Wed 5th June.
My first cycle in the Pyrenees.
The previous night, my host and her husband kindly offered to put me up for another night freeing me up to explore the area without my bags (making the bike 20-25kg lighter) and also giving me the chance to explore areas, that weren’t on my route through the Pyrenees.
I had finally arrived in the Pyrenees and my mountain cycling would begin. I thought to myself I would get to the top of one of the mountains in the area, but found out that wouldn’t be possible and that the best I could do would be to follow roads and cross the passes.
For the route ahead, there were two roads, therefore two options to head east when I left, a hard route and an easy route. I opted for the hard to get my mountain training off to a good start, but the pass I would cross on this route was shut due to the long winter of 2013. So I had to take the easy route, that would take me through the Pilgrim city of Lourdes.
I set out, uncertain of where I was going and excited to get to know the mountains and put my worst fears of the unknown to bed. I headed south and planned to get some experience and let my body adjust to long climbs for the day, see some of the mountains and lakes in the area.
Before long I was held up by a flock of sheep being moved by a farmer with his dog from one field to another.
The sense of space is felt unique. The sun was shining, you could see for a few miles in each direction, surrounded by beautiful mountains towering over, occasionally providing shade, as you moved through the territory. Atop all this, there was a beautiful turquoise blue river running through the countryside to my right. It was amazing and exactly what I had hoped for in the mountains. Another one of those rare moments when you realise exactly why you do things like this, and count your blessings. To top it all off, it was about 10am and I had the whole day ahead of me.
The big pass I wanted to go for (Col du Tourmalet) was shut due to the long winter, so I headed south towards Spain, aiming to do a few climbs and head back for dinner.
I was on track and got to a large reservoir with a cable car going overhead. I knew Spain was a few more kilometers south, but there was a lake I wanted to see (Lac de Bious-Artigues) that was quite a way of the track.
I backtracked and then found the road to the lake and started a slow uphill ascent, when the weather changed very quickly and began with heavy rain. Normally I wouldn’t have minded that much, but at altitude (probably over 1000m above sea level at this point) the air felt thinner and the cold was more piercing. The rain turned into a storm, I had little shelter, no wet weather gear and no plan. I tried to wait it out, but it continued, so I decided to get moving in an attempt to warm the body up and get to the lake sooner, so I could get back quicker.
As I was continuing to climb I was going past huge chunks of snow that had become ice in the mountains. This was in June obviously, so could only have been due to the altitude. After turning a corner and seeing a set of hairpins going up to the lake (probably about another 200m high) I decided to call it quits and head back, with the rain still hammering it down and the storm well underway.
The cold at this point had really started to set into my bones, as I was wearing a cycling jersey and had little defence, I was very exposed to the weather and it started to effect me, especially now I was descending the hill I’d climbed at some speed (50kph/30mph is fairly normal for a descent on these hills I came to learn).
After a while if sheer descent, I had to stop to blow some warmth back into my hands as they were starting to feel strange. When I got off the bike, I could open my hands or move them like I would normally, instead they were sort of locked in the position of the handlebars. As I started trying to move them, I started getting a very strange sensation that I hadn’t experienced before or since. The only way I could describe it, was it was like having lots of tiny pebbles under the skin in your hands, and my skin had been vacuumed so there was practically no space between these pebbles and the skin. That and my hands being locked in the handlebar position, I started to gain a growing concern, but knew panicking wouldn’t help anything.
My only aim was to get them warm and get back on the bike and drop my altitude, lessening (hopefully) the impact by getting to an altitude with more air. I got back on the bike, but now this break had caused a stiffness in my arms and legs. I started cycling but didn’t have any feeling in my fingers to break, which obviously was essential when descending.
To top it off, I had adopted the strange breathing/groaning techniques I had developed when I previous got in a spot of bother about three weeks prior. Basically where you groan a lot on exhaling to kind of make it feel like you’re using your body to help to something against this strange reaction you’re witnessing.
As I breathed life into my fingers once more, the odd car went by, being quite scared about my dilemma I started to think I should try to hail a ride to Louvie-Juzon, with me and my bike in this feeble state. Fear (and lack of French) got the better of me and once I had enough life back in my fingers to control the breaks, I descended quite rapidly and at around 700m-800m I immediately felt a humidity in the air that simply didn’t exist at a higher altitude.
I miraculously sprung back to life, started feeling much better and to co-inside with that, the storm cleared up in minutes and it was vibrant blue skies again. I couldn’t believe that less than fifteen minutes ago I was uncertain of my fate in these hills, contemplating hailing a ride with a stranger and now I was back to normal and enjoying the sunshine at a lower altitude.
Before long I was back in the town of Laruns, buying a baguette from a shop as I hadn’t eaten properly, running out of food in the mountains. I stocked up on a few other bits from a shop and headed back to the house where I was staying.
The cycle back was beautiful, it was about 5 o’clock and I had a good stretch of straight, wide and flat road for about 14km with a small tailwind pushing me home after my crisis in the hills. On that stretch the mountains are much less densely populated and they become more distant and further away from the road. I still remember the greens from the fields and mountains and the blues in the sky as the began to sunset.
The ride for the day came in around 45km and upwards of 1600m climbed in altitude, (to put it into perspective the Shard in London is 306m high, so it’s like going up that five times) which would be very useful in helping my body adjust to climbing and the thinner air.
When I got back I felt I was very fortunate to be back in one piece. When I described my dilemma to my hosts, they nodded like it was an everyday occurrence, barely listening it seemed and said (in a heavy French accent), “The weather in ze mountains, she does what she wants. You ave to be careful, but it is always like zis, you know?”.
I took it as polite warning to expect more uncertainty and disarray while in the hills. Tomorrow would mark the beginning of my trip across the Pyrenees.