Tomorrow was the big one, “the unavoidable” as it’s known, the highest tarmac road in the Hautes-Pyrénées and a climb paved in Tour de France history – Col du Tourmalet. This 2,115m-high slog first featured in the Tour in 1910. Octave “Curly” Lapize, the French cyclist and eventual winner of the race, was the first to cross the Col in the middle of an epic 326km stage. Bicycles then had only two gears and the road over the Col was a rough, gravel cart track. Having pushed his bike up the hazardous final few kilometres, Lapize castigated the race administrators, setting the tone for a century of suffering: “Vous êtes des assassins!”, he famously exclaimed with the little breath he had left. “Oui, des assassins!”
Tourmalet has featured more times in the Tour de France (the itinerary changes every year) than any other climb in the subsequent 100 years. To mark the centenary, the Étape du Tour – the single stage event for amateurs in July – will finish on the summit while the pro Tour de France riders will climb Tourmalet twice.
Anyone with a serious interest in road cycling has to take on Tourmalet at least once, and I tackled it on a randonnée – a traditional point-to-point, non-competitive cycle ride, completed over consecutive days. First popular in the 1890s, the randonnée is being revived as part of a wider fashion for endurance cycling. A joint venture between Rapha, cycle clothing manufacturer to the sartorially minded, and La Fuga, a luxury, two-wheel travel company, is offering three such routes. The Randonnée Pyrénéenne is a six-day, 775km, supported ride taking in all the great climbs (Tourmalet included), as well as many lesser-known back roads of the Pyrénées.
I joined the group mid-week, for two days of intense climbing in the Hautes-Pyrénées. When I arrived at the hotel in Oloron Ste-Marie, Ross Muir, a former pro cyclist and director of La Fuga, told me what to expect: “It’s not a holiday; it’s a journey. The riding is hard. There’s plenty of time to think. The hope is all your cares fall away and you’ll find out something about yourself during the long days in the saddle.”
The bare statistics for my first day on the bike were eye-watering: 115km with 2,615m of elevation. But that was only half the story: halfway up Col de Marie-Blanque, I realised why cyclists obsess about the gradient of every kilometre of a climb. Another guest and I were riding together, happily chatting, when the road suddenly reared up above 10 per cent (or 100m gained for every kilometre). Our efforts focused on one thing – keeping the cranks turning over. Conversation stopped; expletives started.
On the second day, we set off from picturesque Saint-Savin and joined a chain of cyclists snaking through a gorge beside the River Luz, still grey and raging with snow melt. There were all sorts of riders on the road: aged local amateurs with leathered skin who had been climbing Pyrénéen cols for 50 years; portly Belgians with calves scorched red by the sun; and athletic middle-aged Frenchmen in dapper cycling kit. Most intriguing were the handful of wannabe-pro cyclists on solitary training rides in the high mountains. They were peculiarly shaped, with thin legs and bird-like arms – like catwalk models.
“The ideal weight for a climber is 58-61 kilos,” Ross told me, “with 4-6 per cent body fat. They must have a high ‘VO2 max’ – that’s the maximum capacity of the body to take in and use oxygen.” The relationship between strength and leanness is also crucial to successful climbers. “Climbers need a formidable power to bodyweight ratio, measured in watts per kilo.”
I had these factors measured during a sports fitness test two years ago: my power to weight ratio was 4.48 watts per kilo over five minutes – not bad for a non-competitive, middle-aged cyclist. Tour de France riders produce about 7 watts, though, and the finest climbers are capable of more than 7.5 watts.
“Let’s say you’re climbing Tourmalet at 7km or 8km/h,” said Ross. “The elite climbers ascend at 18km/h. For that they need big lungs and a slow beating heart – an uncommon breed.” I’d read that they’re out of the ordinary mentally, too. Even the French word for a climber, grimpeur, hints at the torment entailed in wrenching up a mountain on a bicycle.
“Within the pro circuit, the elite climbers are the lunatic fringe,” said James Fairbank, marketing manager at Rapha, part of our randonnée back-up team and a strong climber himself.
My fellow randonneurs were a more balanced bunch, and their diverse backgrounds said much about the broad, global appeal of hard cycling – from a Düsseldorf website chief to a hedge fund manager from New York. There was a range of ages, too – from early thirties to mid-forties.
Crowning Col du Tourmalet, even at my own sluggish pace, was a highlight in more than 35 years of pedalling bicycles. We still had Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde to scale before a massage and dinner in Luchon, but that could all wait. Reaching the zenith of the Pyrénées, where every Tour legend has suffered, had to be savoured.
The Tour de France starts on July 3; www.letour.fr
‘It’s All About the Bike – the Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels’, by Robert Penn is published by Particular Books on 29 July