If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 15 August 2011

Mid-Range Touring, Part 5

Endemoniada_88's adventures in Europe continue as they guys leave France and head into the Pyrenees. Parts One, Two, Three and Four posted previously. Go back and look if you haven't already.

10. Day 8, Montpellier to Andorra

We start by checking one or two running repairs from yesterday. The Guzzi had needed oil (...of course, it's an Italian bike!), but the forecourt top-up we did has cured that. The Triumph vibrated loose one of the pannier mounting brackets (...of course, it's a British bike!) [Oi! - Ed], but that's stayed tight. My hugger, sadly, is resolutely staying knackered – a combination of luggage weight, bumpy roads and presumably excess heat has seen the front of it come into contact with the rear downpipes and melt, while the edge of the tyre has actually worn a separate hole in it. Neither caused any riding issues and this early in the morning, with everything cool and static, there's the clear gaps between hugger, tyre and exhaust that you would expect. I decide to leave it alone and see what happens.

We're dropping down into Spain today, then back up into the Pyrenees to Andorra, which is a tiny and peculiar twin principality – the current president of France serves as one of the reigning monarchs, the other being the bishop of Catalunya. First, though, our tourist stop of the day is Carcassonne, to view the famous citadel. A border fort for centuries, it has been owned by pretty much everyone from Visigoths onwards, finally becoming fully French and some way from the border after the Spanish ceded the region in the Middle Ages. It's an 80 mile detour to get there - along the A61 from Narbonne and back the same way – and, actually, it's a bit of a struggle as there are some fierce crosswinds and an almost constant headwind gusting over the exposed péage.

We arrive at the town, and ride through steeply-sloped streets that are an odd sandwich of slabs, cobbles and stone central drainage gullies to a hilltop square. I'm certain that the citadel is behind us, having glimpsed it through the trees on the way in. A passer-by confirms that and we set off back in that direction until we can pull up in a car park with a decent view of it. At this distance, it's a very picturesque fairytale vista, but still some way off and time is getting on. We consult Mike B's travel guide, decide we don't really need to walk around inside it, take some photos and head back to the A61.

It's easier on the way back with the wind behind us and we make good speed to where the A9 kisses the coastline at Perpignan, then turn towards the Pyrenees and Catalunya. After yesterday's banzai dash through the river valleys, we've agreed to take it easier today, but the road quickly makes liars of us. The D115 (and, across the Spanish border, the C-38 it becomes) is every bit as compelling, winding ever up into the foothills and lower mountains, sometimes turning back completely on itself. We get sucked into it, despite the sometimes uncertain footing of recent resurfacing.

It's a more open and flowing trail than the Tarn valley was, albeit just as narrow and precipitous. With more time to spare between the really tight bends, I take the opportunity to observe Steve and Mike B's riding more closely. They're both carrying a lot of speed into the corners, in a classical upright stance that uses very little, if any, bodyweight shift. Steve steadies his entry speed with brake and/or engine, depending, then pulls the bike through the apex and out on the power. The BMW deals with it well: although the various linkages of the Paralever/Telelever suspension are working quite frantically, they seem to be passing a lot less movement through to the rider than my conventional monoshock and teles set-up – he looks almost serenely unmoved by the choppy road surface. Mike B, by contrast, rides the bend on a largely neutral or closing throttle, keeping the arc of the corner for much longer before putting the gas on. His Bandit seems to float smoothly over the chosen line, trading off the additional control of having the power on for less loading on the suspension. I move about a lot more than either of them, setting up for the corner with a firm pull on the front brake or a blip of the throttle, then staying on the gas. The Honda, with a much sportier riding position than either of their bikes, encourages that sort of behaviour. It may be a bumpier ride, but it never feels out of control: just determined to pass all the feedback from the road through to me with very little adulteration in the name of comfort. Besides, I'm used to it - the vast majority of bikes I've owned have been sportsbikes, softly sprung and remote feel baffles me far more than direct input.

Behind us, the cumulative effects of two thousand miles practically living in the saddle are really coming to fruition for Paul and Mike D. They're staying visibly closer and keeping a much more consistent pace than was the case a week ago. We only have to slow down a little for them to catch up, rather than needing to pull over and wait.

At length, the winding road deposits us in the town of Ripoll, bedecked with Catalunyan flags that match the yellow-and-red oil flags shown at races. We pull up on a wide pavement between a group of Ducatis and some open-air cafe seating. It's beside some sort of church (a famous Benedictine monastery, in fact, as it turns out) where a single mournful bell is tolling at intervals. We take a seat and study the Ducati riders. They're French, with specially-printed "Desmo 2011" tour T-shirts that have their names on the back and everything. Shiny new bikes and racing one-piece suits, no luggage.

We're interrupted at that point by the arrival of a lot of locals, mostly clad in black, and a silver Land Rover 4x4 with a coffin in the back. That explains the doom-laden bell. Our bikes being parked right across where it needs to cross the pavement to get access to the monastery probably explains the nasty looks we're getting. Some embarrassed and hasty moving of vehicles ensues: the Guzzi's chunky exhaust note doing little to appease any of the cortege. Fortunately, given that my VFR's a lot louder, it's the only one that isn't in the way so I leave it well alone.

The Ducatisti wave to us, mount up and leave once the funeral's all sorted out. We linger for a bit, then head out north on the N-152. It's another steep, narrow climb into the mountains. Not too twisty at first, but turning into a manic, spiky ECG trace of a route further on. It gets a little chilly and a light drizzle starts to fall. Nothing serious, more of a mental rain than an actual grip hazard. We slow down anyway, which makes it quite ironic that Mike B chooses this point to crash. He's obviously got someone watching over him, though: as the front tucks under completely on a hairpin and he faces the prospect of a downhill slide to Armco and a vertiginous drop, somehow his foot gets dragged back under the exhaust and the bike bounces back upright off his boot. One of those things you simply couldn't do again if you tried.

Understandably shaken by the experience, he pulls over, parks the bike and gets off. His guardian angel obviously does too, because the rest of us can only watch as the bike, still pointing downhill, rolls gently off the sidestand and drops on its side. It takes three of us to pick it up again, as it's against the slope and the wheels are completely clear of the ground. Luckily, the damage is slight: left-hand indicator, end of the clutch lever and a scratched pannier. Annoying, but a whole lot better than the falling off a mountain he's just avoided. While we're gaffa-taping the indicator back together, the Ducati crew from Ripoll go past. We hadn't actually seen them on the road, so they must have taken a slightly different route somewhere, but we are amused by just how slow they are – it's stopped even pretending to rain, but they're going at about half of our wet pace. On the other hand, they're not the ones fixing a bent bike, so perhaps they have a point - even if they do maybe need to consider renaming it a Desmo 2011/12 tour at that speed.

We drop our own pace a little to give Mike a chance to evaluate any less obvious damage to bike or engine, but it all seems fine. He doesn't really want to push it, though, so we stay quite sedate for the leg down to Puigcerda, then up towards Andorra. The road winds along a valley bed, towards some serious mountains. Low cloud is boiling over the lower peaks and dropping towards us, visibly expanding by the minute. The road goes into a long tunnel, easily a couple of miles end to end and when we emerge it isn't into daylight. It's into a cloud that's at least as dense as the worst fog I've ever ridden in. My satnav is painting a disturbing picture of zig-zags and hairpins up ahead, but all I can see is the next ten feet of tarmac.

It doesn't get any better on the ascent: the road is as sharply twisty as any we've yet seen, and riding it blind is a stressful experience. I almost immediately acquire a pushy local driver behind me: I take one look at the mostly grey-primered hot hatch hanging a few feet off my rear tyre and pull right across to let him through. Ahead of me, Mike D doesn't give him the same space, or the driver misses any opportunity he is given, so Mike gets to make the tricky uphill run with the added pressure of a rev-hungry loon in tow.

At the top, we branch right into another tunnel, this one angled down into Encamp. The other end of it is clear of fog, which we get little chance to appreciate because, almost immediately, we're there. A petrol station and two hotels amidst some outstandingly beautiful and steep slopes populated by herds of cattle. The only sound after we park up is that of cowbells.

Our hotel is lovely, with secure underground parking and room windows that open out on to a hillside so steep it occupies the entire view. Our hostess is a genial middle-aged lady: after a particularly good steak dinner, we sit in the bar and she brings out local brandies for us to try. Her idea of a measure is a half full brandy glass – we have a couple of those apiece and retire, slightly the worse for wear, to our rooms. Steve and I are pleased to discover the TV includes Eurosport, and put the cycling Tour of Switzerland on. Mike D is not quite so pleased, but seems to have little difficulty in falling asleep despite the noise. Anyway, the cowbells are louder than the television...

11. Day 9, Andorra to Pau

Properly in the Pyrenees now, we originally pencilled in a route for several mountaintop crossings. Experience tells us this isn't going to be viable unless we still want to be out there in the middle of the night, so we revise it down to bypass a couple of the Cols. It's still a 230 mile day and we're none of us completely eager to get going after the previous night's brandy extravaganza. A big breakfast and some bracing mountain air soon sorts that out, though. Outside, the clouds are still lifting, revealing that we're not far below the height of currently redundant ski-lifts waiting for new snowfall.

We head north out of Encamp, back to last night's invisible ascent. From up here, it doesn't look too bad: a thin, twisting ribbon of grey laid carelessly on a pine-sprinkled carpet of green. We pause to let a herd of horses be driven across, presumably to pasture, then begin the descent. Mike B is still taking it very easy, not quite sure how far he should place his trust in front-end grip. It feels odd going past him: the back end of the Suzuki has pretty much become an integral part of the view ahead, more noticeable when it isn't there than when it is.

The French border crossing, even out here in the sticks, is manned by several armed and stern-looking douanes. They eye us up suspiciously, and one of them puts his hand up for me, now at the back again, to stop. Perhaps it's because I'm smoking while we're moving slowly, or perhaps he just doesn't like my body language. I flip my sun visor up and stare impassively back at him. Not precisely a challenge, but I've had enough experience of the douanes to know I really don't like them. After a long pause, he waves me through dismissively, which suits me just fine.

Our first destination is the Col de Port, a medium-height pass in the lower Pyrenees (1250 meters, second category climb, for those who follow cycling. I probably should point out, in the interests of honesty, that I'm far too lazy and unfit to actually cycle anywhere myself these days, but I do enjoy watching the sport...). It's a hellishly tight and narrow ascent heavily punctuated with random repairs that consist almost entirely of loose gravel poured into potholes of various sizes and depths. We're going faster than the local club cyclists, who are out in force, but I suspect a serious pro-tour specialist would be giving us a run for our money. There's a cafe at the top, where we take a break and admire the still largely green vista.

The descent is just as challenging, before we take to flatter roads and take a more direct route towards Pau, running parallel to the péage but on rather more attractive D roads. Here in the valley, it's blazing hot and airless, so we break early for lunch. That brings us an enormous baguette stuffed with every conceivable form of cold meat and salad apiece, followed by a suitably enormous bill. A bit of miscommunication leaves me in the cafe car park, taking the lining out of my jacket, while everyone else roars off. It's a fair while before I can catch up with their head start, by which time we're heading towards a loop south which will lead us to the Col du Tourmalet.

The Tourmalet is one of the really big cycling challenges, as famous as the Alpe d'Huez or Mont Ventoux for deciding victors in the Tour de France, and features in the Vuelta a Espana too. It's the highest climb in the Pyrenees, at 2115 meters – earning it an undisputed out of category classification. It amuses us that the approach from the east starts some miles back by dropping hugely and continuously on a beautiful and winding woodland road. We take that at a sprightly pace, then start on the gentle rise up the other side. It's quite a distance from the first signs to the Col to the base of it, first sighted properly after rounding a much lesser cliff.

It's a bleak place, the scuffed and slogan-daubed tarmac running through water-dripping colonnaded tunnels to the grimy ski-station village of La Mongie, then kicking up again into a sharper section running up to grey cloud-shrouded peaks. I've only ever seen it on television, lined with crowds that conceal the crumbling, precipitous edges: riding the turns myself is a surreal experience, each one comes up as though the road simply leads off the edge of the world. There are clouds below us now, and we pass just under a ski-lift to where the pass flattens out at the highest point.

There's a car park here, so visitors can stop and savour the view, visit the shop and admire the giant statue of 1910 Tour victor Octave Lapize. The view alone is, quite simply, worth the journey: earth merging dramatically into sky as the mountains march towards distant, veiled horizons. A few exhausted cyclists struggle up from where we will be descending, to the applause and encouragement of everyone present. Steve, no mean cyclist himself, debates buying a Col shirt but decides it would be cheating. He settles for a photo beside the statue instead.

The plunge down is a more brutal road than our ascent was, sharp, off-camber turns compounded by the additional front loading of a descent. Steve and I chase down it, rapidly distancing the others, possibly driven by a greater sense of history of the place. Or a greater recklessness. Even so, it's only at a pace that a decent Tour rider could manage: any faster would be inviting disaster. We have to wait for quite some time before the rest catch us up, then pick up the pace for a long, twisting sweep through scenic low valleys to Lourdes.

The weather breaks on us just past Lourdes, and rain lashes from a suddenly-dark sky. We don't stop, as the road is leading straight towards a brighter horizon. As swiftly as it came, the downpour stops and sunlight dries us out in short order. Only Pau left to negotiate - and that turns out to be unexpectedly difficult. There are roadworks and one-way systems everywhere, the hotel isn't where Steve's satnav thinks it is and when I take over the lead, we manage to lose the other two Mikes when they turn in for petrol and we miss the signal. Still, they don't blame us all that much and my satnav gets us to our destination without too much more drama.

Not for the first time, we end the day with a significant portion of steak.

Next time: Bilbao, Brittany Ferries and British Customs.

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