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Part 3: The Port de Bales
118 -162km, climbing 19.2km
(1275m total vertical gain)
From the Col de Menté the organisers could have taken the traditional Tour route to the Col de Peyresourde, on main roads via Bagneres de Luchon. However, in the spirit of Tour founder Henri Desgrange (infamous for making life difficult for the riders), they decided instead to open up a completely new road over the Barousse forest. In doing so they have transformed the 2007 Etape into an extreme challenge. This is the main event of this year’s course and the focus of your ride. You’re going to need all your reserves and mental strength to get over it.
The climb is 19.2km long and only has an average gradient of 6.2% but this is a terrible misrepresentation of its real difficulty. It’s a beast. The narrow, winding road has sections of well over 10% and very few haipins to ease the pain. The poor road surface and debris from the forest make grip especially hard to come by on parts of the route. The worst part of the climb lasts for over 12km and, after 140km of riding, the Port de Balès will feel endless.
First you have to get there. The descent from the Col de Menté is fantastic. It’s very fast with wide, sweeping turns and dramatic scenery all around. You’ll be going so fast you probably won’t even notice the memorial to Luis Ocana on the first major hairpin.
The 9km to St Beat in the valley takes no time and is followed by a flat 15km down the Garonne valley and a left turn at Saridan into a lovely ‘lost’ valley of pastures, ancient woodland and picturesque hamlets.
It will be important to ride steadily between St Beat and the start of the Port de Balès climb at Mauléon Barousse. Keep your heart rate under control and try to ride in a comfortable group, sitting at the back out of any wind in the valley.
After a sharp ramp to the right and out of the village of Mauléon, the first 5km of the climb are deceptive – they are very easy. It’s a nice road that trundles along beside the Ferrère river through lush woods, quiet and idyllic.
After you’ve gained 230m in height (with 12km of the climb to go), there is a left turning onto the forest road and everything starts to deteriorate. The road rears up between pine and scrub. A 'Danger' sign warns of rock falls. From this point the gradient is never less than 8%, rarely less than 9%. It varies constantly, making it impossible to maintain a steady rhythm. With 8km to go there is a steep section well above 10% before you hit a cattle grid and the road opens out onto summer pastures.
From here the road drives up a steep 'V' shaped valley again and the gradient is often over 10%. You’re in the trees for long periods on this part of the climb, so at least you’ll be able to escape the sun. But it’s very hard. The road surface is much worse at 4km to go, with areas of mud, branches and scree. It’s quite likely that it will be resurfaced before the Tour. Whatever, there will be a lot of people walking here (with the prospect of a 4km or one hour walk to the Col).
At 3km to go, the road cuts through a rocky bluff, the trees are behind you and you can see the upper slopes. The top is up to the right. It’s beautiful moorland up there with gentians, thrift and thyme in abundance.
The final 2km of climbing will be a celebration (though not for those walking). The summit offers 360 degree views for miles, with a long line of snow capped peaks to the south east.
The final feed station is at the summit. Everyone will stop. There’s still a lot of climbing to do and, for many, reserves will have been fully used up in the previous two hours of climbing. You’re likely to be here in the early afternoon, with the sun at its highest. There will be little more by way of shade from here, so take on as much fluids as possible. We can only hope that the organisers don’t run out of water as they did at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez last year.