Whoever wins will deserve it, as Stage 9 is a hard day. The riders face two of the most famous climbs in the Pyrenees, and my trusty Kia hire car and I now know personally the Col du Peyresourde and the Col d’ Aspin.
I was bright and early on the road, trundling out of Toulouse’s netherworld of retail parks where my hotel was. By 8.30am, I’d passed by the start village and was on the route. The plan was to start ahead of the caravan and drive the whole way, to see just how hard it was and to check out the Peyresourde and Aspin first hand.
My creaking brain registered the spectacular number of gendarmes and civil guard on duty. Not just on every road junction, but on every driveway, side road and anything resembling an opening – all the way out of Toulouse. Where do they get them all?? And how much is being shelled out in overtime to have them there?
We waved goodbye to sprinters’ territory for a few days so I’ll include a snap of a long, tree-lined avenue for Cavendish, McEwen and co. Nothing else for them today.
A young female gendarme jumps out to block my way, then jumps back red-faced when she sees the press sticker. A banner by the roadside reads: “Courage a tous les coureurs a Tour de France”. They’ll need it.
The first two climbs were pretty gentle and the car rolled up no problem. The sun was just starting to come out, but a lot of the cops looked freezing. The Sunday bunch riders were out in force adding to the color of the scene.
View from the Cat. 4 Col Sainte-Quitterie 46km into the stage.
Great views from the top of the Cote du Saint-Pey and the Cote de Sainte-Quitterie. No sign of the high mountains yet – rolling fields, farms and sunflowers, beaming after the night’s rain had gone.
The Pyrenees looming in the distance.
The terrain starts to get hillier, and everywhere is lush and green. The Haute-Garonne is prime biking country. After the summit of the Mane, the Pyrenees are looming in the distance.
The anticipation is rising, and the roads are going up to meet it. At the end of the feed zone, the temperature is climbing. The Col du Buret is next, and it’s another fairly straight forward slope.
The Ares is harder with steeper pitches, and it’s pretty. Gently twisting, wooded slopes with gorgeous shuttered buildings. The church in Antichan-de-Frontignes is a beauty the riders won’t even notice as they stream off the Ares.
Next destination is Luchon, for the start of the Col de Peyresourde. The run in is on deceptively wide roads, but it just seems to get steeper and harder all the way.
Eventually you feel the road has just been dropped onto the side of the mountain. There are buildings here that look like they shouldn’t be, as if they’re paintings nailed to walls. The road flattens out a little in Saint Aventin, before pitching up to Cazeaux-de-Larboust.
Eventually, we leave the little villages and a sweeping left-hander takes us beyond the trees and into view of the hairpins.
The hairpins at the top of the Peyresourde.
This reminds me of a TV nature programme … you strain your neck up, straight up, and there are people balanced everywhere. It’s like a giant colony of seabirds staring down. You can see the road criss-crossing the slope above three or four times. The turns really tighten … like isobars on a storm chart.
Two kilometres from the top and a not unfriendly cop motions down with his hands. He’s asking me to drop my speed from a racy 15kms/h to under 10kms/h. That’s no problem – there’s not really much point in going faster.
The climb is beautiful and swimming in sunshine. The crowds are thickening all the way up but it’s not quite the human tunnel I was expecting. I take the last bend and glance down at the camper vans huddled like sheep in the fields.
Over the top and a quick shot of the Peyresourde sign before riding the curves down to Borderes-Louron.
The Peyresourde Numbers
How hard is it? As hard as the kid everyone avoided in school – 13.2 kms, at an average of 7.1%.
The descent has a couple of pretty nasty switch backs down nearer the bottom which could catch someone out. Before I know it, I’m climbing out of Arreau and onto the Col d’Aspin.
View down the back of the Peyresourde.
This is the 68th time that the Tour organisers have shown the love to this mountain – the only others they’ve been more committed to are the Tourmalet and the Aubisque.
The human traffic is much heavier on the Aspin. No-one particularly wants to get out of the way and there are bikes, buggies, dogs, pedestrians, bags, barbecues, you name it … everywhere.
This is a proper rural road – there’s barely enough space for two cars to pass each other which makes it a challenge to leave room for the official cars. And as they’re travelling a LOT faster than me, that’s a worry.
View from the top of the Aspin.
It’s too much time looking in mirrors and trying not to hit anyone and not enough time enjoying the views. It’s beautiful to the left, looking back down the valley. The crowds are getting rowdier as I go, until by the top some have taken to hammering on the roof.
The other noticeable point is the change of color – everything takes on a very orange hue as I get nearer the top. The Basques have taken charge.
The Aspin Numbers
Only a middleweight mountain but it packs a nasty body shot – 12.1 kms of climbing, at an average of 6.6%.
The last run-in is quick and I take it in the wake of the Vittel water vans whose drivers would hold up pretty well in Nascar or F1. There are parties and celebrations going all over the place – whole villages are feasting ahead of Bastille Day. It’s a nice way to bring my drive to an end.
Overall, it took me about six hours to drive the route – but that’s OK to feel part of the Tour’s mountain stages. Tomorrow, the idea is to take the off-course route to Argeles-Gazost before making my way up Hautacam to see the madness first-hand.
It’s the national holiday for the French and as near as dammit a national holiday for the Basques! Should be fun.