Cycling in the Pyrenees is something like paradise for cyclists that love to climb.
The French Pyrenees are one of the world's most natural frontiers stretching some 430 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean in the west, right across to the Mediterranean Sea in the east. At their centre point they span around 120 kilometres from north to south, dividing France from Northern Spain.
The range is full of stunning twisting climbs and traditional villages. Many of the climbs have been made famous by the Grand Tours, but these are just a fraction of all the glorious road climbs that the Pyrenees has to offer cyclists.
When faced with such a vast area, it can be difficult to know what the best base is for cycling the Pyrenees. In this article we demystify the process of working out where to head and hope to help you plan a fantastic cycling holiday in the Pyrenees.
Words by John Vicars
This article is all about helping understand the different regions of the Pyrenees from a cyclist's perspective. But first, some may be wondering whether it's the Pyrenees they want at all! Would it in fact be better to head to the Alps? So before we delve into the detail of the Pyrenees, here is a brief diversion on how to choose between a cycling trip to the Pyrenees and the Alps.
1. Cycling the Pyrenees v Cycling the Alps
Both the Pyrenees and Alps are a key part of each year’s Tour de France - the Tourmalet is the Pyrenees most famous cycling climb, Alpe d’Huez is the most famous in the Alps.
But how to decide which to go to for your holiday?!
These pointers might help:
The Pyrenees are generally lower in altitude than the Alps, with far fewer peaks extending above 2,000 metres. This means the peaks in the Pyrenees don’t glisten with snow in summer; the higher terrain has a more verdant and craggy moorland feel.
Shorter and steeper
However, the climbs here are still incredibly challenging. They may start at a lower altitude, but the Pyrenees contains some of the Tour de France’s most feared climbs. Broadly speaking the Pyrenean climbs tend to be shorter and steeper (think of the legendary Hautacam and Luz Ardiden climbs for example) than the longer, often more gradual Alpine ascents.
In our opinion, the Pyrenees also feel less commercialised than the Alps; there’s less building and less in the way of ski resorts and traffic. We’ve found them to be a lot quieter than the Alps.
Our theory is that this has something to do with the fact the French Alps are close to the borders with Germany, Italy and Switzerland, so they get many more visitors from other countries in mainland Europe. In contrast, the French Pyrenees just share a border with Spain.
And finally, it’s worth noting that the Pyrenees get more rain than the Alps, particularly in the Western Pyrenees, which receive the weather fronts in from the Atlantic Ocean.
The advantage of this is that you can expect the lighting to be more misty and moody than you’ll find in the Alps. The downside is that a rain jacket is an essential item at any time of year!
Want to stick with the Pyrenees? Read on to help you plan which bit to go to first.
2. Where to head for the best Pyrenees cycling holidays?
Once you’ve decided on a Pyrenees cycling trip, the next question is where to go within the vast area the Pyrenees spans!
We’d suggest you choose your base based on which particular climbs you want to tackle. The distance between some of the climbs is not insignificant so you may well need a car for your Pyrenees cycling holiday. This will allow you to drive you to a suitable starting point depending on where you are located and what you want to climb.
The iconic Col du Tourmalet sits roughly in the centre of the range and cycling-friendly towns in the nearby vicinity have become magnets for touring cyclists. There are however dozens of lesser known cols in the Pyrenees and plenty of small villages and towns offering accommodation to cycling enthusiasts.
In terms of cycling bases, you are spoilt for choice as opportunities exist from Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the west (south west of Pau) to the area around the town of Foix (north of Andorra) in the east. To help put the size of the Pyrenees into perspective these towns are separated by a 3-hour drive!
For the purposes of this guide and to assist you to plan Pyrenees cycling tours we have split the range from a cycling perspective into three regions – west, central and east.
3. Cycling the western Pyrenees
There are numerous suitable locations from which to base yourself as you prepare to take on some of the legendary ascents in this area. The towns of Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Argeles Gazost are well known as cycling hotspots.
Just south of Oloron lies the extremely challenging Col de Marie Blanque, which is the centrepiece of the famous Pyrenean granfondo, Quebranthahuesos (205 kilometres in length). This event, which is one of the hardest sportives in Europe, starts out in northern Spain then ventures into France over the Col de Somport before returning back across the border via the Col de Portalet.
Standout climbs in the Argelès Gazost area are the Hautacam, Col d’Aubisque and the Col du Soulor. All bucket list ascents with huge Tour de France history.
The western ascent of the mighty Col du Tourmalet is also accessible from Argelès Gazost via Luz Saint Sauveur as is Luz Ardiden. The Hautacam, Aubisque and Solour are also a short ride from the town.
The Col du Tourmalet first made its first Tour de France appearance way back in 1910. It lies on a road between Bagnères du Luchon and Pau and the Tour often includes ascents of the nearby Col d’Aubisque, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde in the Queen stage of the race.
4. Cycling the central Pyrenees
Bagneres de Luchon, Saint Lary Soulan and Arreau are ideal locations for a number of iconic climbs in this region.
It really is difficult to plan cycling holidays in the Pyrenees as there are so many famous mountains to climb!
For starters there is the eastern side of the Col du Tourmalet from Sainte-Marie de Campan (17.2 kilometres at an average gradient of 7%). The town of Arreau is a good base for this side of the mountain.
Also, in the same area are the Col d’Aspin, Hourquette d’Anzican and the Col de Peyresourde which are all also situated close to the town of Arreau. These climbs regularly feature in the Tour de France’s Pyrenees stages.
From Bagnères-de-Luchon the ascents of the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Hourquette d’Anzican, Superbagnères, Col du Portillon and the Port de Balès are all within striking distance. A little further afield is the Col de Portet d’Aspet.
Additionally the ski resort of Saint Lary Soulon offers you the prospect of climbing the Col de Portet, Pla d’Adet, Lac de Cap de Long and the Col d’Azet, amongst others.
See our guide to cycling the French Pyrenees from Bagneres de Luchon which includes reviews of cycling the Col de Peyresourde, Superbagnères, Col du Portillon and the Port de Balès.
5. Cycling the eastern Pyrenees
The three towns of Foix, Tarascon-sur-Ariege and Ax-les-Thermes are all situated on the N20 road which links the principality of Andorra with Toulouse. They sit within the Ariege department in Occitanie.
The capital of the Ariege region is Foix through which runs the Ariege River. It is a very rural, quiet part of the Pyrenees with some well-known Tour de France climbs. It is also ideal should you think of combining your break with a sortie into nearby Andorra.
The main Tour de France / Pyrenees climbs in the area are the Plateau de Beille, Port de Lers, Col de Port and Col d’Agnes as well as the often underrated Port de Pailheres.
The Plateau de Beille, set high above the Ariege valley, has been used numerous times in the Tour de France and can boast some impressive winners. The climb, which has been likened to Alpe d’Huez, has seen none other than Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador win on its slopes.
One of the advantages of this area is that you can access all of these climbs from any one of Foix, Tarascon-sur-Ariege and Ax-les-Thermes.
6. Other things to know when planning your Pyrenees cycling holiday
To the south of the Ariege region lies Andorra, which has no fewer than 21 mountain passes to climb on super smooth roads. The area is a fast-developing cycling destination and the home and training ground to many professionals. Towering climbs such as the Port d’Envalira (peaking at 2,408 metres above sea level) also gives riders the opportunity to train at altitude.
As an aside, whether as part of a self-guided cycling tour in the Pyrenees or as part of an organised event, it’s worth considering whether you’re up for the famous Raid Pyrenees. This is a very challenging event which involves riding the Pyrenees coast to coast and depending on what route you take the distance can be anything up to 750 kilometres!
Starting from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast this epic challenge crosses some of the toughest peaks in the Pyrenees all within 6 days before you reach the Mediterranean coastline! This is certainly a unique way of cycling across the Pyrenees!
There’s more information in our article on the Raid Pyrenees, here.
We hope this guide has provided a useful starting point for your Pyrenees cycling trip planning.
For more information on cycling trips from two of the three areas we mentioned, check out our in-depth guides to:
Argeles-Gazost for the Tourmalet, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Solour and Aubisque; and
Bagneres de Luchon for Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Superbagnères, Col du Portillon and the Port de Balès.
Our article on key cycling towns in the Pyrenees, should also help you pick where to stay.