Over the col du Tourmalet, 1879 style

This is an extract from an account of a summer touring trip to the Pyrenees, published in the London Bicycle Club Gazette (1879). The group of London cycle tourists rode their machines, or more likely pushed them, up all the major cols including the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin & Peyresourde. They were almost certainly riding high wheelers on solid tyres as the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre had yet to be brought to market. According to historian (and cyclist) Graham Robb, cycle touring across the Pyrenees was quite common in the late nineteenth century, and there are accounts of both men and women riding over the highest mountain passes.

More than thirty years would pass before riders competing in the Tour de France would follow in the tyre tracks of these hardy London cycle tourists by pushing their far more technically advanced bicycles up the Tourmalet.

19 September 1879: Luz, over the Col du Tourmalet, to St. Marie de Campan.

Whilst waiting at the smith’s yesterday I was immensely amused watching pigs being washed in the stream which runs close to his house. The method appeared to be to rush the “cochons” in, and, after throwing bowls of water over them, to prevent their exit by summarily assaulting them with a long wooden spoon. My catapult also contributed to their uneasiness, I’m afraid. Before leaving Luz we inspected the curious old fortified church, said to have been built by the Templars in the twelfth century. Soon after eight the party rode out, hut, a kilo or two gone, they were forced to walk for the rest of the way, rising 1674 feet up to Barèges, the road, though a good wide one, being steep and extremely muddy from the heavy rain during the night. We found that town approached by such steep, short zigzags as we have nowhere else seen, quite a labour, in fact, to get the machines up them.

Barèges being 4084 feet above the sea, and the highest of the Pyrenean watering-places, consists of one long, steep street, situate in a narrow desolate valley, which is continually swept by fearful avalanches. The waters being very renowned for healing wounds, etc., the place was consequently full of soldiers, who crowded up the hospital windows on hearing my bugle. Only stopping at this dreary-looking place to purchase provisions, we pushed on up a narrow road which rose gradually at first round the sides of the mountains, and then in steep zigzags right away up to the top of the pass. Near Barèges we tasted some avalanche recently fallen into the Gave, and soon after enjoyed something a little more substantial, icy cold milk. The trudge up for 6 3/4 miles more, rising during that time 2878 feet, proved a great grind, especially towards the top, as the road, a carriage one, being composed of small shale, was naturally very sticky from frequent moisture. It was a dreary walk, mostly bare rock and shale around, and as we were in the clouds nearly all the time we saw very little of surrounding peaks and no views to speak of. Some distance up we lunched on rolls, chocolate and ice cream, the best obtainable to eat.

Arrived soon after two at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, in a small cutting at a height of 6962 feet above sea-level, with a cold drizzle falling, the London Bicycle Club call having been duly sounded, songs sung, and pipes with difficulty lit, the descent was commenced. Soon after we had a fine view of the rugged Pic du Midi de Bigorre, close by, and passed old patches of dirty snow. Although still sticky and pretty steep, Hutchings managed with his strap brake to ride nearly all down to Gripp, and of course arrived long before the rest. The others walked for 9 kilo nearly all down zigzags to the two beautiful little waterfalls, the Chutes d’Artigues, at the top of the little valley of Tremesaïgues. A little higher up we enjoyed a fine way of this narrow valley, which, together with this side of the mountain, far more. green, wooded, and picturesque than the other side of the pass. My brake being hinged all to the top of the fork sent streams of mud down into the bearings when the road was wet, and consequently prevented me from riding this part as I should otherwise have done. The others found their brakes not powerful enough I think.

Beyond the waterfalls we found the road less curly and steep, so rode the rest down to Gripp (3,464 feet) 7 3/4 miles from top of Col, where we had a scratch meal at an auberge called the “Hotel des Voyageurs,” a chicken being at once caught and roasted, and potatoes dug up. Our wants supplied, we ran over a good road farther down the valley to St. Marie de Campan (2 3/4 miles), getting drenched by a sudden shower on the way. At this place the nice hotel we expected to find proved to be a mere auberge, where we had some queer experiences. Our dinner, a poor one, we ate in the best bedroom, tenanted by Jennings and Buckler, and after the small soup tureen was done with it was placed in my bedroom for me to wash in. Jennings and Buckler had a pie dish, between them to wash in. The lot for fifth bed fell on Williams, who at roosting time had to betake himself to a bed in the comer of the kitchen, and draw down the blinds. My bed seemed pretty clean, though rough, but I think someone complained of pouces being about. It rained hard all night.

Distance to-day 21 3/4 miles.

Here’s Octave Lapize, leading the Tour de France over the Tourmalet in 1910:

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    • Jack Thurston

      They did a lot of walking. As did the early racers in the Tour de France. Here’s Octave Lapize on that ‘first crossing’ of the Tourmalet in 1910:

      Octave Lapize