The big star of this ride is the Col d’Aubisque climb by bike, but the whole route is incredible. It captures the essence of the Pyrenees and highlights why many cyclists prefer the Pyrenees over the Alps.
The ride may only be 88 km, but it takes in 3,000m of climbing. Your legs will know about it; there’s basically no flat terrain all day.
The first 15 km sees you climbing through a green paradise of meadows and hills, past gushing mountain streams and forested glades to the little village of Estaing. From here, you take on the mighty sequence of the Col des Borderès, Col du Soulor climb and Col d’Aubisque. As if that wasn’t enough, the ride finishes by taking you over the steep side of the glorious and little-known Col de Spandelles.
All metrics in this article are approximate.
The undisputed king of this ride is the Col d’Aubisque climb. No photo can really do it justice; it has to be ridden to be believed.
This route takes in the most dramatic side of that famous road: the Soulor-Aubisque route around the limestone amphitheatre of the Cirque du Litour. The gradients aren’t too bad; what makes this unforgettable is the road you’re on.
The Cirque du Litour road is a narrow shelf, perched above a ravine.
The road was cut into the mountain in the early 1900s; it’s quite incredible that it hasn’t crumbled down to the valley far below. It’s a wild and lonely place, that’s a fitting home to the birdlife that soars around its skies. If you’re here between July and October, don’t be surprised to see bearded vultures, with their massive three-metre wingspan, harriers, eagles, buzzards, hawks, kites and falcons.
1. Argelès-Gazost to Arrens-Marsous via Col des Borderès: 0-21 km
This is a day of climbing and descending and it starts as it means to go on; you climb up out of Argelès-Gazost, past the imposing stone walls of the Abbey in Saint-Savin and over the Côte de Saint-Savin.
You’re now on the climb up to the Col des Borderès. It’s one of the lesser-known cols of the area, though that may change since it was included in the 2018 Tour de France route and pros have been spotted here on recce missions. We like it as it’s tranquil and scenic – and it means you avoid the main road (the D918) between Argelès-Gazost and Arrens-Marsous.
The climb is predominantly through forest, beside the rocky, fast-flowing Gave de Labat de Bun. In terms of difficulty, the col is not overly high or long but don’t let the average 4.5% gradient fool you: it’s not a regular gradient and there are some tough steep sections to prepare yourself for. In particular, about 10km in, just after the right-turn to Bun, the gradients on the kilometre after this junction average around 7.5%.
At Estaing, you could take a diversion to the stunning Estaing lake, or continue up to the summit of the Col des Borderès. Be prepared for the climb out of Estaing: it’s 2km at an average 8% with a few sections in double digits. The final kilometre before the summit eases off with carpets of lush meadow on either side of the road.
The descent into Arrens-Marsous is on quite a technical, steep, twisty and narrow road. If you get a chance to stop you’ll appreciate the spectacular mountain views over to the Soulor, which is up next. It’s quite a short descent, at just 3.5km or so, so there’s not much recovery time before hitting the Soulor.
2. Arrens-Marsous to Col du Soulor: 21-29 km
At Arrens-Marsous you meet the main road, the D918 from Argelès-Gazost. At this point, you’re only 8km from the top of the Col du Soulor climb. But don’t assume it will be easy going! There’s 7km at an 8.3% average gradient (including double-digit stretches) between here and the summit.
The Soulor is sometimes called the “footstep of the Aubisque”; it’s the prelude, but it’s no easy introduction. It was used in the 1910 Tour de France, together with the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, so it’s got a rich cycling heritage.
When we cycled it on a Saturday in early June, it was supremely quiet, with just a few other cyclists on the road. The weather was mixed and, on the odd occasions that the veil of cloud and mist lifted, we caught spectacular glimpses of grey mountain peaks towering above the bright green pastures. The Pic du Midi towers over the valley and a wall of sharp crests ring the southern side. Shrouded in grey, the summit felt mysterious, and almost eerily quiet. Finding such a large car park felt surreal; but it must get busy since there are three restaurants.
3. Col du Soulor to Col d’Aubisque: 29-39 km
As you turn from the Soulor down the Aubisque cliff road, know that you’re about to ride one of the world’s most beautiful roads (check our Highlights section for more). In terms of riding, there are only around 10km ahead of you. Infuriatingly, however, the cliff road descends for two kilometres before the climbing gradually starts again.
Watch out for the two short tunnels. One has a turn in it which makes it very dark: more safety notes in the tips below.
The last four kilometres average a testing 7% and take you away from the Cirque du Litour ravine and up to the green folds of the summit.
At the summit you’re surrounded by a dramatic mountain panorama of jagged, grey rock. A whole series of Pyrenean summits surround you: Pic de Gabizos, Pic de la Latte de Bazen and Pic de Ger. The three bikes in yellow, green and red polka dot make a more frivolous distraction.
There is also a bust of Lucien Buysse winner of the 1926 Tour. The stage that crossed Col d’Aubisque that year is legendary in the history of the Tour with many claiming it was the hardest ever stage.
4. Col d’Aubisque to Argelès Gazost, via Col de Spandelles: 39-88km
Turning back the way you came, even more caution is required on the descent back to the Col du Soulor.
In 1951 Wim Van Est, the first Dutchman to ever win the yellow jersey, fell 70m off the road, landing on a narrow rocky ledge which he described as being no bigger than the seat of a chair. He was pulled to safety using inner tubes knotted together! Thank goodness, he was okay; but it provides a stark warning. A plaque marks the spot where he fell: “Here on 17 July 1951 the cyclist Wim Van Est fell 70 metres. He survived but lost the yellow jersey”. He was also forced to abandon the Tour – but it could have been much worse.
The descent from the Col du Soulor to Ferrières is a technical one that’s narrow, fast (average is around -7%) and winding. If you get any chance to look up, you’ll see the impressive grey ribbon of road you’ve just cycled crossing the other side of the valley.
By the time you hit the Col de Spandelles, it’s likely that energy levels will be low. Allow enough time as this is not an easy last climb and the road surface is patchy in places.
From Ferrières, it’s 8 km, but at an average gradient of 8%, with quite a few 9% sections. The road winds up through forest and is silent but for the odd herd of sheep. You really feel in the middle of nowhere. There’s the odd view through the trees towards the top, but no summit spectacular. The beauty of this climb lies in its quiet isolation.
After 1,850m of climbing, the descent back to Argelès Gazost will be very welcome.
We’d suggest that the cafés/bars at the top of Col du Soulor or the Col d’Aubisque are probably the best place to stop for lunch.
There are two cafés at the summit of the Col d’Aubisque. The one on the right is the one to go to; it’s the oldest and most famous and is open year-round. It is a popular destination for lunch for cyclists and many mention that the people that run it are very friendly.
If you need to refuel before/after then, you’ll find cafés/restaurants in the larger villages, like Saint-Savin and Arrens-Marsous. However, be aware that once you’ve left the Col du Soulor, heading to the Col des Spandelles, you’re unlikely to find anywhere to refuel before you get back to Argelès-Gazost.
When you do get back to Argelès-Gazost, it’s worth a trip to Patisserie Vignau Jean next to the Mairie. Decent coffee and amazing cakes and chocolates!
The Col d’Aubisque is signposted from Argelès-Gazost, which is where we stayed. The Hotel Miramont provided us with a great base; they understand cyclists needs and offer great food too.
You can find out more about our stay at the Miramont, together with other accommodation suggestions, in our ultimate guide to the Tourmalet region for cyclists.
Alternatively, our article on where to stay in the Pyrenees, should help you narrow down the best town for you. Since this is a loop ride, you could easily stay somewhere other than Argelès-Gazost and start the ride from there.
Tips for riding Aubisque, Soulor and Borderès
How to tailor this ride
Want to ride the whole of Stage 19 of the 2018 Tour de France? Do our Tourmalet ride first and then at the top of the Col d’Aubisque, descend down to Laruns (which was the finish for the stage).
Like mountain lakes? When you’re in Estaing, you’ll see signs to the Lac d’Estaing, one of the most beautiful mountain lakes we’ve ever seen. Check out our guide to Lac d’Estaing and consider a quick detour.
Want to make it a bit shorter? Use the D918 to shortcut the ride.
- You could take the D918 from Argelès-Gazost to Arrens-Marsous and cut out the Col des Borderès (but be warned, there’s more traffic and it’s less scenic this way).
- Or you could ride the Col des Borderès (plus Estaing if you like) and use the D918 to ride back to Argelès-Gazost, cutting off the rest of the loop.
- Or cut off the Aubisque (as long as you’ve done it before – it is unmissable!) and also use the D918!
Don’t fancy Spandelles at the end of the day? You could always retrace your journey back to Arrens-Marsous and take the D918 back to Argelès-Gazost.
Words of warning
Don’t ride the Col d’Aubisque unless the col is open. It’s closed for a reason.
The Soulor-Aubisque road is not a good choice if you’re risk averse, or don’t like heights. Rocks (and indeed livestock) can and do fall off the hillside and the low wall (not more than a couple of feet) is unlikely to offer much protection if you have to take evasive action (which is a real possibility since it’s not just other vehicles you need to think about; the Aubisque is home to wild horses as well as donkeys and cattle too). Bear this in mind when thinking about your speed, particularly on the descent.
There are two tunnels on the Aubisque road. The road surface is not good (the dark one seems to be comprised of rough, concrete blocks) and you’ll need to remember lights. Also remove your sunglasses and watch out for livestock in the tunnels.
Tour de France trivia
The Col du Soulor was first used in the 1910 Tour de France. It’s part of the “Circle of Death” route but usually it’s not categorized in its own right, but instead as part of the climb of Col d’Aubisque.If all the passages over the Soulor are counted it is the second most crossed col in the Tour de France after Col du Tourmalet – but officially that title goes to Col d’Aubisque. Col du Soulor has been categorized by the Tour 20 times.
In 1985 the Aubisque was the finish for a 52km stage from Luz St Sauveur. Stephen Roche famously wore a skinsuit, to the surprise of the rest of the race. A journalist asked him “What are you doing this isn’t a time trial?”. He replied “Want to bet”, attacked from the start and rode alone to victory.
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