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Bordering on the insane: West Pyrenees Big Ride

In-depth
22 Jul 2022
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The mountains at the western end of the Pyrenees may be smaller than their neighbours, but the challenge they offer is very big indeed

Words Jamie Wilkins Photography Alex Duffill

We might as well be in another country, in another season. It’s a weekend in late August so right now the Col du Tourmalet, just 80km to the east, will be a bustling maelstrom of campervans, motorbikes, cars and cyclists by the score.

Here, however, on the Col d’Arnostéguy in the western Pyrenées-Atlantiques department, we have the road entirely to ourselves. And there’s nothing else here – no cafes, no ski lifts, no power lines, no sign of the encroachment of mankind save for the narrow strip of tarmac. The difference is astounding.

While the Pyrenees stretch from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, across the full width of Spain’s border with France, all of the famous French passes are in the middle third.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t name any climbs outside of that area, because before this trip nor could I. All the more reason to pay a visit and find out what’s here.

The outer reaches

Last year I got the chance to explore the eastern Pyrenees and I discovered a region with its own completely distinct character. I rode that route with friends Adrian and Mike, and I’ve brought the gang back together for this ride at the western end of the mountain range.

They are both strong riders, and are always up for a challenge, which is a good thing as this Big Ride is especially big: 157km with nearly 4,700m of climbing.

The size and severity of the route is dictated by what roads are available to complete a loop, and it stands out on a map because there’s nothing in the middle of it except, intriguingly, for the Spanish border.

The plan is to do an anti-clockwise loop that will begin in France, cross into Spain, then return to France at the summit of the final climb, the mighty Port de Larrau.

It’s the village of Larrau, just to the north of the border summit, that is our start point. I chose it simply because it’s at the northeast corner of the route and is the closest point to where I live and run a guest house in the middle of all the famous cols (Escape to the Pyrenees, thanks for asking).

Having become very familiar with classic climbs such as the Tourmalet, Aubisque, Hautacam and Luz Ardiden, it’s exciting for me to get the opportunity to explore further afield.

We roll out under a thin blanket of cloud that looks like it will soon burn off, and spirits are high. That lasts barely a matter of seconds, however, until we see a sign saying ‘Port de Larrau – closed’.

It hadn’t been when I checked online the day before, so I’m hoping it’s a mistake and someone just hasn’t been bothered to change the sign. If not, I’m fond of the adage that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than it is permission.

I put it to the back of my mind, at least in part because the road is already demanding our attention.

It’s a downhill start from Larrau, plunging deep into the folds of the mountains, and then the Col de Bagargui begins. The going is gentle for a few hundred metres, after which it settles into a reasonable 7% for 4.5km.

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Then it becomes entirely unreasonable. For every one of the five following kilometres to the 1,327m summit, the gradient is well into double digits and it doesn’t let up.

With fresh legs and suitable gearing, we’re not suffering too much yet, but we’re careful to avoid using too much energy too soon.

I’ve done my homework and so use the gentle pace to regale my companions about the only time the Col de Bagargui has featured in the Tour de France.

It was in 2003, when Tyler Hamilton went on a huge solo break to claim his first – and only – Tour stage win (see box on previous page). He used this climb to attack the break, having bridged up from the GC group. He may have had some assistance.

In the wilds

After an open section affording beguiling views, the summit of Bagargui and the thrilling descent that follows are back in the trees. The road fires us out of the forest and straight into an odd-shaped junction made invisible by a slight crest.

It catches us all unawares and we just scrape through it using every centimetre of road. Afterwards we laugh it off, but I make a mental note that the road builders in these parts don’t seem to be out to do anyone any favours.

The D301 over the 2.5km Col de Sourzay is barely one car wide, gritty, damp in places, damp-looking in others, and cast in tricky shadows by the close trees. Caution prevails on the short descent. The road stays high and another 2km climb follows, equally narrow but steeper.

The view from near the top is sprawling, although the ceiling of cloud is becoming denser rather than lifting as we had hoped. Frustratingly, we can see that the sky is clear to the north. At the summit the cloud envelops us and we pause only to zip up windproofs and note that we have ridden just 29km in 1h 42min.

The descent is wild. Most two-way cyclepaths are wider and the first part traces along the top of a ridgeline that, at points, feels like riding a knife-edge.

On each side, beginning at the edge of the tarmac, are drops so steep that, should you go over the edge, you wouldn’t stop rolling until you hit something big.

Lower down we encounter a half dozen tight-cornered switchbacks through dense trees. Maximum concentration is required. We might not be pedalling, but it doesn’t feel much like a rest.

Just as it looks like the road is going to calm down and allow us to breathe more easily again, our route takes a tight turn and begins climbing once more. The Col d’Arnostéguy is narrow and steep, with pitches of 13% and on heavy tarmac.

We’re passed, courteously, by a group of adventuring motorcyclists and soon afterwards we have an interesting new experience – catching a vehicle uphill.

It’s an overloaded logging truck that’s battling the gradient in first gear. One log sticks so far out the back that it grazes the road whenever there’s a dip. The fumes from its straining diesel engine jar with the clean air like blood on snow and we’re lucky to find a short, wider section of road where we can overtake.

We emerge from the trees into a bare, rocky landscape, with the road continually finding ways to climb higher beyond false summits. Adrian notes, for the fifth time, how much it looks like Wales. He may be repetitive, but he’s not wrong. It does look like Wales.

At the col, three hours and only 52km into the ride, with more than 100km still ahead of us, we grab some food and don extra clothing for the upcoming descent.

One ride, two countries

There are some really steep and winding sections towards the bottom that prove a touch unnerving. The surfaces of the Cols d’Aspin, Tourmalet and Soulor are like F1 circuits by comparison to this road.

However, it would be a lot harder in the other direction. The Ondarolle, as this side is known, is over 9km at 8.8%, so despite the sketchy tarmac I’m relieved to be pointing downhill.

Lower down we enter a gorge and then, at the village of Arnéguy, cross over it, and with it the Spanish border. The difference is immediate: the sun comes out and the roads improve immeasurably.

First up on the Spanish side is the long, gradual, snaking climb of Ibañeta on the N-135. We note it would likely be an amazing descent and we vow to return to ride this loop in the opposite direction (having already forgotten about the very steep Ondarolle we’ve ridden moments earlier).

The Ibañeta is 14km at a moderate 4.7%, so we tap it out at a pace that allows us to chat all the way to the 1,057m summit. Now five hours in, we shovel food in and survey the chasm between our dwindling supplies and remaining kilometres like police chief Brody first catching sight of Jaws: ‘We’re going to need a bigger picnic.’

Fortunately, all three sets of legs are still in good shape and a long stretch of wide, straight roads allows us to work together in a way that has been impossible until now. Mike puts in some heroic pulls on the front and the speed stays high enough for us to cover the next 34km in under an hour.

A brief stop for supplies means that at the top of the Alta Abaurrea we can rest at a picnic bench under the shade of pine trees and gorge ourselves on precious calories. I eat four Snickers and a banana, down a Coke, and feel like a new man.

One last push

Only the Port de Larrau remains. It’s a drag uphill to reach it, and as we climb we can see that the weather we left in France remains waiting there for us. Cloud is massed against the ridgeline and is evaporating on contact with Spain as if held back by glass.

On the lower slopes of the Larrau, Adrian starts to flag. He’s the biggest of our trio and the 4,000m of climbing we’ve done to this point is starting to pinch. Mischievously, Mike suggests we push on, so soon he and I are climbing at a fast pace, leaving Adrian way behind.

Eventually I persuade Mike that the considerate thing to do would be to stop and wait, but it’s not just my kind nature talking. I’m fully aware that at this tempo I’m likely to crack long before 62kg Mike. Besides, we might only be halfway up, but the view is already worth taking a few moments to appreciate.

Port de Larrau has twice featured in the Tour de France – in 1996 and 2007 – but on both occasions it was climbed from the other side. Each visit was eventful, the former leading to the dethroning of Miguel Indurain, the latter to the ejection from the race of stage winner and yellow jersey wearer Michael Rasmussen, who was kicked off his Rabobank team after lying about his whereabouts for a missed doping test.

The views from the upper slopes are spectacular, made richer by the dipping sun, the landscape more textured with shadows cast by every peak and ridge. The temperature is dropping quickly with both our steady increase in altitude and the strong wind blowing over the mountain.

The cloud isn’t just pressed up against the warm air, it’s hammering into it, an inferior enemy charging uselessly at the impenetrable defences of Spain’s warm front. Wave after wave of condensed water crashes over the top only to be obliterated. With the wind rising, I’m glad that I’m not on deeper wheels.

We pass through a tunnel – uncomfortably long to be unlit – and emerge at the 1,585m summit. I’m expecting to be hit by a sudden change of temperature, but that doesn’t come until a kilometre further on, again exactly on the border.

As soon as we cross back into France, the cold wind cuts through to our bones. We don jackets and then I notice the gate across the road, half open. Until now, engrossed in the ride, I’d completely forgotten about the ‘road closed’ sign we’d seen at the start. But still, half open is open enough.

As we begin the descent, each gust of wind threatens to bat front wheels around like a cat playing with a toy. Confidence only returns once we’re safely away from the exposed peak and the wind dies down enough to allow us to push the pace again.

As we pull up back in Larrau and I press stop on my bike computer, it shows exactly seven hours of riding. It has been a long, hard day, deeply satisfying both for the ride itself and the chance to explore a beautiful, challenging area that few cyclists visit.

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A stage win to remember

Tyler Hamilton’s Pyrenean adventure

For a rider who spent as much of his eight Tours de France at the sharp end of the peloton as Tyler Hamilton, it’s almost a surprise that Stage 16 of the 2003 Tour was his only stage win.

But what a stage win it was. The American, nursing a broken collar bone after a crash on the opening stage, attacked on the slopes of the Col de Bagargui to leave behind his breakaway companions and set off on a 90km-plus solo effort through the Pyrenees to the finish line in Bayonne. He won by nearly two minutes.

His victory was achieved by more than just grit and determination, of course – as Hamilton would later divulge in full detail in his game-changing book The Secret Race.

And while he had left the all-conquering ranks of US Postal for Danish team CSC with dreams of winning the Tour overall, his fourth place finish in Paris that year would be the closest he’d get.

• Hear more from Tyler Hamilton on his career, doping and finding peace with himself by tuning into the Cyclist Magazine Podcast, available at all the usual podcast places.

The rider’s ride

Wilier 0 SLR, €11,200 (approx £9,400), wilier.com

The Wilier 0 SLR frame was designed for days like this, whether pedalled by amateurs or WorldTour pros – it’s the bike of choice of the Astana team. At 7.4kg with pedals, it’s a bike that loves to climb and is unflinching in the face of big efforts on steep grades.

The house brand wheels feel a bit cheeky given the price, but they perform well. The fork does let the side down a bit, as I think it lacked torsional stiffness and precision, which compromised descending.

I was excited by the chance to try out Sram’s Red eTap AXS groupset, but my first taste of 12-speed was underwhelming.

For my pedalling style the 10-33t cassette produces jumps between sprockets that are too wide, albeit the gear range is much wider than a traditional double or compact chainset. That aside, I still love the shift logic of eTap’s single buttons and the braking is fantastic. These are the disc brakes I’ve been waiting for.

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airport is Biarritz, with two direct flights per day from the UK with Ryanair and Easyjet. From there it’s a one-hour drive to the nearest corner of this route. You can drive to the region in around eight hours from France’s northwest ports, such as St Malo, or 12 hours from Calais. Pau airport isn’t connected to the UK but has regular flights from Paris if you arrive from further afield.

Accommodation

We drove to and from the route in a day trip from my guesthouse (escapetothepyrenees.com) in Argèles-Gazost. Of course, you don’t have to stay at my guesthouse, but it is very well positioned for doing classic cols such as the Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden and Hautacam. Just saying.

Accommodation is relatively thin on the ground along the route, but there are hotels and B&Bs listed online.

Thanks

Big thanks to Kitt from Escape to the Pyrenees for huge homemade ride bars; Dan for driving; my ride partners Mike and Alex for always being up for a challenge; kit suppliers for dealing with post-Brexit shipping drama; and Tourmalet Bikes in Luz St Sauveur (tourmalet-bikes.com) for the rental of the Wilier.