- by Paul D'Andrea
- Published: 8 March 2012
There’s no question that the ‘Gran Fondo’ cycling craze has taken a hold of cycling fanatics world-wide. Many travellers head abroad for a cycling holiday and for many the highlight is participating in a classic European Gran Fondo event. The options through Italy, Spain and France are endless and for many, cycling an entire stage of one of the three grand European Tours like the professionals is a lifetime dream. For others a Gran Fondo experience through the pristine beauty of the Italian Dolomites or scaling the dizzying heights of the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains is an adventure worthy of great satisfaction and intrigue.
But why stop at just 1 day of Gran Fondo magic when surely there must be more out there? After some time searching the bottomless pit of cycling blogs, a ride that sounded like the ultimate cycling test for the recreational rider was uncovered. The event is called ‘Pirenaica’, a 6 day Cyclo-Sportive which covers approximately 700km and more than 20 famous ‘cols’ straight from the Tour de France. At first sight the event looked truly amazing and who could believe an event existed which asked the recreational rider to back up over 6 consecutive days of challenging mountain terrain. Before I realised it, I had signed up and was nervously looking forward to taking in the beauty of both the Spanish & French Pyrenees. This was going to be my chance to live like a professional cyclist for a week even though it would be in a non-competitive and supportive environment!
6 Day Pyrenees Cyclo-Sportive
In July 2011 I travelled off to the quiet Spanish town of Urzain ki to embark on what was sure to be a lesson in cycling and persistence. The route was complex but co-ordinated incredibly well and along the way included three different crossings between Spain and France. We cycled a total of 670km and 17,750m of elevation gain. Yes, we averaged almost 3000m of elevation gain per day. Thankfully the event support crews were placed strategically on course and as we passed each mountain climb they were on hand to keep us hydrated, well stocked and most importantly enthused!
5 x Tour de France Winner
Along the way we received a special treat as we began climbing the revered Tourmalet. Here we were cycling in the heart of the French Pyrenees and Spanish legend Miguel Indurain unexpectedly joined the peloton just as we were arriving into Luz St Sauveur. The event organizers had brought the 5 time Tour de France (TdF) champion along to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first TdF victory.
The 28th July 2011 will be a day forever marked in my memory as the predominantly Spanish peloton chattered away excitedly in the presence of one of their national sporting heroes. One older Spanish rider explained to me with great pride how during the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ stage to receive his first yellow jersey. The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to Paris and started a 5 year winning sequence through to 1995!
The Pirenaica organizers presented a magnificent homage to Indurain. On the bikes we ‘only’ cleared the final three peaks of the epic 1991 Queen Stage: Tourmalet, Aspin and Val Louron. This included an ‘easy’ 98km and 3000m of elevation gain. ‘Easy’ considering the professionals during 1991 rode 232km from Jaca to Val Louron and also had the famous climbs of Portalet and Aubisque to encounter. We weren’t too upset though because we had cycled the Aubisque two days earlier. The mountain road linking the Aubisque and Soulor climbs is one of the most scenic routes world-wide and to put it bluntly is a ‘must do’ for any cycling enthusiast!
As our day surrounded by cycling royalty came to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Val Louron. The continuous uphill is met with a sudden transition of four kilometres exceeding 8%. The final ascent to the Val Louron ski resort, while not being one of the best-known climbs in the region, is still four gruelling kilometres alongside marvellous views down to the valley and lake. As we left Miguel Indurain, he spoke to the large media contingency that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991:
“My idea was not to attack in the mountains. When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”.
You already know the rest of this story.