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Km 70-116: Lourdes to La Mongie
The Long Grind
Although you’ve yet to reach the half way point, make sure you stop at the Lourdes ‘ravitaillement’. Take on some proper food and fill two bidons: your next stop is near the top of the Tourmalet. Try to get into a group as soon as you leave the feed station. The next 25km of riding is on wide, flat or rolling roads, perfect for high-speed drafting.
The D937 Route des Pyrenees heads eastward, skirting the bottom of the Adour massif, through Arcizac and Escoubes, before the relatively gentle climb to Loucrup, at 571m. Nothing to worry about here. You’ll soon be descending between the wheatfields to the Adour Valley and the right-turn towards Bagneres and the Tourmalet.
Your main concerns at this point will be the wind, particularly if it’s a headwind from the 2,500m peaks that lie ahead, and some dangerous tramlines that cut across the road as you enter Bagneres. It’s likely these will be filled in by July but if not, you should exercise extreme caution as they could bring lots of riders down. After snaking through Bagneres the road heads into the Vallee de Campan with its lush green meadows, scattered barns and the cool Adour river. Travellers have been using this road for centuries; the road to the Tourmalet was completed in 1788 and the Tour de France has visited regularly since 1910. The road heads purposefully and steadily through Campan, with only a 2-3% gradient. You’ll still be moving quickly, eager to get on with the climb.
The Tourmalet rightly deserves its legendary status. Unlike most climbs in the Pyrenees it has a constant gradient – rather than snaking over the hill it seems to force its way up directly. In that sense, it’s quite like an Alpine road, wide and solid, perfect for the ski traffic heading to the resort of La Mongie and a masterpiece of French engineering. But it’s also rather beautiful as it takes you on a satisfying 16km journey, from lush farmland to the bleak, windswept pass. Most of the climb is 8-9%, tough enough to test you but consistent enough to allow you can get into a rhythm and give it a steady and sustained effort.
Sainte Marie de Campan, at 102km, is the official start of the Tourmalet climb. It was here, in 1913, that Eugene Christophe fashioned new forks in the local forge after his broke, only to be disqualified later in the day when a commissaire discovered he had enlisted the help of the smithy’s boy, a third party, to pump the bellows. Think of Christophe if your day has already been disrupted by a flat or other mechanicals. From here, the first official sign says it’s 16.9km to the top.
The first 4km of these are relatively benign, at an average of 4.5%, but don’t get carried away. More serious challenges await and for many, the green Elan garage at Gripp is where the climbing proper begins. The gradient jumps to 7%, then rises to 9% through the trees and under the first snow gallery. After a further 2km, the road has to snake left and then right in order to scale a ridge of rock that blocks the valley. There’s a picturesque waterfall on your right and a less charming water pumping station on the left. The road is a steady 9% here and quite steep. You’re gaining height quickly and there are great views down the valley and ahead to the snow line. It will be close to the middle of the day by now and could well be getting hot. There are a lot of parking places at the side of the road in this section – don’t be tempted to pull over and admire the view.
With 8.5km to go, you’ll enjoy your first proper switchback, a rare treat because the rest of the climb is direct and unrelenting. It’s still 9% for the next 2km as you keep heading straight up and through several more snow galleries. If it is hot and the sun is high in the sky these should provide some welcome shade. When you reach the end of the trees the vista opens up and there’s a further 2km to go to La Mongie. For a time, the gradient increases to more than 10% and its very tough going.
La Mongie has to be one of the ugliest ski resorts anywhere. In the winter it’s a brutal, modern, functional station, bulldozed into the mountain with no sympathy for the surroundings or local traditions. In the summer it’s even worse, an arc of tatty grey buildings looking up to scarred mountainsides. The good news is that the next feed station is positioned at the top of the village. For Etape riders, the Tourmalet climb is only 13.6km long and the feed station will give you time to recover and take on more fuel. Unless the weather is terrible this should provide a real boost, both physically and psychologically. Have something to eat, refill your bidons and put on your gilet, jacket or arm warmers in readiness for the final 3.3km climb to the famous summit.