Bikepacking continued: into the Pyrenees vol. 2

This is the third and final part of our bikepacking delights trip from September 2022; part one, part two.

The next morning saw us up a little later than expected, rising from our cosy warm bed to a delightful porridge. Ever accommodating, Mireille let us use the hose to clean our filthy bikes that we had been too tired to give any care yesterday- ‘its lying there beside the kiwi tree’; just a few days earlier we had seen a kiwi tree for the first time in our lives, and now we had spent the night just metres away from one..!

We had arranged a coffee morning date in Laruns with Debbie who we had long “known” from Instagram, and we took the back roads through the valley to get there, unaware that this would mean a biting chill in the shade, which we finally thawed from as we clutched warm coffee cups in the sun outside a café, making new friendships.

Our plan was to head up the legendary col d’Aubisque, and Debbie had a tip to avoid the main road for the first part, which lead us down a wonderful meandering back road, with the occasional participant in some local event carving down the corners at speed as we leisurely made our ascent.

Rejoining the main climb in Eaux Bonnes, you have to follow a box-shaped one way system through the town before you get to make any concerted upward progress, which is then mostly steady on moderate gradients, just a few steeper ramps that test the legs a little more. Initially somewhat covered, as you continued to ascend, you start to get teased with tasters of the spectacle that is about to unfold before you. We had the blessing of a splendidly clear day for our ascent, and absolutely nothing was held back in the grandiose reveal that every subsequent vertical metre climbed gave a more impressive appreciation of. Above us a massive bowl carved in the pale grey rocks, monumental jagged shapes stretching off into the distance, a landscape heavily meddled by humans hands with ski accoutrements galore, but nothing that could detract from the tremendous beauty.

As we approached the summit, the vantage point afforded for this vista is truly something to behold, and that iconic trio of giant tour de France bikes seemed tiny compared to the scale of nature’s triumphs around us.

The summit was bustling – participants of that event had some sort of finish line or time check set up there – and streams of cyclists were going in both directions over the pass, and we ventured towards the other side of the pass only to have our minds boggled anew.

Mountains mountains mountains, as far as the eye could see, a cascading landscape that looked alive with potential and adventure, as we traced roads and paths carved over the slopes, darting in and out. That moment when you crest a mountain and suddenly get a view of a whole new environment; you don’t know what may await you, and all at once you reach the denouement and it all explodes and stretches out before your eyes.

Now we were truly looking deep into the heart of the Pyrenees, no foothills or pre-ambles, this was high mountains in all directions and no escaping therefrom. Yes, this is what we love !! Nestled deep in the wonderfulness of mountainscapes, climbing or descending your only options, the intrigue of the unknown around each next slope, the constantly changing landscapes, the challenge of the ascent and the delight of the descent – woohooo !!

Some mountain ponies and shaggy sheep who called this their home greeted us down the other side, as we made our way down the short connection between the Col d’Aubisque and Col du Soulor; surely one of the most majestic roads one can find anywhere, a veneer only enhanced by the exotic sports cars that we were meeting en masse- even an Aston Martin DB5 in their midst! Hewn from the cliff face, with a couple of tunnels thrown in too, this narrow meander of asphalt hugs sheer precipice and tumbling green, and is truly a sight to behold. Along its length is signalled the official welcome to the ‘Haute Pyrenees’; yes, high mountains indeed !!

Unfortunately Ewa was feeling a little under the weather today; chills, a bit weak and light headed, and so we stopped a while as we took a pause to see what she felt up to. Our location being what it was, onwards was really our only option, and reaching the summit of the Soulor brought memories flashing back to me of my first passage over this pass: 12 years prior I had crossed it as a high-mountain novice during the Hubert Arbes sportive, and I remember other riders flying past me at impossibly high speeds as I clumsily tried to navigate the sinuous descent. Well, I wasn’t going to be any faster today, as we took pictures and a mindful pace.

We had contemplated a detour to Couraduque, but skipped this in favour of continuing our valley descent, reaching Argeles Gazost and seeking out a pharmacy as our first port of call: some decongestants later, and a supermarket was our next requirement: time for some snacks and a contemplation of our next plan.

It was still early in the day, and after finding a quiet picnic spot beside a river, Ewa stayed to soak up some sun, and I headed up the Hautacam- a climb I remember having enjoyed last time up it all those years ago, but this time I was aiming to reach the Col de Tramassel- where the tarmac runs out a little further along from the Tour de France finish. Having ditched the bike packing bags with Ewa, my bike felt unrecognizably light, thrashing violently from side to side when out of the saddle, the anchor of the saddle bag no longer making the rear feel so pendulous.

Settling into the maximum rhythm I perceived sustainable, I passed a couple of riders in the early kilometers, but that would be it for other cyclists as company, as it started to dawn on me that this climb is one to tackle in the morning.. not now in the afternoon, with the full force of the sun hitting this side of the mountain, temperatures in the high 30s and little in the way of wind. Uffff.. ! I slogged on, the effort taking its toll too, but the heat was no doubt the more formidable adversary. The climb was harder than I remembered, but what a fantastic climb; ramps and changes of gradient that match my style of riding, and it took me about an hour to reach its 1630m summit.

The panorama afforded here is a wonder, and I soaked up as much as I could of the wide jagged diversity ahead of me, before remounting to descend back down to my chillaxing Ewa. Finding her in the same spot, I couldn’t resist the urge for a quick dip in the river, the strong current foreshortening my refreshment as I didn’t stray too far from the shore in the surprisingly deep waters.

Suited and booted again, we now had just a traipse along the bike path to Lourdes remaining, enjoying the pan flat route along the gorge, a wide river and a colossal quarry distracting us as we rolled along towards the holy city.

Reaching the town, we found it congested and busy, and somewhat rough and dirty looking; not quite the image we might have conjured of this pious place. It was not our final destination anyhow, and we gladly continued east towards Lezignan, where at last we reached the former home of the Col Collective and our amazing amigo Mike Cotty, who had now left it in the tremendously capable hands of Christophe, a Michelin-starred chef running the place as a gourmet dining experience and lodge; ‘Les Perséides’.

We were lucky enough to enjoy not only a multi-course dinner largely grown in the gardens, but also a stay in the charming French country house, many generations old and overflowing with rustic charm.

Our morning the next day was to be an early one, rather too early for our host to prepare a normal breakfast, so we had accepted his kind offer of leaving something out for us to pick up and eat on the go. Our plan for the day was ambitious: take in the spectacular Luz Ardiden, and then the quintessential cycling pass: the Col du Tourmalet, and then make it back in time for our three pm train.

We had estimated a schedule that seemed very doable, so as I got the bikes ready and Ewa went to pick up our breakfast snack, I wondered what on earth was taking her so long… Well.. eventually I headed inside to see what she was up to.. What greeted us has me licking my lips to this day.. not the humble bread and perhaps some jam I had expected, but rather a veritable feast had been laid out for us.

Homemade sourdough bread, homemade chocolate spread, fruits, and best of all.. the most divine, creamy, decadent yet not sickly, sweet and mouth wateringly gorgeous rice pudding, brimming with flavour and the texture just as more-ish as it gets. Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow !! Savouring what wouldn’t be transportable, and stuffing into our pockets what would be, we headed off into the soft sunrise hues of the morning, back onto that cycle path towards Argeles Gazost.

Continuing up the valley towards Luz St Saveur, you are steadily gaining altitude as the vast walls of rock close in around the river that carved this cleft. The rushing water, the forests hugging the steep hillsides, what tremendous wild mountain landscapes!

In Luz St Saveur I made a water stop, as Ewa already headed up towards the many hairpins of Luz Ardiden. Loaded up with bottles in domestique mode, I thus had some time to make up, but luckily we were reunited again before you exit the forests and the real views of this utterly amazing climb open up.

Hairpin after jagged hairpin, taking a course many many times longer than any crow might, the gradient is kind in these last kilometres, letting your legs feel as invigorated as your mind as the euphoria of witnessing this spectacle of nature flows through you: the forested section belies the elevation gain you make in the early parts, and then once the tree cover dissipates, you realise you are hugging one side of a gargantuan ravine, the earth plummeting away before you, and with the other side of the gorge appearing not so distant, its contours clear in the stunning bright light of the day we enjoyed there.

Ewa had stormed up the mountain, so we were well ahead of schedule, and we made a small snack stop: some of that yummy bread and chocolate spread Christophe had left out for us.. ! And yes, it tasted eeeeeven better after that exertion and with this view..! Oh and with this company 😘😘

I had let Ewa go a little ahead on the descent while I took a few hairpin-tastic pictures, and it took me quite a while to catch back up to the flying mujerska ! When I eventually got her back in sight, it was a pure joy watching her carve the hairpins with confident ease; smooth and graceful: mwah !

The stuff of legend barely covers it when speaking of the Tourmalet, but call it infamous, monumental, historic, hallowed or any other term of reverence or trepidation and it still won’t fully encompass the significance of the place it holds in cycling history. What it was today however, was ‘next on our menu’, the entrée having set a terrifically high marker for the main to try to follow.

Back in Luz St Saveur at the bottom of the Luz Ardiden, another quick resupply was called for, and this time I would be heading for the peak of Tourmalet with a solid effort planned. Ewa was going to enjoy and savour it, making use of the laxity in our schedule.

So off I set, up the big wide main roads that start the climb, then snaking through the first hairpins as the road begins to contort. It’s quite a contrast compared to the zig-zaggyness of Luz Ardiden, the Tourmalet instead choosing a meandering rather than jagged course. I had unpleasant recollections of this climb: the only time I had done this side previously having been in the middle of the 2010 Hubert Arbes event, an occasion when I foolishly left my group behind in the valley up from Argeles Gazost, only to have them all fly past me at various points on the climb as I paid for my futile exertions.

Today I was hoping to write the climb into the good books, and I was riding an enjoyable but solidly speedy rhythm, feeling like the hammer instead of the bruised nail from last time. It was hot, but I managed my effort and had plenty of carrots to keep me entertained on the way up, picking them off one by one or in their groups as little intermediate goals.

There is something so fantastic about reaching these loftier elevations, the new perspectives, the wide views from your heightened perch.. it’s always special, and the Tourmalet, even with my heart pumping for most of what it was worth, had a glorious show to put on, the day being completely clear and blue skied, leaving nothing obscured as I tried to take in the multitude of peaks, drops, grassy slopes and rocky outcrops.

You start to see the peak a long time before you reach it, as if it hadn’t etched its place painfully in my memory anyhow, and the last kilometre is where it really makes you work before finally giving in at that oh-so-famous zenith. Crammed with cyclists and others taking in this impressive mountain traversal, I stopped just long enough to buy a quick refreshment, and then headed back down towards mi amor.

Ewa, as evaaa, soaking up the mountain fantasticness and beaming from ear to ear, taking in absolutely all of this tremendous place, brimming with energy and appreciation, could there be any more joy than sharing places like this with you ?! Hands raised in unity for the photographer in the last hairpin, yes we’ve made it ! One last glimpse over the east side of the mountain, and we headed towards the new mountain panorama that unfurled before our eyes: teeeeerrrific !

From the first moment she walked into my life, I knew there was something special about this woman.. an excitement yet an endless tranquility and peace, time in her company a rush of life on a foundation of stable, shared soul space, accepting, supporting, full of laughter that asks nothing yet grows and flowers boundlessly… as she always says “I’m not madly in love with you; I’m calmly, peacefully in love with you”.

Well, sometimes situations bring an intense redoubling of appreciation for such bonds..

We were making our descent of the Tourmalet, having passed the first hairpins, the cattle, La Mongie, and the galleries, stopping to take pictures of the reservoir and put on more layers.. taking our time, descending relatively slowly considering how fast a descent this road can easily be, and then in one moment, on a perfectly straight part of road, I was drifting past Ewa slightly faster than her.. and suddenly.. WHAM. She was flying through the air, wrenching my heart out my chest with her.

Waves of terror rushing through me as I slammed on the brakes and stopped, I sprinted back up the hill, and by the time I got back to her she was already on her feet. We just held each other, I love you, I love you.

Sitting her on a wall as we assessed the situation, it seemed she had gotten away pretty ok all things considered.. a lot of road rash and tattered clothing, with only her socks surviving unscathed, but no injury that looked severely bruised or anything broken. How it all happened is still a mystery to us, perhaps a small cut or bump in the road, but something made her hands slip off the handlebars and threw her over them with arms straight like being launched onto a giant water slide.

The bike wasn’t going to be rideable the 40km or so back home however: one of the shifters was broken, and other parts bent all over the place.

Our train with precious reserved bike spaces was in a few hours, and we had to be back in Biarritz tonight for me to start work tomorrow, and Ewa to travel onwards to Gran Can via Bilbao.

Right, well we would need saving from this mountainside, and the world wasted no time in sending us a saviour, Francis. He had been headed for a mountain stroll together with his wife in their mini-van, and this grandfather and lifelong cyclist didn’t hesitate to stop and offer assistance, and in no time we had Ewa in the car and the two bikes taken apart and stowed too.

Parlant about his past exploits by bike as he drove us towards home, our next obstacle wasn’t long coming: roadworks..! Route barrée! Seeking a diversion, we ambled through backroads for an eternity, losing precious time, thinking up contingency options as my long-neglected French was stretched to its limits.

The incredible kindness of our rescuers was a true testament to the goodness of humanity, humbling and genuine. They dropped us all the way back to les Perséides, and as Ewa tried to clean up and shower, she asked me to assess the bike a bit more thoroughly: she was set on riding the 3km to the train station if at all possible..! Determining that the bike would be rideable those few kms on the flat terrain, we packed everything together and mounted our bike packing bags, but poor Ewa felt every bump of the rough road in her battered body.

Somehow we made it to that train, even in time for me to buy some of the unexciting snacks available in the shop there. Jammed onto the train, Ewa at least got a seat while I stayed with the overbooked bikes, our spots already half taken by someone else’s bike box, and another commuter bike.

We shared our snacks, and got off the train in suuuper sweaty Bayonne, having booked the closest hotel to the train station to minimize any further travel for Ewa.

The next objective was to find some dressings, and we actually had everything we needed in our bike travel bags, but these were stored in Biarritz, about 10km away. It being a Sunday, of course most things were closed, pharmacies included. Well, nothing for it; I dropped Ewa off at the hotel, and headed back out on the bike to get our supplies.

I did find an open pharmacy on the way and picked up some extra things, but went to our storage anyway, traversing massive roads in this colossal urban sprawl, busy vehicles speeding in every direction.

By the time I was back, Ewa had been to a supermarket and procured a spread of breads, salads and fruits for dinner and breakfast tomorrow too, but we got Ewa cleaned up a bit more first. She had lots of abrasions on her thighs, tummy, chin, elbows.. basically anything on her front.. boobie included 😰 One of her elbows had some slightly deeper looking scuffs, but otherwise everything was very superficial, so a lot of plaster real estate but thankfully nothing worse. Phew ❤️

The next morning was a busy one: I was due to meet up with Xavier from Bike Basque and pick up a van, and the agreement was that I would then pick up our bike bags, get us packed, drop Ewa off at the bus, and then drive to our next meeting place to link up with the rest of the team. Well.. in a way that busy-ness was good, but.. leaving your loved one at the side of the road, in a state looking like they just got violently assaulted, with a massive heavy bike bag to carry, with both of you embarking on journeys in opposite directions for a few weeks of new experiences, without having had time to process the wonderful crescendo of shared experiences and emotions of the tremendous week on the road we shared, let alone to process the sudden harsh end.. it was tough, and the glances back were frequent, if partially due to me not being able to find my way out of town. KOCHAM CIE BARDZO KOCHANA. Mwah!


Day 6: Ewa, Constantin

Day 7: Ewa, Constantin

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