Now that the Tour de France has well and truly left the Pyrenees for another 12 months, I thought it might be appropriate to reminisce about many of its cols or monts I've been fortunate enough to have climbed myself. Purely subjective, I'd love to hear how others would rate their own experiences along the magnificent (but punishing) Route des Cols.
My 10th hardest climb… Col de Peyresourde
Departure: Bagneres de Luchon
Height Gain: 939m
Average Gradient: 6.1%
Maximum gradient: 9.0%
Category: Category 1
It took me until my second trip to the Pyrenees before I had the pleasure of climbing the Col de Peyresourde. Like a brand new Maserati in a used car yard its summit’s prominent red and white road sign leaves its imprint on you the instant you see it. A category one climb, it’s a beautiful journey of not much more than 15 kilometres. The first 3 kilometres easing out of Luchon follow the same wide, open highway-the D618-that leads to the intersection of the climb up the Port de Balès. Soon the road straightens and rises, maintaining a steady seven percent gradient for the next six kilometres. But there are enough distractions along the way to remind you that you’re fortunate to be travelling through this part of the world, no less than the quaint villages you pass en route and the view of bluffs that rise, like the road between them, the higher you climb.
One of the small villages you pass along the route is Garin. With only five kilometres left to the summit there’s not much to entice you to stay any longer than the time it takes to pedal through town. But if you think you know cycling history, then the name ‘Garin’ should at least tickle the recesses of your mind.
While bearing no connection with the village’s name, Maurice Garin was the winner of the inaugural Tour de France, in 1903. Nicknamed le Petit Ramoneur (the Little Chimney Sweep) after his former profession, he finished the 2 428 kilometre event almost three hours ahead of his nearest rival, Lucien Pothier. Arguably a more debilitating affair than any of today’s Grand Tours, the riders were given just six days. The first day alone, from Paris to Lyon, was over a distance of 467 gruelling kilometres, which took Garin, the winner, an incredible 17 hours 45 minutes to complete.
Of the 60 riders who set off on the first ever Grand Depart from Paris, only 21 finished. The lanterne rouge (red lantern), the title bestowed upon the last person to finish the race-was awarded to Frenchman Arsène Millocheau. A remarkable achievement of persistence in itself, he arrived at the Parc des Princes stadium, almost three days after Garin had crossed the line.
Maurice Garin’s feats of endurance extended much further than the 1903 Tour. He won a host of big races over a decade of competition, including the Paris-Roubaix Classic in 1897 and 1898, Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901 and Bordeaux-Paris in 1902. Regrettably, the other event he has become remembered for is the Tour de France of 1904. Again the winner, this time by a small margin, he was stripped of his title for cheating and banned from the sport for the next two years.
Relishing the opportunity, I unhurriedly approached the crest of the Col de Peyresourde, on the back of the last of three long and impressive hairpins. Still morning and at almost sixteen-hundred metres, the air was crisp and calm; perfect conditions for cycling. And I needed them too, given I had 140-plus kilometres to travel along Pyrenean roads that were already lined with spectators eagerly waiting for that year’s Tour procession to roll past.