The Col du Tourmalet is a mountain pass, a road to somewhere and nowhere, a pilgrimage, an addiction, a brute, a dream. The Tourmalet is tarmac with names painted on the surface, and below the new, the gravel and dirt of days past, names etched here too of course. Voeckler and Contador and Schleck still fresh in both block type colour and memory. Millar, Van Impe, Merckx, Bahamontes, Coppi, faded, dissolved but still omnipresent. Buried deep, Bottecchia and Lapize, the foundations of it all. Of what is possible. Of the sacrifice required. And somewhere yet deeper still, the footprints of those who crossed this mighty col, before bicycles, before bicycle races, when suffering wasn’t heroic, merely a component part of everyday life. And the mountain was witness to it all.
Its lore brings us here. The highest col in the Pyrenees. The most visited mountain in the greatest bike race of them all. These are reasons alone to begin the ascent in the morning, having camped under the shadow of the peaks, eager to reach the summit point, to find your place amongst the masses. On that one day in July when it feels like ground zero. The epicentre. The eye of the storm.
You are one of many thousands. Walking, riding, following the road onwards from La Mongie, the ski station village, the blot on the landscape. The parked camper vans, the earliest of arrivals, mark the way ahead. Flags pick up in the wind, the sheer variety of their geographical origin testament to the pull of this grand race. The sky opens wider here. The zigzag of the road now a mere detail on a panorama of granite and green and blue. Golden eagles and honey buzzards dot the sky. The mountain watches on.
“Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!”
It was on the final slopes of the Col d’Aubisque, during the 1910 edition of the Tour de France, when Octave Lapize, pushing his mount, his will broken, issued this famous lament at the organisers watching on. But no doubt it was the Tourmalet, the penultimate col of that 326-kilometre stage, that broke his legs.
Roadside signage relays the gradient as the climb continues. It fluctuates, 7%, 8.5%, back down to 8%. Carbon fibre becomes a best friend, 34×27 a saviour. In 1910 Lapize was weighed down by turn-of-the-century steel and hindered by a single gear. As the road kicks up again, ‘murderers’ seems a perfectly apt response for anyone dying on this climb aboard a 15kg bicycle. You feel his pain. The mountain remains indifferent.
From the summit, the view belies words. Or makes the words chosen seem wholly inadequate. You know however that you will certainly return, time and time again, to find this same spot, this piece of something special.
When the race finally arrives, and the riders pass by in small groups and singularly, slowly and at pace, in both pain and in an exalted state, a crescendo is reached and the roadside fanatics howl at the enormity of it all; the hardship, the grim determination required, the sheer scale and absurdity and brilliance of racing bikes up and over a spruced-up goat track. Two sunburnt Aussies, dressed only in speedos, run like maniacs after each rider, shouting encouragement from such close quarters that the shield each rider puts up to keep the suffering deep within visibly shatters on those already in the red. They gratefully accept a push. The mountain doesn’t flinch. It’s seen it all before.