Marion and Hans had a wonderful book full of cycling routes in the French Pyrenees. The book was in Dutch and we didn’t understand much of the text and descriptions but enough to copy two loops around Laruns, our next stop on the schedule and be at least somewhat excited about moving on from Arreau.
Our stay in Arreau had actually amounted to my biggest week of cycling ever: over 25 hours of saddle time and 410km of mostly uphill riding! I still hadn’t enough!
One of the loops that I had copied from the book was 110km but it started and ended in Bielle, approximately 10km down the valley from Laruns. An additional 20km didn’t worry us too much, especially when the kilometres are flat. So it was a 130km ride for us, and I was extremely excited about this one. If Hans hadn’t lend us the book, we would have probably just ridden the Laruns side of each climb and missed out on some spectacularly scenic roads.
My hand-drawn map, copied from the book, was transferred onto a map from the tourist information, cut to size and stored in a plastic bag for the jersey pocket. Pockets were also filled with arm warmers, rain jacket (the sky looked grey and on a 130km ride into medium size mountains of the 1000-1500m range, you want to be prepared), bananas, bars and photo camera. I don’t like carrying a rucksack.
So bulging out of rear pockets, we sat off towards Bielle along the fast and busy D934. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be like this all the way. From Bielle it was easy to follow the road signs to Louvie Juzon. The turn into the D918 just after Arudy was a pleasant surprise because immediately we dipped into green forest. The road was just wide enough to accommodate oncoming traffic, which we didn’t need to worry about. There was none.
It had been a while since we rode along roads that were neither an ascent nor a descent. This was a road that was just taking us from village to village, through countryside as pleasant as French countryside can be, over rolling hills and along corn fields and fenced veggie gardens, to Lurbe Saint Christau, pass a local bar and boulangerie in Asasp Arros, through Issor and over to Lourdios Ichère.
Here we reached the centre point of our figure eight, the point I had marked as a possibility for a short cut, should legs or minds be uncommitted to 130km. It was the Marie Blanque ride after all, the Marie Blanque pass featuring as the highlighted last climb. I remembered that there were supposed to be some warm-up Cols along the loop but I could neither remember how many there were, nor did I know, how high, long or steep they were. I had never heard of any of them before. But I had certainly been warned about the Marie Blanque. The last few kilometres were supposedly tough.
At this point we had encountered rolling hills but no Cols at all. It was the 45km mark. Skipping the smaller belly of our “Eight” would have reduced the ride to about 90km, nothing in comparison to The Ride that all other rides are measured on now. Sure, I could do this one!
Lourdios Ichère looked like people cared for the place. Everything looked neat and tidy but there was no soul to be seen. When we rolled into the village I spotted the road sign for Col de Lie, the Col from which we would descent later in order to complete the first loop. The houses were pretty but I had no idea who was tending to the front yards. There was a little rest area next to the creek but no one was using the benches. Maybe this wasn’t the village centre? There was no post office, no bakery or butcher shop. Maybe all the action was happening further up the other road, the forth road that made up the Figure Eight’s centre point, the last road and short cut temptation at our deserted intersection, the one up the Col d’Ichère and over to the Marie Blanque.
There was a big sign for Col de Labays with all the details to a cyclist’s heart’s content: Elevation profile with gradients, broken down in individual kilometres, total distance, total elevation gain, altitude, a map of the road and a short description of the climb. It looked like the weather was holding up and even though the unknown had me a little worried, I felt fresh and keen and wasn’t going to shortcut the ride.
Around the five kilometre mark, the road kicked up to over 10%. Even though the Col is not as well known as many others of the region, it was still extremely well signed. Every kilometer is marked by a little blue column that provides information on the gradient of the next kilometre. Sometimes the signs provided welcome relief that the next kilometre wasn’t going to be as hard as the previous, sometimes it had me worried when a 10% section tapered along at 2% for the first 250m.
Then there was a downhill section, then an intersection, and more steep sections alternated with flat, fast-rolling road. Alberto got all worried that we may have taken the wrong turn at the intersection and missed the Col but another kilometre marker provided reassurance that we were still climbing the Col de Labays. At this point we had climbed for about 70 min but for me it felt like hours. We were only on our first Col of the day and already stuck in some enchanted forest, the Fôret de Issaux, half way through our ride with no end to this Col in sight and three more Cols to come.
Even though I enjoyed the climbing and the place, I started to feel more nervous. What if all climbs were this long?
Col de Labays
Average gradient: 5.9%
Elevation gain: 931m
Eventually we reached the summit but it was just another intersection in the forest. The sign congratulated us to our achievement but another sign advised us that the road to the right, down into Arette, was closed due to some motorcycle event. A detour was signed out to our left, up towards Col de Soudet and Col de la Pierre Saint Martin. No way we could add this long detour to an already long and challenging ride.
As we were discussing our options (ignore the road closure or turn around and descend the Col de Labays), a cyclist flew pass, coming down from the Soudet. He ignored the closure. Then another shot pass us. We went after them in pursuit. And what a descent it was! Fast wide sweeping bends, green valleys, sprinkled with cows, and more forest. Another two cyclists flew pass as we stopped to take photos. Then we overtook one before we all reunited. The announced road closure at last – not far from Arette!
No one seemed to know what was going on but no one seemed willing or inclined to turn around and climb all the way up to the intersection again. Cars were turned around. French explanations! The other cyclists were German. Waiting. Sure, something would happen. And what was the road closure all about anyway? Finally some movement. I understood that our little peloton was to follow the quad bike that would guide us through the closure. There were thousands of motorbikes. And the hillside was sprinkled with hundreds of colourful dots, people lining the steep slopes watching some kind of extreme moto cross. The impossible mountain!
Once we got through, the Germans sat a good pace. I jumped on, keen to start a conversation. But unfortunately, there was no time for small talk and we reached our turn off so suddenly that there was barely enough time for a hasty called out “Thanks for the lift” and we were on the D342 back towards Lourdios and on the Col de Lie.
Thankfully, this Col was a short affair of only 4km and even though it started out steep, the views across the lush valley with the little farm houses and stone walls and hedge fences was out of a picture book. Locals sat on a stone wall at one of the farm houses we passed. A friendly Bonjour was exchanged. They seemed rather unaccustomed to cyclists and curious about our presence in their little world. Or so it seemed.
Col de Lie
Average gradient: 5.6%
Elevation gain: 240m
Back in already familiar Lourdious, now pass the 90km mark and at the beginning of the home stretch of our Figure Eight loop, we needed to refill our water bottles. An easy task with the readily available water fountains in all French villages… or so I thought.
The village indeed stretched further along the Ichere road but it was just one private farm house to the next lining both sides of the road. A museum of local produce at last. Sure, we would find water here. The large room had a long counter along the far side. Jam and honey jars were stacked on the tables. Artisan handcraft was nicely draped over shelves. Little hand-written signs informed of the price of each item. The little cottage windows didn’t allow for much light insight. Voices came from a second room somewhere in the back. Everything was neat and tidy, as if someone had just straightened a sign here and readjusted a folded scarf there but just like the entire village, the room was deserted.
Quietly I peered into the other room. Two tourists sat in the dark with their backs to me, watching a film about the farming in the area. For a moment I considered asking them where I would find a museum or shop attended but instead I quietly left without disturbing them.
We continued on our ride and at last there was an old man and his dog and a half a dozen cows on the road and then we spotted the water. There is no such thing as a French village without a fountain to refill your bottles.
The Col d’Ichere was very similar to the Col de Lie, same pretty fields and trees and hedges and stone walls, and the descend down to Sarrance just as sketchy with narrow, off-cambered roads full of potholes and loose gravel that required concentration and even on the brakes I almost overshot one corner because the road fell away in a very awkward angle.
Average gradient: 6.8%
Elevation gain: 200m
The short section along the main Oloron road was fast. We briefly stopped in Escot for a Coke before turning right into the D294 that would take us back across the mountain into the Vallée de Ossau, over the mountain pass that was the reason for this entire ride: the Col de Marie Blanque.
Once we passed the last few houses and the cycling sign that marks the start of the climb, we took it easy because I knew or thought to remember that Marion had mention this to be a tough finish. The road continued along a gorge, and I already started to wonder (worry?) whether this was actually the “tough side” or whether we ended up approaching the Col from the easier side.
But I didn’t need to worry. Those last four kilometres were relentless at above 11% average gradient and so slow going that the much anticipated kilometre signs seemed oh so much further apart. And while there were anticipated, they were dreaded at the same time because they announced another tough kilometre with their average gradients. Alberto went ahead with each sign and then waited, camera in hand, at the next to capture my agony.
There is no easing off until you reach the top. Each kilometre took me about seven minutes to climb.
We had over 100 km in the legs, but there was only downhill and the flat road back to Laruns to finish off a magic day in the French Pyrenees so it had to take as long as it had to take to climb the four kilometres.
Col de Marie Blanque
Average gradient: 7.5%
Elevation gain: 660m