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.