Mountain High has a lot to answer for, those smooth glossy pages with crisp pictures of endless switchbacks rising up a mountainside put ideas in your head that are hard to shake. The book which we had come to refer to as the bible had been a mainstay of our evening entertainment detailing in sumptuous detail the hard won challenges of today and the kilometres to be won tomorrow.
Hidden away in its pages was Gavarine a stunning Cirque of mountains and one of Frances finest national parks. From the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur a beautiful climb winds its way into the park and up to the Spanish border. At 30km and a whopping 1500m of climbing it would be the biggest test ever on my bike.
Cirque du Gavarine (photo by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle)
The big problem was in the way between our campsite and the start of the climb was the Col du Tormalet, and the thought of driving over the most famous mountain pass in cycling bordered on the sacreligious. The downside of this though is that the Tormalet itself is 1200m high and 20km long and the thought of tagging this onto the start and end of the day was a bit much!
Rather than follow Rule 5 and climb the Tourmalet twice we drove to La Mongie a small ski centre which is perched on an alp about 4km short of the col on its eastern side. The resort itself is one of the myriad of less than picturesque examples that litter the mountains here with buildings whose architectural standing is somewhere between abysmal and appaling.
The Tour had been over only a few days before so the road was covered with graffiti which made the short hop to the summit and interesting one although quite how a line of giant sperm swimming there way to the summit was supposed to motivate the riders I'm not quite sure.
The decent of the top was fun, cars were overtaken, corners carved with a flourish and towards the bottom when the road straitens and widens to a long trail of brand new tarmac the speed must have hit an exhilarating if scary 80kph although I struggled to keep up with Josie who was flying.
The Gavavine climb was suitably epic, gentle for the first 10km or so as it follows a steep sided ravine. As you approach the Cirque the road steepens but does not really kick in till just after half way when you leave Gavarine village and begin the climb to the border. Here you also leave the tourist hotspots behind and consequently the road surface deteriorates with cracks and loose gravel as it cuts its way upwards at between 8 and 9% for the next 12km or so.
The effort is worth it the road runs out at a small car park as a track winds off to the border, the view is spectacular with peaks towering above and grate slabs or rock on show from a relatively recently retreated glacier. Not for the first time on this trip I regret the fact that road cycling and photography don't really mix as I would love to have had my SLR with me. The decent was gripping even if the road in places wasn't.
Well done legs
Where the road runs out
Back in Luz-Saint-Sauveur and with 80 plus kilometres in the legs I will admit that despite its uber classic status I was not 100% thrilled at the thought of taking on the Tourmalet. From the west the climb stits at a gradient of practically 8% for its entire length so it was just a case of getting into a comfortable gear and plodding upwards at a good cadence. I had the added motivation that my phone was close to dead as I was running Strava and I wanted to get to the top and claim the segment for posterity (unfortunately it died a few km short of the summit).
Low down on the Tourmalet
As the climb went on the weather deteriorated, mist and cloud enveloping the hills although fortunately the rain held off. I had spent the last hour and a half with my short sleeve jersey open, the effort of the climb keeping me toasty and thought I was prepared for the vicious temperature gradients cyclists can sometime experience going over a big hill. I was not... By now the summit was a dreary place, visibility was about 20m with a bitter wind cutting across the ridge. Despite quickly changing into long leggings, a winter smock and windproof I was soon shivering as a tried to hold my phone still long enough to take the obligatory summit photo.
The decent may only have been 4km but was deeply deeply unpleasant; the cloud blocked out all visibility apart from a short stretch of slimy saturated tarmac and which ended in a steep grey void into nothingness at the edge of the road. As I crawled down road into the drizzle my body attempted to shiver itself off the bike as I tried to balance the risk of going too fast on the slippy surface with the desire to be in a warm car as soon as possible.
La Mongie did not appear until I was practically on top of it with some monstrosity of concrete looming out the mist. Just before the car the ride threw in one last curve ball with a flock of goats strewn across the road perfectly camoflaged in the mist, a mad end to an epic day.
Nice day for it