Cycling in the south of France – Part Three

Initially we planned an easy day on the day following the ride on the Col du Tourmalet, but when we learned that the weather was expected to deteriorate over the next few days, we decided to ride the Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque while it was still clear. This is one of the most scenic of the routes through the Pyrenees and we needed clear skies to make the most of it.

In orde to shorten the ride a little, we planned to start at Argeles-Gazost, so we loaded the bikes onto the car and left Bagneres de Bigorre by 8:00 am, hoping to start cycling before it became too hot. Our navigation let us down as we immersed ourselves in the scenery and we missed a turn along the road to Lourdes and lost a little time.

Argeles-Gazost is a little town just south of Lourdes, still within the department Hautes-Pyrenees or High Pyrenees and is surrounded by mountains, making it a popular base for skiers during the winter months. It is located 463 metres above sea level and lies at the base of the Col du Soulor.

Climbs in cycling, based on both steepness and length, are designated into one of five categories – Category 4 being the easiest through to Category 1 being much more difficult. The term ” Hors categorie” is used to designate a climb that is ” out of category”, in oterh words a climb that is more difficult than those in category 1. Some of the famous climbs included in the Tour de France that have been categorized as Hors categorie are the Col du Tourmalet, the Alpe d’Huez, Luz Ardiden and many others, including tje Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque. These last two may be included in the Tour from either the east or the west; our approach was from the east.

From Argeles-Gazost the distance to the top of the Col du Soulor is 19.5 km, cresting at an altitude of 1,474 metres. The climb is thus 1,011 metres at an average gradient of 5.2%. Averages, though, can be misleading and over the first 12 kilometres to the little village of Arrens-Marsous only 415 metres are gained, and most of these within the first two kilometres. From two kilometres to 12 kilometres the climb is very slight, mostly between 1% and 3%, but then it changes with 596 metres being gained over the last 7.5 km, with gradients of over 10% at times.


The scenery throughout this area of France is quite spectacular, and almost every twist and turn in the road brings a dramatic new landscape into view. This road was a little quieter than the Col du Tourmalet in terms of cyclists, but is also quite narrow and one must be constantly alert and mindful of the traffic.

Arrens-Marsous has a population of around 800 persons and one passes through it almost without taking note. One does note the change in gradient, however! The last seven kilometres were quite testing, particularly as it was getting hot by this time. The climb is unrelenting and although it was tempting to stop and enjoy the views, we kept on pedalling.

There is a restaurant at the top of the Col du Soulor where we enjoyed a cup of tea and a bite to eat before riding on to the Col d’Aubisque. This is a short ride, just about ten kilometres, but presents, without a doubt, the most spectacular scenery that we were to see in our short stay in the Pyrenees. Indeed, it has been said that the Col d’Aubisque is a climb that every cyclist should do at least once in his lifetime, and this is a sentiment that I would happily endorse.

The ride, which we took at a really leisurely pace because of the spectacular scenery, is quite easy, with the gain in altitude over the Col du Soulor being only 235 metres. Again, a little misleading, as the road descends before the climb actually begins and every metre lost is a metre that has to be regained – one gets to dislike down hills under these circumstances!

The road along this stretch is cut into the mountainside in dramatic fashion, running along a narrow ledge with a precipitous drop on the downward side. Along this section, called the Cirque du Litor, there are two short, narrow tunnels, one of which is curved enough to make it very dark and one is blinded coming in from the bright sunlight. Imagining the peleton zooming through here at racing speed gave them a whole new level of respect in my eyes!

And inevitably some have paid the price. In 1951, a time when there were no barriers along the edge of the road, the Dutch rider Wim van Est was chasing the lead riders along this stretch, heading down towards the Col du Soulor, when he went over the edge and plunged 70 metres down the mountainside. He was pulled up by a towrope linked to a chain of bicycle tyres, not too badly hurt, but not surprisingly he withdrew from the race

The Col d’Aubisque has featured as part of the Tour de France route more times than any other Col except the Col du Tourmalet, featuring for the first time in 1910 and about 66 times since. Twice stages have actually fished at the top of the climb.

When we arrived at the top of the Col d’Aubisque there were many cyclists milling about, some having ridden from the east and some from the west, but all enjoying the incredible views from the top. There is a display of three gigantic bicycles at the top, painted in the colours of the Tour de France’s main jerserys, which we enjoyed seeing “in person”as we had seen them during TV coverage of the Tour in the past. Naturally we took photographs of each other next to them!

While resting at the restaurant we were treated to the sight of a magnificent eagle that soared past us repeatedly and raised a great deal of interest from those present. There was also a large flock of vultures circling slowly in the valley below us, the subject of a great deal of attention from a group of birders with spotting scopes and cameras with impressive telephoto lenses who were clustered together on the hillside.

In summary, the ride from Argeles-Gazost to Col d’Aubisque is not too difficult and although it has a few sections with gradients of over 10%, these are fairly short and quite manageable. The scenery is magnificent and more than compensates for the effort of the climb.

The Col d’Aspin

The last Col that we tackled during our visit to the Bagneres de Bigorre region was the Col d’Aspin, another of the famous climbs that has featured numerous times as part of the Tour de France route. At 1,489 metres above sea level it is significantly lower than the Col du Tourmalet (2,115 metres) and does not present the same challenge to the cyclist.

Every Col seems to have a story to tell drawn from the rich tapestry that is the history of the Tour de France, and the Col d’Aspin is no different. During the 1950 Tour the Col d’Aspin was the first mountain stage of the competition and the Italian rider Gino Bartali was riding together with the French rider Jean Robic, winner of the 1937 Tour. The crowd was impinging on the roadway in an effort to see the riders and somehow Bartali fell, bringing Robic down with him. The crowd was incensed that Bartali had caused the French rider to fall and became abusive, punching and kicking Bartali. Someone even threratened him with a knife. In spite of this, he managed to remount his bike and went on to win the stage. However he felt threatened by the crowd’s behaviour and he withdrew from the race; at this point the two Italian teams that were participating both withdrew in solidarity. Jean Robic continued in the race and eventually finished in twelfth place overall.

Jean Robic was a diminutive man, weighing no more than 60 kg, and because of this he felt himself at something of a disadvantage in descending the Cols. In consequence he filled his drinking bottles with lead at the top of the serious descents! When the rules were changes to specifically exclude filling drinking bottles with solid material, he filled them with mercury! Now there was a man who knew how to manipulate the rules!

We left the gite where we were staying in Bagneres de Bigorre at 8:15 am and cycled through the quiet streets, passing the spot near the Adour River where stages of the Tour de France have finished several times after the serpentine descent from the Col du Tourmalet. In the quiet of the early morning it was difficult to imagine that excitement and exhilaration of the crowds that had gathered at this spot to witness the extraordinary talent of the riders racing at close-to-suicidal pace for the finish line. The three of us presented a startlingly different picture as we pedalled slowly along the same stretch of road, albeit in the opposite direction, taking in our surroundings and putting little effort into our progression.

We followed the same road to Campan that we had followed a few days earlier when cycling the Col du Tourmalet, but this time there was less urgency to our cycling and we stopped for a few minutes to photograph some of the almost life-size mannequins that were so carefully displayed around the village.

We cycled on to the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, located at an altitude of 847 metres and then took the road that would lead us to the top of the Col d’Aspin, 12.5 kilometres away and at 1,489 metres.

This turned out to be a very pleasant ride, especially early on as the road meandered along next to the river. The gradient never reached much more  than 8.5%, the average being just over 5%. As so often seems to be the case in the Pyrenees, the steeper gradients are near the top of the climb, when the legs are growing weary and the lung capacity seems to have diminished considerably. The gradient over the last five kilometres was 9%, 7.5%, 8%, 7.5% and 6.5% respectively.

The top of the Col d’Aspin presented us with the magnificent views of the Pyrenees that we had become accustomed to, and which made the ride seem so worthwhile.

There was no restaurant at the top for what had become our customary stop, and we cycled a few kilometres back down towards Sainte-Marie-de-Campan where we found a very pleasant spot for a cup of tea.

The ride back to Bagneres de Bigorre was thoroughly pleasant, but tinged with a little sadness as it brought to an end our short cycling holiday in the area.

The next morning we left for the long drive back to the UK,

Related Images: