By Grant Williams
I am always on the look out for new climbs, and it was beautiful images of the Port de Pailhères in France, that caught my eye, whilst eagerly skimming the pages of yet another cycling magazine, which had recently dropped through our letterbox.
The riders had visited the climb during October 2012 and the mountain tops were snow covered. These were in contrast with the dark colours of the valley and a vivid blue sky, with the road snaking its way up to the summit. These images were more than enough to make me want to visit, and experience what they had.
The Port de Pailhères remained out of reach for a few years, but the desire to visit was constant. I love being on my bike in the high mountains. The memory of these times, or planning the next adventure, both play a huge part in who I am.
A passion for these bike trips is something I share with my partner, Emma, and we were both excited about visiting the Ariège Pyrénées, an area neither of us had visited before. We chose to stay in a pretty village, just above Ax-les-Thermes. The western approach to this wonderful climb begins in this town, so it seemed a perfect location. We had two weeks to explore the area.
Our journey to these places tends to involve travelling long distances in the car, and it’s usually late afternoon or early evening when we arrive at the destination. Any fatigue quickly disappears when the road signs begin the show the name of climbs we are here to ride, and the excitement of being in the mountain environment builds.
The first day involves setting up the bikes, and putting the ride kit in some form of order. This is well practised, and quickly leads on to a look at maps and weather forecast. Rain was due by early afternoon, but that was a few hours away, we were in the Pyrenees, and the Pailhères was on the doorstep. Why not just take a ride up, and see how far we get before the dark clouds sweeping into the valley prompt us to turn around, and head back down to the apartment?
There was already some cloud cover, but it was warm, and it felt great to be breathing in the mountain air, clicking through the gears, and reconnecting with the movement and sensations that come with being on the bike.
When riding from Ax-les-Thermes, the Pailhères gifts the rider with a mix of sensory treats. Quite early on the ascent, we enjoyed the beauty of the mountain lake Goulours, heavily wooded on one side, more open on its others. The water a mix of blue or glass clear, depending on the angle of view. We stopped and gazed for a few moments, before heading on, promising to return and walk its shoreline.
Sections of the road surface were fresh when we visited, the new, black macadam was smooth, and made the steeper gradients which occur through the tree line, that little bit easier. The presence of the new surfacing was softened by the River Lauze which edges the road. The water looks so fresh and clean, sparkling when the sunlight catches the flow. The sound of the moving water forms a beautiful distraction from the deep breaths of exertion while climbing, or the blend of bicycle and the wind, during a descent.
The pitch of the road eased before the ski village of Ascou-Pailhères came into view, and the bike effortlessly gathered momentum. This was one of those moments of contrast on a climb, when the forces of gravity and gradient temporarily relent, the legs spin easily, and the body and breathing relax.
Cattle wandered freely, enjoying this grassy area, and evidence of their presence decorated the road surface…. I would look out for this natural hazard on the way down! Glancing up at the high mountain peaks, it was easy to become completely immersed in the moment, but I was searching for view points that would allow me to look down the valley, and check for signs of rain clouds moving in. This was hindered by the landscape and trees, so I rode on, passing through the ski village, clicking up though the gears, as the road began to elevate again.
A wide area of macadam, static ski lifts, and being further into the mountains made me feel quite small, compared to the scale of the surroundings. Another wonderful sensation of the mountains. As the climb rose above the tree line, the surface suddenly changed to being quite pale and weathered. The road cut into the hillside was edged by rock, deep orange and black in colouration.
The height gain created the potential to view the valley below, the horizon was slightly darker, and one or two compact black clouds had ominously drifted in. Looking up, the sky remained relatively clear, and a large switchback gave way to what looked like a virtually straight run to the top.
I continued on, climbing a relatively consistent gradient of around 8-9%. The air was slightly cooler now, and the landscape sparse, with no more than grass covering the mountain side, and the occasional flower adding life and colour to the rocky outcrops. Having watched the Tour de France reach the summit of the Pailhères, I knew of its barren top, and the reality was similar to how I had imagined.
I glanced behind to increasing cloud below, and recognised that heading back had got to happen soon. Looking up, the road curved left, then disappeared over a brow. If that was the top, it was reachable on this ride, so clicking down a gear, I pressed on.
This section of the climb was edged with wooden stakes. I anticipate these indicate the location of the road when the snow is covering the summit. As the gradient of the road eased and flattened, a stone built shelter was present on the left, and opposite the valley was full of cloud. This occasionally drifted up to the summit, wrapping the building and the grassy surrounds in a cool, damp blanket, and intensifying the calm silence of the moment.
Emma arrived shortly after, and we spent a few minutes learning about each other’s ascent and snapped a photo or two. We both knew it was time to descend back into the valley. So with jackets on to keep out the chill, we set off.
The descent was a mix of straight line speed, sweeping curves and switchbacks, so progress was fun and quick. On reaching the tree line, rain had already fallen, I slowed at this point, as this combined with fresh tarmac, or what the cows had left behind, could lead to my undoing!
As the conditions had changed, I decided to wait for Emma. I anticipated she would already be factoring in the damp road surface, but it’s more important than ever to look out for each other, when riding in the high mountains. We finished the descent together, with light rain just beginning to fall. The return to the apartment involved a tight, steep switchback. Both of us took care to keep traction, as we headed up this final test.
A warm drink, and sharing our moments on the Pailhères filled the next part of the day, along with making plans for the rest of the trip.
During our stay we rode the Pailhères a number of times, and each time certain moments stayed with me, etched in my mind until we return. Keep reading to share these moments…..
Wild Horses and a Sea of Cloud.
Blue sky and warm sunshine was already part of the day when I stepped into the garden, and breathed the morning air. I couldn’t wait to ride, with the thought of heading high, to catch views of this beautiful landscape. We set out early, and selfishly, I hoped the summit of the Pailhères would be deserted, and silence would complement the views. On the brow coming into sight, the scene was a vivid blue with a silhouette of horses. I stopped to absorb this moment, before steadily making my way to where they were. The horses were very used to seeing cyclists, and I eased my way around them. Beyond this, the mountains and a sea of cloud in the valley….
The Eastern Approach.
Basing ourselves above Ax-les-Thermes enabled us to ride the western approach of the Port de Pailhères a number of times during our stay. Having descended its other side, to Mijanès, we both wanted to experience climbing the eastern side, so we created a ride to enable this.
We were quite a way through the bike trip by now, the legs were weary, but the buzz of being in the mountains kept the enthusiasm high. The morning was perfect for experiencing the ascent, with clear blue sky and warm sunshine forming above the mountains. After the village of Mijanès, the road gradually weaves its way though grassy meadow and clusters of trees, its width narrowing as it gains height.
Tight switchbacks begin to feature, allowing the road to traverse up through the steepening slopes of the mountain. It’s surface held riders’ names, which had been painted on by fans when the Tour de France had visited. This, and view of the valley and surrounding peaks made a perfect distraction from the challenging gradient.
The profile of the landscape gradually changed, the switchbacks less frequent, giving way to more sweeping curves, and a greater expanse of landscape. I was enjoying the forward motion, but eased to the side of the road and stopped just before the summit. A perfect vantage point to absorb the moment.
Bird of Prey.
I had breached the tree line, and was now holding a relatively constant pace heading up towards a small cluster of buildings on the left, close to the summit. This section of the climb offers a view of a large area of the mountain, where its contours reach high above the road, as well as dipping below. Looking up and across, a huge bird was using the thermocline to glide effortlessly, following a shallow gorge which runs virtually parallel to the road. Due to the height change in the landscape, there were moments when I could look across, my sightline virtually at the height it flew. Momentarily, I could see the coloration within its plumage, vast wingspan, and admire the efficiencies evolution had equipped this magnificent species with.
The Closing Ride.
During the second week of our stay, rain showers had been a feature of most days. These would generally arrive by lunch time, so we had been setting out early, with the aim of being back from the ride before the weather changed.
As the week progressed, the weather worsened, with the potential of storms in the mountains. Having witnessed the severity of these conditions, we do our utmost to avoid them, and we were feeling a little down, thinking that the riding may have drawn to a close.
We woke on the final day to calm, still conditions, with mist and cloud concealing the views. Checking the forecast, it had changed, to show a stable day with a low cloud base. The thought of one last ride was a real boost, when such a great trip was nearing the end. So with that, it was a quick change, drinks bottles filled, and we headed up the Pailhères one more time.
The cloud concealed the mountain from just above the tree line. Even though the sun was not visible, the day was quite warm, and it felt so good to be on the bike. I was in no rush, and stopped to watch lower areas of the mountain come in and out of view, when small breaks in cloud occurred. This was complemented by a beautiful silence. Emma joined me, and we rode together for what remained of the ascent. Cloud concealed a few metres in front, but we had been here many times, and knew what lay beyond. The cloud reached beyond the height of the Pailhères, and masked its summit. The lack of view was no disappointment, we were both enjoying this unexpected opportunity to be on our bikes and to add another memory to the numerous ones, that this mesmerising place had already created.