Cycling climbs in the Pyrenees you’ve never heard of
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When planning our first cycling trip to France I drew up a bucket list of famous mountain climbs to try. Being a keen cycling fan, naturally, the famous climbs from the Tour de France featured heavily on this list. For sure there is something amazing about riding up the famous mountain passes like the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque, but by far the biggest takeaway from our first few cycling trips to France was riding the spectacular relatively unknown climbs of the Pyrenees.
In this article I wanted to share some of those amazing climbs that you are unlikely to have heard of unless you have visited the region before. These rides take you high up into the more remote parts of the mountains and I guarantee you will be amzed by the stunning views and scenery.
The Unknown climbs
You might ask why these climbs have never featured in the Tour de France as I did when I first discovered them. Certainly, the mountain roads are steep enough and would make for quite a showdown amongst the worlds top cyclists. But I learned that because they are located within the Pyrenees National Parks, the race is unable to secure the necessary permits to bring the riders and subsequent Tour entourage to these summits. So it is highly unlikely they will ever feature.
So onto my list of three of our favourite unknown climbs in the Pyrenees which I definitely recommend you add to your list if you visit the region. The roads are a bit more rugged and there are not always the kilometre markers telling you the average gradient and distance to the top. But what these climbs may lack in fame, they more than makeup within breathtaking landscapes, dreamy hairpin roads and rugged beauty. I promise you wont be disappointed.
1. Lac de Cap-de-Long
The climb to Lac de Cap-de-Long really does have everything. Located in the Réserve Naturelle du Néouvielle, the ride to the summit sees you make your way past waterfalls and tight switchbacks, with rugged mountain peaks all around. At a height of 2 160m the summit is higher than the Col du Tourmalet and gives you a rewarding view of one of the largest lakes in the Pyrenees. If you are lucky you might even spot a marmot or two on your way up!
Four lakes in one ride!
If you weren’t breathless from the steep climb to the top, you will be once you take in those magic views. The ride to Lac de Cap de Long can be taken in as part of the longer Route des Lacs which will see you take in no less than 4 lakes all up. To ride this route we recommend basing yourself in the ski resort town of Saint Lary-Soulan.
At just over 23 km / 14 mi in length, the climb has an average gradient of 6%. This is a bit misleading, however, as the first section of the climb is rather gentle. Quite often you will be turning the pedals over gradients well over 10%. For sure it is a tough climb, but we think the surrounding beauty more than makes up for it. You can view the route I took from Saint Lary Soulan and read a little bit more about the climb and stats.
I rode this climb on a beautiful day in July, although a cold change had passed by and it was quite cool at the top. I had learned about this climb on the Col Collective YouTube channel and as soon as we watched it immediately made plans to include it on our next French trip to France. If didn’t disappoint in real life and the climb to the top was stunning, especially the last set of hairpins before I reached the dam wall. There was a small café next to the dam wall and I still remember enjoying some food and a coffee surrounded by the Pyrenees mountains.
2. Cirque de Troumouse
There is no doubt about it, this ride to the summit of Cirque de Troumouse is unrelenting and steep. The climb officially starts from the small village of Gedre and right from the get-go, you know you’re in for a tough workout to get to the top. The beauty of this climb is the feeling that you are way off the beaten track. Even in summer, the road to the top is extremely quiet. You will no doubt see more sheep and cows grazing freely by the roadside than you will cars.
Switchback after switchback
Closer to the top of the climb the real fun begins with two sections of steep switchbacks to negotiate. The road turns sharply on itself over and over, and over again. All this with a gradient in double digits. A compact crankset and generous climbing cassette will definitely serve you well here. Progress may be slow but the huge mountains rise up all around you. As you make your way up the switchbacks and look back down on the road below you can feel proud of the progress you’ve made to get here.
The first set of hairpins ends not long before a short descent to the Auberge where I like to stop for a drink on the way back down. This is now as far as cars are allowed and there is a big carpark. Don’t make the mistake though of thinking you are at the top, another set of hairpins awaits. The road is visible in front of you and while those in cars need to take the shuttle to the top, bikes are free to continue through the barrier.
At the top, you can appreciate the natural amphitheatre which the rocky Cirque creates and you really do get a sense of being surrounded by pristine nature all around. I always love spending time at top, firstly to recover from the climb and secondly to enjoy the landscape. On the way back I always love taking some photos of the hairpins which look spectacular.
3. Col de Tentes
Personally, I’ve found the Col de Tentes one of the most challenging climbs in the Pyrenees. With a summit at 2 208m/6 730ft the Col de Tentes is also one of the highest paved roads in the Pyrenees as well. It’s located 10 km / 6mi from the UNESCO heritage site of Gavarnie, it is a real gem.
If like me you are riding from Argeles Gazost, you will already have 1 000 metres of climbing in the legs before getting to the ‘start’ of the climb. I definitely recommend a pit stop in Gavarnie itself, a refuel of water and food before tackling the road ahead. With an average gradient of 8%, you’ll be thankful you did. I always enjoy dropping into Gavarnie and enjoying coffee and cake at one of the many cafés there.
Narrow roads and steep gradients
The road to the summit is narrow, very cut up and steep. Metal guardrails at the roadside give you an indication of the steep gradients still to come. I remember the first time we rode this climb. I could see the ribbon of road snaking forever upwards and I kept doubting whether I’d make it to the top. A typical strong headwind often makes progress feel painfully slower.
Two-thirds of the way up the climb you pass the ski resort buildings and car park. Grazing cows and sheep help to take your mind off the steep gradients although they won’t pay you any attention at all.
Ride to Spain
Much like Cirque de Troumouse, the summit of Col de Tentes is surrounded by huge rocky peaks. From the top of the climb the Spanish border is less than one kilometre away. Bikes are not permitted on small path through to the border so you will have to walk. One thing is for sure, you will have definitely earned the long descent back to Gavarnie.
So there you have it, my three favourite unknown climbs in the Pyrenees. I highly recommend including them on your itinerary when next visiting the Pyrenees. If you have any questions about any of these climbs leave a comment below or send an email to email@example.com and I will be only too happy to assist.