Sat 8th June.
The Col du Peyresourde and stocking up.
After leaving the small town the previous day, I made some decent headway on the next pass. The landscape remained very similar to how it was yesterday, long expansive straight roads with lots of green and steady climbs.
I could see a house in the distance, but no one came to evict me during the night. By this stage I’d developed my strategy for finding the right spot at the right time and felt very comfortable with what I was doing.
One thing I noticed was in the night I had some bizarre stomach aches and pains followed by noisy bouts of relief. The only thing that it could be was the electrolytes. I couldn’t really move when it kicked in, but by morning it was gone.
After I left my spot a lot of black cloud was coming in. Luckily I left at the right time and only witnessed a brief shower. Half an hour into cycling it was clear blue skies and sunshine. I was sure I’d narrowly avoided a drenching.
The mountains ahead of me were covered in snow and had white fluffy clouds roaming around their peaks. Against the aqua blue colour of the sky it looked like an Evain advert.
The start of the climb for this pass was around 1000m and the pass itself was 1569m, bit higher than yesterday. I began the uphill battle much more optimistically, stopping occasionally, but not as much for food.
The struggle was the same battle against weight and gravity, but it didn’t feel as foreign. I was still a long way from being adjusted to this sort of riding, but with a day down, it didn’t feel too bad. I just had to keep it slow and keep moving.
A group of about fourteen motorcyclists overtook me in single file on a turn, two of the bunch giving me a thumbs up. It was a tremendous feeling of connection and hugely supportive to receive this sign from a biker. On the road it’s almost like you’re all different species; cycle, motorbike, car, 4×4 and the God of the road, the truck. You all look out for each other and rarely fray from your bunch to support a foreign species.
Motorcyclists are certainly a different breed when it comes to road users, all in black, loud, powerful machines with a lot of power and more acceleration then anything else on the road. With eight weeks of cycling on the road, I was used to feeling like I didn’t belong on the road and having to fight (if only mentally) among the other road users.
The token of respect certainly lightened the burden and helped me on to the top. When I got there I found a sign that marked the Col and a little wooden lodge that served coffee and crepes and fourteen motorbikes parked up outside.
I couldn’t really afford anything as I had about five euros to my name, but against my better judgement, I went in and treated myself to a black coffee and two tiny crepes for my effort.
Before heading in, I spread a few things that had got wet out on the ground to dry in the sun. The luxuries of life on two wheels. I went into the modest shack, ordered and shared the space with what turned out to be fourteen jolly Swedes, all men.
They had got the train down to Narbonne (south France) with their motorbikes and were on a two-week tour of the Pyrenees.
In the lodge, the owner had a collection of small wooden games and puzzles. He was a sweet old man, who spoke only in French to people (one of the Swedes spoke fluent French, the rest seemed to speak none) and seemed to relish the opportunity to show people these puzzles and somehow tell them what they needed to do with the apparatus to complete them.
He must have been doing this for years with everybody that stopped there, but seemed to get so much excitement from it, that it looked like he was doing it for the first time, or he had made the games himself.
The puzzle he gave me, was made up of four pieces. Two six wooden balls attached to each other and two were four wooden balls in a line. The challenge was to make a 3D pyramid from these items. I failed to do so (See diagram). See if you could work it out…
After a nice chat with the Swedes, the one guy I had got to know, said two things that will always stay with me. He said “It’s much better doing this the way you are doing it, on your bike, you have time to think. We get no time to think on the motorbikes. I am envious of that.”
Here was a guy who’s bike probably cost more than my whole trip (my bike included) and he was envious of me. That struck me for a moment.
Then he said “Are you keeping in touch with your mother?” in a mocking parent tone. Thankfully, I was, so without lying, I replied “Yes, I email her whenever I can.” “Good, that’s the least you can do for her nerves.” before getting back into what he described as his ‘prison’ of protective motorbike clothes and blazed off down the hill.
I hoped that I could be doing things like that when I reached that age. Travelling around foreign countries on motorbike with my best friends.
I had a particular unform for these descents. I wore my helmet (obviously), a raincoat (wind protection and kept me warm) and sunglasses no matter what the weather, as the wind dries your eyes very quickly and if a bug flew into my eyes, that could be the end of the trip.
Like yesterday, the downhill was very quick, fun, luxurious and exciting. With panoramic views that changed every ten minutes with the terrain. With this descent I reached the highest speed on the trip so far, 63.6kph / 39.5mph.
Once at the bottom, I was in the small town of Bagnéres-de-Luchon, where I found a Lidl’s. Before entering the mountains, I’d planned to stock up with at least three days worth of food, so if I got stuck somewhere, I’d be okay for a while. As it happens, the Pyrenees were loaded with towns and shops, but I didn’t know this yet, so I stocked up.
With each trip to a supermarket, I bought lots of food, then ate out-front like a homeless man, ravishing everything. The landscape here felt dramatically different in this region, Haute Garonne. There was more space around the roads and the area was built up and more populated then I expected, not in an unpleasant way. There was a train track too, leading me to think it wasn’t quite the wilderness I had imagined.
At this stage, I had to choose if I would go into Spain again, around into Andorra then up and back into France. Or stay in France and dip into Andorra, then backtrack to France. The crossroad was approaching. Originally I planned to go into Spain, but the French countryside was too beautiful to leave. I decided to stay in France.
My aim for the rest of the day was to get some headway on the the Col du Menté. That was all I wanted. Little did I know what was ahead.
On the map everything was straight forward. I head north, the east along a main road, and that would take me directly on course with the pass I needed to go through. Somehow at a roundabout, I left at the wrong exit and headed towards Spain. By the time I realised, it meant backtracking a good distance or going forward through some less notable backroads to rejoin where I needed to get in.
As I was too stubborn to backtrack I decided to go along back roads and off the map and rejoin the road on the original route I had planned and get down for the night as soon as possible.
I went through the tiny, picturesque towns of Fos and Melles. I stopped at Melles to ask if I was on the right route to get back to the Col de Mente. After some confusion the owner and drinkers in the bar sent me on the right path. I made it through the town and found the road I needed to get on track.
I noticed many hairpin turns if I looked to my left and up, as I was slowly climbing up a very steep hill. The further up it I got, the more of it I revealed to myself.
After an hour, it didn’t feel like it would ever end. Already I could see the town of Melles I had just passed and it was a mere spec in the distance below.
I knew I was very close to the Spainsh boarder again and was aware that at this height as I looked around I could probably see parts of Spain.
I continued up, past the odd house, horses and sheep, awkwardly walking around their hilly fields they inhabited. I kept going and finally saw clouds further up the hill on the route I was talking. For some reason, I thought the clouds would signify the end, then I could pleasantly descend and get some sleep. The clouds merely provided a more disorientating experience, as I kept climbing and while I moved through the clouds I got the occasional glimpse of a mountain in the distance.
Finally, I went through a wood, with more climbing and left the hill I had been climbing since I left Melles. I then thought “This is it, I’ve made, it I’m free” but there was more climbing to go. Finally, I hit a flat in the road where I was 1442m. This wasn’t on the a map, but to me signified a Col of sorts. I took the time to stop and recuperate and use my GPS to try to figure out where I was.
Due to the weather and clouds, it couldn’t get a satellite signal. This piece of equipment became increasingly unpopular. The one time I really needed it and it couldn’t tell me anything. Although it did tell me I was higher than the Col de Menté, so I knew I had a nice descend coming, but it was getting late and starting to rain.
I carried, through a series of windy, unloved and deserted roads, with large construction vehicles on the side of the road uprooting trees. I saw deer in the distance ahead looking back at me and then run off as soon as the registered potential danger and heard the occasional unnerving sounds of wild boars in the woods.
After about forty minutes, I finally broke through into a clearing and was at the Col de Menté. By now it was getting dark quickly and a heavy shower of rain was coming in. When I got there, there was a lodge for travellers opposite the Col. It was full of Catalans who were drinking on the porch outside. The all looked at me and laughed a bit among themselves. One of them gestured I should come in.
My plan was to descend down the Col and find a good spot, but with the dark and heavy rain coming, I went inside.
It was €45 for a room for one night. She couldn’t move on the price, then when I realised my situation, I registered this as the nearest situation I’d had to an emergency and decided not to think about money and get a good nights sleep.
I parked my bike in the garage and brought my things in. I set up in my cosy room, had a shower, charged up all of my devices and for the first time in days, relaxed and fell asleep in a comfy bed.