My Ten Most Difficult Pyrenean Climbs- 4th Hardest: Col de Marie-Blanque

The summit of the Col de Marie-Blanque.
Departure: Escot

Length: 9.5km

Altitude: 1,035m

Height Gain: 700m

Average Gradient: 7.4%

Maximum gradient: 11.0%

Category: Category 1

Back in motion, I found myself heading along the D934 towards the delightful small town of Bielle. From here it was only a few kilometres through the magnificently unspoiled Vallée d’Ossau to the beginning of my first day’s climb, up the Col de Marie-Blanque. And boy, did I love it. It was a perfect introduction to riding up a mountain in the Pyrenees, though I didn’t realise until much later that I’d climbed it by the easier route. I didn’t like the thought of doing it the easy way. It was a bit like tackling something half-heartedly. But it certainly didn’t detract from the spectacular scenery and the overall experience. Nor was it dead easy.

The hardest part of the climb, just below 9%, began suddenly. The series of switchbacks was a rude shock and continued for the next 4 kilometres. Though it was still morning, the heat was already stifling and no shade was on offer. The only recompense was that I was not the only cyclist, though I might as well have been given that the three riders who passed me were soon out of view. Then suddenly, without warning, everything changed as I turned left, then right, and followed the road’s contour through the beautiful Plateau du Bénou. The lush, open landscape, dotted with small huts and fat, grazing cows was a stark contrast to the earlier part of the climb. Surprisingly, it and the flatness that accompanied it, continued for most of the way, to the point that I doubted I was still on the right road. But I was, and as the gradient picked up a little I soon found myself gliding over Sweet Marie’s 1,035 metre summit....
                                                                   Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round

The N134, on the way to the climb.
Connecting the valleys of the Aspe and Ossau rivers, the road up the Col de Marie-Blanque, from Escot, is a different proposition; far more punishing and significantly less rewarding.
Unlike the rude but not-long-lastingshock from its eastern approach, the first few kilometres from Escot, between 2 and 6%, lull you into a sense of false security. The easy-going gradient, dappled sunlight and even the occasional cow along the road, provide no hint whatsoever of what's further up ahead.
Cows along the road near the bottom of the climb.
A little before half way, the climb reveals its true colours; a brutish and persistent gradient, around 11%. By now, you're dripping with perspiration, exacerbated by the stifling heat and the claustrophobic combination of the tall leafy forest and the narrow road.  With few bends to temporarily camouflage the increasingly steeper slope ahead, the remaining 5 kilometres become nothing more than a long, slow grind to the top.

A tough climb from Escot but a beautiful descent.
Close to the summit, I approached another rider who was leaning over his bike in the middle of the road. Laden with more baggage than a Himalayan Sherpa, he looked exhausted. While difficult enough to climb with just water bottles and a handful of energy bars, the remaining 500 metres suddenly didn't seem quite so oppressive.    

But for the relief of just getting there, Marie-Blanque's summit is something of a disappointment.  Little more than a small green apron next to the road that goes over the top, there's few views to be had, hidden by the tall canopy of trees that like the cyclist, have continued up the mountain.
Finally through the trees, just a few kilometres into the descent, the magnificent view down the other side opens up before you. Forgetting  your hour of pain, you might even have a reason to return.
Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

                                  English author Iris Murdoch

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