Ian & Kate had been planning The 3 Countries Tour for a few years before announcing their new cycling trip at the beginning of 2018. The idea popped into Ian's mind way back in 2015 when AQR headed to the Mountain Bike World Championships in Andorra. Instead of driving the direct less scenic motor way route from AQR's base in Luchon, Ian decided to take a detour across the mountains that form a natural border between France and Spain. Although there are small pockets of old villages and a few tarmac roads there are still miles upon miles of untouched forest and mountain peaks where it's impossible to see any sign of human foot print. It was also surprising to see very few cyclists or traffic on this route until we reached Andorra. AQR considered why cyclists searching for adventure combined with a holiday were only interested in cycling the busy cols in France made popular by the Tour de France coverage? Perhaps the famous cols are easier to find on a map or cyclists don't always have the time to really explore and discover a new area.
The Pyrenees are made up of 3 countries - France-Spain-Andorra and within each country there are challenging cols, but also less well known quiet country roads with stunning scenery in every direction. AQR wanted to showcase a new perspective of the Pyrenees for cyclists who wanted a challenge, but just as importantly a memorable holiday experience.
Kate selected accommodation that was 3-4 star, cycling friendly and offered what AQR refer to as a 'plus plus' service. By 'plus plus' AQR mean offering something 'special' rather than 'ordinary' that our guests would appreciate after a long day on the bike. Kate also requested cyclist friendly sized meals that had to be tasty and nutritious with plenty of options for all dietary requirements. Ian organised the AQR van making sure it was stocked with a variety of drinks, snacks and lunch packs to ensure everyone had enough energy to enjoy each day on their bike. Mr P as always packed every workshop tool, bike stand and gadget necessary for any repair work needed during the tour. AQR Holiday's moto is - 'AQR take all the hassle out of your ride, so all you have to do is pedal and enjoy the views.' ...and this is exactly what AQR did!
Read on if you would like to find out more about AQR Holidays Pyrenees 3 Countries Tour to give you a small glimpse into what our group experienced over 7 days cycling around the Pyrenees -> France - Spain - Andorra...
Our group arrived on a morning flight to Toulouse Airport and were transferred to their accommodation in Luchon. Guests who had hired a road bike for the week were fitted to their bike, whilst other guests used the AQR Bike Centre workshop tools to build their own bike. Our group then had time to explore the town of Luchon affectionately known by the French as the 'Queen of the Pyrenees'. The AQR welcome meal was held at Le Lutin Gite where Russ the chef as always cooked up an amazing three course meal using local produce and ingredients from the Luchon valley.
The group enjoyed a leisurely start to the morning to ensure their buffet breakfast had digested and all bikes were ready to roll. At 10am Kate guided the group towards the Col du Portillon just as the sun had settled in the sky. The group started conservatively and finished the climb together crossing the border into Spain and taking a moment to stand proudly in front of the Col du Portillon sign recognising their first climbing effort of the week. The descent into Spain brought huge smiles with fantastic swoopy switch backs and stunning clear views towards the mountain peaks overlooking the valley floor.
Before climbing again the group enjoyed a 15km gentle stretch of road following the river to Vielha where we undertook a compulsory coffee and cake break at a delightful Spanish cafetaria. Our group were then in high spirits to start the final big climb of the day - The Port de la Bonaigua, a col 23 kilometres long and our first climb of the week above 2000m.
At the top of the col Ian and the AQR van were waiting with drinks, food and warm layers as it was time to descend down to our accommodation in Sort. When we all reached the accommodation each rider enjoyed a well deserved celebratory drink and were handed a lottery ticket! The word 'Sort' in Catalan means 'luck', and the locals claim there are a significant number of lottery winners who have lived in Sort. Keeping this in mind AQR's special treat for everyone today was a lottery scratch card in the hope that one of us might be lucky enough to win millions. No such luck unfortunately...unless you count one guest winning 10 euros :)
We all woke to a beautiful cool morning in Sort with the sun slowly rising above the mountains. Today we were heading to Andorra with the ride starting on a gentle climb with an average gradient of 3-4%. The climb weaved around the mountains and offered breath taking views across the valley floor where you could see old fortresses in the distance and small or abandoned villages scattered across the hill sides. As we headed down the other side of the col we enjoyed a fantastic long descent that wasn't very steep with switchbacks and several view points where riders stopped to take photos of the scenery. The group passed through passport control and headed into Andorra.
Andorra is nestled between the steep mountain side borders of France and Spain. On each side there are some fabulous cols to ride, but as an extra option (it wasn't compulsory) we offered the group a chance to ride the famous, but very intimidating Col de la Gallina. This col was included in the 2018 and 2019 Vuelta Espana and in the past has broken professional cyclists. There are some very steep pitches on each straight, but around every bend is a mesmerising view of the Andorra valley. Also it's worth highlighting that we were the only cyclists on this tarmac road today. Considering how busy Andorra is on a daily basis we only came across two cars. For those who would prefer to relax then there's a great restaurant just before the start of the climb, but this year everyone wanted to see if they could reach the top and experience a 'King of the Mountains' feeling of achievement. There were happy high fives as everyone conquered the toughest climb AQR offer on The 3 Countries Tour.
Thunder rumbled in the distance so the group flew down the descent and hopped in the van to avoid the busy Andorra centre that's not so cyclist friendly. The group were transferred to their accommodation on the outskirts of Andorra. For today's special treat our group received complimentary 2hr access to a spa and hydrotherapy wellness centre to soothe weary muscles. The hotel very kindly provided cocktails before a mouthwatering buffet dinner with too many options to choose from and as many plates of food as one could digest...of course no one went to bed hungry!
Although there was an over night storm the group woke up to another cool sunny morning and a perfect temperature to climb the first col out of Andorra. It was day 3 which marks the half way point of The 3 Countries Tour. Today we would be riding 3 cols, across 3 countries, and would you believe just by chance would actually finish at 3pm. The first part of the day we would climb two of the three cols in Andorra, including the highest tarmac road in the Pyrenees, the Port d'Envalira at an altitude of 2408 metres. Following lunch at the top of the col we headed into France, cycling through passport control and then down a long switchback descent. We were now heading towards Llivia a Spanish town surrounded by France. The last 30km we cycled across wide valley plains with the Pyrenees mountains now in the far distance, but still forming a perimeter around us. The Pyrenees countryside included sleepy farm villages with long stretches of grassy meadows where horses and cattle grazed contently.
Today's AQR treat included an early afternoon finish at a very classy hotel in Llivia. Guests could take advantage of more recovery time by the pool bar, check out the local bike shop or take a walk around the town where there are historic remnants of the Pyrenees 30 year war. In 1659 The 'Treaty of Pyrenees' was signed between Spain and France. France were to receive all villages held by Spain north of the Pyrenees. However due to a slight technical hitch in the wording of the treaty Spain didn't have to relinquish Llivia because Llivia was considered a villa rather than a village. Now this small town (only 2km wide) is considered Spanish even though it's surrounded by France and there exists no border control.
Today we left Spain and crossed the border back into France. The first half of the ride headed across the lower lying plains towards the chain of Pyrenees mountains waiting for us in the far distance. The long sections of flat or slightly undulating terrain gave our legs a chance to spin and relax knowing we had another big col over 2000 metres (Port de Pailheras, 2001m) to look forward to just before lunch. During the morning we cycled past pristine lakes and through dense forests where there were very few motorised vehicles to share the roads with.
The Port de Pailheras climb is an AQR favourite because of the breath taking views and stunning scenery. Like most cols this climb may require some effort, but it's a pleasure to ride as the views keep on improving with every pedal stroke. Following a picnic lunch at the top of the col we then descended into Ax-Les-Thermes where we stopped for a well deserved coffee break. From this point the group had the option of a transfer into Tarascon-sur-Ariege or an optional 30km loop where we would climb and traverse through several mountain villages before arriving at our accommodation for the night. In Tarascon-sur-Ariege there are scenic walks along the river and the town has several Roman artefacts, as well as a fortress dating back to the middle ages.
Our group had two more famous Tour de France cols to challenge our legs on today, the Col de Port (1249m) and the Col d'Agnus (1570m). Both cols were in the forest until the last few kilometres where the group would ride high above the tree line. The temperature lowered and extra warm layers were needed as we made our way up through low lying clouds on the Col d'Agnus before descending into the Ariege countryside. It was amazing how quickly everyone warmed up as we made our way along the valley floor towards Saint Girons. Our accommodation for the night was a beautifully restored chateau where Kate fell in love with Hector, a very welcoming dog! Our guests were blown away once again by the restaurant we selected with a high standard of service, quality food and huge portions.
The final day started steady on a flat country road as our group left Saint Girons behind and headed towards the final few cols of the Pyrenees 3 Countries Tour. The first col of the morning was the Col de Portet d'Aspet (1069m) which was first included in the Tour de France back in 1910, and more recently the 2018 Tour de France. Sadly the Col de Portet d'Aspet is also a well known col because it's where Fabio Casartelli tragically lost his life in the 1995 Tour de France. We all stopped and shared a quiet moment at the memorial stone near the end of the descent. We then asked the group how they were feeling and offered two routes back to Luchon. The group split with those guests who wanted to challenge their legs taking on the Col de Menthe (1349m) before heading back into Spain to climb the backside of the Col du Portillon (1293m). Whilst the second group were happy to do less climbing and enjoy a well deserved coffee break on top of the Col d'Ares (1513m), before a gentle spin back to AQR's base in Luchon. When everyone had arrived in Luchon we headed to our favourite bar for celebratory drinks -> Billy's Bar before the last feast of the 3 Countries Tour, very kindly hosted by our favourite chef Russ at Le Lutin Gite.
AQR always finds departure day a little sad and today was no different. After spending a life changing week on the bike it's always a little sombre to say goodbye. However what's so special with AQR is that we love keeping in touch with our guests. Since the trip finished photos have been shared and some of our guests are already talking about joining us again in 2020.
2020 -> PYRENEES 3 COUNTRIES TOUR
Dates have been confirmed as 5-12 September, 2020!
If these dates don't suit your group then contact AQR who can suggest alternative dates. We only need a minimum of 4 people to offer a week outside the published dates.
If you would like to find out more about The AQR Pyrenees 3 Countries Tour, don't hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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