There are some rides that stand out from the rest. The ones you remember all your life for the stunning scenery, legendary climbs, exhilarating descents and the pride of finishing a long, epic day. Next in this series is the classic stage in the Pyrenees: The Circle of Death. This historical route dates back to the first mountain stages of the Tour de France in 1910. The route was from Luchon in the heart of the mountains, all the way to the coast at Bayonne, taking in the four climbs that make up this stage: The Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet & Aubisque – a full 326km requiring a 3.30am start!
Nowdays, the Circle of Death is given to the hardest stage in the Pyrenees so can be a fluid term but is mostly the route taking in the original four climbs. This can start in Pau but adds 40km of fairly dull riding or in Laruns near the base of the Aubisque. This is a full 5,700m of climbing, so only for the true mountain GOAT’s. An alternative is to start in Luz Saint Sauveur and skip the Aubisque. For anyone wanting to add more on the day, the stunning SuperBagneres can be added on at the end from Luchon and makes a spectacular end to any ride.
Logistically, the easiest way to do this point to point ride is to start in Luchon and get a bike transfer service all the way to Laruns. This is a long drive (over two hours) but makes it a lot simpler, without worrying about how to transport luggage and bike boxes. It does mean an early start with a departure at 5.30am to allow the riding to begin by 8am. Straight from the beginning the route climbs up on the Aubisque. The first few kms are through small villages and settlements with gentle gradients (5% or so) before we leave civiliazation behind and head into the beauty of the high mountains. The middle part of the Aubisque is tough with some sections above 10% which really wake up the legs. The road hugs the side of the mountain offering some amazing views. The higher up we get, the better the views and the famous part of this climb is the last few kms where the road is cut out of the rocks and there are some great overhangs and tunnels. The road is narrow so hard work for larger vehicles but there are plenty of cyclists here all the time. At the top we merge with the other climb in the area, the Col du Soulor before the quick descent down into the town of Argeles Gazost. Climb one done and almost a third of the total distance is complete all before your mid morning snack.
From Argeles Gazost, there is an annoying false flat which can feel like a gentle climb on tired legs all the way to the base of the next climb. This 20km section can be busy with traffic but pick the right morning and it’s a nice part of the ride, along the valley floor at times in quite a deep canyon riding next to a fast flowing mountain river the whole way. Luz Saint Sauveur is a good place to stop to fill up your bidons and maybe get some extra food before the biggest challenge of the day. The second climb is the biggy – the Col du Tourmalet. This is the most famous climb in the Pyrenees, the most ridden climb in the Tour de France, the highest pass in the Pyrenees and the first major climb ever ridden in the Tour. The Tourmalet is 19km long and rarely gives the rider and break sticking at 7 to 8% gradient for much of the climb. For the first 8km the climb goes through some small villages before you get to the bottom of a ski lift (pictured below) and then the ride gets a lot more beautiful. The final third of the Tourmalet is stunning, full of hairpins, variety and stunning views. The final 3km is high and over a lunar landscape, the km markers stop 4km from the top leaving you on your own for the final, steepest section before you turn a corner and see the famous statue at the top of the climb. There is a good cafe here where you can get some food and fill up your bottles if needed. The top of the Tourmalet is just past the halfway stage.
Over the top of the Tourmalet there is a long and quick descent down. Remember you are starting from over 2,000m and the weather can be very changeable so having layers on you can be essential. A long, cold descent is absolutely no fun, if it is due to be cold we highly recommend packing some good cold weather gloves, a waterproof jacket and good arm warmers. The descent eventually gets you Sainte-Marie de Campan where you take a sharp right and start a gentle drag to the next climb. This takes us close to the Lac de Payolle, a pretty spot which is popular with French campers in the summer. There is another nice cafe just before the Col d’Aspin where you can get a proper meal if you are ready for a big meal now. The Aspin is a longer climb from the other side and is only around 5km from our side. However, this is a quite steep 5% mostly in thick pine forest that can really keep the heat in on a warm day. The gradients stay at around 8% the whole way up firstly over hairpins and then opening up for some sweeping views. The top of the Aspin is another stunning summit and a popular viewpoint for drivers and motorcyclists. As with the picture below, expect some four legged company for this section and much of what has come before. The descent off the Aspin is one of our favourites with some long, sweeping hairpins where you can pick your line very early.
We are now in Arreau with just one more lump separating us from a bath and dinner. As with the Tourmalet & Aspin, there is another long false flat before the climb kicks in with just over 10km of leg sapping stuff before we reach Avajan. The Peyresourde is 10km and arguably the easiest of the four climbs averaging around 6.5%, easy to find a rythmn over a mostly straight climb with few hairpins. There is less variety on this climb with no pine forests, cliff edges or hairpins. You can see the top from a long a long way out, the pass is the only thing that cuts through these hills and after a short 10% kick, the final km is a welcome 7% before reaching the famous summit marker (pictured below) and that amazing feeling of completing your last uphill section. From here, it is downhill all they way to Luchon. The first section is down three hairpins and then it is a fairly straight, quick descent all the way home. The main street in Luchon is perfect for your finish – tree lined and straight with bars and restaurants on both sides ready for you.
Note – there are a few ways to do your own Cirlce of Death. Another option is to start in Argeles Gazost which is a shorter transfer (just 90 mins) and skips the Aubisque. This is still an absolutely classic day in the Pyrenees, if you want to add a 4th climb to this we highly recommend tacking on the 18km ascent of Superbagneres out of Luchon to cap a very hard day. This is the favourite climb of most locals in the area and is stunningly beautiful. Heading out of Luchon the climb follows the river for the first half riding in a steep valley before the landscape opens out. After crossing a couple of bridges, a sharp right turn takes you onto the final stretch to the roof of the Pyrenees with amazing views to Spain and for miles around in every direction. There is a ski resort here in the winter but in the summer it is a cycling paradise, the road is quiet and the last few kms (pictured below) are just about as good as it gets. Take in the view from the top and then enjoy a fabulous descent back into Luchon.
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