What's Cool In Road Cycling

Travel: The Pyrenees Sea To Sea

France From Inside Tours specializes in cycling holidays for small groups in southern France. One of their most popular trips is the epic Conquer the Pyrenees. I love these stats: 1000 miles, 100,000 feet climbing, 12 days of riding. Ride across the Pyrenees, coast to coast and back. Now that is a bike ride with some bragging rights, and something unique that only a few cyclists will ever accomplish. The company owner and lead guide, Allan Reeves, explains how next year’s 8th presentation of this marathon ride unfolds.

There’s no doubt as to the majestic beauty of the Pyrenees mountains and the world class cycling. A sunny day like this makes for everlasting priceless memories.

First let me say that after 7 years of offering this tour I am very excited to do it again. It’s an intense cycling challenge that I described as an epic quest in a legendary mountain range. It is ambitious, bold, magnificent, inspiring and imposing. It has beautiful landscapes, awe inspiring mountain passes and cycling history rich and unsurpassed by any other region in the world. Simply put it ranks as some of the best and most exciting cycling you could ever dream of. I am hooked, and rightly so, as everyone comes away from this trip with great memories, an undeniable experience and grasp of what it’s like to ride the famous cols, and a real sense of pride for tackling one tough gutsy ride. At the beginning you may be apprehensive about being able to finish, but by the end you will be wishing it could go on forever. Often times my clients say it best, “any one of the stages in this tour would have been epic, but to put them all together in a single tour was tremendous.”

The rocky Basque coastline at low tide with a classic 19th century manor perched above the reef.

The trip – 1000 mile loop – begins and ends in the coastal Atlantic town of Biarritz at the base of the Pyrenees mountains. This is the French Basque country, known for its lush green countryside, beautiful beaches that are sprinkled along the rocky coast line, and wonderful cheeses. The town of Biarrtiz – the name is Basque – was a “therapeutic” destination in the latter part of the 19th century that grew and developed into a posh resort town. It is undeniably Basque in character and beauty. The mountains come literally down through the town to the ocean, so the moment you start to pedal from the start point at the hotel you are already in the Pyrenees. I recommend you fly in a day early to explore the town.

The low road in the foothills, 4 stages, 400 miles, 25000 ft, to get to the Mediterranean. The high road back, 8 stages, 600 miles, and 75000 ft. You’ll take the low road and the high road.

Bucolic lush green Basque countryside, with leg breaking rolling foothills. Basic “nuts and bolts” of Basque cycling.

If you find yourself in front of a cheese plate like this then there is a very high probability that you are in the French Pyrenees Basque country.

From Biarrtiz we begin “Part 1”of the journey, 4 stages over 4 days to the Mediterranean coast, traversing the lower foothills of the mountains by means of small back roads. While these stages do not enter the high mountains – that will be “Part II” the return leg of 8 stages in the high mountains – it is without a doubt demanding, as we average 100 miles and 6000 ft per day. Think of these days as a way to “ease into” the trip, riding on roads that the locals would choose, and having a chance to experience parts of the countryside that seem to have remain unchanged for much of the 20th century. You will feel like you have traveled back in time, with old picket fences that line all the farm fields along the small country lanes.

I sometimes think to myself that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to come across a farmer on a horse drawn cart. Our course to the Mediterranean is through the foothills, along these serene and quiet country roads that zig zag their way from village to village. I have always enjoyed the organic layout and flow of the farm lands and villages of France. The Pyrenees countryside and towns are no exception. Neighbourhoods with perpendicular streets and “right-angle-4-way-intersections” are impossible to find, thank god. Moreover, each region and village has origins that go back centuries.

The back-roads of the Pyrenees Mountains, small country roads less traveled, are hidden gems meandering through picturesque landscapes. Watch out as these roads often demand at times physical efforts similar to the famous Pyrenees cols.

Lucky for you on the ride across the Pyrenees you can eat as much fresh baked bread as you like. God knows you will need the calories. Said another way, “don’t bonk! Eat the bread.”

As you imagine taking this journey and riding along these roads, you should also be aware of some of the trip’s other unique aspects and qualities that insure an amazing experience. I think it is really outstanding that the riders will complete the entire journey without ever having to ride in the sag-wagon. Two weeks without getting in a car and yet you still travel 1000 miles!

I designed the course so that each stage goes from hotel to hotel, and never once does the trip call for travel time in the van. The tour is divided into 12 stages to cover the distance from coast to coast and back, no easy feat, and therefore demands of each rider a very high level of fitness.

Because this adventure is an intense cycling quest and a serious challenge it needs serious focus and rider support, which I will not compromise. This is why I decided on a max group size of 12 people – perfect so the group can gel and develop a bond, the riders can work together, the sag-wagon can be there to support all the riders, and our service at hotels and restaurants is the best.

I also want the trip to create lasting friendships between everyone and their experiences to be that of a lifetime…truly memorable. Two of the consistent comments I get from my clients is that they have never been on a trip with such outstanding rider support, which they attribute to their success in completing the ride, and the great camaraderie they share out on the road and at the end of the day when they get to sit down and talk about their experiences. I deliver by staying small and nimble.

Best to work as a team when you can. 6 hours in the saddle everyday and there are bound to be times when you’ll need to sit on someone’s wheel. At least the beauty of the countryside will give you courage.

For those that don’t know, the Pyrenees are an absolute perfect playground for cyclists, especially the hardcore. The roads are very well paved, the mountain passes are low in absolute elevation, so no oxygen debt, the climbs are long and steep, though not too steep. How long? Typically 12 km, with some as long as 20 km. How steep? Mostly around 8 and 9 percent, and there are sections at 10, 11 and 12 percent but never much more than that. How high? The Tourmalet is the highest mountain pass and it is only at 6900 ft elevation, so you can breath easy. The scenery is beautiful, interesting and it changes, unlike the United States where the landscapes can to go on for hundreds of miles without changing. To believe it you will have to come and see for yourself.

In the Pyrenees cyclists are king. They don’t put up signs that say “Share the Road,” that’s a given. Instead they have signs every 2 kilometers up the passes that tell riders how much suffering is left to get to the top. Maybe that is too much information when you are suffering and would rather not know.

While the “Pyrenees Atlantique” are lush and green, the Pyrenees Oriental – the Mediterranean side – are bathed in much dryer climactic conditions. One of the interesting aspects of riding from the Atlantic to the Med is the change in climate, vegetation and landscapes, as well as the “micro-cultures” There is a tremendous appeal and excitement for cyclists beyond the history of bike racing in the Pyrenees. One of my goals for this trip, and its allure, is the opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of the Pyrenees regions. Every day of riding is unique and different from the previous day, each day’s route brand-new, and each day’s destination somewhere else. There is a real sense that you are on an adventure exploring all of the Pyrenees. A sensation you can’t realize if you stay put in the same hotel for several days.

What is it that rock climbers say to keep their calm, “don’t look down.” My advice here is not to look up. Making our way across the foothills on the way to Mediterranean coast. You’ll go over those mountains on the way back.

The goal of any vacation is to stop and smell the roses, or in this case to stop and appreciate the grapes. Here we are on the Mediterranean side of the mountains where the climate is much dryer.

Our destination on the Mediterranean is the ancient and quaint seaside town of Collioure, with history that dates back to the Romans. Over the centuries it has been an important bay and access to the sea, in part because it’s easily defended and well sheltered. Collioure is also the locale of our first rest day, an entire free day to explore the sites, such as the historical water front castle and downtown, and all within walking distance from the hotel. Go easy and take the opportunity to rest your legs. At this point you will have logged 400 miles and 25,000 feet of elevation in 4 days.

The village of Collioure is on the Mediterranean coast. Pictured here is part of the port along with the Chateau Royal de Collioure. The castle’s origins go back to the 7th century, with “remodeling and add-ons” up until the 18th century. Today it is a historical monument. Collioure is our destination on the Mediterranean coast, and the location of one of the rest days of the trip.

Let The Climbing Begin!
Part II of the journey is the return back to the Atlantic in the high mountains, divided into 8 stages covering 600 miles and 75,000 feet of elevation. Now the “harder part” begins. This is what you have been training for.

Here’s where you get to ride many of the mountain passes that you’ve watched on the Tour de France and dreamt about for years. Along the way you’ll discover what it feels like to ride the Col de Peyresourde, Tourmalet, Aubisque, and Bagargui to name a few (24 in all). You will challenge yourself to ride an average of 80 miles and 9000 feet a day for 8 days. One tough ride after another, day after day, mountain pass after mountain pass, each day as magnificent as the previous. Every day feeling as though you are living in a post card.

Grins and grimaces. 400 miles in 4 days and everyone is grinning. Now the big climbs lie ahead as we make our way back from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic over the high passes of the Pyrenees … approximately 600 miles and 75,000 feet of climbing are still to be ridden in the remaining 8 days of the trip. There will be grimaces.

Do you remember Vinokorov struggling up the Porte de Pailheres? You’ll be there too. Do you remember Andy Schleck dropping his chain on the Port de Bales? You’ll be there too. There’s a 100 years of Tour de France history in these mountains and you get to live it, with daily rides of 3, 4, and 5 passes. What a great feeling and such a high at the end of the day to have done all those cols. I am sure you will agree that this is one really hard ride but well worth the effort.

This is what it looks like to stare down the barrel of a 9 percent gradient with Tour de France graffiti.

Each day in the high mountains is intense, and every mountain pass is exhilarating and beautiful. Yet stage number 8 of the trip stands out as it pushes the limits totaling 98 miles and 14,000+ ft of elevation over 5 mountain passes. The saving grace is the rest day that follows. This stage retraces just about the same route as stage 15 of the Tour de France in 2005, which Hincapie won. The road below is Col du Mente, pass number two on this epic day. If you are smart you’ll be conserving your energy here no matter how tempting it is to put the hurt on your friends. (cols on stage 8: Col d’Aspet, Col du Mente, Porte de Bales, Col du Peyresourde, and Col d’Azet.)

The first time you see a section of road like this you have to stop and pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming. The east side of Col du Mente, 11 km to the top, and the second of five passes of stage 8. We’ll be climbing up this road in 2014.

So you have to ask yourself, what would it feel like to summit the famous cols of the Pyrenees? Or better yet, what would it be like to ride coast to coast and back? I created this trip because I had that same question, those same desires. The pictures in this article speak volumes about the scenery and its beauty, but I have to say that they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to presenting the sensations of actually being there.

What goes up must come down. The law of gravity is both appreciated and a sign of concern depending on on your direction of travel here in the Pyrenees. In the end the descent is always a worthy reward for the effort made to reach the summit.

We eat and we eat well. It’s hard to beat the food in France, and the Pyrenees are no exception. Thankfully, the primary reputation and appeal of France is their cuisine. Typical dinners on this trip include a salad, an entrée, a main dish, cheese and desert. One of my favourite hotels has a restaurant that is owned and run by a trained chef. His restaurant is a destination for locals. Here you might chose to begin your meal with melon and prosciutto, followed by a mixed salad, a main dish of pork filet mignon with roasted oven potatoes and thinly shredded vegetables, a dish of varied Pyrenees local sheep cheeses, and a desert of chocolate cake with vanilla creme sauce. Combine that with some red wine and you will be smiling from ear to ear. The hotels and restaurants in the Pyrenees are familiar with cyclists and their appetites, so they know how to take care of us. These two photos drive the point home.

Restaurants and hotels in the Pyrenees are accustomed to cyclists. This particular hotel/restaurant, owned and run by a trained chef, knows exactly what kind of ingredients are necessary when preparing an appetizer salad for bike riders. Every year he never lets us down. We eat like kings here.

One of the benefits to riding your bike across the Pyrenees is the requirement to indulge in wonderful deserts at dinner. Trust me, your net gain in calories at the end of the day is always negative. One desert is hardly enough, and without it you would not recover well enough for the next day’s ride. Just saying!

Rain? What Rain?
Some of the best weather, which I define as the least likelihood of rain, is between the end of August to mid September. I originally chose the dates of this trip – August 27 to September 11 – because I wanted to avoid summer vacation crowds. By serendipity it also coincides with the high likely hood of good weather – per what the locals say. So far that has been my experience. The proof is that every one of my trips has been blessed with 11 days of dry conditions and only one day of “on and off” rain. Much of the time the weather is hot and sunny with blue skies. I can’t guarantee that will be the case every year, but the track record is promising.

The view looking down east into the valley of Aure. Spectacular. Note the road winding its way up the mountain.

Not For Everyone
This trip is not a race, however you need to be tenacious and committed to get it done, because you cannot give up when the going gets tough. The people who do well are the ones who love to spend their day on a bike, love to suffer and push themselves, and thrive on endurance. If that describes you then this trip is your calling. Cyclists who are racers or who have experience with double centuries and multi-day rides are the type who have tested and proven themselves to be qualified for this trip. There’s a lot of climbing so you need to be an experienced and fit cyclist.

Experienced means that you have been riding seriously for 5 or more years, and that you have ridden a lot of centuries. Fit means that a century is something you can always ride right now without too much effort. The question is never, “can you complete a century, but rather how fast can you get it done?”

This image says it all. This is why I am hooked. “Every person passionate about cycling should live such a trip at least once in their life!”

The constant presence of farm animals roaming the mountains, with the melody of their cowbells ringing and clinging in the background, is one of the iconic images and sounds of the Pyrenees. Oftentimes the animals are on the road oblivious of the human activity that surrounds them, and we are obliged to wait until they make room for us to advance. These scenes are typical of the high mountain passes. I always remind everyone to be vigilant of farm animals and their droppings when descending. You can put your trust and confidence in the high quality of the roads, but you never know what might be standing in the middle of the road around the next bend.

These two riders look as tired as the sheep. Understandable when you are climbing the Gavarnie after having ridden the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet earlier in the day. About 12000 ft of climbing today.

This is the only acceptable excuse for stopping and catching your breath while climbing up the mountain. By the looks of this it will take a while before the road clears, what a shame.

The Col du Tourmalet is undoubtedly the most sought after badge of all the passes. It’s first inclusion in the Tour de France goes back to 1910, with a total of 82 appearances since. It rightly deserves the accolades and honours bestowed it, but I will let you in on a secret … there are many others like it, that is the suffering it dishes out. When you summit this pass you will feel exhilarated and proud, you will stand under the famous statue of the cyclist above the Tourmalet sign and have your picture taken, but you will know that you have already suffered as hard … and that there is still more suffering to come. By happenstance it is located about halfway between the two coasts, and summiting the col is symbolically the pinnacle of this tour and everyone’s efforts. Nonetheless, even though it has the backing of history and does rank as an hors de category climb, it is not all downhill from here back to Biarritz. Half way means half way, so up to this point you will have already climbed 12 cols, and still have 12 to go. In fact, stage 9, which includes the Tourmalet, also includes the Col d’Aspin and the Gavarnie.

At the summit of the Col du Tourmalet, perched and overlooking the west side, is a restaurant. I insist you take step inside, order a hot cocoa or coffee ,and take a trip back in time.

Looking down the west side of the Col du Tourmalet … from only 2/3 of the way up … on a sunny September afternoon.

Every year riders debate which was their favourite day or mountain pass. By the end of the journey a consensus is never reached. However, the unity of mention is that without a doubt this is the cycling trip of a lifetime, and that the Pyrenees are everything, and maybe more, of what they had hoped and imagined.

From the 16th century citadel perched high above and overlooking the medieval town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, which was razed in 1177 by the troops of Richard the Lion Heart and rebuilt by the Kings of Navarre, the old capital of the Basque province Lower Navarre. Saint Jean Pied de Port is also on the route of the 9th century medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela.

Mission Accomplished. Before you know it, it all goes by so fast, and it’s the final day and you finish back where you had started in Biarritz … Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea and back, 1000 miles and 100,000 ft elevation, 12 days of riding. It’s quite an accomplishment and thrill, with most definitely some bragging rights.

Time and again my clients will say it best, “This trip was a life changer … I can’t put into words the emotions and exuberance this trip brought about. Culture, food, geography, epic climbs, camaraderie, history, all too much to take in.”

Beautiful vistas like this one are a “dime a dozen” in the Pyrenees. What we have here is a real descent. For the dedicated cyclists this is a vision of pure joy, and a reason to believe that maybe there is a god after all. Off in the horizon the haze over the Atlantic Ocean.

• Get more info and sign up for your next trip at FranceFromInside.com

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