Words and photo by Peter Cossins
I made a new best friend during the lockdown. Restricted to taking exercise within a kilometre of home and for no more than an hour a day, I had just one option on my road bike: descend from our hamlet to the village below, then climb gently to the top of the plateau above our house, and drop down from there to start the 6km loop again. I’d do three laps of this circuit, the first a warm-up, the second flat out, the third to cool down, hoping to maintain a semblance of pedalling fitness thanks to this routine.
It struck me pretty quickly that I never got bored with the loop, and particularly the 2km climb that I always attempted to ride in the big ring during my second circuit. Rising 70 metres or so over that short distance, it averages somewhere between three and four per cent. In other words, it’s the kind of slope that most riders would barely notice on a longer sortie through the local Pyrenean terrain. But, during the two lockdowns here in France, it was all I had, and I came to relish it.
It certainly helped that it’s the kind of climb that I particularly enjoy, winding constantly, through dense woodland for the most part, but with occasional clear stretches offering long views across to the first high ridge of the Pyrenees. It begins next a local landmark, passing the kind of solid, unattractive house that’s the vernacular in this part of the Ariège, but is surrounded by a garden that never fails to catch the eye.
It’s filled with dozens of creatures, a menagerie in stone and clay. There’s two-metre-high concrete elephant and, close to it, a large t-rex built with pebbles, a terracotta lion, a panther, an eagle and other birds, and smaller domestic animals. It’s a sight that never fails to raise a smile.
Leaving this extraordinary scene, the road reaches the woods and starts to weave back and forth, the approach to each corner triggering a sense of anticipation about what might emerge beyond it. One day I almost rode into two small deer trotting across the road, my sudden appearance enough to send them bounding majestically into the safety of the woods. Another day it was a dog walker who flagged me down and asked me to help extricate their car from the boggy track where they’d tried to U-turn and somehow ended up with only three wheels touching the ground – a four-wheel drive eventually proved more effective than a lone cyclist in cleated shoes.
I’d often see a line of nuns out walking from the abbey halfway up the climb, the group all smiles as I rumbled by. Right at the crest, on a triangle of unfenced grass tucked into the top corner of my circuit, a farmer as solid as any Ariège building would usually be watching over his cattle, including an immense bull, thankfully more interested in munching than in red-jacketed me.
The Col de T-Rex changed with the seasons too. When the first lockdown began in mid-March, the trees were bare and I noticed barns and bee hives that hadn’t been apparent before. I could easily pick out the high, north-facing ridge that eventually leads to the Col de Péguère. These were concealed again by the time the lockdown restrictions were lifted in May. Then, when the second lockdown began in late October, the process was reversed, the leaves dropping to reveal these hidden nooks and the mountains beyond them.
It would be overly dramatic to describe this short climb as a lifeline for me during these lockdowns, but it was hugely beneficial, keeping me relatively fit in mind and body. It also kept reminding me why the mountains have such an unfailingly magnetic pull on me and so many other cyclists. In Mountains of the Mind, Robert MacFarlane describes everything as being “thrillingly amplified in the mountains”, which encapsulates it very well – the difficulty of the riding, the extremes of weather, and, most evidently, their awe-inspiring beauty. Every ride in the mountains is also a journey inside yourself, sometimes epic, often unforgettable, always beguiling.
I received my clearest reminder of all of these qualities during a long weekend in Luz Saint Sauveur, the picturesque town that sits at the foot of the Tourmalet’s western flank. There was just one clement day during the four I was there. Rather than do the obvious and head for the Tour de France’s favourite pass, I opted to head in the opposite direction in Luz, heading across the soaring span of the Pont de Napoléon to reacquaint myself with the climb to Luz Ardiden, which is set to make its first appearance on the Tour route for a decade during the 2021 race.
It’s perhaps best remembered as the site of Lance Armstrong’s dive to the tarmac that triggered his revival in the centenary Tour of 2003. I was in press tent at the summit that day and ventured out at one point to marvel at the Basque fans who had flocked over the border, their masked ranks and almost uniform orange colours providing a fluorescent render to the steep banks in between the string of tight hairpins approaching the summit that form a natural grandstand. As I stood there, huge raindrops began to fall, signalling the end of the oppressive canicule that had gripped that race and had all but finished Armstrong off years before USADA finally achieved that feat.
On a chilly late October morning, I had the climb to myself. It’s relatively benign to begin with. Nearing the village of Grust, though, the gradient sharpens very noticeably. Although I could feel gravity tugging at me, the Col de T-Rex had equipped me well enough to cope. I distracted myself by counting the hairpins – 30, several more than Alpe d’Huez, which has a similar profile – and trying to work out the location of Armstrong’s tumble.
Climber higher, above the steepest ramps, the view was all the distraction I needed. On one side, I gazed up at the final dozen or so hairpins, coiled one upon the next. On the other, there was a majestic panorama to the peaks that tower to the northern side of the Tourmalet and, just visible in the distance, the Hautacam ski station.
There’s not much at the top, one very functional building housing the snow ploughs, another the ticket office, ski hire and a café, and bearing the resort’s name in block capitals. It’s far from glitzy, but all the better for that. It’s essentially a bigger and more magnificent version of the Col de T-Rex, a glorious affirmation of what I love about cycling.