Just another bump in the road.

August 23, 2011

Cyclists are sacred on French roads.

The French weather people projected last weekend to reach the hottest temps of summer. Très dangereux, they warned. But Alain and I stuck to our plan of cycling over Le Massif du Canigou. Ever since reading about the cycling route that crosses the backbone of the Pyrenees, I’ve been wanting to hit the saddle and try my legs at this famous Raid Pyrénéen. Why not start with the peaks of my own backyard? At 1036 meters, Col Palomère is the only thing between my apartment (260 meters) and the Valley of the Tet (260 meters). It appears on day two of the raid if you start on the Mediterranean side. Piece of cake to a seasoned cyclist. Actually Col Palomère is the easier of two very minor climbs on day two of the famous route.

But remember, before last summer’s gig as a cycling guide I’d never before clipped into bike pedals. Pretty safe to say I display the bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew gene hands down inherited from Dad. This newest mouthful didn’t start off any smoother than last summer’s blowfish swollen eyeball. Alain and I slept right through the 5:30 am alarm clock. Didn’t even stir. So much for beating the heat.

Early, still in good form.

An hour later than the planned departure, we clumsily road off with bulging saddle bags, tent and overnight gear. But just like any trip, once you’re out there, all the preparation stress disappears. We naturally found our gears and settled into a slow climb. Summer green mountains of the Vallespir cradled us in the morning light as we made our way up the lonely paved slope. Cork oak forests grew short and scrubby at first, then chestnuts and thicker forests gave way to small grazing pastures. Goat bells clanged in the distance as we passed a sign for fresh farm goat cheese.

We stopped at St. Marsal for a drink at the last remaining cafe of this mountain village. At 700 meters we clanked our glasses, proud to have made our highest climb yet. And then Alain excused himself to go to the bathroom. He returned a good bit later looking pale.

But Alain dismissed the unintended pit stop as mal-digested breakfast. Spell check is telling me that word doesn’t work in English, but that’s exactly what he said, J’ai mal digéré le petit dejeuner. So we drank some water, re-mounted and steered toward the Palomère.

It was long. It was steep. I didn’t hit my wall, but really, it was hard. A few racing cyclists flew past us on our loaded down bikes. We wore sport sandals, definitely not clipped in, not even in non-flexible soles. Did I say it was hard?

Though our toughest climb attempted, this hill is just a bump compared to the real cols of the Raid Pyreneen.

Though our toughest climb attempted, this hill is just a bump compared to the real cols of the Raid Pyreneen.

And then suddenly we were there. I thought the sign was telling us how much further we had to go but then I saw the number and yippee’d, because we were there, 1036 meteres! Not such a great view though. No shade for lunch. And Alain said he wasn’t hungry anyway. Hmmm, not the kind of finale I’d expected.

We remounted and began the descent to the other valley stopping briefly on the side of the road for a quick lunch. Le Canigou hovered just above while Alain began to show signs of the stomach virus that would later that night rear up in full force. Not to spoil the ending, but he rode 68 kilometers home the next day, not a drop of sustenance in his veins. Without complaint he meagerly climbed back to our valley under the heat of the as-promised hottest day of the year. He’s still in bed as I write.

The arid slopes on the descent side were desert-like hot.

All this still unforeseen, we continued on our way. After lunch the environment changed dramatically. We entered the arid ecosystem of the north side of Le Massif du Canigouwhere vegetation grows strong and sparse on the limestone slopes. I’ve only ever been to New Mexico once, but the ridges of the Tet Valley remind me of there. It’s such a different world from the other side where we live, truly another place entire.

Rarely a car on the winding descent.

The valley itself is famous for its fruit trees. When we got to the peach and plum orchards meandering before us toward the Tet River, I looked back and saw the heights we’d biked over, the hazy silhouette of jagged mountains reaching skyward. That was the celestial moment I’d been hoping for.

From there we coasted through the smell of fermenting late summer fruit. I tried not to think about the necessary climb back over, the arid ridges behind me seeming more daunting than ever, still unaware of the yet to surface other obstacles between this valley and our apartment.

Orchards and flat riding all the way to the campsite.

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