Someone asked me the other day at the Tour de France what was my favorite climb of all in this phenomenally beautiful country. I said, they’re all great. But I do have a soft spot for the western slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, which this year’s peloton will tackle on Thursday’s stage from Pau to Luchon (and which the brave Rêve Tour women are riding as I write these words).
There are many reasons for my infatuation with the Tourmalet but the main one is: It was the first mountain pass I ever climbed. That would be on my first visit to France, in the summer of ’63, when I joined up with the Tour route in Normandy, saw Jacques Anquetil win the time trial at Angers, watched the peloton racing through the Landes pine forest south of Bordeaux and, after covering more than a thousand kilometers in five days, set up my tent in the dark at a campground near Tarbes.
I carried my tent, maps, clothes and tools in a full saddlebag, just as I did when climbing the hills of England, Scotland and Wales on previous cycle tours. British climbs are nearly always steep, with grades of between 10 and 30 percent, but they’re rarely longer than a mile or two, or more than a thousand feet in elevation. So I could only imagine what it would be like to ride the Tourmalet, which goes uphill for 33 kilometers and summits at 6,969 feet above sea level. That’s 2,500 feet higher than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain peak!
When I left the French campground on my way to the Tourmalet, a thick mist covered the cornfields and hid the Pyrénées. As I passed through the pilgrims’ city of Lourdes (where I’m tapping these words out today), I knew the mountains were ahead of me. But it was still foggy, and I didn’t know what to expect as I entered a deep canyon, the Gorge de Luz, at the village of Pierrefitte-Nestalas. With the opaque, fast-flowing waters of the Gave River to my right, and near-vertical thousand-foot cliffs to my left, I began the long ascent.
Partway up the gorge, where the cliffs eased back, the swirling mists suddenly parted, and as I looked up I saw an azure sky and, for the first time in my life, a chain of rugged, snow-tipped mountain peaks. It was a stunning snapshot, and one I can clearly recall almost a half-century later. Although it was still early morning, the road was closed to motor traffic because the Tour riders would be coming up this canyon later in the day, preceded by the publicity caravan. Thousands of fans who’d driven in overnight were already in place and it was nice to receive their applause as the gradients slowly got steeper.
I stopped in Luz-St. Sauveur to stock up with a baguette, local goat cheese, fresh apricots, water and the morning newspapers— which provided details of the Tour’s 10th stage. This valley town of white-stone houses with black-slate roofs is the official start of the Tourmalet’s 19 kilometers and 4,656 vertical feet of climbing at an average grade of 7.4 percent. Those harsh statistics don’t reveal just how tough a climb this is. In recent times, the road has been resurfaced and re-engineered in places, but in 1963 it was narrow, with a much rougher surface. Certainly not an easy climb.
I struggled on the steeper, 9- to 10-percent pitches before reaching the village of Barrèges, a third of the way up this “official” section. It was villagers from this remote community who, on a winter’s night in early 1910, went searching for Tour de France official Alphonse Steinès, who was scouting the Tourmalet to see if it was suitable for inclusion in the Tour for the first time. He’d been driven up the other side of the climb until his car was stopped by a blizzard some four kilometers from the top as night fell. Steinès, wearing town shoes and a formal top coat, trudged on through the snow on what was then a stony goat path.
His chauffeur retraced and looped back via Lourdes to drive up the western side of the Tourmalet as far as Barrèges. Here, he organized a search party, and they headed toward the summit, some 12 kilometers up the pass. The lanterns they carried helped guide Steinès to safety by 3 in the morning. The next day, the assistant sent a telegram to his boss in Paris, race director Henri Desgrange, saying: “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly practicable. Steinès.”
Fifty-three years after Steinès’s epic walk, and a few hours before the 50th editions of the Tour reached the Tourmalet, I carried on riding as far as I could on my bottom gear of 44×24. But like the Tour men of 1910, who nearly all walked to the summit, I had to dismount and push my bike for a couple of kilometers before reaching the best spot to see the race. By coincidence, I met some friends from another English cycling club here. We picnicked together, sitting on a grassy slope, where the road doubled back on itself over the Pont de la Gaubie—a famous stone bridge that has recently been bypassed with a modern road leading to a new ski station.
Our reward for riding up to this point on what was now a hot, sunny afternoon, was seeing the decisive move of the 1963 Tour. At this point, nine kilometers from the top, four men rode away from the splintered peloton: French stars Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor and Spanish riders Federico Bahamontes and José Perez-Frances. As the 108 survivors continued to pass us over the next 25 minutes or so, we heard on my little transistor radio that Bahamontes, a fabulous climber, take the KoM. The four leaders regrouped on the descent to the finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where Anquetil sprinted to the stage win.
After seeing those Giants of the Road battling on the Tourmalet, I was inspired to ride the rest of the col at a decent pace, climbing on a shelf road along a precipice and up to almost 7,000 feet. Then came the thrill of my first true mountain descent—aided by the weight of a packed saddlebag. I stayed that night in a youth hostel at Campan before seeing the Tour again the next day on the Col d’Aspin and before getting caught in a thundering rainstorm.
A week later, after riding from the Pyrénées to the Alps, I saw Anquetil win another mountain stage and take the yellow jersey after out-sprinting Bahamontes in the rain at Chamonix. Anquetil would arrive in Paris to take his fourth Tour victory, 3:35 ahead of Bahamontes, with Perez-Frances in third at 10:14.
Since then the Tourmalet has been climbed 37 more times during the Tour, including the first stage finish on the summit two years ago, which marked the centenary of the first crossing by the Tour—and by the intrepid Alphonse Steinès! So, yes, I have a soft spot for the Tourmalet. Besides being as challenging climb as you’ll ever make, it has one of the most beautiful panoramas you’ll ever see of snow-spiked peaks that I first saw on my memorable first adventure to La Route du Tour all those years ago.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International