As part of the series exploring roads used by the big races, here’s the Col de Menté in the French Pyrenees, a quiet climb with a tragic history.
The Route: there are two sides, this is the eastern side from Pont de l’Oule, first on the D84 and then the D44. It is 10.9km long and the average gradient is 6.5%.
The Feel: there are two ways to reach the start, one scenic and gradual from Sengouagnet, the other via the jagged Portet d’Aspet pass and the second way seems you plunging down one of the steepest descents in the Pyrenees, a dangerous place where there are two memorials for Fabio Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic champion who died here during the 1995 Tour de France. It’s the first reminder of tragedy for the day.
The early slopes of the Col de Menté feel too easy, you expect a mountain pass but get a gentle approach alongside a small river hemmed in by large cliffs and woodland and it’s all peaceful, there’s almost no traffic and if a car does appear the road is wide. It takes two kilometres before it climbs seriously, you pass a couple of buildings and there’s the first hairpin bend but soon after the road levels out again. There’s a turning on the left for Le Couret but go straight on even if the descent ahead doesn’t look like the climb you’ve come for. Drop down to the hamlet of Boutx and then the slope starts for real. From here there are regular sections of 10% and you turn around a corner to see the road ahead on the other side of the valley from you, diagonal ramps. There’s 7km to go from here and it’s over 8% average to the top.
It’s still a big road, there’s room for two cars coming in opposite directions but it feels calm and you’re likely to have more aggravation from a wandering sheep dog, they’re not aggressive but may trot alongside you like a fan trying to keep up with a rider in the Tour de France. The higher you go the better the views, it sounds obvious but here it’s not for the big vistas of the mountains, you never get above the treeline on this climb, let alone the ridges. Instead it’s the pastures, the villages and a nearby monastery that add to the charm. The steep slope continues with long ramps to each hairpin bend shouldered onto the side of the mountain. Finally the slope eases a touch and climbs into the woodland to reach the top of the pass. There’s a memorial to Serge Lapebie, a former pro, who had a local cyclosportif named after him. He’d been to the event’s annual dinner and was driving back only to crash his car and die on the pass. At the top is a large café and turning for the ski station of Mourtis and the Col de l’Agues.
The Verdict: a pleasant climb amid pastures and woodland, this has an intimate feel as it doesn’t offer grand views of the mountains but is instead contained in a narrow valley. It’s steep but for the large part steady and a good climb for a workout or just a quiet ride alike.
History: it was only first climbed by the Tour de France in 1966, a relative newcomer to the Tour’s psychogeography. It quickly implanted itself in the sport’s history because in 1971 Luis Ocaña was leading the Tour de France with over seven minutes on his arch rival Eddy Merckx. Finally the Spaniard had got the better of his nemesis but they crossed the Col de Menté on Stage 14 a thunderstorm broke out. The rain was so strong it was washing torrents of mud and debris on to the road. As they approached a hairpin on the descent Merckx fell, taking Ocaña with him. Merckx got up but before Ocaña could get his feet out of his pedals he was struck by Joop Zoetemelk who’d lost control too. Ocaña lay on the ground, winded, dazed and soaked from the downpour and abandoned the race.
To this day the hairpin has large lettering and up in the rocks above is a plaque to commemorate the moment with this inscription (translated):
On this road turned into a torrent of mud by an apocalyptic storm Luis Ocaña, yellow jersey, abandoned all his hopes against this rock
Ride it and you wonder what the fuss is about, the bend is wide and can be seen from some distance. Then try racing down, on wet roads, add some debris and then be sure to have a retro bike where the frame and forks flex like bamboo and preferably with brakes that probably have less stopping power than a child’s bike in a supermarket today and you’ll soon see why the accident happened. It was a tragic moment for Ocaña but he would win the 1973 Tour de France.
Tragedy valley: with the memorials to Casartelli, Lapebie and the Ocaña crash this 15km section of road can have a melancholic feel. Casartelli especially, he was so close to reaching the end of the descent. Yet surely all this is just the cyclist’s bias and view? We pick up on these memorials because we repeat the shared stories while ride past the other memorials, be it the bunch of wilting flowers that mark the spot where a teenage life ended in a scooter crash; or the iron cross on the edge of a village where a suicide would be buried because the priest would not let them rest in the parish in medieval times.
Travel and Access: the city of Toulouse offers flights, TGV rail links and more. As for a base, the Pyrenees are a horizontal chain running east and west and it’s not easy to pick one place for a week’s visit but the square between Capvern, Saint Gaudens, Luchon and Saint Lary offers lots of options with big passes like the Peyresourde, the Port de Balès, Aspin, Tourmalet as well as the smaller climbs in the Comminges like the Col des Ares. You may look at Tarbes on the map but a tip is to think twice, it’s an industrial city compared to the move lively student town of Pau and both are a little too far from the mountains for daily rides.
- Photos: main photo by Flickr’s Pretre, col photo via Wikipedia’s Daemonic Kangaroo, both under creative commons. Screenshot of Ocaña from INA.fr video archive
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads