A circular route over two picturesque mountains passes in the French Pyrenees. La Hourquette d’Ancizan and the Col d’Aspin are two passes that take you through natural beauty that is typical to the Pyrenees. Whilst being much quieter to the neighbouring Col du Tourmalet.
Whilst on a French cycling holiday with my brother in the hot busy month of July. We looked for a quieter alternative to the famous Col du Tourmalet. Studying the maps, I soon found a circular route over two smaller passes of the Ancizan and Aspin. Just a half hour drive from the summit of the Tourmalet. We took it easy the night before, by relaxing on the warm terrace of our campsite pool. Then fuelling our furnaces with a hearty meal of the local fare in the campsite restaurant. Checking our bicycles and lubing the chains, we put them in the car for a early start. In a French midsummer, early morning starts are essential to avoid the blistering heat of the midday sun. As well as making the most of a beautiful day in a beautiful place.
A quiet start in the early morning light
Being midsummer, sunrise was fairly early the next morning. Yet I set my alarm an hour before to make a coffee and have a light breakfast sandwich. However, with my anticipation and respect to not wake neighbouring campers. I woke an hour before the alarm and was ready to go in no time at all. My brother struggles with early mornings; so, I had to quietly rouse him from his sleeping bag.
We were camping in the town of Luz St Saveur at the brilliant: https://www.international-camping.fr/. A great base for exploring this part of the French Pyrenees. With the aforementioned pool, quality restaurant and quiet and well sized plots. Leaving the campsite, we had good hours’ drive over the Col du Tourmalet and up the Payolle valley. Taking it steady on the long descent of the Tourmalet; we soon arrived at our start in the Payolle-Campan valley. There is no village or town centre, just a series of hamlets with campsites, roadside cafes and various activities. To find out more, please visit the local tourist board website: https://www.tourmaletpicdumidi.fr/
Parking for free, on the side of the main road at the point shown in the google map above. We readied our bicycles and ourselves, checking tyre pressures and axle clamps. Filling our water bottles to the brim; whilst sipping from spare bottles of water. My brother is a lot fitter and a lot younger than me. So, after climbing the Ancizan and Aspin he was going to cycle back over the Tourmalet to our campsite.
By parking here on the main road at the northern foot of the Aspin. My brother would pass the car on the way to the Tourmalet. I therefore gave him my spare car key. Which meant he could store and access replacement water and food supplies in the car for his onward journey. I estimated in the time that it took poor me to ride the circular route over the Ancizan and Aspin. He would have also climbed the Tourmalet!
Taking a few photos for social media; I bid him a good day. Then watched as he disappeared up the road in front of me.
A cool climb through the trees
I soon turned off the main D918 road, passing to the right of an old hotel and campsite. Turning on to the quieter D113 road the ‘La Hourquette d’Ancizan’ was clearly signposted with a bicycle symbol to help. Leaving the main road and buildings behind, I crossed a wide lush meadow. I was all alone now in this beautiful place. The solitude, silence and rising sun made me think for a moment that I was in a dream. So tranquil, I breathed in the fresh morning air and smiled. It is times like this that make it feel great to be alive.
Reaching the far side of the meadow, I saw a small war memorial. Which paid tribute to the local men that fell in the fight to keep this place free. Silently telling them I would make the most of this day, I rode on with purpose.
Here the helpful kilometre markers, signalled the beginning of the climb up the Ancizan. The gradient soon began, gently at first with steeper ramps here and there. For almost all the climb on this, cooler northern side of the Ancizan. There is plenty of shade from the pine trees if you are tackling it later in the day. Here and there, I saw campers and tents, just off the road and in forest clearings around a campfire. What an amazing place to spend a few nights, and all for free! Big respect to the local and national French government for letting its citizens enjoy the great outdoors.
Climbing further up, I entered a wide-open grassy valley’ with the road climbing up and away to the left. I was on a 29-inch wheeled mountain bike. With very low gearing for off road climbs yet with knobbly tyres for grip. So, although my legs found the steeper gradients easy with use of the massive 50 toothed bottom Sram gear. The knobbly: Schwalbe ‘Nobby Nic’ tyres gave a great amount of resistance as I climbed up these steep passes.
Here, a cheerful Frenchman called out a question as he passed me with ease on his superlight efficient road bike. With my poor grasp of French, I apologised for being English and not being able to speak his beautiful language. He slowed to match my speed and explained a bizarre fact. Although I was on a mountain bike because it was the only bike I could use at the time. Some local Frenchmen on their effortless road bikes might be offended for making them look weaker! I laughed at such a notion, for I was not afraid of narrow-minded individuals. Those that cannot see the bigger beautiful picture.
La Hourquette d’Ancizan
After a few more sections of forest and open meadow; the road soon led to a wide-open grassy plateau. Passing a large group of cattle with their herder resting on a fallen tree. I could see the top of the pass in the distance. Many Frenchmen did indeed pass me on their superlight super expensive road bikes; yet most managed to say: ‘bonjour‘.
The road snaked up the last part of the pass before widening for people to park off the road. Taking a moment to catch my breath; I looked into the next valley in which I would be soon descending. In the gentle mid-morning light, I could see the Col d’Aspin climbing a far hill.
I was in no rush to leave this lofty viewpoint. A gentle breeze was blowing up from Spain. As the sun’s rays were comfortably warm as it struggled to climb into the sky for another day. Yet I knew I had a quite a distance and one more hill to climb. Before the heat of the afternoon became too much to bear.
Descending from the col of the Ancizan I entered a vast pine forest. Which descended down and down into the: ‘Vallee d’Aure’. In places the pine trees rose high on either side. Yet then gave way on the left to a sheer cliff, with views of the Aure Valley far below. Taking care, I purposely kept my speed down to save my brake pads on this descent. Partly to save them for a descent of the Aspin. Partly to reduce all risk of falling off the cliff!
Relaxing valley life
With my semi metallic disc brakes screaming away as they struggled to cope with my weight as well as the descent; I finally reached the valley floor. Reaching a T-junction, I turned left; with the road signs pointing towards the village of Ancizan. I kept stopping to take in the breath-taking views as well as trying to find a source of water. Above the village, I felt relieved when I saw a hand pumped water tap. Just as I put my hand on the antique lever; I looked down to see the trough filled with grass. As my spirits dropped a French shepherd called out from a local field and explained I could find water in the village square.
I could only understand the words: ‘centre-ville‘ so thanked him and waved goodbye. He was indeed right as I rolled into the village square. For below a church, with its typically French combination roof and turrets. As well as being surrounded by the vine covered: ‘maisons – grande‘ of the local mayor and long-ago noblemen. I saw a welcoming fountain of fresh water with the all-important ‘eau potable‘ sign denoting it was safe to drink.
Leaving the village square; the road descended through a narrow street, with front doors opening onto the street. I passed a school with kids shrieking with laughter in the playground and nodded in respect to an old boy carefully making his way home for lunch. Reaching the main D929 road; I patiently waited for a gap in the traffic and turned left towards Arreau.
The D929 is a main road from Spain to France; so, I wanted to spend as little time on it as possible. Therefore, after just a few hundred metres, as the main road veered right over a river bridge. I turned left onto a side road towards the village of Cadéac. This was the old road that is now thankfully bypassed; so, I relaxed once again as I took in the views of the sedate village life. My highlight of this village; was the small church that bridged over the road. Was it also a bridge for the parishioners or just a shelter from the wrath of a passing thunderstorm?
I soon had to re-join the main D929 road; but not for long. The shoulder of the road was wide as I rode the few kilometres to the village of Arreau. Here the road and village cling to the riverbank. To the extent that you may feel like you are about to fall in the river, as you keep away from the passing cars! Take care in this village, where a side road on the right, joins the main road over a bridge. In places, an archaic French rule is still practiced; in which those on a small side road can pull out from the right without even looking! The practice has been stopped in many places due to many accidents. Yet be careful many older people still feel they are entitled to practice this dangerous manoeuvre!
As you leave the village of Arreau; the buildings will end with a fire station on the right-hand side. After this look for the clearly marked road to the Col d’Aspin. With the information board for cyclists just past the junction. At this point I hope you are still feeling strong, with water, energy and self-belief in reserve. There are no more cafes or water sources until you reach the summit pass, so be ready to ride.
The climb begins gently and then deceiving maintains a level course as it passes below the shade of a treelined stream. However, reaching a hairpin bend, the trees disappear as the gradient ramps up and up again.
I was lucky to climb the Ancizan and Aspin; just a week before the professional riders in ‘Tour de France’. Therefore, the roads had been resurfaced with the smoothest tarmac I have ever seen. Even with my knobbly tyres, I gently climbed gradients that were over ten per cent in certain places.
The views grew and changed with every hairpin and corner. In places the strengthening sun beat down on me as I rode past exposed fields. In other places, avenues of beech trees shaded me for the few seconds I passed under their mighty boughs. I was starting to struggle now; yet I focused on my breathing and stopped regularly to rest my heart.
A group of young macho Spanish riders passed me with a dirty look as a way of saying ‘bonjour’. Older more respectable men passed me, whilst acknowledging me with a passing greeting that only comes with the wisdom and calmness of maturity. Although there were many people out on this road today; we were all on private journeys in our minds. Journeys of mental strength and resolve, journeys of passing thought and journeys to a healthier happier place.
Passing another jovial Frenchman parked in a layby on an exposed hairpin bend. With his bike safely in his car and a picnic on a foldup table. He told me: “not long now Tommy; you are nearly there!” He was right, looking over and up to the left, I could see the road finally reach the lowest part of the ridge above me. Digging deep into my reserves; with my water bottles almost empty; I rode the final two kilometres to the summit.
Final thoughts on the Ancizan and Aspin
On reaching the summit of the pass, I encountered dozens of campervans. Parking anywhere like camels at a watering hole; they had come a week early to get a good place for the Tour de France. The summit road sign was also surrounded by young cyclists. All staring at their hi-tech gps computer watches, as if the quickest time and not the views and relaxing were the most important thing?
This circular route over the Ancizan and Aspin was a welcome alternative to riding the much busier Col du Tourmalet. There were other cyclists on this route yet fewer. More importantly there was much less motorised traffic as both passes are not a main thoroughfare for between major towns of the area. I would advise to start your ride early to avoid the midday sun in the summer months.
In my opinion these two passes are best enjoyed in an anti-clockwise direction. This is because the more scenic view of the Ancizan and Aspin can be enjoyed at a slower rate when you are climbing. Leaving you to focus on descending through pine forests.
As always, respect the mountain and become prepared. Rest well and eat well the day before; take on plenty of water and lookout for the water fountain in Ancizan. If you are interested, please check out my other rides in the area, such as: Gavarnie and the Col des Tentes; a climb too far?, Cycling the Luz Ardiden and Pic du Midi – Cycling above the Tourmalet.
The descent down the northern side of the Col d’Aspin is fairly non-descript. With a series of hairpin bends through a pine forest; the only thing I was watching for was speeding motorbikes. I returned to the car and drove steadily back to the campsite. Reaching the top of the Tourmalet; I recognised a blue bike with a rider in a blue jersey. My brother had done it; he had climbed the Tourmalet too!
I hope you can come here too and enjoy this naturally relaxing place.