What’s so special about the Col du Tourmalet?

After our little taste of the Pyrenees in the Ariége region, we finally moved to the real stuff.

Col du Tourmalet was one of THE highlights I had been looking forward to climb throughout the trip and with our move to Arreau, this mountain got into reachable distance. We initially had planned to base ourselves in Bagneres-de-Luchon but after a look in the map we realised that Arreau gave us the all directions riding option without having to move our home. This is always a bonus when you are able to retire in the shade of your awning after a few hours of intensive climbing, cold beer in hand, and not having to drive 100km for the next day’s start of the ride!

By bypassing Luchon we missed out on a couple of “smaller” Tour de France climbs such as the Col des Ares and Col de Portet d’Aspet but Arreau turned out an almost ideal base for three nights and three memorable rides and uncountable, unforgettable moments in the company of an equally cycling-fanatic Dutch family. How is it that with some people you just click from the moment you say Hi?

Col de Peyresourde and Peyregudes 

Our first ride from Arreau – no, it was still not the Tourmalet – took us to Bagneres-de-Luchon over the Col de Peyresourde. The Col du Tourmalet ride from Arreau was going to be a long ride with approximately 90 km over the Col d’Aspin, down to Campan and then the ascent from the Eastern side, effectively making it a three Col ride.

It had drizzled throughout the night and morning so we decided that a shorter 60km ride to Luchon was the better option for our first afternoon. Plus, the weather forecast for the following day promised clear blue skies, something we desired for the famous and spectacular Tourmalet views.

The “Luchon” side

Col de Peyresourde featured in this year’s Tour de France and there was plenty of chalk and paint evidence on the roads. I noticed an increase of Basque names now that we were in the pyrenees, and a certain The Boss Eddie should be proud of the strong support he receives from his Norwegians fans.

We basically rode the final climb of the Queen stage that saw the Pros start in Pau, climb the Col d’Aubisque, Col de Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and finish the day with the climb up the Col de Peyresourde to finish in Luchon. This was also the over 190 km long course of L’Etape du Tour – Acte 2 and having ridden pretty much the entire stage in parts spread over several days, one or two mountains at a time, I think this L’Etape would have been a huge challenge.

Hot chocolate in Luchon 

But not only did we trace the Pros on their final climb of that day, we also rode the final kilometres of the next day’s stage when we turned around in Luchon and rode up the Peyresourde from the Luchon side. Over the top and down a couple of kilometers, there is the turn-off for the bonus climb up to the ski resort of Peyregudes, too.

Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet 

Col d’Aspin starts just outside Arreau, allowing for a three minute warm up if you start at the Motorhome car park. But luckily, the Aspin starts gently. Gentle on the legs and gentle on the eyes! I loved this climb.

The views back down towards Arreau and the valley are stunning. It’s a popular climb, too, and there were plenty of other cyclists on the road. Lots of Bonjour and Bon courage were cheerfully exchanged between overtaking and overtaken cyclists of all abilities and I even meant to hear one of the stylish ladies call out Quel beau rhythme!

Knowing what lay ahead, I just enjoyed the climb without pushing too hard. It’s such a pretty climb, I didn’t want to spoil it with heavy breathing. However, Sebastian, a French cyclist that I had met early on the climb and who had stayed close to my wheel for most of the time, was keen to turn the last two kilometers into a race. He won and I got the big cheers from Alberto and the two teenage boys of our Dutch neighbours, Leander and Yoran, who had left our camp site a few 30 minutes before us and were already waiting for us at the top, enjoying the escapades of the free-roaming cows.

Leander pointed out the peaks at the horizon, the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, the top of Col du Tourmalet.

It looked like a long way away. An exciting long way! It was an inviting spot to linger and soak up the views and maybe have a pique nique but there would be another, better, time for that.

We had work to do and kept our stay at the Col d’Aspin short. The boys turned around and descended back to Arreau. We continued on, over the top of the Col d’Aspin and down through the valley to Sainte Marie de Campan and the left turn into the start of the Col du Tourmalet.

Pic du Midi close(r) up from the Eastern ascent
So what’s the big deal with the Tourmalet? 

The last couple of kilometers on the Eastern ascent from Sainte Marie de Campan

Well, I can’t put my finger on it. Believe me when I say, I have looked at it from several different perspectives. I can only confirm that it is a place where magic happens.

It’s getting harder and harder for me to describe climbs because I repeat myself. A climb is a climb! You pedal your bike uphill. Nothing more to it! Or is there? Sure, gradients and landscapes make each climb unique and weather and form make the experience individual and special.

But photos rarely do the landscape any justice and words are hard to find. It’s impossible to capture the beauty and majesty of these mountains, and even less the emotions when I stand with my bike in front of that Col sign. It may say 1500m or 2000m or 2115m, but it will never tell the story of sweat and joy to get there with only the help of my bike, legs and lungs.

Let me just say that we were awed enough to dare and take the Motorhome up to the top a couple of days after our first ascent. We wanted to wake up at the Col and it was one of the most amazing experiences of our entire journey. Sitting at the ridge of the mountain and watching the sun set over Luz  to the bell sounds of free roaming cows, sheep, goats and llamas is a memory I will cherish forever.

So it’s not just the cycling that makes Tourmalet special for me. Alberto decided to repeat the Eastern ascent the next morning. I considered joining him but I’m not a huge fan of repeating something when new experiences are waiting. He is the “in depth” person while I’m the “short attention span” butterfly, off to new colourful flowers. And this one was called Pic du Midi de Bigorre. 
The Western ascent to the Cold du Tourmalet – the road we would cycle up later that day
The easy part of the track with the peak towering in the background
The walking track that I had come up and way down below in the distance the road
Our new Dutch friends had told us about this semi-tough climb up to the highest peak of the area, towering another 700m above the Col du Tourmalet. So while Alberto descended back down to Campan, I tightened my trekking shoes, pocketed my Garmin and set off on my own. The first three to four kilometers could be done easily in Havaianas but allowed incredible views down the other side of the Tourmalet, down to the road that we hadn’t cycled up, yet. It got me all excited about the afternoon of cycling.

Pic du Midi de Bigorre – On top of the world. Views out of this world!

The last two to three kilometers are tough and my runners were on the limit of suitable for the rocky and steep path. Proper trekking boots would have been safer. But standing on top of the Pyrenees and looking down to the Col du Tourmalet is incredible. All of the sudden, high mountains are not so scary and intimidating anymore.

Three hours later I was back down at the motorhome, where Alberto was already preparing lunch. My poor cycling legs were sore from this unusual activity but I could wait to get on the bike.

The track – hiking boots recommended!

To round up the Tourmalet experience, later that afternoon, after a good lunch and some rest, when the worst of the midday heat was gone, we descended the Luz-Saint-Saveur to climb the Western side of the Tourmalet, back up to our motorhome for a second night of blissful silence and a dark sky only brightened by the few lights of the ski resort La Mongie four kilometers below the summit and stars and milky way.

This climb was actually my preferred side, even though the initial going was tough. My legs were heavy from the morning hike, but after six kilometers I started feeling better and better and by the time we reached the big car park for the last nine or so kilometres, the really pretty part of the climb, I wasn’t wishing for anything else but for the climb to last forever. That’s the fascination of the Tourmalet, my very personal and individual experience, made special by the company of Alberto and the weather that was so good that I don’t know how we deserved it!

The Western side
Gallery | This entry was posted in Cycling in Europe, Cycling in France. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What’s so special about the Col du Tourmalet?

  1. Will says:

    Congrats on conquering both sides of Tourmalet – I agree, there is indeed something special about the place.

  2. anne lynam says:

    I absolutely loved the Col du Tourmalet also. As you say it`s hard to exactly explain what makes some climbs better, more special that others, but Touramlet really has something. An amazing trip you are having by the sounds of it! You`ll be so fit when you get back here…

  3. Groover says:

    Will – A big chapeau to you for cycling not only both sides of the Tourmalet but also the Pic du Midi de Bigorre! :-)Anne – You are right. We are very fit at the moment (probably the fittest we have ever been) but trust me. I'm not very fast! There is a distinct lack of intensity, which only comes with racing and even though I'm chasing AMR all the climbs, it won't be enough to win races when back in Oz. LOL

  4. Xavier Lopez says:

    Such a good rides, fantastic weather and impress to see how “solid” was the hot chocolate you had 😉

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