Tour de Pyrénées - June 14 to 27

The Blog

Barcelona - La Seu d'Urgell (June 15)

It was Saturday morning, and we left Barcelona with the bike in our rented van. Which was at first a little stressful, because we had rented one of those French delivery vans, like the Berlingo or the Partner, but instead the car rental gave us a Skoda, which is more yuppie, but much less practical. At least not two doors in the back, just the standard hatchback. Anyway, with the back seats down, all luggage plus the big box with the bike still fitted in.

What is very cool is that we feared we would miss a lot of the Soccer Championships, but with Spain being soccer crazy as it is, nothing is less true. In Barcelona we saw Holland win from France, and maybe even much more exciting was last nights match between Spain and Sweden, that we saw over dinner in a small village restaurant. After an overtime 2-1 win for Spain, of course we all had to agree that a Holland vs Spain finals would be the most appropriate ending for the tournament.

Back to biking. Most important is of course that the Sekine, in the box that I got out of the basement of my favourite Calgary bikeshop, survived air-travel without any damage. I think this has even been our best bike air transport ever. The Air Canada lady at the check-in desk was an absolute bitch, but by doing that she had made herself so aggitated that she forgot to charge us the $75 that is required for over-size lugage. Good news for us, and quickly spent on "wine and dine". :-)

Yesterday, after we used the car to get out of the city suburbs, I did a little training round to get my bearings on the steepness of Spanish hills and mountains. It was enough "sweat producing" but all still very doable. The way I measure that is if I really have to pull it our of my back, or that I can still "rotate" the gears. Of course I wasn't yet in the real high mountains, but I countered couple of switch-backs and there were fine!!

Today was my first "real" day. Plan (and execution) was 80 km's. Don't know exactly the total amount of ascent, but there was some good climbing to do, I guess with a max of 8%. Which was tough, but I managed. Also I had some descends of 9 and 10%, ehhhh, when I've to do that upwards tomorrow, I will be walking. But maybe with the condition that builds in the next few days, even 9% will become doable.

Two more days Spain, and then into France.

La Seu d'Urgell - Luchon (June 18)

After La Seu, the real climbing started. Yes, these aren't yet the "big four" I'm aiming for, but it's also not the easy-peasy stuff anymore. The first day out of La Seu d'Urgell pushed me over a nasty little knob called the "Collado del Canto". With its height of 1725 meters, this was beyond "warming up" stuff. It was even 200 meter higher than the Peyresourde which will be the first one of my "big four". With a lowest gear of 40x28 and this being the first climb of my trip, I conquered this guy with a mixture of biking and then walking a little to get my heartrate back to normal. It's my goal of this trip. I don't care how I get up them, as long as I manage.

On the way down, I got in a big piece of rain. Which is bad by itself, not just because things get slipery, but more important because breaking becomes a pretty tough part to do. Anyway, I managed to get safe down the mountain. Then I hoped for a cup of soup to warm me up. There was a story about Lance Armstrong who always did early season trainings and then got hot soup to warm him up. He said he loved that. Well, I guess the restaurants a) open up especially for him :-) and b) prep his soup on request. In my experience, all places on the cols are still locked up and closed and when down in the valley, I can get cold beer but no hot soup.

After a nice sandwich, I had two nasty discoveries, first of all I had a flat tire, and secondly my handlebar panier had been leaking, so my cellphone/gps was soaked. The device still works, but the battery refuses to charge. I guess that means the end of all the fancy online mapping and status reports. Water and electronics appear not to be good friends.

Anyway, the day after that, weather became a light drizzle. Which is not untypical for the Pyrenees, to say the least. And ahead of me was the "Port de la Bonaigua", with 2072 meters a serious bastard. When you get that high, couple of things are starting to work in your disadvantage. First of all a "slight drizzle" becomes a very cold and windy piece of water in the air. :-) Secondly I found out that I can easily take 6-7% slopes at lower elevations, but at higher altitudes, there really is less oxygen in the air, therefore also less in your muscles. But with Fiona getting me halfway fresh supplies of water and sugars, I made it all to the top. I think it was the first time I biked to an altitude of more than 2000 meters.

We stayed in a super perfect small Pyrenees village, a beautiful room on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the local river. And today it was suddenly the most perfect 'blue sky' weather. And a relative easy day to bike, only the Col du Portillon (1320 m.) on the border of Spain and France. This one, still tough, I managed to do without any walking parts. Still plenty of rests to get the heartbeat down to a normal rate and the blood flowing again. I wasn't the only one finding it tough. Also young guys with high-tech bikes, were still going left and right over the road. Problem is they probably think that walking a little is a "no-no". Personally, I see it more as little triatlons: you bike a bit, you walk a little, and you swim in your sweat. :-)

After four days of biking, we've arrived in the termal bath town of Luchon. Found a nice quiet campsite and tomorrow we will have a restday. After that, it will be "full speed ahead" to tackle the big four.

Luchon restday (June 19)

During a day of semi-lazy in Luchon, I only managed to get you a small "interim report". Which is because the Internet Cafe didn't allow me to connect my laptop to their network. And AZERTY keyboards really slow you down. :-) Tonight I've been able to upload the "full report" that I had prepared earlier.

With the combination of a rest day, the current hot-hot weather and a set of tiny screwdrivers that I found at the super-marche, I was able to get all the water out of my mobile phone (we're carrying four, but this is the one with GPS) and using the car sigarette lighter I got it charged again. However, since then I'm in a region where the local telcos' GPRS doesn't work well, so I'm still not able to get updates to the website. It's funny, I brought four cellphones and three SIM cards, and still there are times that I can call Fiona but she can't call me, or vice versa, and finding the right combination to get the GPRS to work seems to require a magic touch.

But it doesn't really matter. My Holux 241 GPS logger still records all the details of the trip. Every two days it needs a single AA battery, and for the rest it hums along and records every 30 seconds where I was. So you only will have to wait two weeks more before I can post all the maps and elevation graphs. For the time being you will have to do with these travel reports. And just get the atlas from the bookshelf :-) ... or just use GoogleMaps.

Peyresourde - Aspin - Tourmalet (June 21)

Enough about gear and gadgets. Yesterday I started my battle with what are for me "the big four". At first I thought I would do the Peyresourde as an "exercise" and then the Aspin and the Tourmalet on a single day. However with time pressing a little and being fully rested, I changed plans and decided to do both the Peyresourde and the Aspin on the first day out of Luchon. Reason was also that the Aspin seemed to be the easiest one of the four.

What a good decision that finally appeared to be. And what a an absolutely terrible plan to do the Aspin and the Tourmalet on a single day. Reason is that the Aspin is absolutely a beautiful col to climb, but it is much tougher than it looks. Combine that with the Tourmalet being an absolute monster (!!) and it was good that today I only had to do the Tourmalet by itself.

Back to yesterday. Climbing the Peyresourde from the east goes through beautiful countryside, on the whole a tough but doable climb where I had to walk a few pieces but not too much. Including the decent, I was done by half pas eleven, not bad! Then lunch with "Bagette et Boursault" on a bench by the river in a nice little town and then on to the "easy" Aspin for afternoon entertainment.

Mmm, maybe the Apsin looks easy because it is only 1489 meters high. But the climb to it is a tough cookie, but oh so beautiful. Lots of flowering bushes, the roads pretty empty and perfect views. And every km there is a sign with the elevation you've reached and the average incline at that point.

Today was different. This was the day to climb the big 2115 meter Tourmalet. It was also Saturday, so a lot of cyclists out there. On top of that, there was a big cours on the Tourmalet, including advertising caravan and at least a hundred police, press, support, etc. motorbikes and cars. It was quite a circus.

Climbing the Tourmalet can only be summarized with the dutch phrase "Ik Worstel en Kom Boven" [Luctor et Emergo] :-). It simply is a beast. After having done the first quarter, the inclines are all upwards of 8%, upto 10. With a preference :-) for everything above 9%. Given my 40 x 28 lowest gear I had to do this with a combination of walking (a lot :-) and biking. Funny thing is that while walking I often wasn't slower than the guys using the very low gears of their mountain bikes.

I'm sure that the next time I'm watching the Tour de France go over the Tourmalet, I will watch it with different eyes. And I've absolute the biggest admiration for the cyclists that climbed this mountain 50-100 years ago. Their equipment was so primitive, and the roads were so bad, but they still did it. I've to dig up that photo in one of my Tour de France books of the cyclist that did it mainly walking (he shouted "assassins" to the organizers :-) and still won the Tour.

And another word about my "support crew". Fiona is driving up and down in her Skoda Diesel to find campings or hotels. In the afternoon she is pitching tents, and in the morning, after I leave, she is taking it all down again to head for the next stage. And on the road she will catch up with me to replenish my water bottles and bananas. What could I do without!!

Tomorrow we're heading for the Soulor and the Col d'Aubisque, which is kind of a combo. From the elevation graphs it seems to be more doable than the Tourmalet, but you never know. After that, it's back into Spain, with a 1700 meter col on the border and then it "should be" all downhill to Pamplona.

Soulor - Col d'Aubisque (June 22)

Today the third day of my "big four". Which is really "big five", because to get to the Col d'Aubisque, you first have to do the Soulor. Starting from the valley (a 1000 meters ascent to the col), climbing the Soulor is even tougher than doing the Aubisque itself.

It was one of those days with "pap in de benen", or in English I think that's called "porridge legs". The Soulor has 4-5 km's of ascend that are more than 8% and all of them were absolutely just good for walking next to the bike. I could blame it on a horible Tourmalet the day before of course, but in the end you always see it with bicycling, there are days you're in perfect shape and at others, like today, things are hopeless.

More important was that this was a day to climb an absolute beautiful mountain. A bit similar to the Aspin, going through friendly green farmers land. Then slowly it becomes more alpine, but still with cows and sheep grazing in the fields.

Also a big difference was that suddenly at the 'col' the little restaurants and bars were open. So after getting some much needed "sugar water" (a Coke) on the top of the Soulor, the stretch to the Aubisque went physically much better. It was steep, really steep (!!), and it was very narrow, but oh so beautiful. Probably this was the best part of the trip.

An hour or so ahead of me Fiona did the same stretch by car (our trusty Skoda diesel). And also that way this was the most gorguous piece of road to drive. However, it is tough to imagine how a complete Tour de France caravan is driving over this narrow road without any accidents.

After a very cool and fast descent of "le Col d'Aubisque" we settled for the night in Arudy. Beautiful little town. And a great hotel with a dinner of Fois Gras and one of the better steaks. Just order the house wine to come along and nothing can go wrong.

From here on the program will be maximizing on "vacation time". Still more biking to enjoy, but I've done enough of the high cols. Tomorrow back into Spain. Then two days Pamplona, without the bulls. :-) And then a quick drive back to Barcelona, to explore it a little further and catch our flight back home.

Arudy - Arette

After having done all the climbing, as beautiful as it was, it was time for a little relaxed bicycling, which means more emphasis on rolling hills than on steep gradients. On Monday I could have embarked on a gorgeous, but also very strenuous trip over the Porte d'Arlas (1760 meter) with gradients of up to 15%. We decided that "enough is enough", therefore I only did the first part of that route, which was a very enjoyable 30-40 km trip to a vilage called "Arette".

And what is more appropriate than to stop a bicycling trip in Arette / Arręte :-). Fiona and I arrived more or less at the same time, settled on the terras of the local Bar / Restaurant and ordered a beer and sandwich.

And then we decided on the spot, that this was a place just as good as any else, to leave my trusted Sekine. No need to take out the front wheel and load it in the car, etc. I put the old (rusty :-) paddles back, loaded the bike with sufficient spare tires and tubes for years to come and Fiona made a few farewell pictures. That's all, no further ceremony.

In the restaurant I told the owner that she could give the bike to anyone she knew that was looking for a bike. However, it was "le temps du dejeuner" and the place was full with all kinds of workers that had come for lunch. After one more yell through the room "quelqu'un qui veut une bicyclette" .... and the place was pretty buzzing when we drove out of town. What a good way to leave behind this bike, so much better than putting it against a lamppost in Pamplona or Barcelona.

And this will end my trip report. We will be driving back to Spain, little campling, some sightseeing and then it's going back home. In a week time, if you come back to this site, I will have updated the maps and elevation graphs, and you will find some pictures of this trip.


It took some "wiki research", but I just discovered that this year the Tour de France seems to include the Peyresourde, l'Aspin and the Tourmalet. And all in the same direction as I did them. July 13th and 14th will be two exciting days to watch TV for me.

[back] [Pyrenees 2008]

  Willem van Schaik, Calgary, June 2008