Posted by: Jennifer Sage | September 3, 2008

Cycling the Grand Cols of the Pyrénées

Not all of my clients are hard-core cyclists, but I do get a fair amount that want to climb the big cols of Europe. I have sent 4 guys from North Carolina on several trips in the past. The first year it was to ride the big cols of the Alpes, a trip I call Les Chasseurs des Cols (The Col Seekers). They climbed the Col de la Colombiere, the Col de Croix-Fry, the Col de la Forclaz and others near Annecy, and then the Col de la Madeleine, the Col de Galibier, the Col du Glandon and of course, the Alpe d’Huez in the Oisans region.

The next year I sent them to Provence, where they fulfilled a dream of riding Mont Ventoux 3 times in one day up the three main routes, joining an elite club called Les Cinglés de Ventoux (the “crazies” of Ventoux).

Bill on Ventoux - first ascent
Bill on Ventoux – first ascent

Now, along with 4 additional friends, they are preparing to leave in a few days for the Pyrénées to climb many of the major cols of this southern mountain range. I’ve done many custom tours, but this is one of which I am particularly proud. It’s the first time I’ve sent a group this large, 8 people, to self-support themselves without a guide. I live vicariously through each and every one of my custom tours, as if I am the one going over, or like I’m sending my own family! Having climbed a good number of the cols in the Pyrénées where they’ll be riding, I’m excited to share the experience and even more excited to hear about their adventure.

Deb en route to the Portet d'Aspet
Deb en route to the Portet d’Aspet

They will fly into Pau and then pick up two large rental vans. Most are bringing their own bikes, but I’ve arranged for delivery of a few rental bikes which will be dropped off at their hotel. I’ve reserved four very nice 3-star hotels in charming, centrally located towns along the way, with great access to the most famous climbs.  Most dinners are also included at the hotels, but it’s also nice to have some dining options away from the hotels, so I’ve provided them the best restaurants close to their hotels when dinner is not included.  They return on the final day to their first hotel, where their bike boxes will be stored, making it easier to transport the bikes throughout the trip. After one day of easy riding on Day 1 along a riverside before heading into the heart of the Pyrénées, here is a rough idea of their itinerary:

Day 2: climb the Col de Marie Blanque, the Col d’Aubisque and the Col de Soulor (the latter two are arguably the most beautiful cols of the trip). 6,600+ feet of climbing. They’re likely to encounter some livestock on these climbs, including free-roaming cows, sheep, goats, horses and even llama.

Horses on the Col de Marie Blanque
Horses on the Col de Marie Blanque

Day 3: Three options today include Hautacam, Luz Ardiden and the Cirque de Gavarnie, a glacial amphitheatre with the largest waterfall of Europe. (3,500 – 7,500′ depending on how much they decide to do, one or all of the climbs).

Luz Ardiden switchbacks
Luz Ardiden switchbacks
The Cirque de Gavarnie

The Cirque de Gavarnie

Day 4: Col de Tourmalet (la piece de résistance of the trip) and Col d’Aspin. Ouch.  6,715′.

Day 5: Col de Peyresourde, with an option to add Superbagneres or Hospice de France. (2,200 – 5,800′)

Day 6: day off in the spa town of Bagneres de Luchon (where they’re scheduled to get some massages).  If they want more riding, they can ride into Spain for a few hours via the Col du Portillon.

Day 7: Two tough ones and a couple of easy cols – Col de Menté, Col de Portet d’Aspet (to the memorial for Fabio Casartelli who died in the Tour de France on this descent, and where they’ll experience the grade in the photo below), Col des Ares and Col de Buret. Then drive back to their first hotel not far from Pau. (total 6,500+ feet)

The col de Portet d'Aspet west approach
The col de Portet d’Aspet

I’ve given them all the insider tips on leading and supporting bicycle tours that almost 20 years has given me; tips on driving in France, how to prepare and stock the vans (food, refreshments, ice chest, first aid, tools and other equipment), the best way to support the group and stay in contact, the best tips for loading and transporting bikes, luggage and people, tips for bad weather, how the van drivers can create easy picnics during the day to have waiting on the mountain summits, safety and emergency information, tips on safely securing the bicycles, how to divide driving duties, etc. No one has to do much thinking – it’s all there provided for them!

This promises to be an amazing, amazing trip! All of these guys have been training very hard this summer, so I have no doubt they’ll complete most if not all of the climbs. Taking turns driving will actually offer them a respite from too many days of climbing.

Could they have done internet research and found out this information on their own? Sure, it’s out there, but I’ve saved them probably 100+ hours of internet research time; time that was better spent riding their bikes! And besides, you never really know if the information you’re getting from the internet is the best, or if it really is exactly what you’re looking for. Better to go to an expert in the region who can customize the tour for you. All these guys are extremely busy professionals, doctors or executives of companies who travel a lot, so a customized bicycle tour designed around their specific wishes and desires is the best way to go.

Total cost for these guys? Less than $1,900 for the land cost (all breakfasts and most dinners included). When you add in the cost of the vans and gas and other meals, it will most-likely be less than $2,500 each. A guided tour using these hotels would easily be over $3,000 up to $3,800 (plus lunches and a few dinners), without the flexibility and choices that a self-guided tour offer. Nothing wrong with guided tours – I do them too! But if you’re independent-minded, then the self-guided option is a great choice.

If you’re into cycling in Europe, whether it’s the big cols of the Pyrenees, Alpes or Dolomites or the rolling hills of Provence or Dordogne, or the flat plains of the Loire; but aren’t into a guided group tour with lots of people you don’t know, and would rather go with a close group of friends on your own schedule with total flexibility, why don’t you let us design a custom tour for you?

I’ll be posting some photos of their tour next month. I wish them sunny skies and safe travels!


  1. planning a trip in 2010 may-july by myself. i want to ride the pyrenees of france and spain and then the alps of italy and france. i would like to rent an rv. how much would you charge for a list of climbs not to miss, and some hard to find advise. thank you.

  2. HI Larry, I’d love to help you out – this is my specialty! It would be much better to speak on the phone so I can find out more about your interests. Can you call my office at 866-804-VELO or 970-390-1757? As far as costs, being that you’re not planning until 2010, it’s hard to say 2 years in advance.

    Look forward to talking with you!


  3. Please contact me regarding a trip to pyrenees in sept of 2010.Self guided trip is perfect for us. thank you

  4. In July 07 I did the climbs around Bourg d’Oissans(sp?) and Ventoux. I’d like do Tourmalet and some others in the Pyrennes and combine them with some just vacation time with my wife while there. I’d like to avoid a rental car, but be able to rent a quality bike so I can avoid transporting mine. Any suggestions? A tour company that can arrange hotels and transportation would be perfect. Thanks

  5. This is a good article, and will help me plan for our 2010 Pyrenees+Etape du Tour trip (we did the 2009 Etape + TdF).

    Tim M

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