When cycling in the French Pyrenees; climbing the Col de Tourmalet is a rite of passage for every cyclist. However, the road to the Tourmalet can become overcrowded and polluted with passing cars. So, if you are in the area of Luz St Saveur; be sure to also check out the climb to Gavarnie and the Col des Tentes.
I began this ride from a campsite called: Camping International; in Luz St Saveur. It is on the left-hand side as you enter the town from the north. All the staff are polite, the large facilities clean, the restaurant served good honest food and the swimming pools and slide were perfect after a long day in the saddle. Highly recommended for a visiting cyclist: https://www.international-camping.fr/
By cycling north out of the town to cross the ‘Gave de Gavarnie’ river; I could avoid cycling through the busy town centre. Taking the D12 road that also leads towards the Luz Ardiden climb ( Cycling the Luz Ardiden); I then followed signs for the thermal baths that overlook the town.
Climbing up through these narrow streets; I enjoyed the peace of the early morning. The birds sang, few cars passed, and I stopped to take in the views by a babbling fountain. Shortly after passing an ice cream vendor, I arrived at a grand bridge, built in honour of Napoleon the III. If you are brave enough; look over the parapet at the river far below; if you are really brave, you can bungee jump from here too!
Crossing this bridge; I then joined the main road from the town of Luz St Saveur. Turning right; I started the climb in earnest.
The gentle climb to Gavarnie
The climb from Luz St Saveur to Gavarnie is a classic Pyrenean climb, which is seemingly more picturesque than the Tourmalet. You will pass through quaint villages such as Gedre; with its town square and fountain surrounded by inviting cafes. The chalets or gites that cling to the steep slopes here, all have well-tended gardens of flowers and fruit and vegetables. You will cross the ‘Gave de Gavarnie’ river several times and hear the calming sound of the babbling water. Then you will cross wide open pastures on a well-maintained road that climbs gradually and smoothly all the way to Gavarnie.
Thus, before you know it; you will be arriving to the town of Gavarnie! This is a great achievement in itself and there is no shame in turning around here. As you enter a large area for the buses to turn round; take the road to the left and climb through the old village to view the breath-taking Cirque de Gavarnie. As for myself, my ego forced me to climb higher to the Col des Tentes.
Following the road towards the ski station; I cycled up and out of Gavarnie. After passing the last house, I turned left at the junction shown in the photo below.
Harder higher slopes
As soon as I left the town of Gavarnie; everything became harder. The cool shade of the trees now disappeared as I climbed above the treeline. The gradient increased from around five per cent; towards eight per cent and above! Other cyclists that passed me changed too; struggling themselves, all civility was lost.
I climbed in mid-July, so the temperature was over 30 degrees Celsius now; without any mountain breeze. I was carrying two: one litre water bottles, which ran dry as I fought my way across a baked pasture. With no water fountains or roadside cafes, refreshments were now far below me in the valley. Seeing a small stream, I tried to filter the water through my vest; yet the bottle was still full of wriggling worms and things!
The pain barrier
The next kilometre marker board showed it was only two kilometres to the summit; so, I tried to push through the pain and my thirst to reach the top. However, when meeting a flock of sheep sunbathing on the road; I had to stop again. My head now felt almost dizzy and my hands and swelling feet, began to tingle through lack of oxygenated blood. I could see people stood at the summit across the valley; it looked far too close to be out of reach. Yet my body was now screaming at me to stop, so I did. I knew I could not fight the biology of my body too far; I knew I had to survive now, to enjoy another day. Letting my racing heart return to a gentler pace; I turned my bicycle around there and then and began to descend. As soon as gravity started helping me in the right way; my body relaxed with the cooling breeze of motion.
I took it steady on the descent and just enjoyed the changing views. Returning to the campsite; I laid down for half an hour whilst I drank tea and mineral water. When I felt well enough; I walked to the swimming pool for a gentle swim before dinner.
Knowing my limitations
So, I really enjoyed the climb up to Gavarnie; I will certainly do it again if I am in the area. Will I climb on up to the Col des Tentes again? Well of course; yet only after preparing myself. When I did this climb; I had hardly ridden a bike for months. In my native England, there are few climbs that compare to these Pyrenean giants; so, I need to pace myself next time. In addition, I will probably wait until the cool air of autumn arrives in the Pyrenees. With the French national holiday over; this place should be quieter too.
So come and see for yourself. Enjoy the climb and be more prepared than me. Do not be ashamed if you do not reach the top; for you have reached the summits in your mind.
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