I’m now in the Haute Pyrenees. Somewhere I’ve dreamt about riding for many years. The passes or cols are littered with history from many the years that I have been following Le Tour as its known.
My introducing to the high mountains came a few days ago when I traversed the Col D’Aspin.
It was a searingly hot day as I made my way from Lourdes to the beginning of the climb.
For the next two hours or so I sweated and toiled whilst marvelling at the beauty of the mountains which rose to a crescendo as I neared the col. It’s a learning process when you do anything different and I had to learn to pace myself in a completely alien way.
To ride these mountains with full luggage aboard its imperative that you start slowly. Too much effort at the beginning and you run out of steam at the top. These climbs usually start gently but rise for many kilometres, steepening as you get higher.
They are incredible feats of engineering in there own right and even driving up you can’t help but admire the vision of those who built them.
The second pass on my list was the Col de Peyrsoude, known as being a harder climb than D’Aspin. It couldn’t have been more different. The previous day had seen thunderous clouds building throughout the morning. These rose to a crashing crescendo between eight in the evening and midnight. The rain that accompanied this didn’t ease when the thunder stopped. It hammered on the tent all night long.
The rivers, already in full spate, couldn’t stand the added volume of water and began to burst their banks. I had already moved to a higher pitch in order to avoid any flooding. By next morning the rain was still pelting down and I had a choice: pretend it wasn’t happening by pulling the sleeping bag over my head, or getting to it and deciding to ride.
I decided on the later and shortly after set off on the long climb that would lead to the Col de Peyrsoude. Initially the road follows the river which is normally contained in a steep ravine with retaining walls.
Today the water splashed over the top of these walls, crashing into bridges and creating waves over the top of them. A little further on road workers were setting up pumps and what appeared to be a boom. I just kept riding.
Once clear of this I could concentrate on my riding and forget the flooding until I returned to the valley later on. A few road cyclist passed by and all encouraged my effort with phrases like ‘formidable’ and ‘courage.’
I just twiddled away saving as much as I could for later on when I knew the climb would get serious. An American had described the climb as an ‘ass kicker’ and he was pretty laid back. The rain ran down my jacket and into my socks and shorts despite full battle dress being worn.
Higher up there was the rumble of thunder which was disconcerting, but not as much as the pack of wolves that began howling in the woods. Given the weather and the solitude of my situation it was as terrifying sound as I have ever heard. I swear my pace picked up for a while and the hairs on my neck definitely stood on end.
The last three kilometres are not particularly steep but you can see the top and the road rises ramp-like to the col. I didn’t stop, just rolled down the other side towards Bagneres de Luchon.
The rain was biblical now and the descent was cold with rivers of water across the road. Even in this the scenery was spell-binding with villages perched in improbable places and verdant woodland and meadow.
In Bagneres I headed for St Beat only to find the road barricaded by police. The river had finally burst and my route was totally impassable. The tourist office phoned the only campsite left open and they said I could pitch there. I arrived dripping wet, cold, and looking forward to stripping off and getting warm in my tent after a long hot shower.
I’d just made a coffee and drunk it when the flood alarm went off. We all had to leave, even those of us on the higher ground. Flash floods can be devastating here and the staff took it very seriously. That was the last time I saw my tent until this morning.
The village hall was commandeered to use as a crisis centre and we were fed and watered into the evening. With heavy rain falling we were told we would not be returning to our tents. Eventually I was offed a hotel room, as was everybody else and a coach turned up to whisk us up into the hills for the night.
Next day we returned to the campsite and all was unscathed. I rested for the day having found all the above pretty stressful. Today I set off again only to be stopped in my tracks at St Beat, the entry point for the climb to Cols Mènte and Portet D’Aspet
A collapsed bridge and flooding throughout this small mountain town have left it with no electricity, water or proper access. Mud and debris were strewn everywhere. I travelled north, then east and finally south to get to St Giron. Must be fit now because I arrived early afternoon after 102 kilometres.
The area is a war zone. Police, army, fire brigade, road engineers, they are all out in force everywhere you go. Staying off the not-so-beaten track was the only safe way today and I rode in sunshine with dark clouds gathering behind me as I went.
Tomorrow is my last day for a chance in the mountains. If it’s possible I will ride up the Col de Caougnous and Col de Port returning to the former before crossing to another ridge which i will follow to Foix. I still have a day in hand so there’s no need to rush or feel I have to do anything. I also have plan B for exceptionally wet weather. It’s raining again now so we will see what tomorrow brings.
I will arrive at my friends house on Sunday and then will enjoy a relaxing week before flying home again. Is been tough this last week, but it hasn’t dampened my spirit one bit. See you all soon.
Help Britain catch up with Europe in cycling terms by donation to Sustrans at http://www.justgiving.com/Graeme-Willgress1