By Grant: A write-up about one of our most memorable days in the Pyrenees, July 2014.
A big part of what I love about cycling, is that it can create the opportunity to experience and enjoy such a variety of different things. Whether you enjoy bike rides with family and friends, or get a buzz from seeing improvements in measured performance, it’s all there for the taking.
For me, it’s a passion for the outdoors, and I can recall numerous times when simply riding my bike in the hills or mountains has brought a smile to my face.
The tougher days can do this too, as these are frequently the ones we remember. There have been many times that friends and I laugh when reminiscing about frozen drinks bottles, legs that won’t turn, or rides that turned into epics. However, this article is about a day when everything slotted into place.
It started with a morning riding in the high mountains and the afternoon watching the Tour de France peloton ride past! A dream come true.
It was July, and Emma and I were on holiday in the French Pyrenees. We try whenever possible to coincide our bike trips with the Grand Boucle. Throughout France there is understandably a heightened enthusiasm for cycling when the Tour is underway, and it makes it great to be there.
I think the buzz about the Tour can also be felt in countries such as Italy, where the passion for cycling is so strong, and the fans are following their favourite riders as the battle for the various jerseys takes place.
On this bike trip, we were stopping in a village at the base of Pla d’Adet, a ski resort that sits at the top of a fantastic mountain road. This year, Pla d’Adet featured in the Tour during its third week. The climb up to the resort is steep from the start, and with the stage finishing at its summit, there was real potential for this climb to influence who would wear the Yellow jersey in Paris.
During our times in the Pyrenees we had the ridden the climb up to Pla d’Adet on both fresh and tired legs. It’s never felt easy. The riders in the Tour would be riding it at the end of a stage, and some would probably be going at full gas. I admire their levels of fitness so much.
The Tour attracts people from far and wide, and certainly makes a place busy. It is worth bearing this in mind if you are creating a trip to see the race. This aside, it’s wonderful to see the build up. The fans arrive early, and its not unusual to see camper vans lining the edge of mountain roads at least a week before the race is due to pass by. As the big day gets closer, there is also a noticeable increase in cyclists challenging themselves on the climbs made famous by the Tour.
The Tour was not due to reach the village until mid afternoon, but the entire place was becoming part of the event way before that, and some road restrictions were in place by early morning.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and we didn’t want to miss out on a ride. A route that gave the potential to cycle from the village and be back before the Tour arrived, would take us to some beautiful lakes tucked away in the mountains above where we were staying. How could we resist!
The road through the village was due to close at around lunchtime, and the last thing we wanted was to sit out away from the race. With this in mind, we set off early and cycled through the already busy streets, with a little excitement and nervousness.
Barriers edged the route, and the Police were already putting things in place to help them manage the traffic and spectators. Thankfully, we were able to glean that cyclists would be able to make their way back in to the village right up to when the Tour cavalcade was nearing. So with this valuable snippet of information, we headed off up the valley with the sun on our backs.
This road is a direct link to Spain, and there are occasions when large trucks head this way. Today, the bike ruled, and lots cyclists were heading up and down. My legs were a little heavy from days of riding, and I tried to spin along with as little effort as the gradient would allow.
With the border close by, many Spanish cycling fans had travelled in to see the Tour. This created a further language for me to contend with, but the common bond of the bike seems to give most people that extra encouragement to say hello, and learn a little about what the day held, or the adventures a bike trip had created.
The gradients of the valley road are reasonably shallow and the surface quite smooth. This allowed me to take long glances at the beautiful, but powerful river that edges the side of this road. I love to do this, as the water clarity and sunlight seem to make the rivers and streams almost unique to these mountains, as they glisten to a level I don’t recall seeing anywhere else.
The river and fellow cyclists made riding the main valley road feel quite easy and I pulled over on reaching the village of Fabian. This is where a sign indicates that the road to the lakes is close by, on the right.
Emma joined me shortly after, and we chatted about the various bikes we had spotted, people we had spoken with, and how great it was to be riding today.
Lac de Cap de Long and Lac d’Aumar sit high above the valley, and to reach either lake requires around another 9 miles of climbing from Fabian. As there was still quite a distance to go, we both took on some food before continuing. Both Emma and I find energy gels really useful when we are riding the hills and mountains, as they are easy to digest and give an instant energy boost.
The narrow road up to the lakes is a real contrast from the main valley road. It’s start is quite steep, and the surface is pitted and rough. On setting off, I clicked the gears up to the top of the cassette, trying to ease my legs into what I am asking of them.
With a minor grumble, they adjust and I begin to enjoy what makes this place so special. The small road is quite tree lined at this point, the morning air slightly cooler, but there are gaps where the sun breaks through, creating little spots of warmth and brightness. These increased as I climbed and the distance between tree lined sections increased.
This is the point where the high mountains begin to to become part of the skyline. I take upward glances as frequently as the road surface and direction will allow. A blend of river, trees and mountains now forms the landscape that this tiny road weaves it’s way through.
The occasional gradient change breaks my rhythm and I click through the gears to make the most of the flatter sections. These will generally end quite abruptly, with the mountain rearing up. I try to turn these into a positive, and admire the switchback road carved into the mountain side. There are many instances when the construction looks ancient, and the physical effort required to build some of these roads must have been immense.
We had ridden up to Lac de Cap de Long during previous trips, but had not visited Lac d’Aumar. The road to Lac d’Aumar branches off to the right, a mile or so before you reach the barrage at the summit of Lac de Cap de Long. I waited at this point, eager to share the decision of whether or not we were to head to Lac d’Aumar.
Another lake also comes into view, this is Lac Oredon. It’s beautiful, and I have admired the deep blue colour when riding higher up the mountain road.
Emma joined me at the branch in the road and we spent a little time taking in the mountain scenery that surrounded us. Before setting off from the gite we had checked the Tour de France guide for the approximate time that the peloton would be approaching the foot of Pla d’Adet. This piece of information was really helpful, as we could be relaxed with our choice to head down to the stunning Lac Oredon, and then on up to Lac d’Aumar.
Lac Oredon is formed by a dam, which also creates a great viewing point to the expanse of water. The lake is understandably a popular place to visit, and people were dotted along the shore line. A hotel is close by, and from what I read, it’s a very good place to stay.
However, Lac d’Aumar was our ultimate destination, and we headed across the dam, through the visitors car park, then back onto an almost deserted mountain road. The contrast in gradient had me reaching for suitable gears, and with the first part of the ascent embedded in my legs, clicking straight up to the top of the rear cassette was instinctive.
The surroundings were a great distraction from the feel of pedalling, with the warm sun enlivening wild flowers and pine, bringing their wonderful scent to the mountain air. I love to visit these places, but when on the bike it’s easy to be focussed on reaching the next switchback or mountain top, and miss out on appreciating what is already there. I try to remind myself of this, and stop more often to take photos, enjoy the moment.
The height gain soon reaches a level where the trees and vegetation become more sparse, and the switchback turns frequently gift a view across the mountains and the lake in the valley below. Maybe it’s wrong to compare, but for me, the scenery in this ride was even more spectacular than that of the Lac de Cap de Long.
Lac d’Aumar is high in the mountains above the tree line. I reach this point, and enjoy the gradient of the road easing away. I can now spin the pedals easily, and simply coast along, soaking up sunshine and scenery.
Another longstanding passion of mine is fishing, and it was fun to spot a group of anglers on the shore of the lake. I have never fished in a place like this, and I expect that the mountain views would be such a distraction, catching anything would be unlikely. I think it was similar for these fishermen, as they seemed to be having a great time basking in the sun and watching the world go by.
Emma and I free-wheeled along the side of the lake enjoying the moment, stopping occasionally to take photos and appreciate being able to ride our bikes in a place of such astounding beauty.
It was now getting close to lunchtime and the traffic restrictions would soon be in place down in the village. With a snack consumed, it was time to head back. Another little facet of this being a fabulous day, was the box of cakes waiting for us back at the gite!
Other than a short section of road that takes you away from Lac Oredon, it was virtually downhill all the way home! The smaller mountain road is a little technical, as the surface, direction and light levels change frequently. The main road down to Saint Lary Soulan is wider and more flowing, making it easier and faster to ride down.
The descent was fun, with just a little more care being needed as by now, lots of cyclists were heading back to watch the race. I was running an electronic group set on this trip, and couldn’t help indulging in the almost addictive, effortless gear shifts throughout the descent.
On nearing Saint Lary Soulan , one or two helicopters were flying above town, and the crowds had built up. The Tour de France was getting close.
The Tour is like a traveling celebration of cycling, and the atmosphere around Saint Lary Soulan was lively and friendly. We wound our way through the barriers, and rode down the main street. It crossed my mind that Vincenzo Nibali, clad in the Yellow Jersey and the likes of Team Sky, Movistar and Cannondale to name just a few, would be ploughing down here at race pace within a few hours.
A quick clean up, change and sandwich, then it was time to walk up the steep road leading to the foot of Pla d’Adet.
Emma’s sister Maria, her husband Jean-Francois and their daughter Connie, were holidaying close by, and we would all be watching the Tour together. Some friends were also on Pla d’Adet, but they had headed out earlier to get a prime spot higher up the mountain.
We met Maria, J-F and Connie by the river and walked up the first ramp of the mountain road. The gradient is steep at this point, and we collectively agreed that this would be an ideal spot as the crowds would thicken higher up the mountain. The grassy verge gave us a good vantage point to view the Tour as it passed through.
By now the Tour Cavalcade was was in full flow and a blend of music, voices, loud speakers and helicopter rotors filled the valley.
The Cavalcade is part of what makes the Tour, and each vehicle is emblazoned and shaped in a way to maximise the brand they are promoting. This ranges from Skoda cars to mineral water, ham, cheese, and Haribo sweets, to name just a few.
As the Cavalcade parades by, gifts are thrown to the crowd, so when watching the Tour de France, it’s likely that you will return home with a variety of hats, snacks and souvenirs.
To ensure we looked the part, we were soon sporting caps and hats, and had enough sweet and savoury snacks to camp out for a week!
The Cavalcade passed by, soon followed by the Race Organisers. The riders were really close now. As soon as the lead riders arrive the atmosphere intensifies. The sound of cheers and clapping is almost all that can be heard until the riders charge through.
Team cars follow and I try and catch glances of the wonderful bikes that are fastened to their roofs. The blue of the Astana team kit starts to come into view, and I look for Yellow.
Nibali had placed himself at the front of the main peloton and was protected by a couple of his team. Thankfully, there is enough space around him to be able to see the slender frame of a rider who can win Grand Tours. The challengers from the likes of Movistar were close by. Emma was thrilled to have spotted Thomas Voeckler and Joaquim Rodriguez, two of her favourite riders.
Athough the gradients are in the region of 10%, the peloton passed by at speed, with the sprinters and various tired domestiques following shortly after. This slight break in the group gives the fans chance to see the riders close up, and give cheers of encouragement on the final climb of the day.
The buzz of the race was now higher up the mountain and as quickly as the intensity builds it’s quickly gone. The Tour atmosphere creates a real feeling of cheer in the people who had just experienced it pass by in a whirlwind. So heading back down to the village where we were staying was easy and friendly, with lots of chat about the race and comparing who’d got what from the cavalcade giveaways.
We said our goodbyes and arranged to meet later. Maria was cooking a meal and we were in charge of dessert, the aforementioned cakes, and lots of them!
For me, the day had been perfect. The high mountain views and Tour de France both fabulous in their own unique way.
All of the events were topped off by being able to share the day with Emma and family, and we are all able to smile and laugh about the day of Mountain Lakes and the Yellow Jersey.