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Variety in the Pyrenees

Well, who would have thought that two areas of the Pyrenees could offer such distinctly different cycling. Luckily we had the good fortune to stay in two different regions of the Pyrenees in October, starting off our trip in the Hautes Pyrenees and then finishing the second week in the Ariege further east.

The Hautes Pyrenees have the more ‘famous’ Tour de France climbs located there. Names like the Peyresourde and Tourmalet. The second base, the Ariege has fewer famous climbs, but massively more choices of lanes, medium sized cols and generally more places to ride!

Azure skies top of Peyresourde

My general impression was that the Hautes Pyreenes, certainly around the town of Luchon where we stayed, had lots of tough climbs, some famous, some less so, but all have featured in the Tour at some point. Sure, you could cycle down the main valley road and do a short detour up the gentle Col de Ares at 5%, but it would not be a very exciting ride – cycling away from the mountains and then slogging back to base camp up the main road. So far less to choose from than the Ariege.

However, we did some pretty stunning rides from Luchon. No warm up mind you, straight off uphill almost immediately every time, which felt sore! On our first day we cycled up the Peyresourde down to the valley on the other side, with a beautiful lake. Then up the Col D’Azet from the valley with stunning views at the top. This route had very open views of all the surrounding mountains as it is not overly forested, which is nice as you get a sense of the geography that surrounds you. The ride back conveniently skirted down and round the valley back to the Peyresourde, thereby missing a climb which was a relief. The gradients were generally 8%-9%, so quite tough. The changes in gradient were fairly gradual though so you could get into a rhythm, no lumps and bumps here.

Stormy trailhead day 4 Hospice De France

On day 2 we tackled the Port de Bales. Funnily enough it was featured in a big write up in Cyclist magazines October issue which I bought in the airport! It made it sound tough, which it was. This road was quite different. Much wilder, less (read almost zero) traffic compared to the Peyresoude. It was also tougher to ride as the gradient changes were quite frequent meaning it was hard to keep a steady pace. But it did feel amazing being in the wilds of the Pyrenees, you’re generally climbing through pine forests, with occasional glimpse down the steep sided road to the river valley below.

Sheep Jam. Port de Bales

It’s only in the last 3kms that the forest gives way to grassy moors and you get the idea that you are on a big expanse of mountain! The climb is around 20 or so Kms so it’s long, and the gradient is tough again around 8%-9%.

Fuelling up after super long tough Port de Bales, featuring in 2020 TdF

On day 3 we thought it would be a laugh to ride into Spain and back. We were recommended to go that particular day by our hosts at the super freerangechalet, seeing as there would be no lorry traffic into Spain on the Sunday. The ride goes straight up out of Luchon, twisting back and forth on some gradual hairpins, nothing too dramatic. It is fairly steep though so quite a tough climb at around 9%. The view at the top only looks back down the valley to France, you have to descend about a kilometre to see down the stunning Val D’Arran with its steep sided valley that seems to go on a long way into the haze of the midday sun. The town at the bottom of the Col du Portillon is a typical Spanish holiday town, restaurants and bars lining the main road. We headed on down the valley for about 20 kms virtually all slightly downhill which was nice. Here we headed up the Col de Mente, which was super tough. Mainly because it seems to be very exposed to the midday sun beating down on its slopes! It’s also quite long and fairly steep.

Looking down into Spain Val D’Arran

On day 4 we decided to cycle, despite the gloomy and threatening weather. It was probably a mistake, should’ve had the day off. We cycled up to the Hospice de France and halfway up Superbagneres, to the Devils waterfall. Very impressive too. But we got soaked and it was pretty horrid, at altitude it get colder that much quicker. Hospice de France was super tough, but the half climb of superbagneres was fairly easy, just a challenge dodging the wind blown chestnuts on the road on the way downhill.

On day 5 we went for a great walk up the valley side, opposite Superbagneres, there were good views of the ski runs and the town spread out in the valley below. The following day we set off for our second base camp in Foix, 150kms distant, and with 2 cols to climb. The route to Foix took us downhill in the chilly 10 degree morning air, for a good 20kms, so this wasn’t that great a start. However the Col d’Ares was a very pleasant 5% and we gained a fair bit of height, annoyingly only to go downhill again to the start of the Col named Portet D’Aspet. It’s quite a tough climb at 8%-9%, and also in a narrow river valley with forests either side. Nice and cooling in the summer, but in the shaded parts and touch chilly! Never mind, the descent which is almost 30kms (!!) to St Girons was bathed in lovely warming sunshine, and the upper slopes on that side of the col were not forested or in such a narrow steep valley. From St Girons we followed a very nice road for a good 40km to Massat, quite a narrow and wooded river valley, but much warmer now it was afternoon. The gradient was easy, never rising above 3% or 4%, so we made good progress. We’ve been to Massat a few times, so for once we’re cycling in familiar territory. We hit the lower slopes of the Col de Port, really easy at 7% and after 10kms turned up the Mur de Peguere. This was pretty murderous, the first km was 17%-20%, so hard, we crawled up. The climb eased as you progressed to 8%-9% so still hard. It was over fairly quick being only 5kms or so in length. The best thing now was we had zero uphill left and 30kms all the way downhill at 7%-8% to Foix. A really fast exhilarating descent! We were so glad to have the warmest of welcomes (read nice food!!) at the super cyclepyrenees.

Cycling over to Foix from Luchon. Fabio Carsartelli’s memorial Col Dr Portet D’Aspet.

In Foix we did 3 days of riding, and it was a lot easier than the riding we did in Luchon. Perhaps that was a subconscious decision, as there are some big climbs in this area of the Ariege. I’d describe the rides here as scenery spotting rides, as we headed for some famous local landmarks. On day one we headed down the quieter road towards Andorra, our first climb was Montolieu. This is not somewhere we have been before. It’s a pretty little village with a very distinctive tower perching above the narrow rustic streets. Moss grows in the middle of the single track road here, it really is out of the way. We then headed to Les Cabannes, which is the town at the bottom of the climb to the famous Plateaux de Beille cross country ski resort. Here we headed up the other side of the valley to the road at the top known as the Route des Corniches. It’s a great climb of 7% with some nice switchbacks. We didn’t get to see the more spectacular bits of the Route des Corniches, but headed back to base on the busier, but still pleasant main road. The drivers in France have an all round courtesy and respect to cyclists, as our hosts explained, it’s more to do with insurance laws than being in the home nation of the Tour de France, where drivers are presumed at fault in any incident with a cycle.

Tower at Montolieu

The next ride we did was to a Col well known to us called Montsegur, it’s featured in the TdF quite recently. We’ve cycled it 3 times before, but always from Belesta, which is the longer and tougher side with the hairpin bends. This time we cycled up it from the other direction, which is way easier. Unfortunately coming down the other side I had a spectacular tubeless failure and spent an hour trying to fix it, until much to the disgust of my ride partner, put an inner tube in. I called in at the amazingly well stocked bikeshop in Laroque-d’Olmes

Cyclolmes bikeshop

The following ride was a bit gruelling, it seemed that despite feeling fine, perhaps we weren’t and nor was my Garmin as it only recorded half the ride. It was quite a long ride, around 50 miles, round a lake on battered old roads to the cave at Mas D’Azil, which the main road goes through and is so spectacular. Especially on a bright sunny day where you go from bright blinding sunlight to the coolness and calm of the cave.

Cave at Mas D’Azil, spectacular

Next we headed up a climb on backroads to the D117 to Bastide De Serou, where we headed up the climb, new to us, towards Sentenac de Serou and ultimately finishing just below the Col de Peguere. Whilst it was a great climb, with lush pine forests and views and topping out at almost 1300m, we felt shattered from all the cycling and didn’t really enjoy it. The descent to Foix is a highlight, 16 miles of freewheeling, but our numbed brains hardly processed the exhilaration, and all the will we could muster was to think about cornering and braking safely rather than enjoying it. We still managed to walk into Foix after to enjoy the atmosphere of the medieval centre, with the imposing Chateaux.

Chateaux Foix, not the traditional view!
The usual view, Inc medieval houses.

The final day of our holiday was a trip to see the famous underground river at Laboiuche. It’s near to where we were staying so we had a pleasant walk down the voie vert, the old rail line, to the attraction. You descend into the caves and jump onto a big aluminium boat with a guide who shunts the boat along, talking in fast French, mostly unintelligible (!). It’s s really spectacular experience however, so a nice way to finish our stay.

Underground river tour Labouiche
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