Hautacam and Luz Ardiden are two of the Pyrenees most beautiful (and famous) cycling cols.
Their natural good looks make them perennial favourites with the Tour de France.
They’re also wonderful to ride because they’re quiet, with no through traffic as both climbs are on dead-end roads that wiggle their way to the top of dramatic mountain passes. They’ve been built to allow skiers access to the winter snows, but in summer they offer a chunk of cycling heaven.
This loop takes the two climbs and joins them into one challenging sequence: the Luz Ardiden climb followed by Hautacam.
With each of the climbs being out and back rides, it makes it easy to cut short your ride if you’re tiring. Or indeed add more on! You’ll see on the map some of the other nearby summits you could tack on – and see below for commentary.
All metrics in this article are approximate.
Highlights of cycling Luz Ardiden and Hautacam
The last three kilometres of Luz Ardiden offers up wow factor in spades. It’s hairpin after hairpin up this mountain beast. The lack of traffic combined with the drama of the road and mountain backdrop makes you fall in love with cycling all over again.
We also felt an unusually strong sense of achievement in conquering the mighty Hautacam. Not all HC climbs are created equal and the Hautacam is definitely one of the hardest. We found it harder than Luz Ardiden and maybe even a match for the mighty Tourmalet. It’s down to the fact there’s never a steady gradient and it’s full of crazy steep sections whose double-digit averages leave you wondering if you can keep the pedals turning.
There’s also something special about the way the views open out above the treeline, coinciding with a slight reduction in the gradients. It feels like a prize for having beaten through the pain barrier. Reaching the summit gives a huge sense of achievement; though with the Col de Tramassal sitting 100m above it, your competitive streak is unlikely to let you stop until you’ve ridden that too.
1. Luz Ardiden climb: 0-66 km
It’s 20 km from Argelès-Gazost to Luz Saint Sauveur, partly on the impressive Voie Verte bike path, that keeps you away from the busy main road until you get to Pierrefitte-Nestalas. Then you join the D921 and follow it, through the Gorge de Luz, to Luz Saint Sauveur. By this point, you should be feeling warm and ready for the challenge ahead.
You’re about to ride one of the most spectacular climbs in the Pyrenees.
Luz Ardiden is an HC climb that towers above the village of Luz Saint Sauveur. There are about 1,000m of climbing from Luz Saint Sauveur and an average 6.9% gradient. It is a relative newcomer to the Tour de France, having first been ridden in 1985 and having hosted seven Tour de France finishes since then. It’s also been a Vuelta finish stage.
The climb starts off with a couple of fairly easy kilometres until the village of Sazos. After that the road ramps up to around 8% and barely dips down again until the last few kilometres above the trees.
Coming out into the open makes a great contrast to the earlier sections on tree-lined roads. The average reduces to around 7% and you can enjoy the spectacular scenery: you feel like you’re in serious mountains with broad grassy slopes dotted with sheep, rocks and waterfalls in the foreground and a backdrop of high peaks.
About a kilometre before the summit, the road splits; you need to take the left-hand fork to Luz Ardiden.
At the summit, the highest peaks of the Pyrenees come into view. There’s the Pic du Midi in the east, towering over the Tourmalet, and the 3,000 metre jagged wall of the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Spanish border. To see the classic view of the switchbacks down Luz Ardiden, make sure you do what we didn’t do, and head to the big car park area behind the café.The descent of Luz Ardiden is awesome as it’s full of hairpins and it’s never crazy steep or overly technical.
It’s then back the way you came, to Argelès-Gazost.
2. Hautacam climb: 66-102 km
Hautacam is a gruelling HC climb that starts in the relatively busy valley, just outside Argelès-Gazost. Its stats are 16 km long, gaining 1190 m at an average of 7.5%. However this doesn’t tell the whole story: what makes it so hard is that it undulates frequently making it hard to get into a rhythm. There are ramps up to 16% and some long sections up to 15%.
The climb has been used as a summit finish five times to date, those appearances being in the period from 1994 to 2014.
The first 1.5km are relatively easy; enjoy them. When you reach the village of Ayros, the road winds tightly between the houses and the first steep ramp rises to meet you. You climb ever upwards on the narrow road away from the bustle of the valley below. If the weather is with you there are spectacular views over the valley to the right. Around Arbouix the gradients get serious and the suffering begins with gradients well into the double-digits.
They come back down to single digits again for a few kilometres but after the village of Artalens, you’ll be digging deep for the next 6km. Keep something back for the 1.5km following the 4km to go board, which we found the most difficult of the climb. It includes a long, mentally draining straight stretch and some kilometres of crazy double-digit average gradients.When you spot the cattle grid, you know you’ve nearly broken the back of the climb. It eases off to a mere 8% and the last two kilometres fly by. At the finish is a large flat tarmac car park for the ski station and this is used by the Tour for the stage finish.
If you’ve still got anything in the tank, we recommend carrying on the last 1.3km up to the Col de Tramassel. If the mist and cloud hold off, the views are among the best in the Pyrenees. You’re not close to the high peaks but you get a panoramic view of Vallée du Lavedan and can see Luz Ardiden, Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque.
Luz Ardiden: In summer there is nothing open at the summit. Don’t worry, once you descend into Luz Saint Sauveur, there are lots of options in the town.
Hautacam: There is a café at the ski station, but it has limited opening times during summer. There is also a café further up at the Col de Tramassel. Signs at the Hautacam car park and the start of the climb tell you whether it is open or not.
Argelès-Gazost: Patisserie Vignau Jean, next to the Mairie, is a must. They serve decent coffee and amazing cakes and chocolates!
We rode from the Hotel Miramont in Argelès-Gazost. It’s a family run establishment in an Art Deco building in the centre of the village. We enjoyed our stay and found Argelès-Gazost a superb base for cycling the area.
Check out our best towns for cyclists article to find out more about the different towns in the area.
We also have further accommodation suggestions in our guide to the Pyrenees for cyclists.
How to tailor this ride
We suggest riding Luz Ardiden first for tactical reasons: while very picturesque, the weight of summer holiday traffic that pounds along the narrow Gorge de Luz between Villelongue and Luz St Sauveur can make it unpleasant to ride. We also think Luz Ardiden is a bit easier than Hautacam, so it’s a good way to start the day (hopefully early to avoid that damn Gorge de Luz traffic).
Of course, if you’re doing the ride from Luz Saint Sauveur rather than Argelès-Gazost, you’ll probably want to reverse the loop.
Want to add another climb to the route?
There are lots of options:
Good to know
Read our tips for cycling in the Pyrenees before you set out.
Both Luz Ardiden and Hautacam have kilometre markers which give information including the gradient for the next section.
Be careful on the Hautacam’s cattle grid across the road if it’s wet.
We’ve read that from the Col de Tramassel (after the Hautacam) there’s a track that leads to some lakes. We didn’t get time to explore; let us know if you’ve done this!
Tour de France Trivia
Luz Ardiden was first used as a mountain summit finish in 1985, where the stage was won by Pedro Delgado. It has been used on eight occasions in total. The most recent was 2011, when Samuel Sanchez won. Miguel Indurain’s 1990 win was memorable because he beat three times champion Greg Lemond – and it was a mountain stage rather than a time trial. Vincenzo Nibali’s 2014 performance was also a highlight and allowed him to extend his lead in yellow to over 7 minutes.
Lance Armstrong and Luz Ardiden are also inextricably linked: the most famous incident at Luz Ardiden was in 2003, where a spectator’s bag got caught in Lance Armstrong’s handlebars. He was knocked off his bike. The leading group waited for him and a fired up Armstrong ended up winning the stage by 40 seconds. Of course we now know that this performance was tainted by doping…
Hautacam is sometimes known as Lourdes-Hautacam, even though Lourdes is several kilometres away. Double winner of the Tour, Gino Bartali, combined every Tour de France with a pilgrimage to Lourdes. He was undoubtedly particularly keen when the 1948 Tour finished in Lourdes and he was first over the line.
Hautacam has been used by the Tour five times between 1994 and 2014 (which is the last time it has featured). Sadly quite a few of those that have taken victory on it have been later associated with doping.
The first climb to Hautacam by Le Tour in 1994 was won by Luc Leblanc of notorious Team Festina. The most memorable bit of that stage was when Indurain caught and dropped Pantani, with 2.5km to go.
Two years later though, Hautacam saw Miguel Indurain finally crack, after five years of dominance.
A final story from the Hautacam came in the 2000 edition. Javier Otxoa broke away with 155 km to go in savage cold and rain. He arrived at the foot of Hautacam with a 10.5 minute lead on the chasing group. He suffered all the way up the climb and it looked like Armstrong was going to catch him until Armstrong seemed to slow down in the last kilometre, allowing Otxoa to win. It turns out (according to legend anyway) that team manager Johan Bruyneel told Armstrong to slow down as it looked suspicious!
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