Cycle Sport rides the original 1910 Pyrenean stage of the Tour de France – 326 kilometres from Luchon to Bayonne

Words by Edward Pickering

Every year, the gulf between losers like us and real cyclists is made uncompromisingly obvious when the results of the Tour come in, and we compare the results to the Etape du Tour. It’s been eight years since the winner of the Etape – usually a very strong amateur or even professional rider – beat the time of even the slowest rider in the equivalent Tour stage. Obviously, people like us are hours slower.

Yes, professional cyclists are better than us at cycling. But we’re not willing to just admit defeat. Time to move the goalposts.

Next year’s Tour is going to celebrate the centenary of the first appearance of the high Pyrenees in the race. In 1910, Tour founder Henri Desgrange was persuaded by his assistant Alphonse Steinès that the race had settled into a rut, and that the insertion of a few climbs would liven things up. So they designed a stage, from Luchon to Bayonne, which would add an element of violently gruelling hardship to a race, which all things considered, was hard enough in the first place.

The route? 326 kilometres from Luchon, over the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque (via the Col du Soulor), followed by a lumpy traverse of the Basque Country, a bonus ascent of the Col d’Osquich, and a final descent to the coast at Bayonne. Even by 1910 standards, it was bloody ridiculous. The winner was Octave Lapize, who covered the course in 14 hours, 10 minutes and would go on to win the overall.

And my challenge? To ride the original Pyrenean stage of the Tour de France, 100 years on, and gain some meaningless and petty satisfaction from doing it faster than Lapize.

Clearly, I wasn’t going to be tackling the entire route in a single day. That would be lunacy. I quickly dropped the idea of doing it on old bikes, in old kit, with a steak down my shorts, like the early Tour riders. And regrettably I didn’t leave enough time to grow an authentic pre-war moustache. However, I didn’t rule out using Cognac as an energy drink – I’d remain faithful to some of the old methods.

I also wasn’t going to be tackling the route alone. I tapped up my colleague Lionel Birnie to join in the fun. Lionel doesn’t like climbing, which would give me valuable insight into how the 1910 riders must have felt when they were forced into riding these mountains.

“We’re going to ride the original Pyrenean stage of the Tour,” I said.

“But I’m not very fit. And I’m not very good at riding up mountains,” Lionel replied.

That’s what the 1910 riders would have said. But they still had to do it.

“It’ll be fine. See you at the airport,” I replied.

DAY ONE – THE COL DE PEYRESOURDE
Our plan, hatched along with our hosts at the Pyractif Pyrenean cycling holidays company, involved breaking up the route into three chunks. We’d fly in on the Tuesday, knock off the Peyresourde before it got dark, then get up early the next morning for the hardest part of the ride – the Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. Once down the other side of the Aubisque, we’d retire to our base, then crack out the final 160 kilometres from Laruns to Bayonne. Easy.

I’d not ridden any of the climbs before, but they didn’t look as frightening as the Alps. The Tour had crossed the Aspin and Tourmalet in the same direction as we would in 2009, and they’d hardly split the field. If the Tour peloton could tap over them without breaking sweat, we’d be able to do the same. Except we’d probably break sweat.

As was right and proper for a pair of British cycling journalists, we made our climb of the Peyresourde a tribute to Robert Millar, two of whose three stage victories in the Pyrenees included ascents of this mountain, even if both times he was riding in the opposite direction to us. Wearing a couple of Z and Peugeot jerseys and having our photographs taken in front of the famous spa in central Luchon, we nevertheless were not asked for our autographs by the retirees and unemployed of the town, who instead stared at us as if we were bonkers.

In 1910, the riders started climbing the Peyresourde at 3:30 in the morning, their way lit by the headlights of the few following cars. We’d deliberately misread the history books and started out at 3:30 in the afternoon instead.

Like a good novel, the Peyresourde basically consists of a start, a middle and an end. A stiff climb out of Luchon is followed by a more gradual plateau about halfway up, and finally a brutal hairpin section. We recognised the steep hairpin early on where the Port de Bales descent links with the climb. We had a nostalgic chuckle about the straight section soon after, where Alexandre Vinokourov attacked to win the Loudenvielle stage in 2007 while we watched disapprovingly on a television on a café terrace. And we wondered aloud why it is that every time Lionel and I go for a ride somewhere, it rains.

Still, the suffering was kept relatively short – we tapped up in about an hour and a quarter, our arrival at the summit marked by the sound of thunder. A greasy and occasionally terrifying descent, followed by a more gradual slope downhill to Arreau and the first stage of our 1910 Etape was complete.

DAY TWO – THE ASPIN, TOURMALET AND AUBISQUE
It’s a mark of how unnatural a process climbing mountains on a bike is, that even the legendarily sadistic founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange originally thought that putting the Pyrenees into the Tour was going too far. The roads were rocky, gravelly tracks, and the bikes had single gears.

The story goes that Desgrange’s assistant Steinès went to reconnoitre the climbs in early 1910, got stuck in snow, and barely survived the experience. Steinès, did what any right-thinking person would have done under the circumstances, and lied to his boss.

“CROSSED THE TOURMALET STOP VERY GOOD ROAD STOP PERFECTLY PRACTICABLE STOP SIGNED STEINES” read the telegram he sent to Paris once he’d recovered from nearly dying from exposure.

That was that. The Pyrenees were in.

According to Pierre Chany’s Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, the 1910 riders didn’t hold back, attacking right from the start in Luchon, and joining the battle on the Peyresourde and Aspin. However, they were the athletic cream, and we were a couple of mildly unfit journalists who’d ridden up the Peyresourde the previous afternoon, followed by a couple of beers, and whose legs felt a little stiff. Drugs weren’t banned back in those days either, and we simply weren’t prepared to use strychnine to take the edge off the climbing.

The Aspin’s a lovely climb, however. It’s never outrageously steep, and it’s often actually quite pleasant to ride up. We tapped up the early forested slopes, climbing into the chilly morning mist, then emerging for the last couple of kilometres above the clouds. A sea of bright white cumulus boiled below us; above, endless azur, and higher peaks jutting through the clouds. Some mountain goats even clambered down onto the road and probably marvelled at how slowly we were going.

At the top, we looked across the valley to the Pic du Midi, which sits above the Col du Tourmalet. It looked very high.

A swift descent from the Aspin, and we were already in Ste Marie de Campan, the foot of the Tourmalet, and then onto the early slopes. It was here, I think, that Lionel stopped enjoying himself.

The Tourmalet is about as hard as climbing gets at the Tour de France. Our hosts at Pyractif pointed out with pride that it has 11 consecutive kilometres whose gradient averages eight per cent or more (not including the final kilometre, which averages 7.9 per cent), and that none of the regularly used Tour climbs can match that. Not Alpe d’Huez; not the Ventoux; nor the Galibier or Bonette. Actually, only the Col du Granon, used once in 1986, can equal it, with 11 kilometres over eight per cent, and a steeper average than the Tourmalet.

But statistics never convey the full story of a climb. A kilometre which averages nine per cent is one thing at the bottom of a climb, but quite another when it comes seven kilometres in. The Tourmalet rears up on the approach to La Mongie (all you need to know about La Mongie is that it’s spectacularly ugly and that a donkey lives there, roaming the streets and cadging food from tourists), through the avalanche tunnels, and onwards, and it never, ever lets up.

I waited for Lionel at the top and we traipsed into the summit café, ordering ham, eggs and chips, which we digested along with the sobering thought that we’d been on the road for over five hours, and had ridden about 75 kilometres. That meant we still had 250 kilometres to ride, and it was already well past midday on the second day.

But however tired we were, and however bad a mood either of us might have been in about the toughness of the Tourmalet, we were probably doing a lot better than the 1910 riders.

Desgrange, who was still pondering the wisdom of believing Steinès’ optimistic assessment of the conditions, was not on hand to watch the race – he’d thrown a sickie and gone back to Paris. But his writer Victor Breyer was on hand on both the Tourmalet and Aspin, and he reported shattered riders staggering up one at a time. Most had to walk up these two climbs, although Gustave Garrigou won a prize of 100 francs for riding all the way. Eventual stage winner Octave Lapize famously accused the race organisation of being “assassins”

“You’re all criminals,” he hissed at Breyer.

But while we shared Lapize’s discomfort at the climbing (and yes, it’s possible that Cycle Sport also put a foot down from time to time on the Tourmalet), at least we could be smug about the prospect of a very fast and exhilarating 19-kilometre descent to Luz St Sauveur.

All that remained after that was a 20-kilometre hack down the Gorges de Luz, passing the entrance roads to famous summit climbs like Luz Ardiden, Cauterets-La Cambasque and Hautacam, and then the Aubisque.

The Aubisque is an irregular climb, and consists of a subsidiary col – the Soulor, then the Aubisque itself. Three steep kilometres out of Argelès Gazost are followed by nine kilometres of drag, flat and even downhill, which can hardly count as part of the mountain. It’s only after a sharp right in the village of Arrens that the Soulor begins. The Soulor wouldn’t be so bad, except I already had three mountains in my legs, and It was here that I feel I identified most closely with our predecessors a century before. If it hadn’t been my foolish idea in the first place, I’d have accused the organisers of being assassins.

Meanwhile, Lionel was celebrating his own little centenary party by climbing into the following van with photographer Andy and Pyractif Chris. The broomwagon also made its first appearance in the 1910 Tour, and Lionel was remaining true to its spirit.

My rewards for an hour of grinding misery on the Soulor were the final corniche road on the Aubisque, which is possibly the most outrageously beautiful stretch of tarmac in cycling; And the very steep and technical descent down the other side; And the beer that I drank that evening.

DAY THREE – THE BASQUE COUNTRY AND COL D’OSQUICH
160 kilometres down, 160 to go, into a block headwind, through the repetitively hilly Basque Country. No wonder Lionel went a bit quiet on the early morning drive to Laruns.

But we were optimistic that in spite of our extraordinarily slow ride through the mountains, we could get close to Lapize’s time. We spent the first hour steadily losing altitude, before the rolling scenery of the Basque Country slowed us down again. A couple more hours of green hills, forests, and oddly-spelled towns where nobody seemed to live, and we stopped for lunch at the foot of the Col d’Osquich. Two steaks and Cognacs, and we sailed up the Osquich, just like Lapize would have done.

We mentally split the final 90 kilometres into three hour-long chunks, and sped on through St Jean Pied-de-Port and Cambo-les-Bains. Avoiding the main road into Bayonne, and consequently hitting a hilly final stretch, we saw the twin spires of Bayonne cathedral on the horizon, and cruised in alongside the Adour river. Our time? 13 hours, 35 minutes, 58 seconds, 30 minutes ahead of Lapize.

You have to admire the pioneers of the Tour de France. I used to assume that in those days, the champion cyclists were just men who happened to have entered the Tour. But to put Lapize’s achievement into perspective, he rode the Bayonne stage of the 1910 Tour taking just half an hour longer than we managed. He did it in one day, on a heavy bike with one gear, on roads that were little more than goat tracks and which would have been almost as slow going down as they were going up. We had the luxury of doing it in stages, and riding on modern light bikes on good roads.

Lapize must have been in seriously good shape. Far from being a leathery-faced, cartoonish figure with a Belle Epoque moustache and a bidon full of Pastis, he was an elite athlete.

In 2010, the Tour paid its own tribute to the riders of 1910, with a stage which starts in Luchon, and crosses the same four mountains. The modern peloton’s 60-kilometre descent to Pau wasn’t quite as arduous the 160-kilometre grind to Bayonne, yet the modern riders suffered every bit as much as their predecessors a century ago.

But not as much as we did.

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport December 2009, and has been adapted

Pyractif is a Pyrenean cycling holidays company run by Chris and Helen Balfour, in Bertren, just north of Luchon. Bertren is Tour de France climbing geek heaven – the Peyresourde, Port de Bales and Superbagnères are a short hop away, major climbs like the Aspin andTourmalet are all within a short drive/ride to the west, while to the east lie the Menté and Portet d’Aspet.

Pyractif holidays are based around linking up famous climbs – virtually any combination is possible, with so many of the iconic Pyrenean climbs so close. Pyractif also runs coast-to-coast rides from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, right across the Pyrenees, plus a Robert Millar tribute holiday, which climbs the same mountains the Scot did en route to three Pyrenean stage victories. We’re doing that one next time.

Chris and Helen spend their days guiding riders up and down the mountains, and their evenings serving hors-categorie plates of food to tired cyclists. The idea for this challenge originally came from Chris, who is planning on setting up a Pyractif holiday based around the Luchon to Bayonne route. Anybody who wants to follow in the footsteps of Octave Lapize and the 1910 Tour riders, or indeed the CS crew, can sign up, and ride the route with full technical support and guidance.

For more information, see www.pyractif.com, or call +33 562 491 320

Distance: 318.49km
Time: 13:35:58.69
Average speed: 23.4kph
Max speed: 68.4kph (which would have been much higher without the headwind on the Tourmalet descent)
Number of calories expended: 12,819

  • Mark Stevens

    Remember reading the original article. I was going to the Pyrenees that year so it was particularly relevant then and it still has me chuckling now.

    Can’t find anywhere else on your site to e-mail you. The March 2011 issue and your Major Race Gude. Guys, how come Milan San Remo is not listed. I hold you personally responsible for my missing a live recording of the 2011 race. I would say worse but for the fact Sky were showing a 1 1/2 hr highlight on Sunday/Monday which I managed to record & watch. Was GREAT.

    Get it sorted next yr (pls !)