Talking about Pyrenees Passes involve talking about cycling, the Tour de France, climbs, wins, sporting legends… It involves talking about the wonderful Pyrenean landscapes where you want to lose yourself and ride at your leisure, with that calmness that enables you to enjoy.
The aim of this post is to find out a bit more about these legendary passes and serve as a guide to those cyclists who venture to explore them, and as encouragement for those who dream of climbing these mountains.
Tourmalet – 2,115m
Col du Tourmalet is the most emblematic and representative pass of the essence of the Tour, close to the mountain that has meant a lot for the history of cycling.
Each metre of the climb is full of feats, legend, glory and agony. It was the first big climb, not just of the Tour, but also of the history of cycling. It was the journalist, Alphonse Steines – the right-hand man of the Tour’s founder, Henri Desgrange – who suggested that this great race should go through the highest mountains in France. It was Steines himself in January 1910 who would take charge of exploring the terrain, almost undiscovered by man, and whose adventure almost cost him his life. In spite of this, he would certify that these mountains would be perfectly passable for cyclists in July.
That’s how the adventure began…at that time, the tracks were broken and rocky, no racer was prepared to face such a colossal challenge and their bikes even less so. It didn’t have the development that enabled pedalling up similar size mountains to be negotiated. That day, Octave Lapice would end up going down in history as the first cyclist to conquer the summit of Tourmalet and that’s how the idyllic romance between cycling and high mountains would begin.
This historic port can be started from two points, on its westerly side, it starts in the beautiful town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur, on the bridge which crosses the Gave de Le Bastan. The other access point is from Valle de Argelès-Gazost, where you will have to add ten more kilometres of a gentle climb to be able to find the start of the pass.
There is no need to go in search of this mountain to find wild sloping peaks, the layout of the road is straight, with the exception of three sections with double horseshoe bends that will enable you to gain height. Once reached, you will be able to admire the monument that commemorates the feat of the great Octave Lapice of 1910 and feel how the legend of this magical place infiltrates every pore of your skin.
Port de Balès – 1,775m
This pass roamed engulfed in anonymity for a long time, only known by some locals until it was permanently surfaced. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed in the eyes of the Tour de France who, in 2007, put it in the spotlight by including it in the French race.
That first time that Port de Balès played the protagonist in a competition during a grand tour, the 15th stage of the 2007 Tour, a small group of breakaway riders would reach it. Among them was Kim Kirchen, a cyclist who would finish first and have the honour of engraving his name for the first time in the history of this peak.
Since this majestic Pyrenean mountain port was seen in world cycling, it has been cherished by both professionals and amateurs. It helps that it is the most westerly port of the High Pyrenees and one of the few Hors Catègorie which brings together so much beauty, demand and tranquillity. It enables a perfect connection between effort and the exuberant natural setting that surrounds it. You won’t have to work too hard to hear the sound of the water from the stream or appreciate its almost virgin, wild and unspoiled surroundings.
The pass starts in the beautiful and tiny town of Mauléon-Barousse and concludes 19.5km later on the edge of Haute-Garonne,1775m high. At the end of this adventure you will be rewarded with the views of Mont Né, the highest peak of the mountainside.
Portillón – 1,292m
Between Spain and France – with the Luchon Valley to the west and Val d´Aran to the east-, Col de Portillon is the Pyrenean pass which has been climbed the most by the Tour de France. Also covered by the Vuelta a España on two occasions, it is probably the port with the most physically and sentimentally close relationship with our cycling.
The decades of the 60s and 70s were the years in which many Spanish cyclists –Bahamontes, Manzaneque, Fuente, Ocaña, Perurena or Torres -met on the Pyrenean mountain range, their natural habit most prone to attacks and displays belonging to the cycling era they were part of.
There are two options to make this ascent, on the French side through Bagnères- de-Luchon or through the Aran valley side through Bossost.
Luz Ardiden – 1,725m
The resounding name of this pass originates from the convergence of the names of Luz Valley – where the climb begins- with one of the highest mountainous coasts of the Vignemale Massif, the Ardiden peak, at 2988 metres.
A beautiful and unique climb, exceptional thanks to the features of its road that is full of horseshoe curves, linked together constantly for the cyclist’s enjoyment. 1725m along 14 wonderful kilometres of climb that take place in a snaking line of tarmac over the rugged landscape of this Pyrenean mountainside.
Luz Ardien is an increasingly unforgettable setting, the best reward for reaching the peak and delighting in the beauty of this place, a curvaceous and twisted beauty, a participant in thousands of sporting stories and achievements.
Superbagnères – 1,800m
A super port located in the heart of the mountain range, next to the town, which is deeply rooted in cycling tradition, Bagnères-de-Luchon. Peak where the great climbers have engraved their names: Imperio Massignan, Jaques Anquetil, Bahamontes, Eddy Merckx, among others.
It is likely that in the eyes of a cyclist, Superbagnères is one of the most treasured jewels of the Pyrenees. This summit, beyond the merely sporting aspects, has great charm for the amateur cyclist. A majestic natural framework which runs along the beautiful Lys valley and whose summit offers sublime 360º views with the peaks of the Aneto- Posets as protagonists. A great achievement as a cyclist, a tough challenge of 17.1 k and 1800 m that will stay with you forever.
Bibliography: Grande puertos de los Pirineos, gestas legendarias y guía para cicloturistas. . Antonio Toral. Sus Edizioak.
A book we highly recommend if you want to discover more of the great ports hidden in the Pyrenees.