Roads to Ride: Hautacam

Does it exist? Stage 18 of this summer’s Tour de France finishes in Hautacam but many maps don’t show anywhere called Hautacam. But it’s testimony to the geopolitical force of the Tour and the tourism industry that, like an invading army, the map of France gets rewritten.

What is certain is that the climb exists and if it is a relative newcomer to the Tour de France, it’s a case-study of Pyrenean climbing with an irregular road.

The Route: the D100 climbs east out of Argèles-Gazost in Hautes-Pyrénées department in southwestern France. After crossing the Gave de Pau river, it climbs through the village Couture and the ascension proper begins at a junction where you turn right and follow the signs marked Hautacam. It is 13km long and 8% with the option to continue for an extra kilometre.

The Feel: it’s not only gentle, it’s genteel as you ride leave Argèles and pass Couture with its large square stone houses, lush meadows and a soft gradient. Is there really a monster mountain pass ahead?

But all change in the village of Ayros with the sharp-right hander and the suddenly narrowing road, a pinchpoint for the Tour. Away from the one crowded day of the year the road is almost redundant in summer given the ski resort is estivating with only the occasional farmer driving past and the buzz of freewheels from cyclists descending. The early part is fine, some steep ramp are followed by a flatter sections for recovery.

The resort at the top might be new but the road isn’t, it’s part of the Col de Tramassel and seemingly one of those routes used by shepherds and mule-trains to cross the mountains. It’s case-study Pyrenean climbing, a serpentine road with an ever changing gradient.

Like many Pyrenean passes there are special signs for cyclists every kilometre that count down the distance remaining and indicate the gradient ahead. Helpful yet annoying because they pass slowly and it’s easy to get stuck on the mental arithmetic, “At Xkm/h the next kilometre will take Y minutes” a task made harder by the physical exertion and meaningless because the slope varies so much within every thousand metre section, there’s even a short downhill at one point – it’s not mentioned on the official Tour de France profile above. This irregularity is what makes the climb particularly hard and so the average stats of 13km at 8% aren’t important, it’s the next 200 metres that matter to you.

Higher on and the vegetation thins and you know the top is near when the trees start to vanish. But at 1600m, Hautacam isn’t above the treeline, it seems deforestation and grazing animals are to blame.

Summary: an irregular road that will delight pure climbers and those at ease with changes of pace but awkward for others. Beware the 8% average, you will need gearing to cope with 15% sections.

Bonus climb: the Tour might stop at Hautacam but you don’t have to. Instead carry on for a further kilometre towards Col de Tramassel, a mountain pass. The road leads nowhere but if you’ve ridden up to a ski station for the sake of it you might as well keep going.

The History: with the ski resort being relatively new the Tour has only started visiting in recent years with Luc Leblanc winning in 1994, Bjarne Riis in 1996, Javier Oxtoa in 2000 and in 2008 Leonardo Piepoli and J-J Cobo led a Saunier-Duval 1-2 only for the Italian to test positive. You don’t need to be a genius to join the dots with Leblanc on Festina, Bjarne Riis and then Saunier Duval to discover that Lourdes-Hautacam isn’t a place of miracles nor holy water but plain old EPO abuse.  Not that the mountain is at fault, these performances reflect the times rather than the location.

Riis’s victory has become iconic, a symbol of doping. The way he dropped back, shifted the chain into the big ring and then attacked the lead group in the Tour de France to solo away is like a scene out of a kung-fu movie where the character takes on a bunch of assailants and dispatches them all.

The Name: Hautacam is the name a nearby mountain peak which in turn was appropriated by a local tourist office to give to the modest ski resort. It’s as if Zermatt decided to call itself Matterhorn or Chamonix and Courmayeur were named Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco. Only the Hautacam ski resort started out as a car park and little else and today it’s not much more either. But the Tour de France is able to put the place on the map, indeed taking the name of a nearby peak is only the start, the Tour has labelled the finish Lourdes-Hautacam despite Lourdes being almost 30km away.

Travel and Access: Lourdes is a strange place, a town reputedly with more hotel beds than inhabitants, it trades on its reputation as a place of Christian pilgrimage. It’s a frontier town between the sacred and the profane, those coming for a religious experience discover a town that believes in commerce as much as Catholicism and the volume of kitsch religious memorabilia on sale must test the faith of the devout.

With this in mind Argèles-Gazost is a better pick. It’s right at the start of the Hautacam climb but has plenty of other cols in the area like the and Soulor, Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. One problem of staying in the Pyrenees is that it can be hard to vary the routes if you stay somewhere all week but Argèles is probably one of the best options.

Be sure to pack your waterproof jacket and more because even in high summer the Pyrenees get a soaking from the nearby Atlantic. It’s what keeps the place so green.

More roads to ride at

Photos: Main image by Flickr’s Pretre and the sign by Flickr’s TheVanMoodys

44 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: Hautacam”

  1. Was up there a couple of years back, pouring with rain and single digit temperatures on July 1st (had seen 0º crossing the Tourmalet earlier in the day). Don’t remember the climb, do remember coming back down freezing cold and shaking so hard I couldn’t keep the bike straight.

    • Did a wonderful loop out of Argelès-Gazost in mid-October a half-dozen or so years ago under sunny skies and 70 degree temps! Up the Gave de Pau valley past the turnoff for the Luz-Ardiden and onto the ramps of the Tourmalet (ok, a cup of hot chocolate on top), down through La Mongie and the great run-out into Bagneres-de-Bigorre, sweet rollers on car-less roads back to the Gave valley and then up the Hautacam. Momentum from the descent practically landed me on the stoop of my auberge back in Argelès. Bliss!

      • Plus, by the Vayer & Portoleau calculations, it’s the most ridiculous performance to have happened on a normal stage in a Grand Tour (Ullrich did better, or worst in a way, in La Croix de Chaubouret’s TDF TT the next year).

      • fair enough. It does seem like he’s the new witch.

        It would be interesting to read an article about who was absolutely clean in the 90s. I wonder if you would need more than one hand to count them.

        • Interesting question. I hope Inner Ring can enlighten us one day. Exept for Bassons I could not think of any rider (which is not to say there were not any more who were clean) at the end of the 90s. For the early 90s I am quite sure Van Hooydonk, Breukink and Lemond were clean.

    • I’ve heard he’s also a member of the Danish terrorist group, De Danske Roligans. (Apologies if there are actually Danish terrorist groups out there, I couldn’t find any on Wiki.)

  2. I was there in 1996, climbing the thing before LeTour’s arrival. I remember breaking a rear spoke, which didn’t really matter much since the climb itself was challenging enough, but coming back down was less-than-fun. Then we sat back to watch the show, everyone wondering WTF when Riis toyed so easily with his challengers. Plenty of “knowing” (but not really knowing) looks were exchanged all around on that day. Years later a guy with the Danish federation told me part of the spectacle was created by Riis using compact cranks, a fairly new idea at the time. Thus, “Mr. 60%” blasting away in the big-ring was easier than it looked, but certainly demoralized his competitors, most of whom were likely as doped up as he was?

  3. I agree with the wet aspect, I climbed that one in a heavy fog some August morning a few years ago. I don’t think that I had mode than 50 m of sight past 8 km to go. I rarely felt that much cold on the descent as I did that day.

    The slope changes a lot, yes, but 15 % ? I wouldn’t swear, but I can’t remind seeing that much. It doesn’t take that much to be very hard anyway.

    A few words are missing here and there in the text, as, I believe “the ‘Aubisque’ and Soulor”, and you might have mentioned Cauterets too.

  4. Great music choice for that Riis clip!! Anyone know where on the climb he put down his 1st attack and where he finally left everyone else behind?

  5. My wife if from this area so I know the climb well, a real pig! Tellingly it is a hard drive up and when the in-laws want to go skiing they drive to Bareges, more distance and halfway up the Tourmalet but still easier in the car than Hautacam.

  6. My first live mountain stage of the Tour. Cadel Evans first yellow, by 2 seconds.

    Finally rode it in Haute Route Pyrenees ( last year on the time trial. Stunning views. Tough climb. Do the toboggan/luge ride atop when you get there, harmless great fun – especially in sweaty lycra and cleated shoes!


  7. The name comes from the Gascon language and means High Land. It is not the name of a peak but the name of the entire massif which runs for 20km from Lugagnan to Villelongue.
    In my view it is the hardest climb done by Le Tour in the Pyrenees.

  8. But there is something missing here…
    Other great memory from doping times and about Armstrong.

    When Lance won 1999 Tour, Ullrich and Pantani were missing.
    2000 they all three where in.
    Hautacam was the first real mountain test of TDF that year.
    Lance didn’t win stage, but there was “the look” and he totally annihilated GC.
    Ulle lost 3 minutes, Pantani 5.

    Officially erased result, but that’s my Hautacam memory.

  9. Great Catholic references as noted, Ascension, holy water relevent with Lourds on route.

    Wander if Riis, went to confession this morning before the stage, perhaps in Lourds?

    Lets not start any rumors.

    Mass was perhaps in Polish?

  10. The constant focus on Riis, does puzzle me.
    I can think of people involved professional cycling now, with big teams, whom have a far higher degree of “shit on fingers” than Bjarne has.

    That’s not to excuse his behaviour, but what I would say, is he was the first, and only TDF winner, who contacted ASO and returned his jersey and trophy.
    I’m jot suggesting that’s a “get out of jail card” but I feel it’s far more honest than others who’ve claimed they naturally only ever did it once, retained their points jerseys, and all the accolades….

      • +1. How on earth Astana pass the UCI’s ethical criteria for a World Tour licence is beyond me with Vino and Giuseppi Martinelli at the helm. A rotten borough if ever there was one. It takes me to a place beyond anger. It just makes me laugh, because it is a joke. A really well crafted, old-school, humdinging, thigh-slapper of a joke. PS – this is not a comment on Nibali’s bona fides.

    • As has been pointed out, Bjarne is mentioned here because of his, ahem, notable ride up Hautacam. The piece is about Hautacam. Clear?

  11. St Savin is a lovely village close to Argeles-Gazost with 3 cycling friendly places to stay. Viscos for the fantastic food, Les Rochers for the warm English welcome/care, and Velo Peloton which is more basic but is very cycling oriented.

    It’s a good base for climbs, like Hautacam, Tourmalet, Aubisque, Soulor, Peyreysoude, and Luz Ardidennes, all great climbs in their own way. And Cirque Gavanie is a must see ride (plus walk if you’re up to it :-).

    Personally I love this area, despite suffering up Tourmalet & Hautacam on July 20th 🙂

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