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

The Pyrenean peaks and valleys of the Hautes-Pyrénées are a near permanent fixture on the Tour de France itinerary. As the name of the area suggests, cycling in this part of France is all about going up and down hills, making it a mecca for keen cyclists from all over the world. The Hautes-Pyrénées is home to no fewer than 16 cols and summit finishes featured in the Tour de France, alongside many other difficult road passes nearby. Names such as Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aubisque, Luz Ardiden and Col d'Aspin can all evoke images of lean professional riders battling to be the first to the summit, but there are many other fantastic lesser known rides as well such as the road to Cap de Long or Gavarnie. A list of the climbs on offer is given below, plus more details of the 12 rides we personally tackled during our visit.

Tour de France Climbs
The Col du Tourmalet, featuring 77 times in le Tour so far (more than any other climb), is the highest mountain pass in the central Pyrénées. For anybody cycling in high mountains for the first time it can be hard to believe a climb can go on for so long at such a gradient, but the Col du Tourmalet is far from alone. Some of the most famous cols and summit finishes in Tour de France history and located in the Hautes-Pyrénées are:
Col du Tourmalet (2115m);
Superbagneres (1800m)
Port de Bales (1755m)
Luz Ardiden (1715m)
Col d'Aubisque (1709m)
Pla d'Adet (1700m)
Hautacam (1635m)
Col de Val Louron Azet (1580m)
Col de Peyresourde (1569m)
Horquette d'Ancizan (1564m)
Col d'Aspin (1469m)
Col du Soulor (1474m)
Col de Spandelles (1378m)
Col du Couraduque (1367m)
Col du Portillon (1293m)
Col de la Croix Blanche (830m)

Other Big Climbs
Col de Tentes (2207m)
Lac de Cap de Long (2175m)
Cirque du Troumouse (2100m)
Pont d'Espagne (1485m)
Col de Beyrede (1417m)

When to go
If you're planning a cycling visit to the Hautes-Pyrénées it is necessary to wait until the ski season ends around the end of April and the cols are open again although if you're planning to go that early it's necessary to check the snow forecast as the roads might not be completely clear. Like all mountain destinations but especially in France, roads can get very busy during July and the start of August, but even then it's possible to escape the crowds by riding one-way routes, such as the climb to Luz Ardiden Ski Station or Hautacam. Weather permitting, it's possible to ride through to the end of October/early November as we discovered during our own adventures (we were in the Hautes-Pyrénées from mid-October to early-November).



Where to find info / routes / itineraries
Given the density of big climbs in the Hautes-Pyrénées it is harder to avoid the climbs than it is to find them, but if you want to get the most out of your stay then it's worth noting the locations of your targets and the best starting points to make sure it fits with your plans. When you're in the area, local tourist offices can provide a wealth of information for free, suggesting possible loops and itineraries. Alternatively you can do what we did and buy a decent map (see below) to plan your own loops based on your abilities.

Details of the climbs that we tackled, where we started and some recommended books are given in the rest of this post.


Hautes-Pyrénées Climbs we tackled in 2014

1. Col du Tourmalet (2115m) from Luz St. Saveur
The most popular climb in the Tour de France is tough from either side. We approached from Luz St Saveur, a 19km climb rising more than 1400m at an average of 7.4% with some sections exceeding 10%. Riding over the painted names of some of the world most talented and famous riders is motivating enough, but the scenery is stunning as well.

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2. Port de Bales (1755m) from Mauleon-Barousse
The ascent from the north from Mauleon-Barousse is the steeper of the 2 sides, climbing 1185m over 19km averaging 6.3% but with some sections at more than 11% it's easy to see why this is a hors categorie climb. With most of the route winding through trees it doesn't have the sweeping views of some of the other climbs in the region, but the flattened col at the top provides a great view over the high mountains.

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3. Station Luz Ardiden  (1715m) from Luz St Saveur
The summit finish at Luz Ardiden has seen some of the biggest showdowns in recent Tour de France history, featuring 8 times since 1985. We started a little a couple of kilometres in from our camping in Sazos, but the complete climb from Luz St Saveur is 14.7 km long, ascending 1010 m at an average of 6.9%. The maximum gradient is 10%

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4. Col d'Aspin (1469m) from Arreau
Arguably the most famous name in the region, the ascent from Arreau in Vallée d'Aure is the more difficult side at 12km and rising 779m at 6.5% average. However, the first 2km are almost flat meaning the final 10km are closer to 8%. It has been used in the Tour de France 71 times since first appearing in 1910, where it features as a Category 1 climb often linking the Col de Peyresourde and the Col du Tourmalet. We tackled this one from Arreau in the late afternoon sunshine, sweating against magical hazy views of the distant mountains.

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5. Col de Peyresourde from Arreau (1569m)
Featuring 47 times in the Tour de France since 1910, this category 1 climb is longest when tackled from Bagneres de Luchon to the east. However, from Armenteule in the  Vallée de Louron which extends off from  Vallée d'Aure, the 8.3km at 7.6% average gradient are still challenging with several sharp switchbacks combined with a dragging 2km at the top. The view from the col, looking both east and west is fantastic. We tackled this climb as part of a loop from Arreau that also included the Col de Val Louron-Azet.

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6. Col de Val Louron-Azet from Arreau (1580m)
Short and steep are 2 words that describe this climb. Starting at Genos, just outside of Loudenville, from the Vallée de Louron side the climb is just 7.4km long, but with an average of 8.3%. The steepest sections exceed 13%! Not used in the Tour de France until 1997, it has since featured 6 times including in 2013 and 2014. We tackled this climb straight after the Col de Peyresourde as part of a loop from Arreau and the views from the col was, in our opinion, the best in the area with 2 dramatic valleys and countless peaks on the horizon.

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7. Pla d'Adet (1700m) from Saint-Lary-Soulan
Starting in Vignec just outside of St Lary Soulan the climb to Pla d'Adet is a popular summit finish for the Tour de France featuring 10 times since it appeared in 1974, most recently in 2014. The road rises 861m over 10.7km at an average of 8%. But the average hides the fact that it is the opening 5km that really punish riders with many sections of 12%. We did this climb from Saint-Lary-Soulan on a baking afternoon and found it punishing, although the views over the valley below are postcard beautiful.

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8. Horquette d'Ancizan (1564m) from Arreau
Featured twice in the Tour de France, in 2011 and 2013 the Horquette d'Ancizan lies a little to the south of the Col d'Aspin. The climb from Ancizan in the Val d'Aure is tough, with a rise of 803m over 10.3km at 7.8% average, although some sections exceed 12%. We actually reached this col from the other side, having crossed the Col de Beyrede, as part of a loop from Arreau, and descending to Espiadet (1080m) before passing Lac de Payolle and approaching the col from the west. This made it a shorter climb, at just 8.6km and 2.6% average, although that hides the fact tht 4km front the top you descend almost 100m and have to reclimb it over a final, harder 3km approach.

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9. Col du Portillon (1293m) from Bagneres-de-Luchon
Climbing out of the town of Bagneres-de-Luchon, this climb is just outside of the Hautes-Pyrenees, but worth a mention as it's short but steep ascent takes you right to the border with Spain. At just 10.2km with at an average gradient of 6.5% it is one of the easier climbs in the area.

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10. Col de Tentes (2207m) from Gavarnie (or Luz St Saveur) 
Taking on the ascent to Col de Tentes from Luz St Saveur is a 30km ascent at an average of 5%, climbing 1497m making it one of the biggest ascents in the area. However, we tackled this climb from Gavarnie (1375m) which, although still very tough, makes it a more manageable 800m ascent over around 9-10km (there are no waymarkers to provide a more accurate measure on the road). If you're really keen you can take a stroll from the col to Pic de Tentes (2322m) to get an amazing view over some of the Pyrenees highest peaks nearby.

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11. Col de Beyrede (1417m) from Arreau
Just north of the Arreau, this tough climb begins from Sarrancolin with a shockingly steep opening kilometre. This settles down quickly and the first half of the climb is relatively gentle allowing a good pedaling rhythm, when suddenly the road kicks up with several back to back sections well over 10%. The roads are narrow, with several farms and plenty of cow evidence, making this feel like a much less sanitised road than some of the more well known climbs. The gradient flattens again near the top to a gentle col, although the descent to the main road is poorly surfaced in places. The road you join leads back up to Col d'Aspin from the west, but we continued on to Horquette d'Ancizan instead.

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12. Lac Cap de Long (2175m) from Aragnouet-Fabien
Despite not being used in the Tour de France, the climb to Lac Cap De Long, a mountain reservoir ringed by rocky summits of the Parc National des Pyrénées, is definitely the hardest climb in this list. At almost 24km long the climb begins gently for several kilometres but starts ramping up with most sections near the top in between 7-11%. Fortunately much of the climb is kept cooler by trees in the valley, although descending over 1300m continuously on a chilly evening was tough. We parked our motorhome in the car park at Le Pont du Moudang, near Argnouet-Fabian, to begin this climb, although it would be possible to start the ride from Saint-Lary-Soulan as well.

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Adventures In Life, Love, Health, Travel... & Puppies!: Road Cycling in the Hautes-Pyrénées - The Most Famous & Difficult Climbs of the Tour de France
Road Cycling in the Hautes-Pyrénées - The Most Famous & Difficult Climbs of the Tour de France
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