Col de Marie Blanque (1035m) - A Cycling Loop in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques

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Wednesday 11 March 2015

Col de Marie Blanque (1035m) - A Cycling Loop in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques

After attempting a ride up the snowy Col du Pouralet on Sunday, we took to the saddle once more today to try our legs on another nearby Tour de France climb, the Col de Marie Blanque. At 'just' 1035m this testing climb is neither one of the largest or longest climbs of le Tour and is often tackled in tandem with the infamous Col d'Aubsique which tends to attract more attention. However, the climb is certainly not to be underestimated either, particular the top of the western approach with 4km in excess of 10%! Plus, with a fantastic position right near the mouth of the Vallee d'Ossau it affords some wonderful views of the valley, surrounding mountains and cliff faces whichever side you choose to tackle.

From our base in Louvie-Juzon we were closest to the eastern ascent, which starts properly in the village of Bielle. From here the climb is 11.3km long with an average of 5.1%, rising 576m. Unlike many climbs we'd tackled on our adventure, the hardest sections on this one are closest to the bottom with a series of kilometres hovering at around 8% (the steepest is 8.5%). This does slacken off near the top though with a couple of sections nearly flat.

Beneath a bright blue springtime sky we soon covered the few kilometres to Bielle and began the ascent. Several long switchbacks quickly carried several hundred metres higher and revealed the first magnificent view of the day, right down the Vallee d'Ossau. Despite a faint haze hanging over the valley the snow capped Pic du Midi d'Ossau stood out clearly from the majestic ridgleline which marked the distant head of the valley. It was a wonderful moment to see the contrast between those distant cold, hard peaks and the nearby lush green pastures bathed in sunshine with the several herds of cows recently put back to pasture of the long winter.

Climbing onwards we were soon sweating as we put the steepest part of the climb behind us and emerged onto the flattened middle section, the Plateau du Benou. This scenic plateau at around 800m altitude is several kilometres long and wide, more reminiscent of the Durham Dales on a sunny summers afternoon that the harsh Pyrenees. If it wasn't for the golden eagles and griffon vultures circling and jumping on the slopes and the rocky 2000m summits beyond the plateau we could have thought we were taking a gentle ride back home.

The final push to the summit took us through a snowy forests with the remnants of snowmen and sled tracks slowly melting beneath the weak sun that broke through the dense branches. Sadly for us the trees blocked out much of the warming effect of the sun and, as we were now above 900m with snow drifts by the roadside, the air was decidedly chilly. The cooling effect wasn't helped by the much flatter sections of road, even slightly downhill at times, allowing us to go faster and add windchill as well! It was goosebumps all the way to the summit.

But, emerging onto the Col de Marie Blanque after less than an hour of ascent we were very pleased to have made the trip. The saddle of this col is flanked by green areas and trees close by, but to the south a huge grey cliff face rises up near vertically, while to the north a 1400m peak is just visible. With barely a breath of wind when we arrived and no other visitors (rare for the cols we visited), after a few quick photos, we decided to get comfy and lay down in the sun for an hour like lizards absorbing the heat.

As mid-afternoon approached we decided it was time to move on so got prepared to leave only to find ourselves chatting with a french road cyclist who'd just arrived. He had just ascended the harder western ascent (average 7.5% over 9km, with a max gradient of 15%) and was resting as well. We (somehow) explained our plan to descend to the west towards Escot and then loop back around the north of the mountains via Lurbe-Sainte-Christau and along the D918 to Arudy, around 40km of riding before we reached our camping once more. However, this incredibly lean 63 year who said he had climbed the Col du Marie Blanque 121 times (66 from the harder western side) informed us our planned road was closed due to a collapsed section. There was narrow bit remaining we could try, but it might be better to take the longer route via Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

We pushed on regardless down the ice cold descent which was still in shadow most of the way and arrived at the bottom highly chilled and wondering if we'd made the right choice to do this loop. Now we either had to ride another 30km or so, or climb the hard side of the Col de Marie Blanque. We opted for the loop, but chose to chance the collapsed road section. We were glad we did.

The route home along the D918 was a real treat, such a stark contrast to the mountains with rolling pastures, remote farmsteads and forests hanging above the river Gave cutting through the land. It was beautiful, quiet and peaceful and although our legs did start flagging by the end we easily negotiated the tricky collapsed section of road and arrived in Arudy feeling exhilarated by a wonderful day on the bikes.

The final kilometres on the D920 back to Louvie-Juzon passed swiftly and we were soon back at the camping for a much longed for shower and food in the twilight sun slowly disappearing behind the same peaks we had circled around. A brilliant day and a great cycling loop in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

Cycle Information
Motorhome Base: Louvie-Juzon (Camping Le Rey)
Start/ End Point: Louvie-Juzon
Distance: approx 50km
Ascent: approx 700m (plus rolling countryside)
Average Gradient Col de Marie Blanque: 5.1%
Max Gradient Col de Marie Blanque: 10%

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