Bikepacking continued: into the Pyrenees vol. 1

The view out of our window this morning was one of damp and dreariness. Heavy wetness saturated the air, and indeed the forecast had not been wrong. We ate our porridge clinging to faint hopes that it wouldn’t be as bad as it looked.. It never is, right ?!  Or, as Sean Kelly would have put it; “go and do your spin, then after you’ll know if it was too bad to go out”.

Steeling ourselves as we packed up our things and got ready, we found our bike bags much lighter than before: we were now wearing most of what was in them, big gore-tex hiking rain jackets and all..! 

Some farewells to our hosts and off we headed into the grey glum, visibility low as cold water sprayed up from our tyres. The shining lustre of St Jean Pied de Port was somewhat dimmed this bleak morn, it’s sparkle under yesterday’s bright rays a distant memory. We picked our way out through the surprisingly traffic-clogged streets, seeking the quiet of the mountains.  

A valley road already offered a dramatic preview of what was to come, heavy clouds enshrouding the hillsides that lay ahead, a few windows in their curtain revealing the behemoths we were about to tackle. 

We rationalised that the wetness would not be too bad a companion on the steep climb that our bike computers were forecasting, the cool to an extent a welcome change from the scorching temperatures we had sweated through in some of our previous days of this trip.

Our climb was on a small back road, coming in ramps on and off, with some tight convolutions of tarmac snaking up, our rear tyres struggling for purchase on the steep wet asphalt. Heading up into the clouds, we were enchanted by the moment; climbing into the unknown, the heightened senses and energy of adventure, a mixture of anxiety, cold, exertion, and sprinkled with the spices of wonderment at the spectacular setting- drifting clouds that framed the scene, quiet gargantuan sloping landscapes; mountain solitude interrupted only by the pastoral ruminants. A trepid solitude, the wet saturation of the air without end, and rain layers started to reach their limits: we had suffered over a punishing 20% gradient, stopped for a quick breather to fish a snack out of our pockets, and then continued onto a wooded section that flattened out and.. it all seems a bit of a blur now, but I remember feeling ‘ok now the fun is over: I’m feckin freezing..!’ Ewa was not any better off, but was focused and pressed on without complaint. Upon reaching the summit of our climb without a hint of dissipation from the dense white that obscured all around us, we knew we were not in a good place: already cold and facing into a long descent, soaked to our bones. Yikes. 

Nothing for it but to press on, visibility paltry as we picked our way down the narrow corners. Facing into the unknown, we became consumed by it as the heavy cloud embraced us. Some hikers drifted into view and back out, a motorbike’s lights emerged from the white soupy bath and vanished anew, a campervan too.. Oh that looked cosy.. Thankfully it wasn’t all descending, with a couple of short ramps where we could pedal to generate a little bit of heat again, but it remained unerringly soggy. We descended to some kind of plateau, where there was a large gathering of people standing about in a field, engaged in who knows what. Well, they couldn’t help us, but Ewa ventured that the little hut that appeared out of the murkiness might.. !  

I have to say I wasn’t convinced, and I was rather thinking of continuing to lose altitude: we were still at over 1000 metres at this point. Nevertheless, a cold Ewa is an unhappy one, so we plonked the bikes against a wall and headed straight for the bathrooms, hopeful of a hand dryer: no dice. Well, at least we could wash our hands and faces, wring out our clothing, and try to put on the one other warm layer we had in reserve; a fleecy long sleeve jersey with very stretchy tight sleeves that would have been pointless to try to put on in the rain outside.. !  

Layers readjusted, we set about trying to get something warm to take in, with an unfortunate stereotype being realised at an inopportune moment; the madame and monsieur behind the counter showing contemptible interest in their latest customers. Pas de problem, simple boiling water into our bottles would do, a coffee each and we even managed to wrangle 2 baguettes and some olive oil out of them. Rather more unfortunate was the temperature in the building, which seemed at best as cold as outside..!  

Well, the joy was greater upon emerging from this hovel than having entered it: there it was, yes ..  A faint blue opening, a window in the clouds, perchance a sign of better things to come.. !! Woohoo ! Dressed now in ALL of our layers, our jacket-hoods up over our heads (Ewa went for the over helmet tactic, me for the under helmet shhhtyle), I must say I didn’t feel a single Celsius warmer than before, but I took comfort in knowing that my Mujerska ❤️ had recalibrated; mwah! A big squish and we set back to pedalling, realising now that this dip we had descended into was only an interruption in the overall climb, and as we recommenced our ascent, landscapes that could have been heathers and bogs just like back home in Ireland surrounded us, and we started meeting other folk on bikes going the opposite direction, wearing almost nothing compared to the entire wardrobes we were sporting.. ! Open zips..?! Mad-people or perhaps harbingers of fortune.. ?! 

Getting more incredulous with each scantily clad bicycler we met, the true peak of our first summit of the day soon hoved into view; the 1327m Col d’Iraty and its chalets, and we unceremoniously placed this zenith behind us ready to face into another descent of chilly proportions.

What came next stretches the capacities of any language, let alone my grasp upon this one. In a moment the skies were ripped open, bright rays pouring forth, our harbingers vindicated in their clothing choices, as we saw the tarmac veer downwards into a mountain-scape reveal that made every shudder, shiver and strain of the ascent seem instantly worthwhile. Ginormous cascading formations towered to each side of us, bordering a valley landscape lush and vibrant, glowing and bursting with colour in the fresh crisp air, our senses overwhelmed with this sudden bath of chromatic saturation after our interminable submission to whites and greys. Yet the clouds still had their role to play in this tapestry, hanging on the fringes of our panorama as framing elements, like parted fingers held before your eyes, lending the dramatism of obscurity, as we etched this scene into our memories, which would never be painted just exactly thus again. The curtain that had shuttered our views thus far lifted at last, coinciding with the safety the rays of the sun conveyed in their warmth, we basked in the elation that rose up in us; que tremenda ! 

Our descent was a slow one. Certainly not for lack of gradient: actually the road seemed as punishingly steep on this side as the earlier slopes of the one we had climbed, but to paraphrase the words of Steven Tyler ‘(we didn’t) want to miss a thing.. !’ Countless ‘wow!!’ stops later, we reached a valley floor, and not long after started another climb. By now the clouds a distant memory, we stopped to take off a layer, and then another, and another, and another.. ! The climatic transformation was monumental, as we went from having simply not enough layers, to not being able to take them off quickly enough.. ! Yes, this was more like us, climbing in the sun, landscapes unfolding around us, smiling as we took it all in.

Another short descent later, we hit the foot of the second big climb of the day; the 21.7km long Col du Soudet. Another quick stop was needed to adjust layers again- and our ‘clothes horses’; we were drying some of our wet layers on the go draped across the handlebars..! On the move again, the initial gradients we faced were gentle, as we climbed past a deepening gorge, azure waters at the foot of plunging rock faces, splitting off into different parts of the ‘Gorges de Kakuetta’, which I’m sure would have been well worth hiking around for days..!  

It was a long climb, as indeed it was a long day, and – as beautiful as it looked – the water in the gorge wasn’t doing our thirst any favours, the heat now intense as the gradient too showed some more severity. As soon as we saw an option for refreshment in a small bar, we spread our clothing out in the sun our-selves in the shade, ate, drank and let our last rain soaked layers dry as we recharged.  

The climb was by no means finished at this point; indeed the final 10km would be the hardest of its length. Setting off again we faced many ramps with gradients in the double digits, climbed over 1000m elevation once more, came through a lush foresty section and ticked off kilometer after kilometer at the ‘Tour de France’ emblazoned markers, all leading to a grand finale as the tree cover gave way, a huuuuge panorama of jagged peaks now all around us, stretching as far as the eye could see- wooohoooo ! 

Layered up again in anticipation of a long descent, we rode only a few kilometers of the nice fast main road, before turning onto a smaller side road that sapped all of our speed as we bounced over its unevenness and wove around its tight lacets. A few ‘barriere Canadiennes’ later, we reached an enchanting little village, rustic houses bordering a babbling brook, towering mountains in every direction- just magical! The next bit of magic came in quick succession: almost 10km of flat/ slightly downhill roads as we entered a valley, feeling a lightness in the legs we had forgotten was possible..! 

This too was short-lived, as anyone who has climbed the Col de Marie Blanque from the Escot side will appreciate: although this was the first climb on our route that I knew by name, I didn’t know its reputation. A gentle start soon gives way to a leg breaking final 4km, averaging over 10% and with punishing ramps pushing our speed into single digits. A laborious crawl, but giving us plenty of time to take in the glow of the golden rays of departing sun light, beaming through the branches above us, the meditation of exertion taking us closer and closer to the 1035m high summit. 

The peak crested, it was time to don some layers again for our descent into the cool of the evening, and just as we were doing so, a rider flew up to the top from the other side, all short sleeves and sweat.  

We descended a little bit together, before he escaped us at a road block: giiinnnoOOORRRMmmous hulking cows (the size of dinosaurs by Ewa’s recollection) with ditsy calves in tow made an imposing obstacle, and our bravery did not extend to darting through them in the non-chalant manner our local copain did..! 

Our safe passage granted, as we continued, we realized that if the Escot side of the Marie Blanque is punishing, the Bielle side could hardly be a starker contrast: lush pastures, tremendous panoramas, sweeping bends and kind gradients: a wonderful place, yet the exaggerated stretch of our shadows hinted that it was clearly time to cover ground. Under eerie skeletal cloud formations we rode the last few kilometres to our accomodation for the night, our energy levels now matching the starved looking wisps in the sky above us. Realizing that we were too late to find any open restaurant or supermarket close by in this remote village, we found an angel in our host Mireille- one half of the ownership of Green Bike Pyrenees- who whipped up a yummy veggie pasta that was just the perfect way to finish this long day- right after the wash she put on for our clothing too..!

I would like to say we slept well that night… but not until after a massive herd of sheep had descended the mountain just after midnight, all bells and bleeting, filling the lane right outside our window with sound as they passed- a little reminder of home in Maigh Eo on Ireland’s west coast as we cosy-ed up.

And thus we closed the chapter on this marvellous day at last, with two more remaining of our Pyrenean adventure..!





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