Travels with Marty — A Tour of the Climbs of the Pyrenees

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By Tom Noaker — Over dinner last February my wife Nan, Marty Jemison and I discussed my joining his ‘Trans-Pyrenees’ Tour. I was equivocating; August is a busy time in my business, I’m sensitive to jet-lag, it’s expensive, and road biking was no longer that compelling for me. Nan finally added that she had graciously arranged for the trip as an early birthday present. After a brief discussion Marty looked at me and said, “You need to do this because you just don’t know until you go.” A few seconds of silence and I responded, “How can I say no, I’m in.”

At the summit of the Col du Aubisque. During the Trans-Pyrenees tour with Marty Jemison Cycling Tours. Photo by Marty Jemison

Fast forward to July 31, 2019; Marty, Pau Sabater (veteran Andorran guide with Jemison Cycling) and I are driving across France to Biarritz where our posse for the nine-day tour will meet for the first time. An evening ‘evaluation’ spin down the coast begins with Marty’s rules: safety is most important, single file always, ride within the 1/3 of pavement next to the shoulder, in a pace line, do not pass your leader (either Marty or Pau), we re-group on every summit. Knowing someone as a friend it is interesting to watch as Marty slips seamlessly into his professional ‘guide’ role just as he has over 200 times before as owner of “Marty Jemison Cycling Tours’.

Yes, there is jet-lag and sleep deprivation (Biarritz has a loud, late-night party vibe) as Day 2 rolls into the foothills. Our pace line follows the rules (it’s hard for me not to take even a courtesy pull) as we climb 1100 meters in 80 kilometers and leave the coastline in the rear view mirror while ahead rises the Pyrenees.

Marty advised me to come into this trip a bit ‘under-cooked’ but the Col d’ Osquitch, mid-ride on Day 3, reveals that I may have taken his advice a bit too seriously. But how can you know what is over or under when, “you don’t really know until you go.”

Each day begins at 9:30 a.m. sharp and ends at the next hotel, luggage transferred, room keys waiting. Marty has scouted all of these routes (raced most multiple times) and the result is a schedule that flows easily. Many of the lodging proprietors and chefs know Marty by first name and the relationships he has forged over the years add an element to the experience that could not be replicated in a self-guided endeavor. In spite of the hospitality and cuisine my jet lag persists like a bad case of DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).

Tom Noaker (sitting) and the group at the top of the Col d'Aubisque. During the Trans-Pyrenees tour with Marty Jemison Cycling Tours. Photo by Marty Jemison

Day 4 hit the altimeter with our first category 1 climb, the Col du Marie Blanque. Pau advised us to save a bit for the final 2k where an average grade of 10.5-12.5% awaited. A fast descent to the base of the Col d’ Aubisque is followed by a traverse to the Col du Solour. We finished Day 4 (110k-2900m) with the long drag up the spectacular river valley to Luz-St –Sauveur where our hotel for the night overlooked K-Zero at the base of the Tourmalet. At dinner Pau commented ominously, “Drink all the water, eat all the food.”

At the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. During the Trans-Pyrenees tour with Marty Jemison Cycling Tours. Photo by Marty Jemison

Day 5 had an earlier departure, 9:00 a.m. to get ahead of the crowds, and packed 3,000M of climbing into 95k. Three legendary Tour de France summits awaited; first the Tourmalet, then the Col d’ Aspin and finally the Col de Peyresourde. The morning fog lifted above Luz-St-Sauver but my heart rate refused to elevate to the challenge. With so much climbing ahead today (and the next five days) I reluctantly, but prudently, leveled my effort and focused on the astounding visuals in every direction.

I was passed first by a guy on an ebike, draining his battery, straining to stay ahead of a truly fast rider who quickly caught and dropped him before the next switchback. A pair of French riders crept past mumbling something about ‘Bon Jour’. Twenty minutes later as they pedaled in squares I rode by and delivered my own ‘Bon Jour’. They were not amused.

Closer to the summit a young lady, ‘dragging-an-anvil’, gasped something in French that I translated as, “how far?” I held up four fingers (4k to go) and she slumped over the bars, quickly picked up her shoulders and got on with it.

Relaxing at lunch. During the Trans-Pyrenees tour with Marty Jemison Cycling Tours. Photo by Marty Jemison

Pau had said at breakfast, “Oh yeah, it’s a party on top of the Tourmalet.” He was right. After celebratory photos and fist bumps with strangers it was time to navigate one of the most notorious descents in the Pyrenees. Laced with switchbacks, twists and turns cut into rock and mostly devoid of guardrails this is a stretch of pavement that has rewarded the aggressive but punished the foolish. By the time we had crested and descended the Aspin and the Peyresourde, the value of disc brakes was evident.

Day 6 began with a stop at Fabio Casartelli’s memorial at the base of the Portet d’Aspet, a reminder of how precarious (but thrilling) these Pyrenees descents can be. By now I was beginning to ride like a roadie version of an ‘Enduro-Bro’; just get to the top so you can enjoy the attenuated descents. It’s all great fun until imagining a field of pros racing down these staircases at 80+KPH!

The Col des Ares and the Col de la Crouzette fit into another 135K day with 2450M of total climbing. Still not on form, I was beginning to feel a rhythm to the climbing. That optimism was about to be challenged by inclement weather.

Day 7, a 136K day with 2808M of climbing, began with some low lying fog that hugged the countryside. The Col de la Quillana, fog shrouded, came and went and then the Pailleres just kept coming. Through the thick forest and clouds the two-lane pavement narrowed to half width, the final 3k barely as wide as a driveway. The fog and mist sat heavy in the trees obscuring the scenery, revealing only the kilometer-to-summit signs and their ominous average grade information.

On the summit we huddled in the van snacking on a picnic lunch (no summit café today) until our group reconvened. Then the rain began. Wet weather gear was deployed and we rolled off behind Pau (he knew the route) into the deluge. We had 55k to the next hotel with 33k descending in a downpour through the forest on a ribbon of pavement and just for fun, roaming open range livestock. By the time we arrived at our hotel we were soaked and shivering but surprisingly, not one of us had tagged a cow.

During the Trans-Pyrenees tour with Marty Jemison Cycling Tours. Photo by Marty Jemison

Day 8 began at the base of the Collada de Tosas and accumulated another 1550M-95K for the day. Climbing single digit grades today was a relief or perhaps it was that rare false flat mid-climb that provided some relief. Prior to this trip I was told to expect one day for every one hour time zone change to overcome jet-lag and for this rookie traveler, that equation seemed to finally balance out.

Day 9 and the Pyrenees were left behind with one final Cat 1 climb, the beautiful Col du San Grau and the winding descent to the Mediterranean. There was a coastal feel in the air as we approached the final summit. Part way down the descent we re-grouped at a tavern within a centuries old church courtyard for refreshments. The final run into the coast culminated with a traditional “full-kit’ plunge in the Mediterranean.

After returning stateside and taking a few days off, the training effects of riding across the Pyrenees were abundantly clear. Not only had I pushed through a fitness plateau but in the process I had re-connected along these historic routes with the reasons I began cycling decades earlier. For that I have to thank Nan for her enabling this generous early birthday gift and Marty Jemison for persuading me to, “just be a guest and ride.” Now the question is, “What’s on the schedule for next year, Marty?”

For more information on Marty Jemison Cycling Tours, visit: jemisoncycling.com

Approximate Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive to Biarritz, France and our first hotel. We will make bike adjustments and ride to Saint Jean de Luz in the late afternoon to warm up our legs. 40k – 500 m

Day 2: 80k – 1100 m

Day 3: Traversing the Pyrenees Mountain range, today we will ride to Oloron Saint Marie, where Marty started his European road racing career in 1990. Col d’Osquich. 80k – 1000m

Day 4: Serious climbing today. Leaving Oloron we will climb the Col du Marie Blanque, Col d’Aubisque and the Col du Soulor. 110k – 2900m

Day 5: Serious climbing continues as we tackle legendary climbs of the Tour de France.Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde. 95k – 3000m

Day 6: Our mileage increases but our climbing ticks down a bit. (insert humor here) We will stop at Fabio Casartelli’s memorial at the base of the Portet d’Aspet Col des Ares, Portet d’Aspet, Col de la Crouzette. 135k – 2450m

Day 7: Spending all day climbing in the Pyrenees seems habitual at this point. Nothing more to say…. we will climb and we will ride on…Col du Pailleres, Coll de la Quillana. 136k – 2808m

Day 8: You might think that have crossed into Spain, but the locals will defend that you are in Catalunya. Collada de Toses. 95k – 1550m

Day 9: Leaving the high Pyrenees you will eventually catch the scents of the Mediterranean Sea as we descend more than we climb today… It will be encouraged to get off of your bike and jump into the Mediterranean sea in your bike shorts when we arrive. Col du Sant Grau. 104k – 1250m

Day 10: After a leisurely breakfast we wish you a farewell and departure from our final hotel. Congratulations! 875km, 17,500m – or – 542 MILES and over 54,000 FEET

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