There is nothing better to do on a bike than cycle up a mountain. No, not the Surrey Hills on a wet Saturday or the Ashdown Forest on a very wet Sunday. I mean a bright, sunny, 25 degrees kind of day, cycling up something over 1000m. I remember my first Col – Alpe d’Huez on a hot summer’s morning in 2012. The battle of body against machine, the stunning scenery, the knowledge that you are cycling in the shadows of the greats. I loved it.
In the summer of 2017 a group of friends and I stayed with the cycling holiday company, PyrActif, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, roughly 20km north of the famous cycling spa town of Bagneres de Luchon and about an hour’s drive from Toulouse airport. PyrActif is run by Dean Thompson and based in the sleepy hamlet of Bertren in a beautiful, large 19th century farmhouse, offering bespoke cycling holidays with some of the world’s most iconic climbs in easy reach. It offers complete cycling immersion.
During our week at PyrActif, a typical day started with breakfast, laid out in the long, wooden dining area. Dean, the most modest and warm hearted of hosts, brought out vats of coffee and, in true cycling style, all the breads, cereals, dried fruits and jams you could need for a long stint on the saddle. Talk centred around the climbs and routes that lay ahead and our stomach churned a little with nervous excitement.
We cycled out from Masion Garrigou each day along a quiet road in the base of the valley, wide fields on either side, with the heat of the day starting to rise as we craned our necks upwards to look up at the mountain passes.
My favourite Col of the week and the one that best sums up the Pyrenees is the Port de Bales – a wonderfully grim and remote 19km climb with numerous sections topping over 11%. The northern base of the climb (Mauleon Barousse) is about 15 minutes ride from PyrActif and before you reach the start you find yourself cycling through sleepy villages with the Tour bunting still on display across the streets with flashes of yellow, green and red polka dots. There is a remoteness to the Pyrenees that is difficult to find in the Alps. Everything is more rugged, more down to earth, more humble. This was epitomised by us, with our carbon bikes, Garmins and isotonic drinks being overtaken by a middle-aged man on an old steel framed bike on the lower reaches of the Bales. His calves were like hunks of chiselled mahogany as he slowly cycled away from us after a friendly greeting with our envious faces following his path upwards.
The climb winds its way up a narrow track, only made passable by Tour organisers in 2006 in their quest to find new climbs to challenge the riders. You find yourself snaking along up the gully with waterfalls spilling down, seeking stretches of merciful shade as the gradient and the summer heat take their toll. Eventually, a few kilometres from the top, the climb opens out to a wide, beautiful, bleak vista of farmland with the rattle of cow bells on the breeze. I don’t think a single car passed us on the way up and trust me, we took our time. Tour fans will remember Alberto Contador controversially riding away from Andy Schleck on this section in the 2010 edition when Schleck suffered an ill-timed mechanical. The climb tops out at 1755m and we spend a few minutes breathlessly taking in the view and scoffing down whatever was left in our back pockets before the bob-sleigh ride down the southern side of the Col, your teeth starting to chatter from cooling sweat as we plummet down into the spa town of Bagneres de Luchon – a sleepy, friendly place with a plentiful supply of great cafes to have lunch and weigh up the merits of taking on another Col before heading home.
We finished each day exhausted back at the farmhouse, drinking beers in the back garden and sharing stories of the day before Dean cooked the kind of hearty three course dinner that you spend the final stages of the day’s cycle dreaming about. This was accompanied by a few bottles of local wine as we eventually crawled into our own bed to repeat the whole life affirming experience the next day.