Watching highlights of the Tour de France on television as I write this post, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the greatest endurance test of any sport. For twenty-one days, the finest road cyclists in the world ride the roads of France including the savage slopes of the Alps and Pyrénées. Over 15 million spectators stand by the roadside and on the slopes to watch the cyclists live at some point throughout the tour.
Some years ago, I drove up a couple of the famed cycle passes of the Pyrénées (not during the race!!) and couldn’t help but be amazed by the steepness and narrowness of the roads even in a car. The most celebrated is the Col du Tourmalet, the highest road in the Pyrénées, where the cyclist climbs and winds his way through multiple hairpin turns over 1500 metres in a distance of around 20 kilometres. It is cycling at its most gruelling and is often where the race is won or lost.
Names of favoured cyclist are painted across the roads while superb mountain vistas and verdant farmlands spill from the road’s edge while amateur cyclist struggle their way up this mighty climb throughout the warmer months.
At the top, there was quite a gathering of cyclists (more than there are cars), primarily from France but some holidaying from other countries. I spoke briefly with a man from the nearby town of Pau who was in his sixties. Appearing decades younger in the sleekest and most colourful of cycling outfits, this diminutive Frenchman tells me that he has climbed this pass (along with other Pyrénéan passes) every year since he was sixteen – almost fifty years of cycling. He appeared fresh and relaxed and quietly proud of his achievement, even with his understated, dismissive way of discussing it. It is likely that he’d be now in his seventies and I wouldn’t mind betting that he’s continued to maintain his annual Pyrénées pilgrimage.
Ironically, we chatted under the silvery monument to Octave Lapize, the rider up the first Tour de France climb of this mountain peak in 1910. The thought of riding this slope as a dirt track with a heavy steel, primitive, ungeared bicycle adds more to this achievement exactly 100 years ago.
The Pyrénées are one of the wonders of the world with their rich culture, glorious vistas and timeless villages. Every year in July, the strength, colour and bravery of the world’s cyclists bring the Pyrénéan mountain tops to life in the Tour de France.
Note: For a second great Pyrénées travel wonder, check out the Little Yellow Train.
Photo Credit: Tour de France