The Pyrenees

I spent June 5 through June 9th 1999 mountain biking in the Pyrenees with Pyractif. Despite unpleasant weather and church bells waking me up at all hours of the night, it was a great holiday. The riding was among the best I've seen, with challenging tracks and fabulous scenery.

Pyractif is run by Steve and Brenda Mead, and recently they've added Crispin to their staff. They operate out of a big converted farmhouse in the tiny village of Bertren in the Luchon Valley, surrounded by tree-covered mountains and an incredible network of trails.

Flying with bike
I got a flight with Air France. My bike went as one of my two checked pieces of luggage, with no extra charge. To get the bike ready to fly, I took off the pedals and bar ends, turned my handlebars sideways, and replaced my suspension seatpost and saddle with a plain seatpost. That's it, no deflated tires, no bags or boxes, no bubble wrap or pipe lagging. When I got it back the only damage was that the sticker on the stem had been scratched, and one of the brake levers had rotated around the handlebar. I realized that they had probably lain it down on its left side to avoid getting the oily chain on anything. Since I had twisted the handlebar around to the left, the brake & shift levers were vulnerable. On the way back I rotated the handlebars to the right, and when I retrieved it it was just as it was when I left it.

I arrived in Toulouse Saturday afternoon and was met by Crispin. After an hour and a half drive we arrived at the farmhouse. The rest of Saturday was spend reassembling my bike, buying provisions at the Shopi (small supermarket) in the next village and waiting for the rest of the group (they were all men, none of whom I'd met before) to arrive. I noticed that the bells of the village church, which was just a couple buildings from the farmhouse, would ring out the time. Three bells for 3:00pm, how quaint I thought.

When everyone had arrived, they all went out to dinner in a nearby restaurant. I'd signed up for the meal plan and had pasta with mushroom sauce, which was quite good. But it was very quiet, and I began to wish I'd gone to dinner with the guys. However I was tired since I'd gotten up early to get my flight, and I went to bed a bit early. And then I discovered that the church bells didn't stop ringing at night. I had an uninterrupted line of sight (and sound) from my window to the church tower. I'm a light sleeper, and the church bells woke me up many times during the night during my stay in the farmhouse. Luckily, we didn't have to get up early in the mornings, and staying in bed for much longer than usual helped to compensate for the constantly interrupted sleep. I was plenty wide awake during the days.

Sunday morning Steve told us of the plan for the day: we would go to the nearby ski resort town of Luchon via Land Rover and take the ski lift to the top of the mountain, and then do a mostly downhill ride to get back down. Aften making lunches (baguettes stuffed with cheeses and meats, bananas, chocolate) we loaded up and set off.
Land Rover ready to go
loaded Landie
The ski lift ride up was amusing, and we got off at the top in the clouds. We all pulled on our jackets: while it was about 24 degrees Celsius in the valley, it was 14 on the top of the mountain, according to my trusty Cateye computer with built-in thermometer. After Steve's disclaimer ("You are responsible for your own riding. Don't do anything you don't feel comfortable with.") we set off. Steve lead us along, and Crispin brought up the rear. The trails were mixed: single track, double track and dirt road, with a couple of longish climbs mixed in with the downhill. At the beginning of each section of trail, Steve would explain what was coming up, and would warn us of any special hazards. He would also give technical hints for how to deal with them. This helped a great deal.

On that first day I seem to remember spending an awful lots of time flying down reasonably smooth dirt roads. This was fun, but not particularly challenging. The best part of the riding was a bit just near the end, where we did some tricky singletrack on the side of a hill. To the right was a bank, and to the left the hill fell away from the track steeply. I used to be very nervous about these sorts of situations, worrying too much about the dropoff, and consequently going very slowly. My confidence has increased now, and I was going about the same speed as I would on level ground. It required a great deal of concentration, and I enjoyed the challenge. However, this track gave us our first bike injury: one of the guys (Alan) crashed and warped the front wheel of his new Cannondale beyond repair. After this great bit of track we were at the bottom, and we had a short ride on the road back to Luchon, where we settled down for beer, about 16 miles after getting off the ski lift.

Beer in Luchon
beer in Luchon

After a rest Crispin suggested riding on the road back to the farmhouse, about a 14 mile trip along the valley floor, and I quickly took him up on it: I'd felt that the day's riding was too easy. A few other people decided to do it as well, and we headed off. Crispin tried to organize a pace line, but a couple of the guys were too tired to keep up. Crispin wanted to try to beat the Land Rover back, so he asked the slower guys if they were OK to make it back on their own, and they agreed. So the three of us remaining took off. I discovered then that there was a headwind, so even though the road was slightly downhill on average, being at the front required a fair bit of effort. Still, we were rolling along at 19 or 20mph, and it was alot of fun. We did indeed beat the Land Rover Back. I learned that Alan had found a bike shop open and gotten a new wheel, so he was ready to roll again.

We washed our bikes (with a good high-pressure hose and car brush) and ourselves (in a clean shower stall with all the hot water we wanted). That evening I went out with the guys to dinner, since Brenda didn't object to me going off the meal plan. We went to the Hotel Le Terminus in the nearby village, where we had tasty four course meals for 10 quid.

On Monday we did a 16 mile cross country loop, guided by Steve, Brenda, and Crispin. It was a cool (about 15 C for most of the day) cloudy day with occasional light rain. We started from the base, rode around the valley for a couple of miles to warm up, then climbed up up up on a dirt road. The guides showed their fitness by zipping up the hill far quicker than any of the guests. Then lots of singletrack riding, technical ups and downs, including some steep rocky uphills that I couldn't do (nor could any of the other guests), but which Steve rode straight up. We had lunch at a ruined chateau. A quick climb up the rebuilt tower provided a great view of the surrounding area.

a bit of singletrack
nice singletrack

On Tuesday we had a hard ride in every sense. We were to start the day's off-road riding at the La Mourtis ski station, and we had two choices as to how to get up there: ride or Land Rover. The ride would involve a 9 mile ride to the base of the climb, and then a 6 mile climb up the Col de Mente, a Tour de France climb. Most of the guys decided that they'd do the initial 9 miles by bike, then wait in a cafe for the Land Rover to take them up the hill. I and three others decided that we would ride up, and Crispin accompanied us, or to be more accurate, shot past us and arrived at the top long before any of us did. I was about in the middle of the group doing the climb. I started off in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts, but as we climbed it got colder. As I hit the bottom edge of the clouds, I stopped to put my jacket on, and Jason, who'd been not too far behind me during most of the climb, came within talking distance. Feeling a bit competitive, I wanted to stay in front of him, so I didn't let him catch up to me. The Land Rover passed and checked that that we were doing OK. I waved them on. Finally, the end was in sight: out of the mist came vague shapes of the Land Rover and cyclists. I heard a noise close behind me. It was Jason shifting gears. I shifted up myself and poured on all the power I had left, but it wasn't enough. Jason pulled past and beat me to the top. Oh well.

It was quite cold at the top. It had been something like 16 degrees (Celsius) in the valley, but it was 7 degrees at the top. We all crawled into the Land Rover for shelter as we ate lunch, and then we pulled on all the warm clothes we had for the ride down. I was very grateful for Steve's suggestion that we bring lots of layers with us. I put on some thin long cycle tights, a thermal shirt under my jacket, and glove liners. I was just about warm enough.

I found that I had slowed down on the downhills. Or maybe the other guys were going faster. In the previous couple of days I'd been one of the first riders both up and down hills. That day I was still among the first up (even after the big climb), but more and more of the guys were going downhill faster than I was. By the time the day was up, about half of them were going down faster than I was. I figured it was a combination of them getting more used to their bikes (and thus gaining confidence) and the fact that I was tired from the climb and thus being more cautious. And then there's the fact that I'm not a particularly fast downhiller to begin with... As I said to Crispin on the day he picked me up from the airport "My method of going downhills is to get my bum back off the saddle and use lots of brake".

difficult muddy decent

And these downhills were indeed challenging. There was one long stretch of steep muddy dirt road, with copious ruts and bumps. It was a challenge to stay upright here. At one point I was riding behind Alan, and I saw the most amazing crash. He was riding on the right side of the track, near the dropoff. He lost control of the bike and fell onto the track. Somehow his bike flew in the air and down the dropoff. I went along the left edge, cautiously as always, and around the hairpin turn. Alan went down the bank to collect his bike, and happily it looked all right. However, later he reported that the pedal was bent, so if he clicked into it it twisted his foot around uncomfortably, so he ride without clipping in and was very careful going down the hills. After a closer inspection of the bike further down the slopes, he found that it was his crank that was bent, not the pedal. Ooops.

Another part involved going down a steepish section that had a surface of embedded rocks. They were slightly muddy from the rain, and I went very slowly. The bike slipped out from under me a couple of times. The first time I caught myself with my foot, but the second time it happened too fast, and I crashed. Luckily, I'm good at crashing. I don't put out my arms and try to stop myself, I just go limp and let myself roll, or slide, or whatever. I picked myself straight up and got the bike out of the way. However the people behind me had stopped, and they let me get going again rather than going around me.

Finally we were at the bottom of the climb, where most of the group settled in for a beer or two at a cafe while the guides went for the Land Rover they'd left up the top. The idea was that when they returned back, they would drive us back to the base. But to me the idea of going back 9 miles on a slightly downhill smooth road by Land Rover seemed silly. So I rode back, as did another guy, Douglas, who had also ridden up the Col de Mente. When I got off the bike I found I had absolutely no energy. My legs ached incredibly, and I didn't feel like doing anything. I just sat on a bench and looked at the mountains and the sky for awhile. Finally I had recovered some, so I washed my bike and myself and made a cheese sandwich to curb my hunger.

On Wednesday most of the guys had to leave early, so only two of us, Douglas and I went out for a ride. I think Douglas was even more wiped out by the previous day's riding than I was, since he seemed to be struggling a bit. We had a gentle 11 mile cross country ride, with no major uphills or downhills, although there was some technical stuff with a fair bit of mud. The weather was sunny and warm, and for the first time on the trip I was cycling in a short sleeve shirt and shorts. We went for a ride around the village of of St Bertrand de Comminges. Steve said had a very interesting wooden cathedral, but we only saw it from the outside (we wouldn't be allowed in with bike clothes). After we got back I cleaned up myself and the bike, packed up, and left.

It was a great holiday.

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