Words & photo by Peter Cossins
This is an extract from a book that a friend of mine was writing about his bike touring experiences, tales of which always had me in fits of laughter. We previously ran a piece he wrote early in January, available here, which is worth a read if you missed it last time. It received a very positive response, which lifted my friend’s spirits hugely during what’s been a long stint in hospital as a result of a series of illnesses over the last 18 months. Unfortunately, he’s still in there, but has been trying to continue with setting down his stories. As before, I’ll pass on all positive feedback. Peter Cossins
As we progressed towards the Col de Pailhères, we encountered our first experience of riding switchbacks. Even though the road you could see above you looked dauntingly steep, the way was eased by the gentle to and froing of the switchback taking you to a 180-degree turn, a sharp rise then a reasonable gradient to the next corner.
So long as you got into a rhythm it wasn’t so bad. Nothing like the bastards that we had to deal with in our rides at home in the Dales and North Yorkshire Moors national parks. We’d grown to fear some of the challenges that those locations provided and gave them suitable names. ‘The Hallucinator,’ ‘The Beast’, ‘Heart Attack’, ‘Griller’ and ‘Horse Murderer’ were just some of the names with which we’d dubbed those unforgiving, straight-up, exposed-to-the-elements struggles that we regularly encountered. Our conversation would be sprinkled with weird epithets such as, ‘I was ‘on the paint* then had to get up “Horse Murderer”**. Fuck me, when that was over, I was “in the till”***.’
* on the paint – trying to cycle on the painted lines on the road to help rolling efficiency. A sign of fatigue.
** Horse Murderer – Fleet Moss, a big hill above Hawes.
*** in the till – exhausted. ‘I’m in the till – spent.’
We carried on towards to the top of the Col de Pailhères, reaching it just as the sun was setting in the west. There were a number of people up there, some on motorbikes, some in cars, all enjoying the spectacular sunset as the Pyrenees spread out in front of us and the fire red sky highlighted the tops of the passes that we would be tackling over the next few days. I asked a lad to take a picture of us. Super Dave had the brilliant idea of having the sun in the background, rendering the photo near-useless as our silhouettes barely discriminated who was who. Again, as we stared at the magisterial spectacle in front of us, the enormity and otherworldliness of the scene impressed itself upon me. I’d never been at this height outside an airplane. I’d never seen a sunset with a whole mountain range between me and the horizon. It was dead calm. Not a breath of wind. A fantastic experience and a memory to keep forever.
Our descent was exhilarating and insanely dangerous in equal measure. The light had gone, as it was around 10.30. There was a good moon, which lent a measure of illumination that enabled us to judge the corners. But as we dropped below the tree line, we were almost in pitch black. Weird pockets of cold air hung in the dips and turns, and it was a shock to plummet at speeds above 30mph with your knuckles freezing blue after your hands had been sweaty and warm not long before.
We swept into the spa town of Ax Les Thermes at around 11 o’clock. The streets were deserted and eerily quiet apart from the clank of the metal tables and chairs being stacked away in the numerous cafes and restaurants that we should have been relaxing in four or five hours previously. I found our digs for the evening and knocked on the door. After a long time, an elderly lady answered and I explained that we had reservations for the evening and that I was sorry we were late but… ‘Well, here we are now.’
She put a finger to her lips to indicate we should be quiet in respect of her other guests and showed us to our rooms. She whispered something in indecipherable French and scarpered. We made the decision that as it was ‘only’ 11.30 or so, there might be the odd place still open. So we decided to forego our much-needed and much-anticipated showers and go for a wander in search of food and drink.
After trying to soft soap a couple of café owners about how far we had come and how hungry we were, but to no avail, we started to come to terms with the real prospect of having half-killed ourselves in getting over the mountains, only to end up with no food and not even one celebratory ale. As the collective mood became gloomier, Col said he had heard some laughter and signs of life from what seemed like a cellar in a side street we had passed earlier. Desperate by now, we went to investigate and, sure enough, at street level the windows of what sounded like a bistro were open and laughter, the clink of glasses and the smell of food could all be felt. As ‘the man who knew about a dozen words of French’, I was pushed to the front of our group and we knocked on a big, closed door.
An amiable-looking bloke with a big droopy moustache and shiny red cheeks answered. It turned out that this was indeed a bistro, but that he was closed and the sounds we could hear were the noise of him and his mates celebrating their team, Toulouse, winning the French rugby union championship. Seeing our disappointment and perhaps having a natural affinity for fat, hungry men in dire straits, he relented and agreed to let us in, saying he could make us something to eat, but that there was only one thing on offer.
‘What’s he going to make?’ Sealey, inevitably, piped up from the back of the group. I asked him and he said he could make us spaghetti carbonara, chuck a few bits of bread in and fill us full of beer. A round of cheers filled the cobblestoned alleyway and we trooped in scarcely believing our luck. As he passed me, Sealey conspiratorially asked me to ask “St Ax” to make him bolognese instead. I told him it was a minor miracle we were getting anything and that this gift horse wasn’t going to have his gob inspected.
We sat down around a large, rustic table and the bloke who answered the door got whizzy with a load of spaghetti and cream, and in no time was bubbling, singing and bon homme-ing his way into our hearts. As he dished out huge bottles of ice cold beer to us all and witnessed with horror how starving Englishmen deal with pieces of bread, Sealey pulled at his apron and said: ‘Hey, mate, any chance of bolognese though? I’m not too fussed with carbonara…’
Although, at 1069 metres, the Portet d’Aspet was little more than half as tall as the Port to Pailhères that we’d overcome on the first day, the fact that we had to go down into Ax les Thermes then up and down a variety of valleys made this mountain a tester as, by the time we reached, it was about 6pm and we’d covered eighty miles in difficult terrain.
As is normal, we plodded on and as fatigue began to take hold the badinage and piss-taking gave way to focusing on the next mile and the next corner. We reached the top of the col marked by a couple of sheds and some cows with big bells round their necks. We took a few photos and, aware of the time, continued with our winding descent to what we hoped would be a decent meal, a decent drink and a good night’s sleep in Bagnères de Luchon.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Somehow, we missed the turn onto the Col de Menté in the half-darkness, the error almost doubling the distance to our hotel. We eventually emerged out of the mountains to a T-junction that gave us a left turn onto the flat valley road all the way into Luchon. Being the geniuses we were, we were short of lights because we’d never intended to ride in the dark and didn’t want the inconvenience of carrying what were then large, heavy lamps. Woodsy had a front light and Super Dave had a back light so we formed a peloton of sorts with the ‘safety’ of having our front and rear covered.
By now the darkness was overwhelming and the steepness of the valley sides contributed to the lack of any light whatsoever. We were literally riding blind. Despite my lack of lights, I got on the front and began to motor. This was my ideal terrain, where my power and strength was best suited to eating up the road, while everyone else could get a pull behind me. In fact, shouts from behind quickly informed me the speed I was maintaining was proving too much for the rest to cope with. I was having what we referred to as ‘a good feeling’. Recognizing this, Woodsy suggested that I plough on to Luchon, secure our digs and they’d come in behind me.
I was happy with that despite the fact I had no lights and found it hard in places to see the road never mind the sky. The occasional passing car gave me a clue as to the lie of the road which was mostly dead straight and I carried on, my eyes becoming used to the dark. As I was thundering along at a good pace I became aware that I had developed a slight sniffle that I presumed was the result of cycling into the cool darkness after a day in the heat. The sniffles got a little worse as I went along but thinking no more of them I just brushed my nose with my arm and careered toward the faint light ahead that I deduced was Luchon.
Arriving at the slip road that would take me into the town, I checked the time to find to my horror that it was 11pm again. I dreaded the prospect of a night dependent on the miracle of Ax and knocking up some poor Frenchie for a feed. Remembering the name of the hotel and the street it was on, I wended my way through the central square and located our digs. Bike propped up, I knocked firmly on the door in all haste so as to maybe double back into the town sharpish and stake a claim at one of the cafés I’d seen still open. After another couple of raps on the door, some movement was evident through thick glass. A comedy/horror-film type scene of someone unlocking about six locks resulted in the door being open and an elderly lady presented herself.
As I began in my halting French trying to establish who I was and the fact that we had booked reservations here, the woman’s face turned into a horror mask and she recoiled back, putting her hands in front of her and began wailing. I literally turned my head to look behind myself to see if some ghoulish apparition had appeared behind me. Only upon turning back did I notice that my sleeve was caked in wide smears of blood and, upon further inspection, the whole front of my jacket was saturated in blood, some of it brownish and dried, some of it fresh and glistening. Checking myself for stab wounds the penny dropped that the sniffles I had been experiencing on the valley road were in fact a virulent nose bleed, no doubt caused by the descent from altitude and abrupt change in temperature.
The poor lady at the door didn’t know this, though, and disappeared down the corridor shrieking to be replaced by an elderly bloke carrying a shovel. ‘Whoa, this is going to get out of hand,’ I thought and put my hands up in a ‘despite what this looks like, you are not in any danger’ gesture. I took my jacket off and wiped my nose the best I could and the bloke seemed to calm down and accept what had happened. I was ushered in and asked to sign a hundred forms whilst trying to explain that I needed to go out and find food.