Cyclists Guide to the French Pyrenees

Where is the French Pyrenees?

The Pyrenees is the name given to a mountain range that stretches from the north coast of Spain to the Southern most border of the Mediterranean between France and Spain. It spans 500km and on the French side, “the French Pyrenees” it includes the departments of Pyrénées-Orientales, Aude, Ariège, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques – an area now falling into the region known as Occitanie. The area is hugely popular with English native speakers and there are many specialist tours and bike holiday locations as well as cycle hire companies and bike shops. It is an alternative to the Alps but is generally quieter out of the main tourist seasons.

The Tour de France and the Mountain Stages in the Pyrenees

The Pyrenees first entered the Tour de France itinerary in 1910 when – on the 7th year of the race – Henri Desgranges, the race founder, sent his scouts to the area to find suitable routes. They reported that the roads were unsafe, that there were too many wild animals, yet on July 19th the race set off from Perpignan, on the Mediterranean cost, ending 325km later in the Pynean town of Bagnere du Luchon. The race challenged all the riders and cemented the climbs of Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque into the history of Le Tour. 

Famous Mountain Passes of the Pyrenees

  • Col du Tourmalet is one of the most iconic climbs of the Tour de France, having featured 88 times since the Tour begin in 1907. Rising from Luz Saint Sauveur in the Midi-Pyrenees it climbs a total of 1401m with an average gradient of 7.7% and the final kilometer pushing 9%. The steepest section, at 11.7%, makes it one of the hardest challenges a ride can take on. 
  • Col de Peyresourde, with a total elevation of 1,569 m (5,148 ft), borders the French departments of Haute-Garonne and Hautes-Pyrénées. It has an average gradient of 6.1% over the 15.3 km (9.5 mi) length when approached from the town of Bagneres-du-Luchon. It has appeared in the Tour de France 51 times and will make an appearance in 2022 en route the Stage 17 finish at the Peyragudes ski resort.
  • Plateau de Beille is a ski resort in the Ariege not far from the Spanish border and the popular towns of Ax-les-Thermes and Tarascon-sur-Ariège. The climb from Les Cabanes is 1,790 m (5,870 ft) over 15.8 km (9.8 mi), an average gradient of 7.9% with 10.8% the hardest section. Much of the climb is through woodland. It first made an appearance in the Tour de France calendar in 1998, where Marco Pantani was the first over the line, and has featured five times since. It makes regular appearances in the 4-stage Route d’Occitanie race and is also the traditional finish for the L’Areigoise cycle sportive that takes place in June each year.
  • Port du Pailhères is another climb in the Ariege and can be approached from Ax-les-Thermes or Axat, rising through Mijanes. With a total ascent of 2,001 m (6,565 ft) it stretches over 18.6 km (11.6 mi) long with an average gradient of 6.9%. It is also a regular feature in a local sportive called the Figure of Hate, that usually takes place each August.
  • Col de Portet from Saint Lary Soulan is listed as one of the hardest climbs, with an ascent of 1409m over 16km and an average gradient 8.7%. The toughest section is 16.3%. As a recent introduction to the Tour de France, first appearing only as recently as 2018. It featured again in 2021, where yellow jersey-holder Tadej Pogačar won the stage. 

Lesser Known Mountain Passes of the Pyrenees

Most of the commonly mountain passes have the Tour de France to thank for their popularity but there are many more incredible routes and climbs, loved by the locals and subject of their own popular races and sportives.

  • Col de Montsegur is an interesting climb that switchbacks up from the valley floor in the Ariege up to the Cathar Castle famous for the last siege of the Cathars. At the very top you’ll find a fascinating small village, perfect for a quick refreshement stop (in high season there are cafes and restaurants here) before continuing your journey. In the 2021 Tour de France the approach was made from the West side but the more challenging (and interesting climb) is approach from the East.  
  • Port de Balès is approached from Bagneres-du-Luchon and starts of the same approach as the Col de Peyresourde before branching off into an unspoilt valley. The route to the summit is 19.4km with an average gradient of 5.7%. It is a quiet route that meanders through various small villages and into a “zone pastorale” making it wild and remote and best tackled in good weather.
  • Col de la Croix des Morts is one of the easier climbs in the Pyrenees but makes up for it’s lack of height by passing through steep-sided woodland and opening out into spectular mountain views when it reaches the Plateau du Sault. At 8.9km in length with an average ascent of 4.55% it’s a great introduction to the moutain passes in the area or a warm up en route to the Port du Pailhères or Plateau de Beille for the more experienced cyclist.

Bike Events in the Pyrenees

Road Cycling Sportives

Given the vast area the Pyrenees are covers it’s no surprise that is a busy calendar of cycling sportives, from challenging Gran Fondos to 50km loops, taking place throughout the year. Some of the most well-known are the Marmot Granfondo Pyrenees and Cyclosportive l’Ariégeoise but there are many others.

Read more about road cycling sportives in the Pyrenees in this blog post.

Mountain Biking

The Pyrenees has some of the best trail and downhill mountain biking in France but is less well known outside of France than the Alps. There are many challenging races and enduros held here throughout the year. In the Haute Pyrenees is the The Pyr’Epic – Enduro Raid, which is a 2-day event with riders tackling 120 km in two stages carefully crafted so that rides can enjoy 8,000 m of descent against only 4,000 m of climbing!

There is also a Pyrenean version of the Alpine classic, the Mega Avalanche, called the Maxi Avalanche.

The Pyrenees by Bike

While Pyrenees is largely known for it’s high mountain passes and iconic climbs of the Tour de France mountain stages, there are also routes suitable for all cyclists. While it’s hard to get away from climbs altogether there are more sedate options, such as the Col du Espezel and the Col du Bac from Montjardin, which featured in the Tour de France in 2021 and will make another appearance in 2022 when the tour passes from Limoux to the stage finish in Foix.

There are also opportunities for rides at lower levels, in the villages and towns at the edge of the mountains, with the possibility to connect hillier routes with rolling countryside around the vineyards. There are also opportunities for those interested in wild swimming to join up their routes with popular wild swimming lakes, such as Lac du Montbel, Puivert Lake, and the lake at Arques.

Travel to the Pyrenees

There are major airports in Toulouse with smaller airports serving Pau, Carcassonne, and Perpignan all within easy driving distance of the main areas.

There are flights from most UK airports (Gatwick, Heathrow, Bristol and Manchester). 

For travel from the US or other international destinations, while there are no direct flights to Toulouse or the surrounding airports, there average flight time including a changeover is 7 hours, with prices starting from $900 depending on the time of year.

If you do travel by plane you can check with your holiday provider whether they offer airport pickup as many do and this will save you from  having to make arrangements for a hire car or completing the final part of your journey by rail. However, there are good rail services in the region so this is a viable option, depending on the volume of luggage you are bringing with you.

Cycle Hire in the Pyrenees

Because this is such a popular cycling area you will find cycle hire options in most of the major towns. To make sure you get the best deal, avoid any language barrier issues, and also choose the most suitable bike for your holiday, we recommend talking with your holiday provider.

When to Visit the French Pyrenees

Because the Pyrenees spans such a wide area there are quite significant differences in the climate however, as a mountainous regions, generally the spring (March to May), summer (June to August) and autumn (September to November) are the best times of year to visit as most areas become busy ski resorts during the winter months and are therefore not suited to cycling. 

Average temperatures range from 6°c to 20.2°c in the Central Pyrenees area with an average of 2,000 sunshine hours a year, making it one of the sunniest place in France. Average rainfall is 50 mm for Toulouse. When planning your trip keep in in mind that the weather may be more variable in the mountains and also temperature differences from the top to the bottom of climbs mean you should still take warmer kit out with you through most of spring and autumn rides.

Find a Holiday in the Pyrenees

We have a range of holidays in the Pyrenees. Click the images below to take a look. Each provider offers bespoke holidays at dates to suit you. Contact them directly to start planning your perfect trip!

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