The Pyrenees Mountains create a dividing line between France and Spain. The giants feature strongly in the Tour de France – they’re steeped in history, many of the climbs having formed defining moments in a dozen or so of the grand tours. The Cols of the Pyrenees are long, and largely steady, and they’re interlinked in a network, making it easy to explore more than one in a day if you want.
Mountain weather is notoriously extreme. Thunderstorms are rarely off the cards, however, these are often overnight blasts, and temperatures throughout the summer months tend to sit around 25 to 38 degrees Celsius at their max. If you’re after cooler climes, spring and autumn temperatures sit in the 16 to 24 degree bracket.
There are many must-climb mountains in the Pyrenees – Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Hautacam being some of the best known. This summer, I had the chance to explore three.
I’m lucky enough to have a friend who owns a house in a town around a 20-30 mile spin away from the mountains, but if you’re not in the same position there are tons of hotels in the ski resorts, and holiday homes designed specifically for cyclists in the area.
Col du Soulor
Ride One was a ‘practice climb’ – but at 13km, Col du Soulor was still the second longest climb I’d ever attacked (behind Puig Major, in Mallorca), and the greatest in terms of total ascent.
Our route to the foot of the climb took us to 30 miles, with some Surrey Hillsesque ramps along the way – by which I mean one mile long ascents that can be stormed up if you’re feeling in a position to burn off some extra energy.
The roads were lined with signs informing drivers they must give 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists, and beautifully lacking in pot holes.
We chose to attack the climb from Etchartes (on the North Side), but you can also climb from the East, at Argeles. The ascent began before the first kilometre markers appeared – with a gentle rise alongside the L’Ouzom River, which provided us with some stunning views and a breeze which was welcome.
The first kilometre markers appeared with 12km to go. These markers are a notable feature of the French Pyrenees – they line the Cols, providing riders with information on the distance left to the summit, the average grade of the next km, and the total ascent thus far.
Throughout the next 12km, I found myself motivated by the twist of the road as it disappeared around a corner – hoping that the next bend would reveal a short respite. It never did.
No part of this climb was particularly, excruciatingly tough – what was tough was the regularity.
No part of this climb was particularly, excruciatingly tough – what was tough was the regularity. As you climb away from the river, and into the clouds, the land either side of the road becomes greener and more luscious – creating a distracting view.
The last 3km of this climb might well be the toughest – with a couple of little ramps right when you really need the road to stop. However, the summit reveals stunning views, and there is a café at the top which serves the important business of refueling.
The descent to Argeles is fast but fairly technical – it’s not a ‘let go of the brakes’ and soar sort of freefall. At the base of the mountain, you can join a cycle path, which will take you all the way to Lourdes if that’s the right direction for you. We took the path, and enjoyed the blast back to home, stopping off at the ice cream shack just a couple of miles before the path spat us out in Lourdes.
This beast has been featured in the Tour de France four times – not a huge number compared to some, but this could be largely down to the logistical element that the only way back down is to return via the same road.
Unlike Col du Soulor, Hautacam does provide moments of respite, such as the 5 and 6% stretches around 5km in – but they’re needed for the steeper ramps that are littered throughout the ascent – the kilometers that average at 10% around the middle of the climb and the 13% stinger near the summit.
Hautacam does provide moments of respite, such as the 5 and 6% stretches around 5km in – but they’re needed
I knew there were ramps in this climb, so I approached it with reservation, saving energy for what I’d built up to be a Surrey Hill style mile at 15% somewhere along the way. I don’t suggest you do this – because there is no such stretch. This is a tough climb, and there are some stings along the way – but nothing that will really knock you unless you’re climbing way out of your comfort zone, and over the limit.
The hairpins close to the summit provide a real carrot-on-a-stick as you see yourself getting closer to the tip, and there were plenty of other riders around to leap frog or smile wearily to as they passed.
The descent, as mentioned, is the reverse of the climb. It’s sweeping and fairly steep, with a couple of bends that require attention-to-the-max, and a spin though some smaller towns towards the end.
At the bottom, you can decide to go on to the Tourmalet – the highest mountain of the Pyrenees – if you’re feeling particularly suicidal. We chose instead to wind back via the foothills, with a short but punishing climb to Arrodets-ez-Angles and some rollercoaster lanes back to the village.
Initially, my ride buddies had told me they had no plans to attack the Col du Tourmalet – both claiming to be lacking in fitness and not up to the challenge. It took quite some goading, but I eventually managed to convince them that it was a good idea to climb the tallest of them all.
Nicknamed ‘the terrible mountain’, this ascent has featured in the Tour de France a jaw dropping 82 times. Helped, perhaps by the fact that the peloton is often asked to climb it twice, once from each direction.
You can climb the Tourmalet from Luz Saint Sauveur, or from Sainte Marie de Campan. We went from latter – the former being much more congested with coaches and drivers.
The ascent actually begins when you are around 22km from the summit – when you see a sign reading ‘Col du Tourmalet – 22km’. However, the road remains gentle and the km markers don’t begin until you reach Saint Marie Du Campan.
Here, it’s 16.5km to the top, and the kilometre signs begin. The first stretch is relatively tame – 4, 5, and 6% averages adorn the signs as you pedal away the early miles.
After around 5km of this bliss, the tougher sections begin to emerge, and the road weaves and sways around the mountain side. Here the ascent becomes particularly exposed – making temperatures a factor on a hot day, and from about 10km you’ll begin to see stretches covered by bridges which provide momentary shade.
With 5km to go, you’ll emerge in La Mongie. If you’re touristing, holiday riding, or in a group likely to be split by the climb (we were all three), you should stop here for a drink and a chance to enjoy a little rest.
Climbing out of the town, there’s not long left – and you hit 4km to go as you leave the little settlement behind. From here, the hairpins become an unending source of motivation – especially if you’ve had the pleasure of dropping a member of your crew, or even if you’ve been dropped and can see your ride buddy looping ahead of you. Thankfully, I had one rider ahead, and one behind – the ultimate motivation.
The Tourmalet is the stuff of legends, so of course there are photographers there, ready to try to capture your moment at the final hairpin. They’ll try to stuff a card into your hand as you round the bend – if you can take it from their hand you aren’t working hard enough.
The top is tantalizing – a crevice through the rock that only reveals the famous iron statue -Géant au Col du Tourmalet, as you round the bend.
The statue is carried to the top of the mountain, backed by a procession of cyclists, on the first Saturday of June every summer, and the plaque reads: ‘The Giant of the Tourmalet is the homage of Hautes Pyrenees to the Giants of the road’. There’s a pretty much endless stream of visitors to the shrine.
The descent is thrilling, if a little marred by the drivers making their way to the top in air conditioned comfort that isn’t nearly as fun. You keep rolling down for close to 20 miles, with the odd blast where you might need to pedal. It’s not really that technical – so you can pretty much let go and enjoy, all the way to the bottom, where you may begin to notice signs to Hautacam…
What else to do?
Aside from cycling, there is plenty more to do in the area. We were well and truly there for the holiday experience, as opposed to the pure training camp scenario, so did plenty of exploring off the bike.
Recommended sites include the Aquensis thermal spa in Bagneres de Bigorre, perfect for post ride relaxation. The spa is open before lunch and after lunch every day, and contains a huge ‘Great Basin’, with whirlpool jets and water curtains, and a top floor deck with jacuzzi’s, sun loungers, and saunas.
If you’re a fan of open water swimming, the Lac du Lourdes is a huge lake which is free for all swimmers to access in day light hours. Those who enjoy lake swimming will probably note this is a very different scenario to the UK, where swimmers often enjoy just a couple of hours wedged between more lucrative water sports.
The city in Pau provides plenty of evening entertainment, and the Chateau du Pau is well worth a visit – if just for the views of the mountains from the gardens (and the drinks in neighbouring bars).
There are many fantastic cycling destinations across the globe, but if you’re looking to add one to your bucket list – make it the Pyrenees, and tick it off soon.
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