Roads to Ride: Col du Soulor

Friday, 25 January 2013

Col du Soulor Tour de France

As the fifth part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Col du Soulor in the French Pyrenees. The idea is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether as part of cycling’s history or to look at the route on a day without racing and it is open to all.

The Route
The Col du Soulor is a mountain pass in the Pyrenees that’s 1,474 metres above sea level. There are three main routes to the top. One is to climb from Argelès Gazost, heading west and up the valley. The second is cheating because you come down from the Col de l’Aubisque and head east to the Col du Soulor.

But this piece is about the best route from the south, taking D126 south along the Ouzom valley from Asson. The climb is 13km at 7.1% reaching a height of 1474m above sea level.

It starts distinctly. A sharp bend out of the village of Ferrières and the road climbs narrows and climbs immediately through woodland which offers shade on a hot day, helpful given the gradient much of the way. The slope is regular with some steep sections but this is a steady climb without any traps or tricks.

The Feel
Why pick the Soulor? Because it’s big enough for the Tour de France but totally unspoilt. It’s good even before you climb, the approach from Arthez d’Asson heads up the Ouzom valley which gradually gets more and more narrow. Unlike the Alps which begin with foothills, it is possible to arrive at the Pyrenees without much climbing and this particular road takes you from the plains of Pau right to the start of the col without much elevation, just enough to follow the course of the river back up the valley.

The area was a centre of mining although back in the days when men worked hammers and shovels. The town of Ferrières takes its name from fer or iron but much of this has gone. Traces of this remain, for example the Ouzom river has been channelled and if many of the old mills have gone, the canals remain.

The climb starts abruptly and like many of the climbs in the Pyrenees this seems to follow the terrain and ancient routes, as opposed to the Alpine engineering where Napoleon ordered a road to be built with regular gradients to facilitate the transport of artillery. Not all the Alps are like this but the Pyrenees are wilder. The Soulor in particular stands out as a long climb with a history in the Tour de France but unlike the Tourmalet or Aspin, there’s no ski resort along the way. In fact there’s next to nothing, not even a shop if you exclude one cheese-selling farm on the way up. The more you climb the more the trees give way to grassy pastures and finally open space so the higher you go the smaller you feel. This is the unspoilt Pyrenees in their beauty here, no idle ski lifts or neon-lit shop fronts.

Soulour Aubisque

Counting sheep

The road does not have much traffic, expect a yellow Poste van or maybe a battered car with sheepdog riding shotgun. Higher up the cyclist is more likely to encounter animals instead of humans as cows and sheep roam on the pastures and frequently wander on the road – even when the Tour passes –  held back by what the French call “Canadian barriers“. If you’re really, really (un)lucky you might spot a wild brown bear. There’s little reason to use this road unless someone wants to get to the top.

In fact even when the Tour comes this is a quieter road as access isn’t easy and it’s never been a final summit finish, it’s often the first climb of the day, an entry into the Pyrenees. But there is a permanent reminder of the Tour de France because like many of the climbs in the Pyrenees there are markers every kilometre. Now every road in France has a marker but these are not the small white and yellow bornes. Instead they are large signs on posts that indicate the distance to the summit and the average gradient for the next kilometre. They’re also a sign that cycling is an important contribution to tourism in the summer.

Col du Soulor

Counting kilometres

Col d’Aubisque
The Col d’Aubisque is the big sister but the pair are equally shy. Labelled in Mountain High by Daniel Friebe as the Tour de France’s “forgotten mountain”, the Aubisque sits in the shadow of the nearby Col du Tourmalet. Yet the Soulor is another route up to the same place, perhaps even less famous than the Aubisque. Sometimes the Soulor is labelled as “the footstep of the Aubisque” because it’s a genuine climb rather than a back road or access route.

Tour de France
First used in 1912 the race has only used this climb 20 times – see the photo from 2010 above – which surprises given its central location:

  • next to the Col du Tourmalet which is the most-used climb in the Tour de France
  • just out of Pau, the most-visited town of the Tour de France

It’s not proved strategic but in 1994 British cyclist Chris Boardman crashed on the descent and left the race.

Say It
Sue Law and r-r-r-r-oll that last r to sound like a local.

Access
Pau makes a good base but major transport connections are to the city of Toulouse. Pau’s a student town, it’s got a younger feel than the rest of the Pyrenees, where sometimes each kilometre ridden south of Pau seems to take you back a year in time, by the time you reach the cols you glimpse old ways of life. It can be a ride but several cols are in within reach, including the Tourmalet so the cyclist can easily spend a week in the area.

Pau has some traditional virtues, you’ll find many family-run hotels which can vary in their charm but you are at least assured an escape from the tyranny of the chain hotels which lurk on the outskirts. It’s got a history as the seat of kings in the past and more recently it’s got one of Europe’s last urban motor racing circuits and visitors can spot the painted kerbstones and crash barriers, some even try a lap for fun.

So good they named it twice

Nearby Lourdes has a glut of hotel rooms but avoid it unless you’re combining the riding with a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine as it’s often a strange place where the volume of kitsch religious memorabilia trying to cash in on the fame probably tests the faith of the devout and it certainly spoils the calm.

Summary
A climb that’s a real test and part of the Tour de France yet this is a road that offers escape. Forget the legends of the Tour and the giants of the road – we’ll return to the Col du Tourmalet in time – this is an isolated road where the approach is as scenic as the climb itself. This is a real road to ride as opposed to a place to race.

Next week an Italian climb that’s the opposite of quiet and discreet, instead it is the highpoint of the Giro and the summit of Italian cycling: the Passo dello Stelvio.

Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Part XVI – Col du Pin Bouchain
Part XVII – Puy de Dôme
Part XVIII – La Planche des Belles Filles
Part XIX – Col du Lautaret
Part XX – Col du Palaquit
Part XXI – Champs Elysées
Part XXII: The Col du Galibier
Part XXIII: The Lacets de Montvernier
Part XXIV: Hautacam
Part XXV: The Schelde Bike Path
Part XXVI: Col de Marie-Blanque
Part XXVII: Jebel Al Akhdar
Part XXVIII: Genting Highlands

Simon January 25, 2013 at 6:59 pm

This ascent – combined with the saddle across to the Col d’Aubisque – is my favourite stretch of road from a cycling perspective. Absolutely wonderful. Rode up it twice last summer: brother had a mechanical as we left Argeles and by the time I had accompanied my dad up and down, he’d ridden back to Pau and got it fixed. He’s scared of heights, so a cloudy ascent for the Aubisque was perhaps for the best. But it’s the huge drop that makes it my favourite: makes for spectacular helicopter footage during the tour if they’re descending.

Jim January 25, 2013 at 7:26 pm

The route from the Soulor to the Abisque includes the Cirque du Litor, one of the most scenic and spectacular roads to ride.

Will January 25, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I totally agree, the north side of Soulor is a beautiful, quiet climb – and much better than the much travelled east side from Argelès-Gazost.

A couple of quick Soulor route tips for cyclists coming from Argelès-Gazost (perhaps from Tourmalet):

1. As you start up the east side to SOulor, turn left at the D103. This leads to a very quiet, scenic alternate road that skips the lower half of the east side of Soulor. Instead there is a later turn off up and over Col des Bordères – and then the route rejoins the Soulor route at Arrens-Marsous for the much more interesting top half of Soulor.

2. Also from Argelès-Gazost, skip the Soulor east side completely and Climb Inner Ring’s recommended South side:

Just as you are leaving Argelès towards Soulor, take a right turn onto the D102 for a VERY quiet climb up to Col de Spandelles – (there is a an easy to miss sign saying Col de Spandelles at the right turn).

After a fairly amazing descent from Spandelles, you will arrive at the start of the north side of Soulor reviewed above.

thanks,
Enjoying your series.

Shaun January 25, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Great stuff INRNG, as per usual. I went to school in Pau many years ago and I’ve been wanting to get back. I managed to convince the family that we needed a holiday in Avignon last year and … well, look, there’s Mt Ventoux right there – it would be rude not to. I need to plan on getting back to Pau to see how things have changed and take on Soulor while I am at it. For anyone not familiar with this part of France, the south-west is (IMHO) some of the best the country has to offer. Well worth a trip.

Patrick January 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I’m absolutely loving this series inrng, as someone who has aspirations of one day riding the iconic climbs of the Tour, they’re both fascinating and informative.

Alex TC January 26, 2013 at 3:02 am

Eggscelent article and it describes perfectly and almost poeticaly this awesome climb!

I first climbed the Soulor in 2010 during the L’Etape du Tour, and that was after crashing on the descent of the Marie Blanc at almost 55km/h, courtesy of a blowout rear tire. Thankfully I suffered only cuts and bruises, no broken bones, and my bike came out without a scratch – trully a miracle…

I remember being encouraged on the Soulor by riders and supporters who saw my ripped bibs, left arm and leg with blood. Everybody screamed “allez, allez, courage!” as I rushed to the top on my adrenaline high. That really marked me (well, in many ways actually lol). Only at the arrival on the top of the Tourmalet I noticed my left buttock exposed and bruised, and for the rest of the week I felt the pain but still I keep good memories of this part of the trip. It was really special. The next day we climbed from the other side to watch the race pass.

Though I absolutelly love the Alps, the Pyrenees have a special place in my heart. For some reason I always ride much better and feel stronger in those mountains, and I love its wilderness and the friendly vibe of the small pyreneean villages.

Thnx inner ring for bringing back those fond memories!

crofty January 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Yep, I did that event too – congratulations for finishing after your accident! What a hot finish on the Tourmalet though. My memory of the three climbs of Marie Blanc, Soulour and Tormalet is that Soulour was billed as the ‘easy’ one of the three. In fact it demands some respect. The gradient, although not super-steep, doesn’t relent and once you round the into the top section from Ferrieres, you can see the last 3km spread out like climbing the inside of a Pyrenean bowl – not easy at all. But as INRG says beautifully isolated with what looked like wild horses on top when I was there. Thankfully no bears that day.

MT January 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Great stuff. Time to book a trip I think.

Tintin Antigua January 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm

You are absolutely right and it was anything but easy with the heat. I was worried about the Marie Blanc but a combination of a cool start, first real climb of the day and an accident towards the top forcing everyone to dismount and walk certainly took the sting out of it.

It was on the Soulour that the temperature first kicked up into the thirties that day and where I saw the first rider keel over. Even with the crowds at the summit there were a few wandering sheep that you still had to look out for.

The crowds in the Pyrenees were amazing the entire day. Who could forget the old man with the white beard outside his picture perfect farmhouse by a bend in the river playing his accordion as we went past?

Truly an unforgettable experience.

Larry T. January 26, 2013 at 8:37 am

Nice bit, thanks (I think) as it brought back painful memories for me. Rode this on the day the TdF peloton did their “parade” after the death of Fabio Casartelli. A day so freakin’ hot we stopped under the bits of shade provided by the road signs! Truly awful, I felt sorry for the pros riding along in a huge pack on such a blazing hot day. Looking forward to your Passo Stelvio post, a climb I’ve ridden almost every other year (the wife gets a turn so we alternate) for 15 years now. Rarely too hot there, even in July.

Gus January 26, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Scenic, quiet, tough, it is not to be missed if you visit the area.

So true about Lourdes too, avoid at all costs.

Bundle January 26, 2013 at 10:53 pm

My first ride in the French Pyrenees, and I will never forget it. “Virginal green pastures under the sun”. And the Cirque du Littor is really something.

jack January 28, 2013 at 12:50 am

One of the best climbs to try. Wonderfully challenging climb with great vistas, and with Cirque de Litor and Aubisque to boot, it is an aswesome day. And to get back to Argeles Gazost is practically downhill but for a few kilometers on the valley through gorgeous little villages. So go up steady, have a coke at the top of Soulour and continue on to Aubisque but then come back down and stop at the honey store on one of the descent corners for a taste of what the local bees produce. This will give you the energy you need for the last 10km because those you will do on the big ring at full gas. End the day with a meal at a cafe in the square at Argelest. Sleep then repeat.

P. Kirby January 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I’m really enjoying this mini-series on the blog (perhaps especially the pronunciation guide). Great job and thanks!

Peter January 29, 2013 at 12:38 am

Highly recommend the Spandelles – Soulor loop. Just beautiful and so quiet. And a great place to stay in this sensational area is http://www.velopeleton.com.

Boy_Howdy January 31, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Ahh – someone mentioned Paddy’s place before I did! You will not find a more charming, accomodating, and budget-friendly place to base your visit to the area. He’s in Saint-Savin.

If you climb from Argeles, bypass the busy D918 and instead take the D13 through Bun. A very scenic and serene back road.

Also, Acun (on the way from Argeles) is also a lovely town.

Agreed that the passage via the Cirque Litor ranks as one my life’s highlights. Simply breathtaking bit of road.

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