Col du Pailheres from Ax les Thermes – 2001m – Our Unplanned Destination Above the Clouds

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Friday 21 November 2014

Col du Pailheres from Ax les Thermes – 2001m – Our Unplanned Destination Above the Clouds

Moving on from Les Cabannes on Friday morning, we had taken another short drive up the road towards Andorra to reach the town of Ax les Thermes where a tourist brochure we had picked up revealed a couple of cycling and hiking options. We hadn't been entirely sure whether we would hike or ride when we picked out this destination, but as we didn't get settled into the motorhome aire at Ax les Thermes until early afternoon we knew that a ride made the most sense since darkness was reaching into these mountain valleys by 5pm. Our choice of destination was the Col du Chioula at 1450m, a climb of around 730m that we thought would be a good way to stretch our legs after our race up to Plateau de Beille the previous evening.

However, riding out of Ax les Thermes (720m) towards the Col du Chioula we were surprised to be passing a plaque for 2 different cols both sharing this road for part of the way. In addition to the Col du Chioula we were also heading part of the way towards the Col du Pailheres at 2001m. The first time we'd had a choice to make out on the road itself. But which to choose? It wasn't actually a very hard decision since the clear blue sky and bright sunshine made our mind up for us....we were going as high as we could to look out on the mountains. There aren't many places you can ride over 2000m in the Pyrenees, especially in November!

Although we knew nothing about the road ahead, the sign had told us at least that the Col du Pailheres was 19km away and at an altitude of 2001m it would be a total climb of 1281m (average gradient 6.75%, but with a maximum of 9.8%). Apart from that we just had to wait and see what lay in store. After 3 ½ km of zig zagging switchbacks we reached the point where the road to the 2 different cols split company and we committed to the extra 600m of climbing once and for all.

The weather was amazing as we slowly spun our way up the mountainside passing rolling pastures full of sheep (including some late lambs) and cows, mountain streams and forests slowly shedding their remaining leaves in the breeze. The only worry we had was that as the kilometres ticked by the gradient stayed relatively low, even 2.5% for a few kilometres. Early on the idea of a 6.8% average was not too scary as we'd tackled steeper climbs, however, the automatic mental arithmetic that occurs at each passing kilometre/altitude marker had the remaining average creeping up and up. By the time we reached 6km to go, still with close to 500m remaining to climb we knew this road was saving the hard part to last.

In the end it was a relentless 9% for 5km followed by a 9.8% final kilometre that bought us to the Col du Pailheres. The numbers, however, do not tell the story of the beauty and scale of the views that rose out from behind the hills as we ticked off those final kilometres. Looking behind us on the final ascent we could see for tens of miles across the snow-topped, saw toothed panorama of the Pyrenees stretching out into the haze. It was breathtaking and we stopped several times just to get a better look and take some pictures. 

Cresting the Col itself, as the road finally flattened after 19km, the way ahead also opened up to us with mountains stretching all the way towards the Mediterranean sea rising up out of the cloud filled valley below. It was clear from this lofty perspective that whilst we were enjoying clear skies, closer to the coast they were covered by dense cloud (we had made the right decision to stay in the mountains a few days longer).

After trying to capture the magnificence of this col in a few photos we quickly added some layers against the gentle but chilly breeze that was sweeping over us and found a sheltered spot in bright sunshine where we could gaze out to the distant peaks. Sitting for a good half an hour as the afternoon sun was edging closer to those distant summits was a magical time for both of us, not quite believing it could be the 21st November! It had definitely been the right decision to change our destination. Just a few hours beforehand we hadn't even heard of the Col du Pailheres and now here we were feeling so lucky to be able to have reached this amazing place under our own power. It felt so good that even the freezing air on the descent now the road was in the shade couldn't shake off the positive feelings as we cruised back into the motorhome aire for a well deserved tea time.  

Cycle Information: 
Motorhome Base – Ax-les-Thermes
Start/ End Point: Ax-les-Thermes
Distance: 19km
Ascent: 1281m
Average Gradient: 6.75%
Max Gradient: 9.8%

Other Related Posts:
4 Amazing Cycling Climbs in the Ariege-Pyrénées, France - and 4 for the Future!

Road Cycling in the Hautes-Pyrénées - The Most Famous & Difficult Climbs of the Tour de France

7 Spectacular Cycling Climbs From Vallée d'Aure, Hautes-Pyrénées - Arreau & Saint-Lary-Soulan

See All Our Cycling Climbs in the Pyrenees

7 Activities To Do Whilst Staying in Tarascon-sur-Ariege - Visiting the Ariege-Pyrénées

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