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This first col could prove to be a real sting in the nose. It will be between 8.30am – 9.30am when you start the first of the three climbs, it won’t be too hot even if conditions are clear and sunny. But make sure you are fed and watered as you ride through Escot on the D294 and approach the Marie Blanque. There is a water fountain in Escot, powder blue in the shape of a fish, in the village just where you take a sharp left to begin the climb. Newly laid tarmac awaits - smooth, black and lovely. A crumbling storage-house sits on a freshly mowed lawn to the left as the road kicks up a small amount to about 4%.
The Gave d’Aspe (river) flows down beside you, water rolling along the rocks as you see the first kilometer marker. It’s pretty scenery and the gradient is so far very friendly. Pass a mustard-coloured farmhouse and more ruins as, to your right-hand side, the col comes into view. It could be shrouded in mist (as it was for us) or it could be gleaming in bright sunshine. It’s still very steady at 5%.
There may be the soothing sound of running water from the Aspe, so don’t get thirsty at this point. The land is lush and fertile, slightly untamed, typical Pyrenean surrounds. A waterfall on the left reminds you how beautiful the region is. You move over the river on a stone bridge. After about 3km the valley opens up and on your left you see other mountains in the distance. Glide past a farmhouse on the right with firewood stacked up and a tractor parked under a ramshackle roof. Creepers up the side of a wise old cottage. The climbing is pleasant enough.
Then, as you reach the halfway point of the climb it ramps up to 8%. The road, whilst still smooth, goes straight up and widens out, no relenting and no sign of a hairpin. The climbing is suddenly a lot tougher. There’s plenty of tree cover so, as your heart rate accelerates, it could be a touch humid, even before 11am/midday. Wild flowers sway to the right as the gradient kicks up and you start to feel the burn. Please go steady and don’t fight to keep up a pace that could wear you out. No hairpin respites will be provided until right at the top.
Graeme Fife, in his book Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees, suggest that Marie Blanque’s pass clearly follows the path of an old donkey track that picked out the most direct route available. This can be felt in the relentless slog. You’ll feel like a martyr as you push yourself up this brutal gradient.
Marie Blanque made her first appearance in the Tour in 1978, in a stage from Tour to Pau. That year a young Bernard Thevenet misjudged the climb and would later say “ I feared this col because I didn’t know it, though friends had told me how hard it was. On that climb I went through one of the worst experiences in my life.”
With 2km to go the grade ramps to 13%, at this point you will certainly have to dig deep in mind and body, regardless of power to weight ratio. Even though only 9.5 km long, the Marie Blanque is a deceptive climb; Fernando Escartin, winner of stage 15 in the 1999 Tour de France, said “As far as the Pyrenean climbs go, I think the Marie Blanque is one of the hardest there is.” As you tackle the last kilometre at 12%, you’ll certainly be inclined to agree with the Spaniard. All you will hear at this point is riders breathing heavily and possibly the sound of obnoxious birdsong. Even though a shortish climb, it’s a stinger, and will make any rider breathe hard. Just like the route, you’ll find you will be up and down mentally and physically, it’s important you keep a control on your effort and not blow this early on. Hope to do it in around one hour. This is arguably the hardest climb of the day, so be prepared.
Descend for a short while, shaded by trees on either side. Then you move uphill again, no bother though as the percentage is nothing to worry about, it’ll just slow you down a bit. As the tree cover begins to thin out the descending starts once more, this time it really does drop down, the valley opens out with beautiful views and you can see many of the turns ahead as you sweep down - so it can really be enjoyed. Be aware of cattle grids on the descent, especially if it’s wet on the day.
There is a feed station at Plateau de Benou, half way down, so don’t attack too much or you may miss it. Stay relaxed and enjoy gravity’s reward.