France From Inside: The Pyrenees Coast To Coast
France From Inside Tours specializes in cycling holidays in southern France. 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 94,000 feet. The company owner and lead guide, Allan Reeves, explains how next year’s 6th presentation of this marathon ride unfolds.
– Special Travel Feature By Allan Reeves of FranceFromInside.com –
This image says it all. There’s no doubt as to the majestic beauty of the Pyrenees mountains and the world class cycling. A day like this makes for legendary memories.
After 5 years of offering this tour I’m still energized and excited to do it again. It’s appropriately described as an epic challenge in an epic land. It’s ambitious, grand, 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. Seriously, it ranks as some of the best cycling you could ever dream of, and after each year, I’m more addicted than ever.
The rocky Basque coastline with downtown Biarritz in the background.
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 coastline, and wonderful cheeses. Biarrtiz – the name is Basque – is a “therapeutic” destination that grew and developed into a resort town in the later part of the 19th century. The pro cycling team Euskaltel is the “unofficial Basque national team.” I recommend you fly in a day early to explore the town.
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.
Let The Journey Begin
From Biarrtiz we begin “Part 1” of the journey, 4 riding stages over 4 days to the Mediterranean coast, traversing the lower foothills of the mountains via small backroads. 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 choose, and experiencing parts of the countryside that have remained unchanged for much of the 20th century. Our course to the Mediterranean is through the foothills, along serene and quiet backroads that zig zag their way from village to village. Riding these roads takes you back in time, with old picket fences that line the farm fields and small country lanes. Don’t be surprised to come across a farmer on a horse drawn cart.
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 physical efforts typical of the famous Pyrenees climbs.
A farmer shepherds his cows across the road, a scene that could be from the early 1900s.
While the “Pyrenees Atlantiques” 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’s 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 appeal, is the opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of the Pyrenees regions. Everyday of riding is unique and different from the last. There is a real sense that you are on an adventure, a sensation you don’t realize if you stay put in the same hotel for several days.
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges cathedral. The Romanesque part dates back to the 12th century, and the Gothic part is from the 14th century. The place has been used by pilgrims as a stage on the route to Santiago de Compostela. We ride our bikes right by it, about the half-way point to the Mediterranean.
Serious Riding and Serious Sag-Support
As you imagine yourself taking this trip and riding along these roads, you should also be aware of some of the trip’s other unique aspects and benefits, attributes that insure an amazing experience. It’s cool that riders will complete the entire journey without ever having to ride in the sag-wagon. 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. This journey is 12 stages to go from coast to coast and back, so it’s up to you and your fitness to get it done. This trip is a quest and a serious challenge, and it needs serious focus and rider support, which I will not compromise. This is why I decided on a max group size of 10 people – perfect so the group can gel and develop a bond, the riders can work together, the sag-wagon will 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 the experience to be that of a lifetime…truly memorable.
My clients consistently comment that the’ve never been on a trip with such outstanding rider support, which they also attribute to their success in completing the ride. I deliver by staying small and nimble.
The goal of any vacation is to stop and smell the roses, or in this case to stop and taste 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 in the trip 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 hard part begins.
Here’s where you ride the mountain passes that you’ve watched on the Tour de France and dreamt about. 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 76 miles and 9000 feet a day for 8 days. Each day its own unique adventure.
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. Everyone agrees that this is “one really hard ride, but well worth the effort.”
400 miles in 4 days and everyone is grinning. 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.
The Pyrenees are an absolute perfect playground for cyclists. The roads are very well paved, the mountain passes are low in absolute elevation but 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, but 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 6800 ft. The scenery is beautiful, interesting and it changes, unlike the United States where the landscapes go on for hundreds of miles without changing. If you come ride in the Pyrenees, everyday is different and every ride is spectacular.
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 into the high mountains from the Mediterranean coast.
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 entrйe, a main dish, cheese and desert. One of my favourite hotels has a restaurant and 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 crиme sauce. Combine that with some red wine and you will be grinning 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 barely enough, so without it you would not recover well enough for the next day’s ride.
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 a high likely hood of good weather – per what the locals say. 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. In 2009 we didn’t get rained on at all. Much of the time the weather is sunny with blue skies.
This is the top of the Col du Porte de Pailheres, looking east. Even though there is a long view down the mountain you still cannot see the bottom. The road snaking it’s way up the mountain does bring to mind the idea of “castles in the sky.”
Not For Everyone
This trip is not a race, however you need to be tenacious and committed to get it done, because you should not 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. 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, and 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 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.
Beautiful vistas like this one are a “dime a dozen” in the Pyrenees. We can see here what lies ahead for us in the coming days. For the dedicated cyclists this is a vision of pure joy, and a reason to believe that maybe there is a god after all.
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. This scene is typical of the high mountain passes. I always remind my riders 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.
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.
Each day in the high mountains is intense, and every mountain pass is exhilarating and beautiful. Yet stage number 8 of the trip – the 8th of 12 stages – stands out as it pushes the limits totaling 94 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 of five on this epic day, and if you are smart you’ll be conserving your energy here no matter how tempting it is to put the hurt on your friends.
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 2012.
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.
… and when you’ve reached the summit of the Col d’Azet, the final climb of the daring 5 pass day, you can look down with relief at the 12 km descent into the valley and destination town. From here you can actually coast all the way to the hotel.
The Col du Tourmalet is probably the most famous of all the Pyrenees mountains. 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.
It’s like the urge you get while looking over the edge of a sky scraper, you want to jump. Wow. This is what you see on a clear day at the top of the Col du Tourmalet looking west. It is 18 km to the bottom.
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. The Col d’Aubisque is another familiar face in the Tour de France. Pictured below, some of the riders begin the twisty descent down the west side, looking as though they are about to drop off the edge of the earth.
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.
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. Take for example the town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, razed in 1177 by the troops of Richard the Lionheart, and rebuilt by the Kings of Navarre, and to boot at one time the old capital of the Basque province Lower Navarre. It is also on the route of the 9th century medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela.
Overlooking the medieval town of Saint Jean Pied de Port from the 16th century citadel perched high above it.
Tyler Hamilton, riding with a broken collarbone in the 2003 Tour, pulled away from the breakaway group up this pass, the Col du Barguigui, and went on solo to win the stage in Bayonne. When we reached the top we all agreed that this was probably the toughest climb of the trip, and we had ridden many of the most famous Cols, i.e. Tourmalet, Abusique. At this point we had already logged 85,000 feet of elevation in 11 days, but our minds were still capable of some objective analysis. We kept up our morale and motivation by giving each other words of encouragement, “dead or alive you are coming with me.”
This picture pays homage to the lesser known, and probably avoided, Col du Barguigui, that isn’t shy about kicking you hard in the behind. You’ll understand when you ride it.
Before you know it, it’s the final day and you finish back where you started in Biarritz … Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea and back, 1000 miles and 94,000 ft elevation, 12 days of riding. It’s quite an accomplishment and thrill, with most definitely some bragging rights. You’ll come away from this trip with great memories, and an undeniable experience and grasp of what it’s like to ride the famous cols. At the beginning of the trip you may have been apprehensive about being able to finish, but in the end you’ll be wishing it would go on forever.
Get more info and sign up for an amazing trip to France at the website:
• Dates: August 27 – Sept 11, 2012
• Price: 2800 Euros per Person – see details at website
• Contact Allan at [email protected]
• Phone: 415-847-4027