Border Hopping in the Pyrénées

 

by Neil Critchley

1999

The Coast-to-Coast Route covered 1000miles (1600km) beginning in Hendaye on the Atlantic Ocean and finishing in Collioure on the Mediterranean Sea.

Introduction

After a 7 week cycling trip around the Alps in 1998, climbing the highest passes in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, I decided to try my hand at cycling over the Pyrénées. I was fortunate to have three weeks leave during August 1999 and so I set about planning a new adventure. It was to cover 1000 miles but, ideally, have more of an objective to it than my Alps trip where I'd wondered across countries purely in search of high mountains and rapid descents. On this occasion I wanted to actually cycle somewhere, after studying maps it became apparent that the Atlantic Ocean was a suitable starting place and the Mediterranean Sea was an equally suitable finishing place.

Off the Starting Blocks

I spent a tiring Saturday servicing my bike; replacing tyres, brake blocks, oiling and polishing it looked as good as new. In addition, packing and minimising equipment consumed plenty of time, even though I still ended up carrying an amount similar to that of 1998 (approx. 16kg). Hence, I soon fell asleep on the flight from Manchester to the sunshine of Biarritz. I managed to wrench myself from my tired stupor and found a quiet corner in the airport to reassemble my bike and change into my cycling clothes.

It was a busy Sunday afternoon as I cruised along the coast to my proper starting point of Hendaye. This small resort on the French-Spanish border was alive with holiday makers, a carnival and finally an intense thunderstorm.

The following morning dawned fine as I packed up my kit and had one last look at the Ocean, the next time I would see seawater would be at my journey's end.

Hendaye, the Atlantic Coast made a suitable starting point.

Learning it again

Compared to previous experiences my first day was a relatively simple affair, I cycled inland spending much of my time just inside Spain, reaching the summit of the Col d'Ispéguy (672m) before returning to France, thus completing my first border hop! I camped at St Etienne de Baigorry a very good campsite costing only 13FF.

Leaving St Etienne de Baigorry on my second day I began to realise that I was out of form, although I'd done lots of fitness training and cycling over the previous year I'd not been propelling a loaded bike over steep hills and, at the same time, having to navigate. My first navigational mistake happened when I reached the top of a really steep hill only to discover it was a dead end and I was on the wrong side of the valley to where I needed to be. The mistake was rectified by a swift descent, but time and energy were lost. Upon, returning to Aldudes where I'd made my error it was a tough climb to the Collado de Urquiga (890m). I remained in Spain for the remainder of the day reaching Espinal. The scenery consisted of green rolling hills covered in woodland, I was desperately looking forward to higher mountains and their correspondingly high passes. The main difference I noticed about spending my first night in Spain was the dramatic increase in camping fees compared with France.

 

The rolling green hills which featured in Basque Country.

The sun was shining as I cycled from Espinal to Ochagavia, the most picturesque village I passed through during these early stages. Taking the longer route along minor roads and over the Passo Tappia was worthwhile as I reached Ochagavia just in time for the solar eclipse. Several people were there gazing skywards with welding masks and other eclipse viewing contraptions. However, the border between Spain and southern France was obviously too far south to witness anything spectacular; the only noticeable effect was that it felt considerably cooler for about 15 minutes. Whilst climbing the Port de Lárrau I began to catch glimpses of high rocky summits and snow capped peaks, which made the Atlantic seem a long way behind. Unfortunately, as I slowly pedalled up the final stages of the pass heavy cloud drifted in, ruining any views and causing the descent to be a chilly affair. When I finally reached Aramits in France, I'd covered 77miles I was now well and truly in my stride, and although I felt tired my cycle-touring fitness was recovered.

The Bigger Stuff

After spending the night in France, it was back into Spain for my fourth day, only the Col de la Pierre St Martin (1760m) stood in my way, a new high point for the trip. Again I was to reach a summit blanketed with cloud, but an incredibly fast descent into Spain, made up for the lack of views. A detour along the NA 2000, just short of reaching Isaba, was to be the best decision I made during the entire trip. A steep climb through wooded hills led into what could only be described as a hidden valley completely devoid of all traffic with simply amazing scenery.

Leaving the valley required a climb up to 1290m, where I met four Basques who'd been out mountain biking. A thin bumpy road (not marked on some maps) led down to Zuriza, I was tempted to stop and put up camp in this delightful place, but decided to push on. The twenty miles spent cycling down the Valle de Ansó were probably the best I've ever done. Brilliant scenery incorporating large cliffs which shadowed a narrow gorge with higher peaks in the background. I'd never really seen anything like it and was amazed at how quickly the terrain had changed upon crossing the border, the drier Spanish conditions created real Cowboy Country. It was difficult to believe I'd been in green France only hours before. I stopped overnight at a large holiday campsite about 10miles before Jaca, I felt obliged to use their swimming pool if only to get my money's worth.

Ansó

The sandstone cliffs in the Valle de Ansó

The road to Jaca was hot and dusty, but under the bright Spanish sun. I found that I cruised with relative ease, until my back wheel abruptly stopped spinning. I turned round to discover that the upper bracket which keeps my pannier rack attached to my bike, had fatigued and cracked into two segments, meaning the full weight of my panniers were bearing down on my back tyre. My spare pair of binding cords had to be used to rectify the problem and surprisingly, they survived the remainder of the journey! The Col du Pourtalet now separated me from another return to France. As I climbed the Col the whole area took on much more of a mountainous flavour, and the more I climbed the more interesting it became. I cycled through a small place called Escarrilla which was a classic mountain village and the large lakes I passed further up the Col shimmered in the bright sun. However, the feeling of summit success was to be ruined once again by heavy cloud which drifted in when I was just 100m from the top, meaning a chilly downhill to Laruns. Unfortunately, the campsite I chose was a very grotty place having a dirty "bloc sanitaire" and many old and rusty caravans. The arrival of my bicycle attracted quite a bit of interest, each move was watched by every child on the campsite. Finally, I was kept awake most of the night by barking and howling dogs!

Le Cirque de Gavarnie

The following day was magical. The morning was fine, and unlike other days it was to stay that way for the remainder of the day. I left the grotty campsite, leaving 17FF on the office counter as I was unable to find the campsite owner to pay in person. I was soon hard at work climbing the Col d'Aubisque, with magnificent rocky cliffs it was a superb pass and a prime example of why I choose to cycle over the mountainous parts of Europe. The summit was followed by a brisk descent, before another short climb to the quieter Col du Soulor; despite been lower in terms of altitude than the Col d'Aubisque, the views were far superior.

Views from the Col d'Aubisque

The sun was still beating down as I cruised down into Argelès-Gazost and then onwards towards Gavernie. Initially, the traffic was quite heavy, but as I progressed the traffic gradually began to thin out. My arrival in Luz-St Sauveur en-route to Gavernie, was greeted with applause from people sitting outside the street cafés. Next was a long climb up to Gavernie, after cycling 400 miles in a week and competing against the hot sun, my energy was gone. Gavernie just never seemed to arrive, but when it did the effort expended was definitely worth it. I still cannot describe the beauty and splendour of the Cirque de Gavernie a high rock amphitheatre encircling the small mountain village, complete with huge cascading waterfalls. Even the highest quality postcards and photographs cannot fully encapsulate its true appearance. I set up camp in the one of the best campsite locations at which I've ever stayed, with my tent door facing straight towards the mountain ring.

It was now Sunday and I needed a rest, so I decided to spend the day in Gavernie. After doing all the mandatory jobs washing clothes, buying food, etc., I went for a walk along the track which led into the main amphitheatre, the only annoying aspect was the pack horse industry which the track had generated. There were seemingly hundreds of horses carrying spoilt kids from the village into the cirque. It was a completely pointless and cruel exercise, especially since most of the passengers looked as though would rather be walking than sitting bow-legged over the unhappy beasts. The horses also made a mess of the trail and got in the way of everybody else.

Camping in Gavernie

Inside the Cirque de Gavernie

In the evening I met four Englishmen who, having seen a walking television programme on English TV about the Pyrénées, were inspired to try it for themselves. Despite being fit and healthy, none of them really had any mountain experience and were planning to carry tonnes of equipment (much of which had been borrowed from the school where one of them taught). I'm not sure how far they actually got, but they were all in good humour and enjoying themselves.

Back to Spain

After a much needed rest day, it was back into the saddle for what I had hoped would be yet more glorious high passes, unfortunately the weather had other ideas. No sooner had I left Gavernie, bound for Luz-St Sauveur and the Col du Tourmalet, heavy cloud decided to settle. Incidentally, the Col du Tourmalet is one of the highest and probably the most famous pass in the French Pyrénées, I climbed it at a reasonable pace, signposts every kilometre helped as they gave your present altitude and the gradient for the next kilometre. However, as I climbed the cloud and mist became denser to the extent that visibility was just above zero. I stood at the summit, crowned by a statue of a Tour de France cyclist. Despite the poor weather the Col du Tourmalet was quite busy with other cyclists, evidence of its popularity as one of France's premier passes. The initial stages of the descent were a little scary to say the least, with visibility down to about ten metres, brakes were firmly applied as I slowly progressed. Water particles clung to my skin, as I took care to ensure that I stayed on the road and didn't take the quick way down to the bottom. The Col d'Aspin was much the same, the thick cloud remained and it even rained for the first time on the trip. I ended the day in St. Lary-Soulon, an earlier finish than intended, but it wasn't worth continuing any further in view of the poor conditions. In many ways this was the most disappointing day of the journey, I'd put a lot of physical effort into climbing over two cols, yet the rewards on this occasion were withheld.

Le Col du Tourmalet in cloudy and misty conditions.

The following day, improved weather conditions met my ascent of the Col d'Azzet, the Col de Peyresourde and finally the Col du Portillon. The latter at only 1298m should have been easy, but was actually a testing climb due to a tired pair of legs, a steep gradient, thick tree cover, no encouraging progress signs and frequent attacks from swarms of flies. Once over its summit I was back inside Spain. The descent was fast and twisty and led to the Val d'Arran which I then followed to Vielha, a rather large and interesting place, which was the capital town of the region. Then it was a relatively short cycle to Arties, by now the cloud had well and truly lifted revealing the fine looking hills of the Parc National D'Aigues Tortes.

On the summit of le Col de Peyresourde, next it was downhill to Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Leaving Arties was a physical struggle, I just couldn't get out of my sleeping bag! As a result I found the Port de la Bonaigua extremely hard work, but under a crystal clear sky it was another noteworthy pass.

Overlooking the Parc National D'Aigues Tortes.

A good fast descent followed, except for a white van which wouldn't pull over and let me pass, it was several miles before I managed to overtake him. I reached Esterri d'Ared, but then cycled straight into a strong head wind; making progress that afternoon relatively slow. When I reached Llavorsi I was hungry and in need of a lengthy break, it took a bacon sandwich and several Cokes before I was finally ready to continue.

Feeling recharged I managed to maintain a better rhythm and after passing through Gerri de la Sal the scenery became fascinating. The road narrowed to fit through steep sided sandstone canyons. Again, I was amazed at how different the terrain had become, compared to that found on the border. I reached La Pobla, then turned up another valley to Senterada, a good place to camp.

The Road to La Pobla

Onto noisy Andorra

Cycling from Senterada to La Seu d'Urgell was a mixed day, I still felt incredibly tired and now my left knee was beginning to hurt. Fortunately, the cycling was fairly easy as I retraced my route to La Pobla, then to Tremps and eventually Isona. Leaving Isona I took the small road which twisted and climbed over the interesting hill country of the Collado de Faidella and the Collado de Boixols.

Cowboy Country en-route to La Seu d'Urgell.

Narrow mountain roads near the summit of Coll de Nargo

By now my initial morning sluggishness had gone and I enjoyed a bumpy ride down Coll de Nargo where I met two Spanish lads. They too were cycling coast-to-coast , but taking a more southerly route than myself with the intention of finishing at Barcelona. I continued to La Seu d'Uregll, a big town but with a really pleasant historic centre. I contemplated pushing on for a late finish in Andorra la Vella, but with 70 miles already completed I decided to stay and spend an evening exploring my last Spanish town of the trip. I wasn't disappointed as the place oozed with life throughout the evening.

Next was Andorra, I'd visited Andorra seven years previously and had been amazed at the low costs and decided it would be worth another visit. Unfortunately, it was a poor decision. I cycled the short distance to the capital city of Andorra la Vella and found a cheap hostel to sleep in, I was given a tiny room with no day light. I spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly, with thousands of shoppers and traffic congestion making it a dismal day. Usually, on a rest day I'd find a few things of interest to do, then find a nice lake or park, stretch out and simply read or write postcards. In Andorra there was no such option. Open spaces were non-existent and the noise was intense, due to traffic and also people arguing over whether a watch in one shop was cheaper than the one next door. I wished that I'd simply cycled straight through to France or avoided the small principality altogether.

After the disappointment of Andorra la Vella, the day after was superb. A long 1400m climb to the Port d'Envratira (2401m) my high point of the trip took to me to the border between Andorra and France.

The French/Andorran border pass

Remembering that this was commercial Andorra, the summit came complete with two petrol stations. The initial descent towards Ax-les-Thermes was fast and exciting. However, as I neared the actual border the cars compressed together as the customs officials allowed one car through at a time. I became caught up in the congestion and consequently progress down the mountainside was conducted at a fairly slow pace.

Descending to Ax-les-Thermes

Upon reaching Ax-les-Thermes I couldn't resist soaking my feet in the hot thermal pool for 30 minutes, before getting back into the saddle for the ride down to Tarascon. At 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon Tarascon is exceedingly quiet, so I continued through a forest covered valley to Vicdessos. Seventy miles, brilliant scenery and a return to France, simply fantastic.

The Ax-les-Thermes Circle

When I passed through Ax-les-Thermes, and continued to Vicdessos I'd actually travelled further away from the Mediterranean. Despite sounding as though I'd made a mistake and got lost, it was intentional. I still had another week before I needed to fly home, and wanted to explore a little more of this intriguing part of the Pyrénées. Hence, Ax-les-Thermes made a suitable place to begin a loop which was to provide 2 very good days of cycling.

Vicdessos, sits at the foot of the Port de Lers, which was to be my next objective; it was a gloriously sunny Sunday morning as I climbed up the thin winding road. After travelling for a couple of miles, I overtook a runner who subsequently decided to propel himself past me several bends later. He managed to maintain a 50m gap between us, although with a further 3 passes to contemplate I wasn't in the mood to sprint up the pass leaving him for dead. When we both reached the top we had a chat, he seemed very happy with his efforts - although there was no debate over who'd win the descent!

The summit was a particularly happy place, where I spoke to several other cyclists. I chatted at length with one local in particular who was a gardener. He had just been employed by a couple of English families who had properties in the Pyrénées and wanted me to teach him the English words for gardening phrases such as "mowing the grass" and "planting trees". I left him with hand-drawn pictures and the corresponding English terms!

The following pass was tremendous providing good views over some impressive mountain scenery, then a good downhill to Aulus-les-Bains, and another climb up to my third pass of the day the Col de Latrape (1111m). The Col de Latrape was an uneventful climb followed by a narrow twisty descent leading to Seix. This is where I set about pass number 4 - the Col de la Core - requiring 800m of ascent; but I think it was one pass too many for the day, it was hard work and I became caught up in an impromptu rainstorm. Cycling on from the pass took me through many small villages including one in the middle of its summer festival. I pitched my tent later at a very quiet campsite near to St. Girons.

A small lake on the descent from the Col de Lars

The following day I was to complete my Ax-les-Thermes circle, passing through Biert and Mossat I climbed the Col de Port with relative ease. I had lunch at the top and got talking to a German woman who was also cycling around the Pyrénées. However, no sooner had she begun the descent (travelling in the opposite direction to myself) she discovered she had a puncture. I found her remedy very unusual, instead of replacing the inner tube, she decided to just pump the tyre up, to determine whether it really was a puncture! With 20 miles of imminent furious downhill I would have applied a safer and more re-assuring policy. Despite my offers to assist she was adamant that it would be okay, so who was I to argue!

Arriving in Tarascon I sensed a déjà vu, but I found a different and more taxing route to Ax-les-Thermes, by taking the many small D roads threading in and out of the hillside. The road from Bompas undulated and rose high above the main valley, providing a very rewarding afternoon. With the shelter of high mountains on either side it was blazingly hot. The road dropped quickly to Ax-les-Thermes, several sections being distinctly dodgy and dangerous. Upon arrival I once again sat in the hot thermal pool, revitalising my aching joints before pulling myself away to find a campsite.

The Mediterranean Smell

Between myself and the Mediterranean lay one more significant pass, the Col de Paillhere (2001m). It was a lengthy journey, but not too steep steady progress meant it was easily conquered. Crossing the pass the terrain suddenly became very Mediterranean in appearance and even in the smell of the surrounding air. Next was the climb to the summit of the Col de Garavel (1256m).

On the Col du Garavel

The heat was intense and my water bottles ran out, so I was glad to find a drinking tap part way down the other side of the Col where I downed several litres of ice cold mountain water. My final pass of the day, the Col de Jau, was to prove difficult for two reasons, neither to do with the gradient or length. Firstly I was continuously attacked by swarms of flies; the flies were in my hair, eyes, ears, nose absolutely everywhere. On the tree lined road there wasn't much of a breeze to disperse them and the gradient meant I was unable to outrun them. The second factor was a sudden thunderstorm and torrential downpour. This got rid of the flies, but left me feeling cold and wet on the long downhill to Prades, where under clearing skies I managed to catch a few glimpses of the Pic du Canigou. A lively evening was spent in Prades as the town-square hosted live music and the centre became packed with people. A fun night to be out.

The Mediterranean was almost within sight, just another seventy miles. Early morning in Prades was a dull and overcast affair as I left to cycle up the Col Palomere. Standing at the summit of the Col Palomere (1036m), a quick look at the map revealed that it was downhill all the way to the sea, a good 50miles away. Every few minutes the scenery changed to become more akin to the coastal areas as the mountains faded away. I reached Céret and began what I hoped would be an exhilarating ride to the coast. Heavy traffic was to ruin this prospect, the sheer volume of vehicles on the road meant I had to concentrate hard to avoid been knocked off the road. I rode down the steep hill into the centre of Collioure straight into masses of people, I then discovered that the campsites were back at the top of the hill.

Camping in Collioure was to leave a bitter taste in my mouth the only campsite with free spaces decided to charge me for my bike and to make matters worse it was the same price as for a car. I was livid, after so many nights of camping having never been charged for my bike, I argued but the campsite owners refused to relent and I was left with little alternative but to pay their ridiculous demands. All in all, I argued with the campsite owner (who looked like the British comedian, Eddie Large), his wife and then his daughter - all to no avail. I could have parked a large people carrier taking up acres of room for the same price as my two-wheel bike!

Conclusion

My coast-to-coast was complete, I spent a couple days on the beach and then cycled along the coast to Canet-Plage before a complicated route home. This took me via Perpignan, Montpellier, Paris and Manchester before arriving home in Stoke-on-Trent.

It had certainly been a good and enjoyable trip, vastly different to my Alpine tour. In many ways I found the cycling easier, but that may have been that I was much fitter than when I'd commenced my Alps trip. The scenery was good, although I still think that the Alps have a slight edge in this department. Quieter roads were a bonus and the reception I got from passing motorists who on many occasions cheered and waved as they drove past made for an enjoyable experience. I had completed the coast-to-coast, covered 1000miles and had a brilliant time, however I don't feel an overwhelming desire to try the same challenge again.

Technical Details:

I used my trusty 1995 GT Pantera, fitted with road tyres. Absolutely nothing failed, just one slow puncture which I sustained cycling to Montpellier airport.

Packing Details:

I travelled fairly light, taking the absolute minimum in terms of clothing. However, I could have reduced it further by taking a smaller and lighter bike lock and only one pan. Also I may have saved some more grams by closer attention to detail and being more ruthless when deciding whether I really needed a particular item.

All my equipment - stove, sleeping bag, clothes etc. fitted into one set of rear panniers with a 45 litre capacity. My tent, however, was strapped across the top of the panniers.