7.2%

Setting off much earlier for a full 100km day, we aimed to head West to conquer to famous Aubisque from the direction that the Vuelta would be climbing on the following day. The first challenge was Col du Soulor, which we pretty much hit as soon as we left the village. A very pretty climb, we soon all found our individual paces and span our way up, through forested bends and up onto the common land with sheep road blockades and cowbells galore! Here we met a group of British cyclists on an organised touring holiday for a bit of a chat, who we would catch up with later on. The descent from Soulor heading North was amazing, great big sweeping bends around the mountainside wound its way down to Arbeost where we caught up with the 10 or so British cyclists. We rode together as a large group all the way to Laruns, taking turns on the front and generally going quite hard! Probably too hard considering what was awaiting us for our first Col… Ready for a rest and in need of some proper food, we stopped in Laruns for pizza, chips, icecream and espressos, possible a little overkill again but the carbonara pizza was an amazing experience that I don’t regret at all! With laden bellies, we set off up the 16km climb of the Aubisque. We stuck together along the back lanes to the town of Eaux Bonne, then after another few km we all settled into our own rhythms again, with Will, Jon and Mark going off ahead. It really was a killer climb. Being in the heat of the day and with very little shade from the sun, the temperature seemed to make it so much harder. Caravans were starting to settle on the climb ready for the Vuelta action on the following day, and once you reached the ski resort of Gourette with 4km to go the red and yellow bunting and barriers were already in place. The atmosphere was great with pro-cycling motorists cheering you on and obviously cycling enthusiasts giving an appreciative nod from the cafes as you hauled your tired legs round past them, panting in the heat and constantly reaching for the water. Every patch of shade was a blessing, no matter how small, the first tunnel on the ascent being a God-send and the second a huge disappointment as the ascending lane on the right wasn’t shaded at all. The average km gradient as advertised on the km marker signs seemed to hover at around 7 or 8 percent, with the occasional 9 or 10 thrown in to test you further. I passed a wilting Will who was feeling the heat and could make out Mark ahead of me on some of the long switchbacks as I was determined to just keep going and not stop. The countdown of distance in the final 4km was great, looking down the valley down to the ski resort you could really appreciate the ascent we’d achieved. Nearing the summit, Mark shouted down to me on one of the switchbacks that there was a breeze up there, which gave my legs some energy as I was desperate to cool down. Exhausted, I spun my legs with as much as I had left to cross over the line with arms outstretched in celebration, and promptly rolled over to Mark and Jon to almost collapse! Although very tough, an amazing feeling to have conquered such a demanding climb, celebrated with drinks and magnums in the friendly café at the summit whilst Mark and some crazy Spanish guy fixed a slash in Mark’s tyre. From there it was the most thrilling descent back to Soulor, on the road that hugged the mountainside giving the most spectacular vista. There weren’t many hairpins and the visibility on the corners were great, and finding my descending legs I loved racing with the guys, powering out of the corners and securing a strava trophy being just 20 seconds off the fastest woman to descend that section, pretty chuffed! Regrouping at Solour, another fantastic descent with more sweeping corners and hairpins now, and a very sketchy skiddy emergency stop due to free-ranging cattle around one of the bends in the middle of the road! It was pretty much downhill all the way back to the Gite, where we looked back over this epic day over some sangria and a delicious chicken and chorizo risotto from Chef Hib!



Day 3: La Vuelta

Saturday was set aside as rest day, with the Vuelta coming to France and climbing the Aubisque to the stage finish of day 14. Not being one for lie-ins, Jon and I wandered down to the Patisserie in Arrens-Marsous to gather some deliciousness for our relaxed breakfast, which we enjoyed outside in the morning sun, croissants, pain au raisins, apple pastries and weird custard croissants too all washed down with ‘interesting’ French espressos.

To preserve the legs, we loaded up the van with bikes and headed for Col du Soulor before the road closed, and managed to get all the way nearly up the Aubisque, where James expertly parked the van on the mountainside. With the afternoon to kill before the Tour arrived, Mark, Will, Jon and I headed out on the closed roads down to Gourette and back up to do the final 4km of the climb. It was a fantastic atmosphere, the road filled with riders of all sorts – from the sublime to the ridiculous. Very ‘Euro’ looking pros to tiny kids to wives being pushed up the gruelling climb. People of all nationalities were setting up camp up the climb on the roadside and by their caravans, and down in the ski town of Gourette the buzz was starting to build. Somehow the climb seemed even harder than the previous day – even though we did have any miles already in our legs – after looking at the strava after I saw why, knocking a minute off each km climbed! I was obviously trying to impress my gathered crowds!

Back up at the Col d’Aubisque, we met Hana and James and chilled for a couple of hours, with a few beers, icecreams and frites! We found a good spot about 100m from the finish line to chill in the sun with the amazing view looking down to the switchbacks and met an Irish guy called Owen who was doing some touring down to see the race.

The anticipation of the stage finish was such a buzz- everyone ready after the caravans had passed through and we’d claimed our bidons, caps and flags. Straining to listen to the French commentary, we could hear them counting down the kms and heard Gourette- they were bearing down on us so quickly. Seeing the pain on their faces as they gave everything on those last few hundred metres was incredible, and to see the Dutch Robert Gesink of Lotto NL Jumbo win the Queen Stage.

After the buzz of the Tour, we rolled, or rather smashed, back down the Aubisque to Soulor and then descended again back home to Arrens-Marsous. There were so many riders on the road again, the good, the bad and the ugly, and determined not to beaten 8 year old on the climb back up to the Col du Soulor I ended up with a cheeky QOM!

It was a relaxed evening back at base with my first ever raclette experience – a glorious spread of meats, salads and nibbles with melted raclette cheese from the machine, savoury heaven!



Day 4: Luz Ardiden 1720m, 18km, 7%

We’d had a tip off from some other British riders that this climb, Luz Ardiden, was the most beautiful of them all. Rather than a col (noun: the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, typically providing a pass from one side of a mountain range to another), this climb was a dead-end road up to the closed ski station, meaning that apart from the odd tourist seeking a good view, the road was completely clear. It’s famed for its switchbacks, and we soon saw why.

We managed to be up and out earlier today to avoid the midday heat. Rather than take the main road down the valley to Argelès-Gazost, Mark plotted us a route that took in the back roads, and what a spectacular way it was. The legs were feeling great following the semi-rest day yesterday and we all flew along the quiet lane down into the valley, passing through beautiful unspoilt villages like Bun and my favourite, Saint Savin. Then onto the main road, we headed south to Pierrefitte-Nestalas (the one with the Ledistribupain – a baguette vending machine) and steadily up to Sassis where the climb started.

Luz Ardiden, although not quite as spectacular as the other guys had made it out to be, was a beautiful climb. We soon got into our rhythms and today’s partner of choice was Hana. We climbed steadily for km after km, chatting part way up to a local French guy from Toulouse which provided some good distraction. The first half passed mainly through the forests and small villages before opening out onto more common land above where you could soon see the extent of the switchbacks and climbing to come. We yelled out and occasionally saw the boys, although they really had steamed off ahead. We wouldn’t have been able to keep count of the switchbacks even if we’d tried, but we were glad to see the kms diminishing on the marker signs as we got closer and closer to the top of the road. Through the last six switchbacks, and then six, and six to go (seemed I couldn’t count, don’t ask Hannah) our legs picked up and we soon joined the boys for celebratory Tagadas and to enjoy the cracking view from the top.

Poor Will had an unfortunate descent, puncturing quite near the top but thankfully Mr Bradley and I saw and were able to go back to help. So much for tubeless tyres… and then just as we were about to head off again the second one went ‘bang’! A little frustrated but thankfully equipped with all the necessary tools and spares, we finally gingerly started the long and very twisty descent back down to Sassis. The main road back down through the valley turned into more of a smashfest – whatever wasn’t used up in the legs on the climb was certainly sapped for this pacey and deceptively downhill section, which was brilliant but we were soon burnt out coming back into Argelès-Gazost and so ready for some lunch! A giant spread of beers, spag bols, pizzas, icecream sundaes and espressos later and we were ready for the last haul back up the valley to the house, although we soon realised we’d overdone it somewhat…

Best climb so far #cycling #holiday #mountains #colsforlols #luzforlolz #switchback

A post shared by James Cuff (@briscyclerist) on



Day 5: Hautacam, Col de Tremasse 1620m, 16km, 7.5%

Struggling to find the best way to suggest a ride up the Hautacam on the official ‘rest day’ before the grand finale of the Tourmalet on the last day, I jumped at the opportunity when Jon pitched the idea. With a mixture of sore legs and mechanicals, the others opted out in favour of water park fun and bike maintenance, but I was so happy to be able to fit another famous climb into our oh-too-short time in the Pyrenees.

We opted for an early start heading out into the fresh morning air in the shadow of the mountains, along our favourite rolling back road bunny-hopping the bumps through Bun and speeding down the descents to Saint Savin. We were in Argelès-Gazost in no time, and after quick stop at the Carrefour to pick up some yellow fruity mountain fuel, the start of Hautacam was practically on the edge of the town.

Another Haute Catégorie climb, the Hautacam stood out for me as an undulating one. Rather than the constant gradient of other local ascents like the Aubisque or Luz Ardiden, the Hautacam could go from a happy leg spin to a gruelling 16%, then turn a corner and descend for a few seconds and ramp up again. Some people would protest about the unpredictability of the climb, but for me it was all the more enjoyable with the variety of it, although when you read the sign that tells you the next km averages 9% and then you start descending you know you’re in for a treat…

Jon and I rode most of the climb in the shadow of the mountain which was heaven after the blistering heat of some of our previous days. Even though Jon’s climbing ability was far, far superior to mine, we stuck more or less together for the climb, saving our legs for the last day and enjoying a chat on the way up and a chuckle over the entrepreneurial cake station that must be an oasis for flagging wheelers. We reached the ski station that the climb is named after (TDF stage finish 2014), feeling cheated having not understood that it would be another (and somewhat longer) 1.3km to the summit, Col de Tramassel. With a little café, observatory and beautiful view into the next valley at the top, we rolled back down to the ski station to get papped on the webcam by the guys back at the house (modern day technology eh?!) and then cracked on with the awesome descent. Being a dead end road with very little traffic, we flew down the mountain, flying around the corners and getting some considerable air off the bumps though the village, much to some passing cyclist’s disbelief!

With a big climb in the bank before mid-morning, it would only be right to visit the Patisserie in the town before heading home. A couple of well earnt tarts (myrtilles and framboises, derishious) and espressos, we caught up with the others on their way to breakfast still in search of an open pool. I sat on Jon’s wheel all the way back up the main road through the valley, home even before midday giving plenty of time to catch up on the Vuelta, Tour of Alberta and the first day of the Tour of Britain!


Col du Tourmalet 2115m, 19km, 7.4%

We really did save the best ‘til last. Saving the legs a little by driving down to Argelès-Gazost and starting off on the 100km route along the cycle path on the valley floor, we were feeling fresh and eagerly anticipating the epic climb of the Tourmalet that’s so well renowned, being part of the Tour de France 78 times, more than any other climb.  The climb started in the town of Luz Saint Sauveur and started off very steadily heading east along the main road to Betpouey. Will and Jon went off ahead, followed by Mark, as Hannah, James and I stuck together at a more reasonable pace! We started reading the French whitewash protests painted across the whole width of the road, which only made sense once you grasp that ‘ours’ translates as bears. The reintroduction of bears to the Pyrenees has been hugely controversial, with concerns over the safety not only of livestock and livelihood but also of people in the mountains, skiiers and even cyclists! Slightly disconcerting as you make your way up and up into more isolated parts…

Soon into the town of Bareges and we felt like we were flying, only to find that the gradient had eased off a little and soon picked up again. It seemed mad the amount that I had to eat on that climb, trying to take in 60g of carbs for every hour at high intensity, which equated to a cereal bar every half an hour or three gels an hour, so on the two hour climb it felt like I was constantly fuelling. The vistas on the way up were something else, especially as we passed the ski station and went up some switchbacks to climb up the side of the mountain.

The really great part for me came with just 3km to go. I knew that a friend of mine and cycling coach and guide Nigel was in the Pyrenees and also guiding up the Tourmalet today, but I highly doubted that we’d bump into each other. So when a random French guy in a van passed and shouted out to me that Nigel was waiting for me at the top, I was both puzzled and delighted. I had been keeping a little in reserve, trying to pace for the long ascent, and having been inspired by watching the strength and tactics of the pro riders in the last few days, I started to make my move. I upped the cadence to pass a cyclist in front of Hannah, James and I and then just kept it up, starting to pull away and give every last drop, motivated by the thought of seeing Nigel and the other guys at the summit. Soon I was passing more cyclists, obviously upping the effort and really going for it in the last few kms. Incidentally, this is where the Tourmalet really starts to kick up in terms of gradient as well, but rather than suffer I was just so keen to get to the top of this incredible col. With just a few hundred metres to go, well and truly in the red and starting to feel like I might pass out, I was joined by a blur of a cyclist and a familiar voice – Nigel had ridden down to encourage me on the last hurdle. He spoke words of encouragement – get out of the red, calm down, steady off, so nearly there – but I couldn’t really focus on anything apart from keeping those legs going around and concentrating on trying to breathe.

Turning the final corner up the ramp and over the KOM line, the atmosphere at the top was great. I could finally look up properly and greet Nigel and see the guys again. So happy that it was over and elated about my effort to the summit, we all enjoyed a bit of a break and a team photo after the BSCC sticker was added to the colourful signs.

Now the descent off of the Tourmalet was possibly the most thrilling thing I’ve EVER done in my whole life. Words cannot describe. If you even started to think about what could possibly go wrong you just wouldn’t ride it at all, the 53mph new PB feeling like I was literally flying, high on adrenaline. I started to worry whether I’d taken a wrong turn for a while before King descenders Mark and James flew past. It was a fun chase but pretty hopeless, and the descent just went on, and on, and on…

Regrouping back down in the valley, we soon found the bakery of dreams for lunch, each fuelling up on pizza breads and fancy patisseries and some much needed H2O. It was rolling on from there to get back onto the cycle route in Lourdes, and the shorter hills were a relief after getting accustomed to up to 20km climbs! From Lourdes it was super chilled again on the flat, straight off road cycle path on the old railway line, so we mucked about and span out the legs, all coming to the realisation that this was nearly the end. But not before a spontaneous dip and something I’d been aching to do all week – scrambling down the banks with bikes, ditching shoes and socks and jerseys and splashing into the beautifully refreshing Gave de Pau! Nothing quite like a bunch of cyclists in soggy bib shorts slipping on rocks and even got Miss ‘I-don’t-do-wild-swimming’ Ricketts in!

In the gorgeous sunshine we were soon warmed and drying off, so the last 10km back to the start passed easily, having a giggle and reminiscing on all the amazing parts of the last six days of incredible riding.

A huge thanks to Hannah and James for arranging and once again lesson learnt – when someone you’ve just met says ‘we’re off biking in the Pyrenees, wanna come?’ all  you have to do is say yes.




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