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Bielle – Col du Soulor
The route then goes left along the D934 heading north towards Izeste for about 3 or 4km. Then it’s east on the D35, quite a straight fast road with a few undulations, this is a good time to eat something, drink and compose yourself. If you have managed to find a group at this point that’s fantastic, use the slipstream and conserve energy, if the pace is high and you are feeling cooked, sit in and let the others do the work.
This should bring you quickly onto the D126, which follows the River Ouzom and skirts south to the beginning of the Col du Soulor, where the plot really begins to thicken.
Col du Soulor
A signpost reading “Col du Solour 20km” alerts you to the fact that this narrow road moving into the valley is in fact the beginning of the climb. Yet the gradient and scenery doesn’t suggest any kind of real climbing. In fact, the first 5km or more of the Soulor is one of the highlights of this year’s route. You go off to the right with the River Ouzom flowing down, untamed grass sprouting at either side of the road. The smooth tarmac of this narrow road will squeeze four bikes across, but if you are riding in a group here you may have to string out and slow down. You’ll barely notice the percentage; a very steady, easy ride with turns and hairpins, it’s really to be enjoyed. At this point.
You move left across the Ouzom on a stone bridge. Then right as the road widens to single carriageway for traffic. It’s a nice gradual wind up the valley with bare rock faces, lush tree cover and the sound of running water making it a beautiful experience. The road even goes downhill at one point. If you want to make up time you may be able to force a bit of pace, but don’t overdo it – the climb gets steeper and is over 20km long. You already have a tough col in the legs, recovery is vital.
As the mountain peaks keep coming in and out of view to boast their magnificence, you make a right where a marker suggests it’s 17km to the top. Over another bridge as the road narrows again and the river appears below on your left, flowing down deep and blue. Surrounded by rocks and wild flowers, a water fountain appears. Over another little bridge, down in the valley below you see houses with grey slate roofs. Lots of cows in the fields. A red tractor sits pretty in a typically neat, well manicured pasture. There are beautiful little houses dotted around this verdant, colourful place.
It’s incredibly pretty, a highlight of the route and part of your pilgrimage to really enjoy.
As you reach Ferrier – a run-down village half-way up – you pass a pink house, and then a church. When you come out of Ferrier the gradient suddenly kicks up. It’s 9% for 1km. Unpleasant, but don’t let it demoralize you. Then it drops off to a more amiable 6%. As you look back you can see forests below, trees and upland pastures, granges and gorges. Fantastic.
Still 11km to go as it opens out and you can see a long way down, make sure you ration your water if you are running low as the climb begins to dig in here. You pass solid rock on the left-hand side – with water pouring down and out, incredible. With 6km to go the climb goes at a relentless 7.5% as you look back and wonder “have I climbed all the way up there?” But it’s manageable with horseshoe corners.
With 5km to go a marker reads: “Moyenne de la pente: 8.5%” At this point you realize you are on a pilgrimage made up of equal parts of beauty and suffering. Over to the right, as you near the top, you can see the Aubisque with the road cutting right across it up ahead of you. There is a water station at the top, a great time to enjoy a well earned drink and soak in how far you’ve climbed.
Our fellow rider and resident of Gascony, Charlie Pearch, although not a religious man in the typical sense, alerted us to the Way of St. James. He explained the history and how the routes the pilgrims took would follow paths to various churches along the way. In essence, the Marie Blanque and Soulor are churches, holy places and shrines for cyclists to visit and satisfy their faith.
Moving up the second shrine of the day Charlie, always good for conversation on the bike, described how climbing the Soulor acted as his own passage of penance and pilgrimage:
“Imagine that this is what it’s like when you go to see St. Peter, you know you’ve done something right in life, paying for your sins as you climb through the pain. They say at the bottom, I would imagine, at the holding centre, ‘you get on a bike and you climb up to the top of this… and when you get to the top you see St. Peter…’ Yes, you’ll travel up here with a huge joy in your heart and you’ll be happy – all’s good in life. When I see St. Peter I’m going to give him one hell of a big kiss!”
A very fast but enjoyable descent with some tight turns, take it carefully.
Argeles-Gazost – Luz St. Sauveur
There is a feed station at Argeles-Gazost, at the bottom of the descent, so make the most of this. You take the valley road and skirt south round a gorge with nets strapped to a huge rock face. It’s uphill somewhat so go steady, once again, and take in as much food and water as your body allows before you reach the foot of the final, impending shrine of the day. At this point you will need a good deal of faith in your body and mind. Stay strong and keep positive.