Early rise. Cool morning. Breakfast at the bakers. 2x pain raisin each. Thick and juicy. Packed with energy for the Col du Portalet. 29km to the top. Spectacular ride all the way. Gorges with torrents way below to the side of the road, cloudy mountains looming ahead.
It started steadily before becoming gradually stepper in the middle section. Beautiful pastures, the smell of pine. Two tanned mountain bikers, heavily laden came the other way. They had fleeces on and we were in t-shirts. Waved and smiled as they shot past.
Dan was ahead and I could see the sweat steaming off him in the cool air. Stopped to look at a helicopter hauling cement up to a high point on a mountain. Lots of people cheering us on and waving as we slowly climbed through the pass. Lots of walkers and recently built anti-avalanche constructions. Lovely, fresh air. Cooler than down in the valleys, spoilt only by fumes of passing cars.
Stopped near the summit to take a few pictures. A French cyclist passed us on the way and shouted a few words of encouragement. At last, after 29kms of climbing we were there. A car park, a hotel and shop on the French side. Trippers wandering about but we were pleased by our effort and not just the view.
I had a few francs left so I spent them in the shop buying coke, orange juice, danettes, shortbread and biscuits. I presented the girl in the shop with a fistful of change and she helped me to spend it. We then went onto a patch of ground with a bit of shelter and ate lunch.
Shortly, we were waved through Spanish customs and we were on the way down into Spain. Goodbye, France. Two mountain bikers were coming as we descended with big smiles on their faces. A strong head wind and a bad road surface prevented us from going very fast. Passing through gorges and a tunnel. Warm but bearable. 1st puncture. Dan’s rear tyre went soft so on went a new tube.
We carried on until Sabiñánigo. Dan took money from a machine to buy food. Carried on and camped wild. Drew water from an irrigation canal. Wonderful day.
Distance 92.7 kms Average speed 8.4 kmh Time 10 hrs. 55. Total distance 1257 kms
Awoke to cars driving past the camp site. Another sleepless night. Awoke with headache which stayed all day. Another supermarket visit to buy breakfast of Crunchy Nut cornflakes, croissant (which were awful) fresh milk, tea and donuts. Today was our Sabbath, so to speak, so we went into town, dumped our washing at a ‘lavarie’ and went to the post office for aerogrammes. When we were walking back, we met the ‘maitresse du camping’ who was drinking water from a fountain. ‘Try it!’ We did. It was cold and sweet.
Back in the camp site, we dumped our things. I retrieved our washing from the lavarie and hung it out to dry on our tent. It was starting to get hot so we went to sit by the river in some shade. Next to the cool river, we sat writing letters, diaries and wading into the mountain water. It was lovely apart from the ants.
It was at about 1230 that we stopped for lunch of melon and a banana each. Writing letters was more of a task than I thought it would be. I wrote two to Penny and after that it became difficult so I lay down for a snooze. Waking up or coming round in that spot was very relaxing. A mountain was to the east, rising up with rocky outcrops and trees on one side. The sound of the river and the blue sky with the odd cloud in the sky, the green fields. I would like to come back here and mountain bike someday.
Later, we shopped for supper and the following day and came back to give our bikes a quick wipe down. Dan and I wrapped our film in tin foil to protect them against the heat. I hope it works. We spent the rest of the day rearranging our bags, packing away our washing and making tea.
Two young Frenchmen on mountain bikes returned to their tents at about 5pm just as Dan had taken off his unused toe clips. So, I went over and gave them the clips and straps. They seemed pleased and we started chatting about bikes. They came over and had a look at our bikes. Soon, they packed up and returned home to Pau. We noted they left wearing spotty handkerchiefs over their heads. We had a quick laugh at that.
Supper was sausages with herbs in tomato and onion sauce, tinned spuds, peas, carrots, Greek yoghurt with crunchy cornflakes, a peach and tea. Our kit seems to be well chosen. We use all our clothes, our pots and pans are just the right amounts and enough of them for other sauces. There is very little that we can get rid of to save weight. However, I wrote to Chris Cook, an old school friend who worked for Cotswold at the time, to ask him to send some SIGG water bottles to us in Algeciras because our water keeps overheating and is not very thirst quenching. We are now writing letter madly before we head into Spain tomorrow. I thought about home and Mum a lot today. I wrote a long letter to Penny today.
Dan and I played a game of ‘slow race’ on our bikes today too. It was a game that we played at Great Walstead School on sports’ day. Our bikes seemed light and frisky without kit on them. It was good fun but I lost.
What a good sleep! Felt much better until I got out of bed and into the sunlight. It was going to be another scorching day. Got up late, had tea, as usual.
Dan’s front pannier rack had broken the day before coming down a particularly steep stretch of road (we think). Much swearing and frustrated looks from Dan as he mended it with some clamps he had attached to the bikes. Bike UK [from who we had bought the bikes in London] are going to get an earful when we have a moment to write to them. They had sold us useless kit and it was an indication of what useless, ignorant salesmen they were.
We left fairly late, heading for the centre of Pau. As we left the campsite, we caught our first glimpse of the Pyrenees standing hazy in the morning light. It gave me a burst of adrenalin as I stared at them. This was our first major obstacle of the journey and there they were, just sitting and waiting for us.
Unsuccessfully, we left Pau having looked for a new rack for Dan. It was stinkingly hot and the traffic was getting on my nerves. We had to get out of that place. We had met a young Belgian chap who was going in the same direction as us in Pau. He shot on ahead of us as we stopped to buy some lunch. We met him later in the Laruns camp site we had arranged to stay.
We stopped in a supermarket in Gans which shut for another hour. So, we sat in its shade and drank coke. A lazy, young Frenchman was doing the same, sitting on some display chairs outside, yawning and groaning. It was about 36 degrees C again. We bought lunch after wandering around inside the air conditioned shop for a while and cycled off in the direction of Laruns.
A few kms later, we were entering the foothills of the Pyrenees, cow bells donking, streams and rivers everywhere, green grass (compared with the scorched Dordogne). Then came a couple of nasty hills before dropped into the Ossan valley. What a picture. We stopped for a drink at about 5.15 before cycling along a minor road up the valley towards Laruns. It was beautiful cycling up next to the river, being fed by fast flowing streams to our left.
It was noticeably cooler now that we were in the mountains which made it more comfortable to cycle. We went through some quiet hamlets, past a small trout farm with some enormous fish feeding, past a fly fisherman, a small herd of cows who let us politely pass through and a few other bikers. Up to our left, high up on a rocky outcrop, we could see some large birds circling and soaring above their nests.
At last, we were cycling through some beautifully wild countryside into something more demanding than we had been through so far. I was enjoying myself. We got into the camp site which had a notice saying ‘If we are not in, just find yourself a place and we’ll sort it out tomorrow’. Wonderful.
Supper of pasta, beouf bourgignon, chick peas (which had been soaking in one of our jerry cans all day), rice pudding, bananas, tea and biscuits. We had cold showers before going to bed which was refreshing.
That night a very warm wind blew into the valley and into our tent, making it very hot. Later it stopped and turned cool again. So, the night was spent tossing and turning trying to get cool or comfortable. Another sleepless night.
The young Belgian had said he was going off at 6am or 7am to cycle up the Col d’Aubisque, so I presume he did because his tent was gone by the time Dan and I got up.
Distance 51.9 kms Average speed 6.8 kmh Time 7hrs 29
The day started off badly. We had not slept well in Condom because of the hard ground, I think. We got up late and the weather was overcast. So, we took our time packing up and adjusting the bikes. We set off and stopped at a supermarket to buy lunch and supper. As we came out, we saw that it was sunny again. Roasting, in fact. Not good for morale.
We pushed off. 100 kms later we were tired, hot and very fed up. We had attempted to find camp sites but there was nothing left. The traffic was awful, the heat was intense and I was not enjoying myself at all. Pulling into an information point, we discovered that the nearest ‘place du camping’ was in Pau, 25kms away.
There was nothing for it but to ride on. We arrived at 8pm, got charged 46 Francs for the site. It was getting dark and Dan’s rack had broken. I do remember French soldiers cheering us on as they passed.
Distance 127.65 kms Average speed 12.1 kmh Time 10 hrs 28
Left at normal time of 0830. Uneventful ride into Villeneuve-sur-Lot where breakfast consisted of two stodgy ‘pain raisin’ each. Bloated. After getting hooted by truck drivers and dodging traffic lights, we climbed out of the town on a huge hill. Right on top of it was boiling weather again.
Uneventful ride down into Agen apart from steep hill into the town behind a lorry on which we reached a top speed of 57 kmh.
Next objective was Condom. Lots of jokes such as ‘Roll-on Condom!’ etc. Came into the town with salt crystallising in lumps around my body, sweating like a race horse. Stopped at supermarket and gulped down a litre of milk. Went into ‘camping municipal’. Camp sites are getting very repetitive. Same sort of caravan campers everywhere.
Distance 98.04 kms Average speed 9.8 kmh Time 9hrs 55
A reasonable night’s sleep. Have not slept well since leaving UK. Up at 7am, left at 0830 alongside a Frenchman who was cycling around the Dordogne by himself. I gave him the bad news about the hill to Brantome. Cool morning air brushed us. A rare commodity. Later it reached 36 degrees C.
Cycled from Perigeux to Monflanquin. Lovely Dordogne countryside. Quiet roads. Lots of climbing all day. Stopped for lunch on the Dordogne. Waded in to cool off. Bliss. Then, on. Searing heat. Dripping. Felt quite overheated by the end of the day. Had 3 pints of orange squash in a café. One was 'on the house'. We were very dehydrated. Hardly peed at all.
Learning lessons about the amount of cycling completed compared to temperature. Carriage of food, water consumption, what clothes to wear whilst cycling (or not. We had chosen not to wear lycra cycling shorts but cotton cycling pants and , performance after a long, hot day on a bicycle. We arrived at a camp site and put some washing into a machine but forgot to put several items in. At 30 francs a go it was an expensive mistake.
Our tempers were slightly frayed on arrival. On writing this, it’s 28 degrees C. Can’t seem to cool down. Dan reckons we’re about 4 days from Spain which includes a rest before the Pyrenees. Enjoyed today a lot more because of the interesting surroundings. Beginning to smell southern pines as we cruise towards Spain.
Dan and I getting on well. Don’t talk a lot due to tiredness when we stop and, also, the heat is stifling. We just sit, stare and drink until we cool off. Then we talk about what we’ve observed, learnt and expect. Eating well but how long will this last? Ate pasta, mackerel in mustard sauce, green pepper, onion, pepper sauce, broccoli soup, tinned coconut cake and tea.
Dan just reminded me of a town we went through today, La Bugue, and a band that was playing. These French bands all seem to be out of tune. All rather ‘Les Dawson-esque’. Penny is still rushing through my mind. I wish I could have her here now to show her some of these villages and the countryside we are passing through. Tried to get in touch with Simon Ekin today who is in France but having difficulty. Will try and phone tonight.
Distance 105.9 kms Average speed 10.9 kmh Time 9hrs 33
Got up at 7am, left at 0830. Very cool morning air. Lovely to start early. Got away from the camp site as it awoke. Shot along reasonably flat road but windy , quiet roads. Covered 50kms before stopping to eat in a field. Hare pate, bread, tomatoes, oranges, and yoghurt, plenty of water.
Did not sleep and carried on to Brantôme where we met an Englishman who ran an estate agency. He commented that he was careful not to sell to too many Brits. He gave us his address in case we were in trouble in France. The French shopkeeper opposite came over and asked us to send a post card when we got to South Africa.
Carried on to Périgueux. Weather hot and hazy. Very long hill out of Brantome with long downhill into Perigeux. Sweating profusely. Went to supermarket to buy supper. Ended up in camp site on outskirts. Cannot cool down. Arrived at 1830. Supper of rice, lentils tuna and onions with mushroom sauce, avocado, live yoghurt, tea and biscuits. Still hot. Covered a lot of ground today. Enjoyed it. Now in Dordogne which is much nicer than anywhere we have been so far.
Distance 97.4 kms Average speed 10.9 km Time 9hrs 41
Our main problem this morning was waiting for our washing to dry. It dried fairly quickly as the sun blasted it with the wind blowing the moisture away. We watched all the ‘trippers’ pack up their caravans and other contraptions, and left at 1030.
The countryside turned out to some of the wildest we’ve seen so far. Deserted apart from the odd farmer. Quiet villages and hamlets with us riding on empty roads, high up on a ridge. We ended the day at a camp site near Rocheouart. Not bad apart from a party of French with a particular individual woman with an extremely loud voice. Very annoying. Dan commented that she had probably been let out for the week. I retorted that she was probably nailed under the floorboards at home to keep her quiet. We had a giggle at their expense.
Supper was tomato soup, scrambled eggs mixed with diced bacon, tomato, pudding (Breton cake) and some custard-like substance, plus tea. Tried to phone Dad but it was engaged. Phoned Penny in Oxford. It was good to hear her voice. She sounded fine although she said she was a bit low. She had found a place in Watford to live in. She and Sarah (flat mate) were off to the Brecon Beacons the following weekend. It was so good to hear her voice. I had a bad nights’ sleep.
Distance 76 kms
Last night was our worst so far. In the evening, it turned cool before becoming hot & humid again. Storm clouds loomed over and later it rained with claps of thunder sounding similar to the TGV trains screaming past quite regularly. After a shower, I wandered back, got into the tent and was experienced a lungful of hot air from inside the tent. It was steaming inside. I couldn’t stand it so got out to sleep ‘en plein air’. Just as I was about to nod off, it rained.
Back inside the ‘steam tent’ I was, again, about to nod off when some wildlife started searching around in our food bags. Dan got with his torch blazing only to spot a cat that had nicked our rather nice cinnamon biscuits. Cheeky sod. Eventually, we settled into a restless sleep.
Next morning, we left that awful place at 1030 for the town centre. Here, we did some shopping where we bought a catapult to ward off wildlife and two covers for our panniers. We left the town swiftly and headed for Chauvigny. More flat and dull roads beside the river ‘Vienne’. Stopped in a small town across the river for lunch but t shops were shut so we went to a patisserie and had a croissant, cake and Red Fruits tea.
Left at 1 and headed for Chauvigny. Passed through in direction of Lussac-les-Châteaux. Arrived there to do some shopping and got into the camp site and at about 3.30. Did some washing. Had first shave for a week. Ate sausages, tomato sauce, onions, avocado, fromage frais, bananas and tea. Also, on arrival, had two bowls of cornflakes each (fresh milk!).
Enjoying being free and able to go at our own pace. Weather hot and humid. Keep coolest when cycling. Can’t wait to get into Dordogne area. This area is a little dull. We’re keeping up to our distance targets each day which is good. We’re having an easy day today. A bit of admin is needed because we are getting a bit smelly. Eating well, feeling fine, missing Penny and thinking about her all of the time. It’s only when you go away that you realise how much you care about someone. I made her miserable by going away and feel very selfish about it. I miss her. I hope Algeciras comes off.
Distance 62.3 kms Average speed 10kmh Time 6 hrs 12
Saumur camp site was not very good. Hard ground, full of other campers and expensive. Cold showers too. Got up at 8.00 ish and left at 0930 after giving our French neighbours some tea. They were not impressed but the French are not great tea connoisseurs?
Left after picking up Dan’s passport then headed to boulangerie for breakfast. Today was split into two. Flat boring roads leading up to Chinon where we had lunch after 30kms. It was very hot about 33 degrees C at one point so we slept under a tree for a couple of hours.
Then, part two of the day was spent cycling into some very rural areas including Richlieu (remember Cardinal Richlieu of the Three Musketeers?). After a short break and two bottles of water and pop we entered into an area of ‘swear-prayer’ roads e.g. “Oh, Hell!” when you get to the bottom of a hill and “Oh, God!” when you get to the top of the hill and see the next hill ahead.
We carried on until Chatelleraut. We were going to stop for the day but it’s not a nice place. Campsite has TGV trains on one side, an aerodrome on the other and mosquitoes all over. However, we did see a tame otter swimming up and down a small creek near us. Have just eaten pasta with salami, tomato and melted cheese on top. Two yoghurts each, an apple, tea and biscuits. Drank less water today but quite tired. Missing Penny.
Distance 89.9kms Average speed 9.1kmh Time 9 hrs 42
Will Hawkins lives in Lincolnshire with his family, works in a technology company in London and does as many micro-adventures as he can.
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