Having driven up the giant Col du Tourmalet yesterday, we thought we’d try another of the Tour de France cols, the Col d’Aspin. The most important quality an organizer of Le Tour can possess is that he or she be a complete and utter sadist. It is completely insufficient to make cyclists ride 200kms/125mls finishing at an altitude of 2115mtrs/6900ft after a 17kms climb at an average gradient of 8%/1 in 12, you have to give them a couple of leg-loosening climbs before they get to “the big finish”. One such intermediate test is the Col d’Aspin: a climb of a mere 12kms/8mls to an altitude of only 1489mtrs/4500ft. It’s pretty close to our campsite so off we set.
Whereas the climb up to the Col du Tourmalet is relatively drab, marred by the ugly scar on the landscape of the La Mongie ski resort, the road up to the Col d’Aspin was completely delightful. There is another ski resort at Payrolle, Nordic skiing this time, but the buildings are in keeping with the mountain atmosphere rather than featureless slabs of concrete. Being a Sunday, we had to negotiate the swarms of bicycles making the ascent through wooded hairpin bends; there was even a tiny tot, about 6 years old, gamely wobbling up accompanied by his father riding shotgun behind him. If the cyclists weren’t enough of a hazard, we rounded one hairpin bend to be faced by a small herd of cows wandering down the road. Cows have little idea of which side of the road they should be on and tend to use all of it as and when they wish. [Ed: Same as driving in Kenya, then.]
Cleverly avoiding a bullfight, we soon arrived at the summit where the normal weekend crowds were enjoying the expected magnificent Pyrenean vistas – and more cows. The cows, as may be seen from my picture, are normally placid if treated with a suitable amount of respect. One complete idiot of a father, his young son sitting astride his neck, very nearly got the bullfight that we had so carefully avoided because he approached one cow too closely. The cow, armed with two sharp horns, went for him horns down and complete with small tossing motions of her head. There were calves around and, with a kid sat on his shoulders, he probably looked like a two-headed monster to the poor beast. Monsieur Idiot rapidly backpedalled, mercifully avoiding stumbling on the rough ground with his child six feet above it. The child, not unnaturally, was scared witless and began screaming. Where do some people leave their brains and why are they allowed to reproduce? (Incidentally, the tall peak to the left in the cow photo is the Pic du Midi de Bigorre.)
Rather than doing a circuit this time, we did a there-and-back. Since the ski resort of Payolle had looked pleasant on our way up, we called in on our way down in search of a spot for a pique-nique. Lo, a lake was signposted, the Lac de Payolle and a very pleasant spot it turned out to be, too. Being Sunday and the fête des grand-pères to boot, dozens of French families together with about 30 motor vans had had the same idea. Those who weren’t indulging in a pique-nique were mostly intent on fishing. Nonetheless, the area was large enough not to feel crowded.
Other than our pique-nique, we were the odd ones out. There was a flush feeding the lake where a few dragonflies were buzzing about which just had to be stalked. Eventually a hawker female became relatively cooperative and began ovipositing where the camera could just about see her – my 9th new species for this trip, a Common Hawker (Aeshna juncea).
What a good way to end a most enjoyable and cloudless day in the mountains. 🙂