This year marks the centenary of the inclusion of the Col du Tourmalet in the Tour de France. At 2,114m it contains the highest road in the Pyrenees and has been included more than any other pass since the Tour de Frances inception in 1903. To commemorate this the Tourmalet has been included in both stage 16 and 17 of this years tour.
Last year Marika Mulqueen was extremely fortunate to climb the Tourmalet as she cycled her way around the 2009 Tour de France route. Knowing nothing of the Tourmalet until the night before her crew were scheduled to climb it. A cyclist staying at the same hotel discovered their plans for the next day and proceeded to warn them. After vigorously explaining to the male riders how tough it was and how great an achievement it would be to complete it Marika realised his line of conversation was in no way directed at her, making all the more determined to conquer it.
Stage 14 of 2009 was 180km and passed over Col d’Aspin before the Tourmalet was approached from the east. The Tourmalet climb is 17.2km long with an average grade of 7.4% (every ten meters the roads height increases by 74cm). Marika and her team mates gathered in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the town at the bottom of the climb. One of the shops had pain written largely on a sign, which is French for bread, they were hoping this wasn’t a figurative sign. Being the only female rider the boys sent Marika off first.
Marika remembers the road was narrow with no shoulder on the right lush green fields hugged the bottom of the mountain, to the left a valley contained small farms with houses that literally had their back walls built on the road. The first five kilometers lulled Marika into a false sense of security reflecting that they didn’t feel as steep as climbs she had conquered so far and in fact didn’t even feel like you were climbing. Just when thinking she’d taken a wrong turn the boys overtook her at the same time the road became much steeper as it curved around to the right and the scenery became more akin to looking mountainous.
Taking legs from pumping quickly and smoothly to a slow disjointed roll around of pedals Marika’s speed fell from 20km an hour to around 6km an hour. At this rate it would take two hours of solid riding to reach the top. Like previous days the only thing for Marika to do was to put her head down and keep pedalling. Winding her way around the side of the Tourmalet and slowly ticked off the signs that were placed at kilometer intervals. These signs let riders know how far away the summit was and how steep the next kilometer would be, on the way up Marika remembers occasionally remembering to look around seeing the masses of green valleys below, to the road ahead with cows wandering alongside the road and occasionally long tunnels approaching.
6km later Marika reached the ski resort of La Mongie with her heart leaping for a seconds letting herself believe she had miscalculated and was actually at the top but then passing another sign that cruelly let her know there were still six kilometers to go. The grade on Marika’s speedo hovered around 12-14% causing her to pushed her legs hard just to keep my bike upright (Marika rode in the saddle the whole way). Like a mantra Marika was head down, turn legs, check scenery, check support crew, check speedo, 5.45k’s to go. Marika laughed saying “If I was going any slower I would have been stationary”.
Fortunately the last six kilometers offered an amazing distraction. The higher the climbed the more stunning the scenery became. In every direction there was snow capped mountains and when Marika looked down she had a clear view of the road she’d just travelled, including all of the switchbacks and the ski resort. After endless corner Marika caught a glimpse of a statue of a cyclist, it was Octave Lapize, the first cyclist to have climbed the Tourmalet in 1910. Drawing level with Octave and looking down over the valleys so far below a huge sense of achievement overwhelmed Marika that she could now add her name to the list of cyclists who’d conquered the Tourmalet. Now for ultimate reward, the descent!
Looking forward to see you on the road soon God willing