DISTANCE Ride one: 56 miles (90km); ride two 47 miles (75km)
MAIN CLIMBS Up the valley to Mauleon-Barousse and the climb to Baqueira-Beret
ACHTUNG! Some narrow sections on descents. Slippery in places
The Pyrenees has always been an attractive area to go and explore on the bike. It’s classic Tour de France territory and offers the opportunity to ride the roads and emulate the Tour stars who have done battle here.
One town with strong Tour links is Bagnères-de-Luchon. This old spa town is situated about an hour and a half’s drive south of Toulouse. Its valley position is such that it links the roads to some of the famous Pyrenean climbs that have taken Tour riders to stage finishes in the surrounding mountain-top ski stations. Superbagnères, Col de Peyresourde and Col du Portillon all lead out of Luchon.
This year’s Tour route will be no exception, when the 222-kilometre stage nine from Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre ventures from the Col des Ares down the valley road to Luchon before going up the Col de Peyresourde and on to the Col d’Aspin, finally finishing in Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
Luchon takes on a different atmosphere in the winter months as bikes give way to skis and snowboards. It’s possible to hire skis and boots from specialist sports shops sited on the high street and then take a cable car directly to the slopes that tower over the town.
It’s not the first place you would think of for taking a bike for a bit of training over the colder months. Though, if you combine it with a bit of skiing, as a team building training camp there couldn’t be anywhere better. It’s not a new concept as it was something that was done regularly by pro teams of the ’80s and early ’90s. A perfect way to introduce and integrate new faces over the closed season before the serious business of training and racing gets underway.
So Luchon was where I found myself when I was invited to join the Pinarello RT team on their training and team building camp. Team manager Phil Griffiths had driven down in the company van with all the new white and black Pinarello F3:13 training bikes for the boys. The girls were brought two bright pink F4:13s for Sarah Byrne and Kelly Moore and two FP5s for Alex Greenfield and Hannah Rich.
Dan Duguid, CW’s tech-man, was brought a royal blue FP5 to test. As well as the bikes there was all sorts of team issue kit to be distributed. The team and I flew from East Midlands to Carcassonne without the worry of carrying bulky bike bags.
Arriving in Carcassonne the weather was decidedly chilly and a little damp. Along the way we picked Dan up from Toulouse airport before we rejoined the A64 to link up with the valley roads down to Luchon. Heavy rain greeted us on the run down and it was still raining as we passed the beautiful sculpture of mountain lion with cubs on the roundabout at the head of the main street in to Luchon. After a bite to eat it was into the hotel garage to get the bikes out and set up ready for the following morning’s ride.
Broken cloud with mist still hanging over the mountain tops set the scene on the Tuesday morning, as the team readied to set out on their ride. The whole spectacle created some interest from the locals as Malcolm Elliott and Russell Downing led the group north out of town.
The atmosphere in the mountains is truly special and it was good to suck in the cool mountain air as I hung out of the van taking pictures of the group. There was a relaxed feeling to the team as they rotated their formation and chatted away getting to know each other.
Kelly told me later, “To say I went out training with Malcolm Elliott and Russ Downing is pretty cool, and then to say I kept up with them, now that’s just brill. It was an enjoyable ride with the lads making jokes and messing about, it made the ride more fun.”
Matt Kipling, a new face to Pinarello, echoed the sentiments: “A good tempo ride with the roads feeling much faster than in the UK. It was fantastic training in the group with all the team on the same bikes and kit. I was just trying to pick Malc’s and Russ’s brains all the time!”
After an hour or so we turned left towards the village of Izaourt and the first steady climb. By now the weather was brightening with the snow-capped mountains emphasised against the now blue skies. “There is unbelievable scenery in every direction,” Peter Williams said.
Tom Murray added: “The quiet roads mean you can relax a bit more and take in the dramatic sight of the mountains topped with snow all around.”
Alex said: “I love riding in a totally new place, with new people and a chance to chat to everyone and get to know them. The scenery is absolutely amazing! Everywhere you look there are snow covered mountains. It is beautiful.”
Large griffon vultures circle overhead along the line of mountain tops as the group reach the sharp left turn in the village of Anja before taking the tricky descent back down towards the main valley road. Another loop was made to the east, taking in another nice tempo climb before running back down to the main road.
After crossing the river Garonne it was a straight run back to Luchon along the wide valley bottom with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It was certainly a very seasonal scene with bountiful globes of mistletoe hanging in the roadside trees.
An enjoyable three hours even with the low temperatures.
“It was definitely the most enjoyable ride I’ve ever done.” Sarah tells me and adds, “It was a great experience to ride with such experienced riders as Malcolm and Russ and I’m really grateful to Phil for giving me such a great opportunity.”
Alex from Wales voiced the opinion of the whole team regarding the quiet roads: “The lack of traffic was a plus because when I ride round my area there is a lot of traffic and negativity towards cyclists. Around Luchon the drivers were very courteous towards us. It was great.”
Wednesday dawned to blue crystal clear skies and temperatures well below freezing. The plan was to have an afternoon of skiing at Baqueira-Beret with the girls having a rest and being driven there along with all the ski equipment. The men would ride the 75km to the Spanish ski resort and meet up with everyone there for the afternoon’s activities.
So after a good breakfast, Elliott and the boys set out from Luchon back up the same valley road we had used the previous day. At Cierp-Gaud it was right to St Beat and where the road was still in shadow, frost still gripped everything it touched. Caution was taken but the tempo remained high.
From St Beat it was a straightforward run up the valley to Fos and to cross the border into Spain before continuing on to Vielha and up the D’Aran valley to Baqueira-Beret.
“From Louchon it was quite a hard ride along the valley and across the border into Spain. It was an undulating road that just went on and on,” Tom said.
“Once we started to climb up to the ski station the climb just wore you down slowly. I reached down for a drink maybe five kilometres into the climb and they were both blocks of ice, so I didn’t get a drink for the next 30 kilometres.
“Going up the climb we got regular updates from Malcolm of the air temperature, and in the last five kilometres it read minus six degrees centigrade!”
With the use of a hotel’s facilities in Baqueira, it was a change of clothes, a bite to eat and off on to the slopes for an afternoon of skiing. Perfect conditions to complete a memorable day.
YOUR GUIDE: PINARELLO RT
* Malcolm Elliott, 46, Sheffield. Objectives 2008: Premier Calendar
* Russell Downing, 29, Rotherham. Objectives 2008: Premier Calendar
* Lee Davies, 37, Stonehouse, Gloucestershire. Objectives 2008: Premier Calendar
* Tom Murray, 22, Huddersfield. Objectives 2008: Premier Calendar
* Peter Williams, 21. York. Objectives for 2008: Premier Calendar & TT & RR in University Worlds
* Matt Kipling, 25, Teeside. Objectives for 2008: Premier Calendar
* Sam Webster, 18, Leeds. Objectives for 2008: Belgian races
* Alex Greenfield, 17, Barry, South Wales. Objectives for 2008: road and track
* Sarah Byrne, 18, Stoke. Objectives for 2008: National Road Series and National Track
* Hannah Rich, 17, Monmouthshire. Objectives for 2008: National Road Series and track
* Kelly Moore, 18, Birmingham. Objectives for 2008: National Road Series and TT series
Day 1 Ride: From Luchon north on D125 direction Signac. Turn left (TL) at roundabout to join D44 then on to N125. TL on back road by quarry direction Izaourt. Continue to Anja, turn right (TR) then TL in Anja direction Gembrie and Troubat continuing up the valley to Mauleon-Barousse. TL towards Cazarith to Siradan rejoining N125 north. TR at Labroquere to Barbazan crossing D33, through Barbazan rejoining the D33 south in direction of Luchon. TR then TL back on to N125 to rejoin D125 back to Luchon.
Day 2 Ride: From Luchon north on D125 direction Signac. TR at Gerp-Guad on to D44 to St Beat joining N125. Cross the border into Spain on to the N230 in to Bossost. Continue on N230 to Vielha to TL on to C28 to take climb up to Baqueira-Beret ski station.