Paddy Sweeney lived in the Pyrenees for 10 years, and for may years ran Vélo Peloton, a bike hire business and café just outside Argelès-Gazost. He has ridden Hautacam more than 100 times.

We sat down with Paddy to get the inside story on cycling in this illustrious part of the world. Read on for Paddy’s take on the hidden Pyrenees cycling climb locals love to ride, why it’s cows not bears you need to avoid on the roads – plus the best spot in the Pyrenees for watching the Tour de France.

Note: at the time of our conversation with Paddy, Vélo Peloton offered bike hire. Today Vélo Peloton just offers tours and is no longer physically based in Argelès-Gazost.

Cycling the Pyrenees with Paddy Sweeney of Velo Peloton

The Sweeneys outside their Vélo Peloton café, near Argelès-Gazost

 

What’s the best place to base yourself for cycling the Pyrenees?

Argelès-Gazost of course! You’ve got all the famous Tour climbs plus the 18km greenway, which is a flat, asphalt surface, away from the cars. It’s great for families and in summer it avoids riding with the traffic on the main valley road.

Bagnères-de-Luchon is also a really nice town. It’s about 100 km east of Argelès-Gazost. The climbs are a little less famous and a little less difficult than the ones around here. It’s also a bit more tricky to get there. The scenery is similar – it’s lovely too.

 

“If you’re going cycling in the Ariège you need to bring your own sandwiches!”

 

In terms of other regions in the Pyrenees:

  • East from Bagnères de Luchon, you’re into the Ariège. The landscape gets drier and it’s more sparsely populated, with less towns, villages, hotels and cafés. If you’re going cycling in the Ariège you need to bring your own sandwiches. When we run our coast to coast tours through there, it can be a struggle to find decent accommodation.  But it is lovely.
  • West of here, you’re into Basque country which is fantastic. You’ve got to be prepared for the weather though; the west coast, on the Atlantic, gets a lot of rain. It basically gets drier as you go east.

Check out our guide on where to stay in the Pyrenees for cyclists, for more information.

What’s your favourite Pyrenees cycling climb?

My favourite ride is the Hautacam – because I hate it!

It’s such a tough climb with the gradient changing all the time and it’s really difficult to maintain a rhythm. In 2014 I rode it 100 times. It just seemed like a good idea. Every couple of days I’d go riding up there. Just like Forrest Gump, it was for no particular reason.

Want more information on Hautacam? Read our Hautacam ride guide.

Cycling descending Hautacam, French Pyrenees, on a cloudy day

The mighty Hautacam


What’s the best climb that not many people know about?

Col des Spandelles. From the east it’s a 16km climb at an average 6.5% gradient. It’s a really nice, quiet little narrow road. The road takes you mostly through forest, but you do get some views and it opens up at the top. You can look down to the Aubisque and Hautacam on the other side.

If you climb from the west, from Ferrières, it’s quite a different climb: 10km at just less than 9%. It’s quite regular – it’s just consistently steep all the way up!

You can do a great loop of Spandelles, Soulor and then back to Argelès-Gazost.

Fancy the loop? Check out our Col des Spandelles ride guide, here.

Col des Spandelles on a misty day

Col des Spandelles on a rather cloudy and misty day!


How do the Pyrenees compare with the Alps?

This part of the Pyrenees still feels undiscovered; it’s more rural and rustic than the Alps. There’s been a focus on cycling in the last few years, but tourism is spread around different activities.

The wildlife in these mountains is incredible: you’ll see deer, eagles, vultures, marmots and even European brown bears. The closest I’ve come to one is paw marks across the road. Farmers claim they eat their livestock, but really the bears have a mostly vegetarian diet.

 

“If you’re going to be afraid of something in the Pyrenees, be afraid of the cows”

The cows roam free on many of the mountains, they’re big and they’re fast and they don’t like people getting too close. People have been attacked and hurt by cows. A couple of years ago somebody was killed; it was a grandparent who was trying to sit a child on a calf’s back to take a photo. Stay away from the cows.

What are your best tips for cycling in the Pyrenees (other than avoiding the cows!)?

The main thing is to take it easy at the start of the climb. A mistake people make a lot is starting out on the climbs too hard in first few kilometres, then they blow up halfway up the mountain.

Remember that it gets very hot – it can be in the high 30s in the shade in summer, so set out early in the morning and take enough water.  Also take a jacket, even if you set out under a blue sky. You’ll notice how green it is – it rains a lot! Summer thunderstorms are very common in the afternoon, usually around 3pm. These can be very unpleasant if you get caught in one high up the mountain. It can go from being very hot to very cold in a few minutes.

Don’t expect the shops to be open on Sundays and Mondays. The exception to this is during July and sometimes August, when shops may be open on a Monday. In ten years in France, I’ve only once came across a bike shop that was open on a Monday outside the summer. I asked him why that was and he said it’s because he’s closed on Saturday!

 

“If you fly into Paris with your bike, don’t let go of it!”

 

It’s better to get a TGV down to Lourdes in 4 hours 40 minutes, than it is to fly. The flights down to Lourdes are on small planes and if the plane is full, they often won’t load the bike. It usually gets delivered later that night or the next morning. Of course, the alternative is to hire your bike from us!

Cyclist rides past cows on the Col d'Aspin

Beware the cows!

 

What’s the best coffee shop in the area?

Obviously ours! We roast Italian beans, rather than French beans, and we think it makes all the difference. People often ask why French coffee tastes so bitter, and it’s down to the beans and the French way of roasting them.

Otherwise, I really like the restaurant on Col d’Aubisque because the people are really nice. The one on the Tourmalet should be avoided – for the opposite reason!

Most of the villages have a little café or something. But you can’t rely on regular opening times – for example the restaurant in Campan is great, but it closes for lunch…

The Tour de France is coming to Argelès-Gazost this year. How do you recommend watching the Tour?

I wouldn’t recommend people coming here during the Tour! It’s just too busy.

“The best place to see the Tour is on television.”

 

In the past when the Tour has come right past our front door, we’ve have gone outside, watched them go past and then come in again to watch rest on TV!

If you have made the journey, I’d watch this year’s stage towards the top of the Tourmalet; I’d estimate you’ll be one of about half a million people watching there. Or pick a spot on the Soulor. The Aubisque is more difficult as it’s very narrow and there will be restrictions on where people can go. It has huge drops so a lot of it will be closed off so people can’t get onto it.

A mountaintop finish is spectacular if you can see it like that. But you need to be prepared to be on the side of a mountain for 6-7 hours in whatever weather it might be: 40°C heat or snow.

To get the best spots you have to get in really early. When the Tour last went up Hautacam, the first people started camping out three weeks beforehand. Every day after that there were more and more people; the gendarme closed the road five or six days beforehand so you couldn’t go up and camp, but you could still walk up and spectate.

The night before the Tour you could see the lights from campervans and tents, stretching up the Hautacam; it was magical.

When’s the best time to visit the Pyrenees?

I think it’s September and October. That’s usually the driest time of year and it should be warm, but not hot. Tourist season is over so the roads are totally clear. And all the climbs are open.

The Tourmalet generally doesn’t close until mid-November or early December, whereas if you come in May may not be open. It can even be closed into early June. Often the authorities open the roads and then close them again for roadworks.

July and August are hot and busy – but it’s relative, it’s not Alpe d’Huez or Ventoux-busy. You just need to get out on your bike early to get the best of the day.

Feeling inspired to come and ride the Pyrenees?

If you want to cycle in the Pyrenees and need bike hire, Vélo Peloton can help. Their service gets great reviews, Paddy has fantastic knowledge of the Pyrenean cols and is always on hand with help and advice.

While you’re there, be sure to call in to the adjoining Vélo Peloton café for a coffee. The premises are not ostentatious but they are authentic (and their TV shows the racing with English commentary!).

This is a proper family-run operation, with Paddy’s friendly wife, Olive, in charge of the café and their 8-year-old son on site too (“he’s the one that’s really in charge” says Paddy with a twinkle in his eye).

Velo Peloton cafe
LaPierre bikes Velo Peloton

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Paddy Sweeney lived in the Pyrenees for 10 years, and for may years ran Vélo Peloton, a bike hire business and café just outside Argelès-Gazost. He has ridden Hautacam more than 100 times.

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