One of the longest and most difficult climbs in the Pyrénées will never be included in the Tour de France. To be fair, in recent years, the Tour organizers have included some very short sections of gravel, but the chances of including a long dirt climb are slim to none. And that’s fine with gravel enthusiasts, who prefer to scour the iconic French Michelin maps for squiggly dashed lines that aren’t really even classified as passable rather than follow the path of the Tour de France stars up the famous paved mountain passes. Heck, when the Tour first entered the Pyrénées in 1910, all the climbs were gravel. It’s throwback time in France!
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The aforementioned Michelin maps are the unquestioned bible for cyclists aspiring to ride the famous and not-sofamous climbs in France. The map company classifies roads with different colors. At the low end of the passable scale is a red and white dashed line that Michelin succinctly calls “difficult or dangerous”—basically the holy grail for gravel cyclists looking for adventure.
The small town of Prades on the eastern end of the Pyrenean range is only 55 kilometers from the Mediterranean, but with summits reaching over 8,000 feet to the south it is a gateway to the high mountains. Just outside town to the south is the Piste Forestière de Balaig, a loop made up of two dirt tracks that reach an altitude of 7,200 feet at their highest point.
So, with the trusty Michelin “Aude, Pyrénées-Orientales” map tucked in a jersey pocket, my friend Lindsay and I set out on one fine summer’s day to find out why this awesomelooking loop was considered difficult and dangerous. We chose to do the loop in the counterclockwise direction, which meant that the first 1,500 feet of climbing to the Col de Millères was paved. But fear not, we still had more than 4,500 feet of elevation gain on gravel and a 6,000-foot dirt descent back to Prades—the asphalt opener just provided a good warm-up!
The 15-kilometer of dirt climbing averaged 10 percent, included multiple sections of 11- to 14-percent grade and one short pitch at 21 percent. The rocky nature of the road combined with the double-digit gradients made it imperative to pick the best line. But concentrating on where to ride also made the climb pass rather quickly. And being in a dense forest mitigated the summer heat that always adds a layer of drama when the Tour comes to these mountains in southeast France.
Lindsay and I ride a lot of dirt together and feel pretty comfortable on road bikes with 25mm tires; and if that’s not your cup of tea a gravel bike would be another excellent option. Also, being on a road less traveled allows you to absorb the flora and fauna of the region without being hassled by cars and pesky motorcycles.
Imagine our surprise when we reached the top, just below the 9,133-foot Pic du Canigou, only to find a French Alpine Club (CAF) hut. Don’t be misled by the term hut. The French do mountain travel with the same flair as they put into their cuisine. The hut had a bar, café and a great outdoor seating area to view the stunning snow-covered peaks on the border between France and Spain.
Okay, there are some energy bars out there that almost pass for food but, if you can, get a beer (be careful, a long, technical descent awaits!), along with a French baguette and a local cheese for a very reasonable price. You just have to go for it—why did you come all the way to France in the first place?
Well-fortified, we tackled the never-ending gravel downhill to the east, which, thank heavens, was much smoother than our rocky ascent. The gravel gods were smiling on us that day! With the technical ascent, picture-taking and lounging at the CAF hut, it made for a long day despite being only 35 miles and 6,200 feet of climbing. But if you can’t take the time to enjoy an adventure on unknown roads in a foreign land you can just get your fix by watching the Tour de France at home. But, be forewarned, you are never going to see Tour riders make this difficult and beautiful climb on your television screens!