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Rapha presents an invaluable description of the first climb on this year's Etape Acte II, the Col d'Aubisque, taken from The Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees by Graeme Fife.
Download a PDF of Chapter 4: 'Circle of Death' [6mb]
The Col d’Aubisque, ‘queen of the Pyrenees’, sits atop the main passage over the high buttress dividing the old frontier province of Béarn from the Bigorre region and two river gorges, Ossau to the east, Pau to the west. First climbed in the 1910 Tour de France and included in every race thereafter until 1958; since then, excluded only 16 times.
The road surface is variable on the western approach, generally good on the east side, with the pass open between June and October/November. The col (but no further) is rideable from the west most of the year, kept open for cross-country skiing.
Allow between 2 and 3 hours, whichever way you ride up to the Aubisque. No problem with refreshments, cafés on Aubisque and Soulor (these linked by the Route des Corniches). The northern and eastern approaches afford a splendid panorama as you ride on to the final stretch to the col. One of the great, historic Pyrenean climbs.
“There is nothing in the world more hypocritical than the 1709 metres of the Aubisque. Because one rolls out of Pau on deliciously flat country. Because, from the beginning of the climb, all the way to Eaux-Bonnes, there are 5km of a very beautiful road, mounting ‘prettily’. It isn’t till after Eaux- Bonnes that the treachery of this Aubisque declares itself. It is cruel, tortuous, frequently thick with shit when it isn’t choked with dust and littered with stones.” —Henri Desgrange
He was perhaps referring specifically to the 1926 Tour de France, at 5745 kilometres the longest ever.
Bayonne-Luchon in heavy rain, by midnight only 47 of the 67 starters have arrived. 12 riders finish the stage by bus. Lucien Buysse wins by 25 minutes, takes the Tour and, in souvenir of the hell they all endured over the Pyrenees, names the hotel he buys ‘L’Aubisque’.
Start at Laruns. Out of Laruns, (from a Basque word ‘lar-un’ for pasturage) across the river Arriuse (0.5km) and the bridge over the Ossau gorge (1.5km). Junction at 1.9km: the D934 heads on south towards Col du Pourtalet. Two sizeable parking spaces either side the D918 (the old coaching road across the Pyrenees) which swings east.
The climbing begins quite easily, between 4 and 6%, all the way to Eaux-Bonnes, (720m, 5.9km). Some bad gouging and pitting in the road (snowplough damage), ancient pines standing sentinel along both verges, a fine aerial view of Laruns below. A sign trumpets the virtues of the Eaux-Bonnes thermalbaths – a cure for ‘aching joints, breathlessness, stress’. Be encouraged. Into town, a rather decayed spa, elderly five-storey terraces parading a faded grandeur, a Casino, a rectangular central reservation you will have to ride round, and back to the turn.
Certainly used by the Romans, the spa first came to later notice when its sulphurous waters aided the convalescence of Béarnais soldiers, returning wounded from the Battle of Pavia in February 1525, in which the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V, trounced the French army of Francis I, who was taken prisoner. Some fine cascades a short walk up the neighbouring southern slopes.
Out of Eaux-Bonnes, the road snaps up sharply then swings into 3 kilometres of long bends, 7, 4.5 and 7%, a sudden slap of 13% and on across two bridges over deep-set rivers. This marks the real start of the climb. You ride a kilometre of 10% and the rest of the way varies between 8 and 9%. The screen of trees crowds you, allowing not much in the way of a view down or up, just the sour-faced wide road ahead. Wide roads are harder, somehow. The gradient slackens fractionally into the snow tunnels, then a flat left-hand bend at a car park (‘Gourette Welcomes You’) before swinging left up a wide ramp into the winter resort (variously named Gourette or Gouretta – 1346m, 8km) and a sudden twinge of discomfort. The big wide unyielding slab of concrete hauls you coyly into ski-town – the routine gaudy chorus line of bars, restaurants, hotels and resort tat – as if to say ‘well done, you made it, take the weight off’ only to spit you straight out the other side (steep) onto the final run-in with the Aubisque.
The 4.3 kilometre approach to the col is hard but scenically more engaging. The road – a much better surface – narrows and has more movement in it, giving you a better sense of your own progress. It hugs steep buttresses to the right and intermittently sneaks a glance through the trees over the deep valley way below to the left and to the large cream- coloured Hôtel des Crêtes (Rock Ridge Hotel), perched on a bluff way ahead. As the trees thin out, the road emerges at 9% onto a bare mountainside – sheep grazing lazily on cropped furze – and the hotel at 1571m, 16.6km. You’re on the bare mountain for sure now, travelling a high-rise, pinched track, exposed, unprotected – the Aubisque is one of the bleakest of summits. You begin to get tantalising glimpses of the great wind-scraped massif lurking round the last bends, testing your patience, your nerve. The stonewall parapet gives way to wooden post barriers. Suddenly round a big right-hand hairpin, it arrives, the bald dome of the Aubisque in full view. A final 0.5 kilometre kick of 8% and you’re onto the pate of the summit.
There’s a good café to your left by the broad car park of the col: souvenirs and postcards, food and drink, a friendly owner. (It also serves as a Raid Pyrénéen control.) A summit sign for photographs. A truly magnificent vista eastwards over the deep valley to your left and the yoke of the Soulor ahead. One look down there and you can begin to gauge how Lapize and the others felt in 1910 when they first rode up here.
The Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees by Graeme Fife, photos by Pete Drinkell, published by Rapha.
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