Tourmalet to tarte aux pommes: savouring the French Pyrenees by bike

Le Géant at the top of the Tourmalet in the French Pyrenees, with Peter Kimpton’s bike below it.


What kind of cyclist are you? A superfit obsessive with high-end equipment, up for the toughest races? Or a potterer along county lanes, limiting yourself to 20 miles a day, treating cycling as a gentle route to the next pub? If you’re somewhere in between – but fitness can vary considerably, because you are time-poor – then this trip could be for you.

Perhaps you also want to taste Europe’s finest cycling, tackle the Tourmalet, or other classic cols, but don’t want to carry panniers, or worry about bike repairs, agonise over routes or scour websites for the best-value restaurants and hotels. You want to enjoy cycling as a pure, challenging experience, but go at your own pace, stop for lunch, take photographs, and feel that you can have that extra glass of wine at the end of the day.

As ideal as this may sound, it is possible to have your gateau and eat it. After a small amount of training, last year I tested the services of Bike Basque, a small French touring company aimed at British cyclists. The objective is to feel like an athletic adventurer, cycling in the wake of the greats, but also to enjoy a flexible holiday without the hustle of a competitive event.

A cow near the top of Col D’aspin French Pyrenees
A cow near the top of the Col d’Aspin in the French Pyrenees. Cows will often see sweaty cyclists as a handy salt lick. Photograph: Peter Kimpton

I was greeted at Tarbes airport by the French company director, a friendly Xavier Lopez, and tour guide Nigel Hale-Hunter, a former British MTB pro and now coach. In a small group, our trip was a taste of classic Pyrenees climbs. A week-long trip across the French Pyrenees from Biarritz to Perpignan is also on offer.

As Bike Basque has its own fleet of high-end bikes, I decided to avoid lugging my own bike and the £50 each-way charge that most airlines impose. The bike was light, responsive and fast. So for the cycling all I needed were my cycling shoes, pedals and helmet.

A 30-minute minibus journey took us to Hotel Carré Py’, just outside Bagnères-de-Bigorre. The hotel is one of two bases on this trip, pleasantly overlooking the Pic du Midi park by the Adour river, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

After gently acclimatising on the first half-day, the first full-day brought a steady 50 miles (80km) on a partial loop up the lush green valleys of La Hourquette d’Ancizan, then the mountain pass of Col d’Aspin. Neither are too taxing, but at between 9-12km and about 6% average gradient to a height of around 1,500 metres, they are enough to blow out the cobwebs, with the bonus experience of cute donkeys along the road.

Inevitably ascents here, unlike in Britain, can take a sweaty hour or more, so it’s impossible for the group to stick together. So the policy is to wait for each other at the top and bottom.