Carros de Foc: Seven Pyrenean Passes

In Catalan Carros de Foc means ‘Chariots of Fire‘, as in the famous 1981 movie (well, I think it’s famous – 1981 seems like yesterday!). Whatever, the Carros de Foc is one of the most gruelling mountain endurance events I can imagine: running in a 55 km circuit of mountain peaks between nine refuges, with one exception (1885 m) all are over 2,000 metres, and with a total climb/decent rate of 9,200 metres! I know a guy who does this – one of the fittest men I’ve ever met! – who also helps to run a hippotherapy clinic in his ‘spare’ time – something that reminds me that the world isn’t quite such a bad place after all!

Back to the bike ride: with a few exception we biker’s don’t do peaks (although we do do hostelries – of course!) so I’ve long nurtured the idea of a round trip of spectacular passes around the Catalan Pyrenees. The problem was always trying to keep the route in Catalonia – which is where the Carros de Foc is located in its entirety. Then the other day it struck me not to be so darned pedantic – and within five minutes I had the route which goes right around the Carros de Foc zone – all of which is in national and natural park areas that are prohibited to motor vehicles, so an off-road route isn’t feasible.

I did the ride on the morning of San Joan (June 24th) – a bacchanalian midsummer feast held all along the Mediterranean coast in which more or less the entire populace party the night, i.e. June 23rd, away awaiting the dawn of the shortest day – thus guaranteeing empty roads! But the route passes into Aragon, which isn’t on the coast and so June 24th is an ordinary working day, but what the heck – in June there’s little traffic anyway apart from the route up to the Bielsa tunnel! Furthermore, but the time I passes by any towns in France the French were all at lunch – and then I crossed back into Spain at the beginning of their lunchtime too – and mine of course!

A few notes about the route:

  • No matter where you start this route I chose to do it clockwise: the ascent to the Bielsa tunnel from Ainsa offers spectacular views into the eastern parts of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido national park while the decent from the north portal of the tunnel is fantastic – the same is the case for the climb to the Port de la Bonaigüa, which has views up into the northern parts of the Aigüestortes i Llac de San Maurici park on the ascent and an amazing series of hairpin bends going down the southern flank.
  • As you can see from the photomontage, you are going to experience dramatic changes in the weather both between the northern and southern sides of the Pyrenees crossings themselves, as well as going up and down the valleys along the way. Note that there is often a ‘thermal inversion’, in which temperatures are much lower in the valleys, especially in winter!
  • Google gives the route at 386 kms and over seven hours drive. But I did the route in six hours of actual riding – note the long breakfast break between the Coll de Fadas and the Bielsa tunnel. Furthermore, I was testing a new shock absorber and wasn’t in a great hurry – at least until La Bonaigüa when I was getting late for the paella!
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