Cycling Through the French Pyrenees: Hautacam

Departure: Argeles-Gazost
Length: 17.3km

Altitude: 1,635m

Height Gain: 1,170m

Average Gradient: 6.8%

Maximum gradient: 10.0%

Category: Hors Category

...Another peak situated close to the foot of Argelès-Gazost, Hautacam is a 17-kilometre ride averaging 6.8%. While veiled in mist at the 1,635 metre summit, the conditions for climbing seemed perfect from down below. The early part of the climb took me through three small hamlets. As I passed through each one, I had the distinct feeling that I’d seen them before. It was obviously on one of those intimate television coverages of the Tour de France, where cameras probe deeper than a colonoscopy. Nevertheless, seeing them first-hand felt a little bizarre, even surreal.

The gradient was relatively easy for most of the way, except for a 3-kilometre section averaging around 9%. I felt confident that nothing would stop me in my tracks, even as the road became more slippery the higher I travelled. Despite the thick veil of mist still hovering around the summit, I passed plenty of riders coming down. I also passed Roz, who was on foot. She’d parked the car about 2 kilometres from the top, deciding to walk up the rest of the way. Of the riders I passed, not many bothered to respond to my enthusiastic “Bonjour”, which was a little disheartening. After all, they were descending while I was climbing. Admittedly, you can’t stop to get off your bike to shake hands and hug every rider you pass, but there should be a little camaraderie between cyclists. A simple nod of the head, as some riders do, is enough to acknowledge that we all share the same roads, mountains and love of movement on a bike.

Visibility on Hautacam's tarmac was much
 better on my second climb, 3 years later.

As I came closer to the top I was riding over graffiti-covered road. It was a tribute to some of the famous Tour riders, who had their names emblazoned all over the bitumen. Occasionally the site of a stage finish, I could only imagine the frenetic pace generated by the race leaders as they sprinted to the finish line. In the mist it might have been something akin to Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador’s famous seesawing duel up the Col du Tourmalet in 2010.

But unlike the Alto de l’Angliru, the final kilometre up Hautacam seemed relatively easy. In my mind, what distinguishes the Spanish mountain, and the other great climbs, like Austria’s Grossglockner and the Cime de la Bonette, are the killer gradients towards the top. Going above 16%—and 20% in the case of Angliru—at the end of a long day’s climb is physical and mental torture, only too well reinforced by David Millar’s dummyspit back in 2002.

The top of the mountain was like the inside of a car with a broken demister on a fearfully wet day. Visibility was zilch. Apart from the lone sign which told me I was at the summit, there was absolutely nothing to see but flat bitumen and grass edges, all camouflaged in thick mist. It was as if I’d stepped onto the set of a Hammer House of Horror movie, where some hapless and defenseless large-breasted young woman is eventually done away with in the London brume. Ironically, when I missed seeing Roz up the top, it crossed my mind that perhaps she’d won a starring role in one of those Hammer films. It wasn’t until a few hundred metres into my descent that I could make out the sight of a lone figure striding down the mountain. It was Roz. After all, who else would be crazy enough to be up there on foot?

Another typical sight along Pyrenean roads.

Coming down was half pleasure, half pain. The road was still shrouded in fog, and if anything it was getting colder. Suddenly I was forced to come to a screeching halt at the sight of cattle, about 40 head, being herded across the road. Like the motorist coming the other way, I had to wait until the very last cow had meandered its way, ever so slowly, across to the other side, swatting its tail and giving me a disdainful sideways glance. That’s the Pyrenees for you, I thought. Just the same, despite sighting the odd kangaroo and the occasional echidna excavating by the side of the road, I’m looking forward to the day we get cows, sheep or goats up on Arthurs...

                                                              Lycra, Latte and the Long Way Round. 
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

No comments:

Post a Comment