This article has been produced in collaboration with Factor Bikes.
I previously did the longest stage of the Tour de France, a 482 kilometer behemoth that covered most of the west coast of France. I wanted to experience and share what the pilots went through, or at least a modern version. The answer was a violent rollercoaster of doubt, enjoyment, transcendence, boredom, fragility and trust.
Next, logically, was the hardest stage, but first it had to be identified. While the longest stage is a matter of empirical fact, the hardest stage is a matter of subjective judgment and there is no shortage of contenders. Over the decades, the Tour has included many venues that now defy belief, stages of almost comical monstrosity.
The 1919 Tour is often said to be the toughest edition due to the devastating impact the First World War had on the riders, the food supply and the roads themselves. It had the fewest finishers, just 10, and the slowest average speed at 24.0 km/h. It also featured the introduction of the aforementioned longest stage, the fifth, from Les Sables d’Olonnes to Bayonne, and boasted the longest stage winning time in history at 21 hours and 4 minutes which took Firmin Lambot to cover 468 km from Metz to Dunkirk on stage 14. Every stage looks like a sick joke.
But it’s the 326 km route from Bayonne to Luchon that has fascinated me since I moved to the Pyrenees myself. This route debuted in 1910, the Tour’s first taste of the high mountain, but ran in the opposite direction for three years until the entire Grand Boucle was reversed in 1913. Reversing the direction created a nightmare laden with ‘un parcours, with the second half. which includes Col d’Aubisque, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde. Imagine Milan-Sanremo, but 10 percent longer and all the peaks at the end are HC and cat-1 mountains… The climbing adds up to almost 7,000m. No Tour stage ever had more.
To top it all off, this was the sixth stage of the race and, from 1919 to 1924, it was therefore the longest stage in history. What a combination.
My journey starts shortly after 7am from Bayonne town hall, exactly where I had finished the longest stage at 10.30pm a few weeks earlier, and a much nicer time than the midnight start imposed on the professionals from a century ago. The roads are slippery due to a heavy downpour that blew in while I was getting ready, making the escape from the city through the first travelers more stressful. Also, the route is immediately bumpy, plunging straight into the famous French Basque Country, and then it rains again.
My plan had been to ride the first half on flatter roads, saving my energy for the mountains to come. The hardest stage has other ideas. Hidden in the scale of a profile that includes the 2,115m Tourmalet pass, hides a long series of small climbs that leave the legs, their amplitude increases in turn. In all the time spent planning an accurate recreation of the route, I hadn’t registered the difficulty of the first 60km. Look at the profile and tell me your focus wouldn’t also be on the big mountains.
Forty minutes into the journey, my feeling is one of confusion at the dense and steep Basque hills that surround me. Its signature, oversaturated, marker green looks beautiful as the morning sun breaks through patchy clouds, but it’s only a temporary distraction from the dread that kicks up another notch every time the road climbs past 10 percent. How the hell am I going to handle this one?
My focus – I won’t go so far as to call it strategy – had been focused on the Tourmalet. You hit the mountains pretty cool, climb the Aubisque conservatively and then get over the Tourmalet without breaking. After that there would only be Aspin and Peyresourde left and I figured they weren’t that tough so I could hit them with low speed in almost any condition. How hard can it be?
The Col d’Osquich begins after 79 km and three hours. Of the first climbs, it is the only one visible in profile, although at 495m it still looks like a drop in speed. It’s 4.5km long, but only six percent, so it actually feels easy compared to what came before it. Settling into an uphill rhythm for the first time is a good feeling. The newly resurfaced smooth descent is great…or at least it would be if the trails weren’t still wet.
The asphalt finally dries after four hours of driving, so I stop and change my shoes and socks in the photographer’s backup car. The road has also flattened out, so I climb into the drops and take the opportunity to cover the terrain faster.
Through Laruns, at the foot of the Aubisque pass, I have traveled 170 km and climbed 2,500 m, and I am sorry. Fresh, I am not, and it seems to me that the whole journey is still ahead. On the upside, the weather has picked up and I’m now on the back roads I know well. There will be no more surprises.
The Col d’Aubisque is sensational: long, hard and varied. After an easy start, it sets off from the spa town of Eaux-Bonnes, whose former elegance has gone beyond fading into ruin. The ski town of Gourette, 12 km away, is another scoring point. The path narrows and this last quarter of the climb is much more twisted, the gradients more irregular.
It’s cloudy at the top, obscure views which I know are amazing, and only 13C. Next to the restaurant is a modestly sized bust of Lucien Buysse, commemorating his 1926 victories on this stage, the one that followed, and the GC as a result. That year was undoubtedly the toughest edition of this toughest stage, thanks to a ferocious storm that battered the runners and turned the high-altitude dirt roads into mud pits. Buysse’s winning time of 17:12 is the slowest of the 13 times this stage was used, although he may have taken solace in the suffering; after the third stage a week earlier he had received the tragic news that his youngest daughter had died. To continue must have been unimaginably hard, unless his personality inclined him to channel the pain into the pedals and run away through France, in which case finishing as a winner in Paris must have been exquisite agony.
The iconic balcony road on the east side of the Aubisque is thankfully under the clouds and as fun as ever. After a short climb to the twin summit of the Col du Soulor comes another fantastic descent to Argelès-Gazost. A few minutes south of the valley, I pass a few hundred meters from my house, where my fiancee and our daughter meet me on the side of the road. Eight hours into the trip, I expected to feel a strong urge to get off and join them for dinner and a hot shower. I had imagined myself writing about the conflicting voices in my head and a narrowly won argument, leading me to the Col du Tourmalet, instead of my couch. Maybe, considering Buysse and her tragic loss, the sight of our baby smiling along with the tiredness might even bring me to tears.
Instead, the moment is nothing but joyous, its result only motivation, and I left for Gorge Luz renewed. The feeling lasts up and up the Tourmalet; my power stays constant and I reach the top in just under 90 minutes. It’s a big confidence boost, but there’s a long way to go and a bit of pressure to beat the night, despite it being late June, so I pause just to put on my jacket and then attack the familiar descent.
At the base, in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, I nod to the statue of Eugène Christophe, whose fork broke on this descent in 1913 as he was poised to take the lead of the race He walked 10 km to a smithy in this place, after that he repaired it himself, but the ever-present marshals fined him 10 minutes because the blacksmith’s young son operated the bellows and that counted as outside assistance forbidden Incredibly, in both 1919 and 1922, Christophe would again be denied overall victory by broken forks. At this point, an unempathetic assessment could question your preparation and testing.
Aspin Pass is gentler than most climbs in the area but steeper than I remember. I have never ridden it while I was already so tired. The downhills to Lake Payolle are easy, as is the last kilometer or so, but in between, as you climb through its characteristic pine forest, first switchbacks and then S-bends, it means business.
My legs are still fine, no knee pain this time and my stomach is holding up under the onslaught of all the homemade walking sticks and rice cakes I’m throwing at it. These attractions wear you out from every angle.
The Aspin’s descent, newly highlighted and smooth as glass, is fast and fun. I prefer the edge of Arreau, which is at a fork in the valley. Its center presents an option and I head south-east through narrow, quiet and picturesque streets towards the last obstacle of the day, the Col de Peyresourde.
Although its approach to the west is similar to Aspin’s, an uphill valley with moderate gradients, it is longer and, as my Garmin screen ticks over 300km, feels more difficult. The accumulated tiredness is a lot to bear and it starts to feel like it might topple me. I remind myself that the finish is basically the top of this climb, that I can get there no matter how tired I am if I keep spinning the Factor’s generous SRAM 35×33 bottom gear and how much I want to do this ride.
Hitting the Peyresourde proper gives me a jolt to life like a defibrillator. It’s 9 kilometers to the top, my legs are still with me and the excitement and anticipation of the finish helps me get a decent power out of the mid-two zone. The last three kilometers, with the summit in sight, seem endless, until finally I reach the last ramp and sprint to the summit as much for joy as for the camera.
The sun has melted on the horizon when I start the descent but there is enough left in the sunset, and in me, to make the descent at full speed and without lights. The fast lower slopes take me to Bagnères-de-Luchon to the finish, where I can celebrate on my own in a Lidl car park and then wash down with a bottle of water. This is probably an appropriate level of glamor for the time. It doesn’t matter, because the feeling of fulfillment and a dream come true tastes sweeter than any champagne.