Legends of the Pyrenees: 5 famous cycling climbs to conquer
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There are many famous cycling climbs of the Pyrenees and coming up with a list is something that is always difficult to do. How do you choose what is in and what misses out? In putting this list together I thought the simplest method would be to find a metric that was readily available and that could be used to select and rank the climbs. After thinking about it I came up with the idea of using Tour de France appearances as our basis of selection. The Tour de France, after all, is primarily what has made these mountains famous.
The Tour de France first came to the Pyrenees mountains in 1910, which was a year before the race included the French Alps. That first stage was a mammoth 326km in length starting in Bagneres de Luchon and ending up at Bayonne. The stage took in no less than 4 of the 5 climbs in our famous cycling climbs of the Pyrenees and began the long relationship with the high mountains and the Tour de France. In those early days the mountain passes were no more than narrow gravel roads and to ride them on bikes that had no gears was truly challenging.
I think the Pyrenees are one of the best cycling destinations in the world for many reasons. There is such a wide variety of terrain to explore no matter what type of cycling you enjoy or what your ability is. There are reminders everywhere of its long association with the Tour de France and cycling. This legacy will only continue to grow. After our first trip in 2013, I was hooked and now call this amazing place home. It’s a location we believe belongs on every cycling bucket list.
My top 5 famous cycling climbs of the Pyrenees
So here is my list of the top 5 famous cycling climbs of the Pyrenees based on the number of appearances they have made in the Tour de France. The common theme with all of these mountains is that they appeared for the first time in the 1910 Tour de France. I am lucky to have experienced 4 of these 5 climbs and hope to cycle the Col de Portet d’Aspet during the 2023 summer season so that I have them all ticked off.
Col du Tourmalet
The Hors Category climb of Col du Tourmalet in the Hautes Pyrenees not only ranks as one of the most famous climbs in the region but also one of the most famous in France. It first appeared in the Tour de France in 1910 and has been used a whopping 87 times since, the most of any mountain pass. The summit is 2 115m in altitude making it the highest paved pass on the French side of the Pyrenees. From Saint Marie de Campan the summit is 17km at an average gradient of 7.4%, while from Luz Saint Sauveur the summit is 19km also at an average gradient of 7.4%.
At the start of the climb in Saint Marie de Campan, we recommend that you stop at the statue of Eugene Christophe. During the 1913 Tour de France, his forks broke on the way down from the summit while he was in the lead. He had no option but to walk the 10km to Saint Marie de Campan where he fixed them at the local blacksmith. Organizers gave him a 3-minute time penalty for outside help after discovering a local boy had operated the bellows for him. There is also a memorial at the point his forks broke on the mountainside.
I highly recommend stopping at the cafe at the summit of the Tourmalet and viewing the vintage bikes hanging on the wall inside. It really gives an appreciation of how hard it must have been in the early days. 2023 will be a busy year for the Col du Tourmalet with three grand tours, Tour de France, Tour de France Femmes, and Vuelta a España, all using the mountain pass. I have experienced the climb from both sides and each has its own unique characteristics and landmarks that you can read about in our Guide to Col du Tourmalet.
The next climb on our list is the Hors Category climb of Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees Atlantique. It was also first featured in the 1910 Tour de France and has been used 74 times since. The summit sits at an altitude of 1 709m and is reached from the town of Laruns in the west or Col du Soulor in the east. The climb from Laruns is 17km in length at an average gradient of 7.2%. While the climb from Col du Soulor is only 7km at an average of 4.6%, you do need to climb the Col du Soulor first in order to reach it from this approach.
On the Col du Soulor side of the climb, keep an eye out for a small plaque on the rock face about 2.7km from the summit. It marks the spot where Dutch rider Wim Van Est fell 20m over the edge in the 1951 Tour de France while in the yellow jersey. Thankfully he was uninjured, but his team was forced to withdraw from the race. In order to rescue him, the team had to join all their spare tires together to make a rope long enough to reach down. Afterwards, they discovered the tires had stretched rendering them useless for cycling. Wim was the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey.
The Col d’Aubisque was the first climb I ever did in France and I always love spending some time at the summit. As with many mountain passes in France there is a cafe at the top of the climb and I recommend stopping here to enjoy some food and drink before heading back down. There are 3 large bikes across from the cafe, each decked out in one of the colours of the Tour de France jerseys, which are a popular photo opportunity. On the way I love being able to spot vultures and other birds of prey circling the mountain peaks as they search for food. Our Col d’Aubisque guide has more information including some suggested routes.
My first experience on Col d’Aubisque was a very foggy one! While there was bright sunshine and blue sky at the base of the climb, as I proceeded up the mountain I was enveloped by a thick fog. It was eerie hearing the cow bells nearby and seeing the shape of a cow appear through the fog on the road ahead. When I got to the top I couldn’t see a thing and didn’t even release that the famous bikes existed. When I got back to our hotel that afternoon and chatted with other riders I saw photos of what it looks like on a clear day. I decided I needed to do it again which I did on our next visit the following year under clear blue skies.
The climb to Col d’Aspin in the Haute Pyrenees most often features mid-race as a means of linking to its bigger neighbour the Col du Tourmalet. A Category 1 climb, the summit sits at 1 489m in elevation and has featured in the Tour de France on 71 occasions since 1910. On its eastern side, the climb starts from the village of Arreau and winds to the top over the 12km distance at an average gradient of 7.2%. The western side from Saint Marie de Campan, also the start of the Col du Tourmalet, is seen as the easier of the two climbs and is 13km at an average gradient of 5%. The first 8km of the climb are undulating before getting tougher for the last 5km to the summit.
A popular option when climbing Col d’Aspin is to incorporate its neighbour Horquette d’Ancizan into the ride as the Tour de France did in 2022. After climbing the Col d’Aspin from Arreau you descend just over 5km to Payolle before turning left and starting the climb to Horquette d’Ancizan. I love being able to link both climbs together as a loop and ticking off two climbs in the day. Our page about Col d’Aspin includes this route as well as others for you to consider.
I have been lucky to ride the Col d’Aspin from both sides. Although both sides are great, my favourite side is the climb up from Arreau. As you ascend you have a great view of the mountain ranges in the background. The road takes you through beautiful countryside and you can hear the gentle ring of the cow bells as the cows graze in the paddocks. Unlike other climbs there are no cafés or food options at the top of the climb so we recommend you have your supply of food with you. There are facilities at the base of the climb on both sides.
Col du Peyresourde
Sitting at an altitude of 1 569m, the Category 1 Col du Peyresourde is next on my list of famous climbs in the Pyrenees. Like the others, it first featured in the 1910 Tour de France and has been used 68 times since. The climb is 14km from Bagneres du Luchon at an average gradient of 6.9% and 10km from Avajon at an average gradient of 6.8%. Col du Peyresourde sits on the border of the Haute Pyrenees and Haute Garonne departments.
Stage 8 of the 2016 Tour de France saw for the first time, Chris Froome’s now infamous super tuck on the descent from Col du Peyresourde to Bagnere de Luchon. He launched an attack on the way down to win the stage and take the yellow jersey which he held all the way to the finish. At the top, you can enjoy a crepe at the small cafe while soaking in the views of the Pyrenees. The ski station at Peyregoude that has been used as a summit finish is a short detour from the summit road. See our suggested route to incorporate Col du Peyresourde to plan your own ascent.
I experienced the Col du Peyresourde on a winter’s day. The pass is typically open all year round subject to clearing after snowfalls. Apart from a few icy patches here and there, the road was nice and clear all the way to the top. The view of the surrounding snow-capped peaks was an experience we never get tired of. I plan to head back over in the 2023 summer to cycle the mountain again in summer and get to taste the famous crepes at the top of the climb.
Col de Portet d’Aspet
The last of our list of famous climbs in the Pyrenees is the Col de Portet d’Aspet located in the Haute Garonne. Like the other famous climbs, it made its debut in the 1910 Tour de France and has been used 57 times since. This is the shortest of the five climbs and is 4km from Henné-Morte at an average gradient of 9.2% and 5.5km from Saint Lary at an average gradient of 6.7%. The summit sits at an altitude of 1 069m making it the lowest of the famous climbs.
On the Henné-Morte side is a small memorial to Fabio Casartelli who unfortunately lost his life while descending the Col during the 1995 Tour de France. It’s a sobering reminder of the dangers the riders often face while pushing hard down these mountain passes.
But wait there is more
While these are the 5 most famous climbs in the Pyrenees they are only a small fraction of what cycling is on offer for those cyclists visiting. My favourite climbs have never appeared in the Tour de France and nor will they given their location within the Pyrenees National Park. Our Cycling routes in the Pyrenees page currently lists 40 routes to consider. While some of these do not include any designated climbs, many do and you will be spoiled for choice on what you can ride.
If you need any help working out what to do, or where to ride in the Pyrenees be sure to drop us an email [email protected] and we can help you out with some ideas. Our travel advisor services offer a paid service where we can put together a complete itinerary for you and save you time.