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Unrelenting switchbacks, beautiful rugged peaks and the history of the Tour de France

Cycling The French High Pyrenees - Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque - Sept. 2005

33 photos and movies (movie) by Steven Hill and Rebecca Heald, steephill.tv   •    update: 2010 Tour de France info rumoured to included the Aubisque
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aubisque-pan-w1250.jpg

la Corniche du Cirque de Litor between Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque

Day 2: Col du Soulor, Col d'Aubisque and Col de Couraduque - 85k, 2200m climbing (52 mi, 7217 ft)

St. Savin → Bun → Col du Soulor → Col d'Aubisque → Col du Soulor → Aucun → Col de Couraduque → Aucun → Bun → St. Savin

D918-map.jpg
After a restful sleep and our petit-déjeuner in the morning, we were ready to tackle some more famous cols. On this day, it would be Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque. The planned route was an out and back even though, normally, we are not crazy about o&b's. However, I suspected that the route would offer so much as to seem like a different road in each direction. The plan was to ride from St. Savin to Bun thus avoiding Argeles-Gazost and then take D918 over the two famous cols, descend to the Dossau Valley, turn around at some point before busy Laruns (most likely Eaux-Bonnes) and do it all over again in the opposite direction. That, I calculated, would give us about 100k with lots of climbing. argeles-aubisque-profile.jpg

A few more clouds on this day but the sun was once again shining. The ride from St. Savin to Bun was peaceful, offering a view of Arcizans (see photo gallery) along a quiet one lane road labeled D13. It bobs and weaves over and around rivers and streams that are part of the Vallèe d'Azun. When we caught up with the D918, we were pleased to find it even less busy than the Tourmalet. The climbing intensity increased as we passed through Aucun and Arrens on our way up to the Col du Soulor. It was 7 to 9% for the last 6 km, which was not easy but was starting to feel normal after the Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden. It was sunny, but getting hazy so I knew the pictures wouldn't turn out as well as the previous day. Nonetheless, we clicked and climbed up the Soulor admiring more High Pyrenees peaks separated by the Arrens Valley.

cirque-du-litor

Although the east side ascent of Soulor was very nice, in truth, it was nothing compared to what lay ahead on our way to Col d'Aubisque. Shortly after cresting the top of the Soulor, it came into view. I applied my brakes, came to a gentle stop and stood still for a moment before uttering, "Whoooooooooooa! Ohhhh-bisque!" More precisely, what I was looking at was la Corniche du Cirque de Litor - a narrow ledge and tunnel hacked into rock half way up and along a 2000 meter sheer slope that rises up out of a beautiful valley. It's a spectacular experience cycling along this one lane ledge looking 1000 meters up to the peak and then down 1000 meters to the valley. Just like the Tourmalet, it was vaguely familiar from television, but to see this in person is something else. “Sheer beauty”... literally, as Rebecca would later say. We took lots of pictures making it difficult to select just a few for our photo gallery. This vast landscape is difficult to capture, with it's long corniche [definition] bisecting the gigantic peak. (Also, see video left). Livestock roam freely here and we saw lots of horses, cows and sheep loitering by the side and in the middle of the road. Apparently, the cows seek refuge from inclement weather in the one-lane tunnels, so be careful cycling/driving on this picturesque road.

Speaking of the weather, by the time we had actually climbed to the top of the Col d'Aubisque, it had changed dramatically. The fog rolled in, obscuring what should have been another gorgeous view. This sort of weather doesn't seem unusual. While searching the Internet for this report, I didn't find a single photograph of clear weather taken by other cyclists or motorists from the top of the Aubisque. We stopped at the top and each devoured a small, excellent lunch for a large price at the Aubisque restaurant. There aren't any sandwich price wars going on at the top of the cols! It was getting chilly and after descending 5k down the west side through the fog, we stopped to warm up.

Van-Est-pulled-up-credit.jpg laruns-aubisque-profile.jpg

The descent of the Aubisque is very difficult with hairpin turns hidden behind sharp corners. In 1951, Wim Van Est was wearing the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France when he found out first hand how dangerous the descent can be. While trying to catch the stage leaders, a very inexperienced Van Est went too fast. Despite an impressive crash already on the Aubisque, he continued to descend with reckless abandon. While negotiating another decreasing radius turn, he braked too hard, punctured his tire, lost control of his bike and launched himself off an Aubisque cliff.

Van Est recounts the event after the puncture: “I wanted to go left but the bike went straight on. Now there is a wall (on the same corner) but not in 1951. I was lucky because I undid the pedal straps just before I started to descend. When I fell I kicked my bike away and held my hands over my head. In a few seconds I saw my whole life. My fall was broken by some young trees and I caught one of these trees.” Squinting spectators could barely see him waving his arms, but he was alive! So the question became how to rescue him? Mechanics and other riders got together and constructed a rope of linked tires, which was used to lower a rescuer down the sheer cliff. When he got back up to the road, Van Est's first question was about his bike. He wanted to resume racing, but was forced to get into the waiting ambulance by his team manager, and taken to the hospital for an examination. Can you believe it? The guy's wearing Yellow and can still walk... give him another bike! Turns out he was fine, just a few scrapes and bruises. Apparently, the entire Dutch team then quit the Tour, but it's unclear whether this was in solidarity or protest. Van Est went on to win more Tour stages and wore Yellow again in both 1955 and 1958, but never won the Tour.

A brief look into Van Est's background makes it clear why he crashed; he had grown up poor and never traveled. The day of his spectacular fall was the first time he had ever seen, much less ridden, mountains and unfortunately he couldn't follow the line of the more experienced riders.

The spot where Van Est crashed in 1951 became known as Van Est Corner and in 2001, the Tour de France unveiled a plaque on the Col d'Aubisque to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of one of the Tour's wilder days. The Aubisque has been used a whopping 43 times since it was first included in the Tour de France, usually starting or finishing in the small city of Pau, as was true this past year. Cyclingnews.com reported on Oscar Pereiro's Stage 16 win in the 2005 Tour of France from Mourenx to Pau via the Aubisque. One week before Stage 16 was held, amateur riders competed on the same course in the annual running of l'Étape du Tour - the so called amateur stage of the Tour de France, organized by Velo Magazine. Read about this event in L'Etape of pain and joy.

couraduque-profile.jpg

We were darn cold descending through the fog and decided to turn around after 5k hoping to escape the bad weather on the way back. But the entire return trip was now shrouded in fog as well. We heeded the warning of a local motorcyclist and traversed the corniche with care. In place of our aborted descent of the Aubisque, we substituted a climb and descent of a lesser known col, Col de Couraduque, a difficult 6k climb along a virtually deserted road.

The day never improved and by the next morning it was pouring rain. We were hoping to cycle up the famous Hautacam before checking out that morning, but this was out of the question. It was a planned travel day anyway so we were lucky that it coincided with the bad weather. The weather wasn't very good, either, for the stage 10 Hautacam Tour de France finish back in 2000. In that year, the climb up the Hautacam was pivotal in Lance Armstrong's 2000 Tour de France win. He dropped Marco Pantani, took the yellow jersey and went on to victory. He are some photos and a video from the finish up the Hautacam that year.

It would be easy to spend two weeks in the High Pyrenees filling every day with new bike rides and hikes. Our reports and photos represent only two days of cycling. We choose to focus on the most famous and spectacular cols, but there are other good roads to ride as part large loops and more out and backs. At a later date, I'll be posting an addendum to this report with cue sheets of recommended rides. Email us if you have a good Pyrenees ride to share. Hikers get additional beautiful views from the many trails that weave through the Pyrenees, which you can experience vicariously by checking out these scenic hiking pictures. Next up... the Ariege Pyrenees. -- Steve, October 18, 2005

Next... French Pyrenees Day 3: Col de la Core and more »
update: 2007 Tour de France info now posted

Pyrenees Col profiles courtesy of cyclingcols.com


The good morning shadow shot.jpg
The good morning shadow shot
The one road from St. Savin to Bun, through the Azun Valley, provided a quiet, rolling, warm-up.jpg
The one-lane road from St. Savin to Bun, through the Azun Valley, provided a quiet, rolling, warm-up
View of Arcizans from D13.jpg
View of Arcizans from D13
Cycling through Aucun with Grd. Gabizos peaking through in the background.jpg
Cycling through Aucun with Grd. Gabizos peaking through in the background
Riding towards Grd. Gabizos... a sneak peak of what lies ahead.jpg
Riding towards Grd. Gabizos... a sneak peak of what lies ahead
I selected a garish climbing kit to offset the beautiful scenery.jpg
I selected a garish climbing kit to offset the beautiful scenery
movie
The steady climb up  Col du Soulor provided a great view up Gabizos and down the Arrens Valley.jpg
The steady climb up Col du Soulor provided a great view up Gabizos and down the Arrens Valley
Greeted by sheep at the top of Soulor.jpg
Greeted by sheep at the top of Soulor
Where did they all go?.jpg
“Where did they all go?”
movie
Running down the greatest names in cycling.jpg
Running down the greatest names in cycling
movie
The hyperbolic climb profile from Soulor to Aubisque.jpg
The hyperbolic climb profile from Soulor to Aubisque
Horsing around. This guy charged down the hill, slipped a little, and almost took me out while I had my back turned taking pictures with our other camera.jpg
Horsing around
Ohhhh-bisque! Sheer beauty.jpg
Ohhhh-bisque! Sheer beauty
A 360-panoramic movie while descending the Soulor.jpg
A 360-panoramic movie while descending the Soulor
movie
Follow the corniche until it's barely legible.jpg
Follow the corniche until it's barely legible
Up close with la Corniche du Cirque de Litor.jpg
Up close with la Corniche du Cirque de Litor
More sheer beauty.jpg
More sheer beauty
The second corniche tunnel from the other side.jpg
The second corniche tunnel from the other side
Every cyclist looks up to Col d'Aubisque.jpg
Every cyclist looks up to Col d'Aubisque
The view is the reward.jpg
The view is the reward
The sheep didn't notice, but the fog rolled in when we reached the top.jpg
The sheep didn't notice, but the fog rolled in when we reached the top
Not the view we were hoping for, but not a bad shot of horses grazing in the fog.jpg
Not the view we were hoping for, but not a bad shot of horses grazing in the fog
A moment of joy before passing on.jpg
A moment of joy before passing on
Climbing the Aubisque from the west isn't so bad when you start 5k from the top.jpg
Climbing the Aubisque from the west isn't so bad when you start 5k from the top
movie
Many treacherous, decreasing radius switchbacks on the west side of the Aubisque.jpg
Many treacherous, decreasing radius switchbacks on the west side of the Aubisque
The writing on the wall.jpg
The writing on the wall
The only flat place to lie down and snooze is by the road.jpg
The only flat place to lie down and snooze is by the road
LOOK! It's the Michelin man!.jpg
LOOK! It's the Michelin man!
Stopping to buy vache and brebis cheese.jpg
Stopping to buy vache and brebis cheese
Looking down on Aucun while switching up Col de Couraduque.jpg
Looking down on Aucun while switching up Col de Couraduque
Penny for your thoughts.jpg
Penny for your thoughts
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