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The essential guide to the passes and best bike routes in the Pyrenees

Ask any passionate cyclist where they would most like to ride and it is a fair bet that a good majority of them will select a route in the mountains – the Tour de France’s fabled climb of Alpe d’Huez perhaps, or the astonishing 14-kilometre cobbled ascent of Switzerland’s St Gotthardpass, or the staggering engineering feat that is the Passo dello Stelvio, which rises through no fewer than 48 hairpin bends to reach an altitude of 2,758 metres.

Inspired by Alfred Wainwright’s unparalleled walking guides to the fells of the Lake District, this is the first in what is intended a six-volume guide to riding in the principal mountain massifs of Western Europe – the Pyrenees, the French Alps (north and south), the Swiss Alps, the German and Austrian Alps, and the Italian Alps and Dolomites. The intention with each guide is that it will become as essential a piece of kit for any cyclist heading to the mountains as their Lycra shorts or helmet.

Rather than focusing in isolation on climbs that have great racing significance, these guides will cover all of the significant passes and climbs within each massif. The fundamental objective will be to present riders with details about all of the climbs that lie within the area they are travelling to, including a descriptive biography of the ascent and a fact file that features data on distance, gradient and height. In addition, information will be provided on how a climb links together with other passes, as well as suggestions for routes – circular and otherwise – to provide cyclists with clear ride options when in unfamiliar territory.

Drawing on my own experience of 30 years and more of riding and reporting in the high mountains and beginning with a guide to the Pyrenees where I’ve made my home, each book will provide the information vital to a successful expedition. It will not only provide details on more than 200 passes in each range, but also practical information such as the location of cafés, bike shops and taps/springs where riders can top up on eau potable. Armed with the guide, the rider will only need to worry about how to get to the mountains and where to stay once there. A Cyclist’s Guide to the Mountains. will take care of everything else.

First drawn into the sport while a student in bike-obsessed Spain in the mid-1980s, Peter Cossins has been writing about cycling since 1993. He has reported on all of the sport’s major events, including more than a dozen editions of the Tour de France. He has written several books on the sport, including The Monuments (Bloomsbury, 2014), a paean to cycling’s five biggest one-day races, Alpe d’Huez: Cycling’s Greatest Climb (Aurum Press, May 2015), Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep (Yellow Jersey, 2017), relating the extraordinary story of the first Tour de France in 1903, and Full Gas (Yellow Jersey, 2018), which deciphers the chaos and unlocks the secrets of tactics in pro bike racing.

More than anything, though, he loves to ride in the hills, despite having the physique of a rouleur rather than a mountain goat. He lives in the Pyrénées Ariégeoises, close to the town of Foix.

Col de Péguère

This is one of my favourite climbs, partly because the village where I live lies at the bottom of it, but primarily because there is such a variety of options to reach it – no less than eight. A Tour occasional, it earned a touch of infamy in the 2012 edition when someone – believed to be a local in an area where being anti-establishment and living off-grid is a badge of honour – scattered tacks on the road near the summit, causing dozens of punctures to riders and race vehicles.

That incident occurred on the best known of the three roads that converge at the summit, the so-called Mur de Péguère. Rising from the Col de Caougnous, which sits on the ‘main road’ this very narrow strip of tarmac laid over an animal track ascends 428m in 3.6km, averaging a leg-shattering 11.8%. As it scales the steep facade of the south-facing Massif de l’Arize, several sections rear up well beyond that figure and don’t relent quickly. Once past the first kilometre, though, it does gradually get easier and the view from the Tour Lafont at the summit with peaks disappearing off in both directions makes it well worth the sweat.

Yet, many in the area insist this isn’t the toughest of the several routes to this summit. To the south-west, another lane climbs from Biert to the Col de la Crouzette. It’s part beauty, part beast. Initially the former as it tracks steadily upwards through thick woods typical of this region, its aspect changes frighteningly in its final third in the shape of what could be dubbed the Mur de Crouzette, another 3km+ grind at more than 11%. Thankfully, once at the top, the road bumps more delicately over the Col de Portel and on to the Pégère.

The routes from the north and east are all easier. The main route from Foix via Serres-sur-Arget and the Col des Marrous is the most straightforward of all, but rather dull above the Marrous as it speeds through thick pine forest that blocks out the views. Far better to take the back road through Brassac and Cazals on up to the Col de Legrillou, where there are likely to be more deer on the road than cars.

Where next?

One of the main advantages the Pyrenees has over other ranges is the close proximity of so many passes. Reach the bottom of one and, almost inevitably, you can start up the ascent of another. Descending the Mur to the Col de Caougnous offers the option of the second half of the winding ascent to the Col de Port, or the meandering drop into Massat in the upper part of the comparatively isolated Arac valley, to the south of which lies the far longer climb up to the Étang de Lers, its dark waters overlooked by café/restaurant/ski station that almost demands a stop before continuing on to the Col d’Agnès or retracing a little to climb the neighbouring Port de Lers, from which parascenders leap and soar.

Circular rides

Thanks to the multitude of roads and passes, there is any number of options taking in the Péguère. Among my favourites would be to start in or near Foix and follow the minor road through Aigues-Juntes and Gabre to Mas d’Azil and its spectacular grotte, through which both the River Arize and the main D119 road weave for more than 400m. Continue to Rimont and then climb the Col de la Crouzette and the Col de Portel to reach the Péguère and take the steady descent back down to Foix (70km, 3-5 hours). Tour fans can recreate the 2017 stage from Saint-Girons to Foix via the Col de Latrape, Col d’Agnès and the Mur de Péguère, and either descend back to Saint-Girons via the Col de la Crouzette or to Foix for the complete Tour experience, although Saint-Girons is now 50km distant!

For a big day out, head south from Foix on one of the back roads (avoid the N20 at all costs!) past Tarascon and into the Vicdessos valley, passing the famous caves with their prehistoric paintings at Niaux to climb the Port de Lers. Crest that pass and continue on to the Col d’Agnès and down into picture postcard Aulus-les-Bains, where a left turn starts up the Col de Latrape. The very keen might fancy the diversion soon after up to Guzet-Neige, where Robert Millar and Marco Pantani won Tour stages, before continuing Seix, Oust and crossing the Col de Saraillé to Massat and the final kick in the tail that is the Mur before returning to Foix.

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