Saturday 7 August 2010

The 2010 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: Le Mauvais Détour

In France, the Duck amongst the cows...
While riding along the Rockcliffe Parkway two weeks ago, another cyclist on a new Masi passed me.  I let him go until the climb to the top of the highway overpass near St. Joseph Blvd. (the only climb on the Parkway, basically) and then I chased him down for the King of the Mountain points.  At the turnaround he caught up and was not only impressed with how effortlessly I caught him but also by my brand-new Pyractif kit.  “Have you been to the Pyrenees?,” he asked, and thereby hangs a tale indeed.

On Thursday, June 10, I left Ottawa's train station to begin the fifth Lost Boys Tour of Europe.  Not by train, but by Air France bus, which took me quickly and easily to Montreal's international airport in two hours.  Once there, I was very pleased to discover that the staff was able to deal with bike cases quite easily and that the fee would be only C$ 55 to get the case to Toulouse.  Hooray! 

I was a bit surprised to learn that my seat had been changed but apparently there were so many families flying that it was hard to arrange things.  This meant that I got to sit in the top of a 747-400, which meant plenty of storage room next to me.  The downside was that the airplane was indeed packed to the gunwales and I had the opportunity to listen to small children wail for the next seven hours.  The flight was longer than expected as the usual tailwinds were not to be had and I was concerned about making my connection to Toulouse in Paris.

Once we arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, I went as fast as I could to my gate but, as usual there were big lineups for customs and immigration.  It always amazes me that an airport this size only seems to have two people to check passports for several 747-sized flights that land around the same time.  It was hot in the terminal and I was pretty tired by the time I reached my gate.  Of course, once there I learned that my onward flight was delayed an hour.  At least the bike case would probably join me!

The flight to Toulouse was quick, and I dozed off since both seats next to me were empty.  On landing, we taxied by the enormous Airbus Industries facility where I saw not only several of the Beluga transport aircraft, but also four brand new giant A-380s, two unpainted, one in Air France and the other in KLM colours.  Impressive.

The terminal in Toulouse did not seem to be a very busy place and I quickly found my bag on the carousel.  As I walked towards the oversized luggage area, I found two more of the Lost Boys, Greg and Brett, and we waited for our bike cases.  Nothing happened and eventually we were the only people in the terminal.  We walked over to the Air France counter to check where the cases might be and the lady confirmed that they had indeed come with us, so we went back to wait some more and eventually all three did arrive.

I used the courtesy phone to call  the Holiday Inn Express to get the complimentary shuttle bus and when asked my name I was told that I did not have a reservation, nor did Brett and Greg.  I quickly realized that the courtesy phone was for the Holiday Inn rather than the Holiday Inn Express and the person at the desk put me through.  Success this time, but I think that the Express really needs its own telephone since this confusion must happen a lot.

The van picked us up quickly and within ten minutes we were at our modern and very clean yet inexpensive hotel.  Some of the others had already arrived, including the Duck and Young Brian, and had arranged a storage room for the cases.  I went to my room to get cleaned up and later we went off for a very nice dinner at a restaurant directly across the street.  I had an inkling that France was not necessarily vegetarian-friendly but I managed to have an excellent salad, and of course there is always dessert.

My roommate Terry arrived a bit after I did but his luggage did not.  Fortunately, everything did come later in the evening and it was a relief to see that everyone and everything was set for us to go the next morning.  Our number was a lucky thirteen, of whom four had not been previously on a Lost Boys trip.  We retired to the hotel bar and enjoyed watching some World Cup play over a few cold beers.

Now, this is a coffee machine!
The next day, June 12, everyone was early to breakfast.  To my amazement, the selection was impressive, and there was even a beautiful espresso machine.  Lots of pastry and coffee later, we brought out our bike cases in preparation for the arrival of Chris and Helen Balfour of Pyractif, who were to be our guides and support crew for the next week.  They rolled in right on time for us to start loading up our tons of gear and we were soon out on the road, heading towards our first stop, Bertren.  Along the way, Chris distributed information sheets about how the trip would go and our daily routine. 

Chris and Helen
He was particularly keen for us to read the section about “faffing,” a forbidden activity that was to see several of us, myself included, get in trouble during the week.  Faffing means wasting time and holding everyone up, and includes not having your gear sorted properly at the top of a climb, or using the bathroom or looking for your water bottles when everyone is ready to roll out.  He also said that in order to keep the group going with minimal disruption, we would have picnic lunches en route and share the cost at the end of the week, and that he would cover cafe stop costs and that would be included in the reckoning at the end.  As someone who has struggled with big groups trying to get served in French restaurants and needing the menus translated and paying separately and who knows what else, I thought that this idea was quite brilliant.  It was clear that the Balfours had plenty of experience with groups, but would they be able to deal with the Lost Boys, which is always like herding cats?

The village of Bertren, two hours or so from Toulouse, was the headquarters for Pyractif and we unloaded our bike cases at the Balfours' charming old house, and then sat in the garden for a while and had a drink.  The village was on the main road but quite quiet.  I stepped outside and took some photos of the local cycling club out for a ride.  Things looked promising.  Helen made us some excellent and welcome baguette sandwiches as everyone finished building up his or her bike (a process that went surprisingly smoothly for once) and soon we were helping Chris to put the bikes up on the vans.  The cases would stay in Bertren for the next few days and our bikes and luggage would come with us. 

Zeezou the Champion!
We left Bertren and headed towards our first overnight in Gurmencon.  Along the way, we stopped on the A64 autoroute, between Tarbes and Pau, at the l'Aire des Pyrénées highway rest stop, to admire a massive monument to the Tour de France in the Pyrenees.  This roller-coaster-like aluminum and steel structure is 18 m tall and was erected in 1995.  It in addition to the airborne cyclists, it has a number of placards describing particularly dramatic TdF events in the mountains.  It was raining lightly but nothing was going to dampen our enthusiasm.

Reaching Gurmencon, we came to our little hotel and unloaded our gear.  As the days went on, we would get much better at this, and faffing would be minimized.  But not quite yet.  Anyway, there were several single rooms so it was not necessary to share this night.  I was up at the top of the hotel and of course the old buildings in France have very low ceilings so I came close to knocking myself out several times when I hit my head on the ceiling joists.

In the Pyrenees National Park
The weather was favourable and several of us decided to go for our first Pyreneean ride.  Chris suggested simply riding south on the N134, which ran in front of the hotel, and then turning west towards Issor.  The road would take us up the Col d'Ichere and then back down again to the N134, allowing us to circle back to Gurmencon.

It felt good to get on the bike and we quickly rolled towards our intersection with destiny.  There were eight of us in all.  I was a bit concerned about rain but nothing happened.  As is typical with mountain areas, there were lots of microclimates surrounding us. 

First Col of the trip
We made the turn onto the D918 and just beyond Issor we turned left again.  I was hoping to get some nice photos but everyone was in a hurry to test their climbing legs.  We reached a village at the base of the climb and began to roll up the hill.  The scenery was beautiful but there is not much sign of any human activity.  I could feel my legs protesting since my training was not really suitable for this.  The climb was only 5.2 kms long, but there were patches of 10-12% gradient.  I stopped to take some photos and then caught up with everyone at the col sign (674 m ASL), where we were soon joined by a herd of cows.

The next stretch was a winding, pleasurable descent that took us through yet another herd of cattle and then down to the N134.  We turned left and had a fast, fun ride alongside a river that escorted us most of the way back to Gurmencon.  A 42 km ride, with more than 1200 m of climbing.  A good week's start as we bagged our first col.

French birthday pyrotechnics (photo by Mr. Duck)
That evening we enjoyed an excellent dinner at the hotel.  It was my birthday and to celebrate I was given a French sparkler in my little piece of dessert cake.  The sparkler was quite impressive, not being like one of our sissy version but more like a highway flare, to everyone's amusement.

Hitting my head on the ceiling once more before turning in, I had a good night's sleep, although excited about the next day, which promised to be one of the most difficult I had ever done on a cycling trip.

1 comment:

ridebike42 said...

Thanks Leslie. Can't wait to see the rest of the trip!