Evelyns version of the Pyrenees trip...
MY TRIP TO THE PYRENEES,
I had started preparations for this trip the previous September when Geoff first mentioned it. I wanted to go because the timing meant that I had all summer to get fit and because I wanted to see if my fitness had improved in the 9 years since I had ridden in the mountains. The fact that I had decided to raise money to create a small lake for disabled and young anglers to fish in memory of my late partner provided additional incentive. Over the winter I made myself go to the gym so that I didn’t lose too much fitness. This was moderately successful, although I couldn’t exercise much in January and February due to the seasonal viruses which I picked up.
My training properly began in March when I went on a mountain biking holiday in Spain. This helped me to understand why I was always at the back of a group as I had to drop down into lower gears before anyone else on a climb and my weight meant that I gained less momentum on the descents. In May, I started riding more often at home. I would go out for 2-3 hour ride mid week with some other people which meant that my fitness and speed increased as I was always riding faster than my usual pace. I would also endeavour to go out on my bike at weekends and to use my bike as a means of transport, rather than take the car.
By September, I was riding about 100 miles most weeks and trying to do hilly routes at the weekend. I also kept thinking about the belongings I would take with me, trying to reduce the weight I would be carrying on my bike.
SATURDAY 13TH SEPTEMBER
This was the day that I set off from home and made my way to Stansted to catch the flight to Biarritz. I had to get up early and get the first train from Fareham to ensure that I didn’t miss my flight. It was fortunate that I did so as the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street Station had been replaced by buses.
Once at Stansted I hung around the Ryannair check ins until I saw Jennie who was already there. We also met up with Allan and Allister who joined us in the same queue. Our flight was uneventful and we met up with Liz at the luggage carousel in the arrival hall. The campsite was a short taxi ride away from the airport - just beyond the southern perimeter fence. There we met up with the rest of the group, a mixture of old friends and new faces. We had barely enough time to sort out our tents, bikes and transferring our belongings into panniers before we were frog marched along the road to the nearest restaurant which was in a hotel complex on the way to the airport. Much of the evening was taken up with eating and catching up with old friends. No backing out now!
SUNDAY 14TH SEPTEMBER
Amazingly enough we were up and ready early in the morning, with our bikes ready laden and in the hotel eating breakfast before they stopped serving it at 9am. We then cycled back to the campsite for the first group photo of the trip.
Much of the morning was spent leaving Biarritz and Bayonne behind. We found our way on a path which took us along the river to Bayonne and then found the road which took us upstream away from the city. This was a lovely ride in the sunshine. We also took our first diversion when we failed to cross the river and so we had a slightly hillier ride until we joined our original route. We had a sandwich lunch in a typical bar and then ate out in Salies de Bain, where we spent the night. The campsite had the most brilliant showers which were both hot and powerful. There was a festival of salt on in the town, which had been held that day. The roads were littered with white confetti and the locals were leaving as we walked around. We sat outside a bar watching the sun set and then walked around the corner to a restaurant, which was one of the few that opened that evening.
MONDAY 15TH SEPTEMBER
This was another long day in the saddle, as we made our way eastwards, towards and then around Pau. The morning was spent in cycling up several long climbs out of Salies du Bain, in preparation for the mountains. We also went up and over several river valleys until we reached the outskirts of Pau late in the afternoon. In time to go around the cycle lane on the outer ringroad in the heavy traffic. The road was fairly flat which was fortunate. It was a relief to turn off and cycle along a quiet lane to Ousse where we were camping. The campsite was at the top of a hill and you could see the mountains in the distance. It had been a long and tiring day. Jennie and I ate lunch with Geoff who had waited for us whilst the others had gone on further to another restaurant. Our lunch time meal was really nice and filling, unlike our evening meal which was at a fairly smart eatery serving nouvelle cuisine. Not recommended for carbo loading!
TUESDAY 16TH SEPTEMBER
Another longish days ride which took us to Bagneres de Bigorre, a spa town at the foot of the mountains. It was another fine, hot day which saw us crossing between river valleys with the mountains drawing ever closer. I found it very tiring and went to bed early that evening. I was so tired that I struggled to eat much that evening, despite encouragement from Jennie and the others.
WEDNESDAY 17TH SEPTEMBER
A really lovely day which I enjoyed as my legs finally were able to keep pedalling without feeling too heavy. The day started with a steep climb out of Bagneres de Bigorre followed by a fast descent. Bridget fell of her bike on this descent and badly hurt herself. This meant that she and her husband John were no longer able to cycle. It wasn’t until the end of the holiday when we realised the severity of her injuries and found out that she had had a brain haemorrhage and sustained a fractured rib. Her helmet was a write off.
The route in the morning was very undulating and then we started climbing up a river valley to Montrejeau, our lunch stop. As usual, Jennie and I were off the back of the group and we spent about 25 minutes cycling around the town until we found the restaurant where the others were eating. By this time we were hungry and fractious! Our afternoon ride took us up another river to St Beat, a small village in the mountains beneath the Pic du Gar. We stopped for a drink in a bar overlooking the river and with a view up to the fortified church which is above the village. As we arrived the church was bathed in sunlight which made the church stand out from the hill side. I remembered the town from my previous visit 9 years before. Our campsite was at a confluence of 2 rivers and we could hear the sound of rushing water from our tents. That evening we ate cassoulet in the campsite and went to bed early to prepare for our first col the next morning.
THURSDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER
The fear of being left behind made everyone leave very early the next morning. We had breakfast in a bar before going off to Bossost. This ride was hard work and draining. We were cycling into a cold headwind and climbing all the way to Bossost. Jennie and I were the last to arrive at Bossost where we were greated by Geoff and Andrew who had bought us a deep fried, sugar covered doughnut type of sticky bun filled with custard which we enjoyed with a warming cup of coffee. The ride up the Col du Portillon was pretty to begin with as we had views of the Pic du Gar and of the valley below us. We then started climbing up through forestry and the views disappeared. I ran out of energy in my legs 3 km into the climb (which is known as bonking by cylists and hitting the wall by marathon runners) and struggled the remaining 5.5 km of the climb. Fortunately, Jennie had waited for me. She fed me chocolate, we took the photos to prove we had made it and then descended into Bagneres de Luchon where we were camping. We found somewhere to eat and then rejoined the others who had already eaten. We both felt much better after food. The campsite was out of town, by a supermarket and near to the small airfield. It provided really good views of the surrounding hills. I went to bed early after having a meal of pasta as I felt tired.
FRIDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER
Our goal today was to climb the Col de Peyresourde, one of the 5 high passes in the Pyrenees. Bagneres du Luchon is at the foot of the Col and so we started climbing straight after breakfast. The views up the col were lovely. The climb took us out of the town and then through some small hamlets with views of the surrounding mountains. Jennie, Andrew and I stopped at a small bar in one of these, they had persuaded Madame to open up for us. This was the first climb when we came across other cyclists, in what would become a familiar pattern. They would come up behind us and then overtake us. Most would be breathing as heavily as we were and would be working hard propelling their lightweight bikes up the mountain. Most would say "bonjour" or "bon courage" to us. There was one group of cyclists who had a support van and who were not enjoying the climb, judging from their body language. One guide looked at me and was not very sympathetic to the members of his group who were moaning. He obviously thought that they were doing things the easy way. Once we passed through all the hamlets the road climbed straight through alpine pastures, complete with cows and cowbells. This went on for what felt like a few kilometres until we approached the top of the pass where the road then zigzagged to the summit. I could see Jennie and Andrew ahead of me, which helped. The zigzags looked very steep, but were easier to climb that the straight piece of road. At the top of the col we were met by Allan, Geoff and Allister. There is a small café at the top of the col and so we had lunch there sitting under the shade of an umbrella to keep the hot sun off us. There were 2 other cyclists on laden bikes, the rest on light weight ones. One chap asked us the weight of our bikes, we didn’t know and didn’t want to. The descent into Arreau was lovely, our momentum providing us with a refreshing breeze. Once at the campsite in the town, I went to sleep listening to my walkman. The town itself has some old buildings, one of which is medieval. We ate at a pizzeria in the town and then returned to the campsite.
SATURDAY 20TH SEPTEMBER
Another day and another col, this time the Col d’Aspin which is very pretty. We climbed up the side which was less wooded which meant that we had lovely views of the valley below and of the peaks above us. As it was a weekend, there were many more cyclists out on the road. The top of the pass is an upland pasture, complete with cows wandering around. Jennie and I were up there with Allan, Geoff and Andrew. We had lunch at the first restaurant we came to at the foot of the col. We could tell which one our group had chosen by the bikes arranged in a line outside. They were actually lying in a dry ditch by the road. After a lovely meal we then continued into Ste Marie de Compan. The campsite was at the start of the Tourmalet and was lovely, with a bar on site and donkeys in the field above. Again, I was able to have a sleep before getting ready for dinner. We walked back into the village and ate at the Hotel de Deux Cols. This hotel is quite famous for its food (which is superb) and the Maitre d’hotel who is a cross between Peter Sellars as Inspector Clouseau (the voice) and Basil Fawlty (comments and timing). On being told that we had come there because of his fame, he then played up to our group, insulting various members of the group in turn. He brought a sparkler for William as a prize for being the only frenchman in our group. We also saw a couple on a tandem who were touring, but going the other way round the cols.
SUNDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER
The Tourmalet and the day of reckoning. We had all been dreaming of this day for the past year and had been training accordingly. The col is at 2115 metres the highest pass and one of the steepest. Most of our group were subdued as we were up at 7 am and trying to force a hearty breakfast down our throats. Jeff and Chip had already set off in the half light. Geoff took a team photo of us all looking scared and feeling nervous. He made a joke about the condemned team eating a hearty breakfast. 15 minutes later and we were all cycling up the pass, all 16km in granny gear. We climbed up the river valley until we reached the forestry, where we were able to see the way we had come. There was some mountain pastures between the trees. The local cows would jump over the low walls and walk on the road. As we climbed upwards we could see the edge of what looked to be a plateau which contained La Mongie, an ugly ski resort. The plateau turned out to be a steep climb through the resort. Jennie and I stopped there for a drink before continuing up the remaining 4.5km of 10% gradient climb to the top. The signs at the edge of the road which marked off each kilometre told lies as they would make the average gradient less than 10%, despite us climbing about 100metres each kilometre.
Jennie reached the summit 15 minutes before me. I had been climbing for the best of 4.5 hours and arrived 1 hour after Geoff. Everyone came out to greet, hug and congratulate me which was wonderful. Whilst Meryl was parking my bike and I was trying to catch my breath, Geoff took me over to see the view that had been obscured by cloud 9 years before. It was amazing to see it. I felt that I had really achieved something as I knew that I had been less breathless and had been pedalling faster than I could then. I then had sausage and chips to celebrate. Jennie and I got everyone else to sign postcards of the pass as proof that we had been there. After lunch we all posed for a group photo with most of us wearing the orange ITDG tee shirts. I took some photos of the view and then began to go down. Geoff took some action photos of everyone descending. I took my time as the views of the valley and the mountains were tremendous. I met up with the others at Luz St Savour where we had coffee in the main square. We then had a lovely ride down the gorge to Argeles Gazost. For once Jennie and I were part of the group. The campsite was at the edge of the town and we could see the clouds building up in the mountains. We supped in a hotel close to the campsite and the storm broke whilst we were eating. The food and the exhilaration was great. I had had a great endorphin rush from the climb for most of the day. By the time I had eaten this had eased off and I was tired.
MONDAY 22ND SEPTEMBER
We had to climb up the river valley from Argeles Gazost to the foot of the Col du Soulor. As we went we could see the clouds gathering around the mountain peaks again, even though it was sunny for much of the time. By the time we reached the village at the foot of the col, Jennie and I were at the back again. On the climb I saw a vulture, loads of buzzards and a red kite hunting near the summit. There was much more birdlife as the roads were quieter. As we climbed it became more clouder and cooler. I put on a long sleeved top at 2km to go and my waterproof at 1km to go as I could hear thunder and the sheep were coming down the mountain.
By the time I reached the col, the rain was coming down heavily and the visibility was less than 20metres. Geoff whistled to me to let me know where he was, as I couldn’t see a thing. I went into the café and had a sandwich and a hot drink whilst we made contingency plans. The weather was very bad and Geoff was worrying about the others who had set off for the Col D’Aubisque half an hour before I had arrived at the summit. Initially, he was going to take both Jennie and I off the mountain. As the cloud lifted a little, he was then going to the Col D’Aubisque and we were to go off the mountain and down to Bruges.
As we were getting ready, the cloud lifted and it stopped raining. This meant that we could join Geoff and ride along the Corniche, the narrow road clinging to the side of the mountain and then climbing up to the Col D’Aubisque. This was a magical ride. The views were heightened by the mist and looked like something out of a legend or "the Lord of the Rings". We could see down to the valley below. The thought that we could have missed this made us appreciate it even more. The three of us were very emotional by the time we had climbed the d’Aubisque. I would have liked to have been able to share this with Richard who would have liked the views, but not the drop or the narrowness of the road which was a single track with passing spaces.
We then descended into Laruns where we joined the others in a bar. Laruns had 7 campsites on paper but only 1 was open. We had a drink and watched a flock of sheep being driven through the town whilst other members of the group were looking for a campsite. Whilst we were in the bar, Chip got William to translate a joke for the bar staff, much to his embarrassment and our enjoyment! Both Liz and Jennie recorded the moment on film.
As it was Monday, and most of the restaurants were closed, 8 of us went into the pizzeria on the main square. The food was good and the warmth meant that our damp clothes dried by bedtime.
TUESDAY 23RD SEPTEMBER
We woke up to a damp morning, with the type of gentle rain which somehow permeates into everything making it feel damp. We cycled up the hill into the main square where we had breakfast in the same bar we had been in the night before. After breakfast Jennie and I topped up our emergency rations of bananas and muesli bars. As we had climbed up the major cols over the previous days, we assumed that this would be an easier day.
We enjoyed the first part of the ride along a small lane threading its way along a river valley which was pleasant, despite the damp. The heavens then opened as we made our way along a busier road to the foot of the Col de Marie Blanque. The first part of the climb was very steep and was hard going. We then reached a plateau which was covered with heather, bracken gorse and grass, complete with sheep and cattle with bells around their necks. This could have been any hilly upland and reminded each of us of similar high places. It make Allister think of Scotland, Jennie of Ireland and me of Wales. The climb then became more steep as we reached the forestry, before levelling off 2 km from the summit. It felt like a long ride. Jennie and I were at the back as usual. At the foot of the col we met Allan who couldn’t remember the rest of the route. We cycled together to the village where Geoff had remembered there was a restaurant. When we got there it was closed so we headed off along our route. Fortunately when we met the main road we could see a trail of bikes going up the hill in the opposite direction to the route to our campsite. We followed the trail and met up with the others in a restaurant. They looked very pleased with themselves and were about to start on their dessert. Madame then served us up with the most delicious meal which went down a treat. We had gabure (the local soup with vegetables in a broth), the best mushroom quiche I have ever eaten, veal with carrots, chips and pasta followed by Iles flottant and coffee.
After lunch we then made our way to Aramits where we were camping. This felt a longer distance than it actually was as I was very tired. I went to sleep whilst Jennie and the others were drying all our damp clothes in the tumble drier that was on the campsite. I woke enough for a shower and to eat some supper before crashing out in my tent.
WEDNESDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER
This started off overcast, but dry. Our ride was a long one over 2 cols, one was not marked on the map but on the road and the Col Burdin Olatze which was named on the map but there was no sign on the road. The first part of the climb was incredibly steep in parts. It wound up through a hamlet and then continued to climb steeply for a long way. As there were no marker posts along the climb, it was hard to judge the distances. Certainly at one point I had to stop because I was so breathless, something I hadn’t had to do before on this trip. Near the top of the first col, we went passed a flock of sheep which were being shepherded along the road. We were unable to see the top of the mountains as they were enveloped in low cloud. Jennie and I stayed with Andrew after we caught him up when he was having some trouble with his brakes, which he was able to sort out. The road was very quiet and we say a number of buzzards, kites and vultures about. Just as we were coming up to the top of the second col, I could see Andrew and Jennie waiting for me and then making their way to a white building which was on the hillside just beneath the clouds. As I got closer I could see a telltale line of bikes going up to this building. I started to cycle up there when I heard Geoff telling me to leave my bike and come on up. The building was an Auberge which again served up the most amazing food. The others had not got there much before us as they were about to start their second course. This meal went down a treat as we had worked up an appetite for this. We felt full and much better after we had eaten gabure, fried trout, confit of duck with chips and beans followed by creme caramel and coffee. This was washed down with a demi pression and red wine.
By the time we finished eating, the cloud had lifted and the sun had come out. The views were stunning and we kept stopping to take photos. The group would stop in a line at each view point and the cameras would come out. I was in my usual position at the back, this time coming down slowly so as not to miss the scenary, when Rob had an accident and fell off his bike. His rear wheel skidded on some gravel and he broke his front brake in an attempt to correct the skid. We then went down even more slowly when we ran into Andrew who had been taking photos. He tried to do a temporary fix on Rob’s bike and we came down in convoy. At the foot of the col Andrew phoned Geoff to say we were ok but were still some way from finishing. Jennie was at the foot of the col where she was waiting for me. She had been chatting to a Scot who was touring around and whose birthday was that day. He was in his seventies and looked great. We then had a longish ride to our campsite at St Etienne de Bagorre. It was a lovely sunny evening and the light illuminated the Basque houses which had white wall with reddish balconies and shutters. We reached the campsite at 6.30pm and went straight to the supermarket to buy some food. It was as well we went when we did as the supermarket shut at 7pm. We then put up our tents, showered and cooked. It was a lovely clear night and promised to be chilly.
THURSDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER
This was a lovely sunny day coupled with a gorgeous ride which was comparatively easy. In the morning we climbed up the Col du Ispequy which was on the border between France and Spain. The climb was lovely, a quiet lane winding its way up the col. The hills were very clear and their were a lot of vultures around. We could see a flock of them flying around before perching on the rocks above us. It was amazing to see the vultures flying almost at eye level and at fairly close quarters. We were overtaken by one group of cyclists who were going to eat at a restaurant just over the border in Spain. Again Jennie and I were not that far behind the others. As we approached the top of the col we could see what looked to be a line of multi coloured dots in a line. Rather like the vultures almost waiting to pounce. As we got closer we could identify the rest of our group who were sitting on a viewpoint overlooking the valley we had cycled up. We lent our bikes against a row of trees which marked the border. We then crossed into Spain and bought a beer in the bar and then rejoined our group. The bar also served food and we ate lunch there. The back of the bar doubled up as a souvenir shop and it resembled an Aladdin’s cave. It was stuffed full of pottery, foodstuffs, plastic toys including a Barbie type doll with her pink bicycle with white handlebars and black wheels, linen etc. Jennie, Frank and I bought a tee shirt each. Irresistible as they were navy blue and had a bike on the front.
The descent was a lovely swoop down several hairpin bends into the valley where we then turned right and climbed up the Puerto de Otxondo, our last col. It was hot cllmbing in the sunshine. We were saddened when we reached the top of our last col and posed for the group photo.
We then dropped down to the border at Ainhoa and the campsite. This was next to a bar and surrounded by the hypermarkets on the Spanish side of the border. These were selling all sorts of goods and had been much cheaper than the prices in France. Since the euro has become the currency, the price differential has become less. For once Jennie and I were not the last at the campsite. We had asked the border guards the way to the campsite. They hadn’t known the answer but could see the sign round the corner and told us where to go. Allister and Rob had missed this and gone all the way to the next town, before returning to find us.
We had a drink at the bar and then wandered off en masse in search of food. No luck as everywhere was closed. Geoff went and had a word with the lady who ran the campsite who thought she could rustle up something. Would gabure followed by confit of chicken and chips be ok? Not only ok, it was delicious. We spent the hour whilst she was preparing our food, in another bar in Spain watching Spanish tv. The adverts were the best bit, the rest was rather worse that daytime tv in the UK.
For once, I was wide awake during supper and was able to join the others for cognacs in the bar and then wine in the campsite. William’s english has improved a great deal over the two weeks and he picked up Northern Ireland and Geordie phrases and expressions.
FRIDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER
Another fine, sunny day and our last day of cycling. This was a shame as I had finally found my stamina and was really enjoying myself. The ride to Biarritz was short and took up the morning. We ended up on a third variation of the route as drawn up by Geoff. This took us on quiet lanes through woodland to the outskirts of the town. We only had a short stretch of busy road, which was a dual carriageway taking us from the station to the edge of the airport. We arrived back at the campsite at 1pm. Geoff spent the afternoon loading up the trailer. Once we had sorted out our stuff and repacked our smelly belongings into our bags from our panniers, we felt at a loose end. It was muggy and we were beginning to feel peckish. Jennie and I walked with Liz and William into the town. We couldn’t find anywhere serving food and so we went into a bar and partook of some liquid refreshment.
We also saw John and Bridget at the campsite where they had been spending a few days in a log cabin. Bridget was still in a great deal of pain and was unable to do much before getting tired. They were unable to join us for supper at the hotel where we had eaten the first evening. This meal was fairly subdued and we were unable to get into the party spirit. We all ended up going to bed early.
SATURDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER
This was the day of staggered goodbyes as members of the group left at different times to make their way home. Most of them had not slept well as someone on the campsite was being very noisy with an impromptu party. Geoff had to tell them to shut up. I managed to do my log like impression and missed all of this.
By the time we had finished breakfast, our group was reduced to under half. Frank, Liz, Meryl, Jennie and I went into Biarritz to explore. This meant a walk of a couple of miles downhill to get there. We walked around the market and esplanade and then returned to the campsite collecting our luggage before going to the hotel for one last meal.
We then went to the airport and caught our flight to Stansted. It was there that we split up before travelling to our respective homes.
I am writing this having been home for 2 months. This has brought it all back. It has been really nice to see some photos from the trip. The ones I have had from Jennie have been much better than mine, but still only give a flavour of what it was like. Many people have asked me whether I enjoyed myself, but they can’t really understand what it was like. I have found it really hard to say what was so good about it. The only people who can have an idea of the sense of achievement that I had are those who also participate in endurance sports, either walkers, runners or cyclists.
I miss the camaraderie that existed amongst the group and also the endorphin buzz that I got from climbing.
Would I do it again? You bet! I can feel the mountains beckoning when the weather improves and spring is in the air.