A film by Martin Cox, Stuart Hamilton. Words by Alicia Bamford.
Col du Tourmalet: the most famous climb in the Pyrenees. It is one of the most challenging mountain passes in Europe and it is the most featured climb of the Tour de France.
The first man to summit this climb back in 1910, after the road had been paved especially for the endeavor and inclusion in the Tour, was Octave Lapize, who cried “Murderers!” to the race organisers as he summited the crest.
Why, you might ask, is the Tourmalet so revered, so feared and featured? Why does it attract thousands of cyclists a year to its base, to take on the challenge and to watch their heroes slave their way to the top?
The answer is simple: this mountain has a way of taking a cyclist way outside of her comfort zone. Even if she is trying to stay within her limits, the Tourmalet has a way of exposing every slight weakness, of pushing her right to the edge and sometimes even breaking her.
Maybe it’s the steep 10-12% gradient for the last 2kms. Maybe it’s the 22km distance. Maybe it’s the humidity and the thickness of the air – feeling like soup at 2,115m. Or maybe it’s Mother Nature and being completely exposed to the elements with nowhere to hide.
For these reasons, the Tourmalet has always intrigued and slightly scared me. I wanted to see if this beauty could break me in the same way it had done many of my friends and professional cyclists. So, in the summer of 2016 and with the help of two friends, Martin Cox & Stuart Hamilton, I decided to make a short film about taming this beast: Taming the Tourmalet.
Col du Tourmalet is labeled Hors Categorie, meaning exceptional or unclassified in its level of difficulty. It lies in the heart of the French Pyrenees, towards the border of Spain where there are high levels of humidity. At the base, the lands are green and lush. The clouds sit low in the valleys, covering the villages like a blanket, whilst at the top the sun can beam down. All of this — combined with the incredible, rocky, mountainous vista of the surrounding Pyrenean peaks — felt like an incredible place to tell the story about those who have climbed before me and about climbing the mountain myself.
There are two paved roads that wind their way to the summit from east to west. I will tell you a little about my journey up both sides with another Queen of the Mountain, Diane Coleman.
The western ascent starts near Luz-Saint-Sauveur and is 19km long, gaining 1,404m (4,606ft), averaging 7%. The first few kilometers from this side are kind: a gradual warm up for what’s to come, it almost lulled me into a false sense of security that it will all be ok!
Not for long. The gradient soon builds into an unrelenting steepness of between 7-9% all the way to the summit, with little respite. I rode past small villages, beautiful rural farmlands, long switchbacks, through open tunnels that overlook the meandering river, which flows down from the top carrying melted winter snowfall. As I approached the last few kilometers from the summit, the view opened up. I felt so high; as if I were sitting on top of the clouds, on top of the world. I could just see the bodies of water from the river and melted ice pooling below the road. It was absolutely breathtaking.
This magnificent view did ease the pain (slightly) – as the last few kilometers peak at 9% gradient and were making my legs burn and scream for oxygen. If you do fancy to stop on the way up this climb, there is a gorgeous little ski village of La Mongie where you can stop for a hot chocolate (or something stronger!). However be weary of the locals — I had to dodge llamas and donkeys, wandering dazed through the streets in the early hours. It certainly made for a change from the London foxes and deer.
The western ascent was beautiful, but I preferred the eastern side. The eastern ascent starts in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and is 17kms long and gains 1,268m (4,160ft) of elevation. The steepest section is in the last 2 kms towards the summit — a 12% grade which felt incredibly tough. This was the side that exposed both my physical and mental weaknesses. It pushed me to the edge of my limits and almost, just almost over the edge.
All that being said, it isn’t the facts or figures that makes the Tourmalet so special, rather it is the history. The Tourmalet stands as a memorial to men and women who understand the indomitable power of the human spirit, who are not prepared to accept limitations and who will give it their all to get to the top. It’s a memorial to all the great cyclists who have raced over it.
And now it’s a mountain I have conquered, hoping to inspire the next generation of women cyclists to come through and do the same.
Taming the Tourmalet meant cycling in the path of some of history’s greats. Conquering it with my fellow Queen of the Mountain, Diane, felt incredibly special. Like there is a changing of the tides. To me, it feels like there is a significant movement happening in women’s cycling and that it is just the beginning.
It’s our turn. Come tame the Tourmalet.
View film here.
Words by Alicia Bamford
Film credits to:
Creative / Writer: Martin Cox
Director: Stuart Hamilton
Director of Photography: Simon Lakos
Editor: Simon Hargood
Colourist: Freefolk - Paul Harrison
Music track: Massive
Sound design and VO: GCRS
Cast: Alicia Bamford, Diane Colman
Crew: Adrian Colman, Owen Markham
View film here.