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Pyrenees 2018: double trouble

July 4, 2018

Another year done and dusted. And while in previous years there were (almost) daily blog posts, this year the shonky hotel wi-fi, reticence to start typing rather than sleeping and the heat means you’re getting a wrap-up at the end rather than throughout.

Disappointing you might say. Well, tough.

And it was this year, as it always tends to be. Double trouble: one ride, two countries. Starting from Banca high in the French Pyrenean foothills, crossing over into Spain on the first afternoon, heading east through the Aragon region then turning north on day four to cross the border into France again before finishing in the familiar spa town of Argeles-Gazost, they were five hilly, hot, hilarious days.

So here’s the wrap-up (what I can remember at least) and some poor photos, mostly taken in the saddle – send more to add here, they’ll be better.

Day one: Banca to Hecho

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We had rain, fog, sun, wind, cloud; flat, false flat, little climbs, big climbs, a lot of climbing overall, some fast descents, and some where you couldn’t see a sheep in front of your face. Starting up the twin peaks of the Cols d’Iraty (individual names: Col de Birdinabusha and Col de Cantremembera), we could see the clouds gathering, and the sharp ramps came right off the undulating countryside as we hit the mountains proper. It’s a beautiful, remote part of France and the road builders seemed to have taken their cue from the Spanish as gradients were inconsistent and pragmatic engineering lacking.

As we crested the first of the twin cols ad turned left to the second (pas de coffee stop, fermee..) JL was having an un-JL day at the back when navigational disaster struck – carrying straight on, he added some km to his endeavours before he realised l’erreur, but had a nice chat with some hikers as a fringe benefit. By the top of the second peak the crap weather was really coming, a big concern for Sleds who had to navigate his high-powered motorcycle through some nasty fog patches. It made for a tricky and slow descent, but all down safely.

Think I crested first; will never know, no-one saw anyway

Next the big beast of the day, the Port de Larrau, which would bring us into Spain. Not that we saw much of it, with dense fog obscuring what are surely amazing views, several kilometres at 11% and nothing much to recommend it. At the top, sod all to see either, but after a few minutes downhill there was a lunch stop at a rustic café in the sunshine to add some cheer. From there, a fast descent then climbing again up a long, steady col in the sunshine. Coming through a village, the first of newbie Brendan Barney Barnes’ handful of punctures over the course of the week, though thankfully he took good advantage of the support available before hopping back on and leaving them for dust.

Barney, not on bike (this would become a theme)

 

And finally, up the Alto de Hecho, a climb in 40oC heat, never very steep but a grind for already-tiring legs. Which then got more tired on the 8km steadily uphill drag to the hotel into a headwind. In total, something like 4,300m of climbing on the first day, which is better than 4,400m. No matter, there was a foot spa of sorts in the grounds, much food consumed and more than a few panaches to slake thirsts. Barney further announced his presence by contracting facial shingles, which did nothing to slow him down.

 

Day two: Hecho to Torla

“Hole”

Billed as an early rest day, it would have been were it not for a load of cycling that got in the way, including some diversions, the first of which was Barney realising at 10 minutes to roll-out that he had another flat. Just two climbs, but the heat was again a factor. The first, up to a place called Asia is think was gradual but gravelly, pretty remote but a scenic introduction to the more rustic parts of Aragon that were to follow. A quick coffee stop then some sweeping, wide-open descents on smooth roads until it became more rolling. Apart from for Barney, who got another puncture.

Got the horn for flats

Having tried to avoid getting caught up in The Bone Breaker, Spain’s biggest sportive, we then got embroiled in it by way of closed roads, so had to do a loop round the diversions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, up another hill in searing heat. Baguette lunch in someone’s driveway didn’t do much to ease a few frayed nerves, but there was the respite of a 12km climb in searing heat to help that bread digest (easier for Tom, in the van). I was struggling on this one with the weather, guzzling water and crawling up the thing, before finally emerging from a tunnel into a stunning descent almost all the way to our hotel in Torla, a kind of semi-plush Spanish outdoorsy village at the end of a cul-de-sac because the mountains reared up severely just in front of us to form a spectacular natural barrier.

Mountains that keep the French out

 

Which we could take in from the pool at our four-star hotel (correct) while some got massages (correct) and then had a massive dinner before nominations in the garden under the palm trees (correct).

 

Day three: Torla to El Pont de Suert

After a general consensus (well, majority verdict) over dinner the night before, we decided to take the sting out of the hillier bits of the next morning by re-routing ourselves in a slightly longer but flatter route (thanks Mr Windsor) which made for a fast, smooth (again) descent to a valley floor before heading east. Sleds departed vis motorbike (he still found those first few days highly challenging) while the rest of us felt engine-assisted given the soft-pedalling needed for the first part of the day. The road surfaces in this part of Spain are certainly a cut above Italy and even France – so of course we turned off the main road for some single-track lanes to take in a bit more of the scenery. And came face-to-face with a very big cow that obstructed our passage at a bridge. Being a country boy now, I felt it was my duty to roll up to the beast first for a bit of Croc Dundee mind trick action. Seeing no imminent threat from a vegetarian, she duly trotted off.

As the midday sun was at its fiercest, we began a steady but long drag up to Foradada del Toscar, which definitely took its time and split the bunch. The reward outstripped the endeavour – a bomber of a descent into the lunch stop at Campo that saw Ed hit 107kmh, the nutter. Imagine what he’d achieve with fitted kit.

Obligatory Dartford Motors abroad shot

Lunch was a dietician’s nightmare – pizza, chicken dippers, patatas bravas doing breaststroke in garlic mayo. But welcome, as we then set out onto more remote roads and another long uphill slow before descending to start the steady, spectacular ascent of the Col de Bonansa via a stunning, narrow gorge that was any geologist’s wet dream. We’ve been to many a vista over the years, but this was particularly special. Never steep, rising gently, winding through a narrow gorge on a rod that fell away to raging waters below and making its way through narrow tunnels before swinging right and through the trees to an exposed summit with sweeping views to the eastern hills and Pyrenean wall to the north. Not sure whether any episodes of Bonanaza were actually filmed there, but if not they missed a trick.

What we were saddled with

Gorge/us

Another wide open descent followed – Il Postino sensing he could only deliver it by knocking back a gel for the downhill – and then a drag along the main road south into El Pont de Suert. Appropriately enough for the bonanza region, very much a two-horse town, or perhaps one-point-five. No matter, we lodged in what was presumably the best hotel in the area on a small square still recovering from a festival the night before, complete with a half-soaked reveller continuing to serenade us through a traffic cone. We slept soundly, mostly, despite the unnerving curiosity of each room having a witch’s broom on its balcony, ahead of the looming return over the border to France the next day, a big day.

 

Day four: El Pont de Suert to Unneccesary Ski Resort Pla d’Adet

Just four climbs then. The first, 30km. The road started to rise as soon as we left the town, very steadily via false flat at first and then increasing to five or six per cent as we made our way up to the top of a mountain that I forget the name of, but remember the enormous reservoir at the top and the views it afforded back down into Spain. It was a long old ascent, but minds were occupied with what lay in store for the rest of the day. As we crested, the next five km were through a big, wide tunnel. No real issues with visibility for once, but on a busy road and with a slick, concrete surface, in some cases with big gaps and with the inevitable roar of traffic coming in the opposite direction to contend with. Some feathered the brakes a lot, others were more carefree, but it made for an odd but memorable start to our last bit of Spanish downhill. Another sweeping, well-surfaced descent to our coffee stop and then some valley floor chain gang action, with some holding the line better than others it must be said, before we hung left and started up the Col de Portillon, our border crossing back into France.

Image courtesy of National Geographic/Barnes

Tunnel vision

Around 10km in length and averaging 7 or 8 per cent, it was harder than I think most of us had anticipated, given the midday heat, the gradient never really let up and we’d somehow consigned this to being the easier bit before a more testing afternoon. It’s actually a well-marked climb, definitely more French than Spanish (though we went up the Spanish side of course, so I’m taking shit here) with Tour stage winners commemorated on those little plaques the locals presumably got a special offer on when commissioning a few darts trophies. By the top, I was feeling pretty sick (again) from the heat and the inherent frailties of my vegetarian diet.., so had to take a moment to supress some vom. It wasn’t to last unfortunately.

Lunch in a restaurant on the main street in Bagneres de Luchon, familiar territory given the number of Tour starts, finishes and tomfoolery it has witnessed over the years.  I was feeling pretty ropey by this point, ate little and could see the inevitable afternoon chez Erik the van driver ahead of me. Giddily I remounted, as did everyone else a bit apprehensively, and we immediately began up the Col du Peyresourde on leaving Bagneres. I love the Peyresourde as a climb – beautiful views, testing without being a full-on whack in the chops, and a lot of variety as it winds its way through woods, villages, open farmland and finally green mountain meadows en route to a summit with spectacular views in either direction. But just a few km in I was wheezing like the engine on my old Austin Maestro and seeing stars, so got in the van (thanks to Gladders, ride captain for the day, for shepherding). Several days struggling to get enough fluid down had led to a bout of Tizer-piss and combined with general flimsiness – but got me out of Pla d’Adet so it can’t be all bad.

Down from the Peyresourde (the better western descent, more open and faster than the other even if you don’t sit on your top-tube), along the valley floor to the south and then (I observed through a windscreen) the tortuous climb up to Pla d’Adet. It’s an ugly French ski resort and the climb starts ugly – 10 per cent from the off, sometimes dipping to eight or so, but with no respite on the hairpins, a wall of rock on one side and just the valley plain disappearing to the other. The group was split wide apart pretty quickly, the moaning (nous?) was in top gear while sprockets were at their lowest, and the long grind in the heat continued.

But I was in the van, so I’ll shut up. At the top, at the end of what is surely the world’s ugliest car park, was our hotel, run by a friendly Belgian family who’d opened just for us. And what views – panoramic, Pyrenean, a just reward for a very tough day. Dinner was around a big table with those vistas all around us, knowing the final day started with a fast but slightly dodgy descent and much valley floor.

Peaked our interest

 

Day five: Pla d’Adet to Argeles-Gazost

Short stage, final stage. Only 100km and with what appeared to be a fairly flat profile after the initial descent. Though appearances – and supplied data – can be deceptive. Think of those total ascent and gradient numbers as more a pirates’ code than the rule of law. No matter, the end was in sight – only some Pyrenean foothills, mere tiddlers to the loftier cols, stood in our way.

It didn’t feel like that once we’d left the valley road and the pretty village of Arreau, and swung west towards Lourdes. Rolling, wooded hills and roads that felt more Kent (or Surrey, for the connoisseurs) than Pyrenees Atlantiques. Whack: 18 per cent. Whallop. 25. Probably a bit of 30 too at points, though I just use by Garmin like a watch strapped to my bars so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that despite an affliction of heat-induced sweaty-anus meaning boggy chamois, I was squelching in and out of the saddle a lot just to stay upright. It was unpleasant, and far tougher going than we’d bargained for. And that col went on for far longer too, up through the woods until reaching higher ground, views across the flatlands of the southern Gers, and a signpost pointing to a village called Lies. Just sayin’.

Arreau-straight (actually meandering/some navigational fannying)

Lunch was a farce, at first. Typo and Windsor, in full pink, ejected from the only gay bar in the town of Bagneres de Bigorre with a ropey sandwich to show for it before the rest of us luxuriated with pizza elsewhere. Then more flat and undulating bits, though the oddness of Lourdes and along the flat to Argeles, a home-from-home, along a cycle path (or virtual motorway, if you did things properly).

And then it was over. Another big week, another round of big mountains, another few days of drama and titillation.

Yet more hilarity was to come. At dinner, our hosts confused the request for one vegetarian meal and believed we were 16 vegetarian English cyclists rocking pink lycra. Of course I found this not in the least funny, as I tucked into my best meal of the week. Sour faces around me, but surely not in response to the carrot rapee.

Oh, bell went to Norman Reynolds, in his absence (but he had previously nodded his approval, with some vigour).

I’ll have missed loads I should have included, so share more and we can make additions.

But remember this: Les Vegetarians Gentils/Blackheath Vegans 2018 certainly had its moments. And that’s no miss-steak.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Beever permalink
    July 5, 2018 10:22 am

    nice one chaps!

  2. Jason permalink
    July 12, 2018 3:49 pm

    Thanks very much Steve, I hadn’t heard about the vegan feast. Glad I was having a salami baguette (made relatively recently, I am sure) in the luxurious lounge at Toulouse airport…..

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