Having developed an unhealthy interest in cycling the legendary peaks of the Tour de France over the past few years and having my friend Paul Bottrill entered in to this year's Etape du Tour (see August 2009 posting 'Etape in Cotes du Rhone'), I chose to spend a long Bank Holiday weekend on 'recon' in the Pyrenees. Six good men and true scaled the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday 29th May following in the footsteps of Merckx, Bahamontes, Coppi, Millar and Van Impe (all leaders over this 19km, 7.4% average gradient climb).
We had warmed up on the Thursday and Friday with picturesque valley rides to Cauterets and Garvanie both ending in climbs up to ski stations, as we waited for the major Cols to clear of snow (Tourmalet at 2110m, amongst others, was initially closed) and as we found our mountain legs.
The successful ascent of the Tourmalet was celebrated with a visit to Pascal Labasse's delightful Domaine Bellegarde in Jurançon, where the residual sugar in the sweet Manseng wines seemed to serve as ideal recovery fuel. Pascal generously sent us on our way with the remains of a bottle of his late (December) harvest Sélection DB from the 2000 vintage - a handy addition to one's bidon, if ever there was.
Sunday wasn't a day of rest as we hauled weary limbs up another Hors Catégorie climb, Luz Ardiden (13km @ 7.7% average), a ski station finish that has been won by legends such as Indurain, Armstrong, Delgado and Virenque. This climb couldn't be ignored as it started at the front door of our hotel.
I finally met my nemesis on Monday half way up the Col de Marie Blanque which had lulled me with a gentle opening 4 km, before averaging 12% for the second half. Having swore blind that I was done for the trip, a finally sally up the Col du Soulor (13 km climb @ 7 %) was rewarded with meeting the Astana team and reining Yellow Jersey holder, Alberto Contador, at the top - although he didn't seem impressed by my retro gear and road-weary countenance.
So on Sunday 18th July I shall be raising a glass to Paul and giving thanks that I am not setting out to ride 181km and scaling the Marie-Blanque, Soulor and Tourmalet on the way. If you achieve it, Paul, a bottle of Selection DB is on its way!