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Medieval villages and many beautiful one-lane roads winding through lush mountains

Cycling The Ariege Pyrenees - Col d'Agnes - September 2005

42 photos and movies (movie) by Steven Hill and Rebecca Heald, steephill.tv


Coming through boys! Sharing the road with the locals

Day 5: Port de Lers, Col d'Agnes, Col de Latrape, Col d'Escots (Prat Mataou), and Col de Saraille - 100k, 2500m of climbing (62mi, 8202ft)

Massat → Port de Lers→ Col d'Agnes → Aulus-les-Bains → Col de Latrape → Col d'Escots (Prat Mataou) → Ustou → Seix → Oust → Cominac → Col de Saraille → Biert

col d'agnes route map

[October 22, 2008 update: Col d'Agnes is confirmed for the 2009 Tour de France]

On our last day of cycling in Utopia we were graciously awarded beautiful sunny weather, as if the cycling gods wanted us to remember the best side of the Ariege and encourage others to make a similar pilgrimage. The word picturesque comes from the French word pittoresque as in la route pittoresque. Our entire week in the Pyrenees was picturesque and the last day especially so. Although the Pyrenees sun can be very hot, we were constantly adjusting our outer layers due to the cool fall breeze.

Click the pic to watch
Hypnotized. A 2-minute edited Col d' Agnes documentary ride... complete with soundtrack

Col d'Agnes was our main event on this day. Located in a part of the Ariege more reminiscent of the High Pyrenees, the barren, jagged grass-covered cols also brought the Alps to mind. Since we shot tons of video and to add some spice to this final report, I spent extra time editing a 2 minute+ mini documentary of the ride between Port de Lers and Col d'Agnes including a soundtrack. (click the video right). Below you'll also find a 2 minute bike-cam video through the great old town of Seix. Many photos were also taken, and we snapped our favorite Ariege Pyrenees photo atop Prat Mataou (Col d'Escots) while looking down on the Ustou Valley and back across to Col d'Agnes. A six day visit to the Pyrenees isn't long enough, but I'm glad to be finish documenting it! The experience was outstanding, and now the memories of our trip will live on.


How it unfolded

From Massat we climbed 16.5k up Col d'Agnes along the D18, going from 650m to 1570m (920m gain) with a modest 5.6% average grade (baby chow at this point in the trip), and maxing out at 8.5%. Once again there was so little traffic we could have spread a blanket in the middle of the road and enjoyed the contents of a picnic basket while sipping fine French wine, with little chance of a car interrupting the moment. A livestock traffic jam was our only interruption while we switched it up to higher ground. Feeling great near the top of Col d'Agnes, we took the optional road up a short climb to Port de Lers. The ride back towards Col d'Agnes is when we starting shooting the video for our Port de Lers - Col d'Agnes feature documentary. At the top of Col d'Agnes, we stopped for a quick snack while sitting on the grass admiring the surrounding peaks and valleys.
Two time stage winner and local hero Frédéric Moncassin competed six times in the Tour de France from 1993-99

The Tour de France often uses Col d'Agnes. As I mentioned in the Ariege Day 1 report, it was last visited during the 2004 205k stage 13 race from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille. While I could use this opportunity to describe heroic exploits of great climbers like Lance Armstrong and Richard Virenque, instead I'll highlight a past Tour sprinter. Frédéric Moncassin competed in six editions of the Tour de France between 1993 and 1999 and won two sprint stages in the 1996. He grew up in Toulouse and spent summers at his grandparents' home in the Vicdessos area of the Ariege, and now lives with his wife and children in St. Girons. He organizes workshops when his duties as sporting director of the French national cycling team allow, and loves showing his friends the lesser known Ariege cols that are too narrow for the Tour de France such as Col de Péguère and the Col de la Crouzette (which we featured in our Ariege Day 2 report). However, his favorite col remains Col d'Agnes for its beauty and his childhood memories.


Descending the other side of Col d'Agnes was steeper than our acsent from the north, and the view was outstanding. As we carved through the switchbacks the Ustou and Garbet valleys opened up, making the surrounding peaks appear even more imposing. After barely a pedal stroke in 15k we arrived at the valley crossroads in a town called Aulus-les-Bains. We then took the Ustou branch along the D8 for 6k to Col de Latrape before taking our bikes higher up the optional D68 for another 6k towards the ski resorts at Prat Mataou and Col d'Escots, putting us above the 1500m level for the seond time in the day. It was here that we literally gasped as we stepped to the edge of a cliff. Looking 750m down past the tips of our Sidi cycling shoes was the Ustou Valley and Aus-les-Bains where we had just been. Panning up from the valley at eye level on the other side in the distance was Col d'Agnes and our snack site from 1.5 hours before. When your ride is put into perspective this way, you marvel at the earth's sheer beauty and what an incredible invention the bicycle is.

With the major climbing over for the day, we descended Col d'Escots for 6k, rejoined the D8 and spun easily down another 13k through small, quiet hamlets until we landed at the confluence of the Alet and Salat Rivers. We then cycled north along the D3 and revisited the town of Seix. With people milling about and dining alfresco in the warm afternoon sun we shot some video, bike-cam style over the bridge, past the town center and through the narrow streets. (see video right)

Click the pic to watch
“Bonjour-monsieur” - A bike-cam tour through the charming, old Ariege town called Seix. Over the bridge, past the town center and through the narrow streets

Continuing north along the Salat River (D3) and east along the Garbet River (D32) we then branched off onto a little road familiar from our first Ariege ride, but now in the opposite direction. While passing through the vacant hamlet of Cominac we took some more bike-cam video until the camera's memory-full buzzer sounded. Our last col was the first one two days before: Col du Saraille. This time the perspective allowed us to enjoy a different view of Massat on the way down.

Our ride was exactly 100k with 2500m of climbing and we were totally energized afterward, but Rebecca rolled her eyes when I said we could have easily knocked off another 100k. We had three days of outstanding Ariege rides without traveling the same direction twice along any roads thanks to Paul Stuart and the owners of Roquefort Cycling Lodge.

Final thoughts

We chose to document each day of our trip as a separate report and ordered most of the album photos and movies chronologically for those following along vicariously, and more importantly to provide a resource for anyone planning their own Pyrenees trip. I suspect that most Americans take guided cycling tours in Europe to avoid the logistic complexity of a foreign country and language. There's no doubt that hand-holding tours can be nice and sometimes more relaxing. However, we prefer the adventure, flexibility and savings of self-guided touring. I did find this trip difficult to plan and was surprised at the dirth of Pyrenees information in English on the web. Hopefully, our Pyrenees reports will reach the clicks of those who could benefit from our experience. I found the Michelin web site indispensable for researching our rides and for the route maps that appear at the top of our Pyrenees reports. Michelin also makes the most popular printed maps for sticking in your back pocket. They may not be the finest example of cartography but they are more than good enough and are especially pleasing to look at. Thanks for viewing, and see you out there -- Steve, November 25, 2005

A sign of what lies ahead.jpg
A sign of what lies ahead
Sharing the road with the locals.jpg
Sharing the road with the locals
The riding with the bulls mooovie.jpg
The riding with the bulls mooovie
Picking through the turns up to Montbeas.jpg
Picking through the turns up to Montbeas
Starting to look more like the Alps.jpg
Starting to look more like the Alps
Feeling blue with green envy?.jpg
Feeling blue with green envy?
Retracing our steps.jpg
Retracing our steps
No need for the emergency shelter at Courtal de Bastard on this day.jpg
No need for the emergency shelter at Courtal de Bastard on this day
(Richard) Virenque
Port de Lers.jpg
Port de Lers
Pic de Montbeas (el 1903m) road perspective.jpg
Pic de Montbeas (el 1903m) road perspective
Blue sky corner.jpg
Blue sky corner
Col d'Agnes (1580m) and Pic de Montbeas (1903m).jpg
Col d'Agnes (1580m) and Pic de Montbeas (1903m)
Lost in the moment.jpg
Lost in the moment
Precarious ridge.jpg
Precarious ridge
Turkey jerky alfresco.jpg
Turkey jerky alfresco
Stop and look.jpg
Stop and look
Descending painted names.jpg
Descending over painted names
Looking down on Aulus-les-Bains, the end of the descent before climbing to Prat Mataou.jpg
Looking down on Aulus-les-Bains, the end of the descent before climbing Col d'Escots (Prat Mataou)
Blue hangover.jpg
Blue hangover
The fork-in-the-road at Aulus-les-Bains.jpg
The fork-in-the-road at Aulus-les-Bains
Col de Latrape signage.jpg
Col de Latrape signage
Switching it up Col de Latrape.jpg
Switching it up Col de Latrape
Station de Guzet greetings.jpg
Station de Guzet greetings
Climbing to Prat Mataou, near Guzet-Neige, looking down the Ustou Valley.jpg
Climbing to Col d'Escots (Prat Mataou), near Guzet-Neige, looking down the Ustou Valley
Our favorite Ariege Pyrenees view.jpg
Our favorite Ariege Pyrenees view
A well deserved drink.jpg
A well deserved drink
Stunning heavenly blue at the top of Prat Mataou.jpg
Stunning heavenly blue at Prat Mataou
A smoking descent back down to the valley.jpg
A smoking descent back down to the valley
Descending through a typical Ustou Valley village.jpg
Descending through a typical Ustou Valley village
Looking up to the peaks and Prat Mataou after our 20k descent.jpg
Looking back up to the peaks and Prat Mataou after our 20k descent
Back for more Seix.jpg
Back for more Seix
That's not a safe place if you are dog tired.jpg
That's not a safe place if you are dog tired
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of our greatest rides.jpg
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of our greatest rides ever!
Riding back from Saraille.jpg
Riding back from Saraille
Massat rooster choir performing at the end of the day.jpg
Massat rooster choir performing at the end of the day
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