Robert Seeney Photography Touring Motorbike » Photography Biking Nottingham East Midlands

Europe Part 11 – The Pyrenees

It isn’t the mountains ahead that tire you out;it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – M.Ali

Dusk, Somewhere on the Hu631, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Sunlight found a gap in the curtains raising me from a deep sleep. I let out a low wince and rolled on to my side in a vain attempt to stop the aches in my back and shoulders. The smell of sweat permeated the room from the pile of bike gear I had left on the floor but there was no noise. Perfectly quiet and still. Stretching for the window I threw open the curtains to be met with the most amazing view of the mountains. Pulling the duvet back up to my neck, I  didn’t move for an hour, watching the sun rise ever higher and enjoying the fresh chill of mountain air on my face.

Breakfast was a relaxed affair, mainly because of the aches. A day off the bike beckoned to allow my (ageing) body time to recover. As I watched the sun rise over the mountains I had flashbacks to the previous day – those winds and that final view as I entered the Pyrenees. Although still in the first part of my journey, I had a real sense of achievement having ridden across the North of Spain, down through Portugal, across Spain and rather bizarrely ending up only about 150 miles from where the ferry had landed a couple of weeks prior.

First job was to sort out the gear and clean and check over the bike. Makes me sound industrious and very focussed but it was punctuated by frequent coffee stops and a ‘big sit down’. Even managed to get the clothes washed which smelt of the previous days awful ride. Amazing how sweat takes on different smells depending on what you have been doing. Never realised that before but I’m sure someone, somewhere has studied it and is a consultant in it. Maybe I should do that…

Speaking with the waitress at the hotel and telling her of my aches and pains (I’m male, obviously, so the aches were far worse than any woman could ever imagine. I was close to death to be fair). She smiled and recommended a walk to the lake. The lake is about a 25 minute walk downhill and can be seen in some of these photos – a pearlescent and shimmering green with forests rising from the waters edge to the snow line. I remember it being cool, that tingly chill of fresh air and an obvious complete lack of pollution. Amazing how air smells so different in the mountains or perhaps it should be that air smells so much different in the cities…

A relaxing day, walking the shore of the lake, finding the inlet and watching the families pull up in lay by’s and unpack some sumptuous feast. I had a raisin bar and a bottle of water and an orange ‘liberated’ from breakfast that morning. Seemed very wholesome in this stunning place to be eating fruit but, to be honest, I was starving and could have killed for anything piled high on a plate.

Walking back up to the hotel was tough going – very steep roads and tracks and my hamstrings were screaming. I disguised my frequent stops as though I was taking in the vista. I saw no one at all going down or coming back up and apart from a few locals the whole area was deserted as it was out of season. The 2 bars and restaurants were closed for most of my stay and I ended up walking one evening to another village about 2 miles away where there was a small place (someones back room) serving mostly fried things. Everything deep fried. No complaints from me, I ate it all. That walk back from the other village was eerie – the sun had set as I was eating and so I walked out into complete darkness apart from minimal starlight and at one point ended up walking deeper into the mountains before retracing my steps. The huge black dog that followed me for a mile made the evening even more eventful.

I digress though. I spent the remainder of the day sleeping or resting, had a few beers in the hotel and chatted with the owner. It was here that I first heard the phrase ‘bale’ (not sure on the spelling). It is a Catalan (although I heard it in Spain as well) phrase which has a number of meanings, much like ‘ok’. I added this to my growing repertoire of ‘foreign’ words that I had picked up in Spain and Portugal. I went to bed early as I planned to be up and out to tackle the main passes in the Pyrenees the following morning. I left the curtains open and the window and fell asleep to the sound of the occasional dog bark from some distant valley and the view of moonlight on the tops of the mountain.

Pyrenees, view from the hotel, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I had been following the status of the Cols (Cols are the mountain passes) online – it was very early in the season and a week prior all of them had been closed. Luck favoured me though and the website showed that Tourmalet and Aspin were open with care but Aubisque was showing as open and closed which was a bit confusing. I decided to head for Aubisque and see how it went and then move to Tourmalet, Aspin and then the Canon de Anisclo which the guys at BMW had told me about in Zaragoza. Looked a long route but doable, an almost circular path out from the hotel, into France, across the Cols, back into Spain and then cross country through the Canon. Bike loaded with the green bag, checks done, off I went.

The planned route, 365km, 8h 21m, the route through Goureete is Col d’Aubisque which was closed hence the detour C to D

Approach to Col du Solour, Pyreness, iPhone 

The weather changes rapidly in the mountains – I started in sunshine and as I passed through Frontera de Portalet the rain started, accompanied by heavy mist. My heart sank a little I must admit – a trip the mountain can be ruined by weather like this. It sank even farther when I reached the entrance to Col d’Aubisque and the barrier was down with the red sign showing ‘Ferme’. I called into a cheese shop a short ride from the barrier and the owner told me that it had been opened a few days prior but had been closed again due to an avalanche. It was impassable.I showed him my route and he suggested I head on to the French side and then come back on to Col du Solour which is immediately after Aubisque. I crossed into France and saw a sign for Solour and about an hour later I was on the climb.

Lots of rain and mist and only me on the road with bits of trees, rocks and other debris meaning I had to be eagle eyed. The approach to Solour is a long and curvy road with amazing views back down the mountain and after a few minutes of climbing I was at the top. To the right was the closed barrier for Aubisque and to the left was the sign for Tourmalet. Back down the mountain I went, enjoying the air with my visor open and a relaxed but enjoyable ride. Signs started to show that I was on the climb up Tourmalet but it didn’t feel like it. The road was constantly uphill, never flattens out. It’s known as one of the most tortuous climbs on the Tour de France because of this – at no point can you ‘stop’ pedalling. Once you start the climb then you are rising over 2100m without a break. The road rises and rises and lulls you into a false impression – you think it is going to be quite dull. Then you approach the final part and it steepens with multiple hairpins and switchbacks. Road was empty, I was grinning. I was slowly getting used to the bike, tipping her farther in to each corner, gaining confidence.

Summit of Col du Tourmalet, Pyrenees, Canon 5d2, 16-25L

I reached the summit a short while later after a few stops on route to take in the absolutely stunning views. Tourmalet is very high and the mountains peaks are below you which is an amazing thing to see, especially since they were still covered in snow. In fact, the roads were wet due to the snow banks on either side of the road beginning to melt. I hadn’t fully realised but the ploughs had only finished clearing Tourmalet the previous day.

I met a cyclist at the top who was from England – it was his first Col ever and he was elated and exhausted. He was planning to ride the same Cols as me (over a few days of course) and I gave him the website that showed the status reports. I did suggest that if I was going to do them all in a day that he should follow suit. Good job he was English, other nationalities may not have appreciated the sarcasm. I appreciated his effort though – I wouldn’t even make it 20% of the way up that climb under my own power.

Summit of Tourmalet, iPhone

A breakfast bar, a swig of water and a few photos later and I was off to col d’aspin. The approach is quite steep and there was (for some reason that I don’t know) a lot of cyclists on the climb. I reached the top, wandered over to the summit sign and pulled out my phone to take a photo. A cyclist pushed by me, hung his bike on the sign and turned to me and said something like ‘I go first since I did it properly’. I did think of retorting but I shrugged, said ‘fine’ and turned around to look at the view. Even out there, in all that beauty and stillness and relaxation, (some) people just can’t relax and take it all in. Shame.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am well aware of my limits as a biker. The descent from Aspin is serious….steep and blind and multiple switchbacks on high gradients. It was by far the steepest and most challenging descent and I was keeping my speed around 30-40mph. I could probably do it faster now after completing the trip but at that stage, that was my limit. Not so for the cyclists, they were full speed on the wrong side of the road without brakes. I have no idea what speeds they were reaching but they were overtaking me and I was glad to slow down and let them past. Foolhardy or supremely skilled, I don’t know but very very impressive none the less.The slightest error and they would have been in the front of a car coming the opposite way or been taking a 1000m plus nose dive. I was glad to reach the bottom.

View from Col d’Aspin, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

For once, I was good for time and so I stopped for a coffee and a sandwich before routing through France on the outskirts of Lourdes before turning back into the Pyrenees to cross back to the Spanish side. It didn’t look very far to get to the Canon and I looked at my notes that said ‘when you get past the village, take the final track, it will look like it doesn’t go anywhere but keep going’. My notes were right, as I went through the village of Puyarruego, I followed the track and stopped – surely this couldn’t be the place? Just gravel and not much else. I carried on for quarter of  a mile and saw the road with signs saying ‘one way traffic only’. The road is too narrow to allow two way traffic as can be seen in the photo below.

Canon de Anisclo, not exactly 2 way traffic, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Apparently they change it to two way every once in a while until there is some kind of problem then change it back again when there are complaints. The canon is stunning, the road is rough, wet and strewn with debris. The cliff to my left was falling apart, throwing rocks on to the road with the occasional waterfall for good measure and to the right is a drop into a river that is like a blue and green snake slithering through the landscape. It is quite beautiful and is an amazing ride if you don’t mind the back end being slippy. I loved it and I think it was the first time that I realised this was the type of riding I really like.

The Canon de Anisclo and HU631

The Canon isn’t too long – a few miles I think but I was tired when I reached the end. Constantly watching the road, stopping to admire the river and watching blind bends for oncoming traffic takes it out of you. I stopped at the end, thinking that I wasn’t too far from the hotel. Didn’t look far on the map – just cross country on a minor road for 20 miles or so. Sun was getting low and I figured I would be OK.

Perfect House, Canon de Anisclo, 16-35L

It was a glorious evening  – warm(ish), fresh air and just me on the road. The HU631 is a hell of a road. Constant switchbacks on ascents, dipping through valleys, sun in your eyes, surrounded by forests. It’s where I cut my teeth on the bike and the next two hours spent riding saw me get the bike tipped right over to the edge of the tyres, almost drop it several times on some really nasty ascending switchbacks and take quite a few breaks as fatigue set in and my concentration began to wane. I saw no one at all as I rode one valley after another, climbing, reaching the summit then seeing yet another valley ahead of me. It really brings it home to you how vast the Pyrenees are – every time I reached the top of a valley ascent I expected to see a main road or a village but it was always another valley stretching out below me. Fantastic since the weather was being kind to me – I doubt it would have been enjoyable in poorer conditions. You can get some sense of what I saw from the first photo on this page – that was taken just after reaching the summit of a valley and thats what lay in front of me.

1 of about 50 hairpins after the Canon de Anisclo, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

It was late when I got back to the hotel – around 8 and the sun was almost fully set. One of the local bars was open that night and I managed to get a bite to eat and a beer or two. It had been a hard day’s ride but I was on a high – finally gelling with the bike, ridden the Pyrenees and seen an amazing canyon. The sense of solitude on the HU631 and the views had put me in a good place – I was beginning to relax after two weeks on the road and I could feel the stresses and strains of modern living beginning to seep away. Muhammad Ali was right.

Taken from the veranda with a beer, iPhone, Tramacastilla de Tena, sunset

Waking up to this with no beer, iPhone, Tramacastilla de Tena

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