Lady CoMo of the Pyrenees
Day 13 Lourdes to Luz – Sep 8, 2012
In the morning scattered groups of wheelchair-bound people with two bad legs and four wheels had already started drifting towards the grotto. It was almost tragic to watch. We left with four good legs and two wheels.
We had gotten away reasonably early and ridden some distance over pleasant rolling hills with a few 8% climbs thrown in for good measure.
¨Should we look at the map?¨ Oh those dreaded words ...
¨Don´t beat yourself up.¨ I was angry with myself and riding hard. I hate being stupid, and I had been as stupid as a brick. We had to re-cover every inch of ground we had ridden. I had missed one turn in Lourdes and we were east when we wanted to be north.
It happened in an instant. I was pedaling heads-down. Lady CoMo started to flex and fishtail – Mary was steering from the back. ¨STAY!¨ I yelled when a huge white tour bus sliced past and cut us off at high speed. My last visual memory is of the front tire at the edge of the tarmac and heading for the grass. I don´t know how we stayed up. I credit Lady CoMo’s excellent balance.
We were shaken enough to stop at a roadside picnic table and break out the excellent lunch that Hotel Paradis in Lourdes had packed for us. Thank you, Catherine. (Catherine is from Dublin. She and Mary got on famously.)
By the time we were back on the road it was past noon. A beautiful morning for riding had turned into an out-and-back. A roadside vegetable soup helped the spirits, and a quiet road to Argeles-Gazost improved the body.
We started coming across lots of cyclists – we were on the road to Tourmalet! A couple of professional teams left us well behind but they were fun to watch. The pros are very intense and have no sense of camaraderie with the touring cyclist.
It would have been a beautiful day for Tourmalet; instead we finished the day at the base of the col. The morning would start straight onto the col that has been in all but five of the Tours de France.
A demain, Little Engine, a demain ...
Day 14 Luz to Ste-Marie de Campan – Sep 9, 2012
We did it. We needed three rest stops but we managed Tourmalet.
The climb started in the shade and within the first half hour I was soaked in sweat. There was more two-wheeled traffic than four-wheeled. Tourmalet is a cyclist’s Mecca.
It is interesting how the French promote their cycling heritage. There is signage at every important cycling site. Each kilometer of Tourmalet has the elevation and gradient posted. (Mary kept score on their gradients by cross-checking against Mr. Garmin.)
There is an alternate Tourmalet route named after Laurent Fignon, one of France’s cycling sons. It runs higher than the main road and looks tough – we had enough on our hands with the main climb, thank you very much.
By the third stop we were above the treeline with no possibility for shade. We made the final six kilometers in one go. Three kilometers from the top a group of supported cyclists were sitting in chairs and picnicking on the grass. They gave us a cheer as we ground past. The small gestures of encouragement from drivers and other riders made all the difference.
There is road graffiti on the final stretch of the climb. The names of riders and sometimes their teams have been painted on the road, sometimes crudely. Someone must have heard we were coming: there was even a ¨Kern¨!
One name stands out amid the jumble of graffiti: LANCE. It stands alone, faded but apart from all the others. No one has had the audacity to encroach on his legacy.
From the west (the side we came up), Tourmalet has an average gradient of 7.8% over a distance of 19 kilometers. That’s a lot of climbing. It also saves the “best” for last; I saved a gear for the last 2 kilometers where it stiffens to over 10%. When we rounded the last corner and finally saw the summit we each gave everything we had. The gradient of those final 200 meters is over 13%. It is brutal. We made it to the top but we were spent.
The restaurant at the top serves an excellent soup. They also have a few vintage bikes on display, including one with a very strange chain path. Mary bought a “Tourmalet” bandana. It is our only cycling souvenir of the trip.
The west side of Tourmalet is very picturesque. The east side has been over-developed with a truly ugly ski resort. It is also steeper than the west side. It may have taken us longer to get down than to ride up. We stopped almost every kilometer. I had to adjust the brakes twice and pondered whether we would need yet another new set of pads. I simple could not let go of the brakes – Lady CoMo would have been at 70 kph in the blink of an eye.
At the bottom of the pass we stopped at the village of Ste-Marie de Campan for the night. We were only 20 kilometers from where we had turned around the day before.
The proprietor of Les Deux Cols, our two star hotel, plays his dining room like a fiddle. When Mary left her purse at a table in the garden, he made a great show of returning it to her. Mention should be made of the kitchen. These people are serious about their food. It is prepared with the attention one expects of a French country kitchen. The ris de veau en feuillette was particularly fine.
Day 15 Ste-Marie to Campan to St Lary – Sep 10, 2012
We woke to the smell of freshly baked bread from the kitchen below our window. When I went down to wax Lady CoMo’s chain someone had left a pan of freshly-caught trout outside the kitchen door.
The smaller a room, the easier it is to lose something in it, or the harder it is to find everything when packing up.
This was the day we hit a wall. When we left Spain for France we also left our firmly planned route. Since arriving in France we had been cycling without a real plan and had the feeling things might start to fall apart.
When we walked out of Les Deux Cols we had a choice: do we go left or right, up or down? A New Zealander chatting with us said there was a “nice little hill” down the road (with a vague gesture towards Col d’Aspin). He and 4 mates had rented two vans to ferry themselves and their luggage for a cycling vacation.
We followed his suggestion and turned left, the way up. It’s what we wanted to do anyway.
The climb to Col d’Aspin is a 13 km climb and barely breaches the treeline. I watched cyclists pass by when we stopped for a rest 2 km from the top. I think there was one every minute. This is what makes France great for cycling – the support and encouragement one gets is like fuel. French drivers, on the other hand, are French drivers ...
Our chain came off just when we were cresting Aspin. I was shifting from the granny gear, we lost momentum and then we lost our balance. (Mary happens to have caught this particularly unedifying episode on video.) In hindsight it was quite hilarious. At the time it was a sign of road fatigue. Was it realistic to expect we could cycle a mountain pass every day?
A cow at the top of the pass took a liking to my cycling gloves – I took it as a hint that it might be time to wash them.
We decided we would rather be in Spain. The question was, by what route should we return? The choice of a crossing point would determine our choice of routes once we were back in Spain.
In Arreau, a crossroads town, we needed to sort things out. We had very little food with us and there was no kitchen open in the village (we arrived after 2:00 pm). A waiter managed to scoop up some leftover spaghetti with meat sauce for a bite. It was not quite French cuisine.
We looked for a room. The only hotel in the town was ¨complet, desole¨. We had to move.
We rode up the valley to St-Lary, 15 kilometers away. It’s a resort town with lots of hotels that caters to outdoor activity. That night a display of lightning silhouetted the peaks around us but with no sound of thunder – it was very strange.
Day 16 St Lary to Luchon – Sep 11, 2012
The morning started with the usual routine of waxing the chains, pumping tires and adjusting the brakes. A floor pump with a pressure gauge was in the hotel storage room – bonus! I did not notice (until it was too late) that the pump was broken. When I tried to use it I lost all pressure in the rear tyre. Back to the portable hand pump.
The ride back to Arreau was fast and smooth – it was a pleasure to ride a near-flat road. Getting through Arreau however was not quite ¨straight as an Arreau¨. It´s amazing how much time can be lost navigating a small village, and now we were double-checking the map at each intersection.
Col de Peyresourde took a couple of stops while unencumbered riders floated past us to the top. There was a lot of cycling here (although the number of touring cyclists we saw could be counted on one hand).
The col was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it would be our last col in France. Also, we got a superb cheese omelette at the top. It is unbelievable how much we missed eggs for breakfast. Surely one would think the country that invented the omelette could cook an egg for breakfast.
The descent was not so bad – my morning brake adjustment seemed to work well and we were able to go for 4 kms before cooling off.
In Luchon I made arrangements at a bike shop to install new pads in the morning at 9:30 sharp.
I washed my gloves that night – more black water, possibly mixed with cow slobber.
Day 17 Luchon to Vielha – Sep 12, 2012
¨Pain is weakness leaving the body¨ – Road graffiti on the climb to Tourmalet
We woke to a cloud cover that had dropped over the hills above us. Indecision: should we stay or should we go? Our hotel did not have wi-fi reception for Mary´s iPad (unless we went to the restaurant across the street – very strange). In the end we rolled although the manner of our departure was in many ways a mistake.
The technician at Luchon Mountain Bike wanted my bike at the shop at 9:30, and at 9:30 I was there. He said it would be ready by 10:00, and at 10:03 he rolled it up from the basement with a new set of brake pads installed. He explained that cleaning the rotor of the disc brake is very important, which may be the cause of the squealing I was getting when braking hard.
Luchon was still festooned with decorations from that year´s Tour de France. It had been a point of both arrival and departure in the 2012 Tour.
We left late after the brake pads were installed and we left without a proper breakfast (we had hoped to get an egg on the street).
Breakfast is a subject for contemplation. You cannot ride without fuel. A good breakfast cannot be rushed. It must be paced and cover all the food groups with sufficient quantity, variety and quality. A good breakfast should have coffee, juice, milk, yoghurt, sliced meats, cheese, cereal, toast, butter, fresh fruit, and eggs if at all possible. One serving of each is advised, followed by leisurely second helpings.
If there is one area in which France fails the cyclist it is at the breakfast table. So does Spain. Mind you, French drivers also get demerit points for driving too fast and too close.
The climb to Col de Portillon is one third brutal (9-11%), one third tame (4-5%), and one third brutal (9-11%). I over-geared at the base of the climb and we beat ourselves up unnecessarily at the start – Mary put her back out temporarily.
Two kilometers from the top we need a break and tipped over while stopping for a rest. The fall was the culmination of a number of tactical mistakes, but really it was the result of being over-tired. We walked the rest of the way to the top – it was easier than riding.
At the summit we leaned Lady CoMo against a signpost by a picnic table for a photo. Two cars pulled in and a group of French women rushed over to spread a cloth over the table and claim it for themselves. While they trilled and giggled at their picnic, we huddled in our rain jackets (the temperature had fallen to 11 degrees), sitting on a rock and carving off hunks of sausage and cheese.
The brakes held well on the descent (which was as nasty as the climb), and the N into Vielha was a relatively quiet and easy ride. It is funny how, on the larger highways, your eyes play tricks and you don’t know if you are going up or down.
As Mary said later, the fall that happened at Portillon probably what would have happened to us had we attempted Aubisque after crossing into France. We were too tired for it.
I felt my knees when walking down the stairs that night in Viehla.
Spanish olives are so-oo good.
Day 18 Vielha (Rest day) – Sep 13, 2012
Rain. All day the clouds couldn´t decide whether to descend down the hills or rise above the occasion. It was perfect for a rest day.
Mary said we would be bored after being in a town for a day and she was right. We were both going to be happier when rolling the next day. Mind you, I was feeling uncommon muscles and body parts.
Mention should be made of our supper restaurant, Casa Jimena. It is located on a sharp uphill walk off Calle Major in a stone building excavated centuries ago from the side of the mountain. Its interior is constructed of broad timbers and raw, savage rock with a hearth that would heat the mountain itself. Tables were set with linen. The proprietor has the bulk, hair and countenance to suit the origins of the building – three hundred years ago he would fit right in. The food was very good – he and his wife are trying hard and serve a lot of local product. It is worth checking out if riding through the area.
Day 19 Vielha to Sort – Sep 14, 2012
It was a good day´s ride.
Cap del Port is a high col – within 50 meters of Tourmalet but the climb is much more civilized. Gradients stay at 6-7% with minor variations, and there is no sadistic finish to break the spirit. A restaurant at the top served olives and lentil soup which was much appreciated – it was only 10 degrees when we left Vielha.
I considered putting on my long-fingered gloves for the descent.
The descent was as sensible as the climb. We were able to coast for long stretches without riding the brakes (except when horses were resting in the middle of the road). For the last 35 kms we were actually able to pedal in the big ring. It was the first time on the tour we could truly ride the heavy gears (though we knew we would pay for it the next day).
In Sort, at the lower altitudes, temperatures were comfortable in the low twenties. Birds were flocking overhead like grains of pepper tossed in the wind – the seasons were about to change.
Evenings are a novel sight for a North American tourist. The Spanish eat late when, it seemed to us, families all gather in the public plazas. Children run amid the adults who stroll and chat. There is a sense of community that has been sanitized out of North American urban planning.
It is quaint to watch. Living the dream would be a different matter.
Day 20 Sort to La Seu d’Urgell – Sep 15, 2012
We literally started the day riding from our hotel’s doorstep on a climb that did not let up for over 1,000 vertical meters. That sounds severe but it was really okay – the gradients remained sensible and did not grind us down to a pulp.
Mary took great pleasure in tracking our altitude. Using the Garmin she monitored our ascents and called out our stats as we climbed. The height of the cols were marked on our map and she would benchmark us. If she said, ¨150 Meters to go¨ it meant 150 vertical meters, not 150 meters of distance. Hopefully there would at least 3 kilometers to climb!
The sun, however, and the heat and humidity took their toll. It was hot. At one point we were huddled together on two small rocks in the shade of a pine, looking for some meager shelter from the sun. We felt like a couple of small kids playing ¨ambush¨.
Near Rubio a small bar rustled up cold water, freshly squeezed orange juice and a bag of potato chips (aka “crisps”). Lays makes a great potato chip in Spain that is cooked in olive oil – we don’t get have those in Canada. We sat indoors through the worst of the sun.
A few kilometers up from Rubio we reached the summit, which has great pastoral panoramas across the valleys. Benches were widely spaced for comfort and viewing enjoyment – it was most pleasurable.
Thereafter there was a gradual descent – a perfect descent, really – that allowed us to use our big ring with liberty. Then there was a second panorama even more spectacular than the first. The view, up to Seu and Andorra beyond, was one to hold you in suspense and simply live the moment. We shared an orange and were about to leave when a convey of dozens of Harley Davidsons rolled in. They were out for a weekend ride. One of them offered to take our picture.
The descent was harder than the climb, with kilometers at a time at 9% gradients. We took lots of stops to cool the brakes.
At the valley bottom the fields had been freshly-manured.
How much does one really need on a self-supported tour for a month? For us the answer was, surprisingly, not much. Electronics consumed a surprising amount of space, and the bike maintenance and repair kit was essential, of course. Locks were the heaviest items we carried and for the most part were superfluous. Some cycling gear could possibly have been left behind, but it was late September and the mountain passes were high. We were not camping, partly because we did not want to ride with front panniers. Our total volume consisted of two Ortlieb panniers, a top-mounted suitcase, and one Brooks saddle bag. It was not much but it was adequate to keep us presentable is respectable company.
Expedition planning: we had followed a pre-planned route on the outbound journey; on the return we were deciding the route day-by-day, ad-hoc and without guidance. One measure of the progress for a tour is how many panels of the map one has covered. We had moved from one side of the map to the other, and were now returning to the original side, albeit by higher roads.
Hotel Andria in Le Seu is a fine hotel in the perfect, faded, European style. It is complete with balustrades, high Roman arches, vines, worn marble stairs, old wood, and a warm late-summer breeze to accompany a late-setting sun. Their kitchen is excellent. Think gazpacho flavoured with fresh strawberries, and the crispy thighs of acorn-fed duck stuffed with red cabbage ...