Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Celebrating 100 years of the Pyrenees

The Spanish call it Pirineos; the Catalans know it as Pirineus. The Occitan, the Pirenèus and the Aragonese, Perinés. For the Basque, there are two names Pirinioak and Auñamendiak. But for the peloton, the region is known as the Pyrenees. For 100 years, the Tour has carved their path through the perilous region, ascending montrous mountains and collosal Cols, all in a bid for fame, glory and the famous Maillot Jaune. From Pau to Luchon, into Bordeux from the Alps and to them, they are as famous as their Eastern counterpart, a natural border and a natural challenge.

The Maillot a Pois is won and lost here as much as the Maillot Jaune, while the grimpeurs have their day, the sprinters trudge, huddled in their gruppetto, counting their days and the kilometers to their next sprint, hoping they can survive that long. Paris is the mecca for the sprinters, Alpd'Herz the Alpine path to the Gods, but it is the Tourmalet that reigns supreme here, calling out to all who dare to ascend her, their cries of "on, on" lost in the winds of time immortal as her summit drifts in the dellirous minds of those on her slopes.

Seperating the Iberian Peninsula from continental Europe, they extend for about 430km from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean. The main crest forms a massive barrier between France and Spain, the tiny country of Andorra nestled between. Catalonia and Navarre have historically extended on both sides of this mountain range, blurring into France as much as it does Spain. Named after the goddess Pyrene, legend has it that the mountains grew up mourning and immortalising her at the behest of Herculeus, whose actions caused her demise in the region.

Older than the Alps, their sediments were first deposited in costal basins during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. When the Bay of Biscay fanned out in the Lower Cretaceous period, Spain was pushed against France in a vise like grip, uplifting the crust and forming the range. Consisting largly of granite and gneissose rocks in the East, and limestone in the West, the massive and unworn character appears so due to its resistance to erosion and weak glacial development. Thus much of the range is timeless, appearing much today as it was in 1910 when the Tour first came to this much loved and celebrated region.

This years route includes 11 mountains, with not one but two ascents of the tremendous Tourmalet. The first of these was Port de Pailhères, a relatively new inclusion in Tour history, it was first graced by the gloriously colourful peloton in 2003 in a stage from Toulouse to Ax 3 Domaines. With a summit at an altitude of 2,001 metres, the mountain falls into the area ofAriège in the French Pyrenees. Ax 3 Domaines located in the Spa resort of Ax les Thermes, is an up and coming ski resort that has hosted the Tour three times. This well loved region is sure to feature more in the future.

Col de Portet d'Aspet is located in the central Pyrenees, a climb that has been included 28 times since 1947. This climb is no stranger to the Tour or its tragedies. In 1973 Raymond Poulidor almost lost his life on the perilous descent when he plunged from the road into a ravine. Taking a serious blow to the head, he managed to crawl out with the help of then race director, Jacques Goddet. Later in 1995, during the fifthteenth stage of the Tour, Fabio Casartelli and a few other riders crashed on the same descent that nearly cost Poulidor his life.

Casartelli was the worst off; suffering heavy facial and head fractures he lost consciousness. His injuries proved fatal as he suffered a respiratory arrest in the helicopter that was transferringhim to hospital and despite resuscitation he was pronounced dead on arrival. At the crash site, the Société du Tour de France and the Motorola team placed a memorial stone in dedication to Fabio Casartelli.

The Port de Balès was first featured in the 2007 Tour and returned again this year in the route to Bagnères-de-Luchon. The Port de Balès was for a long time ignored by the modern world, served only by one narrow track from the north until the beginning of the 1980s. Tarmac was laid at this time but by the 1990s it had deteriorated to almost nothing. In 2006, the road was resurfaced, mostly at the behest of the Société du Tour de France to provide a new challenge to its riders.

First appearing in 1910, and starting from Bagnères de Luchon, the Col de Peyresourde is 15.27 km long. Over this distance, the climb is 939 m. (an average of 6.1%) with the steepest sections at 9.8%. In its inaugral inclusion, Octave Lapize triumphed; a French road and track Olympic champion, he would go on to win his second Tour that year. His brief cycling career was cut short by the First World War. Shot down near Flirey, Meurthe-et-Moselle on July 14, 1917 and severely injured, he died in a hospital in Toul. He is most noted for shouting "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, desassassins!"at Tour officials as he crossed the summit of the Tourmalet; a quote echoed earlier in this years Tour by Jens Voigt after his team mate Frank Schleck crashed on the pave in the Hell of the North stage 3. Since 1910 the Col has been visited a further 40 times.

The Col d'Aspin has been included in the Tour 66 times, mostly because it comes in a middle link of a fearsome chain of climbs including the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de Peyresourde. Again this Col featured in the 1910 edition. Most recently it was climbed in 2008 and appears in the 2010 edition as part of the centenary celebration. In 1950 it was the site of an altercation that saw the Italian team including Gino Bartali and Fiorenzo Magni withdraw from the race.

The Col du Tourmalet is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour. First included in the 1910 edition, it was here that Lapize triumphed. Since 1947, it has been climbed a further 47 times, most recently in 2009. Monuments to Goddet and Lapize have been erected here, starring down on all those who climb to the summit of this hors categorie Col.

The Col d'Aubisque is a mountain pass in the Pyrenees 30km south of Tarbes and Pau in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. The Col d'Aubisque appeared in the Tour de France in 1910, crossed by François Lafourcade. It has appeared frequently since then, most recently in 2007. It was included at the insistence of Alphone Steinès, a colleague of Henri Desgrange at the Tour de France. Steinès visited the man responsible for local roads, who said: "Take the riders up the Aubisque? You're completely crazy in Paris." Steinès agreed that the Tour would pay 5,000 francs to clear the pass. Desgrange knocked the price down to 2,000.

The Col de Marie-Blanque is a mountian pass in the western Pyrenees. First appearing in the 1978 edition of the Tour, it has been climbed 13 times and most recently in 2007. A 9.3 km climb to 7.6 % the climb starts at Bielle and has sections of 11% gradient.

The Col du Soulor has been climbed 19 times, most recently in 1982. A categorie 1 climb of 11.9 km it has a gradient of 7.8 %.

100 years after Lapize cried out his charge: “You’re assassins, all of you! You can’t ask such things of mere mortals. I’ve had enough" as he crossed the line on foot and in distress, riders are still ascending the climbs to immortality. Like the names of the heros in the fabled story of the origins of the Pyrenees, the names of those who have died and those who have triumphed remain forever etched in the minds of those who love the Tour. Passion and pain, guts and glory; these timeless mountains have seen it all, heard it all, their stories immortalised for posterity.

The 2010 edition of the Tour sees the riders carve out routes into the same awesome climbs that the 1910 edition is remembered for. This year the Tourmalet will feature twice, but despite Voigt's earlier assertion at the current race organisers, there will be no charge at them of “You’re assassins, all of you!... I’ve had enough." Instead the famous Col will be climbed with gusto by riders and tifosi in equal measure. Indeed before the riders have arrived at the foot of the climb, the tifosi, almost as famous as the riders themselves, will be camped out waiting to shout "On, On!" to any rider whose fear of failure starts to eat away at their will to survive. While the crowds await their heroic sprinters in Paris, the grimpeurs will be welcomed home at the summit of the Tourmalet. Long after the stage winner has recieved his kisses, the tifosi will cheer home the gruppetto, before making their way back down the Col, ready to tell their children, and their children's children, "The Col du Tourmelet. 2010. I was there. This is what I saw". The names of the riders will live on long after their careers have diminished, their immortality sealed like that of Gods for their ascents into the awesome Pyrenees.

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