France From Inside: Cycling The Pyrenees
France From Inside Tours specializes in cycling holidays in southern France, and one of their most popular trips is the epic Conquer the Pyrenees: 12 days riding 1000 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and back, climbing over 100,000 feet. The company owner and lead guide, Allan Reeves, explains why this trip is so popular, it’s back for the 9th year.
– Special Travel Feature By Allan Reeves of FranceFromInside.com –
At the summit of the Col d’Aspin, a frequent participant in the Tour de France, you can always expect a showing of livestock to greet you. The view from top offers a spectacular vista to the east of the valley of Aure, and west the ominous peak of the Tourmalet.
Let me say that after 8 years of offering this once annual tour I am energized and excited to do it again. It’s an intense challenge that is appropriately described as an epic quest in an epic land. 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 journey 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 of the trip riders are often apprehensive about being able to finish, but by the end they wish it could go on forever. My clients say it best, “Any one of the stages in this tour would have been memorable, but to put them all together in a single tour was tremendous.”
In the Pyrenees it is always about taking the high road and never the low road. And the reason for climbing the mountain is always the same, to see what’s on the other side, and like the horizon that keeps stretching out farther away no matter how much you move forward, with each mountain summit there is in the distance another mountain top that presents itself. At least there is a certain amount of comfort in knowing what to expect.
Why Do It?
So what is the motivation and enthusiasm behind this undertaking? I think this trip qualifies as a “bucket list” item for any serious committed cyclist. I realize after witnessing the experiences of past clients that for many, this ride is a culmination of dreams, skills, fitness and personal goals. We’ve all seen the Tour de France and the Pyrenees on TV, watched the epic battles racing up the cols, and we’ve all dreamed about riding those passes ourselves. The Pyrenees are mythological, so of course who wouldn’t want to experience the legend first hand and see what it takes to climb these mountains.
Cycling is a unique sport in that we as passionate amateurs and fans can ride in the same arenas that host the pros and therefore get to pretend for a moment that we are also professionals. Dreams can come true. I can get caught up in the logistics of running the trip and sometimes lose perspective of a rider’s joy in cresting a col or finishing a difficult stage. But each night at dinner, when the group describes their experiences and relives the adventures of the day, I am humbled and pleased to understand the full and personal impact that this journey has for each rider. Again the testimony from a client after completing the tour, “It’s a life changer I can’t put into words the emotions and exuberance this trip brought about.”
Take a walk along the waterfront of Biarritz and enjoy, amongst other things, the rocky Basque coastline. Here’s low tide with a classic 19th century manor perched above the reef.
Biarritz To Biarritz
The trip begins and ends in the coastal Atlantic town of Biarritz at the base of the Pyrenees mountains. This is French Basque country, known for its lush green countryside, beautiful beaches that are sprinkled along the rocky coast line, rugby, cycling, and wonderful cheeses. Biarrtiz – the name is Basque – was a “therapeutic” destination that grew and developed into a resort town in the later part of the 19th century. Today it attracts all types of coastal and mountain lovers: surfers, families on vacation, hikers, cyclists, food aficionados. The town is well stocked with a broad variety of excellent restaurants, shops and bars, with easy access to both beaches and the mountains. It’s a great place to relax and recover from your travels before starting the Pyrenees ride.
Obviously with a ride through the Pyrenees that covers 1000 miles and 100,000 ft of climbing you need a jersey to celebrate the achievement and strut your stuff. Here in the foothills at the eastern edge of the Basque region, bucolic lush green countryside, with leg breaking rolling foothills. Basic “nuts and bolts” of cycling in the foothills.
Easing In With 100 Miles and 6000 Feet per Day
From Biarrtiz we begin “Part 1” of the journey, 4 riding stages/days to the Mediterranean coast, traversing the lower slopes of the mountains via 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 a challenge, 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 chose, and having a chance to experience parts of the countryside that seem to have remained unchanged for much of the 20th century.
Our course to the Mediterranean is through the foothills, along serene and quiet country roads that zig zag their way from village to village. When you ride on these roads you feel like you have traveled back in time, with old picket fences that line the farm fields and small country lanes. While the foothills don’t enjoy the drama of the high mountains they do represent a distinct aspect and charm of the Pyrenees that are too often overlooked and well worth riding. I find these first 4 legs to be vigorous and dynamic, and they amplify the excitement for the high mountain stages. 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 almost 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.
Small Group: Big Experience
As you imagine yourself taking this journey and riding through these landscapes, you should also be aware of some of the trip’s other exceptional features and qualities that ensure 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 will still travel 1000 miles! When, if ever, was the last time you had such an opportunity? 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 it requires of each rider a very high level of fitness and ability. Because this adventure is an intense cycling quest and a serious challenge it demands determined focus and rider support, which I do not compromise.
This is why I decided on a maximum 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 are that they (1) have never been on a trip with such outstanding rider support, which they attribute to their success in completing the ride, and (2) 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.
The lush green thick vegetation of the western Pyrenees gives way to the Mediterranean climate and dryer conditions, prime for the Languedoc wine region. A big attraction to riding the Pyrenees is the variety of constantly changing landscapes. The goal of any vacation is to stop and smell the roses, or in this case to stop and appreciate the grapes.
One of the interesting highlights of riding from the Atlantic to the Med is the change in climate and landscapes, as well as the “micro-cultures” – the Basque contrasted with Catalonia. While the “Pyrenees Atlantique” are lush and green, the Pyrenees Oriental – the Mediterranean side – are bathed in dryer climactic conditions, with vegetation typical of low rain fall and semi-desert regions. These two areas are counterparts of each other in setting and atmosphere. Hence there is both cultural and geographical allure, motivation for cyclists other than the history of bike racing in the Pyrenees or the challenge of the cols.
Another of my goals for this trip, and part of its appeal, is the opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of the Pyrenees regions. Therefore, every day of riding is distinct from the previous, each day’s route unique and exceptional, and each day’s destination somewhere different. 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.
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.
The destination on the Mediterranean coast is the ancient, quaint, and touristic 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 the first rest day. Take the day off to explore the sites, such as the historical water front castle/forte and downtown, all within walking distance from the hotel. Go easy and take the opportunity to rest your legs, enjoy the restaurants and local cuisine, and have refreshments overlooking the Mediterranean. At this point in the trip you will have logged 400 miles and 25,000 feet of elevation in 4 days..
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. 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!”
Part Deux: Let The Climbing Begin
The return back to the Atlantic all in the high mountains, divided into 8 stages covering a little over 600 miles and 75,000 feet of elevation. Now for the “tougher riding.” This is what you trained for. Here’s where you get to ride many of the mountain passes that you’ve seen 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 84 miles and 9525 feet a day. One tough ride after another, day after day, mountain pass after mountain pass, each day as magnificent as the previous and feeling as though you are living in a post card. 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 with some serious vertical, but isn’t that what you signed up for?
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 at 20 km. How steep? Mostly around 8 and 9 percent, though there are steeper sections.
The Queen Stage
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 number 2 that follows. This stage retraces just about the same route as stage 15 of the Tour de France in 2005, which Hincapie won. If you are smart you’ll be conserving your energy no matter how tempting it is to put the hurt on your friends. (the cols on stage 8: Col d’Aspet, Col du Mente, Porte de Bales, Col du Peyresourde, and Col d’Azet.)
Top of the Col du Peyresourde, the 4th of 5 passes of stage 8. Obviously cool overcast conditions would help to minimize the effort, but that isn’t the case on this day.
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.
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.
So you have to ask yourself, what would it feel like to summit the famous cols of the Pyrenees? 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.
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 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.
Beautiful vistas like this are a dime a dozen in the Pyrenees. Looking down the barrel, west side, of the Col du Tourmalet summit. It’s an 18km long climb so no surprise that you can’t see the very bottom. What goes up must come down. The law of gravity is both appreciated and a sign of concern depending on your direction of travel here in the Pyrenees. In the end the descent is always a worthwhile reward for the effort made to reach the summit.
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 then. It rightly deserves the accolades and honours bestowed it, but I will let you in on a secret I 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 I 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. That’s right the Tourmalet is only one of the day’s challenges.
Every year my clients debate which was the toughest mountain pass. In the end an agreement is never reached. I suppose it depends how your legs felt on any given day. However, a consensus without a doubt is that this is the cycling trip of a lifetime, and that the Pyrenees are everything, and maybe more, of what they had hoped and imagined. The Col du Bagargui is another familiar face in the Tour de France and a front runner for the hardest climb.
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.
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 entre, 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 crme 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.
Last year’s Pyrenees ride had rain on day 2, and only for the first half of the ride, and that was it for the whole trip. The weather was so mild that year that arm warmers and a vest were just about all you needed to stay comfortable in the coldest of conditions.
Rain? What Rain?
Some of the best weather, which as a cyclist 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 likelihood of good weather – per what the locals say. So far that has been my experience, and 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.
Think about the perfect cycling trip. If it includes beautiful scenery, smooth and lightly trafficked roads, great food, cool towns, and nothing to worry about – except getting up some serious vertical, well then this is it. Being able to ride with such a small group is an opportunity unique to this trip.
Before you know it the final day has arrived and you finish back where you had started in Biarritz, a gigantic loop from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea and back, totaling a 1000 miles and 100,000 ft elevation, in 12 days of riding. Now that is quite an accomplishment and thrill, and most definitely some bragging rights. But maybe the best news right now is that I still have a few spots open for this year’s trip.
Get more info and sign up for an amazing trip to France at the website:
• Dates: August 27 – Sept 11, 2015
• Price: US$4200 per Person – see details at website
• Contact Allan at [email protected]
• Phone: 415-847-4027