Sun 9th June.
Lots of heavy rain and figuring out one of life’s secrets.
The following day I had a large breakfast with the large group of noisy, but endearing Catalans. We had coffee, bread, ham, cheese and plenty of pastries. I got talking to a few of the lads in the group and it turned out they were from Salt in the west of Girona. Exactly where I’d stayed with Pau and his lovely family. The set off around midday, they were a mountain biking group and where here for three days using the lodge as a base for their trip.
I stayed put, had more coffee and used the internet while there and devised an itinerary for the week, setting targets for each day, so I knew that in about a week I’d be back on flat land, among more stable weather.
It had rained all day, which kept me inside. I was waiting for a dry patch to get out in, but it never came. Before long it was five o’clock. If I stayed any longer, I would have to book in for another night. I packed up, paid my bill and said thanks to the family that ran the place.
As I feared it was raining, although it wasn’t heavy, but it made the descent miserable. The wet made my breaks weaker, so I had to apply them more often, with more force. I daren’t build up any speed in case it got too fast for my breaks and with any speed you build up, the rain its you in the face harder, impairing your vision.
It was an uninspiring descent and by the time I reached the bottom, the muscles in my forearm ached from using the breaks.
As soon as I reached the bottom, the ascent to the next col began, the Col de Portet-d-Aspet. Although it was only 1069m high, a margin higher than most starting points, it was the hardest yet, as the rain had made the road slippery and it was very steep, making it hard to gain momentum and get moving, resulting in me getting off to push.
By this stage, the sweat from wearing a raincoat on the uphill had started to build up inside and the rain didn’t ease off, so I was wet both in and out and had very little to look forward too throughout the day other then food and the hope that the sun might shine.
I was certain that I had gone higher than that indicated on the map, but still wasn’t at the Col. I kept pushing and cycling and after a miserable bout, I reached my fourth pass. I took a few photos and got moving, void of the grace and magic of previous passes. Another soggy and miserable descent awaited me.
After the descent, I continued cycling through the small networks of French towns that had become commonplace in the Pyrenees. Then the rain really started, much larger droplets and you felt each one.
I hid out in an abandoned building, watched the rain and feasted on biscuits. The rain cleared and I got moving. This repeated itself, until the rain became constant, I found myself under a bus stop, with no-one around, wondering what to do next.
If I stayed out of the rain, I wouldn’t make any distance and would have to camp in the wet. If I cycled, I’d get wet, but I’d make some distance, so I got moving.
The rain was heaviest I’d witnessed and it didn’t take long before I was soaked. I started wishing up fantasy scenarios. I envisioned myself staying with Alain (my first host in France) in a spare house he had in the area. It would be well-lit and warm, and full of his bread, cider and local produce. His niece would be taking care of the place. She would be a student who had a few weeks off to study.
I would stay there for the night and maybe the next day and help out. This is what I fantasised about.
However, I hit a rock-bottom with the rain as there was no way out. Whenever I hit rock-bottom, I always learnt something. In this instance the harder the rain came, the harder I cycled. It gave me an energy I hadn’t had before.
I realised the thing I feared on the trip, was rain and now it was here, it wouldn’t stop the trip if I didn’t let it. After all rain is rain, the very worst in can do is cause an accident, perhaps flood an area or rust parts if your bike.
I got to the point for the day in the itinerary and kept going.
After a few hours of ridiculous commentary, shouting, blaming myself for doing this, questioning what I was doing out here, blaming France, hating France in an on-going humorous dialogue that lifted my mood, I’d made it to the town of St Girons. This was close to the point I hoped to reach for the next day. Meaning I’d almost gained a day.
I realised if I kept this approach, by pushing myself harder, I could see more places and more countries and my experience could be much richer. All by waking up earlier, working harder and taking fewer breaks. I couldn’t believe it had taken me eight weeks to figure this out.
From then on, I promised myself I would get up around eight everyday, pack up quickly and get on the road early.
I also thought if I applied this doctrine to everyday life, I could achieve a lot, although everyday life was months and many miles away from here.
I found a McDonald’s, got a coffee and tried to contact local hosts on WarmShowers for a bed that night. I was an absolute mess, I had biscuits with my coffee, while rain water leaked and formed a puddle on the wipe friendly floor.
There were lots of families and teenagers there for some reason and I felt like a disgrace, but I didn’t care what anyone thought, as we were all in McDonald’s.
At 9pm with no offers, I faced the music and had to go camping. I was silently hoping that someone in there would spot my dilemma and offer me a warm bed out sheer kindness. Unsurprisingly, no one did.
I went round the back of the McDonald’s into an industrial estate, searching for a decent spot. I saw a deserted house on the way here that looked like a crack den. I toyed with the idea of sleeping there, but found the prospect too terrifying and stupid.
Among searching, I found a house with a ‘Chambres d’hotes’ sign out in the front. This was an amateur B&B that was popular in France. If you had a spare room, you could let it to anyone for a small price. Just a family home using their rooms.
I was in a tough spot and hoped they might let me in for free. I knocked on the door, a lady answered, I explained myself and she said she had a room, “Relief” I thought, but she didn’t accept card. She could see I was tired and wet, but didn’t want to give me the room for free and rightly so, but still wanted to help.
She spoke to her husband and let me camp in their front garden under a tree for free. An amazing compromise given the alternative.
I set up the tent and she invited me into the kitchen for soup and tea. I ate everything she put in front of me. She told me about her family, her two children had gone to Toulouse for studies. She was called Alexia and her husband Alain, her children Aurine and Andrew. They had a dog, which appeared in their stables one day and stayed with them. As he had appeared from nowhere, they called him Alien (or Al-ee-on) so they were a family of A’s.
I thanked her repeatedly for her kindness and got cosy in my wet tent. I loved the French people.