The Col du Chioula

On this 2nd of December, we set departure a bit late after a chat with out hosts and big breakfast. My pictures didn’t upload completely, the internet connection is slow. I already had to reconfigure our hosts router that had mac filtering enabled (without them knowing, the grandchildren have probably changed the config) to allow us to connect to Internet. In the end that’s much time spent geeking for few results.

Our objective of the day is very modest, as it’s actually to finish the ride until Ax-les-Thermes that we couldn’t reach yesterday. We have 30 km to go, up to the Col du Chioula and down. We can go further but that’s already the big climb to Andorra via the Port d’Envalira above 2400 m, and it seems better to reserve the whole day for it. Let’s do the things in the right order.

 


 

We feel lucky in the morning to wake up with a big sun (on the top of not waking up outside by -6°C) and hope the ice and snow on the roads will be melted down by the time we are there.

The road uphill until the Pass of the Chioula at 1429 m is not too steep but very cold.

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First leg done, Col des Sept Frères at 1253m

 

We reach first a plateau around 1200 m. The plateau is home to the Camurac skiing domain, with cross-country tracks and downhill skiing. At this time, we are “in the open”, without trees to protect us from the wind and it’s very cold.

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The road also is cold and unsafe

 

I don’t feel comfortable turning the bike handlebars when on a white road, I could slip anytime. We move on slowly on the snowy patches and hope we are not descending too much before the coming ascent.

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Wind and snow

 

A bit further, we take on the last uphill segment to the top, have more snow on the road, surprise the few cars driving around, who wish us good luck, and we finally make it.

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An easy extra pass sign while ascending. The road behind is closed

 

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Snow rider

 

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Finally, Col du Chioula, 1431 m

 

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-61°C in the snow, I know now why it feels cold!

 

On the top of the pass, 5 cars came parking to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. The resort is not open yet but there is already more snow than required. With our bikes we have the alien kind of equipment, but are reassured when the skiers told us that the road down to Ax-les-Thermes, facing south, is almost completely clean (from snow).

On the other hand, the snow starts to fall here and we can’t take pictures of anything else than the white of the ground or the white of the fog. We abandon the idea of having this fantastic viewpoint over the Pyrénées and attack our descent.

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View from the Col du Chioula

 

The descent is the worst, because we don’t generate heat. I have 3 layers on my hands, but they will still freeze. Five minutes of having them facing the slope, constantly holding the brakes, is enough to make the fingertips numb. We make a few breaks to shake our hands and warm up before resuming the descent.

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Downhill

 

After a last bend within the trees, we are hanging over the town of Ax-les-Thermes. The last town before Andorra. Completely surrounded by white and trees, under a low ceiling of clouds, the scenery is breathtaking. We’re also happy to feel already the probable end of the day, a very short one.

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Ax-les-Thermes from the Col du Chioula

 

The end of the day signifies also the end of France. What we see, or seem to see, behind the clouds, is the road to the Pas-de-la-Case, in Andorra. We’re cold in the snow, at the bottom of France, but it’s far from being over …

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Ax-les-Thermes from the Col du Chioula

 

We reach Ax-les-Thermes after just a bit more than 3 hours riding. It’s a rather small town and right after entering it, we find a building with columns on the main square. It’s the thermal center. We get inside the hall to warm up, remove the gloves and feel the blood circulating again in the fingers and toes.

As it’s not quite the end of the day yet, we can wait a bit here and resume to the next village, 10 km further, Mérens, along the road to Andorra. But after seeing the people bathing and the interior baths through the windows, we immediately abandon this idea. We decide to spend the night in Ax-les-Thermes, including the rest of the day to regenerate our legs in the baths. What’s awaiting us tomorrow is the highest pass of the Pyrénées.

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Ax-les-Thermes – thermal baths

 

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Hiding our bikes in the (so warm!) machine room

 

We take a hotel to remain dry and warm, take forces with a Montagnarde pizza for dinner, and hope that tomorrow won’t have as much snow and rain as people say. The weather forecasts change every day, and when accurate, it forecasts with delay … so we can’t really trust any website or TV, but we keep checking. Being at 2400 m on the road with a bike at a wrong time of the winter can only be a bad or very bad experience.

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Thermal pool
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