If the number of cyclists heading out of Luz St Saveur towards the mighty Tourmalet are too much for you to enjoy your cycling. Then head west across town, across the Bastan and Gavarnie rivers and climb the much calmer and quieter ‘Luz Ardiden’. It is virtually a ‘cul-de-sac’ to a ski station; with little traffic in summer months to the sparsely populated villages on the higher slopes of this side valley.
With the Tourmalet being a through road to the east and Spain; the amount of vehicular traffic for a narrow mountain road can be too much in itself. Campervans bellowing out unburnt diesel, motor bikers taking the racing line and almost anyone slowing suddenly for a selfie. In addition, the world famous reputation of the Tourmalet in the cycling world; bringing the sometimes less gentlemanly cyclists, with their overriding need to beat their chums and their own shadow to the top.
So for a route to relax in the haute Pyrenees; try the ‘ Luz Ardiden’.
If you are beginning your ride from Luz St Saveur; then take the D921 towards Gavarnie. As the road begins to leave town and start to climb; you will see a turning to your right over a bridge. Marked clearly is a sign for Luz Ardiden on the D12 road.
Or if you are cycling up the valley from Argeles-Gazost and Lourdes; then look out for a turning on the right before a bridge, as you arrive to Luz St Saveur. You can also drop down from the town and use this route; to help warm your legs, as I did from one of the many campsites.
Either way, after passing through a small village, with campsites, gites and more gites; you will arrive to a non descript roundabout. Following the directions for the ski station; turn right here and the climbing soon begins!
The lower slopes…
The lower slopes of the climb begin at such a gentle gradient; I kept up a pace that would have put me on the top in a record time. The tall trees on either side of the road gave me shelter from a fierce July sun and I rode hard with the help of a gentle afternoon breeze. In addition, the road had been resurfaced less than a few months ago for the Tour de France; so my tyres rolled effortlessly over the smooth tarmac.
So in no time at all; I reached the first village of Sazos. Here the trees gave way to gites, hotels and farm buildings that clang to the hillside like tired mountaineers. Here the road ramped up in various places to pick its way round the buildings whilst finding its way up, and up! Arriving to the next village of Grust; the (un)helpful kilometre marker reminded me I would be finding sections of over 10% in gradient!
I unashamedly stopped several times; to: catch my breath, slurp some water and let my heart relax its pace, if I felt it beating too fast.
Up and up through the trees
After the village of Grust; the road returns to the shade of the tall trees. Hairpins link lengths of road that vary wildly in gradient. As I climbed further, the treeline began to recede; being replaced with views back over the town of Luz St Saveur and east towards the Tourmalet.
I was climbing in mid July, in the hottest part of a sunny afternoon; yet here the cool katabatic winds off the mountains cooled me enough to continue on up.
The end is in sight
Rounding a left-hand bend; the trees once again recede and the view opens to a vast bowl like valley. Squinting towards the sun and the top of the valley; I could see the masts and buildings of the ski station. I deduced this to be the end of the ride and it seemed tantalisingly close. Here; I noticed a unsigned road joining from the right hand side. I am told it climbs on the D149 from the village of Viscos, back near the valley floor and makes for an even steeper and rougher climb!
However, as this natural amphitheatre opened up even more; I could pick out the line of the road zig-zagging its way back and forward across the valley. In total, the Luz Ardiden has 25 hairpin bends; yet none of them seemed to help lessen the gradient and my heart rate on this massive climb.
Taking it easy in the afternoon heat; I focused on each turn as if it were the end goal. This way, I slowly but surely; climbed closer and closer to the teasing masts of the ski station. Focusing on the road in front of me; focusing on every breath; focusing on the rhythm in my legs and the rhythm in my heart; I eventually reached the finishing line.
I remember cycling these roads when I was in my early twenties. I could remember climbing the Tourmalet without stopping once. I realised now, I am forty-one now and the wrong side of certain stressful life events and too much over indulgence. Yet I thought: what ever age that I am; I have got out in the great outdoors, exercised both mind and body and found a route to relax.
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