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Beyond the Tourmalet

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Sometimes there is a fine line between adventure and epic, but when that line is crossed it doesn’t mean that the fun is over and that the suffering has begun. I had one such experience on the slopes of the iconic Col du Tourmalet as I searched for a little known dirt track up the Pic Midi de Bigorre.

Words/images: Bruce Hildenbrand

Riding the legendary Col du Tourmalet is on every serious cyclist’s bucket list, but the Pic Midi de Bigorre, which sits 2,600’ above the summit, is little known. This is most likely because by the time one pedals over the grueling Tourmalet, their focus is on going down the other side, and not looking for more elevation to climb.

But, I had noticed a small dirt road heading up from the Tourmalet, and a gate with the sign “Route Baree,” which in French means “Closed Road,” and it piqued my curiosity. An Internet search (always a reliable source of information) indicated that a dirt road from the top of the Tourmalet to the summit of the peak did, indeed, exist.

The plan was to pedal up the east side of the Tourmalet, throw my bike over the gate and continue up the closed road to the summit of Pic Midi de Ligorre. Starting in Bagneres de Bigorre at 2,300’ and topping out on the peak at 9,500′, the total ascent was over 7,000′. Little did I realize that the 10-11% grades of the Tourmalet, which separate the contenders from the pretenders at the Tour de France, would be the easy part.

Pedaling out of Bagneres de Bigorre in the early morning light, the summit of the peak, festooned with huge communication towers, brought back memories of Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence. As with both mountains, the goal is clearly visible, but it is going to take a lot of time and energy to get there! Soon enough I was on the slopes of the Tourmalet, tackling the double-digit grades as the road headed through several snow sheds on the way to the ski station of La Mongie. A thin fog shielded the way ahead. I couldn’t see the upper slopes of the Tourmalet nor the peak. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.

Soon after passing La Mongie, the fog lifted and the constant 9% grade to the summit forced me to shift into my lowest gear. I could have struggled a bit without shifting down, but just thinking of the dirt road and what might lie ahead, it seemed like a conservative approach was best.

At the top of the Tourmalet it was time for a celebration. As anyone who has ridden over this col knows, it is a great accomplishment to conquer one of the true legendary climbs of the Tour de France. In fact, the Tourmalet, which was first crossed in the 1910 Tour, is the most ascended pass in the race.

However, my thoughts were on the gate and the dirt road which lay ahead, so my celebration was a bit muted and short-lived. Before I really had time to catch my breath I lifted my bike over the gate and struck out on the dirt.

As anyone who has ridden dirt knows, the quality of such roads can change quickly and dramatically, but as I pedaled up the well-graded and gentle slopes above the Tourmalet, I couldn’t help suppress a feeling that maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as I had imagined. The maps of the dirt road were pretty sketchy, but it looked like the rumors about there being a road all the way to the summit of the peak were true.

After about three miles of very enjoyable riding I reached the Col des Sencours, which is marked by a set of ruins. I had arrived at the foot of the final slopes to the summit of the peak.

Up to this point it was all about the adventure of discovering great riding in an incredible setting. The switchbacks of the west side of the Tourmalet were clearly visible far below, their precipitous drops-off sides is why this particular descent has the respect of both the pros and cycling tourists.

After a short break to refuel and rehydrate, I began my assault on the face of the peak. But, as the road below had been friendly with it’s gentle grades and well-groomed surface, the road above was anything but pleasant.

The track steepened to 12% and around the first corner the dirt turned to mud with water running right down the road. The muddy surface was an annoyance, but it was a problem I could ultimately deal with. What wasn’t going to be so easy to surmount was the eight-foot-high snowbank that was creating the runoff. Being mid-July, the white stuff was quite a surprise.

I wasn’t the only one who found the snow a potentially insurmountable obstacle. There was a huge road grader stuck on the track right in front of me! But, even with snow and a huge earthmover barring my way, I hadn’t reached my limit—yet.

Kicking steps up and over the snowbank and around the loader, I was on terra firma—well, muddy firma—and pedaling once again. Riding up a road with the consistency of warm oatmeal on a 12% grade proved doable, if not a bit comical, but I was making progress, albeit slowly.

Unfortunately, around the next bend the road disappeared. Well, it really hadn’t disappeared, it was just buried underneath a 10-foot wall of snow. Once again, my bike proved to be a decent makeshift ice axe and I gingerly crossed up and over the obstacle and headed upward.

There was still enough rideable road that it hadn’t become just a quest to reach the summit at all costs. At some point when on such an adventure you do have to ask yourself if it wouldn’t be easier without a bike andjust hike it on foot, but I still did feel that the bike was an integral part of the plan.

However, around the next turn another huge snowbank changed all that. It looked like a long detour up and around and my mood quickly soured. The glass was now half empty and success was replaced by defeat. I turned around and started my descent back to the Tourmalet.

But, just as quickly as my mood had changed from positive to the negative, I made a critical observation. I noticed that there was a cable car connecting the peak with the ski station at La Mongie. Not that I was trying to be lazy, but the goal of riding up the peak still had some pull. If I could somehow talk my way into getting a ride, with my bike, down from the top on the cable car, I wouldn’t have to ride back down through the mud and climb back over all the snowfields.

Rejuvenated by my discovery, I turned back up the mountain and quickly surmounted the next snowfield, which deposited me at the deserted buildings close to the Col des Laquets. After one final snowfield the road above was clear and my route to the summit seemed doable. I remounted and headed on up.

Just when I appeared to have a dry, well-graded road all the way to the summit, the road promptly ended! I was still about 800 vertical feet from the top, but it was clear I would cycle no further. To be sure, there was a steel track system that was apparently used to get supplies from where I stood to the top. If I wanted to make uphill progress, it would be on foot.

Having come so far and having surmounted so many obstacles to get here, I wasn’t going to let 800 feet stop me from my goal, especially because I was certain that I could talk my way into a cable car ride back down. So, I shouldered my steed and proceeded upward on a semi-defined trail.

Surmounting the last rocky slope, I pulled over the railing and onto the top. My reward for making it: stunning views in all directions. But, my major concern now was getting back down, so I headed over to the cable car station. I don’t think I was fooling anyone, but I stashed my bike outside. Still clad in all my cycling gear, I tried to act like a hiker and bought a $20 euro ticket for the ride down to La Mongie.

Successfully attaining a ticket, I waited until they were nearly finished loading a cable car before I leapt out of the shadows and proceeded to board the car with my bike. Unfortunately, my tactics were quickly parried by the operators, and I was asked to disembark. After haggling a bit in my best French, the operators agreed that I could go down with the last car of the day when the traffic was light.

The trip down was much less stressful than the ascent, but it was clearly not the epic adventure I had experienced on the way up. I won’t soon forget that day when the obstacles I faced weren’t the ones for which I had prepared. But, that’s the nature of adventure. And it was a great way to have fun on a bike.

From issue 13. Buy it here.