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Week 5 -- Pyrenees


September 18, 2007.  Today is my third day on a bike trip called the Trans-Pyrennee Trip put on by Thomson Cycling.  It is very well organized and done and has been wonderful.  My only complaints are the rides are too long (my fault) and it's too hot (no one's fault).  I'm with a group of 13 other riders, plus two group riders on the road plus two van drivers.  Today's ride was from Solsona to Tremp, which is where I'm writing this from.  Last night was another with little sleep, which seems to be a problem for me. 

Today's ride was 124 kilometers (about 78 miles) and 2,500 meters of climbing.  The climbing actually is the kind I like, just a steady grind but the descending was the best I've ever seen or done.  These roads are empty; it's almost rare to see a car and they are in fantastic condition and built for fast descents on bikes.  The scenery is equally incredible and awesome.  It's been a wonderful experience so far.  I've posted a slide show here: Pyrenees

September 19, 2007.  Today we rode from Tremp to Luchon over two hard passes and went to France.  The first was Port de la Bonaigua and the second was Col de Portillon which separates France and Spain


The scenery is incredible with huge views, incredible mountains, unbelievably good (and under construction) roads, rivers with river rafters, rocks being climbed, roaring waterfalls – you know -- the usual amenities.  I would have taken more photos, but I didn’t.


As for the group, one guy unfortunately had an accident and fell at the top of today’s second descent (they are hairy to say the least).  I’ve gone off alone to avoid descending with others since I like go at my own speed and not have to trust others.  The ride leaders, Peter who owns the company and Eric, who is French, are very strong cyclists and oftentimes pull the entire group for many miles.  They pulled for about half an hour this afternoon and this morning as well, moving us along at very high speeds.


It’s a nice group and only one woman, which is a super strong climber (out climbs me, more or less) and a few others of varied abilities but everyone can climb and ride fast.  Today’s ride was 150 kilometers so over the last three days we’ve done 420 kilometers – just huge mileage. Breakfast, lunch and dinners are with the group and one thing is for sure—it’s intimate living and stressful.  Hat’s off to Peter who takes everything in stride and has a great sense of humor. 


The only problem I’ve had is a pocket in my jersey tore, apparently, and I couldn’t figure out why my camera fell out three times (incredibly it did not break).  It got a lot cooler today which required wearing armwarmers for lots of the ride; plus jackets and more for the descents.


The difference between France and Spain is stark – this town may be sleepy (it appears to be where they have a major ski resort – super banillier) and a spa, but there was no shop open other than a bakery and no where to buy groceries (chocolate, fruit, etc... which we’ve been living on in addition to meals).  I don’t have Internet service either, so the Internet superhighway apparently has not reached this area of France – Non, we don’t need such a highway.  As I watlked into the door to the hotel, they were very nice, I got to practice some French but came early in part because Peter had warned us that the rooms required that each person was shown their rooms separately, which took time.  The father of the owner of the hotel then decided to talk to me, which is of course nice, and tell me about his trip to the US, while Nick winked at me as in, “I’ll be going to my room now, have a nice chat.”  The guy was nice and completely invaded my personal space.


Today’s ride was a mere 2500 meters and tomorrow’s is 3500. 


September 20, 2007.  Today was our biggest day of climbing.  About 3,500 meters – over 10,000 feet.  Some of the most famous climbs in the Pyrenees were on today’s itinerary including Col de Peyresourde, Col d'Aspin then Col du Tourmalet – just a huge day of climbing.  Tourmalet is the classic Tour climb and it along with all the serious climbs have all sorts of stuff written all over the roads.  Usually it’s riders’ names but it can also be things like “no doping” and more.  The big climbs also have signs with information that includes how many kilometers from the top, the steepness/grade of the next kilometer, the current altitude and the summit altitude all organized for cycling.  The French are really into the sport and people will yell out their car windows and just say to you as you pass them “bonne courage” – it’s so nice. 


Nick and I have a great joke going, the premise of which is that it took the other one so long to get up the climb.  So we’ll say things like, I stopped to have lunch.  Then it got really funny and we stopped to learn the Koran, stopped to learn backgammon (started as a beginner but by the time I was ready to go, I was a grandmaster) learned languages.  Nick told me he stopped to milk a cow and then made cheese (aged just right).  I think it’s hilarious. 


The day took its toll with the Chinese guy and the son of the Canadian lawyer both deciding not to ride tomorrow.  The Chinese guy (Eric) has a swollen knee, the 22 year old has had enough.  I am running through my supply of Advil and Rolaids – welcome to a bike trip in the Pyrenees.


We got Internet service, but I didn’t do much other than get a call into Anne.  She managed to get tickets for the soccer game with Valencia for David’s birthday on Saturday but I can’t go – originally the game was scheduled for Sunday so I planned to fly back and make it.  They change the time and day of games without much, if any, advance notice.


September 21, 2007.  I got a great night of sleep finally.


Today we rode over three or four “cols” which means passes here in France.  At this point, everyone is so fatigued and wasted, we just call it the “C Word”.  Peter, the ride leader, thinks it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, in which case I have a good excuse not to ride.  We have at least three people who have abandoned for various reasons ranging from accident to sore knees, ankles and just had enough.  


The mountains in this part of the Pyrinees are pretty fantastic, that’s for sure.  Huge passes looking down on meadows, rocky outcroppings, tiny roads that are barely one lane, and animals all over the place on the roads.  We’re passed herds of sheep and cows on the road, pigs, goats, horses, mules, lamas – all free ranging it.  They probably don’t call it free range, instead saying there are animals on the road and grazing everywhere.


If I ever do this again, and somehow I doubt I will, I would use different gearing on my bike.  Doing this without a triple is adding torture to torture.  It’s amazing how people are keeping, generally, a very good attitude about the ride and enjoying it.  I doubt I’ll be looking at my bike for a long time – and will take up running and doing weights.


The hotel this evening is another French 2 or 3 star (crappy either way) and I can hear cow bells from the room.  The Internet is broken.  I hope the cows don’t move around at night so I can sleep.


September 22, 2007.  Today it rained and I choose not to start.  I’ve ridden enough and don’t feel 100 percent as it is.  It was destined to be a miserably cold and wet ride.  I choose to ride in the van, along with Mike, the van driver and my English friend Nick.  We certainly had some good laughs.  Both Nick and Mike have great senses of humor. Everyone who chose to ride was freezing and cold and the ride included lots of climbing and very cold, wet descents.  We talked about travel, and the eloquence others brought to describing the trip.


As for the terrain, it was beautiful to the extent it could be seen through the fog.  The mountains in this part of France and Spain (we crossed into Spain and back to France) are incredible.  We are in ETA country, meaning the Basque language is spoken here – especially in Spain – and you see signs of it here and there mainly through graffiti on signs.  There are huge views, lots of hikers, including those doing the cross-Pyrenees pilgrimage tour, which is a religious experience of walked from one side of the Pyrenees to the other. 


The mountains here are spectacular and huge views, beautiful very well-kept towns and more.  Every house is perfect with a yard that is well kept and the huge fields are perfectly mowed by livestock, all of which have bells around their necks.


We had a good-bye dinner and that’s that.  I feel like I had a great time, got some serious bike mileage in (697 Kilometers – almost 500 miles over six days), climbed plenty (over 14,000 meters sometimes at 10 percent grades), saw the Pyrenees up close, and that’s everything I wanted.  We did the extreme version of what was advertised – it turned out in reality there was no other version.


Being part of an organized tour is hard but from what little experience I’ve had, this was a good one.  The ride leader, Peter, really made it through his sense of humor and patience with everyone.  As for tonight’s hotel, it also has not hooked up to the information superhighway and has, without a doubt, the most mildew invested bathroom I have ever experienced. 


I look forward to getting back to family tomorrow in Barcelona and getting language courses, and planning our next adventure(s).


September 23, 2007.  Went to the airport at San Sebastian, Spain this morning along with the vans and some of the stragglers from the trip.  It was fairly cool weather, I was tired, my legs were sore, I was ready to get back to Barcelona.  There were tons of groups of guys on bikes dressed warmly that we passed – I think one guy in the van was seriously thinking he might try to join them. 


Another word about the difference between France and Spain.  Spain is young and happening – there are lots of young French people in my Spanish classes; France (at least what I saw in the Pyrenees) is populated with older people.  Nothing wrong with that and in fact I rode up one of the passes with a 74-year-old gentleman who was in amazing shape for his age.  He patted me on the back and thanked me as an American for liberating France; he was ten years old at the time.  It was a touching moment. 


San Sebastian is in the Basque region of Spain and, as with Barcelona, they speak their own language, Basque or the easy-to-pronounce and predictable “euskaldun”.  No one seems to know where the Basque language came from.  It’s completely unique as a language and the only word I learned was Donostia which means, of course, San Sebastian.  It seems like these efforts to claim separate identity by speaking a language that no one speaks is a disservice to the area’s occupants; it turns them into illiterate whose-it speaking hick terrorists. 


I took a flight, about an hour long, back to Barcelona.  My bike will travel separately and probably collect dust in Peter’s garage for a lengthy period.


Most of the day was spent catching up on email.  David had a friend come over and Joshua had a birthday party to go to so they are already integrating into the new environment.  Unfortunately it’s with Americans.  Oh well.


September 24, 2007.  Monday is a holiday here in Barcelona and is famous as the day they build human pyramids and parade in huge face masks.  Of course, I only realized the festivities were on too late, so I missed them.  Dan and Amy went and basically it sounds like something you may want to miss, at least in part.  Apparently kids were firing firewords directly into people's faces -- the smart people were equipped with goggles and face masks!  That sounds terrible to me.  Anyway, as with Sunday, nothing was open and we basically took it easy.  David and Joshua contined to recover from their 1:00 bed time after the Barcelona-Valencia game here on Friday night which they attended.  I was still tired from the ride and Anne was just pooped.


Tomorrow begins week six -- stay tuned.