A long weekend in the Hautes Pyrénées

The great thing about living in Europe (or with Brexit looming, with Europe on our doorstep!) is that, from almost anywhere, you can be in the mountains within just a few hours. You can fly to Geneva and hit Chamonix or the French Alps, fly to Milan and drive to the Dolomites or the Italian Alps or, as I learnt this week, fly to Toulouse and be in the Hautes Pyrénées by lunchtime…

How to get there and where to stay?

I’ve done two weekends in the Pyrénées this year. During the first trip, I flew from London to Biarritz and cycled into the western side of the mountains. During this most recent trip, I flew from London Gatwick to Toulouse and then based myself in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, from where I cycled into the Hautes Pyrénées.

There are plenty of companies that will organise tours across the Pyrénées, but if you only want to do a short trip, it’s easy to organise yourself.

You can fly directly to Biarritz from London Stanstead and then it’s a ten minute taxi journey to the centre of town. From Biarritz you can cycle to San Sebastian in northern Spain (45km each way) or, as I chose to, you can cycle across the border into Spain towards Eizondo, Navarre and take on some of the juicier climbs in the area (Puerto de Otxondo, Puerto Artesiaga desde Irurita, Col d’Ibardin…). It’s a great area as a warm up summer trip, as on the whole the climbs are shorter that in the Hautes Pyrénées, but still a challenge coming in between 4 and 7.5% average.

To get to the Hautes Pyrénées, if you fly to Toulouse, the easiest way to get into the mountains is either to take a train direct to Lourdes and then taxi to your destination or to hire a car and drive from Toulouse airport. For this trip, my friends and I hired a car as we had a couple of bikes to transport plus lots of bags of kit and food! Our beautiful brown dream wagon took us two hours up the road to the spa town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, known to the locals as ‘Luz’.

Luz is the perfect base if you want to tackle the big climbs of the Pyrénées (Col du Tourmalet, the Hautacam, Col du Soulor, Col d’Aubisque..), many of which have challenged the pros in the Tour de France. It’s a bit like Bormio in the Italian Alps: wherever you stay, the only way to cycle really is up!

We stayed in a chalet hotel called Résidence Val de Roland, where I found a bargain of an apartment. For €450 Euros, three of us shared an 8 person self-catering chalet apartment with three bedrooms. We had more than enough room to safely stash the bikes and all of our kit and relax. The Résidence also has a little spa, with an indoor and outdoor pool, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna, which is perfect after a long day. And, most importantly, the chalet was a two minute ride from the Tourmalet…

The climbs…

As I was only in Luz for a long weekend, I had two HC climbs on my ‘to do’ list (the Tourmalet and Aubisque), so was pleased when I managed to squeeze a few more in!

On the first day, we cycled up Luz Ardiden – famous as a Tour de France end of stage summit. This was our ‘warm up’ climb to transform our Surrey box hill legs and minds back into mountain goats who just keep on going… The official segment is approximately 13km long, but you have to climb a couple of extra kilometres to get to the start first. Ardiden starts off gently, allowing you to get your rythm; however, within the first 5km, the climb quickly ramps up to 10-11% over a few kilometres. After that, it settles down to a kinder 7-9% for the remainder of the climb. It’s a lovely one to start off with (or potentially to recover on!) as it’s quite short and steady and has absolutely amazing views… You can look down the mountain and see switchback after switchback; and when you look up, you’ll see the Pic du Midi peak above the Tourmalet. It’s blissful riding with few cars and peace and quiet. If you ride at 10-12kph, you’ll be done and dusted in just over an hour and then there is a fabulous descent through the trees.

On the second day, we took on the Tourmalet and decided to summit both sides in a day, amounting to around 36km of climbing. The first official climb from Luz is 18.9km long and averages out at 7.4%, but don’t let that fool you – the last two kilmetres are steep! That said, the views are simply incredible. The col starts in a valley alongside mountain streams, then climbs up through the villages of Sers and Bareges before you hit the hairpins. The roads are graffitied up the mountain in ode to the Tour de France riders, so you can play bike-hopscotch on the way up, riding over your heroes names… At the top of the climb, the edges are quite exposed. I was glad to be riding my 32 CLX Roval wheels as I could really feel the force of the wind at points… I finished the first climb in a respectable 1 hour 39 minutes.

After a quick coffee (when the boys had caught up!), we descended the other side of the mountain. 17-18 km down, we stopped, turned around and started making our way back up. Despite the shorter distance, the second climb felt harder, principally as it has a number of straighter sections and is less pretty! That said, it still does have some wonderful views and is quite juicy. At the last km, there is one very steep corner in particular which demands you get out of the saddle. On the way up I saw lots of amazing wildlife too, including eagles and Llamas – the last thing I expected to see roaming wild!

And the prize..? There is a café at the top, which does delicious chocolate cake and espresso. You can buy a classic Col du Tourmalet souvenir jersey for a bit of added warmth before the descent… who needs fridge magnets!

On my last day of riding, we rode up Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque. This was perhaps the prettiest ride of all, rolling through green valleys up to the Cols. The official profile for Soulor is 19.5km averaging 5.2%; however, the last 7.5km average 8.3%, with a little 18% kick and a few kilometres at around 10%. You’ll be pleased to know if true french style there is a café at the top, selling cheese and honey!

Aubisque in contrast feels easy, but is still 7-8% average! Once you have climbed Soulor, you descend before you start the final climb. The descent is pretty hairy and certainly not one for the faint hearted. You’re on the edge of a ledge overlooking a huge valley, with no barrier and it’s fast and twisty; but, if you can brave it, Aubisque is worth it. I felt like I was in Giants’ country, on top of the world; we were literally surrounded by mountains from every angle. It’s a surreal place, as horses and sheep roam freely down the roads and eagles circle overhead; and, of course, at the top of Aubisque are the infamous Tour de France bicycle sculptures… It’s something special.

So much more to see…

So, in three days, I conquered four HC climbs, including 7000 metres of elevation over a good 60+ kilometres. Would I recommend it?! Absolutely! For a long weekend or longer… there are a good 20 tough climbs in the region and I think the only challenge had I stayed longer would have been choosing which ones to do and making myself take a day off!

Luz – you’re fabulous. I’ll definitely be back… if anything to beat my time on Ardiden 😉 A la prochaine fois…

See Gallery and Recommendations for further pictures and details of where to stay and transport in the region.

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