We often watch the Tour De France on TV and dream of cycling in the Pyrenees. Tour de France history has taken riders to many iconic climbs in the Pyrenees. Cyclists will be familair with the as Col du Tourmalet, Col du Soulor, Col d’Aspin, Port de Balès, Col de Tentes, Col de Couraduque, Col de Portet d’aspet, Col de Peyresourde, and the Col de Menté, to name a few. Not only do they test riders, but the views from the top are unforgettable. With vistas to take your breath away, it makes all the hard work getting to the top worth the challenge.
The Pyrenees is a giant wall of mountains between France, Spain, and Andorra sits in between. It stretches over 270 miles long and separates the countries. The highest point is the Pico de Aneto which sits in the clouds at 3404m high. If you are looking for some incredible climbs, then the Pyrenees is the place to go. The roads twist and turn through the mountains and run through beautiful traditional villages in front of snow capped mountains. You have 500 Cols here of over 1000 meters which gives you an incredible amount of roads to explore.
Why Cycle the Pyrenees
Are Pyrenees cycling holidays a good idea? As far as first thoughts go, many people tend to think of a cycling holiday to be the Alps or Mallorca, but the Pyrenees is a hidden gem that very few people tend to visit. It’s fairly remote unless you manage to fly into Lourdes, but that makes it much quieter than most cycling destinations, and it has much more riding that can be done. You have so many famous climbs, incredible cycling routes, beautiful towns, and amazing food and drink. In this article, we’re going to tell you why this is a perfect cycling destination and what you need to know before booking.
The best place for us to start is to tell you about some of the incredible challenging climbs that you can ride in the Pyrenees. Although there are many different mountains in the region, these are some climbs we highly recommend conquering, and nearly all of these can be ridden from the tiny village of Argeles Gazost near Lourdes.
Col du Tourmalet
The famous Col du Tourmalet comes in at 2115m high but it’s not the height that makes it so famous, it’s its legend.
Journalist Alphonse Steines was the pioneer behind the creation of the Tourmalet. When the mountain had nothing but farm tracks running up its slopes, Steines had a dream of building a road to climb the Tourmalet.
He almost found himself stranded on the mountain but reported back to Henri Desgrange, the first Tour de France organiser, “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly feasible”. In return for a not insubstantial amount of money, the road up the Tourmalet was built and the stage was set for the Tour to cross the Tourmalet.
As Octave Lapize crossed the finish line on stage 10 of the 1910 Tour de France, which featured the dreaded Tourmalet for the first time, he screamed. “Vous êtes des assassins! for the severity of the stage and the myth of the Col du Tourmalet was born.
the Col du Tourmalet is one of the highest mountain passes in the French Pyrenees side of the mountain range and there are 2 ways up the climb. From the eastern side, you take a shorter ride of about 16 kilometres with 1268m of climbing. From the western side, you get a 20 kilometre climb with 1404m of climbing. They both average about 7.4% average gradient.
Up to 2020, the Col du Tourmalet has been used in the Tour De France an incredible total of 87 times. Unlike many other famous climbs, the Tourmalet doesn’t have many bends, and coming from the eastern side especially is a very long straight climb with few corners. The climb is amazing, and the views are just incredible. You can feel the history of all the famous riders who have battled their way to the top.
Col du Aubisque
From the west, the Col d’Aubisque starts in Laguna, and from there, the climb is 1190m to the top over 16 kilometres with an average gradient of 7.2%. The beauty of this climb is the first couple of kilometres are not too bad, and they have a fairly low gradient. Then after the spa resort of Eaux-Bonnes, the road kicks up and, at some points, even hits 13%. After these steep sections settle, it averages 8% to the finish. From the east, you start the climb at Argelés-Gazost valley road, and you have to climb the Col du Soulor before getting near the summit, but we will talk about this climb next.
Not only has this climb been ridden in the Tour De France, but it has also been featured in the Vuelta. When you ride the climb, it’s easy to understand what makes it so incredible the views from the cliff edge are unbelievable, and it does feel like you are on the edge of a mountain. A climb like this for an amateur cyclist will take 2 hours roughly. The quickest time is currently 48 minutes by the professional Robert Gesink.
Col Du Soulor
As we discussed in the last climb, the Col Du Soulor is on the east side of the Col du Aubisque. It starts at Argelés-Gazost, and you have a 20 kilometres stretch to get to the height of 1019m with an average gradient of 5.2%. It does get steep at times and can kick up above 10%. It has also been featured in the Tour De France and is a sort after climb for many amateur cyclists.
It’s a beautiful climb, and looking over the valley gives amazing views. The climb is smooth and does feel faster than the other two on this list. We feel it doesn’t get the credit it deserves because of its neighbours. It is an excellent introduction to its tougher siblings but a tough ride in its own right. It actually is also one of the best birdwatching spots in the Pyrenees as well so keep your eye on the skies too.
Why go cycling in the Pyrenees?
The Pyrenees offers so much in the way of cycling and is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s an incredible place to ride and is a hidden gem amongst road cycling enthusiasts. What makes it so special?
If there’s one thing that you’ll get from cycling in the Pyrenees, it’s a serious amount of climbing. With over 500 Cols above 1000m, you have a lot of exploring to do. The climbs are just unbelievable, and the famous Tour De France climbs, riding them yourself gives you a tremendous amount of respect for the professionals you see on TV.
Quiet and well maintained roads
There are many roads in the Pyrenees, and they are not full of traffic. What’s great is that you tend not to see a huge number of cars on the road in general. You will also find that the roads are very well maintained and bike friendly depending on the time of year you go. Such is the fluctuation in temperatures in the Pyrenees that the road surfaces crack annually, and so the high mountain passes are usually resurfaced very regularly.
One thing you do have to be careful of is livestock. There are a lot of animals on the roads at high altitude. Descend carefully!
The weather in the Pyrenees is very interesting and being a mountain range has unique patterns. If you go in the summer months, you can get amazing weather, and you will find yourself needing sun cream and water to stay cool, but the weather can fluctuate wildly. Take the 2010 Etape du Tour where riders climbed in almost 35 degree blazing sunshine, whilst the Tour passed through a few days later under intense rain and black cloud. We will speak about the weather in more detail later in this article
Cycling in the mountain is mesmerising, and there’s so much to look at when it comes to views. There’s no feeling like fighting your way up snow capped mountains on the side of valleys. We highly recommend stopping to take it all in when you’re riding.
The towns and people
The people who live in the Pyrenees live a very different lifestyle compared to others. It’s slow paced and very different from city life. They are all about good food, social times, and they appreciate visitors who wish to explore the region. The towns are incredibly beautiful, and because you have different input from three countries, they all feel very unique from one another.
It is where professionals train
Andorra is the centre of the Pyrenees and is known for having a few professional riders live and train there. Dan Martin, Simon Gerrans, and even the legendary Yates brothers are known for using it as a base for their training. Typically you always know a region is good for cycling if the professionals hide there. If the Tour is passing through the Pyrenees, you will almost certainly see the pros on the roads a few weeks before, acclimatising to the climbs.
Food and drink
You don’t get many fast-food restaurants in the Pyrenees. They are very big on local food, and it’s amazing. Traditional country dishes use duck, goose, and chicken. You also get a wide range of mountain cheeses, walnut oil, and even truffles. Eating in the Pyrenees is a good way to get good healthy food.
To Get Fitter
If there’s one place that will hugely improve your fitness, it is the Pyrenees. There’s no choice but to work hard, and with the altitude of the big climbs, it’s a recipe for big fitness improvements.
When should I go cycle in the Pyrenees?
When going cycling in a mountain range, you need to be a little more particular about the weather. This is because it can be more extreme in the mountains high above sea level. It’s vital to speak about the best time to go cycling in the Pyrenees and things to consider when it comes to the weather.
What weather can I expect in the Pyrenees?
November to March
This is when you’ll want to avoid a cycle in the Pyrenees and put your skis on. It’s very cold, and often you see snow and rain. The winter season is not ideal for a cycling holiday and would be more suited to skiing at the Plateau de Beille, if anything.
April and May
Although the weather in these months is typically ok and much better than in winter, it can get very cold, and you will often see rain. Is it ok to cycle? Yes, just be prepared for a bit of rain and colder mornings. Earlier in the Spring you may find some of the passes to be closed if there has been snow late in the winter.
June to September
This is the perfect time in the Pyrenees to be riding a bike. The weather is lovely and warm, especially in the lower parts of the mountains, and when you climb higher, it gets cooler. On the Spanish side, it is slightly warmer, but in general, the whole region is ideal. You do often see the odd rain shower and of course mountain weather is very unpredictable.
October is just like April and May. It’s pretty cool, and you need to be prepared for some grim weather. You might need a few extra layers to keep you warm.
How to be prepared for the weather
If you haven’t cycled in the Pyrenees mountains before, it can be very different from a coastal region, and there are a few considerations that you are going to need to make.
In summer you still get rain. Although the weather might be beautiful on the forecast, it often rains. Unlike on the coast, where it might rain lightly for three or four hours, in the mountains, it typically rains for a shorter duration but much heavier.
Descents can get cold
When you climb to the top of an epic Col, you probably will feel like you’re overheating, but it can get very cold on the way down. We recommend taking a windproof and even a pair of gloves, so you can get down safely and not feeling uncomfortable.
It does get windy
There’s a strong misconception that you are protected by the mountains when it comes to the wind. What happens in valleys is that the light wind can sometimes channel, and it can give you a very strong headwind or tailwind. This often surprises people, but it’s worth considering before you go.
It can turn quickly
Like with any mountain range in the world, the weather can turn fairly quickly. It’s worth taking this into account as if you do get an afternoon of bad weather. You’re going to want to get out well before it settles in.
Tip for Pyrenees Cycling Holidays
When cycling in a different place, let alone another country, it is important to understand the etiquette and different rules they might have alongside other challenges you might face. Here are our top tips for cycling in the Pyrenees mountains.
Follow local rules and laws
Depending on where you are, either on the French side or the Spanish side, there are different rules which goes with cycling in any other country. Here’s what we recommend when it comes to cycling in the Pyrenees.
- Obey the speed limits
- In France, you can’t use headphones
- You can’t ride over the alcohol limit
- Your bike must be roadworthy
- Lights should be used for night-time riding
- Learn a few common road signs for cyclist
- No reckless riding
Although many laws are not heavily enforced for cyclists, we highly recommend following them to avoid fines and accidents.
Train for Mountains
It would be a great idea to get some practice on a few hills before going to the Pyrenees mountains. Although you can be very fit and cycle regally, these Cols are very challenging, and you will often hear cyclists say there’s nothing like the challenge of a Pyrenees climb, and we agree.
Take a look at the route beforehand
When it comes to long days out in the saddle on rolling hills, you can roughly estimate how long it is going to take and what average speed you will be doing. You don’t need to plan too much. When it comes to a mountain pass, it’s a good idea to study where the big climbs will be so you can stop for food and water beforehand and be prepared for when the hard work is and when you will be able to step off the gas.
Carry lots of water and food
When cycling in the mountains, you’ll want to ensure you have enough food and water to keep you fuelled for a decent amount of time. You also find food and water stops could be fewer and further between in the mountains, and your pace much slower.
Carry cash and card
Although most places do take a card payment, the small little authentic shops you might need to use at some points do require cash and having some on you goes a long way.
Although you might feel you will not need it, the mountains have a habit of causing sunburn while keeping you cool. We highly recommend taking and using sun cream to protect your skin and keep you not feeling uncomfortable.
Spare and tools
Always ensure you are carrying spares and tools wherever you go on the bike. Although the roads are in good condition, you can often get punctures, and you will need to repair them. We also recommend carrying two tubes and patches as on some routes, and you find there are no bike shops.
Before you go, we recommend learning some basic bike repair skills, such as changing a puncture. Although you will see many other cyclists, it’s good to learn these for yourself so that you can support yourself when you’re in a fairly remote destination.
Whenever you go away traveling it is always a good idea to learn some of the local language. The locals respect you for making an effort and it also means you can communicate better with people in smaller villages who might not understand you.
Although most things are open 8am-8pm in France and in Spain they have an afternoon break, you always want to be open to things being shut in small villages. The Pyrenees take the public holidays seriously and are not scared to close for days.
What to do off the bike in the Pyrenees?
There are many things to do in the Pyrenees when you are not cycling, and your holiday doesn’t always have to be all about the bike. Here are our recommendations.
Visit local towns and attractions
There are some incredibly beautiful towns in the Pyrenees, such as Lourdes, where Saint Bernadette received her visions of the Virgin Mary. Saint-Bertrand de Comminges is a medieval hilltop town on the site of an old Roman town. Excavations have shown some incredible buildings, and it is well worth checking out. You also have Grotte du Mas d’Azil, a prehistoric cave and museum, which is an incredible sight and well worth a visit. If you like going to casinos you even have Ax les thermes up in the mountains.
Although cycling and skiing are the main things to do in the Pyrenees mountains, there’s also a wide range of water sports you can do, such as paddle boarding and canoeing. We highly recommend checking out your local area for other activities.
You have the option to go hiking as well. You can get off the cycle route and get on to the walking routes instead. There’s many to explore and even guided tours of many. It’s an amazing day out and the nature is incredible in this region. We do recommend if you do plan to do this to take the correct gear or rent some while you are there as hiking in the mountains can be dangerous without the right equipment.
Why Love Velo?
When it comes to your cycling holiday, it can be made so much easier by going with a company, and here at Love Velo, we want to tell you about what we offer. With a huge amount of experience in cycling holidays we know what makes an amazing cycling holiday.
When it comes to a holiday, we believe that where you are staying should be excellent, that is why we only use handpicked high-end 3-star and 4-star hotels. Our hotels are situated in Argeles Gazost valley, right where access to all the main climbs are.
Bike hire and tools
We provide excellent road bikes ready for you to take on the climbs. Our most basic bike is full carbon fibre and has an Ultegra groupset with lower gearing for all the climbing. Not only do we do great bike hire, but we also offer tools and spares, so you don’t need to bring anything with you apart from your helmet and cycling gear.
We provide bed and breakfast at all our hotels. If you are looking for something a little more inclusive, we can even upgrade you to half board to provide you with evening meals. Our hotels are very equipped for a cyclist’s appetite and make excellent food with mainly locally sourced ingredients.
If there’s one thing at Love Velo we are very proud of, it’s our routes. Our local experts have sourced the most incredible routes in the area that will not only take you to some of the famous climbs but also on the best scenic roads in the area. All these are provided for you, so you get the best from your cycling holiday.