Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bielle to Luz-St.-Sauveur

We woke up this morning excited, because we were to climb none other than Col d'Aubisque (1709m), a storied climb that had seen many famous battles in the Tour de France. We started this morning with a detour onto a dirt road, however, looking for a beautiful place to photograph the mountains coming out of the surrounds. Then it was off to Laruns, where I ignored my pre-plotted GPS route in favor of following a few other cyclists up to the official start of the climb onto D918.

The initial part of the climb switched backed around the area, granting us a view of the Laruns area that reminded me of the climb up Alp D'Huez 3 years ago. However, past Gourette, the scenery takes a dramatic change that's all unique. You rise steeply up along the ridge, and on a sunny clear day, which that day was, it granted outstanding views of the valley and the roads below. At the summit there were 3 gigantic bicycles, one for each color of the Tour de France winner's jersey (overall, sprint, and mountains), and big groups of cyclists taking photos of themselves with the various memorials in the area. We ate a small lunch at the summit cafe, omelettes and bread, and looked forward to more riding.

If the Col d'Aubisque climb was beautiful, the Col du Soulor (1474m) climb was even prettier --- after dropping down through two tunnels, gentle winding climbs along a ridgeline, with fog or clouds blowing through, you arrive at a beautiful intersection with a steep and fast descent down towards Argeles Gazost. When laying out this ride on Garmin Mapsource, I had taken the trouble to wind the route through small roads which also stayed as high as possible before getting to the Gorge de Luz. The net result was that this was one of the prettiest rides through the area, with short climbs interrupting middling long descents next to rivers, falls, and staying out of high traffic areas in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do with paper maps alone. The GPS unit definitely paid for itself that day.

At the bottom near Villelongue, Roberto got a glass flat, which took quite some time to fix. Looking at the map, it looked like Luz-St. Sauveur was at the bottom of the gorge, so I told Roberto we could stop there if he liked. "I like." came the reply. Unfortunately, I had lied about the height of Luz-St. Sauveur --- it was at the top of the Gorge, but since there was a massive tail wind blowing us along the road, I didn't complain --- it wasn't very steep, and even the two tunnels were not very threatening. Nevertheless, tailwinds help me more than they help Roberto, and when we got to Luz, he was lagging a bit. At an intersection, I asked Mike if he thought Roberto would kill me if we kept going up the hill. Mike said, "There's no if about it."

So we stopped, even though it was only 4:30pm. It took a couple of tries, but we found a nice hotel in a relatively quiet area, and ate dinner near it. This was when I learned that French dinners could take not just 2 hours, but could easily be 4 hour affairs. It was becoming clear that the Amazon Kindle is an essential French dining accessory, if only because of the long waits between services.

With only 74.5km covered and 1762m climbed, we looked forward to the highest point on the tour, Col du Tourmalet the next day.
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