Yelli goes camping

For some years my friends and I had talked about riding across the southern part of the Hautes Pyrenees department in France. I have been living in Bagnères de Bigorre in this part of France for over 12 years and have ridden quite a large part of the route we had in mind but never the whole thing non-stop. Having recently helped sign the Pyr-Epic race (which covered a large chunk of the route) I had had the chance to ride one of the most challenging parts -from the Crête du Lys, at 2300m near the top of the Cauterets ski resort, down to Lac d’Estaing- for the first time.

The route follows a lot of the GR10: follow the red-and-white stripes

I’d never done any real bikepacking, apart from one night out quite close to home, but my interest in bikepacking had been recently rekindled after seeing details of the first French Divide race -2100km following the part of the St Jacques de Compostelle trail which crosses France diagonally from north-east to south-west. So I rigged up my trusty Canfield Brothers Yelli Screamy with a bike rack and managed to get my camping gear distributed in two dry-bags, one on the bars and one on the rack. To make the ride as painless as possible, I decided to stick to roads for the ascents where possible and then take to the singletrack for the descents; in late September most of the tourists have gone and the roads are relatively quiet. In this way, I figured I could cover the 180km relatively easily in three days riding. There would be plenty of challenging off road climbing, notably the climb to the Crête du Lys from Cauterets -about 1300m of vertical ascent over 15km with only the first 5 being on tarmac.

Misty start at the Col de Peyresourde on the eastern border of Hautes-Pyrenees and Haute-Garonne

Singletrack down from the Col de Peyresourde

So with some good weather forecast for the end of September I decided to give it a try: my wife dropped me at the Col de Peyresourde on the eastern end of Hautes Pyrenees and after a singletrack descent to Genos we met again to ride up the Col d’Azet together. On this first ascent I really noticed the additional weight and settled into granny gear (32x36) to pootle up to the top, taking just under an hour to cover the 7km.

Ascending the Col d'Azet with my wife Claire

From the Col d’Azet the descent to St Lary continues to follow the GR10 and, unlike in the UK, these (nominally) walking tracks are OK to ride on and the walkers are nearly always friendly and chatty. After an 11euro 4-course lunch (including wine) at Veille Aure, I was maybe a bit too well fuelled for the 10km ascent of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, but once my legs got into the rhythm it was OK. The descent to Lac de Payolle was all too quick and then I started the ascent towards the Col du Tourmalet -- my target was to get to about 9km from the summit and to find a suitable campsite for the night. On the way up I passed the restored shepherds huts at Courtaou des Esclozes -which would have made a great campsite. A gentle climb up a forest track I’d not ridden before took me up the south side of the Gripp valley to Artigues which left only a couple of km to ride up the road to the rendezvous with my family. The clouds were starting to gather menacingly but although the temperature dropped the rain held off. I spent an hour or so with the family having a picnic dinner before hitting the hay at dusk.

Potential over night stop: Courtaou des Esclozes near Payolle

Campsite on the way up to the Col du Tourmalet

After a chilly night, I managed to get on the road by 8:30 (half an hour after sunrise) and quickly warmed up on the climb to the Col du Tourmalet and then continued up towards the Col de Sencours. I followed the descent to Bareges which starts by dropping down to Lac d’Oncet and then follows narrow singletrack most of the way down to Bareges, levelling off on the north side of the valley to the creperie at St Justine before plummeting down to Luz St Sauveur.

Nearing the Col du Tourmalet with the sun on my back

View down the Bareges valley and across to the Col de Riou in the distance

Start of the descent to Bareges and Luz-St-Sauveur

Singletrack to Bareges

I had been thinking about trying to get all the way to Estaing for the night, however I had forgotten how tough the climb up to Luz Ardiden was especially with the couple of km off-road up to the Col de Riou tacked on the end. When I eventually got there I was very disappointed to see what bulldozers had done to some really fun singletrack I’d ridden only three weeks before. By the time I’d got down to Cauterets and had had a bite to eat, it was past 3pm and I figured it would be touch-and-go getting up and over the ski resort (over 1300m vertical ascent from Cauretets) and down the very technical descent to Estaing -- having been up in the mountains a couple of times when the clouds and fog closed in, I decided to call it a day, find a campsite with a hot shower, do some serious carbo-loading and get an early start the following morning.

13km of switchbacks on the climb to Luz Ardiden

Devastation at Col de Riou: where's the singletrack gone?

Campsite at Cauterets

I didn’t quite get the start I was hoping for. With the pending climb looming up in front of me, the highest peaks brightly picked out by the rising sun, I was starting to wonder if I'd bitten off a bit too much. But I gradually winched myself in the right direction, first to the top of the road climb which seemed to take ages but wasn’t even a quarter of the way to the top, then on to the ski resort access roads which climb in steep zigzags up a very sheer-looking mountainside. At one point when I’d been reduced to walking, I was seriously starting to question my timing estimates and whether I’d be able to complete the trip -- but I kept telling myself that each pedal stroke and each footstep was taking me closer to my goal. Spurred on by the magnificent views as I neared the col, I eventually made it, and 30mins faster than I had planned for, so I spent a while basking in the early morning sun and enjoying the views.

Yes up there! Ascent to Crête de Lys at 2300m     Made it (more or less): view back down to Cauterets

The descent to Lac d’Estaing is quite varied with flowing singletrack in parts and very steep, rutted, rocky switchbacks in others. My tent on the rack made it hard to get my weight really far back, so "slow and precise" became my mantra -- and it was actually pretty good fun to ride down stuff that I'd previously been hammering down on a 650b+ dual-suspension enduro bike -- getting down on a fully loaded hardtail required proper bike handling skills rather than letting the bike make up for bad line choices and poorly executed manoeuvres, and was all the more rewarding for it.

Start of the descent to Lac d'Estaing after passing over the Crête de Lys

"Slow and precise": technical bit of the descent to Lac d'Estaing

Lac d'Estaing

Getting up and over the Crête de Lys had been one of the big unknowns of the whole trip and with that under my belt I really felt like I could achieve my goal and really started to get into the groove! I overtook a couple of roadies going up the short Col de Borderes and hooked into some fun, technical singletrack down to Arrens; my legs were feeling good so after a quick water replenishing stop, I started up the final climb of the trip: the Col de Soulor. This is a fun climb which I’ve done several times before. At the col I decided to go straight over the top towards the Col d’Aubisque to complete my trip; the border between Hautes Pyrenees and Pyrenees Atlantique lies about 2km along the magnificent Cirque du Litor road which links the two cols and is literally carved into the mountain side. I did a u-turn at the D918 0km sign and trundled back up to the restaurant at the Col du Soulor having completed my goal of riding across the Hautes Pyrenees department.

D918 0km on the Cirque du Litor: mission accomplished!

With the main programme over, I had the bonus feature of 1000m of vertical descent and some fun singletrack back down to Argeles Gazost where I would meet my wife. So after a beer and a ham sandwich I followed the Nordic ski trails to the Col de Couraduque where I picked up the singletrack down towards Gez and then down to Argeles.

Bonus feature ...

So a great adventure completed: over 190km with about 8000m of vertical ascent. My Yelli Screamy performed flawlessly and my cobbled together bike rack held up to the abuse delivered by challenging descents normally reserved for enduro races. The camping gear spread between rack and bars affected bike handling much less than I feared, the only difficulty was getting right off the back of the bike in the really steep descents. The chosen route suited my gearing and available time; for more off-road ascents I would have chosen a larger rear cassette and given myself an extra day. A warmer sleeping bag would have been good at this time of year. I had no mechanicals, not even a puncture, and the High Roller II (F) and  2.35" Ikon (R) tyre combo worked well; even my worn brake pads held up to the steep descents and extra weight.

The trip in numbers, with main cols listed:

  • Day 1: 62km; 2470m -- Col d’Azet 1585m; Hourquette d’Ancizan 1556m

  • Day 2: 57km; 2450m -- Lac d’Oncet  turn off  2335m; Col de Riou 1949m

  • Day 3: 71km; 3060m -- Crête de Lys 2330m; Col de Bordères (Lesterle) 1173m; Col de Soulor 1474m