• Pyrenean climbs are a regular fixture of the Tour de France. (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
Re-discovering the Pyrenees from behind the lens. Steve Thomas finds little has changed over the years.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
21 Nov 2016 - 2:07 PM 

For some strange reason the Pyrenees always seem to come out second, or even third best when it comes to that classic Euro pass bagging trip – which is a real shame.

These great mountains straddle the border between France and Spain and run from the Mediterranean coast right across the Bay of Biscay.

Their position means that they are an annual feature in the Tour de France, and usually show up in the Vuelta a’ Espana too, not to mention at a whole bunch of another shorter, but very prominent stage races.

Even more so than their more illustrious Alpine cousins, the Pyrenees lie at the heart of grand tour racing. They were the first serious mountains to be included in the Tour de France, and the grading system still used on climbs today was figured out on these legendary slopes way back when they were dirt roads when it was devised based on the gearing needed to get a car over them.

For me, my own Pyrenean romance runs just as true and for almost as long. It was here some 30 years back that I encountered my first-ever true mountains, and raced over them too. It was something of an international road racing baptism of fire and fury, to say the least, but I held up – and even stayed on to race here for some time.

Ever since then I’ve made a few way too infrequent returns, usually by chance more than by planning. This is mostly due to the fact that the Alps are easier to get to and from, and that they are also more popular for me as a photographer. Given a straight choice the Pyrenees would win every time for me, hands down.

If you watch the Tour on TV it’s hard to not see the differences between the Pyrenees and the Alps. The mountain range is, of course, smaller, and the absolute peaks are not as high as in the Alps; which does take away a little of the visual drama.

On the road, however, that’s not the case. Pyrenean climbs tend to be long and heavy going, as surfaces are not as silky as in the ski-rich Alps. Roads are also often on narrower and twisty roads, with far less traffic buzzing around too.

You will often see that their rough and ready nature suits a different kind of climber; more often the skinny purist who can smash that extra road drag and do so alone. They do also often feature as a warm up act Alps in a grand tour (and for fewer stages), which does change the nature of the racing – but that didn’t stop Chris Froome going all out through them this year, both up and down hill.

Being somewhat compact when compared to the Alps also means that it’s a little easier to crack a number of huge climbs in a day, or from a single base. There’s also a whole lot less main road valley grinds in between climbs.

Towards the end of the European summer, I made my first visit in around a dozen years back to the Pyrenees, to shoot and follow the Haute Route Cyclo Sportive.

The event started on the Basque Coast and then wound its way into the heart of the range, taking on the likes of the Aubisque and the Tourmalet – which must rank as one of the most iconic and toughest climbs around. In all, it was seven days of epic mountain climbing and skinny descents, often along roads that never even make the reserve list for major stage races.

It was something of an easy ride down memory lane for me, and although some things had changed (there is more traffic in the base cities), overall the riding and the climbs rustic nature have altered little since that first venture out into the mountains.

Back then I came armed with a lowly 23-bottom sprocket and a 42-tooth chainring. These days even the top pro riders would think hard about that ratio. For me, a 34x32 is now the order of the day, and even a decent pro would look towards a 26-28 bottom gear.

Bikes and gearing may have changed along with my shape and fitness levels, but the Pyrenees remain a fascinating and challenging place to ride. Thankfully they are far less touched by development and are somehow a whole lot more relaxed and organic in their approach. by comparison to other major European mountains.

If you want to see and scale the very best of them, and have the full support of a pro event then you should start training now and sign up for the 2017 Haute Route Pyrenees.

These events really are the ultimate challenge for non-pro riders, and they come iced and topped with the sweet frills that you just would not find outside of a major pro race.

Check out www.hauteroute.org