What's it like to ride the Tour's toughest climbs?

Credit: Pascal Rondeau /Allsport
Once the Tour de France reaches the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees, things get interesting. The strongest climbers break away from the pack, moving at a brisk pace uphill mile after mile, almost making it look easy.

If you look closely at the riders' faces, you can see they're working hard. But how difficult can the climbs really be? My fianc and I arrived in the Hautes-Pyrenees with our bikes a few days ahead of the 2001 Tour to find out for ourselves.

At home, we both ride our bikes regularly and compete in triathlons. I felt fairly confident about doing these rides in the mountains. Our first attempt at a hors categorie (HC) climb, the most difficult climb rating on the Tour, started with a ride from our base camp in Lourdes.

The first try: Luz-Ardiden

Climbs are rated by their length, steepness and when they take place in the stage. We followed a flat bike path from Lourdes for 17 kilometers toward Luz-Saint-Sauveur where we would attempt the 13-kilometer HC climb up to Luz-Ardiden.

The pros would be approaching this climb on Stage 14 after riding nearly 130 kilometers through the Pyrenees. So for us, it should have been no problem, right?

We started the climb averaging about 13 kph. The hill was steep, but a manageable climb for an hour. About 20 minutes later, we had slowed down a bit as we approached the 10-kilometer mark. Now we were averaging 9 kph — it would take us just over an hour from this point.

As the route got steeper, my quads started to burn. At the next kilometer marker, I was barely moving at a 7-kph pace. So from this point, the climb would take an hour-plus. It was decision time.

We could either spend another hour climbing this pass for the rest of the evening, or we could go back to our base camp and drink a bottle of wine before dinner. Here's where the difference between a recreational cyclist and a professional became apparent: We chose wine over lactic acid overload.

The next day, we moved our base camp to St. Marie-de-Campan, where we would have a go at two more HC climbs: the 10.6-kilometer climb up to Pla d'Ardet, the finish for Stage 13, and the 17-kilometer climb up the Col de Tourmalet, which the riders would do on Stage 14.

The second try: Pla d'Ardet

The night before we were to do the Pla d'Ardet climb, we prepared for the ride like we were getting ready for a race. We ate a big pasta meal, checked the bikes, set out our gear and went to bed early. I was awake before the alarm went off at 6 a.m., and we were riding by 7.

Our route followed part of the Tour course backward. We would be ascending the other side of the Col d'Aspin, which the riders would tackle on Stage 14, before we rode out to Saint-Lary-Soulan where we would start the HC climb.

Soon after we started climbing the Col d'Aspin, I started peeling off all the layers I had started with in the cold mountain morning. We made slow but steady progress, and then put back on all our layers before zooming down the other side. When we started climbing to Pla d'Ardet, things really started to heat up.

The sun had long since burned off the early-morning chill. The road was already closed to vehicles, and hundreds of spectators were walking up the pass to find the best place to watch the riders come by in six hours. Some of the fans gave us encouragement as we rode by them. "Allez, allez, allez!" they'd call out.

On our Michelin map, this road was labeled with the dreaded double arrows, indicating gradients of 9 to 13 percent. Hills this steep had reduced me to a walk on other occasions, but I was determined to make it up this pass without pushing my bike.

As we rode up the steep switchbacks, I looked up the mountain to see the road switchback directly above me. We were gaining a lot of altitude quickly. On a couple of occasions, I pulled over to stop — not necessarily to rest, but to take photos of the tremendous views.

Finally, we made it to the top, and found a great spot near the finish line to watch the riders progress up the mountain. My legs were still tired nearly five hours later when we watched the pros climb the same route we did, much faster than we did.

I had a whole new appreciation for how hard the riders work. They did this climb after racing for nearly 180 kilometers one day, and they had been racing just as hard over 12 previous stages.

The last climb: Col du Tourmalet

The next day, we had a shorter overall ride, but the Col du Tourmalet was a longer, more difficult pass. This time I made a few stops, not to take pictures, but to rest, wipe the sweat from my eyes that was blurring my vision and drink water.

There were even more people riding their bicycles up this pass than there were at Pla d'Ardet. Some riders' fancy, shiny bikes still had their numbers attached from the Velo Magazine race that took place a few days earlier along this route.

I passed fathers cycling with their young daughters and older men on Italian bicycles. An enthusiastic young boy on a mountain bike passed me briefly in an inspired sprint before stopping to rest. A Swiss couple on a silver tandem passed me as well before going out out sight around a switchback.

The excitement from the crowd was contagious and made continuing up the pass a lot easier. It took us just over two hours of riding to cover the 17 kilometers. At the summit, groups of cyclists had their photos taken by the altitude sign indicating we were at 2,115 meters. Others took photos of the bronze bust of Jacques Goddet, which had been installed in memory of the longtime Tour director who passed away this year.

This climb was hard enough to make me see spots — but they weren't the red polka dots of the jersey the best climber on the Tour wears. Even though I wasn't the best climber on the pass that day, I still felt like Queen of the Mountain.

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