BikeTours.com client Nancy Olmsted booked the Crossing the French Pyrenees on Legendary Tour de France Routes and went on the tour back in 2014. We recently re-discovered her incredible journey and travelogue of how she bested the Pyrenees by bike and won and wanted to share it as an inspiration for female riders with big mountainous dreams!
What a trip, one that I will never forget. My quads will never be the same again!
The pain that I endured while climbing these mountains took every ounce of my mental toughness to push through each inch of the way up the mountains.
No words can explain it unless you have done it. I cannot even begin to understand the Tour de France and 21 days of grueling and excruciating pain.
The technical ability to get up the mountain with the pain was one thing, but the technical challenges going down them on the other side was quite another. Extra attention had to be paid with care, caution, and exhilaration at the speed and agility to ensure that you don’t go plunging off the mountain without guardrails, of course.
But don’t let my pain-filled memories detour you. I have truly been fortunate and blessed to have achieved such a feat, one that very few women can say they have done. Yes, tt was the most difficult and most challenging thing that I have ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. I just didn’t give up and wanted so badly to make it, despite the pain.
There are 14 Swedish guys that have been on the same route and they are such strong riders along with our team. I believe I saw three women in total on the mountain and I have no idea whether they did the whole trek like me. I do know that one is a husband and wife team that share the route while leading it, so I would have to say a sparse few ladies have made the trip from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
This trip was a life-altering experience and one that I will cherish with a sense of accomplishment and pride, knowing that we worked together as a team to guide ourselves across the Pyrenees, climbing and descending over 800 km from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Thanks to BikeTours.com for the opportunity to achieve such success with this Pyrenees Crossing.
The day-by-day, mile-by-mile
Day 1: Hendaye to Larrau
Well, here we are starting Day 1 of the Pyrenees Crossing……OMG….130 km later and 1350 m ascent to Larrau, there was absolutely nothing left in my quads. It was very hot and we went through a lot of water and Gatorade…..when we got to the last mountain, there were periods of 17% grade elevation. At times, I could barely walk up the steepest part! I did have to walk part of the way, but only after completing just over 100 km and having kept pace with the five other male cyclists which was a bit too fast for me….so the last mountain was exhausting. Our group of six Canadians made it to the bottom of the mountain, not without a tricky descent with pouring rain, grumbling thunder as we were drenched, BUT when we reached the bottom of the final mountain for the day, there were three huge rainbows. We all thought we had died and gone to Heaven and reflected that it was a superb way to end the first of our 7-day adventure across the Pyrenees. It ended up being about 8.5 hours out on the roads with rest breaks, reading the maps and the GPS, and cycling over yonder!
Day 1 was a good day for all, but the quad muscles were screaming as we managed the few stairs to our hotel rooms and we hit the pillow very early, awaiting the next day’s adventures. As my mind raced that evening, I kept wondering how I was going to make it for six more days of over 100 km per day of riding. I had already concluded that as a woman, tackling the Pyrenees with all guys and a GPS, I had my work cut out for me. Day one was truly already, in my opinion, the hardest thing I had ever endured.
Day 2: Larrau to Argeles Gazost (130 km)
We all woke up with no hesitation with a different mindset….SURVIVAL. The plan was to make it up the Col Ausbisque for a 1700-m ascent after tackling two other smaller ascents of 300 m and 500 m, including the Col Marie Blanque.
I decided to try a new strategy to not burn myself out keeping up to our group of guys, especially since I was the only female in the group. I started early with two of the guys and when they would stop to check the map, I kept going at my pace and told them to catch me or wait for me at any major navigational turn or at the top of the mountain. I went at my own pace as I tried to remember that “it wasn’t a race.” This strategy seemed to work better, yet I still would cringe and say a few words of profanity when I would look at the signs on the roads indicating the percentage of incline…particularly when it said 9.5 or 10.5 %. I knew I was goosed!
That being said, when the sign revealed a 5.5% incline, I would perform my happy dance knowing I could manage this. It took all of my willpower and determination to keep going and I would count 0.2 km of increments to make it up the mountains. ‘Whatever it takes,’ I would tell myself and kept looking with great hope that a taxi van would come by while climbing the Ausbisque. Well, should I admit that the last 3 km, I gave in and asked a couple driving a van if they could drive me up the last few km and they obligingly helped me get to the top without using my bike!
While I was very disappointed in myself, I knew that I couldn’t have continued walking up the last 4 km at a speed of 4.5 km per hour or bike it with a multitude of rest breaks traveling at a speed of 6.5 km per hour. I knew that I had no gas left in my body so I conceded and took that little break. I still rode the rest of the day and only missed 4 km of a 125 km day with one error in our directions, costing us a 5 additional km of biking. So in my mind, I knew my little blip at the top of the Ausbisque was not a huge concern.
Day 3: Argeles Gazost to Arreau
The Tourmalet…..only a 2115 m ascent! Today, I woke up feeling a little bit better about my focus and determination. I told my group of guys to just meet me at the top of the Tourmalet or wait if there was a tricky navigational turn. Today was an easier day of only 75 km. As I passed another group, the leader shouted to me ‘you have all day!’ which really helped change my mindset to think about taking my time to get up the long 25 km + climb up the Tourmalet.
I attempted a new strategy, taking a rest break every 4 km or so depending on how I was feeling. I would even stop regardless at that 4 km point for a 1-minute break. This strategy seemed to work well for me and I was pleased with this plan as I made it up the Tourmalet. When I reached the top of the mountain I cried in joy that I had made it up my first mountain without walking! I was thrilled with this progress and knew that had I tackled the Ausbisque.
Day 4: Arreau to Massat, 100 km
After yesterday’s conquest, I was pleased to take the taxi transfer to avoid one of the four pending mountain climbs.
We were dropped off at Luchau and started on the three mountain climbs. We climbed the Col de Mente, the Col. Portet, the Col. D’Aspet, and Col. De la Core.
All in all, it was a challenging day, but manageable. We had more difficulty finding food for lunch but found a grocery store and sat in the heat of the day and chowed down on the food to regain our energy.
The progress in climbing the mountains was significant with only two rest breaks lasting one minute each before starting again up the Col. Du Mente. My strategy changed: I biked for 3 km up a huge incline and then rest for one minute and then start again. It worked, and I made it up the first 14 km with an elevation of 1349 m.
The Col de Portet d’Aspet was crazy-steep but thankfully only 4.4 km and it was straight uphill. We are talking 17% at times elevation and up to 19% with an average of 9.7%!
I made it with one rest break for one minute…..major improvement!
The final climb of the day was the Col de la Core at 1395m. This was at times 2.5% and I was going friggin per hour. Then 7.5%, then 6%. I made it somehow, but I have no idea how. I did have to take three rest breaks over the 14 km ride. It was hot and I was absolutely beyond exhaustion, but it was the most gratifying thing to make it.
After this, we still had 25 km and I rode behind the boys at a pace of 29-32km at the end of a 100 km ride. You have to be kidding me right after over 80km of riding!
Day 5: Massat to Ax. Les Thermes. 115km
After a scary sleep and not enough breakfast, we got away early at 8:15 am. The first climb started immediately up the Port de Lers for 30.7km or 1517m elevation and with only a few rest breaks, but I made it to the top.
My strategy of going my own pace was working.
There were a few more mountain passes, the Col du Chioula with 1431m and 592 m and the Col de Marmare for another 1362m of elevation for only 14 km duration. As much as I am talking as it was only 14 km, these mountains were not easy! My quads were still screaming at me! But I knew that I had already successfully managed five days and with only two more days to go, I was on the home stretch!
Day 6: Ax. Les Thermes to Prades. 100km
This morning I woke with with renewed vigor. I knew I was going to make it. My mental state was good. That being said, there were still four mountain passes: The Col de Paiheres, 2001 m of ascent, a very long climb followed by the Col De Garabeil, 1262 m of elevation and the Col de Moulis and finally the Col. De Jau for a total of of 2830m of elevation. It was another big day.
Today I climbed all the mountains without a rest break, straight up. What an improvement: my quads have become iron quads!
The last 25km were tricky downhills with some gravel but we made it down the mountains safely.
We arrived at 4:30 pm and immediately had a Heineken for celebration that we had only one day to go!
We were all on a high, so proud that we were almost at the end of our adventure.
Day 7: Home to Colliere, here we come…
One last big mountain pass to climb, the Col Palomere was only 1036m of elevation. It was still a hard climb, don’t kid yourself. But we could taste and smell the Mediterranean. The last 25km was downhill, thankfully, and such a tricky but beautiful ride traversing through the mountains.
We were so excited to see the Argeles sur Mer sign, knowing we were almost at the final destination.
What seemed like an eternity to finally see the blue water, we all cheered in jubilation and excitement, realizing we had made it through an incredible journey from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean!
Wow, what an accomplishment and one that few people can say did it!
My final few words: I would like to thank my Quebec boys that helped me conquer the Pyrenees with BikeTours.com. I would never have been able to accomplish this feat without their support and encouragement.