Our travels west through the Pyrenees were in search of some via ferrata rock climbing. However, unlike the Alps, the numbers of tracks are much fewer and unfortunately most professionally guided, making it a bit more expensive and organised. We did manage to drive over the next days course from Carcassonne, seeing campervans set up their tables and camp cookers, then quickly packing them away as the thunderstorms approached. Waiting outside the tourism centre at 2pm (normal midday closing time in France) we stole enough WiFi to plan the rest of our day and get directions to Lourdes (as our GPS Karen was having a bit of trouble).
Lourdes is a small commune in the Pyrenees of about 15,000 but it swells to about 5 million annually as it is a holy site of pilgrimage for catholics. This is mainly due to the past repeated appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the reported healing properties of the water. At the moment it played host to Tour fans, including our friend Christian, who had just finished the Etape cycle race (amateur version of a Tour stage), was onto his taper for his Ironman race in Zurich, so waiting around and doing a few rides.
The next morning we climbed the Hautacam, final hill for the third to last stage of the tour. It was still a couple days shy of the Tour riders, but already being carved up for campervan real estate. From Lourdes, up the valley, there was a bike path the entire length of the river, which made for ideal riding to the base of the climb. The climb itself was relatively easy compared to our last hill (Zoncolan), so we didn’t do too badly despite not having a lot of fitness.
That afternoon, we went to Donjon des Aigles to see the famous bird show in an old castle. The large crowd were treated to an aerobatic display of Peregrine Falcons, Owls, American Eagles, Vultures, Cockatoo, Macaws and one massive Condor. The birds were well trained, swooping overhead, stealing the odd hat and landing on the unsuspecting audience member.
Driving further south to the Cirque du Gavarnie, a natural amphitheatre that also acts as the mountain border to Spain, we arrived to find the mountain cloud was descending into the valley, bringing with it some cool breeze. We were a little late to marvel at the full view, but enjoyed the walk nonetheless.
The next mornings trip to Saint Lary-Soulan was a small mission; driving with three bikes and three people packed in the car, through the mountain passes into the valley. Along the way, we got stopped by a family of donkeys – much to Tams delight.
Christian had won a competition for some VIP hospitality with Orica GreenEdge, so we got a great car park and a feed of seafood chowder, wine and pizza. They even had a guy entertaining us; reminiscing of his 1980’s stage win up there (all in French though). We realised time was getting away on us and had to rush up the mountain before the caravan and the riders arrived. It was getting to the heat of the day at 1pm and we were sweating up a storm, chatting to a few Kiwis and locals all the way up. Mitch gets different cheers and jeers depending on the jersey he is wearing. Rolland! for his Europcar and Schleck! for his Leopard-Radioshack tops. Compared to our last time in the Alps there were a lot more French supporters here, but we still managed to spot the odd Dutch campervan. Even the German “El Diablo” was busy painting his devil motifs on the road. Mitch succumbed to a bit of ‘heat stroke’ or a disagreement with the food, sweating and retching his way up the hill, before settling on a spot in the shade of the trees. An hour later the caravan passed, carrying loads of odd knick-knacks flinging them across the road. A woman next to us was told by the gendarme to hold her dog up off the road so they didn’t get into the action. When the cyclists finally arrived, we were right in the thick of it.
Cycling back down and descending with the tour riders (who descended much faster) was a treat. One cyclist got a bit over zealous and went straight into a rock wall. Lucky an ambulance was there. It took us four hours to get back home (after about an hour and a half to get there).
With a drive home over the Col du Tourmalet to get a taster of the next days stage, we were enveloped in fog, reduced to a crawl with only a few metres visibility. Going over the top and down the steep descent back into Lourdes was a tense negotiation of supporters and switchbacks. After dropping off Christian, we walked to see the Sanctuary of our Lady Lourdes in session, we spotted the cave where the Virgin Mary appeared back in the 1850’s and drank the healing waters on tap.
The last day we woke early to drive to Bagneres de Bigorre to park up and get our bikes out for the big climb of Col du Tourmalet. At the base of the mountain pass, there is a statue of Eugène Christophe, famous french rider, who in 1913, whilst in the leaders jersey, broke the forks of his bicycle. After walking 10km down the hill to the village of Campan, he found a blacksmith who let him repair his bike. Race rules dictated he could be offered no help, so he proceeded himself under instruction for the next 3 hours, being penalised a few minutes for letting a boy pump the furnace bellows. Despite this, he managed to get back on his bike, finishing the stage in seventh place. Eugene cycled into cycling mythology, never winning a tour, coming close (and breaking more forks along the way).
The climb up was long and winding. Being the early morning it was cool and getting cooler as we passed the early traffic and fans walking up the 15km ascent. As we neared the summit this number bottlenecked to a large congregation under the silver statue of a cyclist. A man with an accordion, timed to each of our pedal strokes offered much encouragement, speeding up with our new-found rhythm. On the descent back down, Mitch bumped into old university friend, Josh coming on the way up.
Riding quickly through the towns decorated with adoring dolls, we made it back to the car. After being fed and watered we were ready for our quick exit west to Basque country and San Sebastian..