Friday, 28 June 2013
"One Col Too Many"!
Our very last day in the Alps. Back in the van and driving North. Last chance! But really too tired to do any more climbing. Especially the Col de Madeleine.
Had a rubbish climb up here last year from further down the valley near Aigueblanche. Last climb we did and felt really tired and defeated before we started! Steep first half and a long climb about 19kms with an overall of 8.5%. And we had ten miles to get to the foot of the climb from La Chambre. No I'll stay back at the van and do some sewing! Well, it is the last chance. Ok I'm coming as well! Didn't have a bad time, but it seemed like a long way! Again,it was a very cold day. Whilst I sheltered in the cafe on the summit, with a coffee and a tarte au myrtille, with a fire heating the room, at the end of June, a cyclist came in and said it had just started snowing! Just to remind you that you are at 2000m.
A freezing, shivering descent and then a slightly warm cycle back via St Marie de Cuines back to the site. Glad we'd done it. Great views but freezing! And as Ian summed it up, "It was just one col too many!" Shame really!
Set off the following day to get the bulk of the miles done. All the way to just north of Reims to Guignicourt. Long drive and miserable weather. Dark clouds and drizzle.
And finally- Col du Galibier
It's almost beginning to have its own folklore. Will Galibier be opened? A landslide meant that it had to be closed! It snowed this morning, so it's been closed again!
A lovely morning but quite cool, as we set off up the valley to St Michel de Maurienne into a cool breeze, with winter extra clothing packed into a small rucksack and enough snacks to keep us going for the long day ahead. About ten miles before we started the climbing up the Col de Telegraphe, which then descends down about six miles into Valloire, before the climb up Galibier. Reached Col de Telegraphe in 2hrs 15mins from campsite at St Jean, just for future reference, because it's the kind of significant climb you'd do again. Feeling good up the Telegraphe, but aware that the longest, hardest climb is yet to come. The climb up to Galibier is not horrendously steep but it is long. Apart from about 20 mins descent into Valloire, it was 4hrs 40mins before I reached the top of Galibier! It is such a long climb, but amazing. I caught up with Ian at Le Plan, where there is a cafe/restaurant, and he caught me having a coke, trying to get some sugar before the steepest climb up the "wall", which faces you from Le Plan. He was absolutely frozen but paused for a coffee, and advised me not to hang around for long on the summit as it was absolutely perishing, with a piercing wind. He set off back, and I carried on with 5km to go. After the next couple of kms, the road gets a little easier, zigzagging around alpine pastures and crags. Gorgeous scenery. Then there is a steep climb up to the restaurant, where cars have to go through a tunnel over the top, and bikes and motorbikes can follow the road over the proper summit. A couple of exhausting 10% kms, with your back and bottom absolutely killing, and then you're there. One of the best places on earth, and you did it with just a bike and your own legs. The best feeling in the world. 360deg of fabulous mountain scenery. Yes, it's freezing cold, but what a view! Put all the clothes on that you are carrying in your rucksack. Stuff left-over pizza, from last night into your mouth. It looked horrible when I packed it int tin-foil this morning, but tastes fantastic now. Artichokes and peppers in tomato sauce on cold pizza!
Time for a photo. Get in the queue as elated cyclists cross over the top and want a photo to prove it! Chat to fellow cyclists from Rotheram! And then it's time to go back down to earth, with still a long way to go to get back. The coldest I've ever been in the Alps. Couldn't stop shivering on the way down, and struggled to keep my hands warm enough to brake effectively! Couldn't stop at Le Plan, cos it was too exposed and cold, but waited until I got another 10kms or so back into Valloire. After a coffee and a breather, I set off over the next section. A climb, but good-paced one, back over Col de Telegraphe. Not much of a climb from this angle, and then all the way back to St Michel de Maurienne to the site at St Jean de Maurienne. The hardest cycle yet, being 6hrs35mins in the saddle, with 64 mls and 8000ft of climbing overall. What a day! Really enjoyable. Would definitely do it again. There's something special about doing it "properly". I've done it before from shorter distances, from Lauteret, from Valloire, and they were special climbs at the time, because they were all achievements. But to do it over the full distance, not being dropped off nearer, or being picked up by minibus and taken back down,which so often happens, with people under time constraints, trying to pack in as much climbing as they can into their brief holidays. A guy from Rotheram summed it up, at the summit. "You dream and plan this all winter, and it's just the best thing!". Absolutely spot on. Knackered but thrilled!
St Jean de Maurienne
Revisited the Camping des Grands Cols near the centre of town in the Maurienne Valley. Loads to do from here, Col de Madeleine, Col du Mollard, Col du Glandon, Col de Croix Fer, Col de Telegraphe and the daddy of them all, Col de Galibier, if it's open!
Where to start! Hopefully the weather will improve, as our journey up here had been extremely windy, showery and cold enough to have us eating inside for the first time since we landed!
Opted for the "slightly easier" circuit of Col du Mollard-Col de la Croix de Fer-Col du Glandon and return to St J de M. A great circuit and I found it much easier than the other way around, which we did last year. The climb up through the little villages of the Massif D'Arvan, with cows and chickens grazing right up to the roadside, was a delight. The ascent to Mollard not too bad. Tough climb up through St Sorlin ski village and final steady climb up to the Croix de Fer. Overall time at this point 3hr 37 mins, Ian doing it about half an hour faster than me. I fell off from an almost standing still position, just after St Sorlin, which I think took more out of me than I'd realised. Just cuts and grazes this time but my saddle had got twisted round slightly, so had to do the final 5km with it digging into me, or trying to stay off the saddle for short bursts! Fortunately a kind guy at the top straightened it for me. Must make sure I take an Allen key with me next time!
A very steep descent off Glandon, into a bitter cold wind. Fortunately brought extra clothing in a rucksack this time, because of the forecast. Can't believe I managed to get up here last year! So steep 11/12% in places! Long descent through the alpine pastures, hamlets and woods into Etiennes de Cuines and then long stretch back along the main road, with a helping, strong wind all the way to the campsite. Five hours out and 6800 feet of climbing. Another good day out, with Galibier tomorrow. All being well we'll get to the summit, but it snowed up there yesterday and a cyclist told be that they'd closed it again this morning because of an avalanche. Probably only closed near the top, so we'll just have to go and see!
Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Le Mont Ventoux
A bit further from here than ascents we've done in the past, but hopefully fit enough for a long day! Visible from 100kms away in all directions, it's desert slopes give the appearance of being permanently snow-capped. Dozens of people have died on Ventoux from hypothermia, this far down in Provence.
There are three ways to climb up Ventoux, from Sault, from Malaucene and from Bedoin. Setting off by 8.30am, we cycled 15miles to Malaucene, on a lovely quiet road, past Pierrelongue with its chapel perched high on a rock. Arriving in Malaucene we soon picked up several groups of keen cyclists, realising how much quieter it is in the Drome region. My rubbish memory manages to filter out all the nasty parts of the long, grinding road up to Ventoux, with three kilometres in succession of 11 and 12%. Later it flattens off to a more comfortable gradient, but by then your back is killing you and you're too shattered to realise it's getting easier! 2 hrs 37mins of climbing later, you're there on the top of the lunar landscape that is L Mont Ventoux. I think I prefer the other two routes which take you up via Chalet Reynard, and the iconic last 6kms over the "desert" landscape, with its memorial to Tom Simpson, and its hairpins to the summit.
Straight down to Chalet Reynard for a Nutella crepe and a coffee. Just about warm enough. 27deg down in the valley and cold up here, but luckily without a strong wind, forecast for the following days. Literally means the windy mountain, and the wind can be a serious consideration in whether to attempt a climb or not. Fantastic sense of achievement, having climbed 1912 m over 22 kms.
The descent through to Sault is superb, twisting gently down into the warmth of the lavender fields, through pineapple-scented groves. Caught Ian in Sault, just as he was about to leave! Time for a coca cola, sirop de lavende cordial and a ham baguette, before the last fifteen miles or so back through Montbrun and on into the Drome, over the Col de Fontaube and on to Buis les Baronnies. A total of 68 miles and a good day out. That night the wind built up and the temperature dropped. The following morning was extremely windy and cool, with a weather warning for high winds. As we set off for the busy market in Bedoin, to buy some garlic, there were cyclists queuing up to begin the climb up to Ventoux and I was extremely glad not to be amongst them! The van was buffeted all the way along the motorway as we started our journey back north up towards the Alps again, to see if Galibier was open yet and too do some more alpine climbs. But we really enjoyed our time in the Drome, with its more gentle cycling. Quieter, cheaper and more unspoilt. Definitely going back again.
Cycling in the Drome.
You can smell Provence. Curry smells, pineapple-scented yellow broom, lavender and fragrant herbs. It's a joy to be here. Weary from big climbs in the Alps, cycling in the Drome is very flattering. You can cycle uphill at a good pace and the descents can almost be brake free! There are several "route remarquable", with stunning scenery of gorges, wooded hills of good height, with villages perched high on top, ruined castles and chapels, and limestone outcrops. I's a place frequented by rock climbers, mountain-bike riders and cyclists, but not loads of them. We cycled for 50 miles or so on quiet, scenic roads around Ferrassieres and Montbrun, over a couple of cols, but nothing too exhausting. Ready for an ascent on Ventoux tomorrow, sorry Le Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, to give it it's full title!
We skyped the family in USA, who have now been increased by one very well behaved dog, called Melanie. An Australian-German shepherd dog, she seems to have a lovely nature. Lizzy explained how when you get a dog from the pound in US, they train them to make them more attractive to owners. So they have a dog who is about one year old, trained and obedient, neutered and vaccinated. So they can just enjoy settling her into the family. Lily's not too impressed by being licked by Melanie, but it must be lovely for her to wake up to Melanie and going to the park with her etc. Apparently, Melanie is already quite protective towards Lily, when at the park, and gets quite concerned when Lily goes off to play and leaves her!
An evening walk into town for a beer proved more interesting than expected, but then it was Saturday night. A French chanteuse warbling traditional French ballades, which were clearly beloved by the audience in the restaurant. We sat in a bar nearby, just far enough away to avoid the full force of her enthusiastic singing! Strange but charming. We could have sat there, when we first started coming to France forty years ago, and we would have seen and heard the same sights and sounds, and ordered the same drinks! The French commitment to tradition can be frustrating when everything shuts down at inconvenient times, but it's also what we love as well.
A group of people were playing boules in the pitches opposite. It was interesting to see that the average age of player was 20something, although one old fella was allowed to join in. It's a great game to watch especially when a young guy gets all competitive and tries to knock the winning ball out of the way with a accurately launched drop!
Beer for Ian and a pastis for me, liquid aniseed balls which takes away the desire for sweet stuff afterwards!
Grignan, Drome Provencale.
New territory for us. Tempted to shoot straight across to Bedoin in Provence, but the Drome region is in between and new to us. Walked into Grignan from the campsite. The site is shaded by pine and holm oak trees, overlooking a field of lavender. Very Provencale. Grignan was the home of the Duc of Provence and beloved of the duchess, Marie Sevigne who was famous for writing copious letters to her daughter about her beloved home in Grignan, an ancient castle perched high above the town, where the rest of the peasants lived! Vive la revolution! A beautiful but empty, slightly sterile village dating back to the 15th century. Beautifully restored but a bit of a showcase and very unreal.
The following day we cycled to Taulignan, another beautiful walled town with ancient ramparts, and on to Poet Laval, a Donjon dating back to the Chevalier Hospitaliers of the 14th century. Presumably we got the word "dungeon" from the French, Donjon, a fortified building. Esteemed as one of the most handsome villages in France. A superbly restored building. From there we cycled back on the Drome par Velo route to Grignan, a quiet and scenic route designated for cyclists. 40 odd miles in total, at a brisk pace because the terrain has sweeping rather than steep hills. A pretty area with Provençal old towns dotted all over the wooded landscape.
We would have had a swim but Ian forgot his budgie smugglers (tight trunks beloved of he French) and was not allowed into the pool. This is true, his swimming shorts are not "hygienic" and are regarded as casual shorts!
Only the French would consider discreet shorts to be more offensive than middle-aged men wearing something slightly less tight than thongs, with large tummies hanging over the top. I know which I'd prefer! Vive la Difference!
After another night in Grignan area, we moved on to Buis les Barronies, about thirty miles southeast. But first we called in at Nyons, which we had read up on as an interesting place to visit on a rare day out of the saddle. Nyons is quite a busy town, with lots of places of interest to visit, caves du vin, museums, old and new olive mills and the last remaining "scourtinerie" in France. We sought this out, well it is a bit of culture, involves a handicraft and is a dying art- right up my street! We learnt that a "scourtin" is a beret shaped mat made from coarse, thick coconut fibre woven into dense bowl-shaped mats and used in the production of olive oil, though not any more! The scourtins are filled with olives, once they've been soaked in brine and pricked all over with a roller covered in sharp points. Then they are stacked up on top of each other in a scourtin tower and then crushed by a press, to release the oil. Now this is done by machines on a far greater scale, and the scourtins are now sold to crazy, curious women like me! The woman who operated the machines to make the scourtins was a delight, and spoke some English, enough to help me make sense of what she was doing. She explained that she had been making these for 25years, and that she operated the machines that her great grandfather used, and the machine was dated 1882. One machine loaded up the two mats in a simple weft, and then the other more intricate machine was loaded with robust needles, which were pushed mechanically to create the warp, and then were ditched into a bucket. A very simple machine, beautifully designed and engineered, to perform a fairly simple task. But because of the nature of the materials involved, the rough thick fibres and the densely packed end product, the machines must have taken some of the back-breaking, hand-wrecking work involved. Even so, the weaver showed us how rough her hands had been made, but it was clearly a skill she loved. She took great pride in setting up the machines, and the excitement it produced in observers, like me. Even Ian was interested! She made placemats, rugs and larger floor coverings, baskets and bowls. I bought a traditional scourtin, like the one I'd seen her weave for 22euros. Both of us forgot our cameras, so we'll have to go back another time. Right at the other end of town, we were told by the tourist info that we could find a museum about olive production, past and present, so we could learn more about the use of the scourtins, so off we went. The Museum turned out to be a very chic wine and olive producer and shop, which had a room set aside for old olive mill artefacts, olive jars, presses, scourtins, much larger than mine, and pictures off how they were used, as described earlier. We sat in the cool of the "theatre", listening to a film in French of the current method of olive oil production, full of complimentary, if overblown, language about the special quality of the land and climate, which produces this appellation controlle wine and oil. To be fair they are quite right to shout about it, because it is a special blend of sun and geography around here!
Culture experienced, we set off for Buis les Baronnies in Drome Provençal. Campsite ok. Inexpensive but not very shady.
Thursday, 20 June 2013
Another steaming hot day as I set off up the Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 hairpins! I've been "looking forward" to this all winter. Lost half a stone in weight, and now on my new, though slightly heavier bike, long story, I was looking forward to posting a better time than last year. Whether it was the heat, or having done such a lot of climbing and just being tired, I ended up taking four minutes more, so was pretty fed up. 1hr 36 mins. Ah well, good days and not so good days! It's fantastic having such a rubbish memory, and only remembering the feeling of euphoria at the top. I'd forgotten how tough it is, and to finish at the top of Alpe d'Huez as they do in the Marmotte and the Tour de France, after a number of big climbs over the Galibier, Telegraphe, Croix de Fer etc is just mind-blowing! You can't take it steadily, because you have no option but to keep pedalling, with gradients of 10% and 9% at times, but always over 8% for 14kms! It's nasty!
A nicer way off rather than gripping your brakes all the way back the same way, is to climb a little up to Villard Reculas, along a lovely balcony route, high above the valley floor with beautiful views, and then five mile descent to the Allemont road again, and then the same flat run into Bourg as yesterday. 26 miles a shorter but steep climbing day today, but back early enough to be able to have lunch together and rest in the afternoon. Ian had been on a different route climbing above Alpe d'Huez to the Col de Sarenne from Mizoens. Came back saying it was hard but enjoyable. Spent the afternoon tinkering with his brakes and fitting new brake blocks!
Determined to achieve my winter-made target of getting up Alpe d'Huez inside 1hr 30, I decided to do the climb again the day after tomorrow. Ian was going up to La Berarde, quite a lot of climbing and further than what I wanted to do. So I opted for Col d'Ornon just down the valley towards Allemont. Another very hot day ahead, so set off before 9am. The climb up the Ornon valley is one of the kindest so far, averaging about 6.5%. What a delight! No traffic, no motor cyclists, just peace and quiet! Climbing up comfortably at a good pace, in the cool of the steep-sided valley, passing the little hamlets of Villard-Raymond, Oulles, and cycling through Ornon, I reached the top in good time and with energy to spare. Kept with some guys over the last kilometre to the top, who were from Sheffield and were doing the route we've done from here, all the way around to the Grand Serre and back up the long, busy main road through Sechiliennes to Bourg. After a chat, I descended back down, passing dozens of cyclists coming up. Back at the van after only about two hours cycling, to have plenty of rest before tomorrow. Ian had had a good ride up to La Berarde, but had forgotten how much climbing there is in that circuit, but great views of the mountains all around. Very hot afternoon, 34deg
The following day was forecast to be hot, but cloudy with rain forecast for lunchtime onwards. Decided to move on to the Drome area, a few hours drive south, after we'd climbed Alpe d'Huez! Couldn't sleep, and rather than waste the best, coolest part of the day for doing a tough climb, I got up at 6.30am and after a bowl of muesli was off up the climb by 7.15am! Breathing heavily over the first few steepest sections, I was worried that this was going to be a waste of time. If I didn't start to come better, I may as well turn around. Unless I could improve on 4.5mph, which was my average when I did this two days ago for 1.36, then there was no chance of getting inside 1.30. Starting to feel a bit less stressed, as the gradient steadies to a consistent 9%, and by using the hairpins, not as a place for a rest, but as a place to speed up a bit and push into the next rise in the road, I could see my speed averaging at 5.2 mph. In with a chance! With four hairpins to go, I changed my speedometer to register overall time, rather than average speed and was encouraged to see it reading 1:12. Saw Ian on his way back down and he was surprised to see me so near to the top, so that spurred me on. Had to really keep focused for the last few hairpins, but put a spurt on at the top. 1:29:36! At last, inside 1:30. The cooler morning conditions had helped to reduce my time by 7minutes, and I was pleased to achieve something I'd been aiming for all winter. Maybe I'd got my new legs, after all the Cols we'd done. The rest of my body must still be in the post, as I'm feeling like a discharging battery, a weird mixture of stronger but more tired! I guess that's the problem. At our age, we don't recover as quickly as you do when you're younger.
My second aim of a good time up Galibier would have to wait. It's still closed, though might be open later this week!
Back down the hill, past thirty to forty riders toiling up it. Going so early had been so quiet, with only seeing two other cyclists.
Off to the supermarket to provision up and then on the road towards Valence, and the area known as the Drome Provencale, about 50 miles south. Not been here before so looking forward to pastures new.
A good day out on my favourite Col, Col de la Croix de Fer
Another hot day as we set off up the road to Allemont. Temperature rose to 34deg. So we set off early. A long, steep climb up to La Rivière, and drop down into the valley, with another stinker of a climb up to the barrage reservoir. A steady stream of Dutch and English cyclists toiling up to the alpine meadows, with the first of two photographers wait to take your photos and shove a ticket into your sweaty palm as you churn past! There is a steady gradual climb and then descent into the meadows of Les Sybelles, from where you can see the Hotel du Glandon, nestled under the Col du Glandon, and the road up to the Croix de Fer sweeps round the hill, climbing at a lovely gradient all the way up to the summit. Apart from the annoying presence of motor cyclists zipping past at regular intervals, sometimes crossing onto your side of the road, the prospect of the next five or six miles fills you with excitement, rather than the weariness you sometimes feel after more than three hours on the bike. Approaching the top, you get wonderful glimpses of the two pics des Arves in the distance, shooting straight up into the blue sky.
At the cafe at the top, time for a coke and a chat with a lovely father and son from Bolton, who had been with me most of the way. They had just come from a week in the Pyrenees, and had been to most of the peaks we'd been to. They too arrived yesterday in very hot weather, and a distinct feeling of anti-climax as you make your way up the road to Bourg en Oisans, past the quarries and hydroelectric power stations of the Romanche valley, but were much happier once they arrived! Chatted with a large group from USA, to a guy from Texas, who comes here every year. They seemed to have a guide with them, and their company set up a picnic table in the snow!
After even more time gazing at the mountains of Les Arves, I finally set off on the descent by the same road. I'd met up with Ian just before the final three kilometres, so he was doing his own thing, and me mine, which suits us both! The descent is delightful, with views up to the Chaine de Belladonne mountains, on approaching La Riviere. Top up the water bottle at the village fountain and then a speedy but long descent through Allemont and along the road to Bourg. Just over five hours and fifty two miles. A long day but very enjoyable. Ian had also climbed up to Villard Reculas on the way back, but found it very hard. Should have taken his time a bit more, like I did. It was much more fun!
Back to an oppressively hot afternoon, so cooled off in the pool. Went out for a meal at La Romanche restaurant in town, but had to set off early to walk slowly because it was so hot!
Last day in Pyrenees for a while
We left Luz after a chat with our very attractive proprietaire of the site, Cathay. She speaks more English than she did two years ago, and is just as beautiful, tanned and slim. She appears now and again, but you never see her doing chores around the site, and the facilities are haphazard to say the least, and no hot water apart from the showers and no loo roll. But she is adorable, friendly and impossible to fall out with. She has just undergone surgery on her back, and desperate to get well again. She asked where we'd been, and said that the next we come, we will go up the Tourmalet together, as she cycles as well. We made it a date, she gave us a good deal on the site fees, and then we left for an Aire in Pierrefitte, just down the road to Lourdes. Ian chose to do the Hautecam, and I set off up the Cauterets valley to the Pont d'Espagne. The Hautecam is well-known for being steep with an average of 8% over 14km and a max of 11%. Not for me. The gradual climb up to Cauterets was a joy, with views up to the mountains dividing Spain and France. The last five kms were tough, with max of 11%, but not too far to the Pont d'Espagne, which is stunning. A small stone bridge, with a gushing waterfall powering down towards it. A cable car then takes you up into the mountains. Beautiful. Then the descent following the turbulent river back down the valley to the Aire, and the waiting crepe van, which I'd visited a couple of days earlier. Yes, two more Nutella crepes to take away, please! Feeling tired after five consecutive days of 3000' + climbs, so time for a rest. Well, not really. A three hour drive took us to our overnight stay to a site not far from Toulouse, at Nailloux,near a lake, with bull frogs serenading all evening, but at least no thundering waterfalls! Then off early the following heading for the Alps, arriving at 3.30pm ish.
The further we got from the Pyrenees, the weather improved, and the roads became much busier! The site, A La Rencontre du Soleil, is very well cared for, but 35euros per night. You have to pay for it being in the hub of the big alpine climbs. Never mind, hot water to wash up in and toilet paper too, wow what luxury!
Rain and thunderstorms forecast for this afternoon, as we awoke to a misty morning. We set off just before 9am to climb the Tourmalet, the highest road pass in the Pyrenees. We already knew that it would be closed near the summit, and heard in the local bar, from Belgian cyclists that it would be two weeks before it would be open. One of two ascents begins straight out of Luz St Sauveur. Not long before I was passed by our Belgian friends! But Ian managed to overtake the three who were in the bar, but couldn't catch their friends, who they described as pros, who watched what they ate and drank, and weren't in the bar! I suspect there's a connection there! An overall gradient of 7.4%, with a couple of kms of 8 and 9%. Ideal! We quickly came out of the mist into glorious sunshine and spectacular views up to the snow-capped peaks. We both enjoyed the ride, and felt quite strong but tired. After nearly a couple of hours I reached the barrier across the road, saying risk of avalanche. Followed Ian and the Belgians on up the road nearer to the summit, but with another 4 kms to go and another 600' to go, we all had to admit defeat and turn around, as a snow plough was busy trying to chip away at the snow.
Just time for a silly photo of me in front of a statue to Octave Lapize, in honour of the first rider to reach the summit in 1910, having walked much of the way, so they say.
The descent to Luz was lovely, not too steep to enjoy, and we could see the mist in the valley deepening to a dense fog and creeping closer. At Barreges, we were in the fog and felt a sudden drop in temperature, by at least 10 deg C, so the last part into Luz was cold, such a shock from sweating up the climb an hour or so earlier!
Back early today and time for a rest in the afternoon, for a change. Only 21 miles and 4000' ascent, and starting to feel less tired and sore, but still four more cols to go before the magic ten, when we get a new pair of legs and lungs!!!
Cirque de Gavarnie and another blocked route!
A beautiful day ahead and we opted for the road up the valley to the Cirque de Gavarnie and hopefully on to Col de Boucharo, which we'd not climbed before. The 10 mile or so continual climb up to Gavarnie gave us a chance to warm up stiff legs. The Cirque is a geologists dream, a six kilometre semi-circular wall of 3000m peaks, formed by glacial erosion, and home to France's tallest waterfall, the 423m Grande Cascade de Gavarnie. With gradients of 8 and 9% and up to 11%, the climb up the Vallee des Especieres was more tiring than we expected, in the hottest day so far, about 25deg. With 5km to go from the ski station, the route was well and truly "barree", with a wall of snow across the road. Sheep were the only creatures getting through! So a lovely cycle all the way back down to Luz, into a warm wind. 32miles and 4000' of ascent.
Now all the cycling books tell you that the main climbs should all be open from May. The locals have all told us that they have, like UK, experienced a long, cold winter and not much of a rise in temperature in Spring. So it shouldn't have surprised us that the Cols are closed. It'll be interesting to see whether the Alpine summits are blocked. The Pyrenean ascents aren't as popular and maybe there isn't quite the same need to clear the summits.
Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Thursday, 13 June 2013
Santiago de Compostela in the rain
Santiago boasts that it has some of the worst weather in Spain, and actually sells itself on the fact that the ancient cathedral and tiny narrow streets look better dripping with rain, with the water-spouting gargoyles glistening in the rain and the rain-soaked moss and lichen adding to the sparkling atmosphere. Well that's all very well if you come from the red hot centre of Spain, or other places like La Mancha and Extremadura, but when you come from rain-soaked UK, and are not a religious pilgrim, or an enthusiastic long distance walker, it loses its attraction. So we did what we usually do, us heathens! We found a lively lunchtime bar with a delicious array of tapas laid out in front of us and sat there and were waited on, like eager puppies! Navajas, or razor clams, well why not, vieiras or scallops, well definitely, seeing as how the emblem of the pilgrims is the scallop shell. But no percebes, or barnacles, which we've heard so much about how they are a particular delicacy. It's a bit like the conch in Florida, it's a delicacy but you'll have a devil of a job finding it!
A wander around Santiago, which is a very atmospheric place, especially when you've eaten and had a few beers. Full of people finishing their epic walk and loved ones taking photos. There was also a cycle event finishing or starting, we couldn't work out which, but the commentator was very enthusiastic, and the cyclists looked so fit and young and tiny!
The following day we tried to give the area another shot and set off for a cycle around the headland of Santa Cruz towards Pontedueme, but rain stopped play and after about 20 miles we gave it up as a bad job. Soon onto busy main roads, with the attractive coastline becoming more inaccessible!
The following day we decided, madly to leave Galicia and head back towards Santander, some 300+ miles. It was raining so what do you do but try and get away! Now our friend,Checho, from our favourite place in the world, Can Punyetes, in Alcudia, is from Pontedeume, so we thought we'd call in seeing as we were in the area. It was good to visit a proper lived in town in Galicia, with an old bridge across the wide Eume river. It was market day and a buzz about the place. Even the long- awaited percebes were for sale, but I didn't have a clue what to do with them. The stall-holder kept saying "Mariscos", yes and I still don't know what to do with them. It was safer to buy some honey! Could have bought a shirt for Ian for 3euros!
Back on the journey to Santander. We decided to see what the weather was like nearer the coast, and called in at a quaint, old fishing village, Cudillero, nestled in the cliffs, like Mousehole in Cornwall. In fact the coastline reminded us of Cornwall, with its impressive, rocky coastline. It was cold and rain was forecast, so we decided not to stay, but to continue on to Luz Saint Sauveur in the Pyrenees. But we felt that we'd definitely come back here again, maybe when there was a remote chance of sunshine! It wasn't that we didn't want to stay, but after five days of minimal cycling, we wanted to get back on the bikes again.
By 3pm we were camped up at Les Cascades in Luz, where we stayed two years ago, when Ian did his long trip in the Pyrenees. Desperate to get out cycling, we opted for the stiff climb up Luz Ardiden, only 18miles return, but a toughie, with 1000m climbing. Average gradient 7.5% it's a bit of a shocker, at the beginning of a trip, but the only way to practise is to do it. A local pizza cafe owner told me that they say it takes 10 cols before you start to feel stronger, so only 8 more to go! Because of all the bad weather, and fresh snowfall in the mountains, we were amazed to see that the Col d'Aubisque and the Tourmalet were both closed- two of the reasons why we came here! The friendly pizza chef recommended an alternative route, although he added it was quite tough, up to Col des Spandelles and Col de Soulor. We checked the map and it did look an interesting circuit. So the following day, nice downhill start 10miles to Argeles-Gazost, up to Gez and through the vallee des Salles, climbing to Col des Spandelles, 1350m. A tricky steep descent to Ferrieres and then the same amount of climbing again to Col de Soulor. Well worth it with views across the mountains to the road up the Aubisque. Ian saw a golden eagle soaring alongside him overlooking the ravine. I could see that we had done all the hard work, with only a few hundred feet to go to the summit of Aubisque, and a gentle gradient to finish on, but the barrier was across and the summit was "ferme"! So that was that!
Time for a coke and a chat at the top of Soulor, with a couple from Halifax, who'd recently visited Trough of Bowland, as they had a friend in Clitheroe! Then the long, long descent, but easy gradient, over 12 miles back to Argeles-Gazost, and then the 10mile climb back up the adjacent valley to Luz, assisted by a Nutella crepe and coke from a roadside van. Fantastic, a double strength sugar injection! I love crepes!
Set off at 10am and back at 5pm. A long day out! 62 miles and 7800ft climbing. At least the rain stayed off, with cloud and some sunshine.
Another six more cols before the legs are meant to respond! I wonder if that goes for middle-aged women as well! By the middle of next week, we should be like wot sit off a shovel!
With poor weather forecast for the next few days and chances of cycling diminished, we decided to use the time to explore as far west as we could, into Galicia and specifically Santiago de Compostela. There are various pilgrimages but the main one is from Leon in Castilla, further south. An ancient holy town visited by modern day pilgrims and long distance walkers.
First stop, A Coruna, the capital of Galicia. Road signs with O, instead of El and A instead of La, and lots of xs, gallego language is more akin to Portuguese, with Praia instead of playa (beach), and igrexa, instead of iglesia (church). Most road signs which describe the town in Castillian have been corrected by spray paint or damaged to rub out the el or la and replace with gallego term.
The motorway over from Asturias, which hugs the coast for most of the way, the Autovia de Cantabrica, is an amazing piece of infrastructure, probably EU funded. Hardly a mile goes by for 300 miles, which is not a viaduct or tunnel. The landscape is stunning, with steep wooded hillsides off inland, and rivers, ravines and estuaries nearer the coast. As the rain and mist came down, it still looked atmospheric and beautiful.
Arrived at A Coruna in the rain, and a campsite a couple of miles outside the city, set in landscaped gardens. Expensive and still no hot water to wash up in. A very nice restaurant on site, frequented by the locals, so maybe not encouraged to make your own. A short taxi ride into town, took us to the" parte vieja". Didn't really live up to its name, as not much old Coruna to see. Proper industrial port and industrial architecture. It's impossible to get bad food in Spain. Even little back street cafe/bars like the one we called at did fantastic chipirones, the bar being named El Chipiron, which were big enough to be small sepia, or cuttlefish, and we had pulpo a la gallega as well- octopus thinly sliced and cooked smothered in a pint of olive oil and lashings of paprika- delicious!
The weather deteriorated and we decided that we might as well walk around nearby Santiago de Compostela, as hang around in A Coruna, so off we went.
Wednesday, 5 June 2013
Visit to Llanes, on the coast
We decided to visit the coast of Asturias, and read that Llanes was a pleasant place to visit. A 38 mile round trip but a bit more demanding than expected. Two good climbs from the campsite at Avin to Llanes took us over the Col at El Mazuco. A beautiful ride through meadows and hamlets, Cortines and Mere, with sections of road sweeping around ravines with views up imposing hillsides. Occasionally kicking up to an average gradient of 9% over a couple of miles, you felt like you'd done a testing ride. Descending steeply to Llanes, with views of a bright blue sea and green hillsides right up to the coast. Hardly any traffic and even fewer cyclists. A couple of local guys obviously on a well-used training route, shouting" Vamo, Vamos "for encouragement. Everybody is so friendly and talkative around here and assumes you are Spanish, plunging at speed into some commentary about how hard the climb is, and it's much easier in a car!
Llanes was a lovely place to stop, with a little harbour and glimpses of green-edged bays further along to Andrin and Cue. Had a pintxo and cider. Pintxo and cafe mediana was 2 euros! We've been surprised at how cheap it is here, with 3 course menu del Dias and a bottle of wine for 10 euros. I think they have to compete. Lots of bars and restaurants open with very little custom at this time of year, put off by poorer weather than the costas.
Pintxos are a larger version of tapas, fried chicken, lomo/pork loin, or ham, in a chunk of baguette. The sidra was poured from a height, to aerate it. Otherwise it is naturally flat, but delicious. At 6% a little strong, but a coffee and dulces, in this case a chocolate filled pastry, helped to fortify for the two big climbs on the return. Returning the same way was just a beautiful as before, with views down the valley, and views up to the Picos on the second climb. An unexpectedly pleasant journey, and a bit hillier than expected, 4500' of ascent. There's no preparation you can do at home for these climbs. We just don't have anything with sustained climbing like this. Nearest is climbing in Mallorca! But it is surprising how quickly you start to feel on top of the climbing, the more you do it! All good training!!!
Campervan Trip, June 2013
Overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander. Expensive but a joy, with good food and great night's sleep and arriving in Spain by lunchtime. A few hours drive took us to our first campsite at Avin on the road to Cangas de Onis, in the Picos de Europa National Park, in Asturias. The northern coast is known as the "Green Spain", and is usually wet. The limestone mountains of the Picos, covered with snow rise above green hills and valleys, covered with the sound of tinkling cow bells. This area is famous for its Cabrales cheese, made from cow's, goat's and ewe's milk, and stored in cold, dark caves, and fabada, a stew made from large white beans in a sauce, with black pudding, belly pork and sausage. Also famous for sidra, cider, aerated by pouring from a height. Just a gentle orientation cycle of 20 odd miles to get a fix on the state of the roads and consideration of Spanish local traffic. No need to worry about either. Ian cycled to the head of the valley at Poncebos, to the start of the walks up the mountain peak of the Naranjo de Bulnes. There is a funicular to take you part of the way up. The main walking route across the Picos takes you into the Cares valley. No roads, just walking route. The Picos are pretty inaccessible, unlike the Alps, unless you are on foot. The area seems quite affluent, with houses and granjas recently restored. Customary to paint walls a vivid blue, red or green. Very attractive.
The following morning, we set off to Los Lagos de Covadonga, a climb featured regularly in the Vuelta de Espana. At 1135m over 14.2km, the average gradient is described in "Europe's Greatest Cycle Climbs" as 6.8%, with a max of 15%, but there are 2km of 11% and above, which made this feel tough. Relieved it wasn't just me, Ian said that was tougher than he expected, with not many places to grab a drink for fear of not being able to get going again on the ascent!
The views up to the Picos are wonderful. Looking across the Lago de Enol and then further on to the Lago de Ercina up to the snow covered mountains makes the ascent worthwhile. During the descent, time to pause, stretch a sore back and braking hands and gaze at the magnificent Santuario de Covadonga, a basilica perched high on a hill above the road.
Note to self: a menu del Dia of fabada and fried hake/merluza, is not a good idea half way through a testing cycle. Fabada, in typical bean fashion gives you shocking wind and makes you feel uncomfortably full for the rest of the day! Stick to light, sweet snack!