The Tourmalet - A Hundred Years of Climbing

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07/1/2010| 0 comments
by Paul Rogen

The Tourmalet - A Hundred Years of Climbing

Over the many years I have attended the Tour de France I have been aware there is a problem.

Over the many years I have attended the Tour de France I have been aware there is a problem.  Often the closer you get to the grand race, the less you see.   Simply put, the problem is that grand tour bicycle racing as offered up to millions of roadside fans in France or Italy over twenty days is not a spectator sport as much as a participatory sport.  To best see this ‘grande boucle', you need to get on our your bike, mix with all the peoples of the world and hope you are in the correct spot to see a 10 second flash or a critical move by a world class rider.  The math is not too good if you figure there are nearly a half million fans at every stage lining a hundred mile plus stretch of roadway for five to six hours of racing.  If you really want to spectate and follow the race closely you better stay home and watch it on Versus or Eurosport..and read all about it on of course.

It is easy to believe that the closer you get to the race the less you see. This is often true of many sports.  Basketball comes to mind as I watch the NBA finals now between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.  I get excited and see a lot, but it never will approach the May evening I spent in the old parqueted floor Boston Garden in 1968 watching the sixth game of the NBA finals pitting Bill Russell, Bob Cousy et al against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor et al through the haze of cigar smoke as the Celts vanquished the Lakers.  Just plain unforgettable- the noise, the banners hanging from the rafters and the smells were redolent even if I was full in the nosebleed section.  It is the same with cycling; often you just have to be there.  I have found the past decade that the more effort you put into shadowing the tour route and getting into unique, strategic viewing spots, the better you understand why this event has held the attention of so much of the world for so long.  And, you just might see the ten seconds of glory that and couch potato could never imagine.

And, over the years, I found this most vividly happening on the Tourmalet. 

Now, the Tourmalet is epic for me and has been for countless riders over the last century.  Every cyclist I have ever encountered can remember virtually each ascent of this classic Pyrenean peak. For me this first happened on the Sainte Marie de Campon approach at the 2002 Tour de France.  I had climbed up along the valley side to a tree lined stretch just below la Mongie.   Lance, Jose Beloki and Roberto Heras came into view motoring along through the pressing crowd's screams.   I opened my yap to scream along and nothing came out.  I started to sob silently; it was my first time on the Tourmalet and my first live, up really close view of the biking gods.  I saw Lance yelling at Roberto, but could not make out the word.  It sounded like Andale, Andale!   (Later, I read that Lance was really yelling for him to slow down as he was about to blow up.)   Lance went on to take the Yellow Jersey that day and hold it on into Paris.  Per usual, historically speaking, it all hinged on the Tourmalet.

A couple of years later it happened again on the Tourmalet.   It is different as it is every time you ascend this monster of the Pyrenees. This was the 2004 edition of the TDF and it was a doozy.  Remember some girls back when Lance was with Sheryl Crow?  Well, she on was on the Tourmalet that July day but I don't think she pedaled up.

What I encountered as Lance and the Postal team were zipping up the Tourmalet that glorious day in July may shed a bit of mountain light on the conundrum: how can one get really close to the Tour de France and still see it.

I led a group of Thomson Bike Tour riders over the Col de Peyrosoude earlier in the day.   We were after the best viewing spot for the first major mountain stage of the 2004 Tour de France.  We started our plodding ascent fourteen kilometers up into that day's overcast finish at La Mongie full of anticipation and just plain tingle at being on the big mountain.   The patchy cloud cover and cool weather made the climb bearable.  Tens of thousands lined the route picnicking and painting the names of their favorite riders on the pavement.  I wore a faded Postal cycling hat that drew favorable comments from many along the roadway. (I still have that hat six years later and wear it for special rides- like today the six week mark since my open heart surgery.) At the top, Thomson Bike Tour riders herded their bikes into the adjoining woods and began the wait for the climbing gods due in four hours.  Most of us broke out sandwiches or snacks we had hauled up in our jersey pockets or in small daypacks.  We all donned windbreakers or rain gear as the temperature started to drop and the clouds thickened.  Then it started to drizzle; soon it was full rain.  We scooted back further into the overhanging branches of Norway spruce.

There was a small encampment where we were located just 2 kilometers below the finish.    This was the perfect viewing spot for what promised to be a pivotal day in the three week race.  This was the first huge mountain stage and Lance might choose this to make a statement on the nature of this year's race.  The spot even had a Kronenberg Beer tent, which also dispensed snacks and coffee.  As the afternoon wore on many of us sought refuge under the small overhang of the circular tent covering the serving area.  My business partner, Peter Thomson, insinuated himself into the functioning of the snack tent and translated orders for the beleaguered bartenders.  The rain increased and got colder.  There was a spot of hail.  Eventually I talked to some French cyclists and obtained the time-honored emergency gear of a garbage bag to stem our shivering. 

Peter had pushed further into the tent to make room for more freezing patrons.  He was behind the counter when someone in our group poked me in the side and whispered, "Isn't that Sheryl Crow over there?"   I barely looked and shook my head no, then paused for a better look.  I pulled out my glasses for this.   Sure enough, not ten feet away Sheryl was elbowed up to the bar with a US Postal team official hovering right over her.  She was staring intently at the TV, which was in black and white and got its reception signal from some bent rabbit ears.  The commentary was in French and Peter helped the circle understand the race progress as the rain pelted down.  The peleton had descended the very course we had ridden that morning and were now starting the ascent up to where we waited.  They were following our lead, albeit a bit faster.  Participatory cycling is a combination of amazing effort and numbing waiting.  We all babbled and whispered discreetly and Sheryl stared at the TV, apparently riveted by the drama unfolding.  Thankfully, nobody interrupted her intense concentration, as we all knew she was a cycling enthusiast.  Cyclists abide by many unwritten rules and at the top of the Tourmalet nobody was about to waver no matter who the celebrity.  To pester for an autograph now was to risk being hurled off the mountain by thousands of respectful cognoscenti, cycisimo amore.

By the time the peloton reached the halfway point of the climb we could hear the helicopters, which only add to the excitement.  I could not see the small TV very well and found the rapid-fire commentary stretched my rudimentary French skills, but I did have a perfect line of sight to Sheryl. Without even really making a conscious decision, I figured I could best watch this drama through her eyes.  Ten feet away she was alternating between grabbing her cheeks and holding her hands in front of her chin as if in prayer.  The rhythmic pounding of helicopters signaled the impending arrival of the lead riders and Lance.  It was clear that the US Postal Blue Train was in formation to make a major move.  Between kilometer seven and five George Hincapie took an amazing pull with Floyd Landis and Lance just off his wheel.  As the pull went on second after interminable second Sheryl seemed to be overcome with some unknowable paroxysm of emotion and start silently crying.  How could this veteran monster of a domestique be pulling this high up on a climb?  For many years, Hincapie was a rider who pulled the lower portion of a climb and then fell away like a huge spent rocket booster.  The TV just stayed on this lead group, which included, Richard Virenque, the polka dot jersey, and Ivan Basso, the chief threat in the 2004 TdF to Lance's dominance.  Hincapie kept at it for 2-3 minutes before Floyd took over. Unbelievable, the Blue team was firing in precise order.  Sheryl looked incredulous.  We all were.  This was the move.

Lance was still in Postal blue but this was the drumbeat of dominance.  George was pounding out the rhythm and the saints were following.  Sheryl and all of us kept glancing down the open valley and calculating when we would make our break over to the roadside for a live shot of the riders coming by.  Sheryl hopped a bit and tugged at her cheeks one more time as the Postal team official whispered in her ear.  Then they turned and bolted over the ten meters to the cycling piste.  At this elevation you have to deal with the Basque orange clad crazy fans and somehow share the road.  Sheryl had her bodyguard to clear out a path, I settled on climbing up on a Jeep Cherokee and standing on the spare tire to get myself above it all.    The sirens sang as the first motorcycle cops breezed through to part the sea of crazed fans.  The throng immediately flowed together again and a new brace of flics sirened yet another split.  Like all of us, Sheryl peered through the crowd as if to see only what she desired.  She crouched and fidgeted uncertainly; ready to leap out of the way, like a toreador dodging a bull.  Finally, a red TdF official car, siren blaring its signature singsong French blasts, somehow parted the crowd enough for Basso to spin by with Lance right on his wheel.  I watched as the two motored up around the bend toward the end of a magnificent 163-kilometer ride. This time I was able to yell a bit. I noted that Lance was bareheaded and Basso had a CSC hat on backwards with his sunglasses on his forehead. This was back before there was the mandatory helmet requirement at the Tour. By the time I looked back to check on Sheryl, she was gone.

But, I had clearly solved the rider/spectator problem.  I had witnessed more and understood more than any TV spectator could ever hope to convey.  Merde, I know more than Phil and Paul.   I had caught the quintessential moment of the 2004 Tour de France and confirmed that the major threat to Lance was going to come from Ivan Basso.  I had managed to see even more of the drama and agony by seeing through another fan's eyes.  It was going to be easy to say to friends back home, "You just had to be there, it was beyond amazing.  I can't really explain it; you had to be there.  Just look at the pictures. But they don't tell the half of it."

So this year, the hundredth Pyrenean edition of the Tour de France is going to climb the Tourmalet again, not once but twice.  And again I will be there staring, yelling and thinking back to Octave Lapize who was first over in 1910.  And I will think of Bobet from Morez in the Jura from the 50's and Merckx topping out first in 1969 and the great Scotsman Robert Millar besting all in 1989. But most of all I will be looking again for one of the those unforgettable experiences that I can store away just like all those other Tourmalet memories.  My bet is that I will find it once again on the upper reaches of the Toumalet.  It will be both about how I got there on my bicycle and what I witnessed and shared with others.  Pretty much like all life, except at elevation.

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