I've done the Tourmalet three times now, and each time I've been carrying full camping gear, tent, cooker, front and rear panniers, the works... But I'm no super fit cyclist, just a plodding tourer who likes to average about 40 miles a day on tour so how do I manage it? Well firstly it helps to know your enemy...
The statistics are frightening, the Tourmalet is a "Hors Catagorie" climb, the most difficult of all, and a rare beast indeed. The Col is at 2115 m, nearly 7000 feet, the second highest in the Pyrenees and by repute, the most difficult. If you look at the Michelin map you'll see the road, previously marked in yellow, becomes made up of red and yellow dots. I've only seen this on a couple of sections of road in France and means that the road is very dangerous. But for the cycletourist it has two saving graces, firstly it is generally a steady though hard climb, the second is that it is so stunningly beautiful that by the top the part of you which will hurt most will be your neck from craning around at some of the most spectacular scenery in cycling.
The best side to tackle the Tourmalet from is the west side, coming from the Col de Soulor, at 1474 metres a challenge in itself, and then camping at Luz Saint Sauveur (711 m). This gets you up the easy part of the Tourmalet, with only (!) 18 kms to go. There are several campsites in the town, I prefer "Camping Toy" which is right in the centre of Luz and is overlooked by a Cathar castle high on the hill. The town also has plenty of places to eat and the bar just outside the campsite doubles as a patisserie (bun shop) where I usually stock up on calories before the main assault... Now at this point you will hopefully have the right equipment, because otherwise you are going to do a lot of walking. I use a 24 inner ring and 32 cog at the back, if you are fitter than me (most of you will be) then you could get away with higher gears but I wouldn't bet on it. You don't need any other gears, just one low one, the rest of your gears will be for decoration only... A good idea to start early, so I push off before 9.00am and turn left outside the campsite following signs for the Col de Tourmalet.
The first 6 kilometres are a hard drag up to the village of Bareges (1250 m). The valley is steep sided, but already becoming beautiful as you see the road stretched away in front of you. It's easy to wear yourself out here as it is steep, you need to try to relax on the bike and let that low gear get you into the rhythm that will take you to the top. Just as important is to try to be smooth especially as your legs will be cold and stiff so the dangers of a muscle pull are greatest here. Just before Bareges you reach a few switchbacks which ease the slope considerably, and give you a rest whilst still climbing, but the main street of Bareges is the steepest part yet and the temptation is to go almost all the way to the end of it before stopping for a morning coffee in one of the many bars in the village. After you start again you'll find the gradient is a little less, just enough for you to climb without really drawing on your reserves.
It is from here on in that the scenery begins to dominate your thoughts as much as your legs. The trees retreat and the vista opens out into a vast U-shaped valley, the tiny road picked out on the hillside ahead looking impossibly high. One of the joys of the Tormalet is that the road is too narrow and dangerous to allow heavy vehicles, even coaches are banned so you are on a country lane to the sky.
Three kilometres out from Bareges you may see the observatory on the Pic du Midi (3000 m) and a little shed below it. This is important because soon afterwards in the distance to the right you will see another building high above. This is the Hotel at the Col, though you still have about 10 kilometres to go it is a welcome sight. By now you are tracking up the right hand face of the valley, then the road swings you across the valley below the col. Behind you, you can see almost all the road back to Barege, it's an awesome sight, somehow I can never believe I've come so far. Other cyclists will appear as brightly coloured dots of Lycra on the distance, crawling up to meet, then pass you. As the road tracks across the valley it steepens fractionally, enough to make you work for the privilege, and then begins to swing back in a series of long switchbacks. By now you are aware that you are near the top, looking vertically above you can see the edge of the carpark at the top only a hundred metres or so above you. People may even shout encouragement BUT DON'T BE FOOLED! There is still a kilometre to go.
When they built the road to the Col they obviously had either a sense of humour, or they reckoned on making a very exciting cycle race because the last three hundred metres are some of the steepest in the Pyrenees. Now OK - you've got a lot of adrenaline 'cos you know it's the top, but you've also just climbed 5000 feet so it's very easy to screw it up at the last moment, if you're going to "bonk" it'll be here... To give you some idea of how steep it is, I was honking bottom gear and trying to stop the bike flipping over backwards. But by now people will be clapping and cheering you - the crazy with the luggage, and they'll help get you up.
The top of the Col is no anti climax. The views are breathtaking, near vertical scree slopes, the giddying drop when you look down on other cyclists doing the last kilometre as others had looked down on you, and best of all a cold beer at the bar! You will feel as high as a kite, but the bar will do you steak and chips, and you can get some tourist to take your snap by the Col sign. Then comes the descent...
The other side of the Col begins with a not too steep but very exposed section of tarmac that keeps you hard on the brakes, then twists and drops. The bike feels like it's in freefall, I've done 50 mph here and that's plenty on a loaded touring bike. You dive through avalanche shelters on silky tarmac then hurtle screaming through the deserted eyesore that is the ski station at La Mongie (1800 m). By now you'll feel confident in your bike and brakes and should be carving through hairpins, diving deep into them before braking then cranking over to swoop to the next, the nearest thing to flying you can get to without growing wings.
In about 15 minutes you get to St Marie de Campan (857 m), after 17 kms of wild descent. The village has a couple of nice little campsites and a hotel. You MUST go to the Hotel du Deux Cols. The owner spends all his time insulting his customers in four languages, he is a floor show on his own, imagine Basil Fawlty with a wicked sense of humour and you'll get the idea. But you'll find yourself laughing at yourself pretty quickly, and being served wonderful food at silly prices. It's the perfect end to a day in the mountains that you will surely never forget.