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It was supposed to be our day of departure from Arreau but, like so many times before, it was hard to say Good Bye. We get attached to places easily. But this time it was also the friendship that had developed with Hans and Marion and their two wonderful sons that made it harder to move on.
Two days and nights parked next to each other. Two mornings and evenings of conversations about Rose and Canyon and bikes in general, and life in Holland and Australia (and in a Campervan somewhere in Europe) had helped bonding. So when the suggestion – hesitant because Marion and Hans considered us unsuitable riding partners for their less fit selves – was brought forward to go for a ride together, we jumped at it.
Hans and Marion are both (ex) triathletes of the iron kind, so there was no need to make us promise to be easy on them on a social ride. Unfortunately, Yohan and Leander didn’t join us on this ride. Leander chose to repeat the Col d’Aspin (and who could blame him? It’s such a beautiful climb.) while Yohan was in need of a rest day and stayed in camp. I was amazed by the independence of the boys and the freedom of choice their parents gave them. Very different to the helicopter parenting styles that I have observed in the past few years!
Hans mapped out a wonderful 75km course with 2200 m of climbing over smaller and lesser known Cols that had featured in the Tour de France at some stage: the Col de Val Louron-Azet, the Hourquette d’Ancizan and the Western side of the Col d’Aspin.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable rides of our trip.
The first few kilometers of the ride lead us South along the river through the valley towards the Lac de Génos-Loudenvielle. The road rose ever so gently so we didn’t even notice that we were already gaining altitude. The smooth rollers made for a perfect warm up and there was a lot of chatting going on. I’m not saying, two people get necessarily sick of each other’s company after weeks of travelling but it is nice to ride in a group once in a while.
Marion and Hans both had ridden the Col d’Azet two days earlier and I understood why they didn’t mind doing it again. I had been very excited when this climb was included in our ride because the sheer number of tight switchbacks had already caught my attention when I had studied the map for suitable routes. It looked like a children’s ziggy zaggy drawn impression of a road up a mountain.
Col de Val Louron-Azet
Distance: 7.7 km
Average gradient: 8.0%
Altitude: 1560 m
Elevation gain: 620 m
The moment we turned off the D25 in Génos, straight from the valley floor, the road lead up the side of the mountain. One moment the lake and valley were to our left, the next moment they were to your right. I don’t think the “boys” noticed. I could hear Alberto’s and Hans’ voices right behind us. Soon they seemed to drift down the road and I could no longer follow their conversation. Marion and I weren’t setting a blistering pace but the legs were fresh and every turn opened up better views over the valley.
Marion on her beautiful Rose bike
The Parapentes (What’s the English term for this sport?) made me duck a couple of times, as the shadow of their colourful parachutes flew pass our heads. Across the lake on the other side of the valley clearly visible was the road over the Peyresourde and then disappeared behind the ridge towards Bagneres-de-Luchon.
And then Alberto flew pass us with two or three kilometers to the summit. I half expected Hans to eventually tell him to go, just like I always do. I also half expected Alberto to miss a little right turn and end up in a little ski resort just off to the left because of the speed he came pass us. But Hans had warned him to look out for the right turn just about one kilometre before the summit.
Reunited at the summit, we grabbed a bite to eat, chatted with local cyclists, fought for a spot under the Col sign, and eventually threw ourselves down the other side of the Col into the neighbouring valley.
Seriously, with all the climbing we have been doing, naturally we have done an equal amount of descending, and with that my confidence increased. Even Alberto commented on my improved descending skills lately, but I still found it hard to keep up with the others.
Looking down the Western side of the Col d’Azet
It’s a fast and easy descend with wide sweeping bends
The roads seemed extra steep through the villages. I stopped to take my windbreaker off and fill my water bottle at one of the public water fountains and thankfully, Marion and Hans waited at the next turn and warned on time to change gears.
The beginning of the Hourquette is brutal and steep and starts right in the village of Ancizan. This climb was new to all of us and everybody gasped for air. Apart from a few breathless comments on the unexpected steepness, this time there wasn’t much chatting going on. Used to riding hard at steep sections, I attacked the climb out of the saddle. Suddenly the silence was not just caused by the steepness of the climb. I was on my own. Beautiful forest surrounded me. I slowed and enjoyed the birds and sounds of the forest, and then I heard the voices drawing closer again behind the bends.
Distance: 11.6 km
Average gradient: 6.6%
Elevation gain: 770m
Everybody was glad that the climb did not stay above 11% all the way, but the shade from the forest trees was welcome and remained almost all the way. This climb was scenic within the lush, enclosed greeness of itself. It does not spoil with many valley views. Only at the very end it opens up, and the glances back over the shoulder are the most impressive.
Towering mountains all around us
Not the highest Col but tough enough to make standing at the Col sign very satisfying
Enjoying the views
The descend from the Hourquette down towards Payolle is one of the most scenic in the area, I dare say. We arrived in a little valley where the French enjoyed a pique nique along a stoney creek. They do it in style and this valley was just made for it… Kids played in the shallow water, adults lounged on red and white checkered blackets, and all this nature was there for everybody to enjoy it on a warm summer’s day.
There is a tiny little ascent within the descent.
In Payolle we once again refilled our water bottles and started the last climb of the day.
Average gradient: 6.5%
Elevation gain: 380m
Alberto and I already knew this part of the ride from our Tourmalet ride the previous day but it was new to Marion and Hans. Hans, by now a little weary from the heat, was glad to hear that it was a short affair. He urged us all to not wait for him on the climb but rather at the top. There were lots of cyclists on the road and everybody went their own speed. We all pushed hard. I saw it on the satisfied faces at the top.
Only 12 km away from Arreau and a big plate of pasta, we managed a few new speed records on this descent. It is one of the best suitable roads for that, if you don’t have to brake for slower cars!
This ride certainly didn’t help making the inevitable Good Bye any easier. We eventually had to move on but before we took the Hymer up the Col du Tourmalet, we couldn’t help but join the French in the Hourquette valley for an extended lunch picnic the next day.