Ax-les-Thermes

June 2017

KmM = Kilometer Marker. Where the markers are specifically for cyclists, around Ax-les-Thermes they count up from the bottom. This is unlike most areas which count down from the top. So around Ax you never know how much further you still have to ride unless you’ve memorized the distance beforehand. I find the lack of consistency between regions a bit strange.

Read this page for a lot of background information about cycling in the French Pyrenees.

Ax-les-Thermes is a little tourist town about 30 kilometers from Andorra. It’s a typical French mountain town, but after Andorra if felt quite old and shabby. I think this says more about Andorra than Ax though.

Ax-les-Thermes

Three of the climbs share the first few kilometers

Plateau de Beille

Plateau de BeilleA consistently steep climb, mainly in the 8-9% range. It rarely drops below 8% and only exceeds 10% in a couple of short spots. The climb is about 16 km and 1,250 meters (4,101′) of climbing.

Apparently the Plateau de Beille is sometimes compared to Alpe d’Huez but that’s a meaningless comparison to me. This has none of the glamor, none of the numbered switchbacks, none of the sheer meaning. It’s just another sustained climb with no views for most of the climb. However, it’s been used six times as a stage finish in the Tour de France.

Drive to Les Cabannes and park in the large parking lot in the center of the town. It’s about 16 km from Ax-les-Thermes to Les Cabannes but the road is busy and not worth riding. The climb starts right from the parking lot. Most of the climb is in the trees with no views, but after about 11.6 km you leave the trees and enter the high meadows. Now you have views and the gradient eases a bit, then eases drastically for the final two kilometers.

Ax 3 Domaines

Ax 3 DomainesAx 3 Domaines, also known as Plateau de Bonascre, is a short and sweet, I mean steep, climb that starts directly from Ax-les-Thermes. The road surface is not the best in the lower part. The climb is about 8.3 km with 670 meters (2,198′) of climbing.

From the north end of the downtown area turn left from the main street and cross the bridge following the sign for Ax 3 Domaines.

The climb is mainly in the trees, although you do get views of the dramatic mountains from time to time. The climb is consistently in the 8-9% range, but it does touch 14-16% a few times. It’s a fun little climb that has been used four times as a stage finish in the Tour de France.

Port de Pailhères

Port de PailhèresThe Port de Pailhères (also known as the Col de Pailhères) from the east is the big climb in this area. It’s been used 5 times in the Tour de France, with the stages finishing on Ax 3 Domaines (4 times) and Plateau de Beille (once).

It’s fantastic, with open spaces, good views, and lots of wonderful switchbacks.

I wanted to ride Port de Pailhères as an over-and-back from Ax-les-Thermes but the west side of the pass was closed from kilometer 7.4 to the top. It appeared they were putting new chip-and-seal down.

So I rode Col du Pradel as I was there, then drove round to Usson les Bains to ride the east side. This was a longer, more convoluted drive than I would have liked, but what can you do?

The climb starts at the intersection of the D16 and D118 at Usson les Bains. A few hundred meters up the D16 there is a big parking area on the left – I parked here and rode down to the intersection.

At the intersection there is a sign telling you that it’s 15 km to the top with 1,216 meters (3,990′) of climbing. But the climb is not well signed and there is no indication at the intersections of which way to go.

Ride up the D16 from the D118 for a few  hundred meters then at the big parking area turn right on the D16 signed to Rouze and Mijanez. You will now climb several big switchbacks before heading more directly to Rouze. Ride through Rouze then a few hundred meters after you leave Rouze turn right on D116 to Mijanes. Continue through Mijanes. After this there are no more decisions to make.

About 4 km from the top you enter a world of switchbacks. Big switchbacks, small switchbacks, tight switchbacks – this climb has them all. Basically you climb switchbacks all the way from here to the top. So the climb starts with 4 big switchbacks and finishes with 4 km of varied switchbacks. It has plenty of kilometers in the 8-9% range, and touches 11-12% a few times. Such a delight.

Col du Pradel

Col du PradelA lovely climb, quiet, pretty, and peaceful. The first 7.4 km are on the road to Port de Pailhères, but once you leave that road and head up left, everything changes. The road is basically a one-lane road, and the surface is a rather rough chip-and-seal. But the feeling of peace and beauty more than compensates for this. The climb is 14.4 km with 930 meters (3,051′) of climbing.

Start at the roundabout by the church at the southern end of the downtown area of Ax. Turn left on the D613 following the signs for Quillan and the Col du Chioula. Follow the switchbacks up for 3.5 km. At this point the D613 sweeps round to the left and up to Col du Chioula, but you will turn right on the D25 following the sign for Port de Pailhères. Continue up the D25 until at km 7.4 you reach the village of Lavail. Turn left following the sign for Col du Pradel. Here you’ll see a cycling sign saying it’s 7 km to the Col with 529 meters of climbing.

Now the climb start becoming wonderful as it climbs the narrow road and eventually breaks out into open countryside. It’s rarely super steep, but my GPS did show 12% at one point. I really liked this climb.

Col du Chioula

Col du ChioulaA relatively short and easy climb, only 10km with 712 meters of climbing. The gradient is mainly in the 6-7% range, but the climb does kick up occasionally and touch 11-12% for short sections.

Start at the roundabout by the church at the southern end of the downtown area of Ax. Turn left on the D613 following the signs for Quillan and the Col du Chioula. Follow the D613 all the way to the Col. Just before the col you’ll see a lot of parking spots on the right – this is a popular XC skiing and snowshoeing area in winter.

Notes

There’s another col, Col de Marmare which is very near the top of the Col du Chioula, and which can be ridden from Ax.

If I was here longer I would look into a few loops:

  • Climb the Col du Pradel from the Ax side then work my way along the D20 and D29 to Usson les Bains and return over the Port de Pailhères.
  • Climb the Col du Chioula from the Ax side then work my way along the D613, D20 and D107, returning over the Col du Pradel.
  • Climb the Col du Chioula from the Ax side then work my way along the D613, D20 and D29, returning over the Port de Pailhères.

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