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Part 2: The Portet D’Aspet and the Mente
70-118km, climbing 13km
(1418m total vertical gain)
From the first Feed zone at Saint Girons, the Etape route takes fast, smooth roads up a wide, fertile valley for 14km. This is almost pan flat and you'll pass through Aubert, Moulis and Engomer in no time. The high, snow capped Pyrenees are visible in the distance.
At Audresseim a right turn takes you into the Bouigane valley and the road starts to climb gently towards the Portet d'Aspet. The road surface is poor through Aucazein and Orgibet and you're gaining height gradually – the ride is starting to get harder and it's time to concentrate.
Although billed as having a 7% average gradient, the Col du Portet d'Aspet is a an easy climb. Don't be afraid of this one at all. We recommend that, instead, you save your climbing legs for the Menté and see the Portet d'Aspet as a light appetiser. You've actually been climbing since the turning at Audressein and will have reached 700m above sea level by the village of St Lary. We found that this climb only really started at the village of Portet d'Aspet (exactly 100km into the Etape!) and from there it's only 2.5km of more severe gradient, assisted by a great road surface and 4 lovely broad hairpins.
The challenge of the Portet d'Aspet isn't the climb, it's the descent. Fabio Casartelli crashed fatally here in 1995 and it's easy to see why. The road plunges at up to 17% with some sharp hairpins and unforgiving stone barriers ready to catch the unwary. You're dropping through shady, primeval woods at your fastest speed of the day so far. When we descended here in May the road was damp and mossy, with rocks on the road after recent rain. Be very careful here. The Casartelli monument sits on the right near the bottom of the descent. Doff your cap if you dare as you pass the small plaque and vase of flowers on the following corner (where he actually crashed).
A left turn takes you over a 2km uphill drag signposted to the Col de Menté. You then swoop down to the village of Ger de Boutx and the next climb begins.
The Col de Menté is a truly epic climb. It has featured in numerous Tours de France and its ascent to 1349m offers great views of the surrounding mountains. A series of sharp switch-backs seem to be folded on top of each other as they snake up the right side of the steep valley. The average gradient is 8.1% and there are sustained stretches of over 9%. You're only half way into this Etape, but you'll already be in your smallest gears, grinding up for 45 minutes or more.
When you reach the top of the haipins you'll think you've made it. But there are still 2km more to go – a straight grind up through the forest to the Col. GPM signs have been helpfully painted on the road counting you down 1000m, 500m, 100m. Happily, unlike the usual experience of ‘helpful' spectators shouting the distance to struggling etapistes, these markers don't lie.
At the Col de Menté you'll find a monument to Roger Lapébie, first man to win the Tour on gears (no disrespect there!). Bizarrely, there's also a compound of wolves. More helpfully, you'll find the second feed station.
You've now done 48km since the last feed station and managed 13km of climbing, some of it quite tough. You'll need more water. We also recommend you take on plenty of fuel here. The biggest challenge of this year's route, the Port de Balès, lies 22km down the road.