The first mountains
Ride the historic Pyrenees with Rapha Travel
Cycling’s century long love affair with the mountains began in the Pyrenees, and the mountain range dividing France and Spain continues to delight the fans and torment the racers. Rapha Travel runs several trips here each year, from long-weekend jaunts to bag the famous cols in style, to exciting week-long tours from A to B. Read our short history of cycling in the Pyrenees below, and discover some of the unforgettable departures still available to book this season.
The Tourmalet is undoubtedly the Queen of the Pyrenees, and the Tour de France’s 2016 visit was the 79th time the race had been over the col – far more than any other col in the race’s history. Both sides are more than 17km long, but the climb from Luz in the west is longer, marginally tougher and also more beautiful. The first man over the top in 1910, when the ascent was from the east, was Octave Lapize (on foot, pushing his bike!) and there have been many epic battles on its slope since – as well as a few mishaps such as, in 1913, Eugène Christophe breaking his forks on the descent. He was forced to trek on foot down to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan at the bottom of the descent, where he took over a local blacksmith’s forge to fashion himself a repair – thinking that by doing so he was abiding by the rule that stated that riders were not allowed to accept help. Unfortunately, Henri Desgrange judged that the boy operating the bellows was illegally aiding Christophe, and penalised the rider three minutes.
The Tourmalet aside, almost every col in the eastern and central Pyrenees has a story to tell, as the paint on the roads, some going back to champions long past, attest. The Aubisque, for example, when approached from the Col du Soulor, is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, and also where Wim van Est, in 1951, plunged off the edge and almost to his doom when he missed a corner. The Col de Marie-Blanque, with its 10% slopes, shocked riders when it was introduced in 1986 – the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado led over the top that year, and won the stage – while on the repeat fixture in 1987, a win by the legendary Colombian Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera, confirmed its place in the pantheon of Pyrenean ascents.
The 14.7-kilometre, 6.9% climb to the ski resort of Luz-Ardiden, to pick another, is where Lance Armstrong tangled his handlebars in a spectator’s musette in 2003, bringing both the American and the Basque rider Iban Mayo to the ground. But, in one of the classic displays of gentlemanly conduct for which cycling is known, Jan Ullrich slowed down and waited for them to remount, even though it cost him the stage.
Even modern day Pyrenean rides seem to enter into legend. Take Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’s ride to the Plateau de Beille in 2012 – in which Froome, the loyal domestique, seemed to outpace and drop his team leader, even gesturing to him to hurry up. The Portet d’Aspet (Pyrenean cols are often called portets or ports in the local dialect), meanwhile, bears the sombre story of the death of Fabio Casartelli, a young Motorola rider who, in 1995, hit a concrete block when he came off on the descent, and did not live to tell the tale.
Andorra and Spain, too, have their share of Grand Tour stories. It was in the principality in the 2015 Vuelta that the so-called ‘hardest Grand Tour stage ever’ took place. With around 5,000 metres of climbing in only 138 kilometres, the Andorran stage tortured riders and tantalised fans with its double-digit gradients and ceaseless ups and downs, with a thrilling summit finish won by Astana’s Mikel Landa.
It’s fair to say, however, that the Vuelta places less emphasis on the Pyrenees than does the Tour. But the Volta a Catalunya (Tour of Catalonia) often takes in summit finishes such as the 2,200m (7,200ft) high Vallter ski station and roads such as the Coll de la Creueta, a 20.5-kilometre, 4% climb near Girona.
The Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, the Tour of the Basque Country, meanwhile, often heads into the mountains inland from San Sebastián, and its passage through the Pyrenees was immortalised by Ernest Hemingway in his debut novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. ‘Bike racing was the only sport in the world,’ he wrote. Indeed, whether you’re watching the racing or riding your bike in the Pyrenees, that phrase doesn’t seem so outlandish. Come and visit, you’ll see what we mean.