I don't know why I have taken so long to make this trip. The mountains lived up to expectation, with great climbs and descents. Following a week of heavy rain, I had to make a couple of diversions to deal with flood affected areas. Unfortunately that meant missing a couple of the highlights I went to do; the Tourmalet and Aubisque. The upsides, including dry weather, however, outweighed the problems. Here you will find a description of the route I took, the one I had intended to, as well as tips on hotels and restaurants along the way.
I flew into Toulouse on Saturday evening, 22nd June. After many years of leaving my bike box in left luggage, I hadn't checked whether the airport had a facility - they didn't. Fortunately, the airport isn't too far from the city, so I got a large taxi, with bike and box in the back, to the hotel I was staying at, who agreed to keep my box for me until my return.
I stayed at the Hotel Brienne, a smart hotel, about a fifteen minute walk to the centre. I had a wander through parts of the old city before settling down to eat at 7 Place Saint Sernin, in a pretty square. I took the low priced menu, which nevertheless, was very good. The Place Capitole is very grand and a good place to get a drink.
Day 1 - Foix - Round Trip - 73km -680m ascent
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I cycled to the railway station and caught a train to Foix, just after 9am. The journey takes an hour from Toulouse. I went to the the very friendly, and typically French, Hotel Lons and left my luggage, so I could have an unencumbered ride in the surrounding countryside.
The D1 heads north, following the river, until turning west before Vernajoul. It is a very pretty road, which gradually climbs, until hitting the small village of Baulou, after 10kms. This is the start of the loop. I turned left. following the D11 and D117, before turning right to Cadarcet. This road, the D211, was virtually deserted and there wasn't much life in the villages either. I formed an impression, which I confirmed elsewhere, that the area seemed to be depopulated. My appreciation of the scenery was dampened by the weather. It rained for much of the next hour. In good weather, I'm sure it would have been a very enjoyable stretch.
After passing a golf club, the route reemerges on the D117, before entering Le Bastide du Serou. I was hoping for a break but the one bar was packed. I took a small road west, which follows the river. A couple of kilometers along, I became a bit confused. The GPS was sending me in the direction of a blocked off road. In the end, I skirted the boulder and continued. Part of the road had fallen into the river but it was wide enough for me on my bike. The route again briefly emerged onto the D117, before taking the very quiet D49. The road climbs some 200m in the next 4kms, with some sharp stretches.
The route joins up with the D119, where shortly after was the highlight of the day. The road passes through a cave called the Grotte de Mas Azil. I have never been through anything like it. The river was running at full spate and the cave beautifully lit up inside. It makes for a very dramatic sight. Once through it, I stopped for lunch in the neighbouring town. It was the only place I passed which had restaurants on the whole trip, so plan a stop here. One of the restaurants was full, so I ended up eating in a pizza place. It was friendly but I suggest you avoid the pizza itself.
With a heavy stomach, I followed the D119, which then merges with the D31, before turning onto the D131. The road then turns left on the D1A, bringing the route back to the start of the loop at Baulou. It stopped raining in the afternoon, so it was a more pleasant ride back. Reentering Foix, there are spectacular views of the castle.
It was Sunday evening and nearly all the restaurants were shut. I ate at the hotel, overlooking the river on a balcony. It had a very good 18 euro menu, from which I had the cassoulet. It was here I also found out that there was trouble ahead, with damage to roads and villages in the high Pyrennees.
Day 2 - Foix - St Lary - 93kms - 1180m ascent
I left Foix on the D17, which the route follows for the first 28kms. The road was relatively busy for the first few kilometers but soon thins out. Pretty much all the climbing is done on the early part of this day. The road climbs 1000m in the first 30km to 1432m at Col de Portel. The climbing was mainly through forested areas which restricted the views a little.
I continued along the D72 before turning on the D18B, down to Biert. This is a very steep road which required some caution but has some great views. I was hoping for a rest in Biert but there was no restaurant or bar open. I pressed on, following the river, on a gentle decline, all the way into St Girons. There are two alternative roads. I followed the road without the tunnels on the western side - there seemed very little traffic on either.
I stopped in St Girons for something to eat at a sandwich shop. It seemed a pretty drab place, despite its fantastic position. I followed the D618 all the way from St Girons to Saint Lary, part of the Tour de France route in the following weeks. Never busy, the road became quieter still as I pressed on towards my stop.
I arrived at Saint Lary to find that my hotel, Le Auberge de L'Isard was closed. After about three quarters of an hour, beginning to think I might have to go back to St Girons, the manager came along. She had my booking. I was the only person staying and was given a pass code to come and go. With the hotel shut, there was nowhere to eat in the village. The manager told me there was a place in a small village called Galey. Later that evening, I set out on my bike and after about 5km uphill, found a beautiful place with a great restaurant. Despite the fact it was in the middle of nowhere, it was pretty full and the food very good. It's worth searching out.
Day 3 - St Lary - Arreau - 84kms - 2198m ascent
The bar of the hotel was open in the morning. I had some pastries and then set off. The road climbs immediately out of St Lary, climbing to the Col de Portet d'Aspet at 1069m. The sky was clearer than on previous days and the views better. As part of the Tour de France for 2013, this section had plenty of other cyclists on it, who I kept on bumping into over the next couple of days.
The road descends some 400m from the Col and then begins to climb sharply again towards the Col de Mente, where the views of the High Pyrenees started to come in for the first time. It's a tough 10km climb to the 1349m pass. From here, it's a rapid descent to Saint Beat, losing all the height gained from the first two climbs of the day.
The road I was following was closed in Saint Beat due to the flooding. The Army and Fire Service were there in numbers clearing the way. There was a straightforward diversion which got me on to the road to Bagneres de Luchon. The D125 is quite busy but there is a cycling path alongside. I stopped in Luchon for some lunch and picked up some energy bars in a bike shop and some drinks. The place seemed well provided for cyclists, more so than any of the other places I passed through. It looked an attractive place to be based.
Straight out of the town there starts the 14km climb of the Peyresourde (1563m). The road was a little busy at first but it soon thins out, with more cyclists than cars. It's a fairly steady climb and very scenic as one approaches the summit. People were hang gliding across the valley, which made it appear even more spectacular.
I stopped for a drink and some crepes at the summit at a small cafe, filled with cyclists, before making the rapid 17km descent to Arreau.
I stayed at the Hotel de France, a pretty basic place, with shared toilet facilities. In a spectacular location, Arreau seemed to have seen better times, with a number of restaurants and shops permanently shut. The food in the hotel, however, was better than the accommodation and I had a pleasant evening speaking to three Austrian cyclists I had met during the day, who were also staying there. They had been touring for nearly 30 years and gave me some interesting suggestions for future trips. I recommended the Trentobike site, so hopefully they'll read this.
Day 4 - Arreau - Argeles Gazost - 74kms - 1065m ascent
I took the D918 out of Arreau up Col d'Aspin. I think was the most beautiful stretch of the whole trip. It was a lovely morning, the road peaceful and the views spectacular all the way. It was a 13km climb to the 1490m summit, where there were plenty of other cyclists.
From the summit, there is a great descent to Saint Marie de Campan, from which the D918 continues over the Tourmalet. Unfortunately for me, the road on the western side of the summit had been swept away by the floods and was impassable. With two heavy panniers, I decided not to cycle up it, only to have to come back down, and instead plotted a diversion. Obviously the Tourmalet had been a major draw of the tour, so it was disappointing.
I continued along the D935 to Bagneres de Bigorre, where the road became a little busy, before turning onto the D26 at Pouzac. This proved to be a very pretty route, with no traffic, taking me through gentle countryside. The only downside was that there was nowhere to stop for lunch at any of the small villages I passed through. The road emerges a couple of kilometers south of Lourdes. I took the other direction along the D13 to Argeles, arriving just after 2pm, considerably earlier than had I been able to follow my original plan.
Fortunately the town made up for any disappointment. It is a very attractive spa town, with good bars and restaurants and great views over the surrounding countryside. It would be a great place to be based, with Tourmalet, Gavernie and the Col d'Aubisque all in easy striking distance. I stayed at the Hotel Cafe de Fleur, which had nice rooms and was very reasonably priced.
I ate that evening at Au Fond du Gosier, which was probably the best food of the trip, with some imaginative cooking. The chief memory, however, will be the culture clash between an American woman, who asked for a vegetarian salad, and the owner, who gave a very abrupt, "Non." This was a place which took its food seriously and there was to be no time for people who didn't want the menu on offer.
Day 5 - Argeles Gazost - Tarbes - 88kms - 1339m ascent
Day 5 also posed a dilemma. I had been to the SNCF office in Argeles and found that the railway track from Pau to Lourdes had been washed away, so my planned route was again affected. I had wanted to go over the Aubisque to Laruns and then head north along the D934 to Pau. I decided on a route which would take me to Tarbes, allowing me to catch the train from there to Toulouse. I could afford to go as far as the Col du Soulor but not go as far out of my way as the Col d'Aubisque. It's 20kms to the Soulor, with a short flat stretch in the middle of otherwise relentless climbing. I started early and had the road pretty much to myself but nearing the top, cyclists were coming passed me. At the summit, there are great views of the Aubisque.
I was tempted to go on and then double back but decided instead to do the sensible thing and descend on the D126, signposted for Pau. This proved to be a great descent, unused, other than by fellow cyclists ascending, with fantastic views of the Aubisque.
The road descended for over 30kms, gradually flattening out, to Nay.
The road from Nay across to Tarbes was mundane compared to the rest of the journey but not too busy. After five days of quiet roads, the traffic in Tarbes was a bit of shock but I found my way to the station and caught the train, arriving in Toulouse at about 5pm. By the time I had gone back to the hotel, disassembled my bike and got a taxi to the hotel I was staying at that night, it was nearly seven - I had made the right choice of route.
I stayed at the Hotel Le Pere Leon, which was well placed. I ate around the corner at Le Gentre Magre. I had the menu with accompanying wines. The food was very good but unfortunately I was placed upstairs next to a noisy air conditioner, which spoiled the experience a little. If you can get a downstairs table, or you eat at a cooler time of year, it is recommended.
Return and Conclusion
The hotel arranged a taxi for me and my bike box in the morning and it was a straightforward return home. I noticed a number of people with special bike bags in the airport - it is obviously becoming a more popular thing to do.
Overall it was very good trip. The last three days, in particular, had some spectacular scenery. The hotels and restaurants, in general, were very good. Missing out on the Tourmalet and Col d'Aubisque was a shame but if I had been there the previous week, it would have been a disaster. They will continue to have their draw and may well entice me to go back some day. I would thoroughly recommend the trip, particularly the one I had planned.