The Rooftop of France

It takes a tough Tour de France cyclist to get to the top of the Col du Tourmalet – one of highest roads in France.

But it takes an even tougher Mountain Biker to then ascend over 1,000 metres up a rough dirt track to the “Pic du Midi” on the “Rooftop of France” in the Pyrenees.

How do you do it?

The World by MTB
I recently spoke with Eric (affectionately known as “Groundhog” to his riding buddies) about how his globe-trotting mountain biking tradition started:Back in 2005, Jeremey, Oscar and Eric worked in Trinidad.  They met each other while mountain biking and clearing local trails.  They became good friends, and when they were all posted to different parts of the world, they agreed to get together once a year and to go riding.Each year they’d meet in a different part of the world and spend a couple of weeks riding their bikes together.

“Travelling the World by MTB” (Eric)
The next year they met up in New Zealand, the year after that, Switzerland, and the year after that it was Spain…

In 2012, Eric and his friends liked France so much that they decided to go back again the following year and ride the French Pyrenees.

They spent a week riding the trails around Barèges, a small village high up in the mountains halfway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, near the border with Spain.  This region has a rich cycling heritage.  Many of the roads have helpful signs for cyclists showing elevation, gradient and distance to the summit.   Many of the dirt trails have friendly “VTT” route signs pointing the way.  “VTT” or “Vélo Tout Terrain” is the French word for “Mountain Bike”.  Much of the accommodation in the area is mountain-bike friendly.

One or two spots even have dedicated “VTT Lavage” spots where you can wash your mountain bike after a tough day on the trails.

Pic du Midi

One of the highest roads in the area is the Col du Tourmalet.  It has been an integral part of the Tour de France for over 100 years.  In fact, when it was first included in the course in 1910, the stage winner, Octave Lapize, couldn’t ride parts of it, and had to push his bike up the dirt road.  He later referred to race organizers as “Assassins” for including the gnarly climb in the stage.

At the summit of this road, there are statues honoring cyclists who have conquered it.

At the summit there’s a track on which Tour cyclists would never ride.  Eric and his friends had a wonderful time riding this dirt track, ascending over 1,000 metres to the Pic du Midi.

The track is rough, un-rideable in parts, and in one spot blocked by a three metre high snow drift.

It’s not for the faint-of-heart!

“You’re way up above the clouds at at the top.  The air is thin, so it’s a bit hard to breathe”, Eric says, “but it’s a great spot for the astronomical observatory”.

After enjoying the views of the Glacial Lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks, they had an amazing 20km downhill run back into Barèges with a whopping total descent of over 2,500 metres.

The Route

There are many mountain biking trails around  Barèges.  Many of them are clearly marked with a “VTT” sign, so if you wanted you could go out exploring and see where you ended up.

The local tourist centres sell excellent laminated trail maps of the area.  A set of about 20 maps costs about €10.

It’s also possible to hire the services of a mountain biking guide for a few days.  This is probably the best option as your guide will know the best local trails.

The map above shows a couple of simple rides between Barèges and Pic du Midi.  The yellow track is on paved roads, the red track is on dirt.  Eric and his guide took the “easy” track by paved road up to the top of the Col du Tourmalet.  “Easy” meaning the way the road cyclists go on the Tour de France 🙂

On the way back they avoided the paved roads and took mostly dirt trails back into Barèges.

It’s a 12km ride with about 1,100m of ascent from  Barèges to the top of the Col du Tourmalet.

The off-road section from there up to the summit at Pic du Midi is just over 7km with 1,070m of climbing.

The off-road return from Pic du Midi back to Barèges is about 20km with 2,592m of descent.  It will take you a month, or major surgery to wipe the grin off your face.

Getting There

My first thought as I listened to Eric talk about this amazing annual adventure was “How can he afford to do that every year?”

Eric explained that mountain biking in France is not as expensive as you think.  Outside of the large French cities there are plenty of B&B’s available for €45-50 per night.  Eric stayed in a rural French B&B’s for less than €480 (USD 650) per week including one week’s breakfast and dinner, as well as a mountain biking guide for three days.  All he and his friends had to pay for was lunch.

Getting around France is easy – they have an extensive high-speed rail network (TGV) that reaches all over the country, and is accessible from major airports.  So you can fly in, hop on a train and be in rural France really easily.

He says he didn’t have any problems finding economical bike-friendly accommodation online.  Not being one to take things at face value, I did a Google search for “France bicycle friendly B&B” and got dozens of pages of hits.

One thing that was very expensive, though, was bike hire.  The daily rate was as much as his car hire.  Eric says if you’re going to ride overseas, you’re much better off taking your own bike.  This means doing a bit of prior homework checking various airlines to see who has the most generous luggage allowance.  Some airlines offer up to 30kg baggage weight, which is more than enough for a bike and clothes.  Eric was stuck with having to hire a bike when he discovered too late that his chosen airline couldn’t carry bikes to his destination (the plane was too small).

Airfares were probably the most expensive part of his trip, but Eric assured me that with a bit of regular saving he was able to accumulate the money needed to pay for the air fares and a couple of weeks accommodation.

Eric flew into Toulouse (but next time he told me he’d just fly straight to Paris and catch the TGV).  Jeremey caught the TGV to the nearby town of Lourdes where Eric picked him up in a hire car.  They then drove the final 80km to Barèges by hire-car.

Why France?

Eric assures me that language isn’t a problem.  “Even if you only know a bit of high-school french, and absolutely murder it when you try to speak it, the locals will help you out. You’ll only run into trouble if you arrogantly assume that everyone should speak English like you, and don’t even attempt to speak the local language.”

“The people are really friendly.  The food and wine is great.  It’s affordable.  It’s a wonderful culture”.

“And the tomatoes taste delicious!”

About Author