Two years after we climbed the big Alps, we decided to visit the Pyrenees. The choice was obvious. Here, Greg LeMond wrote history in the books of cycling during the late 80’s. Superbagnères, Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden were a priority. They were marked in red on our bucket list.
Now it was just a question of planning. As the Tour de France traveled through the Pyrenees in July, it was sometimes difficult to reach the climbs, but we decided to go for it.
Full of expectations, we left by car on July 21 from Paris to Saint-Lizier, a small village at the bottom of the Pyrenees where we could stay in a country house of Nicolas’s family. In the car Edwin, who had just landed by plane from Toronto, Nicolas, the guide of the adventure, and I who had already traveled 400 kilometers by car to Paris. It didn’t take long before some of us ended up in dreamland. After a more than 8 hours of driving we finally arrived at our destination. We were too tired to go for a ride and we decided to do some groceries in the nearby supermarket.
That same evening Edwin showed his cooking skills. He had promised us to make Canadian burgers. With 2 cameras on his face, he made one patty after another. A schedule was prepared for the coming days. And it looked promising but also hard. Five days of cycling in the mountains and in the meantime visiting the Tour. That was the plan.
July 22. After a good breakfast we decided to start our first trip of the week. A warming up. With the Col de Portet d’Aspet, a ride of 60 kilometers was waiting for us. Perfect conditions. Soon the clouds were replaced by the sun and it started to get warm. On the Col de Portet d’Aspet we noticed how many campers were already parked alongside the road. The Tour would only pass here in 3 days, but these people were already waiting for the race in the middle of nowhere. During the descent we stopped at the Fabio Casartelli memorial. The silence was striking. We took some photos and drove quietly further down to the valley.
It soon became clear that the
planned ride of
60 km would become more. The road kept going up and down and on top of
de Larrieu we came to the conclusion that we were not home yet. After
4 hours of cycling and 90 kilometers further we finally arrived at our
destination. This was more than just a warm-up.
July 23. We were not tired yet, but somehow we were. A 90-kilometer car ride to Bagnères de Luchon was scheduled and getting up early was the deal. When we arrived Nicolas’ brother Eric was waiting for us. Today we would do the climb to Superbagnères. The road that led to Greg’s victory in 1986, but allowed Fignon riding away from him in 1989. It was hot. Eric took care of the photos and videos along the climb and had no problem passing us again to make the next one. "The Hampsten curve". Nicolas pointed out to us that we were on the spot where Hampsten rode away from the leading group in 1986. LeMond would later join him and win the stage. Edwin and I approached the final kilometer and we remembered the fight at this place between Fignon and LeMond. Accelerating was no longer an option for us. At the top we enjoyed the view during a drink and decided later to make a replica photo of the high-level game between Fignon and LeMond in the last kilometer. Back in Bagnères de Luchon, everything was dominated by the Tour de France. The stands were ready, the trucks had taken their places. The circus would arrive in the late afternoon. We said goodbye to Eric and drove back 90 km by car to Saint Lizier where we soon found our way to our beds.
July 24. This week we would not come any higher than today. With the Tourmalet on the program we would reach the roof of our cycling week. With its 2115m height and 17 kilometer length this was a true test. Once again there was a 120-kilometer journey by car on the program. The sun stood high in the sky and caused elevated temperatures. In Sainte-Marie de Campan we passed the monument of Eugène Christophe towards the top of the Tourmalet. It didn’t take long before we were separated from each other. Everyone sought their own pace and managed the pain in his own way. It did not take long for the first symptoms of back pain to appear. I saw La Mongie and hoped for a slightly flatter part, but that was a huge disappointment. Flatter pieces don’t exist on the Tourmalet. It's a beast. It makes you suffer from kilometer 1 to the line at the top. Suddenly I saw Edwin standing by the side of the road. With a muesli bar in his hand and pointing to his back. He also suffered from the pain. Not much later he passed me again. Nicolas was a little further behind. It was everyone on his own now. A photographer took a few photos and we were given a card to order it later. Extra weight. Well, a ticket wasn't going to make a difference. The last turn to the top required an extra effort. So steep. When we all three of us had reached the top, we took some pictures. The "3 stooges" photo could not be missing. Every day we took a selfie and named it the "3 Stooges". With the monument atop of the climb on the picture we now were the 4 Stooges.
The sun gradually disappeared and dark clouds threatened behind the flanks of the Pic du Midi. We were going to descend quickly and decide below whether we would still climb the Col d’Aspin. The descent was a dream. Long stretches and occasionally a hairpin. We reached staggering speeds and stopped for a photo now and then. Once back in Sainte-Marie de Campan Edwin and I decided to climb the Col d’Aspin. Nicolas had too much trouble with his back and would follow us in the car to take pictures.
The climb to the top of the Col d’Aspin started fairly easily. Not too steep and Edwin and I stayed together. But once we reached the forest, it became steeper. Much steeper. Edwin drove away and my back and legs told me not to follow him. Along the way a nasty supporter in GLF equipment ran next to me. For a moment it felt how it would be in the Tour. You are broken, everything hurts and people roar and scream in your ears. I was finished at the top. And Edwin also seemed seriously exhausted. The descent to Arreau looked dark. A serious thunderstorm was not too far away, but Edwin and I left by bike. It didn’t take long before the first raindrops fell. Nicolas was right behind us with his car and when it started pouring rain and it became too dangerous, we stopped and got soaking wet into the car. Like riders abandoning the race in the Tour de France. "Il pleut" (“It's raining”), Edwin shouted in his best French. Everyone laughed and we decided to eat something in Arreau.
Back in Saint-Lizier, Albert joined us from Spain. He would spend the last 3 days with the 4 of us. GLF was finally complete and we went to Saint Girons for dinner. After an evening walk we all crawled into our bed with a sore back.
July 25. The Tour de France passed the flanks of Val Louron today. The climb where LeMond lost a lot of time on its competitors in 1991 and finally lost the Tour. Val Louron was on our agenda and so we left for what was going to be a very nice day. But first we had to challenge another 120 km by car. The trips also began ask a lot of our energy. Nicolas, driver on duty, had no choice but to stay awake while the rest in the car could close their eyes. With 4 bicycles in the trunk, thanks to Edwin, and 4 men in the car we drove to the foot of Val Louron where the mass was waiting for us. It was really hot and we would do the climb carrying a backpack and then find a place somewhere to watch the Tour. Only 8 kilometers of climbing, but it felt like a new Tourmalet. With a backpack, back pain and tired legs we dragged ourselves among the crowd of supporters to the top. This was suffering. Dressed-up supporters making noise along the side of the road, the Tour vans blocking out the road with loud music and selling gadgets, and a sun ensuring you had almost finished drinking your water after half an hour. Supporters encouraged us and once on top of Val Louron Albert was already waiting for me. Edwin and Nicolas joined later. We descended back to a place without any shade, but with a fantastic view on the valley and the climb. We could follow the descent and climb of the race. We were standing at a perfect spot. But we only felt like fried shrimps in a blazing sun.
The Tour caravan passed and we got some fresh water. I was looking forward to a green Skoda cap and not much later it fell right in front of me. Yes. Albert and Nicolas also picked up the gadgets while Edwin enjoyed the caravan and took photos.
Our plan was to show our GLF flag when the riders would pass us and appear on television. We now saw the riders descending on the other side on the Col de Peyresourde. It didn’t take long before they were at the foot of Val Louron. The tension rose. The leading group was coming. We raised our flag, while the group with, among others, king of the mountain Alaphilippe passed us. Soon we received a message from home that we were spotted on television. Mission accomplished. The rest of a crumbled peloton passed. Some of them looked as corpses on the bike. Total loss after almost 3 weeks of racing.
Back home we played "La Flamme Rouge" (the red flag), named after the last kilometer in the race. I won stage 1. Then I lost my yellow jersey. But that wasn't bad. This day was a success. Only we were so tired that we decided to cancel the planned climb on the other side of the Tourmalet tomorrow. Our backs hurt too much and our legs felt like hell after 4 days.
July 26. Albert left early for the Tourmalet. He had to control this beast. This was one of his goals for this week. The rest of the club decided to make it a day of rest. This rest was more than welcome. We lay down on the loungers in the garden and slowly closed our eyes.
Albert returned from the Tourmalet in the late afternoon. He also had suffered and told us about his heroic deed. Not much later, the others decided to go for a short ride. This was for me personally the most relaxing moment of the week. We drove along the flanks of the valley on the hilly roads and under a wonderfully colored evening sky. We stopped and had a chat with some locals and enjoyed the view. A moment to cherish.
July 27. The last day of our week. The final destination was situated at the Luz Ardiden summit. Here LeMond rode to his 3rd Tour victory and he could have even won the Tour in 1985. After a long drive of 160 kilometers we finally arrived in Luz Saint Sauveur. Suddenly we heard cursing words. Nicolas was shouting aloud in French. Not much later it became clear why. Our friend had forgotten his backpack at home with his helmet, cycling shoes, windstopper, food, etc. Climbing on sneakers it was.
The sky cleared quickly and the sun did its job. Soon it became hot and we stayed together during the start of the climb. When Edwin accelerated, I was able to keep up for another 2 kilometers. But after that I had to let him go. Albert and Nicolas stayed together. The last 2 kilometers were fantastic. From one hairpin riding to the other and then reaching the summit. Everything became recognizable from that one moment in 1990. I imagined how it must have been and recognized the curves. Once on top I saw the penultimate turn where Greg unfortunately had to let Indurain go. The last turn to the top gave me goose bumps. So many memories, so much fun this week. We took photos and jumped around in a circle like children. The beautiful descent brought us back to the car. There was not much time left. The Tour caravan was chasing us so we had to leave on time.
July 28. Saying goodbye hurts. This was a fantastic week. The pilgrimage was over. After a week in the mountains, we all felt that our friendship had become stronger and we became closer. Albert left first and drove on towards Spain. The rest drove together to Paris, where we finally split up. Thank you guys for this amazing experience.
Watch the 6 video episodes of our "Fools on the hills" pilgrimage here.