Cycling the Mont Aigoual

Posted on May 31st, 2010 by Tim Bell in Cycling in France, Cycling in the Cevennes, The Road to Tourmalet

This is the one I’ve been looking forward to the most. The King of the Downs, the Ventoux Sportive, the Etape du Tour; all great personal goals and public events in their own right, but transitory in my life. Castelbouc is a fixture and it turns out I can ride from the front door and experience something to rival any of them in difficulty and spleandour. What the area around my French house lacks in fame, situated as it is in France’s least populated departement (the Lozere), it more than compensates for in mystique. This was not lost on Dutch writer Tim Krabbé, author of ‘The Rider’, cycling’s greatest novel. His book depicts a mythical Tour de Mont Aigoual but, as he explains in this recent article, the myth element was minor and most of the riding was real.
Update 15th June – Garmin Stats:

My only goal for the day was to get to the top of a mountain just over 60km from my place. I knew it was around 1,500m and was aware that other climbs would be required during the day, but had no idea what the overall elevation gain would be; I wanted a bit of a birthday surprise. After swooping across the Tarn river and past the local campsite I was immediately into a sharp incline with a couple of hairpins before reaching the D907, a spectacular road which hugs the Gorges du Tarn and once featured in an episode of Top Gear when Jezza and the boys thundered three supercars over the Viaduc de Millau (the world’s tallest bridge). Perhaps more importantly, the Tour de France has been down here twice in 1954 and 1990 – but tracing those routes is for another time.

Cirque de Saint Chely du Tarn

Cirque de Saint Chely du Tarn

First Climb of the Day

A 10km stretch past the Chateau de Prades and into the medieval town of Sainte-Enimie prepared me for the first real climb of the day. Turning left onto the D986 took me back across the Tarn and straight into a 7km ramp up towards the Causse Mejean at an average gradient of 6%. The sun was shining and the going felt easy despite sticking with my pledge never to use the bottom gear, bearing in mind The Rider’s insistence on keeping it ‘clean as a whistle’. I have no such hangups, just felt it would be better preparation for the Ventoux. This is a way up the southern side of the Gorges du Tarn, one of the many deep scars sliced into the local limestone plateaus (or ‘causses’) by ancient ice and water.

Focus Cayo on the Col de Coperlace

Col de Coperlac

There is a viewing platform at the top, the Cirque de Saint Chely du Tarn, which provides a nice visual goal for le grimpeur, and this was an almost perfect warm-up road except for all the gravel which I knew would complicate my descent later on. I wouldn’t call it a summit, because once you stop climbing there is a long plateau to negotiate before swooping down into the parallel Gorge, but there was a ‘Col’ sign and an obvious photo opportunity…

Gorges de la Jonte

After a brief descent there followed a long, straight stretch over the Causse Mejean; a haunting place, too high to be so flat, and with more than a hint of the Baskervilles. But you’re more likely to find the herds of goats behind the region’s famous Pelardons and Roquefort than a slavering killer hound. Some undulations and windy bits (both senses) punctuated the going, and totally failed to prepare me for the pleasures of the Gorges de la Jonte.

Gorges de la Jonte in winter

Gorges de la Jonte - not human footsteps

I have driven this route many times, and had looked forward to riding it then, but the experience on two wheels is totally different to four, more so than I had expected. There is less braking, making the corners more of a pleasure than a hindrance, and the lower (average) velocity means you see more on the way. I view the Gorges de la Jonte as the pretty sister of the Gorges du Tarn, batting her lashes while he flexes his muscles. There is no serious river to speak of here whereas canoeing the Tarn is a major industry in Lozerian terms. Maybe it is an older Gorge, I’ll have to find that out, but it seems riven by a sharper blade than that which created the Tarn, perhaps wielded by Slartibartfast after his second double espresso of the morning. It was too enjoyable to stop and take photos so I will offer you this shot taken on the way to a day’s snowboarding last winter, I’ll get a better summer shot soon to show some of the limestone stacks. Just after Nabrigas comes delayed reward for scaling the Col de Coperlac in the form of a short descent, possibly the sweetest I have experienced so far. Heading down towards Meyrueis (why so many vowels, it’s like opera…) you have great visibility of the road ahead, cambers banked like the Cresta Run and a vertiginous drop to the right. I appreciate that last part may not be to everyone’s taste, but it sent shivers up my spine in a very good way.

Mont Aigoual

Velo Mont Aigoual

Even the French have problems with all those vowels

Now I was just outside Meyrueis (pronounced May-wray) with two routes up Mont Aigoual on offer; continuing on the D986 which passes through the town and was my slippery driving route up the mountain for snowboarding in winter, or the shorter (and necessarily sharper) route along the D996, past Gatuzieres then turning right onto the D18 to reach the summit via Cabrillac. I was feeling good so took the sharper option which gave me some nice warm-up climbing along the Gorges de la Jonte before reaching a D18 signpost telling me 14km to go. A quick stretch of the legs and it was into the rhythm, keeping a high cadence and low heart rate around 155 for the early stages. It is a very pleasant stretch of road, winding up through pine forests and dotted with picnic tables, the gradient variable but never wicked; the steepest sections barely above 8%, and there was even a brief downhill stretch during which I managed to slipstream behind a car.

Weather station at the top of Mont Aigoual

Weather station at the top of Mont Aigoual

I love the signposts you get on French hills telling you how high you are and how far to the summit. Even with a Garmin Edge 705 telling me all I need to know, it’s nice to have a second opinion on the roadside. I wanted to gradually ramp up the effort over the final 5k so spent more time flicking up a couple of gears and getting out of the saddle. It’s amazing how quickly you can increase the heart rate by 20-30bpm that way, and by this time I had emerged from the forest onto the bald lunar surface, now looking up towards the communications towers and weather station at the summit. Perfect preparation, I thought, for the Ventoux. There is a steep section a few km out, but the last couple are very forgiving and I sprinted from my imaginary red kilometre flag.

View from the top of Mont Aigoual

View from the top of Mont Aigoual

A quick check of the Garmin stats revealed I had done 5,000ft of climbing in 62km, which surprised me as it hadn’t felt like so much up. Within seconds of jumping off the bike my phone rang with a birthday call from my brother, exceptional timing and we spent about 20mins nattering about cycling. The weather station looks more like a castle than a meteorological institution, and at 1567m marks the highest point in the Gard departement. I spotted some snow surviving in various crevices, but my eye was more taken with the roads snaking away down the mountain like ribbons of soft licorice draped by a bored, doodling (and well fed) child. I looked at these on a map later and decided a figure-of-eight ride totalling around 150km would take in all four routes up and down the mountain in an ideal configuration of climbing and descending, only to find a local sportive runs that exact route in September. Something to look forward to. Apparently the Mont Aigoual marks the intersection of the Atlantic and Mediterranean weather systems, and on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees and the Alps. While all this information is available on Wikipedia, I did find that last bit out myself on a former trip by car when I walked to the viewing platform on top of the castle. This time I couldn’t be bothered with that, cleats and all, happy just munching on my cheese and ham baguette in the sunshine.

Focus Cayo at the Belvedere de la Serreyrede

The Belvedere de la Serreyrede

Descent

All that remained was to make my way back home to Castelbouc. I wanted to avoid taking a straight ‘out and back’ route, and knew that a different route down the mountain would take me directly through Meyrueis, the perfect place for a noisette stop ahead of the day’s final climb up onto the Causse Mejean. The only hesitation I had was that turning left onto the D18 was signed as 29km to Meyrueis, right was 24km and, having just climbed it, I knew the road was smoothly surfaced and beautifully contoured all the way. That would have to be done another day, and I had about 1km of euphoric descending before hitting the Prat Peyrot ski station and finding a load of gravel to ruin my fun along the D269. The top section will be a nice descent when the road is sorted out, but by the time I joined the D986 and found an improved surface, the gradient had relented and required pedaling to get over 50km/hr.

L'Abime Bramabiau Sa Riviere Souterraine

L'Abime Bramabiau

L'Abime Bramabiau - Sa Rivere Souterraine en hiver

L'Abime Bramabiau - winter

A suspiciously English-looking family were walking up the hill with two fully-laden donkeys, doubtless retracing Robert Louis Stevenson’s steps from ‘Travels with my Donkey in the Cevennes’, a book he wrote about a trip with a donkey… well, the clue’s in the title. I wish I’d stopped to take a photo, partly to break up all these panoramas with a human touch, but mainly because the little boy dragging his heels at the back looked as if the donkey novelty had worn off about a week ago. L’Abime Bramabiau was worth a snap, however, and if you look closely you’ll see the underground river emerging down below. I got a winter shot of this back in February having missed it a few days earlier when there were even more icicles hanging down. If God has a beard, it probably looks like L’Abime did that day.

Meyrueis, Lozere, 2010

Meyrueis, Lozere, May 29th, 2010

Meyrueis

The final section of the descent was pretty stunning. I’m quickly learning what I look for in a good drop; while I love hairpins going uphill, they get in the way coming down. I like a wavy bit of road on a steep gradient with great visibility, no surprises, and that was exactly what delivered me into Meyrueis. My designated coffee stop was immortalised by the opening lines of Krabbé’s book:

“Meyrueis, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”

Some day soon I will retrace the route in that book, and beyond that perhaps I’ll absorb its economy with words. On this day I was content to enjoy a noisette and look forward to riding home.

Focus Cayo at Grotte de Dargilan

The Grotte de Dargilan

Final Stretch

On leaving Meyrueis, still following the D986, I was straight into the section that had given me the most enjoyable descent of the day earlier on and was slowly finding my rhythm when a guy who must have been 60-plus came roaring past, shoulders rocking, at a searing pace. He was wearing a local club jersey and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to ride with a veteran of the area, so moved through the gears and hung on for dear life. Just holding his wheel had my heart around 175bpm but I felt like I could keep this up for a while and considered a spell setting the pace – however I’m not really comfortable with the etiquette of these situations yet. His occasional glances over the shoulder looked like anxious checks to see if he had dropped me, but were probably invitations to share the work, who knows. Thankfully he turned off after about 10 minutes, up towards a honey farm on a track strewn with beehives. I heard on the radio today that the oldest serving GP in the UK puts his longevity down to a penchant for honey, and on the evidence of this silver bullet I’m inclined to agree. I get through about a jar every fortnight be it on toast, with lemon juice or on porridge, so won’t be changing that habit anytime soon. Something to thank A.A. Milne for.

Causse Mejean

Causse Mejean

Moments later I passed by the Grotte de Dargilan on the other side of the Gorges de la Jonte. If you can drag your eyes away from my bike in the picture above and squint at the other side of the valley, you’ll see the “Dargilan” spelled out in giant letters towards the top. This is the largest underground cave in Europe, worth a look on a rainy day. After a few more wiggles in the road I passed Carnac, by now on the Causses Mejean and staring at a road so straight I imagined Rutger Hauer in hot pursuit. This is the kind of stretch Krabbé complains about in the book, and what makes the area so feared. Ups and downs we can take, but endless flat straights with no protection from the howling headwind are the stuff of nightmares. Where’s Andy B when you need him. I have to say that in the winter this was one of the most spectacular sights I have witnessed; somehow seeing a vast plain covered in sparkling untouched snow was more impressive than any Alpine postcard. I didn’t take any pictures because they could never capture the enveloping blanket effect, but I won’t forget.

Castelbouc tourist placard

Castelbouc tourist placard

Castelbouc

Finally over the Causse I could enjoy riding down the Col de Coperlac into my home Gorge. Well, I say enjoy and this descent will be spectacular when, like the route I chose down the Mont Aigoual, the local commune decides to sort out all the gravel. I overtook three careful mopeds on the way down but could never really open the taps – one smidgeon of sideways movement from my tires was enough to convince me to get an adrenalin rush elsewhere. In this part of the world, that is never far away. Sainte-Enimie was a welcome sight and is a great place for a celebratory pression, but I was looking forward to having that with the deserted friends on my terrace so headed straight up the D907 for home.

Castelbouc, home at last

Castelbouc, home at last

Passing the ‘Panorama de Castelbouc’, the spot where I can regularly spy on tourists spying on me, I noticed a new tourist placard had been erected to explain some of my village’s history and that of the various old castles dotted along the Tarn. In an artist’s impression of Castelbouc my house has unfortunately been obscured by the tree I have been meaning to hack down for a while. However it was good to be back and I enjoyed the final couple of hairpins down to the river with said terrace now in sight. When preparing for my trip to France, I failed to pack the cable which connects my Garmin to the computer, so will update this post later with the route details, but the readout told me that overall it was a decent day’s work at 129.4km distance and 7055ft total elevation, not so far off what I’ll be doing for the Ventoux Sportive next weekend. I will be keeping my legs warm with some shorter explorations in and around the Tarn during the week, even though there is no such thing as an easy ride when you’re based at the bottom of a steep valley. Not that I’m complaining. I will vow, however, to be a little more economical with the suncream…

Safety first

Safety first

3 Comments on “Cycling the Mont Aigoual”

  1. It Box @ All Around the World News

    Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. bmx news

    Nice posts indeed

  3. Justin Lathem

    Thomas a Kempis~ The reflections on a day well spent furnish us with joys more pleasing than ten thousand triumphs.

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