Parallel dimension: Riding a Pyrenean Tour de France stage by gravel

Past, present and future collide in one epic ride across incredible terrain in the French Pyrenees, recreating a stage of the 2019 Tour on gravel

The idea for this ride was born on the roadside of the Tour de France this summer, watching stage 18 around two kilometres from the summit of Luz Ardiden. There, sat in the sun, waiting for the race to arrive, I was chatting to our guests about previous Tour stages in the area. Two years earlier we’d watched Thibaut Pinot win on the Col du Tourmalet – in sight across the valley – and it was while recounting the route taken by that stage that a lightbulb illuminated. 

Stage 14 of the 2019 Tour began in Tarbes and I knew of gravel tracks on lots of the route, including both sides of the day’s other climb, the Col du Soulor. I began scouring maps to assemble an off-road version of the parcours. During that process, my new gravel bike arrived and then all the pieces fell into place to give this ride real significance.

It was over these mountains that Eddy Merckx performed one of his greatest exploits, a 120km solo break across three cols, in 1969 on his way to winning his debut Tour. He was wearing dossard ‘51’ that year and so began the legend of that number, after which FiftyOne Bikes is named.

Go back further, to 1910, when the Tour made its first visit to any high mountains. Stage 10 ran from Bagnères-de-Luchon over the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque, the same combination raced by Merckx, then on to Bayonne at the Atlantic coast for a total of 326km and 6500m of climbing, all on gravel. The race had never previously tackled more than two medium mountains in a single day.

At the summit of the Aubisque, eventual stage and race winner Octave Lapize screamed at the organisers, “Vous êtes des assassins!” – You are assassins! – in protest at the day’s excesses. Given that this bike is designed to handle anything you can think of, including an epic day of high mountain gravel, FiftyOne thought Assassin a very fitting name. As it happens, I told them this story in the first place, so me riding this bike on this route was perfect. 

LE DÉPART

The 14th century gothic church marked the beginning of Jamie's adventure and it was km 0 also of stage 14 of the 2019 Tour. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

It’s a beautiful day. The air is still cool when my fiancée drops me off in Ibos, but the skies are perfectly, deeply, and almost unbelievably blue and the sun feels warm as it emerges from behind the imposing, 14th-century gothic church. This was kilometre zero for stage 14 of the 2019 Tour, following the neutral roll-out from Tarbes, so it’s also my start point.

Within two kilometres of the town centre, I’m onto gravel, soon followed by a six-minute climb through woodland onto one of the ‘wrinkles’ which radiate out north from the Pyrenees like spokes. My legs feel good on the climb, which is a relief given what’s in store, and the bike is singing along the fast gravel roads which follow. I’m briefly parallel to the A64 autoroute, then turn south and run arrow straight for 4km alongside a military zone with signs warning of unexploded ordinance. It’s a reminder to keep an eye on my Wahoo’s power display; I don’t want to blow myself up, either.

The first line of mountains is getting closer and, seemingly, bigger, and a powerful anticipation builds as I contemplate the route that will take me over it, deep into the range beyond and up to one of its highest points. It’s a different sensation to beginning a route within the mountains, somehow sweeter.As soon as he hits the gravel, Jamie sees what's in store for the day. Mountains, mountains and more mountains. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

I drop down to Barlest, onto tarmac briefly, across the Route de Pau, up the other side of the valley onto another wrinkle, then across the top edge of the Forêt de Mourle to join the Chemin Henri IV. The forest is a grim mud bath, tested and eliminated during recon rides of this route. The chemin, a path, on the other hand, is a gravel dream: fast, flowing and well maintained for shared, vehicle-free use. It runs 35km between Lourdes and Pau on a Roman route that predates King Henri IV by over a millennium. I make a mental note to come back and ride the whole thing.

The drop down towards the hamlet of Peyrade. The road begins on a tiny lane but the tarmac soon gives ways to a fantastic, drawn-out gravel descent. Opportunities to give a gravel bike its head and let it run downhill are relatively few, especially here in the Pyrenees. Most descents are too steep and too rough. But here, with a more moderate gradient and a surface that I know from my recon to be free from surprises. I’m in the drops, spinning top gear, and grinning madly.

INTO THE MOUNTAINS

And then, all of a sudden, the mountains arrive. Photo: Alice Alphrey. 

Coarraze marks the big turn south and across the Pau River. Then I pass through Igon, yet another pretty hamlet, and back onto gravel, this time a narrower trail through woodland, barely more than singletrack. Lit by the bright sun, the autumn tree canopy resembles a 70s lampshade, glowing orange, red and brown. Sunbeams sporadically break through, shining spotlights and making stage stars of individual rocks.

From time to time I’m riding parallel to a smaller river, L’Ouzom, and it turns out our destinies, if not our exact routes, are aligned inversely. L’Ouzum ends at its junction with the Pau River, having run the length of the gorge from the foot of the Col du Soulor. Its source lies somewhere in the Cirque du Litor, where I’m heading, fed by countless streams. The babbling current is an occasional companion past Asson, where you would usually turn onto the D126 towards Soulor, down the parallel gravel road that I take instead, and back onto tarmac to the town of Ferrières. Solo travellers find friends where they can.

The first few kilometres of Soulor must be ridden on the road. There’s a trail but it’s only suitable for hiking up or mountain biking down (I know because I tried it on a recon and had a particularly unpleasant walk with my bike). Instead, I turn off at Arbéost onto a gritty side road. It soon becomes gravel, then singletrack into more woods. At first, it’s a steep, technical climb, lumpy and off-camber. Then it descends in similar fashion, only it’s now also very narrow and rutted, so I’m at walking pace. It’s painfully slow progress and for the first time I’m glad of the dropper post. Descending steeply while trying to climb a col is oddly disorienting. The single-track trails tested Jamie's grit and determination, but when the roads opened up, the ride was also more appealing and the views glorious. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

It’s a relief to emerge at last into the Cirque de Litor and join the snaking gravel trail that stands out vividly from both the Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque road climbs. It looks hugely appealing, and this section is glorious, but everything from Ferrières to this point has been a slog. Frankly, it was a means to an end to keep the dirt percentage high in this route.

The view of the Cirque de Litor from the bottom of the basin – literally its plughole, where springs become streams and then L’Ouzom river, destination Atlantic Ocean – feels special for being central, much lower, more surrounded. Gravel in the mountains gives you a different perspective and even makes the views from the roads feel curated or restricted, like taking one of those monorail rides at a theme park. I never get tired of riding these mountains by road, but the view is always the same. The gravel trails turn 2D into 3D and suddenly you’re in the middle of what was always scenery.

NEW HORIZONS

"The gravel trails turn 2D into 3D and suddenly you’re in the middle of what was always scenery." Yes, we hear you on this one! Photo: Alice Alphrey.

Shortly before rejoining the road for the final 3km to the summit of Soulor, a huge griffon vulture swoops low overhead. Several more soar on thermals nearby. With a 2.8m wingspan, they’re an incredible sight and the encounter feels like the icing on the cake for the day’s Soulor experience.

Speaking of cake, the summit of Soulor offers a choice of cafés: a tiny place that does little more than waffles, coffee and Coke (often all you need but limited), a big place with a grumpy owner and a reasonable menu of sandwiches most of which are usually sold out, and a wonderfully charming place just down the road with friendly staff, good coffee and authentic, healthy food. Guess which we like the most? Try the garbure, a traditional farmer’s stew with potatoes.Snack bar Du Soulor. Serving humans and donkeys. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

La Tachouère both fronts onto the road climb, where you can eat with a view, and backs onto the trail network. And what trails they are. A short, switchback climb through trees leads me to a really fun trail running close to the ridgeline at 1600m with wide-open views across the valley. It’s almost too much to process. Just when I think I have sufficiently recalibrated my capacity for joy, the trail switches through a cutting in the ridgeline to the north side, passing a small lake and a perfectly iconic refuge hut as another immense landscape explodes across my view, and I’m overwhelmed once more.

The trail continues to give generously, rolling with the terrain, sometimes fast, sometimes climbing. One righthand bend reveals the next two kilometres of trail arcing around to a high point in the distance, the Col de Bazès. It shares a ridge with the Col de Spandelles, a lesser-known road climb that’s about to get a lot more famous when it debuts in the Tour de France next year in the final mountain stage.At the top of every hill and col, the landscape explodes into magnificient views. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

Fast, fun, forest trails turn into a steep descent with tricky rain ruts down to the Nordic ski station of Val d’Azun at the top of the Col du Couraduque road climb, rumoured to be making a Tour appearance itself one day. There’s another nice café option there but I don’t even touch the brakes. It’s already well into the afternoon so I carry the momentum into the next trail, past the paragliders and another spectacular viewpoint. To the east, I can clearly see the observatory on top of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, 28km away as the vulture flies, 60km if you have wheels not wings.

The descent to Gaillagos that follows requires full attention. Rocky and rain rutted, it’s beyond what’s enjoyable on many gravel bikes, but not this one. The Assassin proves the value of its progressive geometry and 47mm tyres by chomping hungrily at the trail, carrying more speed, creating more confidence, cutting over 2mins from my best time according to Strava and adding considerably to the grin-factor.The Assassin proved to be the perfect choice for the terrain. With its progressive geometry and 47mm tyres, it allows you to carry more speed, and smash Strava's PBs. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

Below the village I rejoin both tarmac and the real TdF stage route for the roll down to Argèles-Gazost. There, I cross town to hit the trails along the middle of the valley, parallel to the road used by the Tour, until Pierrefitte-Nestelas. The Tour had an intermediate sprint here in 2019, for which Peter Sagan had ridden full gas up Col du Soulor only to be detached from the breakaway and caught by the bunch. 

There’s no sprint for me, just a 1km detour to the most convenient of feed zones – the Escape to the Pyrenees base, my house. After grabbing a ham wrap, swapping my bottles and GoPro batteries, and refilling my pockets with homemade energy bars, I’m off again and immediately into Gorge Luz, then up the opening 4km of the Col du Tourmalet. It’s the longest tarmac section of the route and I use it to press on, anxious about the time.

LAST DANCE

The ride is coming to an end, but it's important to keep the hydration levels in check during some hot days in the Pyrenees. Photo: Alice Alphrey.

I turn left off the Tourmalet to climb through the village of Sers. When the gravel starts soon after, it’s immediately steep, and the gradient on my Wahoo keeps ticking up – 17, 18, 19%… The Assassin’s big tyres find traction like tank tracks, so I just have to keep pushing on the pedals. Seven hours since setting off, my legs aren’t fading badly yet but the sunlight sure is and I’m worried. 

The doubletrack briefly becomes brilliant rolling singletrack, then widens again, climbs steeply and crests to reveal the Col du Tourmalet visible in the distance for the first time. It’s still over 700 vertical metres higher, but our finish isn’t where Pinot raised his arms two years ago; we’re going up to Pic du Midi de Bigorre, another 600m higher again.

On a short section of descent I bunnyhop a drainage ditch, as I have done dozens of times already this ride. A moment after landing, my clip-on toptube bag flies off. It’s always secure, so I must have refitted it incorrectly in my rush at home. I briefly contemplate leaving it but it’s new and contains my arm warmers and wind jacket, which I’m definitely going to need, so I stop to get it. But there’s no sign of it, not in the trail or in the grass on either side. It must have taken a freak bounce off the side. Looking back on Strava, I was stationary for 14 painful minutes. Now I’m short of both sunlight and clothing. Not good.Switchbacks. They wrote the history of road racing, but will their gravel counterpart do the same in the future? Photo: Alice Alphrey. 

When the gravel runs out, I cross the main climb straight onto the Voie Fignon – the Fignon Way – named after Laurent Fignon and closed to traffic since the new section of road was opened in 2011. At 6.30pm on an October evening, the main road is just as empty, and has fewer cows and their detritus, but this way is also shorter.

The shadows are getting very long, the temperature has fallen into single digits and I’m wishing I’d set off earlier. I’m torn between giving all my remaining energy to race the sun and saving something to get me to the top. I compromise at around 260W, the bottom of zone 3, a firm tempo this deep into the ride but sustainable. Hopefully.

Jamie has no choice but to set a high tempo to cover as much distance as he can and not get caught in the dark. Which is hard in October... Photo: Alice Alphrey.

As much as I wish for the opposite, the sun and the peaks to the west stretch out their arms to meet in a warm embrace as if many more than 24 hours have passed since they were last united. King Canute of Norway tried commanding the tide to stay out but I have a slightly more practical method to delay the inevitable – try to climb higher.

Now I could use the photos (shot a week later, as explained below) to kid on that I made it, heroically, but that’s not my style. I’m only a few minutes into the gravel climb beyond the Col du Tourmalet when the sun vanishes. The Wahoo now says it’s 5˚C, so it’s probably 3 at the top, which is also a 30-minute ride even at maximum effort, and I only have a gilet for warmth. Continuing would be incredibly stupid and dangerous. Instead, I set the lake, 2km short, as my new finish line and admit defeat when I reach it. On the way down, and while writing this, I kick myself hard for every wasted minute earlier in the day.

But what a day it was.

THE BIKE

FiftyOne Assassin

www.fiftyonebikes.com

€3,499 (frameset)

€10,500 (as seen)

The Assassin was designed to cover the full spectrum of gravel cycling, from racing, to touring, to exploring, to back roads, to mountain bike trails. It achieves this using adjustable geometry front and rear to alter the handling characteristics, and by offering exceptional levels of compatibility.

It’s FiftyOne’s first production bike, having begun as a maker of handbuilt, made-to-measure frames. That background gave them an acute understanding of how geometry requirements vary with terrain, riding style and personal preference. They talk about using the adjustable geometry to find the setting that ‘unlocks your personal confidence’.The Assassin is designed to cover all things gravel: racing, touring, exploring, back roads, mountain bike trails. Alice Alphrey.

The Assassin is built with a long toptube and front centre to increase stability and confidence on steep and/or rocky terrain, with a short stem used to compensate, as in modern mountain bikes. It’s compatible with 1x and 2x drivetrains, clears tyres up to 48mm in both 700c and 650b, takes front and rear racks, and has portage bosses on the toptube, downtube and fork legs. 

This one is a dream build with ENVE G23 wheels, Gravel bar and stem for ultimate ride quality, a Shimano GRX Di2 groupset with 46/30 x 11-30 gearing, a CrankBrothers Highline Gravel dropper post and Michelin Power Gravel 47mm tyres.

The ride is astounding. It climbs with the efficiency of a road bike and the traction of a tank, takes the sting out of bumps without isolating you from the terrain, rolls fast on the flats, and descends with unshakeable confidence. It’s a riot.

The Kit List

Jersey: Lusso Dunsop
Bibshort: Lusso Adventure
Shoes: Sidi Jarin

 

HOW WE SHOT THIS

Authenticity is important to me, so I want to share how we produced this feature. On Saturday 16 October I rode the whole route, solo and unsupported. I was dropped off at the start and picked up at the end, because it was then dark and cold. I had a GoPro on the stem and another on a handle in a pocket to shoot as I rode. Various frustrating delays cost me the chance to ride the last 2km to the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre – it was near dark, 5˚C, and I didn’t have any warm clothing or lights. I went back three days later to ride and film that section at sunset.

The following weekend, I retraced the route with a professional photographer on an E-MTB to get the stills, driving between the key points we wanted to shoot. I mounted the GoPros front and rear of the E-MTB to get the B-roll footage.

WHERE TO STAY

Escape to the Pyrenees is a fully catered guest house dedicated to cycling and ideally located to take on the most famous climbs by road or gravel, including this route if you wish; it’s 5km south of Argelès-Gazost, at the head of Gorge Luz and the foot of Hautacam. The Cols du Tourmalet, Soulor, Aubisque, Tentes, Troumouse, Luz Ardiden and more are all within easy riding distance of the door. Escape to the Pyrenees offers self-guided stays and fully guided and supported tours on both road and gravel. The food is fantastic and ends up being a highlight for every guest, even among the epic rides. Find out more here

Shop now