To arrive where we started

It felt like the only thing to do. The right thing to do. Waking up on our last day in Barcelona we cancelled plans for more museum tours, dug the bikes out of the hotel basement and took them on one final ride around the city. They were delighted to be out in the fresh air … and so were we.

We showed them all the city sights including the Olympic Stadium, Las Ramblas and the Mediterranean beaches where we all gazed out to sea dreaming of future adventures together.

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Olympic Park
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Barceloneta

It turned out to be our favourite day in this magical city – better than the Gaudi, better than the old city, better even than the great restaurants. Perhaps this means all four of us (two bikes & two people) have now officially caught that notoriously infectious bicycle-touring-bug.

Then we collected some large cardboard boxes from a local bike shop (ones that new bikes come in) and carefully packed them up. A daunting prospect beforehand, this ended up much easier than we had expected.

Here’s all we did:

  • Removed anything that stuck out (like the top box mounts)
  • Removed the pedals and front wheel
  • Twisted the handlebars, parallel with the frame
  • Put the saddles down
  • Took some air out of the tyres
  • Protected anything delicate with cardboard (like derailleurs)
  • Wrapped them up in lots of bubble wrap and tape.

The main problem was filling the space around the bikes so they didn’t rattle around. Stuffing our clothes and panniers down the side wasn’t enough until Clare came up with an inspired idea to pad the space with lots (yes, lots) of kitchen roll, which was light and exactly the right length.

The bike boxes just fitted into a large taxi to the airport and Easy Jet looked after them nicely on the flight to Bristol. We were rescued from an airport rebuild by Andy’s parents who squeezed us into their small campervan for the journey back to Bath.

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A tight fit in the campervan

Frank Sinatra once sang
“… it’s oh so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s so much nicer to come home …”

And it was … home cooked food, a familiar bed, even catching up on 8 weeks of Strictly Come Dancing!

Having never been away for so long before, we were surprised that some appliances had stopped working in our absence. A flat car battery was predictable but the washing machine had also gone on strike as the pump was jammed by sediment that had slowly settled during the last two months.

Encouraged by his new bike maintenance skills, Andy decided to fix it himself but only managed to flood the kitchen twice before giving up and calling a plumber. A reminder of those early puncture repairs but at least all that Spanish kitchen roll came in handy!

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As we arrived home, Bob T sent us this lovely phrase from Little Gidding by TS Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

After living for so long in our bicycle bubble, coming home did feel a little like that. We briefly looked at Bath through the eyes of a visitor – as a beautiful and distinctive Georgian city that’s feels like a great place to live. It was good to be back.

As I’m sure you can tell, we’ve both loved our first bicycle tour and would recommend the sense of freedom it gave us to anyone.

Talking to many of our friends it seems that men are often (not always) a bit keener to go on a bike tour than women are. So for couples like us, no longer in the first flush of youth and who haven’t done lots of cycling before, here are Clare’s ’12 top tips’ to help other women enjoy it as much as she did:

  1. You don’t have to be super fit – fitness develops as you cycle.
  2. Buy decent equipment – a good bike and saddle become your friends.
  3. Cycling shorts with padded underwear are surprisingly comfortable – wear Lycra when you want to feel more sporty.
  4. You can happily exist without many clothes – as women’s clothes are lighter than men’s, it’s OK to include a few extras.

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  1. Take a luxury item – not necessarily a hair dryer (though I’d take it again!)
  2. Make him carry more weight – it will help him feel manly.
  3. Don’t let him be too ambitious with the daily distance – a few hours quality cycling is much better than hours on end.
  4. Make time to see the sights – have rest days in interesting places.
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Moissac Abbey
  1. Make sure you know where you’re going – don’t let him take you on too many ‘dreadful detours’.
  2. Don’t go over any mountains unless you’re sure – I wouldn’t have gone over the Pyrenees if I’d known what it would be like!
  3. Learn a bit about bike maintenance – at least you can give him some advice when he has to mend a puncture.
  4. Always stop for coffee and enjoy all the eating and drinking – you deserve it!

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Thank you for following this blog over the last two months and for all your encouraging comments. Here are just a few of many that made us laugh:

“Cycling is life with the volume turned up.”
Dave H

“Fab inspirational effort. I am planning to cycle into town tomorrow… and back …”
Jonathan S

“What with beard and fishnets, I think Andy is having a retro Kenny Everett moment … and it’s all in the best possible taste!”
Maggie C

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“Canal paths are like fish and chips, nice to start with but then too much and rather boring.”
Judith D

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“Go over the mountains or you will regret it forever. However you will probably curse me all the way up the first 3 hour climb!”
Mark F
(He was right on both counts.)

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There have been a few unintended consequences from our trip:

  • Andy (who was overweight) has lost 12lbs, Clare (who wasn’t) has lost 3lbs despite eating more than she has ever eaten before.
  • Andy is keeping his first beard (for the time being).
  • Most surprisingly, since we got home Clare has been cycling up every Bath hill she can find, knocking minutes off her old times. (Perhaps she does want to go back to the mountains after all?)

So what’s next for us? Now that we have caught the bicycle-touring-bug we plan to do lots more in future. Our bikes are keen too – here they are dreaming of those future adventures on the beach in Barcelona.

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We’ll let you know when the four of us are ready for the next one. Until then … happy pedalling!

Clare and Andy

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The End of the Road

It was with a mixed emotions that we joined the Friday night commuters cycling 8km down the Avinguda Diagonal to the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic heart. We pedalled slowly, taking in the moment, reluctant to leave our saddles as we came to the end of our journey.

“Though the roads been rocky, it sure feels good to me.”
Bob Marley

After descending from the Pyrenees earlier in the week, we enjoyed three interesting days in small, historic Catalan towns – Solsano, Cardona and Montserrat. Firmly part of Catalonia, signs of the independence movement are everywhere – from the many yellow and red striped flags hanging from balconies to the extensive use of Catalan as the main (and often only) language in hotels and restaurants. A referendum is muted for September 2017 and it seems, from our brief visit, that the independent spirit is even greater here than it is in Scotland. Interesting times!

We joined the All Saints Day celebrations in Solsano on November 1st by tasting the macaroon pastries and sweet wine that families traditionally share that day to honour their ancestors.

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Another Catalan food that Andy really liked was a breakfast of pa amb tormaquet. This is lightly toasted bread rubbed with lots of garlic, squashed tomatoes, olive oil and salt, eaten with Iberian ham and cheese. Delicious! Clare would really have preferred a big bowl of muesli.

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Cardona is famous for its salt mountain and the impregnable hill top castle built to protect it.

Mined since Roman times, there are 300km of tunnels and galleries running through the salt mountain with tours, of course, conducted exclusively in Catalonian. The castle is now a Parador – a chain of state run hotels that both protect historic buildings across the country and make interesting, unusual places to stay.

Even more spectacular is the monastery at Monserrat, perched precariously 740m up jagged limestone cliffs. Now served by a road, a railway and a cable car it has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in the region with beautiful walks, hotels, restaurants etc. There’s an iconic bike ride up the hill, climbing 600m from the valley below but we quickly agreed to take the funicular railway this time, with all the other sensible people.

In the mountains we had always worn our most serious cycling gear, including the proper padded lycra shorts and tops we had carried through France. It seemed necessary somehow! Now it was back to the favourite old shorts (still held up by safety pins) for the final ride down to Barcelona.

We always thought that last day of cycling from Monserrat to Barcelona would be the most dangerous and so it proved to be, dodging large trucks and speeding cars much of the way. Barcelona is bordered to the north west by a steep, rocky range of hills so all the main roads, rail links and industry are concentrated into two narrow valleys, one to the north and one to the south.

We chose the slightly easier southern route but tried to get off the highways and onto minor roads as much as we could. Unfortunately, the geography often made this impossible so for much of the time we were squeezed into a narrow space between the crash barrier and the trucks. It’s not much fun (especially in tunnels) and needs a lot of concentration. We slotted into our preferred formation of Clare in front and Andy protecting her rear, put our heads down and pedalled furiously. We’d have been a lot less comfortable on roads like this earlier in the trip.

Our attempts to get onto the minor roads meant several more ‘dreadful detours’ as they sometimes morphed unexpectedly into rough tracks. A white line on our map could be a busy dual carriageway through an industrial estate or it could be a winding narrow track that disappears into a footpath. From the map, it’s impossible to tell which is which so it becomes a game of chance.

Our mountain bike practise in the Pyrenees proved invaluable as we negotiated dried river beds and camino (pilgrim) paths. It meant walking a few sections but by this time we were well past caring as we felt safe and anyway, the end was now in sight.

Cycling in Spain has been a bit more challenging than cycling in France as there are a lot less cycle paths, the roads are busier and the highways can be quite narrow. However, most drivers are courteous and the road surface is smooth with very few potholes (helped I suspect by lots of EU money).

So we were relieved to reach the suburbs of Barcelona and the dedicated cycle track down the Avinguda Diagonal was a lovely way to arrive.

We’ve pedalled 2200 km (1375 miles) from Bath to Barcelona, climbed 17,800m and spent 143 hours in our saddles. All with the hairdryer, pillow, pilates balls, beard trimmer, colouring pencils, keyboard and other bits of excess luggage.

After taking some celebration snaps at the Sagreda Familia, we hit the Barca bars to celebrate with our friends, Mark and Susie, who were in town for a conference. They’ve been on biking holidays to Nepal and South America so we happily swapped cycling tales until the restaurant kicked us out in the early hours.

We fly back to Bristol on Wednesday which means that our last task is to pack the bikes (and everything else) in cardboard boxes so they survive the relatively quick journey home.

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When we got to La Rochelle a month ago, we said there were 3 reasons we couldn’t yet call ourselves real cyclists:

  • We like long coffee stops
  • We don’t have a clue how to fix the strange squeaks on our bikes
  • We haven’t been up a real mountain yet

Well, we still like long coffee stops and the squeaks have got louder. But we’ve now been up four mountains (three more than we expected to!) So after several glasses of wine, we agreed that we might just start to begin to think of ourselves as real cyclists – so long as Andy doesn’t always have to wear lycra shorts and Clare doesn’t always have to clip in on both sides!

Clare and Andy

Note: Our final post will include some general reflections about our journey plus a few tips for people who, like us, are new to cycle touring but might be thinking of giving it a go.

Please let us know if there’s anything you’re curious about.

Beauty and the Boy Racer

It turned out our first two days in the Pyrenees were just a warm up for days 3 and 4. Mainly for the scenery but also for the things that happened to us along the way.

On a cloudless Sunday morning we were ready to tackle our third climb, the Port del Canto (part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France). For those that don’t know, the Tour has 5 climbing categories defined by their steepness and length. Toughest are ‘hors categorie’ – literally meaning ‘beyond categorisation’ but really meaning climbs for riders that are properly mad. Category 1 climbs are the next most demanding, then 2, 3 and 4.

The Port del Canto is a Category 1 so this meant it was our third such climb in as many days. I must admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known that beforehand (especially with panniers). It climbs more than 1000m over 19km (12 miles) at an average gradient of 5.4% but with several steeper sections. For our Bath readers, that’s the same as 12 Prior Park Hills in a row.

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Clare listened to an audio book (The Miniaturist) to help her through the 2 hour climb whilst also enjoying the spectacular views. For the first time I discovered the power of music, pedalling to the rhythms of Coldplay and the Two Door Cinema Club. I began to understand why people actually enjoy cycling up mountains – I felt stronger, able to increase the pace a little and to last a bit longer.

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We were refuelling ahead of some steep switchbacks near the top when a club cyclist in full lycra kit came past. Perhaps that unexpected feeling of strength caused my inner boy racer to spring into life as my only thought was ‘I can take him!’

It took a while to choose the perfect music track, which gave him a start of about 400m. The commentary in my head was clear and loud:

“Maintain an even pace. Reel him in slowly. Don’t burn yourself out.”

Bit by bit I got closer and closer:

“Once you catch him, stay on his wheel to recover. Then quickly change gear and accelerate. Keep the pace high so he has no chance to react.”

I passed him near the end of the second switchback:

“Don’t look back. Don’t call out “Ola” as he might think it’s condescending.”

Yessssss! That’s why we Brits are cycling world champions! Hah!

Was it a bit uncool to take a selfie of triumph at the top?

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Hopefully he thought I was taking pictures of the magnificent views instead!

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The afternoon didn’t go quite as well with our worst ever ‘dreadful detour’. Coming off the top, our planned route didn’t look that inviting as it wound down a steep, gravel track. The only alternative was fat red line on our map called the ‘Trans-Pyrenees Cycle Route’. It was a 15km detour but it still felt like the right way to go.

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Wrong! It turned out to be a mountain bike trail, little more than a rutted path winding through the woods. Again, I have to admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known THAT beforehand – it was muddy, steep and quite scary!

“Get me out of here!”

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Eventually emerging back onto the road in the dark, we were surprised by the volume of traffic coming down from Andorra on a Sunday night. This was actually the first time we’ve had to cycle on a major highway and Clare was superb, riding smoothly and quickly in front for an hour. I tucked in behind, slightly on her outside to encourage cars to leave a wider berth. Helped by our drafting practise along the canals, we safely reached the hotel in this formation – tired, hungry but unscathed.

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On Monday morning we were sufficiently revived for a fourth and LAST big climb in the Pyrenees. Despite being exhausted, we knew that this one (from Coll de Nargo to Solsona) would be worth it as it has an understated reputation as one of the most breathtaking bike rides in the world. It winds up a spectacular gorge, through hanging valleys and then traverses across the rugged tops. We have genuinely never seen mountain scenery quite like it.

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Another spectacular sunny morning
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A quiet road with lots of tunnels
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Autumn highlights
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A welcome coffee stop
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Looking back to the road we climbed
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Spectacular rock formations

Amazingly, this was the day that Clare had her strongest legs and despite insisting on still clipping in on one side only, she powered up the climbs.

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Not feeling anywhere near as good as the day before, I decided that cycling up hills must be a bit like golf. The moment you think you’ve cracked it you have a run of bad holes.

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I had a VERY bad hole on a steep section near the top. Messing about and not concentrating I came to a complete standstill whilst clipped in on both sides. The inevitable outcome was a serious tumble off the side of the road!

My first thought was to take a photo so I have obviously been treating this blog too seriously. In truth, I was lucky to escape with just a few cuts and bruises.

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For those of you who like stats, here’s a summary of our time in the Pyrenees:

Thursday – 43km, 1485m climbed
Friday – 67km, 1810m climbed
Sunday – 66km, 2034m climbed
Monday – 54km, 1860m climbed

Over the 4 days, we have pedalled 230 kilometres and climbed 7,189 metres. It’s fair to say we don’t feel we’re the same cyclists that naively cycled towards the mountains from Toulouse last week.

Now safely down in the foothills we have less than 100km left to reach Barcelona.
Nearly there!

Andy

Pyrenean Perspectives

As we have different perspectives about going over the Pyrenees, we thought you might like to hear from both of us:

Andy
Cycling south from Toulouse in pouring rain, I was praying that the weather forecast I’d used to persuade Clare to go over the mountains would turn out to be true.

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This is the forecast that I’d shown her for the week ahead together with words of encouragement like … “Perfect conditions for a mountain adventure. How hard can it be? We’ll always regret it if we don’t.”

To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea how hard it might be.

Clare
Secretly I was hoping that bad weather would mean we had to take the coast road around the Pyrenees and along the Spanish coast to Barcelona. However, as this window of opportunity opened up and I realised the sense of achievement we’d get by going over the top, I began to prepare myself for a mountain crossing.

Andy
I googled potential routes and found one on the website of a cycling holiday company that we could join at Bagneres-de-Luchon. OK, it meant riding further away from Barcelona through the middle of the Pyrenees and it included four mountain climbs (rather than one) but they didn’t appear to be quite as steep. Plus we would cycle on quiet roads through lovely countryside – perfect!

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I carefully plotted the routes and did all the calcs declaring these climbs not as steep as Prior Park (one of our local hills in Bath) but just a bit longer! They averaged ‘only’ 6-7% gradients with the first one being the steepest.

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Thursday – Luchon to Arties over Col du Portillon

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Friday – Arties to Sort over Port de la Bonaigua

Clare
By this time I’d convinced myself that it was the right decision to follow Andy’s new route but only had the first mountain climb in mind (as he had said the others were easier). Despite his detailed analysis of elevation, incline and stats, I prefer to not look too far ahead and just tackle what’s in front of me. One day at a time! I did, however, point out that this first climb was going to be six times longer than Prior Park Hill!

As we pedalled up the valley towards Luchon on our last day in France, the mountains grew bigger and the river flowed stronger. The sun was shining, my legs felt good and we were on cycle paths for most of the way.

Andy
The closer we got to the mountains, the higher they looked and the more nervous I became. I had a sleepless night wondering if we’d done the right thing.

By Thursday morning (Day 38) we were heading up the Col du Portillon on that first climb. This pass has featured in the Tour de France several times and winds it’s way 700m up through 10km of pine forests to a height of 1292m. I must admit it was a bit steep at times (13.9%) but it was incredibly beautiful.

As we whooped with delight at the top, Clare confessed that she’d enjoyed it more than she’d expected to. Phew!

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Clare
The moment I had anxiously waited for had arrived. It was freezing cold as we set off from Luchon and the incline graph Andy had showed me the previous evening kept racing through my mind. Had I reached the red, orange, blue or green phase? Not knowing what these really meant was probably a blessing in disguise as I arrived at alpine pastures and the sound of cow bells more quickly than expected. A long climb punctuated with steeper ascents then took us to the top.

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Much to my surprise I had made it with some energy to spare. A moment to savour. As we cruised down the winding road into Spain, the Aran valley opened up and we were soon enjoying our first Spanish tapas.

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Andy
After lunch we faced a long slow climb back up to 1100m which I found a lot harder than Clare. As she ate the miles up I rather limped into the delightful village of Arties.

On Friday morning (Day 39) the mountain road led us up through Baquiera ski resort to the mountain pass of Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m. This is a climb of 1000m over 16km and was part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour.

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Not quite as steep as they day before but it did go on and on and on. The last 5km were dominated by switchbacks which I rode up as fast as I could to the summit. It was only when I looked down at Clare emerging from the tree line that I realised just how high we were.

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Clare
Have you ever felt delirious with exhaustion? Well I did today. Throughout the climb I could hear my daughters voice repeating in my head “Jeez, why put yourself through this?” As I looked up, all I could see were yet more hairpin bends above.

Two hours of leg throbbing and brittle determination got me to the top – I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the moment and the beautiful scenery around. No whooping this time!

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Andy
Predictably Strava recorded us as amongst the slowest cyclists on these climbs. Was it the stops to admire the view? Or to munch a banana and recover? Or was it the extra weight we were carrying including such essential kit as a new beard trimmer, a keyboard, 2 iPads, a sketchbook and pencils along with the hairdryer, the pillow and the Pilates balls.

Nurdishly, I worked out on bikecalculator.com that the panniers equate to an extra 1% apparent gradient. This climb was an average 6% gradient, with our panniers it felt like 7%.

Clare
Who cares about Strava? We’re touring cyclists.

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Snaking down hairpin bends on our descent was incredible. A sense of freedom to both legs and mind. It was surprisingly cold as the alpine air whipped past. Cruising at a speed of up to 50km/hour we descended into the magnificent Aran valley, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking view.

Andy
On the steeper sections we practised descending techniques we’d been told about – inside leg up and braking alternately front and back to stop the brakes heating up too much. Occasionally I had to pull both of them hard at the same time. The sudden smell of burning rubber and the realisation that it can only be coming from your own brakes is not a great feeling!

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Once again, Clare was stronger in the afternoon. Perhaps I pedalled too hard at the top of the mountain and burnt myself out? Perhaps I’m just not as strong as she is?

We now have two choices. Go over the mountains for the next two days or head down the valley towards Portugal. No choice really – I’ll just have to pace the climb better to keep up with my wife in the afternoon. Here’s the profile for the next two days:

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Sunday Plan – Sort to Coll de Nargo

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Monday Plan – Coll de Nargo to Solsona

Clare
Now feeling re-energised after a rest and three huge meals yesterday, the thought of another 1000m of mountain climbing doesn’t fill me with quite such dread. I’m so amazed how much I’m eating!

But I have come to a realisation:

Some people are made for cycling in the mountains, others are made for pedalling along canal paths.

I like canal paths!

Andy
I think she secretly likes cycling in mountains …

Clare
No I don’t …

Andy
At least the weather forecast came true!

Onwards and Upwards

There are some big decisions being made across the world at the moment. The American presidential election, creating an effective government in Spain, whether to use French or English for Brexit discussions – to name just a few.

Our decision is much smaller – do we go over or around the Pyrenees? Unlike most global political leaders we’ve been able to quickly and unanimously reached a consensus.

We’re going over.

The weather is set fair for the week ahead and as Mark F said (in his comment on our last post) – if we don’t do it now we might regret it for ever.

We’ve even decided to take a longer, prettier route – pedalling south east to start with (away from Barcelona), then challenging ourselves with four substantial climbs before cruising down to the Spanish coast. The last few days rest must have worked some magic for part time cyclists like us to even consider this!

I had a great time in Mallorca with my mates despite four days of unusually wet and windy weather. It didn’t stop us playing tennis for several hours each day, mostly at the brand new Rafa Nadal tennis academy which only opened the day we landed. We found it by chance as the courts we’d booked were either flooded out or fully occupied by a German tournament.

Rafa was kind enough to pop by for a hit with the boys…

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(Actually he only wanted a photo.)

We did our best to show the top spinning, hard hitting, double handed backhand academy kids the different qualities of English Senior Gentlemen’s Doubles. Flat forehands, loopy backhands and our special secret weapon – the surprise drop shot service. But they did not appear to be that impressed. Kids today eh?!

Rafas entire trophy cabinet was on display at the centre. Here are his two Wimbledon trophies plus grand slam winning racquets from the ‘Big 4’.

Racquets from left to right: Murray, Djokovic, Ferderer, Nadal.

It was a great four days of rest and recuperation with a lot of laughs and many stories that I can’t repeat here. As the saying goes ‘what happens on tour, stays on tour.’

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David, Andy, Rich, John, Ricardo and Bob

Clare had an equally good time in Toulouse with her friend Sue. They explored the city on foot, indulged in the cafe culture, enjoyed an evening of contemporary ballet and a walk around the Japanese gardens. Much more civilised!

Toulouse is a vibrant city full of young people. It has a lived in, slightly bohemian feel with lively bars, street markets and affordable restaurants. Known as La Ville Rose (the pink city) it features terracotta buildings decorated with wonderful wrought iron balconies in a pallette of blues and greens.

On my return, I was surprised and delighted to be guided around ‘Clare’s’ city. After just four days she feels at home here and fits in well with her new pink trainers.

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The (very light) pink trainers replace a (heavy) pair of sandals for the climb up the Pyrenees. In another attempt to reduce weight we’ve also left behind:

Andy

  • A pair of sandals
  • A baseball cap
  • My spare glasses (possibly not wise)

Clare

  • The sandals (replaced by the trainers)
  • A summer dress
  • A travel towel (she’s now sharing mine)
  • A travel pillow
  • Surplus body cream and moisturiser

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  • A 2nd tube of toothpaste

Clare’s hairdryer and my pillow are both coming with us over the mountains. They’re essential kit, just like the safety pins!

Andy

Canal of the Two Seas

As we cruised towards Toulouse at the end of Stage 6, our odometer neatly clicked past 1000 miles. It felt like a moment. 1000 miles of largely enjoyable pedalling, 1000 miles of avoiding potholes.

imageBut just as we were high fiving this achievement and accelerating towards the city, a huge pothole suddenly appeared out of the shadows of a large tree. There was no avoiding it. Pulling up hard on his handlebars, Andy cleared it with his front wheel but the back one still smashed straight into it, sending both panniers flying, buckling the rim and breaking a spoke. Behind him, Clare just managed to skid to a halt. Pride before a fall once again!

It doesn’t look much, but this is the biggest pothole we’ve seen in France!

This meant we rather ingloriously limped into Toulouse. To our relief, the brilliant team at Decathlon (a massive chain of sports warehouses) were able to straighten out the wheel and fix the spoke immediately. 30 minutes repair work at no charge! Wish we had more of these stores in the UK.

Reaching Toulouse was important as we had a deadline to get there by Tuesday 18th October (Day 29).

After leaving Bordeaux on Friday (Day 25) we’ve spent most of our time on the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas). This combines the Canal de Garonne (that we cycled down) with the older Canal du Midi as a fast, safe trading route connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, dreamt of since Roman times.

Whilst the Canal du Midi was operational from 1681, the Canal de Garonne was only completed in 1856 just one year before the railway that takes the same route – so it was quickly overtaken by a newer, faster technology.

Bath has a beautiful canal but this is on an altogether grander scale. It runs for 437km (270 miles) and needs 118 locks to cope with the altitude change of over 360m. Each of these has traffic lights and a bell to summon the lock keepers who still live in the pretty, immaculate cottages beside each one.

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Over five days cycling we saw very little canal traffic so it’s hard to imagine what the lock keepers do all day behind their shutters. The paper? Lunch? An afternoon snooze?

At times it was spectacularly beautiful, especially in the Autumn sunlight.

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But pedalling beside a canal for so long can also become boring. From time to time we had to resort to cycling games – sprints, catch and especially drafting.

This means taking turns at the front and powering along as fast as possible, with the other person cruising just behind in the slipstream. For the full benefit you must tuck in as close as possible and this was the first time we’d felt brave enough to give it a go. It’s an extraordinary sensation to feel sucked along by the cyclist in front of you and it’s also fun to watch them huffing and puffing with the effort. Taking turns, we ate up the miles at record speeds (for us) of about 28kph.

This turned our thoughts to which cyclists we each might resemble. For those of you who are familiar with professional cycling, we decided Andy is an Ian Stannard – large, a bit ungainly, stoically setting the pace as a super domestique then running out of steam. Clare is an Adam Yeats – small and neat, tucked in behind, then effortlessly cruising past to take up the running near the end.

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Why was reaching Toulouse by Tuesday so important? Before we left Bath, many of Andy’s mates were impressed (and surprised) to learn that he planned to sneak away for a boys only tennis trip in the middle of our journey. In Mallorca. For 4 days. And the only suitable flight was from Toulouse on Tuesday evening.

You’ll be pleased to hear that Clare has not been abandoned. Her good friend Sue is joining her for a few days of rest and relaxation with no bicycle in sight but lots of chat and wine.

So as we pause for a few days how would we sum up the last 4 weeks?

We both agree it’s been better than we ever imagined and we would now recommend a cycling tour to anyone.

Our overall impression is that it’s like seeing a French promotional film at an iMax cinema. Part of the view is the same – the handlebars, the barbag, our hands, each other. But there’s also an ever changing scene rolling by in front of us – fields, rivers, villages, vineyards, marshes, canals, forests, cities, chateaux, the sea. It all flows into one long moving image.

We’ve loved being in France, have visited some incredible places and eaten delicious food. The roads and cycle paths are usually nice and smooth and the towns are cycle friendly. Passers-by often call out a warm bonjour or bon courage and we’ve been surprised by some small acts of kindness, like an extra tarte aux pommes from a patisserie owner “pour le velo“.

We’ve really enjoyed cycling together and haven’t found it too hard. We’re fitter than we were but we’re not fit. We’ve learnt that 60-70km and a maximum of 5 hours in the saddle means we’ll have a good day.

Here are 3 reasons why Clare likes cycling with Andy:

  1. I have a (novice) bike mechanic on hand.
  2. He let’s me have a shower first.
  3. He can get us out of tricky situations – usually by smiling, bad French and a lot of arm waving.

And 3 reasons why Andy likes cycling with Clare:

  1. She always has great snacks.
  2. She’s (usually) up for any dreadful detour.
  3. She’s a much stronger cyclist than she admits. As I pant and sweat my way up a hill, a voice behind sings out near the top … “I’m he-ere” …

We’re now looking forward to the ride from Toulouse to Barcelona with renewed enthusiasm. Over or round the Pyrenees? Hmmmm?

Clare and Andy

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Stats at the end of Stage 6:

1,656km cycled (1,029 miles)
7,522m climbed
106 hours, 11 minutes of pedalling

Route so far:

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Pride before a fall

As we cycled towards Bordeaux, I was getting more than a little smug about the sturdiness of my bike compared with Clare’s back wheel and its multiple punctures. Diligent daily checks, a squirt of lube here, a top up of air there had kept ‘him’ in tip-top working order. But as we all know, pride comes before a fall and sure enough that smugness nearly led to a disaster.

For several hours, I’d noticed the back of my bike swinging about a bit as we bumped across the relatively rough paths of the Charente. The panniers looked normal and well secured but they just didn’t feel right. Another alarming wobble and it was time for a closer inspection.

I didn’t think it was possible for pannier rack bolts to work loose. There are four of them – two were gone for ever, one was just about to fall out and the last one was just about clinging on. One more pothole and the whole lot could have come crashing down, panniers and all, leaving us with a very long walk to the next town.

The same bolts on Clare’s bike were as tight as a new jam jar so I guess I’ve been riding my bike too hard! Fortunately Gorilla tape saved the day and the next morning I persuaded a reluctant bike shop owner to part with some new bolts. They’ll now be checked every day!

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Are bikes female like cars or boats? We’ve come to think of them as having distinct personalities. Clare’s can be feisty and frisky, mine steady and solid. So perhaps Clare’s is female, mine is male. Those words are more often associated with horses and indeed, that’s how the bikes can sometimes feel – mounting them in the mornings, giving them rein when the road is smooth and flat, leading them to a shelter at night.

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Made by British firm Ridgeback, they are ‘Panorama World’ touring bikes with strong steel cylindrical frames that look like the traditional racing bikes of our youth. We have made just two modifications: padded gel handlebar tape and two new saddles.

Clare has a classic ‘Brooks’ leather saddle which needed many hours of breaking in but now nicely moulds to the shape of her backside. At the last minute, I switched from a big gel filled saddle to a ‘Selle Anatomica’, also leather. It may look like an instrument of torture but is actually extremely comfortable, a bit like a hammock.

The bikes have given us some special experiences over the last few days. Watching herons, egrets and buzzards swoop across the silent salt marches; cruising the corniche into the seaside town of Royan; gazing across endless Medoc vineyards, each vine dripping with grapes ready for harvesting, either by huge machines or cut by hand.

We also enjoyed another special Chambres d’Hotes experience staying at Chateau Real in Saint Seurin. In wine regions a ‘Chateau’ refers to the vineyard and indeed generations of family winemakers gazed down from the walls as Patrick and Violaine welcomed us with delicious cake, seven varieties of homemade jam and tales of life in the Medoc.

As we’re slightly ahead of schedule we’ve been able to spend two days in Bordeaux, enjoying the delights of an Airbnb kitchen and washing machine. It was great to share a fun evening over dinner with Helen, Ian and their friends who were in town to support Bath Rugby for their match against Pau on Saturday.

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Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d’Eau

Bordeaux was a pleasant surprise to us and is a great city for a mini-break. Beautiful buildings, many from the 18th century including the famous Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau (which has water that is only 1 inch deep) and the Grand Theatre. We particularly enjoyed the new, high tech, multi sensory wine museum (Citi d’Vin) where amongst other things we learnt that Champagne only got going through English consumption. In the early days, the English imported still wine from the Champagne region and then added sugar to produce bubbles.  The French poo-pooed the idea until they realised how lucrative it could be!

We’re now on our way to Toulouse and the promise of sunshine. Sometimes this journey feels like the travel of our forefathers. Forty to fifty miles a day on empty tracks, the next hilltop church spire rising in the distance, a welcoming inn with a secure space for our steeds at the end of the day.

Ancient travel? Bikes as horses? Perhaps with so much time to think, I’m going a little mad? True or not, I promise to look after ‘him’ better in future. No more loose bolts.

Andy