French Pyrenees and Massif Central, September 2018

I received an invite back in January from friends Colin and Julie, from California. I have had several adventures with them over the last 8 years and they posed the question “Pyrenees or Tuscany?”.

I have never been to the Pyrenees, so the choice was made. We always have a laugh when we meet up and the rides are always epic. My thoughts then turned to how to get there, fly and hire a car, take the ferry to Spain and drive over, or do I make a trip of it and drive through from Calais, visiting some of the places I have wanted to go to along the way.

That was it, I would take a few days, four as it turned out, and drive the 1500 Km to Saint Lary Soulan, using only the back roads of France.

Once I disembarked at Calais I made the short journey to Boulogne sur Mer, just to have night at the coast. I arrived early afternoon, checked in, and checked out the town. I am sure the town was prosperous in its day, but on a cold wet day in September it left me looking forward to heading south, and some warmth.

I hit the road early the next day, Google steering me in the direction of Le Mans, as I wanted to visit the Museum of the 24 heures du Mans. I arrived early afternoon after a nice relaxed drive and was not disappointed. The displays were amazing detailing the history of this amazing race.

I came out of the Museum and headed down the Mulsanne Straight. What an amazing place, you could see where the barriered race straight passed by the normal roundabouts, and the chicanes, which are fenced off the rest of the year. It is great to think that any town would allow the roads to be closed and permit the 24 hour noise, which has to be considerable, when we used to experience so much grief from local residents when I worked at the Rockingham race circuit. Vive le France!

Day three was a short trip south west, back to the coast and a location I thought I had been to before, La Rochelle. When I got there I realised I hadn’t, and now I need to know where it was that I did go, doh!

Despite being a large city, the old port was stunning, and a lot of money had been, and still was being, spent making the place look good. Having arrived at lunch time it gave me the rest of the day to walk about and take photos. A very relaxing afternoon.

P1050080Saturday morning, and the next part of the journey would take me to the Pyrenees and a small village just outside Saint Lary Soulan. The journey was 470km, and on the back roads it took 7 hours, but the views were spectacular. Once south east of Bordeaux it was straight roads, lined by large trees, so beautiful. This is an area I need to come back to and ride through on the bike.

Colin and Julie got to the house late Saturday evening after a delay on their transfer from Paris to Toulouse. So, Sunday we got bikes ready, then shot in to the town for a food shop and generally caught up over lunch, as it had been a year since we were together for the Boise to Banff ride.

It’s September in the Pyrenees, so we can expect some changeable weather, and the clouds appeared to be hanging over the tops of the peaks. This said, we left on Monday morning wrapped up, logging a temperature of 10 degrees as we started the first climb past Lac d’Orédon and on to Lac du Cap du Long. However, once we started to gain elevation it warmed up and when we arrived at the lake, at over 2000m, it was scorching hot, so we sat in the sun outside the cafe overlooking the lake. ‘Pinch yourself, this is really happening’.

The descent was cold, but that is to be expected at this time of year. Once back down to Fabian, we took a right towards the tunnel to Spain, then hanging right up the D118 to the deserted ski resort at Piau Engaly. Again, this was an out and back, so we soon found ourselves on the D928 heading back home. At Eget Cité we found a roadside restaurant where we sat and had lunch, watching a cavalcade of Morgan cars on a rally, all heading in the direction of Spain.

One final cheeky climb and that would be it for the day. A right turn at Tramezaïgues, where Colin and I left Julie to explore an ancient church, while we wandered up the climb for a few Km.

All three climbs today have been very different, wide open wooded climb first of all, then a quite open, very green climb to the ski resort and finally a narrow wooded climb with a river running alongside the road. A great day out and a taster for the week.

Pyrenees 1

Total 82Km and 2500m of accents

The forecast for Tuesday was the best of the week, so we decided to do what would be the biggest ride of the trip, the Col du Tourmalet, both sides. We left early with the bikes in and on the car, heading for Espiadet, near the base of the Col d’Aspin. By 08:30 we were on the road, down the remainder of the Col d’Aspin to Sainte-Marie de Campan, where we took a left and a steady climb to the summit, staying together most of the way to the top. The climb started cold, but it was clear and soon warmed up as we worked our way up.

We stopped for the obligatory photos, but after the peace and quiet of yesterdays climbs it did seem busy with cyclist at the top, so we escaped, down the other side to Barèges, where we sat at the edge of the river and eat the sandwiches I had carried up in a back pack.

After lunch Julie decided to turn round and head to the summit, while I foolishly suggested to Colin that we “just drop to the bottom, have coffee and go back up”. What a buffoon! Eight Kilometres later and we are sat outside the Hotel du Londres in Luz Saint Sauveur, facing another two hour 19Km climb. I did ok for the first 15Km then the 10 to 11% ramps started to take their toll and my pace dropped and the last Km at 11% just added insult to injury. My breathing and heart rate were fine, I just struggled to push the 34 x 28 round faster than 55 rpm. The one thing that kept me going was the sound of a very out of breath Scotsman trying to keep with me, until he gave up four Km from the top. His mate had tried to outrun Colin up ahead, big mistake. By the time I caught and passd him, I dropped off his mate and they both looked spent.

I think this was the nicest side to climb though despite the kicker at the top.

We met up with Julie in the cafe at the top, I had a quick Coke, a bar to eat and we set off down the other side, knowing we had the first 7Km of the Col d’Aspin to do in order to get back to the car. It only rises 240m and seemed like a bigger descent on the way there in the morning. Within 30 minutes we were pulling in to a bar in Espiadet for crepes and Coke. A great way to round the day off, apart from Colin,  who parked his bike and immediately picked up a puncture. If it’s going to happen, that’s good timing.

Pyrenees 2

Total 87Km and 2900m of accents

The weather looked good to the North West, so we headed out of Saint Lady Soulan on the D19, along the river towards Gushen. From there we took a left, up the Hourquette d’Ancizan, which was a steep 9Km climb through the trees, but stunninly beaitiful. As I popped over the top I spotted some donkeys wandering about, so I stopped. When I looked back I could see that Colin and Julie had got caught up in heavy traffic, of the wool backed variety, just before the summit. This wouldn’t be the last of our encounters with wildlife up here, it was everywhere.

Where I was sat at the top was a Dutch group, setting up a feed station for a sponsored ride. Shortly after we stopped, sitting with the random donkeys, that were everywhere, one of the Dutch guys wandered over with a pancake for each of us, apologising for not having any coffee, as it was not ready yet. So kind!

The drop, rise, then drop again from the summit has to be one of the nicest rides I have done. So typically Pyrenean, green open vistas, with the sight and sound of bell wearing cattle everywhere. The descent dropped us back down to Espiadet, the junction where we had crepes yesterday. This time we decided to crack on and take on the final 5Km of the Col d’Aspin before we found lunch.

We got to the Col d’Aspin and were greeted by a herd of cattle, so rather than get trampled, we made the descent, and what a descent. It is fast, open and smooth, and I spent most of it around 60 Kph and loving it. We were aiming for Arreau for lunch, but the weather looked as if it might be closing in, so we bashed back along the D929 and D19 back to base, swinging in to the Carrefour to pick up bread, cheese and ham for our lunch.

Pyrenees 3

Total 61Km and 1480m of accents

Due to some disagreeable food on Wednesday night, I missed the walk that Colin and Julie did at Gavarnie on Thursday, making do with some local exploration of my own, down to the Carrefour, then up the scramble to the church in Estansen, with a visit to the renovated water mill in Sailhan thrown in.

Friday was our final day, already! We planned to head South East out of Sailhan over the Col d’Azet to Genos. As we got half way to the summit we were plunged in to a thick mist. However, half a kilometre from the top the sun started to poke through, producing a spectacular inversion in the valley. We were above the clouds in bright sunshine. Sadly we now had to drop back down through the cloud and in to Genos.  It was a cold one, but the road was awesome, bend after bend, true Lasets.

In Genos we stopped for a coffee in a whacky little shop and warmed up ready for the next climb up to the resort of Peryagudes, out of the other side, then we dropped to the summit of the Col de Peyresoude.

We then turned round and headed back down the descent, but instead of taking the D25 back to Genos, we kept on the D618, all the way back ‘down’ to Arreau, where we rolled in to the Cafe de Londres for lunch, overlooking the river. We spent some time in Arreau after lunch as it is such a pretty town. We then headed back down the D929 and D19 to Veille-Aure, a beautifully kept old village.

A short climb from here to the house, then it was time to pack the car ready for the next leg.

Pyrenees 4

Total 65Km and 1780m of accents

screenshot_20180925-0701031-e1537949181912.png

Total 294Km and 8660m of accents for this leg

I was heading to my next cycling trip at Correze Cycling, but I wasn’t due there until Monday, So planned to take a slow journey to Cahors for the weekend, then travel the further 130Km up to Correze on Monday morning.

This should have been a three hour, 230Km journey, but at some point Google didn’t call a junction and then recalculated the route while I wasn’t looking. When I spotted signs for Bordeaux I knew we were off course. Well, 354Km and 5 hours later I reached Cahors, and as I approached the town from the west, through the forests, I calmed down and forgave Google. DC’s scenic tours!

Sunday was spend wandering around Cahors camera in hand, taking in the sights, then getting this blog up to date. I think it was worth it for some of the images, having got out early, catching the sun just as it hit Pont Valentré.

Monday was pretty straight forward, a bit of sight seeing and arriving at Correze just after lunch. I met a few of the guest that had already been for a ride. I also met Sam and James, whose lovely home I would be based for the week. James gave me a 30km route map if I fancied a spin, so by just gone 15:00 I was on the bike checking it out making sure nothing had gone bent out of shape. Then I had a good blast through the local countryside. It is quite rolling rather than long steep climbs, so I gave it a push to see how the legs felt.

The route took me out past the lake, through a couple of villages then back across the lake using what turned out to be an old railway bridge. There was a strange ‘monument’ to an old railway station, which looked completely out of place, until I was told the story of how a short lived railway ran alongside many of the local roads until the 1960’s.

Back to base and meet the rest of the crew and get settled in.

Correze 1

Total 41Km and 419m of accents

I woke up on Tuesday to more great weather and the prospect of a nice gentle ride with the group down from the plateau in to Égletons for lunch. After lunch a few of us were to head off in to the gorge for a bigger loop.

The pace was steady, but it gave us a good opportunities to chat and get to know each other, and to stop for photos. We dropped back down across the old railway bridge over the lake, then meandered through the woods in the direction of Marcillac le Croisille, where stopped for coffee in the sunshine. As we rode through the woods there was more evidence of the old railway that used to be here, with an old water tower for filling the engines boilers.

After coffee we started to head towards Égletons, gently rolling up and down through the forest until we reached the town and got a place sat outside a nice friendly roadside restaurant, where we had lunch and topped up with fluids, as it was starting to get hot, 30 degrees.

We split after lunch and descended a further 200m, followed by a series of nice climbs of between 100 and 200m, undulating for the next 38km.

The local terrain is heavily forested gorges, so sheltered climbs, which is nice in this heat, with streams running near to the road. Really beautiful.

Correze 2

Total 89Km and 1110m of accents

Wednesday morning and a few people had arranged their own rides for the day, so James provided me with a map detailing a nice loop down to the Dordogne, then back up through a stunning gorge to the east of the house.

As I was on my own I could set a steady pace out, stopping for photos on the way. The first village that blew me away was Monceaux sur Dordogne. Beautiful timber framed houses with flowers decorating the walls.P1050306

Onward and in to Argentat, where I stop for a gelette and a coke, in the town square, near the water feature. Just sitting there you could feel the temperature getting back up. I knew the journey home, up hill all the way, was going to be warm.

I took a quick ride through town to the bridge over the Dordogne, looking down on to the quays. Such a stunning old town, wish I had taken lunch there now.

P1050310Heading out on the D18, then right on to the D131, the road started to climb, thankfully through wooded twist and turns. The first climb was 110m over 2Km, then a drop again before the final ramp home of 18Km, which would take me the 320m back up on to the plateau and to the house.

Just before this final climb you hit a small village, Saint Brazile de la Roche, which is another stunning location, with a spectacular church as you enter, then a left turn over a wooden bridge, past a grand old farm house, then on to the climb.

The climb continues on to Champanac la Prune, then up again to the D29 roundabout. After the roundabout it’s mainly just rolling all the way back.

Correze 3

Total 81Km and 1110m of accents

Thursday morning and we still have great weather, so James has suggested that we load the bikes in the van, and head for St Augustin. From there we can do a nice circular route, which takes in the Col du Sac au May, about 60Km. The D32 heads out of St Augustin up to Chaumiel, where we stop for coffee, five cups for €6, bargain.

Once out of Chaumiel the road rises, then drops down to a right hand turn and on to the D16. A steady 5Km climb takes you up to Lestards, with great views of the valley. The terrain is so different in this area compared to other parts visited this week.

Once over this crest and it’s 10Km downhill to Treignac, and lunch at the Cafe de Paris, a cracking little cafe, where steak et frittes, dessert and a drink come to €13.

Refuelled, we take the D940 to Boulou, then right on to the D44 to Madranges. So far this has been a continuous 10Km roller coaster, gently increasing our elevation. However, now we take a right and head for the Sac au May 10Km and 350m higher, so its a steady ramp until the final push to the orientation table at the top.

P1050332From the top you get a full 360 view of the area, and the table d’orientation at the top helps you get some idea if where you are and where you have come from. We are surrounded by parrapente pilots, breezing over the trees, floating on the thermals.

From here it’s all down hill, and Nigel kicks off at quite a speed and I find myself working harder going downhill than I did to get up there, just trying to keep up, but it is great fun, and there are grins all round by the time we hit St Augustin and order coffees.

Correze 4

Total 61Km and 1113m of accents

We have reached the end of the week and the final ride. Many of the gang have ideas about what they want to do, so James and I take a spin through the small villages. We head out through Espagnac on the D26 and out to St Martial de Gimel, then hang left up to Gimel les Cascades, where we cross the bridge and climb in to the little town.

Next we have a quick look in to the village of Bar, then on to the Route de Tulle, a steady descent down in to Tulle town centre, where we pick up a coffee, followed by a nice sandwich for lunch.

After lunch we take the D978 and the 400m climb back to base. We take in some of the nicest climbs so far, through some lovely villages, but we are conscious that the predicted rain is starting to head our way. By 14:00 we are back and a few spots land on the table in the garden. I get the bike cleaned, stripped and in the car by the time the heavens open, by which time it sets in for the day.

Correze 5

Total 61Km and 790m of accents

Screenshot_20180925-070129

Total 225Km and 4544m of accents for this leg

Total 518Km and 13204m of accents for this trip

On Saturday I got on the road by 09:00, as I knew it would be a long one and a dull one, as I had chosen to take the toll roads. This was a 760Km journey to Reims, and was going to take 8 hours. If I had taken the back roads it would have taken ages, plus this was not a scenic route. The weather stayed fine and a good playlist passed the time nicely.

As it turned out I got to the hotel at 18:00, a cheap and cheerful stop over serving its purpose of getting my back up north.

Thankfully Sunday was the last day on the road before I jump the ferry to Dover on Monday.

The plan was to head from Reims in to Belgium and up to Passchendaele, near Ypres, to visit the Tyne Cot cemetery. Once on the road the weather closed in, the tail end of whatever storm had hit the UK. By the time I crossed the border the mixture of rain and poor roads left standing water on the motorway. All a little floaty, but I managed to arrive unscathed.

The visit is a very sobering experience, but being the centenary of the end of WW1 I felt compelled to go. As you approach the visitors centre there us a voice reading the names and ages of the dead, quite alarmimg and very moving. The cemetry itself can only be described as a fitting tribute to all those gave their lives. There were many named graves, but far more which read “A soldier of the great war” “Known unto God”. Heart breaking for many families.

P1050361

I am glad I made the visit and need to make a return visit with other members of my family, although I can’t help but feel for the wasted lives of all those guys from around the Commonwealth.

Back on the road and it’s a short drive back in to France and up to Calais for an overnight stop, so I can do shopping in the Carrefour in the morning before I hit the ferry. It’s funny how you get a taste for certain things on a trip like this and know you can’t get them at home. Being in the car means I can take advantage of that.

The journey was made so easy thanks to the trusty motor, which continued to surprise me all the way round France and Belgium, only requiring three stops for fuel, never left me feeling tired and it generally looked after me.

Total driving for the trip 3915Km and most intresting was the fuel consumption 3.69L/100Km (72.4MPG)

 

 

 

 

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