I love the Pyrenees and all they have to offer. Even more, I love sharing it with our guests, seeing the looks of amazement at the spectacular views, the adrenaline rushes after a thrilling descent, and the particular smiles when we get back to the house after a big ride and joy, satisfaction and exhaustion are mixed in perfect proportion. It’s an incredible place to ride a bike, rich with history, scenery, culture and challenge.
We joined up with Rouleur to compile this detailed guide to the Pyrenees to help you discover this beautiful mountain range and then have the best possible cycling holiday here.
History of the Pyrenees in cycling
While Tour de France founder and director, Henri Desgrange, was famously obsessed with making the race as hard as possible, it was his deputy, Luxembourgish journalist Alphonse Steinés, who fixated on introducing mountains. In 1905, the third edition, the race included the 1171m Col du Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges, officially the Tour’s first mountain, and other medium mountains of the pre-Alps were added through the following four years. For 1910, Steinés was determined to take the Tour into the high passes of the Pyrenees.
In May of 1910 he set off on a reconnaissance trip to the Pyrenees and the big prize was the Col du Tourmalet. Driving up it from the east, his car became blocked by snow, so Steinès continued on foot, walking into the cold night. He fell into a ravine, climbed out, and was only saved from probable death at 3am by a search party that at first mistook him for a bandit and threatened to shoot him. He was taken down to Barèges and given dry clothes, whereupon he immediately sent a telegram to Desgrange. It read: “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly feasible.”
France's Raphaël Geminiani crosses the Col du Tourmalet (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Given that it was the first true high mountain stage and the roads were gravel, they didn’t exactly ease into it. The 326km parcours included 6000m of climbing, from Bagnères-de-Luchon over the Cols de Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque, and then on to Bayonne at the Atlantic coast. That combination of climbs came to be known as ‘The Circle of Death’ (a bit grim and also inaccurate, as it’s more of a zig-zag shape than circular) and has been used many times since.
So pleased were the organisers with that first year that the stage was repeated for the following two editions. In 1913 it was then reversed, back-loading all the climbing into the second half of the stage, and that exact route was kept until 1931 when stage distances were reduced. The Tour’s appetite for fresh routes and novelty has made the Circle of Death a rarer inclusion in recent decades; breaking it up created the opportunity to use summit finishes such as Hautacam, Luz Ardiden and Col de Portet, which all lie in the same area.
Famous racing moments that took place here
There have been many dramatic races in the Pyrenees, too many to recount them all. Here’s a selection from 111 years of action.
1910 – The first ever high mountain stage of the Tour de France
This stage would still be insanely hard today: 326km and 6000m of climbing over the Col de Peyresourde (1569m), Col d’Aspin (1489m), Col du Tourmalet (2115m), Col du Soulor (1474m) and Col d’Aubisque (1709m). Now imagine it on heavy single- or two-speed bikes and gravel roads.
With 400km-plus stages common at the time, it’s entirely possible that the organisers thought the distance was suitable mitigation for three times more climbing than any Tour stage before. Octave Lapize disagreed. He’d been the first over the Tourmalet but somehow conspired to fall 16 minutes behind by the Col d’Aubisque summit. There, thinking he’d lost the race, he screamed at the organisers “You are assassins!” in protest at the day’s excesses.
However, with over half the stage remaining, he was able to rally himself, catch the leaders, win the stage and take a step towards his overall victory. His winning time was 14h10m; 10th place was 1h21m behind him.
While Lapize is famous for being the first over the Col du Tourmalet, he had to walk part of it. The second rider to summit, Gustave Garrigou, was the first to ride the whole thing. He perhaps deserves a place in history for that alone, though as overall winner of the 1911 Tour, plus eight stages and two Monuments, he is well celebrated regardless.
1912-22 – Eugène Christophe: the unfortunate
Three times a stage winner in 1912, Eugène Christophe was denied the overall win purely because it was decided by a points system rather than time. The following year, with the GC once again based on total time, Christophe was the virtual leader – by 18 minutes – on the first mountain stage from Bayonne to Luchon when his fork failed on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet. He had to walk 10km down to Saint-Marie-de-Campan, where he found a blacksmith. Observing race officials strictly applied the rule forbidding outside assistance, so he welded his own fork under instruction from the smith, yet still incurred a 10-minute penalty because a seven-year-old boy operated the bellows (this pedantry isn’t mentioned on the plaque of the statue erected by the Tour in the village in 2003 for the race’s centenary). In total, he lost some five hours and with it any chance of the overall victory.
Christophe is also celebrated as the first wearer of the yellow jersey, when it was introduced midway through the 1919 race to make the leader easier to spot. The jersey’s prestige was not immediate, however, and Christophe, having survived the First World War, was displeased to wear a colour that was associated with cowardice and which some joked made him look like a canary. Still, he was poised to have the last laugh as he led the race by 30 minutes going into the penultimate stage. He was cruelly denied when he suffered another broken fork on the cobbled stage and once more repaired it himself, dropping out of the lead. Incredibly, in 1922, a third fork failed on him during the descent of the Col du Galibier, while he lay in the top three overall.
1969 – Merckx becomes The Cannibal
When stage 17 of the 1969 Tour set off from Bagnères-de-Luchon, Eddy Merckx already had a GC advantage of eight minutes and four stage wins, plus the lead in the points, mountains and, naturally, the combination classifications. He had also helped himself to the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize for being the first over the Col du Galibier. Nonetheless, he was in no mood for giving gifts. It was ever thus.
His Faema team, notably Martin Van Den Bossche, set a firm tempo over the Peyresourde, Aspin and up the Tourmalet, such that approaching the summit no more than 10 riders remained in the lead group. Van Den Bossche accelerated on the final ramp, in search of the Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize for the first rider over the fabled Tourmalet.
Merckx bristled, conflicted. While grateful for his teammate’s work, he was also irked that Van Den Bossche had the previous night signed for the Molteni team, and it was the latter emotion that won out. Merckx snatched the prize from his teammate at the line, bombed the descent, and found himself with nearly a minute’s advantage. Inspired by the historic stage across ‘The Circle of Death’ – and possibly wanting to justify the attack with a greater purpose – he ignored his DS and chose to press on alone. In Mourenx, 120km and two cols later, Merckx won by eight minutes, a gap so big that it speaks to the weary capitulation of the peloton as much as his emphatic superiority. The exploit sealed the yellow, green, polka dot and white (combination) jerseys – the best young rider jersey didn’t yet exist, else he’d have won that too – and added the team and combativity classifications on top. By the time the race reached Paris, the ‘Cannibal’ nickname had been coined and it stuck firmly.
Merckx at the 1969 Tour de France (Photo: STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)
1971 – All hail breaks loose on Luis Ocaña
By the fourth year of his career, Luis Ocaña was the most serious threat to Merckx’s dominance, which remained rampant in 1971. Ocaña had succeeded in gapping Merckx to win a mountain stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné and while the Belgian had nonetheless wrapped up the overall, it gave Ocaña great confidence. He swore to take the race by the scruff. Meanwhile, Merckx had fiddled with his position so much through his preparation races that he had developed a knee injury and didn’t have his usual form.
On stage 11, in the Alps, Ocaña attacked early and repeatedly, first forming a small escape group and then leaving it in his wake. Merckx, suffering an upset stomach, shipped 8:42 and ended the day 9:42 behind Ocaña. He regained time on the transitional stage 12, after the rest day, and another 11 seconds in the TT, but entered the Pyrenees for stage 14 trailing by 7:23. Even with eight stages remaining, and knowing the exploits of which Merckx was capable, it looked like Ocaña’s race to lose.
On the descent of the Col de Menté during the fourteenth stage, from Revel to Luchon, the race was hammered by a particularly unpleasant storm. Hailstones blasted the riders as floodwater and mud gushed across the road. Merckx fell on a corner; Ocaña, behind, fell too and was then struck by two other riders, leaving him semi-conscious. He was taken to hospital by ambulance, his race over. So unsatisfying was this plot twist to just about everyone, that Merckx considered withdrawing from the race rather than profit from Ocaña’s misfortune. He was talked into staying and instead requested not to be given or made to wear the yellow jersey for the following stage. Merckx went on to win that Tour, and the next; Ocaña finally won it in 1973.
1986 – Hinault and LeMond, teammates at war
After Greg LeMond had helped him to win a record-equalling fifth Tour in 1985, Bernard Hinault promised to switch roles the following year. However, if LeMond was hoping for a super-domestique to sit on the front and set tempo, he didn’t know Hinault very well.
On stage 12, the first mountain test, from Bayonne to Pau with five Pyrenean passes, Hinault attacked with two others at around half-distance. Together they bridged to the lead group and set about building a substantial gap. Behind, LeMond was obliged not to chase his teammate and gave up 4m37s by the finish in Pau, while Hinault moved into yellow.
Bernard Hinault in 1986. Photo credit: David Madison/Getty Images
The following day, Hinault again attacked from the group of favourites, this time into the descent of the Col du Tourmalet. He pulled out a lead that peaked at two minutes over the Col d’Aspin but – to LeMond’s great relief – the other favourites cooperated to hunt the Badger, catching him on the run down to Bagnères-de-Luchon from the Col de Peyresourde. The final climb of Superbagnères was Hinault’s undoing. Tired, he dropped back on the lower slopes while LeMond attacked the rest to take a solo win and regain the time lost the previous day. The yellow jersey was only prised from Hinault’s grip in the Alps, four stages later.
To this day, Hinault maintains that his attacking was intended to force LeMond’s rivals to chase and tire themselves. No one believes him now, either.
1995 – Fabio Casartelli’s death
Twenty-eight years after the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux, tragedy returned to the Tour de France on 18 July 1995, when Italian rider Fabio Casartelli crashed on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet. He struck his head on a roadside concrete block, suffering fatal injuries. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Casartelli was only 24 and the 1992 Olympic road race champion. The following stage was ridden in slow formation, with all prize money donated to Casartelli’s family. A monument now stands on the Portet d’Aspet close to the scene of the crash. It took another eight years, and the tragic death of Andrei Kivilev in similar circumstances at Paris-Nice in 2003, for helmets to be made compulsory.
2010 – The centenary…and ‘Chaingate’
The centenary of the Tour in the Pyrenees was marked with a re-running of the original stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Soulor/Aubisque, but finishing in Pau after 200km rather than continuing to Bayonne. Then, following a rest day, the race returned to climb the Tourmalet from the other side for only the second ever summit finish there. Alberto Contador, in yellow, gifted the stage win to rival Andy Schleck.
No doubt Contador felt it was the politic thing to do, following the infamous ‘Chaingate’ incident three days previous. Schleck had attacked the GC group near the top of the Port de Balès, only for his chain to fall off the big ring some 10 seconds later. Contador, who had been close behind, continued on with the other podium contenders. Frantic, Schleck needed several attempts to replace his chain, fell half a minute back, and was left to chase unaided up the last 2km and down the long descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon. Contador was booed on the podium and opinion in the media was divided, but this wasn’t the same as if Schleck had suffered a mechanical and gone out the back of the group while it was riding tempo halfway up the climb. The fight had begun and it was Schleck who started it. Ryder Hesjedal nailed it when he said: “If you draw your sword and then drop it, you die.”
2014 – Nibali puts on a show
When the Tour arrived at Hautacam for the final mountain stage, a summit finish no less, of the 2014 Tour, Vincenzo Nibali already had the race won. His chief rivals, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, had both crashed out of the race, leading to suggestions that his yellow jersey was a hand-me-down rather than his by right (his detractors clearly forgetting his outstanding performance on the early Roubaix stage, already in yellow). On the climb to Hautacam, Nibali attacked early and stuffed over a minute into Pinot, Péraud and Majka, who shared the final podium with him in Paris in second (and white), third, and polka dots respectively. In the process, he also exacted a token revenge on Chris Horner, who had beaten him to the previous year’s Vuelta a España, by using him as a launchpad for his winning move. Could Froome or Contador have done any more? Point made.
2021 – Pogacar becomes the New Cannibal
Tadej Pogacar did not need to win stages 17 and 18 of the 2021 Tour, atop Col de Portet and Luz Ardiden respectively. He barely even needed to mark his rivals, such was his GC lead. But he wanted it all, and the chance to add the polka dot jersey to white and yellow – for the second year running – was too much to resist. Clearly superior, he made both wins look easy.
Plenty of people accused Pogacar of being greedy in not sharing the prizes. Nonsense. It’s the Tour de France, not a five-year-old’s birthday party. He is paid to win; he was the best climber in the race and he wanted history to show it. Why not do something special, something memorable? In choosing dominance, unquestionably, he became the New Cannibal. Merckx himself said so.
The Climbs of the Pyrenees
The most iconic climbs of the Pyrenees
There’s no contest; it’s the Col du Tourmalet, thanks to 88 appearances in the Tour de France stretching back to that first monster stage of 1910. It’s also the highest paved pass in the French Pyrenees (but not the highest road in the Pyrenees, a common mistake) and the scenery around the summit on both sides is spectacularly dramatic.
Along with Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, it’s one of the Tour’s, and therefore cycling’s, most famous climbs. Interestingly, like those two, the Tourmalet is also a lot more famous than it is pretty. Both sides are rising valleys, so you don’t get the same sensation of height that you do when climbing up the side of a mountain, such as the Col d’Aspin from Arreau, and the views only get good near the end. That doesn’t detract from the experience, though. I’ve climbed it many times now and it’s always special. As the cliché goes, you can’t play tennis on Wimbledon’s centre court or have a kickabout in AC Milan’s Sansiro, but you can ride your bike up the Col du Tourmalet. It’s equally hallowed ground.
The upper third of the climb becomes a ski station in winter, so it’s closed from the first heavy snow (usually sometime in November) to the start of May, when the road is cleared of any snow that hasn’t yet melted away. A new visitor centre – Maison du Tourmalet – is currently under construction at the summit. It’s focused on astronomy, rather than cycling, owing to the famous observatory above the col at Pic du Midi de Bigorre. Sadly, it looks like this means the famous Géant du Tourmalet statue will lose its place at the summit.
The climb is nicknamed “L’Incontournable”, meaning The Unavoidable, for the prosaic reason that if you want to go through the Pyrenees rather than around them then, at that point, you have to go over the Col du Tourmalet. For cyclists, we’d add an ‘s’ – L’Incontournables – and label it The Unmissable.
The most beautiful climbs of the Pyrenees
This has to be a tie between Luz Ardiden and the Col d’Aubisque, each so staggeringly beautiful that neither could be relegated to second place.
With 4.5km to go on Luz Ardiden, the road bends left to reveal a huge natural amphitheatre, surrounded by jagged peaks. I’ve ridden with guests who have gasped loudly at first sight of it. The 1720m summit appears close, despite the distance remaining, because those kilometres are wound tightly into the bowl, creating the iconic view from the top. The landscape is vividly green, unusually so for the altitude. In the far distance you can see the Col du Tourmalet to the east. It’s always quiet, even in peak summer, making it a tranquil paradise.
The Col d’Aubisque is sensational from both sides. The 16km ascent from Laruns includes the pretty spa town of Eaux-Bonnes (literally, Good Waters), dark forest switchbacks, semi-tunnels with steep gradients, then the narrow, snaking section from the ski town of Gourette with dramatic views back across the valley. The iconic summit at 1709m includes an installation of giant bicycles, a discreet bust of Lucien Buysse, winner of the 1926 Tour, and 360-degree views which include the Col du Soulor’s summit and north ascent. Between the two cols is the Cirque de Litor, a vast bowl 5km across and skirted by the famous balcony road cut into the cliff. It’s great fun to ride fast but also narrow and with big drops in a few places, so full concentration is required – you have to choose between enjoying either the ride or the view.
The hardest climbs in the Pyrenees
Difficulty in the Pyrenees is often generated as much by the irregularity of the gradients as their severity and in combination they make these climbs – broadly speaking – a little more demanding than the Alps. Gradients of 11-14% are not uncommon, though no climb here gets close to the sheer brutality of the likes of Monte Zoncolan and others in the Italian Dolomites.
When thinking about the hardest climbs, a few stand out:
- The Col de Bagargi in the French Basque Country makes a good case with 5km at a fierce 12.8%. I don’t know of anything harder than that section in the Pyrenees, even in Andorra. Thankfully, the opening four kilometres are only 5% by way of warm-up.
- The Col du Tourmalet is also very challenging as well as long. From Luz it’s 19km at 7.4% and there is a steep section into and through Bareges, a third of the way up, and another for the last 2km. From St-Marie-de-Campan, it’s 17km at an identical 7.4%, but the first 4km are more rolling and then it settles into a steeper rhythm than the Luz side, with a really tough two kilometres through La Mongie from six- to four-to-go, and a sting in the tail on the final ramp.
- Hautacam is arguably the most deceptive of them all when the stats tell you 13km at 7.9%. There are several flat sections and two dips which skew that away from the 9, 10, 11% that your computer will display most of the time…and which your legs will certainly feel.
- Our choice, though, is the Col de Portet, finale of stage 17 of the 2021 Tour. While Tadej Pogacar rode up it whistling, it’s anything but easy. It averages 8.7% for 16km and a solid 10% for the first 7km on the road to Pla d’Adet before the turn right towards the 2208m summit of Portet. Until recently it was a gravel road used only for service access to the ski lifts and livestock grazing, then it was surfaced to host a stage of the 2018 Tour. Nairo Quintana won that stage and the organisers loved the spectacle so much they took the race back in 2021. It’s immediately steep from the start in Saint-Lary-Soulan and simply never lets up. While it’s high, the views are merely good and the upper slopes are rather barren, so it’s one to ride for the physical challenge.
Col de Portet. Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images
Highest climbs of the Pyrenees
The highest road climb in the range is the Port d’Envalira in Andorra at 2408m, though it isn’t as tough as the nefariously steep climbs that surround it in the tiny state. Also in Andorra, the Port de Cabús (2302m) and Arcalis (2240m).
Within France, the Cols de Portet (2215m), Tentes (2210m), Lac de Cap-de-Long (2174m), Tourmalet (2115m) and Troumouse (2087m) are all deserving of mention, particularly as Tentes, Troumouse and Tourmalet can be combined into one monster ride, and likewise Cap-de-Long and Portet.
The ski station of Vallter 2000 (2159m) is the highest on the Spanish side. The highest rideable climb we know of in the French Pyrenees is the astonishing gravel ascent to Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2680m) from where the hundreds of peaks in view resemble a choppy sea carved in stone. It’s the jewel in the crown of our Peak Gravel tour.
Longest climbs of the Pyrenees
This isn’t straightforward because official start points include varying amounts of mild-gradient valley roads. For example, if you add the 11km uphill drag through the beautiful Gorge Luz to the 19km western side of the Col du Tourmalet, you have a 30km climb, and while your legs will tell you that’s the case when you ride it, officially it isn’t so. Swap Tourmalet for the lesser-known Col de Tentes, officially 10km, at the very end of the gorge, and you will be riding uphill for 41km (and you should, it’s incredible). The Col de Pourtalet from Laruns is officially 28km, but includes 2km of flat in the middle and 8km of preamble at 3% which makes riding it feel like a mini-series, the narrative of the climb split into distinct chapters.
Predictably, the best claim to being the longest is also the highest, the Port d’Envalira in Andorra, which rises to a peak of 2408m over 33.3km from Ax-les-Thermes. It only averages 4.8% but there are no flat sections.
The Hidden Gems of the Pyrenees
The Tourmalet has been made famous from decades of Grand Tour history, but there is far more to the Pyrenees. (Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Lac de Cap-de-Long is a popular tourist spot, so it isn’t exactly unknown (what is these days?) but having never featured in the Tour de France (or any other race) it hasn’t been popularised among cyclists and you will see relatively few battling its pitches compared to the likes of Tourmalet, Aspin and Soulor. Nor is it ever likely to appear in the Tour because the trucks that transport the race’s infrastructure simply wouldn’t fit up the narrow, winding road.
The lake itself is man-made, sitting at 2161m behind a spectacular dam, along which you can ride to achieve even more magnificent views of the natural Lac d’Orédon below and the 24km climb you will have just toiled up from Saint-Lary-Soulan. It’s a stunning place that we love sharing with our guests. The restaurant at the top is very good, too, so be sure to arrive well before they stop serving lunch at 2pm.
Honourable mentions go to Cols de Tente and Troumouse, also in our locale and each above 2000m, and to Port de Larrau, further west, the summit of which is far more spectacular than its 1585m would suggest. Its two visits from the Tour (1996, 2007) aren’t yet enough to give it the attention it deserves.
The best descents of the Pyrenees
This is another subjective one but for me the eastern descent of the Col du Tourmalet to St-Marie-de-Campan reigns supreme (16.8km, -1191m). It’s beautifully surfaced, very fast, flowing, wide enough to be safe and so long that you can enjoy it for at least a quarter of an hour. The bumpy top section has recently been repaved, too. The huge semi-tunnel halfway down is a highlight, with 80kph+ easily achievable and the sense of speed heightened by the pillars flashing past. As essential ingredient for me is flowing corners that require significant lean angle and can only be taken without brakes once you know them well, and this descent has some corkers.
Honourable mentions go to the Col du Soulor (south to Arrens) and Hautacam. Both are thrilling rollercoasters rewarding of knowledge and commitment.
Range length: 491km
Range depth: 50-100km
High point: 3404m, Pico d’Aneto, Spain
Highest rideable point: 2680m, Pic du Midi de Bigorre gravel road, France
Highest road & pass: 2408m, Port d’Envalira, Andorra
Highest paved pass in France: 2115m, Col du Tourmalet, France
Where to stay for cycling in the Pyrenees
Escape to the Pyrenees is a fully catered guest house dedicated to cycling and ideally located to take on the most famous climbs, 5km south of Argelès-Gazost, at the head of Gorge Luz and the foot of Hautacam. The Cols du Tourmalet, Soulor, Aubisque, Tentes and Troumouse, Luz Ardiden and more are all within easy riding distance of the door. Escape to the Pyrenees offers self-guided stays and fully guided and supported tours on both road and gravel, with options for every level of ability and experience. The food is fantastic and ends up being a highlight for every guest, even among the epic rides, and all dietary needs are covered. As well as big breakfasts and three-course dinners, you will set off on every ride with pockets full of homemade ride snacks and energy drinks.
Other well-placed Pyrenean towns giving access to lots of climbs include: Bagnères-de-Luchon, Andorra, Larrau, Prades, Foix.
How fit do I need to be to ride in the Pyrenees?
Riding in big mountains is not for untrained beginners but you don’t need to be super fit to enjoy it. You should be comfortable taking on four-hour rides and climbing for a sustained period. If you live somewhere flat, you should be able to average at least 26kph on a three-hour solo ride. At Escape to the Pyrenees, we offer a tour called Meet The Mountains which is designed for riders with less fitness and experience. The routes are shorter, with one major climb per day, the pace is steadier and we take plenty of breaks. We love seeing guests surprise themselves and experience the joy of reaching a summit.
Fitter riders, especially anyone who races, will love riding here and the possibility to take on multiple climbs per day. Our Giants of the Pyrenees tour is designed for you, with longer, harder routes that will be deeply satisfying.
What gearing do I need to ride in the Pyrenees?
As a start point, even very fit and skinny riders use 50/34 x 11-28 here, so consider that the minimum. A 32 or even a 34 on the back is a good idea if you know you’re not in race shape.
Test your gearing by finding a local 8% climb and riding repeats of it until you have totalled at least half an hour of climbing – by the end your heart rate should still be under 85% of your max while at a comfortable cadence, or if you use a power meter then you should be able to climb an 8% grade at a comfortable cadence without going above the middle of zone 3.
If it takes higher power or effort (heart rate), or you find that you’re grinding your lowest gear to keep the effort down, then you need a bigger cassette or smaller chainrings. Keep in mind that a super-low gear, such as 34x34, will mean slower speeds and a long climb such as the Col du Tourmalet could take up to three hours – plan your routes accordingly.
Cover image by Alice Alphrey