This emerging new challenge route tours through the piémont Pyrenéen – the Pyrenean foothills. From the Atlantic coast at Biarritz to the Mediterranean near Perpignan, you’ll experience the scenery of the Pyrenees… without needing Tour de France climbing skills.
Don’t think that this is second-best to the high Pyrenees. Far from it. You’ll pass through Pau (a Tour favourite), the pilgrim town of Lourdes, and along some particularly fine traffic-free trails, notably the Saint Girons–Foix greenway.
Millions have been ploughed into building the rail-trail sections, with bridges rehabilitated, tunnels secured, and traffic-free underpasses installed. These are still a minority; 75% of the route is currently on-road, usually tiny single-lane routes with just a handful of cars. Perhaps most surprising is that many of these are not much harder work than the rail-trails: well-chosen valley routes minimise the climbing.
There are climbs, of course – after all, if you wanted a totally flat Atlantic–Med route, you’d have chosen the Canal du Midi towpath. But take the 22km ascent from the Aude up to the Col du Linas, the high-point of the route at 667m. Crunch the numbers and you’ll see that the gradient averages about 2.5%: we’re not exactly talking the sort of climb that would trouble Chris Froome. Along the way you’ll pass through the Roman spa of Rennes-les-Bains and the UFO centre of Bugarach (we’re not making this up) before reaching the summit. Here, the looming outcrop of the Pic de Bugarach, the highest point in the piémont Pyrenéen, pierces the clouds one kilometre to the south.
The route isn’t yet finished, so in several places you’ll be making your way without the aid of signs. There are so many quiet roads in this part of France, however, that it’s not hard to plan an attractive tour. We’ve filled in the gaps along the lines of the projected final route; use our maps and GPX downloads to find your way.
A fit cyclist could do this in a week, but make sure to plan your overnights carefully: the biggest climbs come in the final few days.
Challenging in places, but not impossibly so. There’s significantly less climbing per mile than (say) a comparable British cycle route like Lon Las Cymru or the C2C. There are three really significant hills, but since much of the route is railway path or valley road, you’ll climb the first 400m without getting out of the saddle.
Most of the route is on-road, but it also includes gravel rail-trails and occasional sections of potholey roads. You’ll be fine on a road bike as long as your tyres are hard-wearing and not too narrow. The roughest section is between Lourdes and Tarbes, where there’s no signposted route, and the quiet alternative follows bumpy farm roads. Confident cyclists can follow the N21 and D921 here, which are busy but have painted bike lanes.
Partly. Different départements have approached the route with varying degrees of enthusiasm, which means there are several missing sections. We’ve filled the gaps with recommended road routes, avoiding busy traffic and steep hills where possible. These follow the intended eventual course of the V81 route: you could take a more direct route if you like, particularly between Lourdes and Montréjeau. Whatever you choose, you’ll definitely need to take a map and/or GPX track.
TGV trains run to Biarritz and Perpignan stations, but booking a bike on can be hard, verging on impossible. Your best bet is piece together an itinerary using the older Intercités trains (booking required) and regional TER trains (booking generally not required). Freewheeling France has an excellent, and regularly updated, guide to taking bikes on French trains.