IT PLAYS host to the Tour de France, but when the stars of the circuit have passed, the Ariège-Pyrenees is heaven for cyclists of all abilities
The symptoms of the fever are easy to spot. A restless shifting of weight from one leg to another. A willingness to stand on a roadside, enduring temperatures high enough to fire clay while trying to fit your body into the three millimetre strip of shade that is being cast by the wall behind you. A readiness to come to blows with your closest neighbour over a free sachet of Café Grand’Mère dispensed by the publicity caravan. And an immense satisfaction at wearing a yellow baseball cap which you had to wrestle from the hands of the kid from the house opposite.
All this before you have even seen a bicycle.
Then the sound cuts across the valley. It ricochets around the mountains and a wave of expectation ripples through the gathered crowds. The TV helicopter is here. As it comes into sight overhead everyone cranes to stare down the road. For it means only one thing. After hours of waiting in the hot sunshine, a mass of vibrant Lycra whips around the corner and the Tour de France is here.
It’s the same every July in the Ariège-Pyrenees. With soaring peaks and hairpin bends, this relatively unknown French department is a favourite destination for La Grande Boucle which never fails to bring excitement and drama. But when the peloton of professionals has passed by in a blur of carbon fibre, what makes this area a paradise for cyclists remains, just waiting to be explored.
When looking to set up a small tourism-related business, it was the magnet of cycling that drew my husband and me to the Couserans district of the Ariège. Nestled beneath the snow-covered Pyrenees, bordering Spain and a stone’s throw from Andorra, its quiet roads loop over mountains and meander across pastures before descending dramatically into small villages. For those with a passion for two wheels, it is perfect. Having run a cycling-friendly auberge for six years in the area, I recently returned to the region as a tourist, accompanied by several members of a North Yorkshire cycling club, most of whom had never cycled in the Pyrenees before. We decided to base ourselves in Seix, a mountain village about 18km south of the town of St Girons. With an auberge, two restaurants, a café and several small shops, Seix offers everything a cyclist needs. Apart from a masseur.
The first morning arrives, a low mist making the air cool. Of course there is trepidation. The mountains look so high, the routes so unfamiliar. But the valley roads are surprisingly easy to ride, accessible to all levels of cyclist. Following the river uphill towards Trein d’Ustou, we are soon caught up in the scenery, the sound of cowbells keeping time as our legs pedal us gently upwards.
Before we know it, we’ve reached the start of the first mountain and the road switches sharply back on itself in a series of hairpins. Gears are rapidly changed and soon we’re all strung out in a line as we take it at our own pace. Legs start to hurt. Breathing becomes heavier. Just when you start to feel that perhaps it’s time to take up fishing instead, you see the writing; not on the wall but all over the road.
Stencilled neatly or scrawled with passion, daubed across the Tarmac is the evidence that others have ridden this way before you; others who are legends. A faded “Armstrong”, a recent “Contador”, even a “Wiggins” which raises a cheer. We are riding the very route of the Tour de France, our tyres passing over cycling history. Somehow that makes the wheels turn just that bit easier.
When we arrive at the top the café is closed (not atypical in this part of the Ariège – carrying an emergency supply of food is recommended) so we descend. We fly down, flicking in and out of the shadows, meeting no traffic. We reach the valley floor and Aulus-les-Bains in a fraction of the time it took us to climb.
A group of old men mark our arrival, nodding approval and shouting a greeting as we cycle past. They understand our achievement, even understand our desire to push ourselves over these mountains.
After lunch, always leisurely in this part of the world, we decide to tackle the Col d’Agnes. While aficionados of the Tour de France head automatically for the western Pyrenees, eager to test themselves against the infamous Tourmalet and the Col d’Aspin, the Ariège has always been a well-kept secret. And the Col d’Agnes is one of its gems.
Having featured several times in the big race, the road twists up out of Aulus-les-Bains, crests a mountain ridge with panoramic views into Spain (and on a good day, across the plains towards Toulouse) and then descends to a lakeside café surrounded by pasture. From there it makes a delightful descent into the town of Massat.
When I lived and worked in the area, I rode the Col d’Agnes in snatched breaks, one eye on my watch as I cycled, knowing I had to get back to the auberge. But on this day I get the chance to savour the ride, to dawdle at the top and watch the red kites circling overhead. Then it is downhill all the way, through hamlets and on into the valley as it widens out, the road devoid of cars. At the bottom, Massat offers us a choice of cafés for a celebratory beer, a slice of the local delicacy that is croustade (think apple pie made by angels) and a discussion of the next day’s routes.
Col de la Core. Col de Port. Portet d’Aspet. The fear has gone. The riders who had been nervous that morning, now know they have ridden in the tyre tracks of cycling greats. And they want more.
In the following few days we cover a lot of distance, some of the group even feeling brave enough to have a shot at the Mur de Péguère, a fearsome climb with sections of 18 per cent, that will be included in the Tour de France for the first time this year. Locals point out that it was on the route in 1973 but, fearing injuries, Tour organisers chickened out on the day and changed the itinerary.
By the end of our short break we are tired but happy. Before our plane even takes off, plans are being made for a repeat trip. Perhaps something that might coincide with the Tour?
Having witnessed many a conversion to the cycling heaven that is the Ariège-Pyrenees, I’m never surprised by the love this region sparks in anyone who likes riding a bike, at whatever level. And with the attention the Mur de Péguère is getting, when the professional cyclists attempt it on Sunday 15 July, perhaps the Ariège-Pyrenees will finally burst out of the cycling shadow cast by its western neighbours. Visit for yourself and you’ll see. There’s a reason the Tour de France keeps coming back. It’s not just for the croustade.
THE FACTS Flights from Edinburgh to Toulouse from £80 with Jet2.com; Julia Stagg stayed at the Auberge du Haut-Salat in Seix, www.aubergeduhaut salat.com, double/twin rooms from E40. For a comprehensive guide to the Ariège see www.ariege.com; bike hires from Velomondo, www.velomondo.com, from E20 per day; for guided and self-guided cycling holidays in the Ariège-Pyrenees, see Marmot Tours, www.marmot-tours.co.uk; Les Deux Velos, www.lesdeuxvelos.com; Bike Alive, www.bike-alive.com; Julia Stagg is author of The Parisian’s Return (Hodder, £7.99) set in the Ariège- Pyrenees, www.jstagg.com; The Tour 2012 runs from Saturday 30 June to Sunday 22 July, www.letour.fr