We take the road less travelled to explore some of the least ridden and most beautiful climbs in the Pyrenees.
Tucked away in the very heart of the Pyrenees, concealed by the highest peaks and undisturbed by its louder neighbours, the Val d’Aran is the best-kept secret of one
of cycling’s greatest mountain ranges.
Largely unfrequented and unspoiled, the locals even speak a language, Aranés, that only 7,000 people can understand, but this outpost at the very north of Spain is replete with great
climbs to rival any of those in France’s Hautes-Pyrénées or nearby Andorra. Meaning ‘valley of valleys’ in Aranés, the self-governed mountain hideaway has proudly sat alone throughout its intriguing history, a tunnel built in 1948 finally offering isolated inhabitants a route to other parts of Catalonia in the winter months, with the only other access road to the rest of Spain blocked by snow.
The Tour de France has passed through on multiple occasions, most recently hosting a stage start in 2016, while the Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta a España are no strangers either. Yet in spite of boasting 16 climbs and little traffic, the valley remains a place overlooked by the cycling world, with the Spanish typically only coming in the winter to enjoy its world-class
backcountry ski terrain.
A third of the size of Greater London, the Val d’Aran packs in just 175 kilometres of road, all of which either goes up or down. Highlights include the Mortirolo Aranés, the leg-sapping ascent to Sauth deth Pish and the pristine lake of Bassa d’Oles. All unfamiliar names and unfamiliar places, difficult to say and difficult to conquer, but worthy of being ridden by more cyclists who crave a mountain challenge. We have profiled three must-do climbs as well as one big route that we recommend on any visit to this Pyrenean cycling paradise.
THE BIG RIDE
108km | 3 120m+ | 6 CLIMBS
Given that this near-110km loop through the Val d’Aran will see you rack up more than a third of the height of Everest in elevation gain, it’s no surprise that the climbing begins as soon as you depart the picturesque town of Vielha.
Riding up through the hamlet of Gausac and on the lower road that leads to the Bassa d’Oles, save a visit to the lake for a different day, instead continuing westwards on a forested
road where wild mushrooms and fruits flourish by the side.
After whipping around a tight bend that briefly opens up vistas across to a handful of small south-facing villages, a narrow but thrilling descent precedes the climb to Artiga de Lin, one of the valley’s most outstanding landscapes.
The climb, picked up with six kilometres remaining, gets increasingly harder as it works its way through eight, nine and 10% gradients. The final kilometre is the toughest, rearing up
to and staying at a 12% average, the road eventually running out under the menacing rock wall of the Malh dera Artiga mountain.
From here, it’s a speedy descent through Es Bòrdes and a left turn onto the main road until the larger village of Bossòst.
In and out of the village, the route then takes on another forested road where bears are occasionally sighted. Fear not, these bears are very timid around humans, and your mind will already be preoccupied enough with tackling the Guardader d’Arres climb, the summit topping out after 7.5km, averaging a taxing 8.2%.
A well-earned respite is interrupted by a short and punchy 2.7km out-and-back climb to the serene Bassa d’Arres lake, before you then skirt your way along the plateau’s top, waving to the curious locals in Vilamòs and then descending 17, yes 17, fantastic switchbacks.
Upon rejoining the main road, you’ll steadily climb back through Vielha – and try to resist the temptation to tuck into one of the infamous foot-long bocatas (a Spanish baguette sandwich) in Casa Luis. Continue towards Spain’s largest ski station of Baqueira-Beret, but take a brief detour to climb up into Bagergue, often cited as one of Spain’s most beautiful villages.
Reaching the ski resort, swing left at the car park and take the 8km climb up to Pla de Beret where you’ll pass the source of the River Garrone (Era Garona, in Aranés), the sixth largest river in France. In 2006, Denis Menchov won a stage of the Tour here.
At a height of 1 830m and surrounded on all sides by mountains, turn back around for a superb 22km descent back into Vielha to round off an epic day of high-mountain riding.
Length: 23km | Climbing: 1 121m | Average gradient: 4.8% | Max gradient: 7.7% | Summit: 2 079m
Length: 23km | Climbing: 1 122m | Average gradient: 4.9% | Max gradient: 6.5% | Summit: 2 079m
Just a few decades ago, the Bonaigua signified both trepidation and liberty for Araneses, snow on the road blocking access to the rest of Spain for the entire winter, before finally offering a route out of remoteness in the summer months. Today, the Puerto de la Bonaigua
has transformed itself not only into a crucial link that’s open all year round except in the event of heavy snow, but also into a terrific, picturepostcard cycling climb that is the
playground for glorious, giddy, bike-riding fun.
Meaning ‘good water’ in Catalan, the Bonaigua at 2 072m above sea level is the eighth-highest road in mainland Spain, visited by the Tour on three occasions, most recently in
2016 when Thibaut Pinot reached the top first.
Neither side is a climb of great difficulty in spite of the length and altitude, the gradients on both sides averaging 5-7% without any real pinch point, and distances totalling 23km.
The ascent from the ski station is framed against majestic peaks, the succession of switchbacks looking like some form of unintended creativity by a lost ant frantically
running around with no care for choreography.
Even better is the climb from Esterri d’Áneu that may resemble spaghetti being poured out of a pan, but is in fact the product of fabulous engineering that has created a cyclist’s dream road to both ascend and descend, with all 18 hairpins as tight and as flowing as each other.
The waterfalls, high peaks, Scalextric design and well-surfaced road make the Bonaigua not a slog to endure but a rewarding and manageable beast.
A double ascent will constitute a big day out, but we’re convinced that you’ll rate the descent into Esterri as one of the best you’ll ever ride.
SAUTH DETH PISH
Length: 11km | Climbing: 701m | Average gradient: 6.3% | Max gradient: 17% | Summit: 1 579m
Sauth deth Pish means ‘fish jump’ in Aranés, a poetic derivation to match the malevolence of this ascent that is emblematic of similar out-andback roads in the Pyrenees, built only to provide access to a mountain refugio, and in this case a waterfall of breathtaking beauty.
Bookended by relatively tame sections that don’t even necessitate the small ring, the middle part will have you wrestling the bike like Nacer Bouhanni.
Averaging a fatigue-inducing 9.9% for five kilometres through an enclosed forest, the gradient picks up further and sustains itself at 12% for a kilometre, even ramping up to above 17% in places.
As the dense trees give way to open fields and the torture recedes somewhat, the Maladeta glacier and the mountain range’s highest point of the Pico Aneto (3 404m) cast a shadow
that reminds you of your minuscule status in this vast Pyrenean setting.
The final four kilometres are a pleasing respite from what has come before, the road hugging the rock walls and avalanche paths to the left, while cattle and the occasional wild horse
grow in number as the terrain becomes ever more expansive.
Two stunning waterfalls, the biggest at 35m, mark the road’s end at 1 556m, water cascading into the valley below.
Taking care of the blind bends and patches of loose gravel as you head down, you’ll meet that same water once again as you cross over the river Arriu on no fewer than three occasions.
Best to take the descent slowly, however, and afford yourself as many glances as possible of the highest mountain and largest glacier in the Pyrenees.
HOW TO GET THERE
Driving from Toulouse takes two hours – Flixbus offers a nightly bus service (2hr 35min). Driving from Barcelona takes four hours, with Alsa offering multiple, daily bus services (4h 45m).
WHERE TO STAY
Vielha is the best spot due to its central location and proximity to bars, restaurants and supermarkets. Parador de Vielha has a spectacular spa, and RVHotels Tuca has multiple
options. There are seven campsites in the valley with many, including Verneda Camping, also offering mountain cabins.
WHERE TO EAT
Vielha: All bars have pinxtos, small finger food akin to tapas that has its origins in the Basque Country. Era Coquèla is recommended by he Michelin guide; Woolloomooloo, owned by an Australian, has a wideranging menu; and La Carbonara serves excellent pizza.
Bossòst: El Portalet and Er Occitan both feature in Michelin’s guides.
Arties: Pollo Loco specialise in African cooking; L’Entrecote Genial is renowned for its meat dishes.
WHEN TO GO
All climbs will be snow-free between early April and late November. Summer temperatures average between 25°C and 32°C, with rain likely once every few days. Autumn is generally the most stable period weather-wise.
Le Defi and No Papar, both in Vielha, are well-stocked shops that repair and rent bikes.
COL DU PORTILLON
From Bossòst | Length: 8.2km | Climbing: 575m | Average gradient: 7% | Max gradient: 17% | Summit: 1 287m
Of all the roads of the Val d’Aran, the Col du Portillon, or Eth Portilhon as the locals know it, is best known for its links to cycling.
Featuring in 20 Tours de France, it’s never been a summit finish, but has always sparked drama and helped to write crucial chapters in the race’s playbook.
At 4.6km up the climb, as a fifth sweeping, wide turn offer an extensive view looking eastwards into the heart of the valley, a large bronze statue of a cyclist sits atop a monument that depicts the names of the six españoles that have won the yellow jersey.
From here, the climb gets a little tougher, nudging over its average gradient of 7%. But you remain in the shade, passing the Aran Park zoo and the final of six separate monuments each dedicated to a Spanish winner.
On the penultimate hairpin, you’ll pass another nod to the Tour’s most recent passing, before reaching the climb’s summit where Adam Yates, Tony Rominger and Luis Ocaña have
all previously collected maximum KOM points.
For as long as the road has existed, the French have crossed la frontera to bring back cheaper alcohol and cigarettes, but, bizarrely, the border was only reopened early in 2022
after being closed for a year by the French government due to “terrorism concerns”.
But there are no threats on the Portillon: it’s just a classical Pyrenean climb that is steeped in Tour folklore.