Climbing the Col du Tourmalet and other insane ideas


Wiggins Go! Tour de France encouragement for Bradley Wiggins
on the Col du Tourmalet while cloud and fog covers the ascent ahead

The chance to follow in the tracks of the cycling greats including this year’s Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins is not one many cyclists would turn down. The opportunity to tackle the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees and photograph at the same time – who would refuse? Let’s just say it seemed a great idea at the time…


Cyclist tackling the switchbacks on the Tourmalet

Hors catégorie (HC) is a term used in cycle races most notably the Tour de France to designate a climb that is “beyond categorisation” i.e. an incredibly tough climb. Most climbs in cycling are designated from Category 1 (hardest) to Category 4 (easiest), based on both steepness and length. A climb that is harder than Category 1 is designated as hors catégorie…and that includes the Tourmalet.

The climb from Luz Saint Sauveur is 18km – the gradient averaging 8%. Just when your energy is almost totally sapped, your legs dead and the air thin from the altitude, the Tourmalet winds it up – the last few hundred meters being the steepest.


The long road up the Col du Tourmalet

The forecast was for a sunny 25 degrees Celsius day. The reality was somewhat different, nice and cool for the ascent but fog hanging over the upper stretches of the climb brought the temperature down to single digits. What I didn’t plan for was that the sheer effort of the climb pretty much precluded photography; every ounce of energy and concentration going into making it to the top.


Regular climb signposts thoughtfully keep you informed of the
distance left, the altitude and average incline percentage

Having taken-up cycling only 10 months before, an HC Tour ascent may have been slightly optimistic. Despite that I summited, enjoyed lunch at the restaurant/bar at the top, descending slowly in the freezing fog while stopping frequently to warm-up and photograph cyclists still to make it to the top. The whole experience was amazing and, hopefully, will be done again. Next time it would be great to be able to see the view from the summit! A little payback for all that hard work.


Views from the Tourmalet ascent
fog and low cloud covering the upper stages of the climb

There was a real sense that some of the cyclists do the climb regularly. One, speaking a dialect of French I didn’t understand, insisted we form a peloton with him as lead while he, talking away, presumably instructed me about cadence and gearing for mountain climbing. Great camaraderie but he was far fitter and, sadly, soon zipped off into the fog banks above.

It’s said you only need one gear for the ride – a low one. To do the ride in what might be termed a “reasonable” time, you also need to be exceptionally fit and experienced. On reaching the summit I was astounded to see touring cyclists, laden with heavy panniers, that had also reached the top (how?) and two men enjoying a summit cigarette who were doing a week of Col climbing in the area. Perhaps the greatest motivation for me comes from the two, small-framed, 60+ year old Italians enjoying some sustenance in the restaurant at the top. After about half an hour two women in cycling gear joined them. They had perfect tans, were dripping with jewellery, hardly a hair out of place and had just done the same climb except from the other side. Tourmalet 2, the fitter sequel, beckons.This time I’d like to do it without having done 80 miles on a fully-laden touring bike the day before!