This article was produced in association with Factor
Sometimes all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place. This was one of those attractions – the route, the bike, the people, the history… Factor Bikes got in touch to tell us about the new, then-secret O2 VAM, and to give us the chance to Review it before its release. “It’s an aero climbing bike,” they said. “It’s built to be fast all day, comfortable on long rides, a razor on descents and especially effective on big climbs and sharp finishes. We’d love to see him on an epic ride that captures what he’s all about and reflects his approach to racing.” All that on one route? No problem.
Stage 12 of the 2017 Tour de France was a monster 214km through the Pyrenees from Pau to the ski resort of Peyragudes. The first half was almost flat, requiring aerodynamic efficiency, and the second brutally and increasingly hilly, accumulating more than 4,700 meters of elevation gain and culminating in the Altiport 007 track, which was used again on year 2022. The parcours is a perfect demonstration of why the new O2 VAM exists. In addition, it is a sensational route, generously endowed both in physical challenge and in scenic beauty. And the cherry on top? On that day in 2017, Romain Bardet took Factor’s first stage win in a Grand Tour with a first generation O2.
The new bike is headed to pay homage to its grandfather. Now all he needed was someone to ride him with. He had already been talking to Duke Agyapong about getting them to participate in a tour. Duke is a dude, a talented multi-discipline rider and there aren’t enough people who look like him in cycling magazines, especially in epic travel features. Practically none, in fact. Duke is also a poet, Rapha model, bike mechanic and mental health advocate. They are also a Factor Ambassador and the owner of a stunning custom OSTRO VAM. This would be a fun day.
It doesn’t start well, though. After a customs holdup, I had only laid hands on the bike the evening before the trip and had an afternoon at night to build it. My alarm goes off after four hours of sleep. But that’s nothing compared to what Duke is going through, having forgotten to pack the medication they take for clinical depression and anxiety. Duke is admirably open about these challenges, we need to talk about them to remove the stigma and encourage more people to seek help, but this is a practical challenge for us.
Sudden withdrawal from medication is not only destabilizing and a trigger of its own, but also causes nausea. Breakfast is impossible, which is not great before such a big trip. Let’s load up and head to the start regardless.
We start on the outskirts of Pau, on the RD817 that connects with Tarbes. Straight, flat and boring. Even if you weren’t racing, you’d want an aero bike here just to get it over with faster. Neither of us feel any better as we go along, but this is offset by excitement for the day ahead and soon we’re moving along at a brisk pace. After 22 km, we turn onto smaller roads to skirt the south of Tarbes.
The route is flat and fast to Toumay, the average speed is kept high by keeping the head down. We’re trading turns smoothly, Duke looking like the runner that he is and making me work hard. Duke hasn’t been able to eat anything yet, so bonk is now inevitable. Many people wouldn’t even get on a bike on a day like this, but Duke is determined to get as far as he can.
The first climb is the Côte de Capvern. It is 11 km but so gentle, only three percent, that we are in the big ring. Then it’s flat for another 40km to the Col des Ares (5km, 4.4%), which is also tame compared to what’s to come and only serves as access to the Col de Menté. Including its preamble, Menté is 15 km; the “adequate” bit is 6.3 km in 8.3 percent of tests. It is here that Duke’s exhausted body finally cries enough, after 135 km and four and a half hours. I have no idea what they were running for to get here, but it’s really impressive. I would have loved for Duke to have finished the ride with me, but perhaps the most important defense they could make is to have a bad day and be open to sharing it.
It’s hot now, 29 degrees Celsius, and I’m suddenly more aware of that, and the sheer amount of climbing ahead of me now that I’m on my own. Climbing with a friend hurts less. The Coll de Menté is tough, with 16 switchbacks on each side that trample the road up the mountain. Once at the top, there are fleeting views of the valley peaks rising up like giant shark fins and looking so menacing. I have traveled that valley there from Bagnères-de-Luchon many times, but Menté, and its perspective, is new to me and the topography looks very different from here.
After the fast and fun descent, a quick switch back to aero mode is needed for the valley blast: hands on the horns, elbows down, the O2 VAM rolls easily up to 40km/h a way that doesn’t make shallow wheels. bike climbing has any right to do. My solo escape fantasies are tempered by the approaching Port of Balès.
Officially, it’s 19 kilometers at six percent, but the six kilometer stretch to get to that point also feels uphill. It starts very smoothly, winding through a gorge, but it’s hard to enjoy it when you know the altitude debt will come due and carry interest. In fact, there are several long phases at 10-12% and short ramps up to 15%. By the time I reach the third such stage, with 185km to go, the summit is still nowhere to be seen and the heat has grown teeth that sink into my bones to cook me from the inside. The climb seems endless and I am alone in the vast landscape that is the northern side of Port de Balès. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the photo car and I’m not drinking. At one point I shouted my friend and driver Terry’s name as loud as I could, before meeting him, Duke and photographer Chris a couple of minutes later.
I immediately down half a bottle and put a new full one on the bike. When the top finally arrives, it’s without fanfare. Nothing, in fact, except for some cows. A ‘road closed’ sign briefly causes a flood of stress, but then a cyclist appears from the south side and confirms that both the car and I can get off easily if we’re careful on the roadworks gravel ahead. He’s right, and better yet, the fantastic, wide lower section of the descent is clean and deserted.
The fast track pulls me towards the junction with the Col de Peyresourde, where two urgent clutches of the brake are needed to avoid making the same mistake as Fabio Aru and Chris Froome in 2017, when they ended up on the grass between some motorhomes. Overall, the Col de Peyresourde (9.5 km, 7.2 percent of Balès) is quite reasonable, but it is steep right from the junction and hurts legs that have cooled on the long descent.
Like many others, the village of Saint-Aventin has a smattering of permanent Tour de France decorations reflecting its frequent inclusion in the world’s greatest race. In this case, this history goes back to 1910, when Peyresourde was the first climb of the first high mountain stage, although the Col du Tourmalet, some 550m higher, stole the limelight and ‘has been monopolizing ever since.
The Peyresourde is relatively consistent by Pyrenean standards and the gradient is less punishing, but when you go for the power, take it all out, it’s the speed that varies and not the discomfort. To my surprise, I still feel great and can put out 280-300W even. A number of other riders offer targets to chase through the iconic walled switchbacks to the top, dreams of professional racers who have gone from hunted to hunted.
Excited, I charge over the fantastic summit, where the straight path is like a giant humpback bridge that reveals the view beyond like a theater curtain rising, and attack the short descent. Throughout the day, the O2 VAM felt as stable as a bike half as nimble, offering easy confidence that can be deployed for speed or safety as you desire.
Unhooking to the left marks the start of the final, with two kilometers to go. Time to use up whatever’s left in the tank. We’d thought we’d end the journey on the road next to the altiport, but as we approach, with Chris taking close-ups of my suffering through the car window, we see that it’s not closed at all. There’s no plane in sight, and forgiveness is easier to get than permission, so I pass him over, tangle, and amazingly find myself riding on the track used by the Tour. The gradient climbs to a ridiculous 20 percent, at which point I’m gripping the bars and pedals with everything I’ve got and don’t immediately notice that Chris has accessed the track above to capture my final agony.
With no one around to kick us, we linger a while, drinking in the sensational view, buzz of the ride and taking portrait shots of the bike in the exact spot where its ancestor and Romain Bardet triumphed. Puzzle completed.