Pedaling Pensioners through the Pyrenees
We were 9 km out of Girona when I downshifted and heard the ping of the rear wheel spoke breaking. This was the second time it happened and there was nothing to do but turn around and take the bike and it’s off kilter wheel back to town. My wheelset is too light for the weight of gear and the touring we are doing and we will have to do something about it now rather than later. Things like this always seem to happen on a Sunday- when bike shops and everything else are closed. Luckily for us, we got some good information from our friends at the Eat Sleep Cycle bike shop. They didn’t have a wheel, but they sent us on to the Service Course; where they had not only had a new rear wheel but also helped us change our reservation at the hotel that we were supposed to make it to that night. We brought them a six pack of beer in appreciation.
The next day we tried again and rode the 60 km to Olot without breaking anything. This was our second time on this beautiful route on gravel tracks over a small pass to the Can Blanc hotel and nearby restaurant. Still an incredible three-course meal and wine for €14.
From here our route turned northwest, and we began to traverse over and through the mountains and valleys of the Spanish Pyrenees headed for the Atlantic Ocean. This route is considerably more ambitious than anything we have done before in Europe. It is so ambitious that we are apprehensive and intimidated by what we are trying to do. There are nine major cols (mountain passes) and thousands of meters of climbing with our loaded bikes. It is easy to envision running out of steam on the climbs and not making it up and over. The weather is unsettled and seems to get rainy and windy every day in the early afternoon. Karen is worried that I am pushing her into something that is too hard and she might be right. We made a plan to take it slow and keep it to one climb per day. I spend my time obsessing over the route and where we could bail and get out of the mountains if we have too.
The next day went well and we climbed our col before the clouds moved in. On the way down we found ourselves on the same track that we had ridden two weeks before. The first time we came through this area we cheerfully pedaled past four road closures (they couldn't mean us) and rode right into the fresh cement that had just been poured and smoothed. Karen thinks of these tire tracks as her Catalonian legacy.
We found ourselves in the hotel early and fed by 6 o’clock. The days excitement was riding into a farmers yard and having the guard dogs chase us out at the very end of their chains. After that wrong turn we found great riding on a bike path into Campdevànol and a room by the El Freser River. This was the first of several nights where the sound of the rivers lulled us to sleep.
The next days' Coll de la Creueta climb was a monster and it almost did us in. We had 31 km and almost 1500 meters of climbing to the top. I had a flat tire so we didn’t reach the top till after 3 o’clock. The wind blew all day and dark clouds gathered around as we bolted our snacks at the top. There was no relaxing on the way down as gusty winds threatened to blow us off the road as we rolled through deserted ski areas and closed up resort towns. We were wearing all of our clothes and pedaling through the rain clouds over several painful little climbs before finally breaking into the sun on an incredible switchback descent. At that point Karen said that if all the climbs were like that we weren’t going to make it-it was a really long day.
Eventually we arrived at the hotel and again managed to get an early dinner. Most restaurants are closed until 8 o’clock, which is far too late for starving Pensioners. We are growing fond of European pizza lately, since that is one item you can usually get anytime. We took yesterday’s lesson to heart and opted for a short ride to the base of the next col. We had intended to take it slow and what we learned was to take it even slower. There is nothing to prove and nothing to gain if we hurry along.
We made it to the hotel early, only to find that not all reviews on Booking.com are accurate. It was a very small private room in someone’s house, not as conducive to relaxing and recuperating as we hoped. We managed to get a delicious late lunch at a nearby restaurant since there was no place open for dinner. We are becoming more European all the time; eating our big meal in the middle of the day. Although we would kill for a breakfast burrito.
The El Canto climb was up next, with 1200 m of climbing. It started off steeply, but eased back to 5% switch backs through the trees. So far we have experienced clouds and threatening weather on every col. It never quite rains but it always seems like it’s about to start and the headwinds push us around on the descent. We put on all our clothes and head down to the nearest coffee shop. It is located in Rubio, the highest town in Catalonia at 1700 m. There is a wood stove in the coffee shop and Victor the owner stokes it up for us, takes our picture, and asks what’s the deal with that Trump guy? We have no good answers but it’s great to talk with him.
In a few short minutes of pedaling downhill we are in the sunshine and taking off our coats. It is an incredible descent, perhaps the most beautiful so far. We stop on almost every switch back to take in the scenery and take pictures. We are learning to go slowly and soak in every moment, even on the downhill.
We roll into Sort, a little mountain town along the Noguera Pallaresa River where we watch the rafters and kayakers go by. It’s a restful place and accommodations are cheap at this time of year so we declare a rest day. We discover a local hard rock café and join the locals for three meals of “Bob Marley” pizzas and “ZZ Top” sandwiches while Queen blasted from the outdoor speakers. You know it’s a good day when you can hear Queen singing “I Want to Ride My Bicycle” while sipping a glass of rose’ in the Pyrenees. We stroll through the ancient parts of town and take in the spectacular mountain views.
The Pyrenees are bigger and more rugged than I expected. After watching the Tour de France for many years I expected them to be more rolling and barren; while in fact, many of the valleys here in Catalonia look like you could be in Chamonix or even the North Cascades. There are snow capped peaks framed by the valley view and evergreen clad hillsides. We ride by huge ski areas and overall the feeling is of relaxed mountain towns in the off-season.
The next day we push through fierce headwinds to the base of the next col. Our hotel room is once again on the Noguera Pallaresa River and the rushing noise helps us sleep. We meet some mountain locals and their dogs at our late lunch/early dinner. They are off-season ski instructors and one of them has worked at Jackson Hole. We exchange stories and really enjoy our afternoon, in spite of the grumpy restaurant owner who seems to wish we would just go away.
We pack our bags the next morning and head off to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama” playing from the hotel lobby. The song takes us up to over 2000 meters to the Port de Bonaigua on incredible switchbacks and 5 to 7% grades. Once again we are dogged by headwinds all the way up, but for the first time we have sunshine on the top of the col. It is great to look around, have some lunch and roll on down. We are beginning to feel more comfortable with this difficult and beautiful terrain. We just focus on the climbs because once you make it up the rest of the day is pretty easy except for wearing out our brakes and wrists on the long descents. We stop often on the switchbacks to take pictures and encounter an incredible couple on a tandem bike pulling a trailer and heading uphill with the radio blaring what sounded like a French news broadcast. They look like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies. Wow.
Most of the cyclists we encounter are kitted out in lycra on nice light bikes. They are in a different world then we are on our loaded bikes. They seem to fly up the hills while I concentrate on keeping the exertion level as low as I can while still moving uphill. Karen finds that she can walk uphill as fast as we can ride on the steepest bits. We get songs stuck in our heads and try to think of other songs /things as we climb for 3 to 4 hours. When the grade reaches 8 or 9% + it’s hard to do anything but keep your head down and pedals cranking as the painful kilometers pass slowly by. Let's be clear, not all kilometers are created equal.
Our day ends in Vielha, which seems like the Sun Valley of Catalonia- a wealthy mountain town that likes tourists. At least we can have dinner earlier than 8.
From Vielha we have another Tour de France col: the Portillon. Every switchback is named for a Spanish Tour de France winner. There are only 7 Spanish winners- so the pass is not too hard. We finally cross into France and down to the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon. Our initial plan was to pause here and make decisions about how much further we want to traverse in the Pyrenees. There are four major cols left on the route; all in France and all very high. The weather forecast changes our plans. It looks like we will only have two more days of good weather and then days and days of rain. We are reluctant to commit to more days in the Haute Pyrenees with this forecast. This means we have to figure out alternative plans and make decisions now, rather than taking it one col at a time. The decision is made more difficult because we have perfect weather, blue skies, little wind and stunning views of the mountains. We have also learned that we can do it- that we are not too old and slow and we have found our own pace over these magnifient and difficult mountains. The day ends much later than usual with a Moroccan meal where the food was late and no one got what they ordered. The food was great anyway and it was another lesson in going with the flow.
Instead of resting, the next day we opt for the brutal Col de Peyresourde. That is not just us calling it brutal, it is the riders coming by us as we climb who use that word. There are lots of cyclists on the road, including a large group from New Zealand and it is great to chat with them between breaths. The final switchbacks to the top are amazing and we stop for lunch at the top and continue down valley to the nearest available hotel. It is in a very small town where it turns out everything is closed on Wednesday’s. Of course it is Wednesday and dinner turns out to be bread and cheese from leftover lunch in our hotel room and an expensive and inadequate breakfast the next day. Still looking for a taco truck...
We reluctantly give up on the mountains and head down valley to catch a train. Four hours later, we are in Bayonne on the Atlantic Coast of France. The rain started last night and it is beating against the glass in our high rise hotel. We hope to ride the Eurovelo 1 route to Bordeaux from here, but we will have to wait and see what the weather does. Our time in the Pyrenees is over, but we will carry the intense emotions and memories and the amazing blue sky with us.