The Pyrenees were just plain fun. There's just no other way to describe the journey, although my definition of "fun" has been called suspect on occasion. Since I was at Noelle's house at the base of the Pyrenees anyway, the obvious thing to do was go over them and see what's on the other side (Spain as it turns out). I couldn't quite figure out whether to put the Pyrenees on the France or the Spain page. I've found that in most cases where it's tough to decide between X and Y, the correct answer turns out to be Both or Neither. In this case, I obviously just made a separate page for the Pyrenees and the ride to Barcelona.
The first couple of days of the ride were a bit... ah... difficult. As usual, I had let myself get out of shape during my work period. Someday I have to figure out how to live somewhere between sloth and gonzo cyclist. I've only ridden my bike 300 km since December (about 3 riding days), so I was obviously in sloth mode. I would pay for that, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I started out from Noelle's house pretty late in the day due to my usual amount of procrastination so only did 30 km to the nearest town. Noelle made me a nice little set of directions with a suggested route, which was good. I bought good maps of Spain while I was in London, but didn't get any maps covering the first 2 days riding. I only got lost a couple of times, and both times I managed to get directions with no problem, despite being a man.
The second day I put out a pretty respectable 70 km (43 miles), which isn't too bad for the terrain anyway. I even spent an hour or two looking around the town of Foix, which was a pretty nice town that I liked. I nearly stopped there, partly because I liked the town, and partly because I couldn't find the road Noelle pointed out to me. I could find A road, but it was a freeway... not my first choice. I managed to ask a woman that stopped to chat about the bike (my usual method of picking victims to give me directions), and decided to carry on to Tarascon, where I got a nice room right on the edge of a river.
I know from experience that day 3 is where I start paying for laziness, and it usually takes me 9 cycling days to get back into some kind of shape (it's a bad sign that I know these figures). Day 3 started out pretty much as one would expect, and I was dragging-ass the whole day. I was being such a whiner I could barely stand myself, and was glad there was nobody else to hear it. Perhaps now is a good time to tell about how I deal with getting distance out on days when I'm not exactly firing on all cylinders. I have two basic strategies:
The hunger thing applies particularly in France. Most hotels have breakfast as part of the price of the room. However, we have a basic disagreement over the definition of "breakfast". I like the Australian and South African definition: Breakfast = Bacon, Eggs, Toast, Juice, Milk, Coffee, and usually cereal and yogurt, or the Vietnamese definition which includes Eggs, Bread and sometimes Fresh Fruit. The French definition is: Breakfast = Bread & Coffee. As you can see, there isn't a gram of protein in the French breakfast, which is a guaranteed 100% sure-fired way to bonk 2 hours later. I know better, but took off with nothing but bread both of those days, and got exactly what I deserved. If I go back to France again I'll start taking a tin of sardines or tuna to breakfast.
On the second day, I rode into Ax les Thermes at 25 km (15 miles) feeling like I was going to give up after that distance. A quick omelet revived me to an astonishing degree, and I decided to carry on to the next town on the map even though I was actually starting the real climb into the mountains. I ended up climbing for a couple of solid hours, and ended up in Mérens les Vals, with 40 km (25 miles), not an earth-shattering distance, but given that I had actually started climbing it wasn't bad. It turned out that the hotel was closed and the next one was 7 km up the road. I wasn't up for another 7 km (I thought I was until I rode about 300 meters of that and gave up). I obviously could have slept in my tent, but as usual providence provided for me. There was a French woman at the hotel getting coffee, who is on a ten-day hiking trip to the Mediterranean. She seemed impressed that I was cycling to Barcelona, and I was hugely impressed with the route she was taking on foot through the mountains. Just before we started up our mutual admiration society, she told me she was staying at a hostel in that town, and offered to show me where it was... problem solved. One thing I've learned is that if you expect problems on a trip, you tend to get problems; and if you expect things to generally work out, they generally work out. It sounds a bit superstitious, but my experience matches the theory. You obviously have to be prepared for the times when things don't work out, but they generally do if you're open to it. I hung out until she finished her coffee, and then she showed me how to get up to the hostel.
After an extended period of inactivity, getting back on the bike pretty much limits my activities to cycling, showering, eating and sleeping. I've found this every time I get back on the bike after an extended absence, so I was sleeping 12-14 hours per day. This is actually a good thing, and if you ever take up any sport, keep in mind the rule: Stress + Rest = Growth. The rest period is where your body builds up higher levels of strength, as well as the time that minor injuries are repaired. Lots of people forget the rest part, and just burn out or injure themselves.
Day 4 was actually the most interesting day, and I'm sitting here in a cafe in Andorra writing about it as we speak. It was by far the hardest day yet, and the fact that I can write about it instead of collapsing into a coma indicates that I'm building back up.
This particular route over the Pyrenees is absolutely the most unambiguous mountain route I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of mountains. Going over any mountain range using any route I've ever seen usually involves a lot of ups and downs. You hit the foothills, and go up for a while to get over some hill, and then you go down to the next valley, and across it and up again. You're always gaining elevation, but you tend to do a lot of ups and downs. You eventually get to the summit, and then have to carry on across the top of the mountain for some distance, going up and down before you go down the other side. This route is NOT like that at all. This morning I fixed the chain on my bike, then climbed aboard the SM at 9:30 and started climbing. Except for rest stops, I never stopped climbing until 5:00. I don't mean I didn't go down any substantial hills. I mean I didn't go down ANY hills. I can't remember a single meter of road that was pointed downhill, and even the level spots were few and far between. Most of the route was a series of long stretches of 7-12% grades; lots of it covered with switchbacks (a little steeper than Big Hill Road or Page Mill Road). That means I spent 5 solid hours of cycling spread over 7-1/2 hours moving uphill, without a single downhill break. I've never seen a road like that. This photo at the top about halfway up or so. I'd estimate the road you can see is about 1/4 or less of the uphill slog.
Just before the summit, I engaged in a bit of incrementalism. I stopped at a Pas de la Casa, which is the first town over the border of Andorra. Andorra is a tiny little country about the size of a very small county in California (population 66,000) that's nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. It's roughly 25x25 km (15 miles square), and would fit comfortably in Yosemite National Park or half of the southern part of San Francisco Bay. It's managed to maintain its independence for years through some fairly weird political circumstances. The country now survives as a ski area (some of the best skiing in Europe), and as a giant shopping mall for Southern France. France is a semi-socialist country with a huge tax burden to subsidize farmers, vagrants, people that don't want to work, etc. A lot of the tax is in your face as VAT (Value Added Tax - like Sales Tax in the U.S.), and a lot of it is hidden. Andorra doesn't have any VAT, and has a lot less of the other taxes as well, so things can be pretty cheap there. The French occasionally run over the border to buy cheap goods.
At about 2:00 I had been cranking and whining for hours, and was completely wiped out. I'd already spent quite a bit of time repeating my mantra "There's no shame in pushing your bike up a hill... There's no shame in pushing your bike up a hill...". I'm hoping if I say it long enough, I'll believe it. I did have a lot of cyclists pass me during the day, usually so fast they made me look like I was standing still. I choose to believe it was because they weren't carrying 80 pounds of baggage, but the fact that they looked like actual athletes may have been a factor too. At any rate, I basically had to push my bike the last 2 km or so into Pas de la Casa, and I was wiped out, despite an earlier recharging break where I corrected my protein deficiency by eating some sardines and crackers. I figured I'd get something to eat, and sack out, despite the fact that I took an immediate dislike to the town. I'm sure it's a nice town, but it reminded me of the Duty Free section of any large airport expanded 100 times... or maybe like being trapped in a Wal-Mart.
I had something to eat, and found out from the waiter that it was 6 km (4 miles) to the top, all uphill just like what I'd been doing. Since I had JUST barely managed to drag the bike into the town, another 6 km was obviously a bad idea, right?
Yeah, Right! You didn't really think I could stop 6 km from the top. Of course, I had to do it and I'll say here and now those were the most difficult 6 km I've ever covered. Notice I didn't say "rode". I ended up pushing the bike nearly all the way. At first, I would set goals of 1 km before I would rest. I even had to cheat to get that. I didn't count it as "rest" if I just stopped for less than a minute while the bike was leaning against me. That got me a couple km. Then I had to start working for 800 meters. Then 500... not always making the goal anyway. By the time I got to the top at 5:00 I was calling myself all kinds of bad names (you don't want to know) to make myself pedal for 100 meters and then push for another 100 meters at a time. It took me about 2 hours to get that last 6 km, for a whopping speed of about 3 kph (a slow walk is 4 kph).
I finally got to the top (2,404 meters - 8,000 feet) at 5:00, and it was beautiful, although I suspect I'd have thought anything that didn't involve more climbing was beautiful. I couldn't capture the moment with my camera because it just died :( Guess it wasn't designed for a couple years on a bike. Looks like I'll get to test out that cheap Andorran shopping experience in more detail than I had in mind. I managed to crank out a whopping 28 km (17 miles) between 9:30 and 5, with 5 hours in the saddle. This meant my average speed while moving was 5.6 kph (3.4 mph) and my overall speed was less than 4kph. When I'm pushing the bike, I walk about 4 kph (2.5 mph) and the slowest I can cycle is about 5-7 kph (3-4 mph). I would estimate a 3 year old on a Big Wheel goes about 7-10 kph. I put lower gears on the bike when I was in Cape Town, but I think I may go even lower before I tackle the Alps.
Before I climbed to the top, I looked at my map and it looked a lot like the other side was all or nearly all downhill, and I had a choice of going onto the next town or finding a camping spot. I have finally decided to just quit pretending I might like camping more if I did it more, because I nearly always choose a shower and bed over a tent and my smelly cycling clothes. Call me pansy boy. I asked a couple of motorcycle riders (they love my bike more than any other group) if it was all downhill on the other side and they said it was. This matched my map, so I drank a liter of water and a coke, put on my jacket and helmet, yelled "LET ERRRRRR RRRRRIPPPPP!!!" and headed off down the other side.
Now the other side was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was as unambiguously downhill as the previous side had been uphill. I didn't crank my pedals over a single revolution for the next 10 km, which took about 10 minutes. The downhill section would have been great for a more gonzo rider than I am, but I'm still a very conservative rider so I usually keep my speeds below about 55 kph (35 mph) and I've never had the SM over 65 kph (40 mph). In addition to that, there were a lot of very sharp switchbacks that made me slow down to practically nothing. However, it was a GREAT ride going down that hill. I used to hate downhills on Diamond Frames because they hurt my wrists and shoulders, but they're fun on a bent. I finally called it a day after turning my cranks over a whopping total of 50 revolutions (I normally turn 60-70 RPM), mostly because it was getting dark and the road ahead looked like I might actually have to crank another 50 revs. I stopped at the next town after a whopping 45 km (28 miles) for the day, and here I am in... I have no idea. This is a ski town. In fact, all the towns I've been through have been ski towns, so they're a bit deserted at the moment. All in all, it was a fabulous day of cycling. Grueling but fabulous.
I should mention that the French are the most bicycle friendly people I've encountered anywhere. I don't have a huge amount of experience to back that up, but I can tell you that so far there hasn't been a single French driver that has been anywhere short of extremely courteous to me, and I appreciate it.
The next day I rode down to the capital of Andorra, which is Andorra la Vella. It turned out that I could easily have made it the previous evening since it was all downhill. I really just came into Andorra to look around a little bit, and because I just can't quite make myself ride within 20 miles of a country without going into it. I didn't really have anything I particularly wanted to see in Andorra. I went through a zillion little ski towns along the way, and finally came into what looked like another big shopping town. I kept going downhill and downhill and downhill waiting for this particular town to end, as I thought I had another 10 km to go to Andorra la Vella (as you can see, navigation isn't my strong suit). I stopped at a camera shop and looked at the digital cameras, but I really need to do a bit more Internet research before I buy a new one. I was toying with the idea of seriously upgrading my camera when I was in Cape Town and did a lot of research into really expensive digital SLRs, but decided not to bite the bullet. I didn't really do much research on replacements for my camera, because there was no point in replacing a camera that worked fine.
So I kept working my way through the town, not really knowing exactly what town I was in. I finally stopped and asked a policewoman where I was, and she pointed out that I was in fact in Andorra la Vella. At the start of the day I was seriously considering stopping there and finding a camera and checking out the town. At that point, I'd gone all the way through the town, didn't particularly like it (it reminded me of a giant shopping mall), and was on the bike pointing downhill. To go back to the town, I would have had to ride back up the hill I'd just gone down; OR I could just carry on downhill to Spain. One of my bad tendencies is that once I have my bike in motion, I sometimes have a tough time making myself stop (part of the reason I never saw any real animals in South Africa). I decided to just carry on and buy a new camera in Barcelona. As it turned out, it mysteriously started working again the next day anyway.
About 5 km after Andorra la Vella, I hit the border with Spain. I DID tell you that Andorra was a tiny little country, but I hadn't quite got the scale of its tinyness into my brain. Lesotho was a tiny country and it took me 1 day to ride through the part of it I was willing to ride, and would have taken 2 days to ride the longest axis. I rode from one side of Andorra to the other with a total riding time of less than 3 hours including breaks and tourist stops. Of course, it was all downhill but still...
After I hit Spain, I had to ride on a road that was bigger than I would really want to ride on, but that's par for the course for a cyclist. I end up doing that all the time and if you're afraid of roads you shouldn't be a distance cyclist. I found out immediately that Spanish drivers are every bit as friendly as French drivers. I found that lots of times I would have to signal a truck or car to pass me. I could hear the truck, or maybe see it in my brand-new-bright-shiny-rear-view-mirror (actually, it's black but that doesn't really ring). I'd work my way over to where I was hugging the curb really tightly. In most countries, that would be sufficient for the truck to whip past me, but I had to signal them to indicate that I was going to keep myself over there reliably enough for them to pass safely. I think I'm going to like Spain :)
Once I got going down the Southern face of the Pyrenees, I was really bummed that my camera was fubared because the scenery was spectacular... much better than the French side had been. I doubt it would have made very good photos anyway (great mountains seldom do), but I would have at least liked to give it a shot. I saw some of the nicest mountain scenery of the whole trip in the 40 km or so to the south of Andorra la Vella, and would recommend that trip just for that, even if you have to resort to doing it in a car or bus. They also had a few rock plants, which gave me a kind of down-home feel.
AFTER I'd gone through the best scenery, I decided to try the camera again... and it now worked. I suspect some kind of communist conspiracy or something. At any rate, these are pretty much the worst views I saw along the way.
I stopped a couple of times for breakfast and a snack, and decided I like my exposure to Spain so far. For one thing, I actually know a tiny little bit of Spanish. I had a perfect opportunity to learn it when I was young from a Mexican man that worked at the sawmill, but was too lazy to really learn much. However, I have managed to pick up enough to sound slightly less retarded than I sound in other languages. All the people I've met are very friendly and helpful. Of course, most of the people I meet anywhere in the world are friendly and helpful. Life's just like that for a cyclist. On the trip down the hill I ran into some pretty strong headwinds so I got a chance to test out my new fancy fairing in a high wind situation. The jury's still out, but I think it helped somewhat. At the moment, I'm stopped at a hostel. I was heading for a town that would have given me a distance that I at least wouldn't be ashamed of, but then I came down a hill and crossed a beautiful river. I was just saying to myself I should get off the road and find a place to camp just because the area was so nice, and it was getting on towards dark anyway. Right at that moment, I saw a sign for a Hostel. I went in and got a good serviceable room for a whopping 15 Euros (about $12), so I'm a happy camper.
After my night at the hostel, I carried on for another 3 days to Barcelona. I almost never choose a specific road more than a day or two ahead or time. Part of this is laziness, and part is that even if I did choose one I'd be just as likely to change my mind along the way. There were three promising routes to Barcelona that looked like they had minimum exposure to freeway-like traffic. I went along, talked to people in Cafes, and took the road that seemed to fit the best. Sometimes I take a road for no reason whatsoever. Sometimes I take one because it happens to have a hotel or hostel closer than another route, and it's getting towards the end of the day. Sometimes I take one because it has something interesting on it. Sometimes I take one because I hate the road I'm on and just want to get off it. If all else fails, I try to take the ones marked as "scenic" on the map. In this part of Spain, "scenic" usually means "mountainous". In this particular case, Barcelona has at least a dozen routes into it, but most are freeways (like most large cities). I'll ride on freeways if I really have to, but I don't like it, particularly near big cities. I always look for alternate routes.
In this case, there was a route on the map that went through a small natural park, so that was obviously the correct route. The map showed some grade arrows (arrows that show steep hills), so I got the added bonus of climbing some hills. They were about the same slope as the hill going up to Andorra, but I only had to ride uphill for 2-3 hours at a stretch. This was day five, and I started feeling almost like a cyclist again. I have a state of mind I call "The Machine". Others may call "The Zone" or "Flow". It's basically where the entire cycling apparatus is working correctly and efficiently. When The Machine is in operation, I can cycle up a hill for hours without stopping. I'm not generally setting any speed records, but I keep going with no pain, no overly hard breathing and in a fine state of mind. I have to be in reasonably good shape for this to work, and that's how I can tell I'm becoming a cyclist again. That hit on the day leading up to the natural park, and on through the park. I was still doing relatively short distances (70 km), but that's not bad for any terrain where 2-3 hours are spent chugging up a hill... not bad for me anyway. I'll take a week of rest in Barcelona, and then another 3-4 days and I'm good to go.
The last night before Barcelona was a bit frustrating. I went into Terassa, which was obviously a pretty large city. It was at the end of a 60 km (37 miles) slog up a lot of hills, and I was pretty tired. I thought I'd find a hotel easily. I usually locate one through random wandering. I wandered through the town for a while, which wasn't very hard cycling so it was fun and I wasn't overly concerned. I still had quite a bit of daylight left, and I was just stopping because I was too far from Barcelona to make it the same day, but the next day's ride would be easy. I rode all around the town for over 2 hours just gawking while looking for a hotel. In all that time, I never found one hotel, pension, hostel or any other type of habitation. The town is kind of broken up into quarters, and I went through all of them, more or less. I stopped and asked directions a half dozen times and people just looked at me blankly. I do know the Spanish names for all the types of accommodations, but people just didn't connect the idea. That was weird. I finally got some directions to a pension, but when I went there it was closed. By then, I'd been wandering around town for an hour which was fun, and another hour which was getting tiring. I finally got frustrated and decided to just head 10 km down the road to the next town OR just get out of town and set up my tent. I got out of town by the simple expedient of heading south using my compass, and eventually ended up on the road I wanted. The problem with the "get out of town" idea was that I entered an endless series of suburbs with no good places to stop along the way. I finally pulled into the next town, and did in fact see one lone hotel. It took me another hour to find it after having to go ahead to the next intersection and backtrack, but I finally got a shower and some dinner and was a happy camper again... somewhat frustrated, but happy. The frustrating part is that before that town I had ridden by 100 perfectly good campsites, and if I had just stopped and set up camp, I'd have been good to go. Of course, then I wouldn't have really gotten a good look at Terassa so it all worked out for the best.
The last day of cycling I rode into Barcelona. It was a short 40 km with a mere hour or two of riding up a relatively steep hill in the morning. This makes the fourth Olympic city I've visited when the Olympics were long-gone, so there may be something wrong with my timing. I just rode around the city randomly for a few hours, and then stopped at an Internet Cafe to see if the world came to an end while I was cycling. By mid-afternoon I had decided it was time to find a place to stay. I happened to start talking about my bike to a couple that stopped outside the Internet Cafe to look at it. It turned out that they lease a large flat and rent out two of the rooms. One of the rooms was vacant, so they invited me to occupy it for the week I plan to stay here. Life works out fine and dandy once again. I'll introduce them in my Spain page, which will start with Barcelona.
Next - Spain