Peter English is an Australian journalist, journalism scholar, author and member of the VeloClub. In the article below, he talks about venturing to Port d’Envalira by bike and what to expect from Tour riders when they get there.
On top of the hill on the other side of the valley there is a kettle of what looks like vultures. The house binoculars and guide suggest some doubt – it could be buzzards – but these birds of prey chirp as we plan routes through the quieter but still spectacular eastern end of the high Pyrenees. Today’s ride tackles the monster of Port d’Envalira in Andorra and it’s only a few pedal strokes that I wonder when the carcass of my tired legs will be dismantled.
It’s day four of a five-stage journey and we cheat driving to Ax-les-Thermes, a spa town with more hyphens than commuters in the train parking lot. Cracked deep into an intersection of sharp peaks, it has a ski resort on a lookout, a spa and casino at the base, and Andorra higher, higher, higher up the road. Despite its postcard setting, this region is really just an appetizer in the Pyrenees and compared to the profile of the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque, it is an Australian vacation on the Sunshine Coast snoozy in the place of the high flight Côte d’or.
But in 2021 the Tour includes two stages on these less traveled roads, starting with the hilly trek from Carcassonne to Quillan. Stage 15 is then a climbing event which must conquer the Port d’Envalira, finishing in the Principality of Andorra for only the sixth time in the history of the race. He really should visit more often, for the sake of it and the pain.
In 1997, Henk Vogels was at the forefront trying to defend the yellow of his GAN teammate Cédric Vasseur on a profile which, similar to 2021, had the Port d’Envalira before the finish on a mountain goat type stage. . “One of the toughest days of my life on the bike,” he says. “Downstairs I saw a sign saying ’35 km feeding zone’ – and ‘KOM 35 km’. Usually you see a sign like “KOM 1 km”, not 35 km. “
Vogels, who finished third on the Champs-Élysées that year, finished in a grupetto containing climbers when the 252 km stage finally came to an end. Jan Ulrich won in 7 hours 46 minutes, taking the lead in the overall standings – and effectively sealing the yellow – edging out Marco Pantani, Richard Virenque, Francesco Casagrande and Bjarne Riis. After a job like this, it’s no wonder some runners from this era retire for a cocktail in the bedroom.
At a tourist pace, our ride is much safer, both in the short and long term. Passports packed, two explorers from Andorra set off, leaving Ax-les-Thermes and starting an ascent which, over the next 34.7 km, reached an average of 4.8%. It only includes one meter of descent – I missed it – against 1660m of ascent, according to my definitely functional Wahoo.
At first the road is flanked by thick forest and Ariège, but as it gently slopes the landscape opens up with seemingly endless alpine meadows beneath the rugged mountain peaks. . It’s midsummer and the wildflowers sway in the breeze, the streams can’t help but fight gravity, and the echo of cowbells can help adjust a low cadence.
As the altitude increases, there are no more trees offering protection, leaving the path in front of it in plain view as it winds towards the horizon. It wouldn’t be fun with just any wind.
There are occasional switchbacks requiring acceleration from the upright station, but this is mostly a sustained seated effort over long, long stretches. A few towns add to the variety, including L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre, which means “the hospital near Andorra”. If there was still a first aid station, it would be quite a luxury for a city of a hundred inhabitants. Instead, there’s a quaint train station and basic shops if a stop is desperately needed halfway up the climb. This time it was not.
A few kilometers further on is the junction for the Col du Puymorens. From there, the runners will have a short descent, leaving them 10.7 km at 6.7% to the top.
This will only be the ninth time that the Tour will greet the Port d’Envalira. It is the highest pass in the Pyrenees, connecting France to Spain, but many motorists avoid the summit through a bypass tunnel. They miss.
Despite its relative size, the road has room to the side and any momentary discomfort is quickly erased by the views. The experience couldn’t be further from driving in South East Queensland, but there is some familiarity with the screams of occasional passengers in the car. One of the perks of being unilingual is that I have no idea what they are saying. They certainly don’t shout “wanker” with a bogan accent, but it’s not “hat” or “go” either.
Later we wonder if we were allowed to take this route, but it came with the recommendation of a local guide. The border guards were not disturbed either, not having looked up every time we passed through the cabins, so the passport remained in the pocket and there is no proof of entry to with the exception of one heavily reviewed Strava post.
At the border post, shortly before the village of Pas de la Casa, most of the climb is done and the legs are tired and sore; not due to steep sections, just because of the accumulated fatigue. The view of the ski resort offers something to aim for. Now much more than its name, “The Pass of the One House” is a thriving village that finally comes just over 2,000m above sea level, the height where my adventure-oriented travel insurance drops to zero. There is no stopping. My super housekeeper promises to drag me below that limit before calling emergency service. I think it is useful.
The last 300 meters of climbing in thin air is the slowest and most stifling of my recreational career. The almost 5 km last half an hour, despite maximum lengths of only 8%. In either direction, there is a spotty view of chairlifts in a majestic peaked arena that is much easier to enjoy on the way down. In the paradise of predatory birds, I do not spy on any danger and I know that I will reach the top safely.
At the top, 2,408m above sea level, I ignore Velominati rule # 95 and lift my bike high above my head, the exhilaration beyond any sense of shame. This photo is still my Souvenir Henri Desgrange. Pro tip if you’re planning on doing the same: Make sure you steer clear of the visual pollution from the BP gas station camped right at the top.
In total, he took 2 hours 33 minutes from Ax-les-Thermes, an hour less than Lucas Hamilton three years earlier. He was probably also on vacation.