This article was produced in association with Factor
Sometimes all the pieces of the puzzle simply fall into place. This was one of those rides: the route, the bike, the people, the story... Factor Bikes got in touch to tell us about the then-still-secret new O2 VAM and give us a chance to test it ahead of its release. “It’s an aero climbing bike,” they said. “It’s made to be fast all day, comfortable on long rides, a scalpel on descents, and especially effective on big climbs and steep finishes. We’d love to see it on an epic ride that captures everything it’s about and reflects its racing focus.” All of that in one route? No problem.
Stage 12 of the 2017 Tour de France was a 214km monster through the Pyrenees from Pau to the Peyragudes ski station. The first half was near flat, requiring aero efficiency, and the second half brutally and increasingly mountainous, accumulating more than 4,700 metres of ascent and culminating in the cartoonishly steep Altiport 007 runway that was used again in 2022. The parcours is a perfect demonstration of why the new O2 VAM exists. On top of that, it’s a sensational route, generously gifted in both physical challenge and scenic beauty. And the cherry on the top? On that day in 2017, Romain Bardet took Factor’s first stage win in a Grand Tour riding a first-generation O2.
The new bike is heading to pay homage to its grandfather. Now all I needed was someone to ride it with. I’d already been talking to Duke Agyapong about getting them involved in a feature ride. Duke is a friend, a talented multi-discipline racer and there are not enough people that look like them in cycling magazines, especially in epic ride features. Virtually none, in fact. Duke is also a poet, Rapha model, bike mechanic and mental health advocate. They also happen to be a Factor ambassador and the owner of a jaw-dropping custom OSTRO VAM. This was going to be a fun day.
* * *
It doesn’t start well, though. After a customs hold-up, I had only got my hands on the bike on the evening before the ride and had a late night getting it built up. My alarm goes off after a measly 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 have to talk about them to eliminate the stigma and encourage more people to seek help – but this is a practical challenge for us.
Not only is the sudden withdrawal of medication destabilising and a trigger of its own, it also causes nausea. Breakfast is impossible, which isn’t great ahead of a ride this big. We load up and head to the start, regardless.
We start on the outskirts of Pau, on the RD817 that links to Tarbes. Straight, flat and dull. Even if you weren’t racing, you’d want an aero bike here just to get it over with faster. Neither of us is feeling our best as we roll out, but that’s outweighed by excitement for the day ahead and we’re soon zipping along at a brisk pace. After 22km, we turn onto smaller roads to skirt around the south of Tarbes.
The route is flat and fast to Toumay, the average speed kept high by keeping our heads low. We’re swapping turns smoothly, Duke looking like the racer they are and making me work hard. Duke still hasn’t been able to eat anything so the bonk is now inevitable. Many people wouldn’t even get on the bike on a day like this, but Duke is determined to get as far as they can.
The first climb is the Côte de Capvern. It’s 11km but so mild, just three per cent, that we’re in the big ring. It’s then flat for another 40km until the Col des Ares (5km, 4.4 per cent), which is also tame compared to what’s to come and is only really serving as access to the Col de Menté. Including its preamble, Menté is 15km; the ‘proper’ bit is 6.3km at a testing 8.3 per cent. It’s here that Duke’s depleted body finally cries enough, after 135km and four and a half hours. I have no idea what they were running on to get so far, but it’s seriously impressive. I would love for Duke to have finished the ride with me but perhaps the most important advocacy they could do is to have a bad day and be open about sharing it.
It’s hot now, 29 degrees celsius, and I’m suddenly more aware of it, and the huge amount of climbing ahead of me, now that I’m alone. Climbing with a friend hurts less. The Col de Menté is tough, with 16 switchbacks each side ratcheting the road up the mountain. Once over the top, there are fleeting views of the peaks across the valley rising like giant shark fins and looking every bit as threatening. I’ve ridden that valley to and from Bagnères-de-Luchon a bunch of times, but Menté, and its perspective, is new to me and the topography looks wildly different from here.
After the fast, fun descent, a quick switch back into aero mode is needed for the blast up the valley: hands on the horns, elbows in, head down, the O2 VAM easily rolling up to 40kph in a way that no shallow-wheeled climbing bike has any right to do. My solo breakaway fantasies are tempered by the looming Port de Balès.
Officially, it’s 19km at six per cent, but the six-kilometre section to get to that point sure feels uphill, too. It starts very gently, winding through a gorge, but it’s hard to enjoy it when you know that the altitude debt will become due and carry interest. Indeed, there are several long phases at 10-12 per cent, and short ramps up to 15 per cent. As I hit the third such section, with 185km ridden, the summit is still nowhere in sight and the heat has grown teeth which it sinks into my very bones to cook me from the inside. The climb feels endless and I’m alone in the vast landscape that is the north side of Port de Balès. I haven’t seen the photo car for a long time and I’m out of drink. At one point, anxiety building, I yell out friend and driver Terry’s name as loud as I can, before finally finding him, Duke, and photographer Chris a couple of minutes later.
I down half a bottle immediately and slot a new full one into the bike. When the summit finally arrives, it’s without fanfare. Without anything, 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 easily get down if we’re careful on the gravel from the continuing works. He’s right, and better still, the fantastic, sweeping lower section of the descent is both clean and deserted.
The fast road slingshots me towards the junction with the Col de Peyresourde, where two urgent handfuls of brake are required to avoid making the same mistake as Fabio Aru and Chris Froome in 2017, when they ended up on the grass between some campervans. Overall, the Col de Peyresourde (9.5km, 7.2 per cent from Balès) is quite reasonable, but it’s steep right from the junction and it 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 biggest race. In this case, that history stretches right back to 1910, when Peyresourde was the opening climb on the first ever high-mountain stage, although the Col du Tourmalet, some 550m higher, stole the limelight and has hogged it since.
The Peyresourde is relatively consistent by Pyrenean standards and the gradient is less punishing, but when you’re riding to power, getting everything out, it’s the speed that varies and not the discomfort. To my surprise, I’m still feeling really good and able to put out 280-300W all the way. A scattering of other cyclists provide targets to chase down through the iconic walled switchbacks towards the top, pro race daydreams turned from hunted to hunter.
Excitedly, I charge over the fantastic summit, where the straight road is akin to a giant humpback bridge that reveals the view beyond like a theatre curtain lifting, and attack the brief descent. All day, the O2 VAM has felt as stable as a bike half as agile, delivering an easy confidence that can be deployed for speed or security as you wish.
Peeling off to the left marks the start of the finale, with two kilometres to go. It’s time to use up whatever is left in the tank. We had thought that we would have to finish the ride on the road next to the altiport, but as we near it, with Chris shooting close-ups of my suffering out of the car window, we spot that it isn’t fenced off at all. There are no aircraft in sight, and forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission, so I step over it, clip back in and, incredibly, find myself riding on the runway used by the Tour. The gradient goes up to a ludicrous 20 per cent, at which point I’m hauling on the bars and pedals with all I have and don’t immediately notice that Chris has accessed the runway higher up to capture my final agony.
With no one around to kick us off, we hang around for a while, drinking in the sensational view, buzzing from the ride, and taking portrait photos of the bike at the exact spot where its ancestor and Romain Bardet triumphed. Puzzle complete.