RCUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the Pyrenees
From where to stay, to the climbs to ride - everything you need to know when planning a trip to the Pyrenees
Alongside the Alps, the Pyrénées offer one of the greatest cycling challenges in Europe. With climbs that are often steeper than their Alpine counterparts, in a climate that is drier and hotter thanks to their positioning over the French and Spanish border, they offer a unique and challenging experience.
Made famous primarily by the Tour de France – and in some cases the Vuelta a España – the Pyrénées is one of the two mountain ranges that proves decisive in the general classification as the race takes its winding route to Paris.
That means the riding is spectacular, and arguably should be on every keen road cyclists’ bucket list. Here we provide our one-stop guide to cycling in the Pyrénées, helping you to plan your trip. You can also find our guide to road cycling in the Alps here.
When should I go?
The Pyrénées are further south than the Alps, which means the climate in the area is slightly warmer and drier. However, as with all mountain ranges, winter can hit hard, especially at altitude, so while the lowlands at the base may remain temperate for most of the year, the paved roads approaching the peaks are less fortunate.
That means you may not be able to scale the highest peaks until June, because climbs like the Col du Tourmalet, which tops out at 2,115m, can still be covered in winter snowfall. The Tour de France passes in July, and it’s rare to still spot snowfall at the side of the road during this time.
As with the Alps, you expect the best guarantee of good weather in the peak summer months of June, July and August, though September is also a fine time to visit, with good weather and less tourist traffic.
The base of climbs can reach as high as 40 degrees in the height of summer, but again, as is always the case when riding in the mountains, you need to be prepared for changeable conditions and also be prepared for much cooler conditions at the top. The temperature differential between the base of a climb and its 2,000m peak can cause serious issues, especially if you arrive damp with sweat, take a break at the top, then find you’ve cooled down and need to make the descent without any insulation.
Where should I base myself?
The Pyrénées stretch across the border of France and Spain, so there’s no shortage of places to stay, from major towns to remote mountain villages. Here are just a few of the most popular options.
Historic Lourdes is situated in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, and allows very close access to the Hautacam, with the Cols du Aubisque, Soulor, Tourmalet and Luz-Saint-Saveur also within easy reach. Alongside arguably the easiest access to the majority of the major Pyrénéan climbs, Lourdes is also a major cultural hub, and a pilgrimage destination for Catholics, so it has all the amenities of a tourist town, even if it can lack a little subtlety as a result.
Pau is one of the main gateways to the Pyrénées for the Tour de France, and has been visited by the Tour more than any other town or city, apart from Paris and Bordeaux. 2016 will mark the 68th time the Tour as either started or finished a stage.
Pau is slightly to the west of the central Pyrénées, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of france. While it offers good access to the mountains, in particular the Aubisque and Soulor, it has the added benefit of providing flat cycling around its immediate area, as well as the potential for an out-and-back day trip to the Atlantic coast and the seaside resort of Biarritz.
The principality of Andorra is home to a number of professional cyclists, including Joaquim Rodriguez, thanks to being situated right in the heart of the Pyrénées. However, the Plateu de Beille aside, it’s not particularly near any of the most famous Tour de France climbs, which are largely situated to the west in the Hautes-Pyrénéan region.
However, this gives it a charm of its own, with quieter mountain passes the order of the day. That’s not to say they’re not challenging, however, with the dual ascents of the Collada de Beixalis reaching grades of 20 per cent, the Collada de la Gallina averaging nine per cent over 11km, and Els Cortals d’Encamp, which features as the final climb of the brutal La Purito sportive, all within easy reach.
Vielha e Mijaran is just on the Spanish side of the Pyrénées, yet offers great access to Bagnères-de-Luchon as well as the Col de Peyresourde and Le Pla d’Adet.
As a wildcard that remains relatively untouched by tourists, Vielha e Mijaran offers a true escape from the hustle and bustle of normal life, while also offering a taste of Spanish culture with your cycling.
Who says you need to be right next to the mountains? Girona, another wildcard entry, is a base for several current pro cyclists, thanks to the surrounding smooth roads, excellent climate and variety of cycling you can experience.
While it’ll take a short drive to get to the foothills of the Pyrénées on the Mediterranean coast, if you stay put Girona offers everything from coastal riding to access to smaller climbs if you want a taste of the big stuff further inland.
How to get there
The Pyrenees aren’t quite as well served as the Alps, with the major cities of Perpignan and Bayonne situated on the coast, relatively far from the major cycling climbs in the mountains.
The closest major city served by an airport is Toulouse, with direct flights from the major airports in the UK. Its central location is ideal for a transfer closer to the central Pyrénées .
An alternative is to fly over another border, into either Girona or Barcelona, which both offer direct flights from the UK and access to the central and south Pyrénées.
Like the Alps, there are countless climbs in the Alps, from major Tour de France cols to hidden backroads, and you’re unlikely to be short of options if you really want to test the legs. Here are some of the highlights – and needless to say, they head uphill.
The Hautacam has seen the likes of Indurain, Riis, Armstrong and Nibali assert themselves over their rivals on the road.
The Hautacam is an incredibly challenging climb to take on, thanks to an uneven gradient which fluctuates all the way to the top, sapping riders of rhythm. While a little shorter than many mountain climbs at 13.6km in length, the road rarely drops below eight per cent and tips up to 13 per cent three kilometres from the summit.
Length: 13.6km Average gradient: 7.8 per cent Elevation gain: 1,064m
The Col d’Aubisque has a long history with the Tour de France, first featuring in 1910. Since 1947, when reliable records began, the race has passed over the col no less the 45 times. It rarely features as a summit finish, however, with only three recorded, in 1971, 1985 and 2007.
There are two ascents, from the west in Laruns, and the east from Argeles-Gazost. The letter also requires you to crest the Col du Soulor, making it a serious 30km effort. You can even add in the quieter road via the Col des Bordères, if you’re really looking for col-smashing bragging rights.
West from Laruns Length: 16.6km Average gradient: 7.2 per cent Elevation gain: 1,190m
East from Argelès-Gazost (including Col du Soulor) Length: 30.1km Average gradient: 4.1 per cent Elevation gain: 1,247m
Col du Tourmalet
Here’s the key fact you’ll be most interested in: the Tourmalet is the highest mountain pass in the Hautes-Pyrénées region at 2,115m, earning the nickname “The Terrible Mountain”. The Tourmalet features on the bucket list of many cyclists – and for good reason.
If you thought the Aubisque had featured regularly in the Grand Boucle, the Tourmalet is on another level. It’s featured in the Tour de France no less than 55 times since 1947, and before the Second World War barely skipped a year, either.
As with the Aubisque, their are two main ascents, east from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, and west, starting at Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Both are fairly similar in grade (very rarely higher than ten per cent) and length, meaning a double ascent in one day is a realistic possibility if you’re after a really tough challenge.
At the top of this famous mountain, you’ll also find the Jacques Goddet memorial and Le Geant du Tourmalet statue at the top – both worthy of a conquering picture.
West from Luz-Saint-Sauveur Length: 19km Average gradient: 7.4 per cent Elevation gain: 1,404m
East from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan Length: 17.2km Average gradient: 7.4 per cent Elevation gain: 1,268m
Col de Peyresourde
Situated in Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées, and almost exactly central from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the Col de Peyresourde climb has featured in the Tour 45 times since 1947.
You can ride it from the east, from Bagnères-de-Luchon, where it features a steadily undulating gradient. It’s one for the scenery-lovers, with an average gradient of 6.6 per cent allowing some time to take in the stunning vistas.
The climb from the western side is decidedly tougher, despite being practically half the length. Riding from Avajan, there’s far less shelter from vegetation, meaning the elements can play their part in making the climb a real challenge.
Regardless of which way you decide to attack the Peyresourde, our man Mike Cotty reports that on offer at the top are 12 crepes for five Euros . Surely worth the effort?
West from Armenteule Length: 8.3km Average gradient: 7.6 per cent Elevation gain: 629m
East from Bagnères-de-Luchon Length: 15.3km Average gradient: 6.1 per cent Elevation gain: 939m
The Pla d’Adet first featured on the Tour de France in 1974 – so is a more recent addition to our TV screens. In its 1970s heyday, the climb was won by icons like Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien Van Impe, but has featured less frequently since, with Rafal Majka winning the day on the last visit in 2014.
At 10.7km in length, starting at the town of Vignec, the gradient averages at eight per cent, making this a really tough climb. There’s no opportunity to ease into it, either, with the opening sections pitching up to 12 per cent, before it eases off. There’s an 800m-long plateau at the 7km mark, before the profile rises again until the final flattening in the last 700m.
Length: 10.7km Average gradient: 8 per cent Elevation gain: 861m
Package or DIY?
There are two fundamental ways to get organised for your trip: by using a tour operator to do the legwork for you, or by organising it yourself – and there are pros and cons to both options.
A tour operator will take much of the hassle out of your trip and most will take care of everything once you’ve arrived, from airport transfers to hotel bookings, routes to bike hire. You’ll find options to suit a range of options but the downside of going this way is (sometimes) the cost and that you are largely bound by the itinerary of the trip.
Alternatively, you can arrange to visit the area yourself, which can be cheaper and gives much more flexibility because you’re not tied to a set itinerary. Want to wake up in the morning, look at a map and pick out a climb to ride? Then you’re better off on a DIY trip. There are a range of campsites deep in the area which offer a more outdoorsy feel, while there are also plenty of chalets, holiday homes and hotels peppered around the towns, village and resorts of the Pyrénées.
Preparation – your bike, gearing and what to take
Riding in the Pyrenees for some is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so getting your preparation right is key to making the most of your time around some of the highest paved peaks of Europe. Much of our advice here carries over from our guide to the Alps.
Firstly, you need to consider the terrain. This means making sure that your bike is setup to deal with prolonged climbs – unlike almost anything we have here in the UK – so you’re not left at the side of the road, defeated. While very strong climbers may prefer a standard double 53-39t chainset, most riders will appreciate a semi-compact 52-36t chainset or, better still, a compact 50-34t chainset paired to an 11-28t cassette. If you know if you know climbing really isn’t your strength, opting for a cassette with a 30 or 32-tooth sprocket (if your bike will accept it) will give you an extra gear or two to get out of jail.
Gearing will only get you so far. Ensuring you’re well-trained for the climbs and distances you’re going to be covering will go a long way to making the trip a more enjoyable experience. A route planning tool like Strava will help you plot your routes, as well as gauge the length and severity of the climbs you’re set to take on.
As with other mountain ranges, the weather can change very quickly, although in the Pyrénées you’re slightly less likely to encounter rain than you are in the Alps. Still, the altitude means the temperature can drop significantly, so carrying an extra layer for descents is highly recommended.
To play it safe, you should pack arm and leg warmers, a waterproof jacket, a gilet, long-fingered gloves and shoe covers alongside your summer kit.
You also need to ensure that you’re carrying at least the spare equipment you would have for a normal ride at home, with extra spares in your luggage just in case. This should include spare tubes, tyre levers, and a pump or CO2 canisters, as well as puncture repair kit, a versatile multi-tool (some may even want to bring a toolkit for larger repairs back at base), and anything you may need over the course of your trip, including chain lube and the charger for an electronic groupset, if you have one.
Remember that airlines have strict rules about what can and can not be carried in hand luggage, so be sure to check this before flying out. You should also factor in the cost of transporting a bike box in the hold if you intend to fly with your own bike, and make sure it meets the airline guidelines.
Did you know?
The Pyrénées reach from the Atlantic Ocean in the west, to the Mediterranean in the east, over a distance of 450km. The range creates a natural barrier between France and Spain, with a noticeable climatic change between the green pasture of the slopes in southern France and the baked, dry landscapes of northern Spain.
Events and sportives you might want to try
L’Ariégeoise – The Ariegeoise sportive gives a taste of sportive cycling in the French Pyrénées for everyone, with four different routes. You can attempt La Passéjade at 69km and 915m of climbing, all the way up to the Ariégeoise XXL, which covers 169km and 4,378m of climbing and finishes on the Plateau de Beille.
Rapha Cent Cols Challenge – 2016 marks the final year in which Rapha will run the 10-day adventure in one go in the Pyrénées – from 2017 onwards the challenge will be split into eastern and western versions. It’s a ten-day event, with at least 4,000m of ascent each day – apart from the final day, where a restful 3,750m is ridden. One for the strongmen.
Haute Route Pyrenees – As with the Alpine version, instead of just one single ride, the Haute Route ties together seven consecutive stages. You start in Anglet, on the Atlantic coast, criss-crossing the Hautes-Pyrénées region. The final stage sees riders leave the mountains, heading for the finish line in Toulouse.
Montée du Géant du Tourmalet – Not a sportive, but a gathering of cyclists who escort the annual transportation of the sculpture of 1910 Tour winner Octave Lapize, the Giant of the Tourmalet, to the summit after its winter hibernation in Bagneres de Bigorre. It’s a unique opportunity to get involved in a real cycling pilgrimage. Best of all, it’s free.
La Purito – Named after its patron, current Katusha climbing superstar Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, the sportive takes in the Coll de la Rabassa, Collada de la Gallina, Alto de la Comella and Else Cortals d’Encamp for a truly epic day of climbing. It even had the professional peloton concerned when the 145km long route served as stage 11 of the 2015 Vuelta a España.
Quebrantahuesos – This is Spain’s biggest sportive and the name translates to ‘bone breaker’, which gives you an idea of just how tough it is. The full route is more than 200km long and takes in the Col du Somport, Col du Marie Blanque and Col du Portalet in both the French and Spanish Pyrenees. There’s also a short 85km route.
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