Just south of Lourdes is a gateway to the Pyrenees, Argeles-Gazost. This small town sits at the base of the Hautacam and offers easy access to the Col de Soulor, Aubisque, Col des Borderes, Cauterets, the Tourmalet, and Luz Ardiden, as well as the Cirque du Gavarnie.
Argeles-Gazost offers hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and several bike shops. On a recent visit, my family and I stayed just to the west of town, in the small hamlet of Arcizans-Avant. This tiny village is perched above Argeles, along the road to Estaing and the Col des Borderes. Arcizans has 3 small restaurants, although during our visit in early June, only one, Chez Pierrot, was open.
We stayed in a wonderful AirBNB, an upstairs apartment overlooking the small reservoir on the edge of town. From here we could see to the east and the Hautacam, and to the west, the Col du Liar. Further to the west sits Lac d’Estaing, the Col des Borderes, Col du Soulor, Cirque du Litor, and Col d’Aubisque.
Southwards, the D913 and D921 highways pass by the road to Cauterets, then go to Luz San Saveur, a good base for riding to the Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, Circque du Gavarnie, and Cirque de Troumouse.
All in all, there’s a solid week’s worth of cycling straight from Argeles-Gazost without needing to drive (or at least, drive far) to start a ride. As we were on a family trip, we drove to several bases to ride from, including a large valley to the east, above Bagneres and the Col d’Aspin and Horquette d’Anzican.
The roads in the Pyrenees are different than the Alps, generally narrower, steeper, less crowded, more humid, and with more free-ranging livestock. This may be that the Alps have a stronger tourism economy with more ski areas (and longer ski seasons) and the roads have been enlarged to accommodate the tourist traffic. I’ve ridden in the Alps, but it was well over 10 years ago, and everyone knows a MAMIL’s memory gets rosier as time passes, regardless of reality.
There are may guide services who will happily show you the area, tote your bags, cook your meals, and charge a fee. However, basing yourself out of Argeles-Gazost and making your own routes is also quite easy. We opted for the latter method for a family trip, it gave us flexibility and adaptability as the weather and our plans shifted.
Hautacam from Argeles-Gazost: Finding this out-and-back is easy; from the center of town, look east at the large north-south ridgeline. Now go ride it. The road is on the west side of the ridge, so early morning is better if you like cooler temperatures. There are ample signs through Argeles, and finding the climb is easy (climbing it is not easy, but it’s also not a leg-ripper). General gradients are in the 8-10% range, but they stay consistent and offer few flat sections. During the climb, the views to the west towards the Col du Soulor and Cauterets are spectacular. The signs stop in a large parking lot for the ski station, but the road actually continues if you seek more climbing.
Col du Liar: This little-known ride climbs an old road above the town of Arcizans-Dessus. I would certainly never have heard of it, except for a posting on Gravelcyclist.com the day we arrived in town. It’s a gravel climb, and “steep” doesn’t come close to being an accurate descriptor. On a late afternoon as the cool rain stopped, I rode out from Arcizans-Avant to Arcizans-Dessus, crossing the valley and riding up the D918 towards Arrens-Marsous. The right-hand turn into Arcizans-Dessus is easy to miss, but once you make the turn and downshift, the climb begins in earnest. Finding your way through town is simple: find the steepest road and follow it. My own driveway averages 12% over 1km, with the steepest part tickling 21%. The last paved section through Arcizans-Dessus makes my driveway feel as flat as a bowling alley; I was amazed I didn’t loop-out.
Once off the pavement, however, the road eased a bit and I was able to keep climbing the gravel in un-graveley 34-32 gearing. Not for the first time int he Pyrenees, I wished for my gravel crankset and its 30/46 rings. I continued to climb until I reached the fog layer, about 3 switchbacks up onto the clear hillside. I enjoyed it, and it reinforced my feeling that the next time I visit the French Pyrenees, I’ll be with my gravel bike, and seeking the road less paved.
Col des Borderes/Col du Soulor/ Col d’Aubisque: This route is amazing and offers spectacular views, great climbing, and restaurants. The section up through Estaing and over the Col des Borderes to Arrens-Marsous is nearly devoid of cars, and even the more famous climbs of the Soulor and Aubisque aren’t over crowded, particularly before June 15th or so.
From Argeles, ride on the D101 south towards St Savin. This road will serve as a good warmup during the climb from Argeles to Arcizans-Avant. Once you crest into Arcizans, bear left at the lake and head up D13/Cami d’Azun towards Estaing. There are a few steep ramps to aid in your warmup, plus a short descent for recovery. In the town of Estaing, take a right just past the campground onto Carrou, and the Col des Borderes. This short climb brings you to a large plateau within 3 switchbacks. Cross the plateau and enjoy the fast, somewhat technical descent to Arrens-Marsous.
The route through town to the D918/Col du Soulor is well-marked, and the climb itself is quite pleasant. Over about 8km/5 miles, the grades are 7-9% with some short, steeper ramps, plenty of free-roaming sheep, and various other Rodents of Unusual Sizes. Keep these in mind for the return descent; they do not scamper out of your way.
This road is more-used than the Borderes, so expect more traffic as well. At the top of the Soulor, there are a couple of restaurants where you can grab a snack or a meal.
From the top, bear left towards the Cirque du Litor, which is a steep cliffside with a road scratched into its flank. This is the gateway to the Aubisque from the east, and is most famous for Wim van Est falling off it while wearing yellow in the 1951 Tour. The description of his crash often says “fell into a ravine”, but where he tumbled down the hillside is one side of a wide basin. Ravine, my ass. This is a full-on valley, with near-vertical faces where the road edge sits.
I hope you ride with lights, because there are two tunnels (one about 10 meters long, one about 100) and the longer one has no lighting inside. At a bare minimum, a blinking tail light will help keep a supercar (known to roam these roadways) from driving over you and denting its airdam. van Est did his highway dismount just to the west of the shorter tunnel. Stop and take a look over the edge, it’s worth it if you like heights and exposures.
Once off the Cirque, the road continues with a less-vertiginous edge up towards the summit and restaurant. Also up there are giant bicycle sculptures (yellow, polka-dot and green, as if the green jersey had ever ridden this pass quickly), and breathtaking vistas. It’s worth stopping to eat and sit on the patio to soak in the views. It also bears mentioning that this is the easier side of the Aubisque, with grades generally below 8% after the Cirque. We MAMILs like the easy side of climbs.
After a refreshing snack, we saddled up and headed eastward, retracing van Est’s route (minus the side excursion) towards the Soulor and down to Arrens-Marsous. The road on this side of the valley, the D918, descends directly to Argeles. It’s larger and busier than the Estaing side, so count on traffic. We cut across the valley at Bun, which led us back to Arcizans (this will also get you to St. Savin and smaller, quieter roads back to Argeles).
Cauterets/ Pont d’Espagne: From Argeles, head south on D921 to Perfitte-Nestales. At the center, bear right onto D920 towards Cauterets. Just before the town, there are some steep switchbacks, a repair to the roadway when a flood took out the main road several years ago. Roll through town and follow signs towards Pont d’Espange and the Route de Cambasque. Once you leave Cauterets, the road ramps up through 6 switchbacks, averaging 9-12% before breaking out into a beautiful cirque with a ski station.
San Saveur Area: South from Argeles-Gazost along the D921 sits San Saveur. This small town has ample sports shops, bike shops with rentals, restaurants, and a supermarket. From here, you can access the Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, and the town of Gedre, which leads to the Cirque du Gavarnie and the Cirque de Troumouse.
During our visit, the weather was cold, with a low cloud hanging only about 400′ above the valley floor. In the interest of family bliss, we elected to drive up the Tourmalet, and honestly, after driving it, I really don’t have much interest in riding it. The road is busy, famous, and heavily-traveled. There are far better rides to do, and I’m not all that interested in pass-bagging.
After returning from the Tourmalet, we convinced ourselves that the clouds has lifted and rode our bikes up Luz Ardiden. By contrast with the Tourmalet, this road was quiet, beautiful, had large, sweeping switchbacks, and was a thoroughly enjoyable climb.
As we rode upwards into the mist, the temperature dropped and a soggy chill soaked into our bones. About 2 km below the top, my wife declared that she was cold, so we turned onto a small side-road and descended to Viscos down a road that had not seen much travel since the age of Charlemagne. Steep, twisty, over-grown, and with loose gravel, we proceeded slowly to ward off the chill. On the entire descent, we not only saw exactly zero cars, we also saw little sign of human habitation. Once we reached Viscos, we found out why the road was so empty: it was closed.
While in the San Saveur region, a visit to the Cirque du Gavarnie is a must-do. We didn’t have time to ride it during our trip, but we drove it and hiked out into the Circque. The views are spectacular and worth the travel, regardless of method.