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Coins Cachés. Ariege
The Ariège nestles in the central Pyrénées. It’s a region rich in history and biodiversity and it remains one of the most unspoilt areas of France. An area of extraordinary natural beauty, it feels wild and remote and largely undiscovered, although it is surprisingly accessible.
Just an hour south of Toulouse, it rests on the border with Spain and Andorra. Off the beaten track and away from the madding crowd, it’s a place suited to those who like the simple things in life.
The varied topography makes the Ariège Pyrénées a cyclist’s nirvana and you’ll breathe the cleanest air in the country as you ride up high-mountain passes, over rolling hills and along flat river valleys. The scenery is just breath taking.
The Ariège offers a seemingly never-ending, intricate network of blissfully quiet and diverse routes that appear purposely designed to entertain every type of cyclist.
You can ride in the shadows of magnificent Cathar châteaux, into and out of medieval villages, along mind-blowing river gorges, through vineyards, traverse foothills covered in deciduous forests and climb into the majestic high Pyrénées.
As the perfect base from which to explore, the Zero Neuf retreat is located in the ‘Portes d’Ariège’. And on any trip, one thing is for certain: experience, adventure and escape are guaranteed.
The Grand Cols d’Ariège
This is a ride steeped in history and takes you into the high Pyrénées where you will climb in the shadows of Tour de France greats. You’ll ascend the Col d’Agnès, a tough but beautiful climb close to the frontier with Spain and the Col de Port, first used by Le Tour in 1910 when the first rider over its summit was Octave Lapize.
You will ride through the wonderful mountainside village of Cominac with its unique stone houses and front row views of the majestic Mont Vallier. You can stop for a coffee amongst the Baroque buildings in the ancient spa town of Aulus les Bains and sit in awe of the giant peaks that form the imposing border with Spain.
The descent from the summit of the Col d’Agnès down to the fascinating village of Massat is fast and technical, passing the clear and inviting waters of Etang de Lers en route. From Massat you pick up the old RN618 or ‘Route des Pyrénées, immortalised by the Tour de France. It’s a steady climb to the summit of the Col de Port, and the views over the Massat valley as you ascend are fabulous.
A moment’s pause at the summit to admire the high peaks along the Vallée d’Ax and the border with Andorra before another fast descent down to the valley floor and the village of Tarascon sur Ariège. From here you’ll follow the river Ariège to the medieval town and narrow streets of Foix where a well-deserved drink in the shadow of the town’s magnificent chateau awaits.
The Grotte Loop
Ease yourself into the day rolling along flat, blissfully quiet roads surrounded by fields of sunflowers, the majestic high mountains in constant view. Once over the river Ariège, you’re into the village of Rieux de Pelleport and the Pre-Pyrénées.
A couple of short climbs through dense woodland follow, the sound of cowbells and birdsong your only company. A right hand turn at the foot of the Pas de Portel and you’re onto the D1a; a 15km stretch of pristine tarmac sitting in the shadow of the Montagne du Plantaurel.
The D1a brings you to Mas d’Azil and a welcome stop at Le Bistrot café. Next up it’s a jaw dropping 500m stretch of road through the heart of one of the Grande Sites des Pyrénées; the Grotte du Mas d’Azil, a prehistoric cave carved out of the Plantaurel rock by the river Arize.
A left hand turn over the river Arize and you’re climbing through ancient oak forests where deer and wild boar roam. The only civilisation on route the sleepy village of Allières; it’s feels like you’ve been transported back in time to a world far away from busy modern lives.
The Brewery Loop
A day to enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the Ariège and its neighbouring department, the Aude. The ride starts with an easy spin, due south along the lush L’Hers valley towards the imposing peeks of the Tarbe Massif.
A left hand turn in the medieval bastide town of Mirepoix takes you to the picture-postcard villages of Camon, Sonnac sur L’Hers and the capital of the Quercorb region Chalabre, a quintessentially French town with plane tree-lined boulevards, shady streets and quiet alleyways.
The land is rich and verdant, fruit farms are abundant and the first vines of the Languedoc Rousillon wine-growing region grow here. Given its proximity to the High Pyrénées, the terrain is surprisingly flat and forgiving.
A mid ride pause at Brasserie du Quercorb for a delicious ‘bière artisanal’ and a few slices of local charcuterie and fromage is a must. You can take one of several routes back but one that includes the climb to the ancient Cathar château of Montségur is recommended, followed by a post-ride dip in the clear waters of L’Hers to finish.
The Grand Traverse d’Ariège
Starting in the thermal spa town of Ax-Les-Thermes (complete with springs of hot sulphurous water) and finishing at Zero Neuf, the GTA can be ridden as a self-supported three-day bike-packing adventure or in bite-sized individual sections.
Whichever way you decide ride it, you will be treated to everything this wonderful region has to offer the off-road adventurer.
You’ll navigate single-track GR routes amongst brooding woodland and wide double-track trails high above the tree line close to the Andorran and Spanish borders, where vultures soar and bears roam.
The GTA also takes you into steep-sided river gorges, mind-blowing in their scale and beauty and across high pasture filled with the sound of cowbells and wild flowers in summer. The route then picks up the pristine gravel of the region’s wonderful Voie Verte, these car-free routes have been reclaimed from the ancient railway network. The shaded squares in the ancient towns and villages on route are perfect for a beer or coffee stop.
Starting and finishing in the village of Couflens this is a loop like no other. The elevation ranges from 560m to the route’s highest point at 2260m.
You are deep into the Ariège here, amongst the highest peaks of the Pyrénées, it’s a wild and beautiful land. Height is gained quickly as you leave the river Sarlat behind and begin the breath-taking ascent to the border with Spain.
The first part of the route is a road climb and a series of hairpin bends that bring you to a cluster of ancient stone huts and the transition to double-track gravel. The serpent-like road hugs the mountain; an ancient track cut out of the land by mountain men and women of old.
A sweeping left hand bend and a hairpin right brings you to the summit of the Col de Pause – an apt name considering you are stopped in your tracks by the vista.
You are then rewarded with a truly incredible 5km stretch of double track gravel; a series of switchbacks lacing a path up the mountainside. It feels like a stairway to heaven.
As you reach the Port d’Aula (at 2,260m one of many forgotten frontiers with Spain) your return to France via the Port Salau is tantalisingly close.
Farm Tracks & River Crossings
The fertile flood plains of the river Hers have been farmed for centuries and there is a vast network of tracks and trails as a result, perfect for off-road adventures.
If we add local sections of the GR78 and the disused railway lines that brought workers to the once industrial town of Pamiers, you can spend many hours tearing around dirt without straying more than 20km from your base.
This car free playground is a gift that keeps on giving; north, south, east or west it matters not the direction you take - the loops can be shortened or lengthened depending on your mood.
In summer months, when the river runs shallow and warm, you can make crossings by fording, picnic on deserted beaches and banks and wild swim to cool yourself down.