Col du Tourmalet — Top Ten Cycling Cols of the Pyrenees
The Col du Tourmalet — 2115m
The peak altitude for the Raid Pyrenean and the peak in terms of reputation, the Col du Tourmalet sits alongside Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux as one of the all time stand out Cols in the cycling world. Rising from Luz Saint Sauveur and peaking at 2115m just under 19km later (via a 7.4% average), riders face stunning views, precipitous drops and some of the most atmospheric cycling it is possible to find. Devastated by the floods of spring 2013, the Tourmalet has been brought back to life by the authorities, with the western approach back in rideable condition just two and a half short months after the road was washed away in several sections, meaning it is once again open to those willing to tackle it’s punishing slopes.
Though the climb of the Col du Tourmalet proper begins in Luz Saint Sauveur, we feel that the preamble Gorges de Luz is worthy of mention. Rising out of the valley the Gorges leads riders to Luz via a surprisingly taxing single digit gradient section of road that hugs the cliff side and ensures riders arrive in Luz fully “warmed up” for the coming challenge. So when approaching the Tourmalet for the first time, keep in mind that this section of road is indeed the preamble and not part of the 19km of “real” climbing!
As riders enter Luz, they follow the D921 as it bears round to the right over the Pont de Luz and then bear left following the signs for the Col du Tourmalet and Bareges on the D918 (taking the right turn here rather than the left takes you off the Raid Pyrenean track, but up the incredible climb of Luz Ardiden which is a personal favourite). The beginning of the climb is signalled by a short but steep ramp followed shortly after by the first of many kilometre signs (18.6k to go at this point).
The initial section of climbing outside Luz is a fairly gentle introduction to the Col du Tourmalet, with gradients sitting steady in the 5–7% range giving riders a chance to find their rhythm and enjoy the fresh road surfaces relaid following the flooding of 2013. This section of road was indeed almost completely washed away, with riders in early 2014 likely able to still see some of the residual damage to the landscape. The road here is wide, meandering through gently sloped pasture and tree lined sections, before rising steadily as you approach the first of two sets of terraced double hairpins that elevate riders towards Bareges and signal the beginnings of tougher gradients from the seventh kilometre on. The views on this section can be misleading, making it difficult for riders to assess the location of the Col, so don’t worry too much about this and just focus on turning your gear.
As riders enter Bareges via the second set of hairpins the road straightens and riders are hit with a taxing ramp up through the high street which is followed by a short but sharp 14% section that carries riders out of Bareges. The trade off with this section is that riders are able to get their first proper glimpse of the valley bowl ahead and what is left to come. Out of Bareges the road opens out as it once again tracks the hillside forests to your right. As you continue your climb the valley opens out noticeably towards the ski station car park where riders are faced with a choice of whether to opt for the newer and now standard route to the Tourmalet to their left or the (closed to traffic) Voie Laurent Fignon which follows the traditional route up the Col du Tourmalet but has since been largely abandoned due to poor road conditions and the impracticality of keeping this section of road clear of avalanches and rock slides.
On the Raid we opt for the new road which rises steeply out of the ski station car park via a series of wide open hairpins that offer particularly impressive views of the valley below (I’d avoid looking up unless you are a glutton for punishment). This marks the real meat of the climb, with gradients fixed in the 8% range and a noticeably more wild feel to the climb with houses and gardens being replaced with steep rocky slopes and an abundance of free roaming cattle and sheep. Around the hairpins riders are faced with a fairly exposed straight section of road, climbing to the ski station lift point ahead. This section can either be extremely demoralising or motivating depending on how your legs are feeling, giving the opportunity to measure yourself against a distant target further up the road or wilt under the seemingly endless road ahead. As you take the right hander past the ski lift the road kicks up sharply, again climbing to another left handed hairpin (which is covered in road graffiti in the shape of hundreds of swimming sperm…..) which signals the point at which the Voie Laurent Fignon rejoins the now main road to the Col.
At this point riders will clearly be able to see the Col (marked by the large stone restaurant situated at the Col) high above them along with views of the Pic du Midi observatory. Small rock slides at this point in proceedings are by no means uncommon along with sheep laying in the middle of the road, so keep your eyes peeled for danger! This is also the spot at which riders will suffer the most on a hot day as the rocks shield the cooling wind while acting as a magnifying glass for the sun. As riders make their way through this section and into the 3k to go zone, the road begins to narrow as it cling to the surrounding cliff face, with large drops down to the rider’s right and a particularly nasty 9% average kilometre 15.
With the Col now tantalisingly close, riders are advised to beware of oncoming traffic as the road is incredibly narrow in places with blind corners seemingly holding no barrier to overtaking motorists… What should however become apparent on this section is that the Col is still an awfully long way above you, with not much road to take you there. Having done the maths in your head it will probably be no surprise for you to learn that the Tourmalet truly does hold a sting in the tail. Rounding the final left handed hairpin (often staked out by a photographer there to capture your game face) the road rises sharply up on its final few hundred metres to the Col, with a gradient peaking well into the mid teens. At this point the collective effect of the efforts so far, thinning air and general fatigue are likely to have your legs screaming, but dig in and push your way to the Col.
Once at the Col take the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the Octave Lapize monument, grab some pictures and then head into the cafe or souvenir shop for some hellishly overpriced refreshments and souvenirs!
The Tourmalet has a massive reputation in cycling folklore as the epicentre of numerous stories regarding it’s history, but my personal favourite has to be how the Tourmalet first found its way into the Tour de France. With Henri Desgrange originally setting up the Tour de France as a means to sell more newspapers, he was looking for the most challenging climbs in France to include and his colleague Alphonse Steinès convinced him of the necessity of including the Pyrenees. Choosing to forge a path for the race to follow himself, Steinès set out to cross the Tourmalet via the now less popular eastern side (the Raid crosses west to east). Setting out with a driver and very basic supplies, Steinès was able to drive 16km of the climb before the car broke down and was unable to continue further in the heavy snow and ice. Desperate to establish a usable route, Steinès set out alone (following the turning around of the driver due to concerns about Spanish bears seeking refuge from the conditions), resulting in the brief appointment of a local guide (who quickly gave up the opportunity to acquire a gold coin and turned back), a fall from the established road into an icy stream and the onset of hypothermia in the terrible conditions. Luckily, shortly before 3am, Steinès was located by a rescue party sent up the mountain by worried friends and transported to a colleague in Bareges. It was from here that Steinès sent the immortal message.
“Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible.”
How Can I Climb the Col du Tourmalet with Le Domestique Tours?
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Raid Pyrenean — the epic 100hr trans Pyrenean cycling challenge.
King of the Mountains TdF — Tourmalet, Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez in seven incredible stages.
Pyrenean Coast to Coast — cross the Pyrenees over six days of incredible riding.
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Originally published at www.ledomestiquetours.co.uk on July 15, 2015.