Does it exist? Stage 18 of this summer’s Tour de France finishes in Hautacam but many maps don’t show anywhere called Hautacam. But it’s testimony to the geopolitical force of the Tour and the tourism industry that, like an invading army, the map of France gets rewritten.
What is certain is that the climb exists and if it is a relative newcomer to the Tour de France, it’s a case-study of Pyrenean climbing with an irregular road.
The Route: the D100 climbs east out of Argèles-Gazost in Hautes-Pyrénées department in southwestern France. After crossing the Gave de Pau river, it climbs through the village Couture and the ascension proper begins at a junction where you turn right and follow the signs marked Hautacam. It is 13km long and 8% with the option to continue for an extra kilometre.
The Feel: it’s not only gentle, it’s genteel as you ride leave Argèles and pass Couture with its large square stone houses, lush meadows and a soft gradient. Is there really a monster mountain pass ahead?
But all change in the village of Ayros with the sharp-right hander and the suddenly narrowing road, a pinchpoint for the Tour. Away from the one crowded day of the year the road is almost redundant in summer given the ski resort is estivating with only the occasional farmer driving past and the buzz of freewheels from cyclists descending. The early part is fine, some steep ramp are followed by a flatter sections for recovery.
The resort at the top might be new but the road isn’t, it’s part of the Col de Tramassel and seemingly one of those routes used by shepherds and mule-trains to cross the mountains. It’s case-study Pyrenean climbing, a serpentine road with an ever changing gradient.
Like many Pyrenean passes there are special signs for cyclists every kilometre that count down the distance remaining and indicate the gradient ahead. Helpful yet annoying because they pass slowly and it’s easy to get stuck on the mental arithmetic, “At Xkm/h the next kilometre will take Y minutes” a task made harder by the physical exertion and meaningless because the slope varies so much within every thousand metre section, there’s even a short downhill at one point – it’s not mentioned on the official Tour de France profile above. This irregularity is what makes the climb particularly hard and so the average stats of 13km at 8% aren’t important, it’s the next 200 metres that matter to you.
Higher on and the vegetation thins and you know the top is near when the trees start to vanish. But at 1600m, Hautacam isn’t above the treeline, it seems deforestation and grazing animals are to blame.
Summary: an irregular road that will delight pure climbers and those at ease with changes of pace but awkward for others. Beware the 8% average, you will need gearing to cope with 15% sections.
Bonus climb: the Tour might stop at Hautacam but you don’t have to. Instead carry on for a further kilometre towards Col de Tramassel, a mountain pass. The road leads nowhere but if you’ve ridden up to a ski station for the sake of it you might as well keep going.
The History: with the ski resort being relatively new the Tour has only started visiting in recent years with Luc Leblanc winning in 1994, Bjarne Riis in 1996, Javier Oxtoa in 2000 and in 2008 Leonardo Piepoli and J-J Cobo led a Saunier-Duval 1-2 only for the Italian to test positive. You don’t need to be a genius to join the dots with Leblanc on Festina, Bjarne Riis and then Saunier Duval to discover that Lourdes-Hautacam isn’t a place of miracles nor holy water but plain old EPO abuse. Not that the mountain is at fault, these performances reflect the times rather than the location.
Riis’s victory has become iconic, a symbol of doping. The way he dropped back, shifted the chain into the big ring and then attacked the lead group in the Tour de France to solo away is like a scene out of a kung-fu movie where the character takes on a bunch of assailants and dispatches them all.
The Name: Hautacam is the name a nearby mountain peak which in turn was appropriated by a local tourist office to give to the modest ski resort. It’s as if Zermatt decided to call itself Matterhorn or Chamonix and Courmayeur were named Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco. Only the Hautacam ski resort started out as a car park and little else and today it’s not much more either. But the Tour de France is able to put the place on the map, indeed taking the name of a nearby peak is only the start, the Tour has labelled the finish Lourdes-Hautacam despite Lourdes being almost 30km away.
Travel and Access: Lourdes is a strange place, a town reputedly with more hotel beds than inhabitants, it trades on its reputation as a place of Christian pilgrimage. It’s a frontier town between the sacred and the profane, those coming for a religious experience discover a town that believes in commerce as much as Catholicism and the volume of kitsch religious memorabilia on sale must test the faith of the devout.
With this in mind Argèles-Gazost is a better pick. It’s right at the start of the Hautacam climb but has plenty of other cols in the area like the and Soulor, Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. One problem of staying in the Pyrenees is that it can be hard to vary the routes if you stay somewhere all week but Argèles is probably one of the best options.
Be sure to pack your waterproof jacket and more because even in high summer the Pyrenees get a soaking from the nearby Atlantic. It’s what keeps the place so green.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads