Ulster Cycling News

Cows Bells and Bicycles by Brian Shaw

After rushing onto our train, two whole minutes before its departure, we had arrived in Lourdes where our host, Paddy Sweeney, was on hand to greet us in the sweaty heat of a Hautes Pyrenees night. We drove south from Lourdes, about twenty minutes or so, through a quiet Argeles-Gazost and up a steep road to our base for the next week, a guest house in a medieval village called Saint Savin. As we pulled up outside the house I turned to Paddy and said “I can only assume we are surrounded by mountains” to which he quickly replied “Yep!”.  It might sound naive to ask such a question in the Pyrenees but I needed some sort of confirmation that we (myself and Kelly) were actually in France, in the heart of the Pyrenees with our own bikes in tow. This had been a trip in the making for several months and I couldn’t quite believe we were there at last. After introducing us to his wife, Olive,  Paddy showed us to our room and we quickly fell asleep after a long day, travelling from Magherafelt to Saint Savin.

Day 1

I think it was about 7:30am when we woke. It was hot already and I could barely contain my excitement to fling open the old wooden shutter and finally see the high peaks of the majestic Pyrenees Mountains. It almost felt like a Christmas morning from my childhood. As I fired open the shutters, I was greeted by a small, crisp white cloud just sitting in the village centre, as if it were sleeping and had yet to get up and leave. Soon though, it did just that and the sun was out in full force, aiming hot rays at our faces as we built our bikes up, ready to take on the challenge ahead. So with filled stomachs and sun cream on, we headed off, under the guidance of Paddy, to take on a trip to Lac D’Estang (all uphill), up Col du Borderes(1376m) and finally up Col du Coraduque(1367m). It was an ‘easy’ start to the holiday, well, in comparison to what else was out there. However, the climbs were a lot higher and longer than any of those at home and it was, without any hesitation, very hard, and things were going to get a lot harder over the next week, that much we knew. As we sat sipping a well earned glass of beer at a lovely cafe perched like an eagle at the top of the Coraduque, I could only look forward to what lay in store for the next hour back to the house……what goes up, must come down….and very quickly too.

Day 2

Once again the started with a filled stomach and by 10am it was over 30 degrees C and it was climbing fast. Kelly turned to me at the breakfast table and said something that made me very nervous, “I think we should do the Tourmalet today Brian!”. I originally thought leave the best to last but we had the bug and couldn’t resist. So off we went, steadily climbing for about 15k or more to the foot of the Tourmalet. This was something else. As we looked up it just seemed to be never ending. I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite like it. It was massive. Better looking than I ever imagined. I had butterflies as we cycled past the first square box that said there was 18.6k to go and the next 1k was at an average gradient of 8%. Now on all the main climbs you will find these boxes, one at every kilometre, a constant reminder of how far is left to the summit and what the gradient for each kilometre is. You get a huge sense of joy as you go by each one. I had only seen these boxes on TV when watching the Tour and I think that’s when it kicked in that we were cycling the same roads that Contador, Schlek and Evans had done just weeks prior to our arrival. The proof was all over the road. Their names painted everywhere on the tarmac. In mid-day heat(40c +) we were about two thirds through the Tourmalet but it was about to get harder. It evened out near a Ski lift station and we were afforded a quick breather before it bank up for the last 6k. From this point we could see the top but it was still quite some distance away. I also thought at this point, that perhaps I couldn’t do it. Mainly down to the heat and constant desire for water which was quite low at this stage. After digging in deep I made it to the last corner where it banked up to around 20% gradient for 100m then the one thing I wanted so much to see came into my sight, ‘The Giant of the Tourmalet’, a huge steel statue of a man on a bike, sitting at an altitude of 2115m. Since watching the Tour last year and seeing it, I always saw it as a landmark, something that said ‘well done’. Indeed, back then I never thought I could have been standing beside it, smiling broadly for Kelly and her camera. After some lunch, the purchase of a t-shirt and a beer or two, we headed down. Its quite nice when cars have to pull in because you’re going a lot faster than they can on the descent. 45mph into a head wind aint bad. It was an unbelievable experience doing this climb, something I will never forget. I also thought it was a climb that couldn’t be topped. Oh how I was wrong.

Day 3

The heat by now was relentless. It was well over 40 and not a cloud to be seen. We stopped in a small village to fill our water bottles again before the start of the climb. In each village you will find a water pump that pours out crystal clear water, ice cold every time. It was about 12pm and we began the 13km climb to the summit of Luz Ardiden. A climb consisting of 28 switch backs to the ski station at the top. It was the hottest day yet and each corner we navigated was filled with small gecko’s, sunning themselves on the roasting hot tarmac. This was a brut of a climb and the heat made it so much tougher. About 4k to go and Kelly was far off in the distance ahead. I had a couple of sips of water left in the bottles and was yearning for more, cold if possible. You see, the thing about climbing a mountain for a couple of hours in the searing heat means your water heats up very quickly. I needed to cool down and get a refill of water. There were no villages up here though. It was too high. There were however small waterfalls just off the road. I hopped off the bike and stood directly under one. It was freezing cold and I loved it. I was soaked through and took a few drops for the bottle. Not to drink, but to pour over myself as I cycled. Again I was greeted with names painted over the road from the Tour passing through 4 weeks before. I grinded out a few revolutions of the crank and arrived at the top. Kelly was there, smiling and recovered. I was puffing and panting like a trooper. I had burning desire for a tin of coke but the ski station was closed. There was a vending machine nestled in amongst a group of cyclists who had gone up just before us, about 20 of them. They had crates of sandwiches and coke and were laughing away with each other. I slotted a very hot euro coin into the machine and noticed a flashing red phrase, “SOLD OUT”. Gutted. My sadness must have been evident because one of the other cyclists came over to myself and Kelly and gave us two ice cold tins of coke from their support van. A saint if ever there was one. One of the things I love about cycling and what I think differs it from every other sport in the world, is the fact that very cyclist is as kind and supportive to other cyclists, regardless of race, creed or even language. This man came over to me, didn’t speak English and just smiled as he handed me the drink. He knew without an exchange of words what I had been through and felt compelled to help. You simply don’t get that in any other sport. It’s something that is evident everyday you cycle, wherever you are in the world. The descent of Luz Ardiden is very technical. You have to navigate the switch backs again, but this time, at pace. It’s all about lines and leaning just right. But by God it is exciting. I smiled from ear to ear the whole descent because I felt like I was in a race. It was unbelievable. It’s funny that on a climb that takes about 2 hours to climb, it only takes half an hour or less to go down. Class.

Day 4

No surprise here, it was bloody roasting again. We were cycling along to the foot of the Solour, which we would then climb and head up the added 8k to the Col d’Aubisque. Half way up the climb the heat got too intense. Myself and Kelly pulled in and lay under a tree at the side of the road. We lay down and I ate a very warm banana. Not too nice but I needed it. We hopped back on and for once I could keep up with Kelly. The hot banana had worked. We arrived at the top and were greeted by wild horses and donkeys, scattered over the road and they refused to move. We sat down and had lunch with a huge horse standing about 10m away. Afterwards, we got our water bottles filled and headed off to the Aubisque, a further 8k up from the solour, to an altitude of 1709m. Probably the most scenic road I have ever been on and will ever be on. Its a narrow road the seems to balance to a the edge of a very steep cliff. You can see peaks for miles around and villages way down in the valley below are like white specks. Amazing. Again I found myself using one water bottle for drinking and the other as a coolant for my over heated body. I have never wanted rain so much in my life but it was not on the cards. I sprayed myself with water every 100m or so and it dried in almost instantly. We could see the summit. 1k to go and we really went for it. It got ridiculously steep for the last 200m but over we went and stopped at the busy cafe for a drink or two.

I grabbed my bike and pretended to throw it over the edge, simply to humour to cyclists around me and it did make them laugh. They were the only people who knew what we had went through. The scenery was spectacular and it was worth the effort. As the cow bells rang from the necks of the small herd around us, we headed down, hungry and very tired, to Saint Savin. A quick pint in the bar and we headed up to the house for dinner. What a day.

Day 5

This was meant to be rest day where we would cycle into Lourdes and say a prayer or two at the Grotto. Well that plan quickly faded. After a chat with Paddy about what routes we could possibly do the next couple of days he mentioned we had yet to climb Hautacam, which was right on our doorstep. Right in front of our bedroom window in fact. We were sore from 4 days tough cycling but decided we needed more. So we decided Hautacam would fit in before we cycled to Lourdes. So we cycled to the foot of the climb and began the ascent. The first kilometre was over 10% average gradient. It did not bode well. Once again, Kelly raced ahead and I was left to fend for myself. About 9k into the climb and I was passed but a car with the passenger shouting “Allez, allez, allez”. Thats “Go, go, go” in English. Indeed the French are very supportive of our sport. They embrace it like they would a child I think. Then, a van passed me with the passenger again shouting “Allez Brian!” It was Olive, Paddys wife. They had driven up to take a few pictures of Kelly and I. Very supportive I thought. This was a hard, hard climb. Paddy maintains it is his least favourite to cycle up but favourite to drive up. I know why. Near the top and the wind picked up. Like a hair dryer in your face. Very hot indeed. As I passed the sign for the summit of Hautacam, I noticed the road went on. It was already an altitude of 1520m and there was a further 1.2k to the summit of Col du Tramassel(1635m). The views were breathtaking and I was so glad I went on up the final 1.2k. Next came the most exhilarating descent of the holiday. Hautacam is not like Luz Ardiden. It has a few switch backs but is mainly long , sweeping bends and straight roads. This allowed for some serious speeds. I got myself into a good aerodynamic position and pedalled as hard as I could. 53.1mph I clocked and could have broke 60mph had I the stupidity to do so but even I knew enough was enough. It was such a buzz though. You simply cant do that speed at home. I waited at the bottom for Kelly and off we went, on our rest day, to Lourdes. The road to Lourdes is an old train track, only for cyclists and walkers. Its completely flat and we used it to time trial the whole way back to the house. Some rest day. We got fed and watered at the house and fell asleep, ready for our final day of cycling.

Day 6

This was it. Our last day cycling as we were off home the following day. We had heard alot about Cirque du Tromouse and Cirque du Gavarnie. Huge basins cut out during the last ice age where huge glaciers once sat. We aimed to do both, about an 80mile round trip that took us over the border to Spain. It was a tough cycle to the start of the climb of Col des Tentes, just outside Cirque du Gavarnie. We were already tired from the cycle to the starting point. 20miles all uphill. Tough. We went up about 2k and had to turn. We were starving and hadn’t enough in the tank to complete the 13k to the summit. We ate in a small cafe any headed up for take two.  This was the only time into the holiday i felt all the aches from a week cycling in the Pyrenees. It was a brutal climb that just seemed to go on. After cycling through another heard of cows, rattling their cow bells, we had about 3k to go. It was hard to breathe right due to the altitude and it made everything seem harder than it was. We got to the top eventually and were greeted by a group of French hikers who clapped and congratulated us on the achievement. 2207m high and now in Spain. What an end to an epic week of cycling on the finest holiday I had ever been on. We had cycled 40miles up hill and had the same to do, downhill, and without hardly pedalling all the way to the guest house. Great.

Home time

If you are in anyway keen on cycling, the Pyrenees are a must at some stage in your life. It is the most scenic place I have been and the roads and people allow for the finest cycling on planet earth. Over the week we became so involved with the place. We seemed to know every road and it felt like we belonged there. At least for another week anyway. We became accustomed to the cowbells in the morning and the church bells that rang from the chapel in Saint Savin at 7am every morning. Paddy Sweeney has he perfect set up. A guest house, strictly for cyclists and they cook all your food and give you vast amounts of wine and beer, all for 60€ a night. If you are considering cycling abroad, do not pass the chance to stay with Paddy and Olive.  It was everything we had hoped for and more and without any hesitation, I can safely say we will be back. To the land of cow bells and Bicycles.

Our Climbs

Lac D’Estang

Col du Borderes

Col du Coraduque

Col du Tourmalet

Luz Ardiden

Col du Solour

Col d’Aubisque


Col du Tramassel

Col  des Tentes

Cirque du Gavarnie

The guest house is called La Lanterne Rouge and is in Saint Savin, half an hour away from Lourdes. Ran by Paddy Sweeny and his wife Olive. Both from Ireland. Their website is www.velopeloton.com