There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the Col de Couraduque, let alone ridden it. That’s likely true even if you have visited the Hautes Pyrénées to tackle the likes of the nearby Col du Tourmalet. While the latter has been climbed by nearly 26,000 Strava users, only 6,000 have ridden Couraduque. The Tour de France has never been up it.
All of this is a shame because the Col de Couraduque has much to offer – and certainly enough to warrant a place among our Classic Climbs collection. Its 6.4km length may not seem like much, but the stat is misleading because the pretty village at its base, Aucun, sits in a high valley, so the 503m of ascent takes you to a summit of 1,367m.
That’s only 100m below the neighbouring Col du Soulor, which climbs the same ridgeline and begins 3km further west along the D918. A half-measure this is not.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you approach from the east, from the cycling hotspot of Argèles-Gazost, you will have climbed for 9km by the time you reach Aucun, half of it easy and rolling, the other half at similarly stiff gradients to those that await on Couraduque itself. Suffice to say that you will be thoroughly warmed up.
The climb begins from a small turning at the west end of Aucun. It’s immediately steep, the road builders seemingly not minded to mitigate the mountain’s ‘lower’ reaches with even the slightest meander. This early ramp hits 13%, the steepest pitch of the whole climb, so moderate your effort to save your legs. It’s way too soon to be in the red.
On leaving the village the road settles to 8% for a long traverse. You’re heading east at this point, and the sensation of height gain is magnified by the valley also dropping away below you. The view through the trees hints at a spectacular summit.
One kilometre in, the road briefly eases off to near-flat, only to kick up again to 11% following the first of the climb’s four switchbacks, which are scattered throughout its length like chapter breaks. A tight right-hander leads out of the trees and onto a 500m section that’s nearly straight, at a solid 8% throughout.
It looks out along the valley towards the dramatic peaks that tower above the Cirque du Litor, the bowl around which a famous balcony road skirts on its way to the Col d’Aubisque.
Because it is south-facing, and especially because that’s unusual in this part of the Pyrenees, the Couraduque makes for a great training climb outside of summer.
On one of the many sunny winter days in the Pyrenees, when the Tourmalet is busy with skiers in place of cyclists, and the summit of Hautacam is besieged by a long patch of ice in a section near the top that goes months without sun, you can climb the Couraduque in summer kit and descend again with no more than a wind jacket. Even if it has snowed, the road is quickly cleared for access.
Playground of the pros
The climb’s one moment in the sun was in 2016. The Route du Sud stage race (now called Route d’Occitanie) had a summit finish here on Stage 4. Marc Soler took his first pro win that day with a solo attack from 2km out that set him up to be best young rider and second on GC.
Behind him, teammate Nairo Quintana was tranquil in the leader’s jersey that he’d keep to the end of the race, able to mark attacks painlessly whenever the sedate pace was disrupted.
While the big races may have overlooked Couraduque, amateur events have capitalised, and it’s a favourite of both Haute Route Pyrenees and the similar Campilaro. The best times from each pepper the first page of Strava results. Others come from pros – Arkéa-Samsic and B&B Hotels have both held training camps here.
For some of the pros and stronger amateurs, Couraduque makes for an ideal 20-minute FTP test. The pure pro climbers, however, are too fast for their own good. Pierre Rolland holds the KoM with an effort close to 18 minutes flat, done during a training ride in July 2020.
The virtual crown must have been scant consolation for proving to himself what great legs he would have had for the Tour de France had it not been postponed that year.
It would be a stretch to suggest that the Col de Couraduque is the Pyrenean equivalent of the Col de la Madone, near Nice, or Rocacorba, local to Girona, both famous test climbs of the pros, but they’d be friends if they met.
One of the great joys of cycling in the mountains is that no two climbs are the same, yet they often echo. The riding experience of climbing Couraduque has a lot in common with that of Hautacam, another neighbour, 11km to the east.
The road is narrow, too thin to get a central white line; it’s similarly winding, too, snaking unpredictably up the mountainside.
Most of all, it’s the wildly inconsistent gradient that puts you in mind of the climb that capped the 2022 Tour de France. Hautacam is notorious for doing all it can to disrupt your rhythm and Couraduque follows suit, with brief flats, ramps at gradients well into double digits, sporadic switchbacks so tight it’s as if the road has rebounded off an invisible wall, and even a dip that requires the big ring if you’re chasing either a time or a rival.
Likewise it’s steep near the top, with pitches of 11% interrogating your legs about the efficacy of your pacing on the opening wall. By this point the top is in view.
A car park is built right to the edge and there’s always at least one vehicle seemingly just a poorly applied handbrake away from taking the short way down. To the left, a cafe with a sundeck calls like a siren, every rider hearing their greatest desire offered if they can only get themselves there.
One final switchback and a 100m effort hauls you to a summit where worlds collide. The road expires exactly at the zenith; beyond it, gravel tracks spread in five directions, penetrating the Fôret d’Arganat like the roots of one of the millions of trees that fill the valley beyond.
In winter the contrast is sharper still. Dark grey tarmac, inevitably wet and dirty, comes face-to-face with crisp snow, perfectly white and as uninviting to a road bike as it is unendingly joyful to the dozens of families usually enjoying what must be one of the smallest downhill ski stations anywhere, comprising only a single nursery slope.
In good company
Whatever time of year you ride Couraduque, don’t double back too soon. The view is too big to gulp down, so sit and sip it. The gravel tracks of Pic du Cabiliros dominate, immediately opposite; the smaller Col de Borderès lies to the west, crossing a new ridgeline that rises from the middle of the valley; to the east, the Hautacam Massif fills almost the entire width of the horizon.
On the clearest days you can see, some 28km away, the observatory on Pic du Midi de Bigorre, which towers above the Col du Tourmalet.
It’s rumoured that the Tour de France may visit one day, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The Col de Couraduque is doing just fine on its own.