Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 79 - Tarascon-s-Ariege - South-West France

I cycled 40 miles yesterday. The first 20 were uphill, at an average gradient of 7%.

I left Andorra La Villa under clear skies, unsure of where I would stop that night. The roads gave me no time to sit back and think - the town lies in a deep basin, surrounded by steep mountain sides. My route went up a gorge to the North - up being the operative word, I was climbing from the first pedal strokes. So up into the valley I went, the sides getting gradually steeper and narrower, the road never relenting. I passed through small towns that advertised their proximity to ski slopes - a 3 or 5 minute drive. Then I started going through ski resorts - I recognised the familiar collection of bars, shops, chalets and hotels from skiing holidays I`ve been on. A strange feeling indeed - not only because there was no snow to give them that extra 'ski resort' feeling, but because ski resorts to me were always slightly other-worldly - places you got to after very long car or coach journeys, arriving at night, somehow separate from the rest of the world, but there I was, pedalling through them, having got there by leg power alone. I thought back to Decision Beach - sea level to mountain top in one seamless journey.

That was not the time for self-congratulatory reflection, however, as the road continued to take me up - beyond the ski resorts, now level with the largely-snowless slopes, with their dormant lifts. The air was getting cold and thin. I was stopping regularly to eat and drink - the last thing I needed was to run out of energy here - but the cold mountain air would get to me immediately, evaporating the sweat on my body and chilling me instantly. I put on extra layers.

The road came to the end of the valley, the view ahead filled with snow-capped peaks and the scree slopes that ran down from them. It was a dead end and there was only one way out of it - up and over. To my left the road climbed the valley side, a series of switchback turns that I knew would eventually lead to the top. I didn't let myself think of the top though - I concentrated on my pedal strokes, making sure I got the most out of the energy I was expending, and kept my eyes on the road immediately in front of me. It was relentless. After 4 or 5 turns I was really feeling it - my legs were beginning to protest loudly, my breathing was getting heavier and my chest aching from the cold air, I could feel my heart beating, imagined it wondering what the hell I was doing to it. Steeper turns followed, one after the other, still concentrating on nothing more than the 4 or 5 metres of tarmac infront of me, then I looked up - a petrol station and a building. The road started to ease off. I sat up in the saddle, my legs suddenly relieved of some of the burden and now spinning more freely, more easily. A small sign, insignificant almost - Pas de la Casa - 2408 metres.

I stopped to take photos and marvel at the road snaking its way down a new valley over the other side. It was bitter up there though and I knew enough about cycling in the mountains to put on yet more layers, including my windproof. One thing I failed to take adequate precautions with, however, was my hands. After just 5 minutes down the other side my fingers were frozen and I knew my warm gloves were in the bottom of a pannier. I did have something that might help close to hand though - a pair of socks in the top of a bag on the back.

So there I was, rolling down into France with a sock on each hand. They helped but the next 20 miles were less than comfortable. My hands and forearms were cramping with the cold and constant braking, my feet went numb from inaction and my whole body seemed to ache not only from the effort of getting up but also from the pressure on it to keep rigid whilst being forced forward on the way down. I arrived at Ax-Les-Termes 5 hours after I had set off that morning.

I have been reaping my rewards today, however. This French side is much different to the Spanish side I experienced - I feewheeled down the valley for 20 miles this morning, basking in the warm sunshine, breathing in the fresh mountain air and marvelling at the scenery - lush green mountain sides scarred with rocky crags, snow-capped peaks in the background. This is what mountains in the Spring time is all about. I've even managed to find a near-perfect campsite to relax in for a few days, in Tarascon, next to the river. I think there's a bar that sells Guinness in town aswell.


  • At 4:27 pm, Anonymous Herbie said…

    Mountains - Jealous!!

  • At 5:24 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I know the site!, Sun doesnt get on the town until about 11, so wiil feel cold until then.
    Good market on Saturday, including wine by litre. Where u going nxt? Head for Mirepoix, lovely town with campsite on outskirts.

    And after that try along the canal du Midi just west of Narbonne.

  • At 4:03 pm, Blogger Daisy Twoshoes said…

    sounds fabulous Percy.

    See you in Salle Corbatier for a beer!

  • At 10:39 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    an epic. I'm proud.


  • At 8:43 pm, Blogger P.Dub said…

    ohmygod - England scored against Brazil (Beckham's cross to Terry). You know this wouldn't happen with an important game!

    Sorry. Just bringing you a little bit of home. Oooh, speaking of which, there's a new indie/rock music bar opened in town.

    I don't make home sound as exciting as freewheeling, mountains, socks and general not-being-here-ness, do I?


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