Well, who would have thought that two areas of the Pyrenees could offer such distinctly different cycling, after all mountains are mountains aren’t they? 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. So we could put the theory that mountains are mountains, plain as, to the test.
I suppose we should have realised before leaving that the Hautes Pyrenees have the more ‘famous’ Tour de France climbs located there. Names like the Peyresourde and Tourmalet (although we didn’t sample the latter, more on why later). So if the area has the more famous climbs it must be the tougher area, right? Well not really, to throw a spoke in the works.
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 moan road.
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.
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. 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%.
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.
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 Giron 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 as 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!
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 as 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 rweally 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.