The Circle of Death: France Big Ride
There is no more famous a chain of mountains in cycling than the Circle of Death. More a jagged line than a circle, the chain connects the Col dAubisque, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col dAspin and Col de Peyresourde, running through the heart of the French Pyrenees. It totals over 5,000m of climbing and a version of this route has featured in the Tour de France an incredible 45 times.
To a great extent, the creation of this five-piece was geographically determined the Pyrenees is a narrow mountain range and if you want to go over the high points, as opposed to around them, this is the only way. Indeed, the Col du Tourmalet will make its 90th appearance in the Tour de France this summer, explaining its nickname of Lincontournable, the unavoidable. The Tour de France Femmes and Vuelta a Espaa will both visit too.
The Tour debuted this mighty combination in 1910 on the first ever high-mountain stage, running the other way, before the entire Grand Boucle reversed direction from 1913. As the race began to modernise in 1930 and leave behind its ultra-endurance origins, stage distances were reduced and routes varied more often.
The Circle of Death, however, continued to appear in its entirety and was the scene of some iconic performances, including solo, Tour-winning raids by Jean Robic in 1947 and Eddy Merckx in 1969 the former a come-from-behind GC flip, the latter an emphatic stamp of authority on a race already gripped by the jugular.
Forty years ago this summer, another historic moment took place on these roads. A young Scottish rider, Pippa York (then known as Robert Millar), on her Tour debut, joined a powerful breakaway group of GC riders and climbers. As it was whittled down over the successive climbs, she remained near the front.
On the Col de Peyresourde she attacked near the summit, bombed the descent and in Bagnres-de-Luchon took the first Tour stage win by a British rider against GC opposition. Before her, Brian Robinson (2), Barry Hoban (8) and Michael Wright (3) had won stages from sprints or breaks, but this was different.
These days, the Circle of Death title is given to the major Pyrenean stage of the Tour, regardless of direction or climbs included. But our ride today is the original, the template the Circle of Death in its purest, most brutal form.
Let the games begin
Our route starts on the outskirts of Pau. Under normal circumstances, the pro peloton would roll out from the handsome city centre, but today it is too busy with morning rush hour traffic, so instead our Grand Dpart is from a petrol station forecourt at a junction of the ring road and main route south.
Theres no cheering crowd or commissaires cars, and Tadej Pogaar is a no-show, but I am joined by a good friend, Dave Janes, who is a beast on a bike and was my regular training partner before I moved to France. Hes about the only person I know who would jump at the chance to take on a challenge like this.
Drizzle in Pau necessitates rolling out in jackets but we have faith in the forecast. Were quickly onto a smaller road that winds through and over the Pyrenees thin smear of foothills and into the mountains proper. Weve a long day ahead so we aim to keep the pace high, falling into step and swapping long turns as if wed been riding together only last week, not last year.
Ominous clouds are lingering over Laruns, where the Cols de Pourtalet and Aubisque begin. The former breaks for the border with Spain, the latter leads into the Circle of Death.
There are no fiery gates, though. Rather the Aubisque begins gently, easing us into the days climbing and its own 1,190m of ascent. The gradient stiffens after the shabby spa town of Eaux Bonnes it doesnt look so bon these days so we keep an eye on our power output to ensure we dont burn too many matches too soon.
We climb in the dim light of heavy tree cover, emerging occasionally like a whale from the deep, before plunging back inside.
The ski station of Gourrette brings a key change. From here, the road is wilder, as if its fighting a battle to cling to the side of the mountain, which in turn is doing its best to hurl it into the abyss, a bucking bronco in granite. The iconic hotel at 2km to go, usually visible from a great distance, only comes into view as we near it, but we can see across the valley to the slopes that are dark and brooding in the shadow of the clouds.
The summit of the Aubisique is chilly and the usually sensational view is limited, so we pause only to don jackets and stuff in a rice cake to chew as we descend. As if by recompense, the famous balcony road around the Cirque du Litor is free from cloud and delivers the awe that was missing from the summit.
The wet road dictates caution though, lest we follow in the wheel tracks of Wim van Est, who plunged off the side in the 1951 Tour while in yellow and, having defied death, had to be rescued by his team using a rope made of spare tubular tyres. In the years since they have put up a plaque, but not a guardrail.
Little climb, big climb
From this side, its only a short climb to the twin peak of Soulor. Happily the descent is dry, because its one of the very best: a high-speed, writhing rollercoaster. Its followed by a fast, gentle, pedally descent along the valley, then another 4km of fabulous sweeping corners that I can only assume were designed purely for the grins.
We pass up the option of a cafe stop in Argels-Gazost in favour of stocking up on supplies to eat on the move. To that end, we stomp along the valley, shedding layers and swapping turns, flying right past the village where I live before diving into the beautiful, steep-sided Gorge Luz.
To the right of the narrow, twisting road is the Gavarnie River, its energy contained by huge boulders like police at a protest. This river has run riot before, taking out sections of road a decade ago, but wont be allowed to do so again.
To our left is a rock face. Its merely a backdrop, static scenery, until we glance up to see the steel catch-netting and the rocks within it, some the size of suitcases. Only then do we appreciate that the scenery could reach down and swat us like flies.
The Col du Tourmalet begins from the very centre of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, denoted by a small wooden sign on a wall and a collection of famous riders handprints in the pavement. A sign reminds us that we have 19km of climbing to do.
The road is wide and the gradient firm, toughening further either side of Barges. Its only at the ski station, halfway up, and the first switchbacks that we get two significant views. One is back down the climb, finally showing us how far we have come and how high we already are. If youre suffering, its a double morale burger with cheese right when you need it.
But just before you take a big, greedy bite, it gets snatched from your lips by the other view, that of the summit, a towering wall across the horizon, no longer abstract and somehow further away than ever because of it.
At the well-known hairpin where this new road, built in 2011, rejoins the old road, Dave and I stop and take a moment at a little cairn of rocks I made to commemorate a friend and teammate of ours, Fran Eddolls, who died of brain cancer in 2020 at just 28.
The cairn contains a photo and enjoys a spectacular view across the valley over the climb, gravel roads and MTB park that Fran would have loved to ride.
We climb in silence for a while until a sharp increase in gradient at the 2km-to-go sign sparks lighter conversation once more. On neither side is the Tourmalet a kind climb. In this direction its longer and the sting in the tail is even more nefarious, with the last 2km averaging 10% and the ramp from the final hairpin hitting 15%.
Three down, two to go
I love climbing both sides of the Tourmalet equally, but the descent to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is easily the better way down. The surface is smooth, it flows, and there are some sweeping bends that can be taken at high speed once you know them. It peters out at the bottom, serving as a post-stage turbo trainer cool-down for our adrenal glands and a warm-up for our legs. Both are useful because, after turning right at the base, the Col dAspin starts immediately.
The first 5km are easy until we reach the beautiful bowl at Lac de Payolle. From there, the road climbs more steeply, with a set of four big switchbacks slashed across the face of the hillside and through the evergreen forest.
This late in the day, the usually busy car park at the summit of Aspin is empty, heightening the panoramic view that includes the Pic du Midi de Bigorre high above the Col du Tourmalet behind us and the Col de Peyresourde in the distance ahead. To the north, our left, a colder bank of cloud tumbles over the ridge, lemming-like, to be wiped from existence as it meets the warm air on this side.
Thanks to some excellent resurfacing three years ago, the descent of the Col dAspin to Arreau is fantastic. There, the valley splits; south heads towards Saint-Lary-Soulan and another cluster of fabulous climbs, including Lac de Cap-de-Long, which was the star of issue 95 of Cyclist. Were going southeast instead, through Arreau and out into the pretty Louron valley on a deserted road. Were immediately climbing again, now for the last time. Its a 10km drag up to the official start of the Col de Peyresourde.
The sun is low and the valley shaded, but as we climb we haul ourselves back into the rich glow of golden hour. Were now 175km into the ride, with 4,500m climbed.
I could tell you about the pain, the suffering, the thousand tiny chainsaws shredding our legs. Or I could tell you about the dawning revelations that come from testing the human spirit in the crucible of nature. I could tell you all of these things, but they wouldnt be true. This isnt an odyssey, a rite of passage or a pilgrimage of self-discovery this is pure joy.
Of course it has been tough, but weve planned for this, weve paced ourselves and fuelled properly, and as we make our way up the Peyresourde I simply bask in the view down the valley, honey-tinged in the late-afternoon light.
This is as good as cycling gets. Im high from endorphins, and when the ride finally ends in Bagnres-de-Luchon after a descent that flows like single cream, the sensation remains. It may be the Circle of Death, but to me it feels a bit like heaven.
Circle of friends
Moments of pro drama in the Pyrenees
1910: Organiser Henri Desgrange takes the Tour de France into the high mountains for the first time. The danger and difficulty leads the press to dub the route The Circle of Death.
1936: Belgian Sylvre Maes crushes his opponents in a reverse version of Cyclists route on his way to winning the Tour by almost 27 minutes.
1947: Frenchman Jean Robic breaks away alone across the summits of the Circle of Death to win Stage 15 by ten minutes. He will win the Tour without ever wearing the leaders yellow jersey. Two years later, when the stage direction is reversed, Robic will win again.
1969: Eddy Merckx reigns supreme. At the start of Stage 17, Merckx has a comfortable lead on GC and just needs to stay with the pack, but instead drops all his rivals over the Tourmalet and rides solo for 130km to win the stage by 7min 56sec.
1983: Philippa York then Robert Millar gives Britain its first taste of high-mountain stage success on the Circle of Death, beating Pedro Delgado to the line by six seconds.
1995: On a descent of the Portet dAspet, Italian Fabio Casartelli dies after crashing into a concrete barrier. The following days stage is neutralised and the peloton rides in procession.
2012: The last time the Circle of Death stage followed Cyclists ride. French favourite Thomas Voeckler wins the day, although Britains Bradley Wiggins holds onto his GC lead, which he will keep to Paris to secure Britains first Tour de France victory.
The riders ride
BMC Timemachine Road 01 Two, 8,199, zyrofisher.co.uk
The Timemachine Road 01 is BMCs dedicated aero-road racer. While the high mountains are usually the preserve of its sibling, the Teammachine, this bike can still hold its own. Think of it as a GC contender in the Bradley Wiggins mould: youll buy it for its aero speed, but youll be happy to take it on big climbs.
To keep things aero, the bottle cages blend into the frame, and the space between them is filled to help with airflow and also provides a handy storage compartment. Naturally, all the cables are hidden, and the cockpit and tube shapes are wind-tunnel-optimised to prevent the air being such a drag. All this focus on aerodynamics hasnt come at too much of a weight penalty. At 7.88kg the bike is light enough to climb well (although I reckon they could save some weight from the name) and the ride is good in most ways, even if it isnt the most precise descender. In general, it looks like a rocket and rides like one too. And thanks to Favero for the Assioma Duo pedals that supplied my power data.
How we did it
The Pyrenees are easily accessible with direct flights to Lourdes. There are also airports in Pau and Toulouse. To skip air travel altogether, take the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and drive for around eight hours, or catch the 24-hour ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in Spain, and then drive four hours to Pau.
Gratuitous plug alert! It just so happens that my guesthouse is right in the middle of the route. Its set up for cyclists and we offer fully catered stays, with homemade ride snacks, GPX routes, a fully equipped garage, comfortable rooms and delicious meals. Ride self-guided or join one of our guided and supported tours. If you would like to take on the Circle of Death yourself, we can recreate this exact ride, including transfers and support car. For details go to escapetothepyrenees.com.
Many thanks to Terry for driving the photo/support car and Dave for joining us. Thanks also to my partner Kitt for looking after our beautiful baby, and the gear suppliers for getting everything here on time.