Wednesday 11 August 2010

Day 5 of the 2010 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: Le Mauvais Détour

Lost Boys on the Col de Mente

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright -

After what seemed a week of endless overcast days at best, or pouring rain at worst, we finally awoke to bright sunshine and puffy cumulus clouds.  Time to go for a bike ride!

Leaving Bertren, we rode south again along the N125/D825 until we reached the village of Saint-Béat, which was nestled in a little river valley.  We had already begun to climb but now as we turned up the D681, things got pretty steep as we began our first climb for the day, the Col de Menté.  This is a very beautiful climb but it is not without its challenges as you rise nearly 1000 m in 9.1 kms.  But the weather was glorious and I rejoiced that I finally could stop to take photos and actually get something interesting.

The Col de  Menté has featured in the Tour 14 times since first used in 1966 but is most famous for the incident in 1971 when Spaniard Luis Ocaña, wearing the yellow jersey and with a seven minute lead over Eddy Merckx, crashed and was struck by a following rider.  He was taken to hospital by helicopter and that was the end of his Tour de France dream.  Merckx refused to wear the yellow jersey when starting the following day out of respect for the injured cyclist.  There was a plaque marking the spot where Ocaña went down which, as usual, I somehow rode right by.

After a swift descent of the  Menté, we soon found ourselves on the second climb of the day, the Portet d'Aspet.  This is a considerably longer climb (14.31 kms) and had dense foliage around it.  It begins gently enough but soon there are perfectly poisonous sections that hit nearly 13% grade.  I was riding with the Badger, enjoying the scenery, and we stopped to take photos of the Fabio Casartelli monument, for it was on this pass, but coming from the other direction, where the Olympic gold medallist crashed fatally during the Tour de France in 1995.  It is a very narrow road and I can imagine that the peleton came off the descent at a high speed.  Hitting a stone barrier on the edge, and not wearing a helmet, would have brought a terrible impact.  There are small artifacts left behind on the monument, which is just up the road from where the impact point was, and which is marked with a plaque.

After another enjoyable picnic lunch when we regrouped next to the river in Saint-Girons, we rolled out of town in a group.  I chased after the van and was able to draft it for a good distance, planning to take a photo of everyone else as they passed by, but nobody would slow down for my camera so I ended up with a nice shot of the group from behind, alas.

We were riding through a heavily-forested area, and, as we had seen in numerous places in the Pyrenees, the locals had painted the roads not with the names of Tour riders but with slogans denouncing the re-introduction of bears into the region.  This has been the subject of great controversy, unsurprising in a region that has a lot of domestic goats and sheep grazing on the hillsides.  I saw a monument by the side of the road and pulled over.  It was not the usual war memorial, found in every town and village in France, but a parody of one.  It was an anti-bear monument, with plaques commemorating deceased sheep (by name) as having  ggiven their lives for France. Considerable effort and expense went into this.

A bit futher along the road and we were onto our last major climb of the day.  This was the Col de Port.

The name of this pass is a tautology: "Col" means "Pass" in French, and "Port" means pass in Occitan, the regional language, so we were riding over the Pass of the Pass.  And it looked like a pretty easy go, at least compared to what else we had been riding in the Pyrenees. Included in the 1910 Tour, it has been used 10 times since 1947, and was last in the stage won by Sandy Casar in 2008. It is generally considered a Category 2 climb.  It is 17 km in length, with an average gradient of 4.6%, and a maximum of 9.2%.  It is an amazingly regular ride and you can establish a nice rhythm and just keep on motoring.  To the right was a forest open valley, and occasionally we heard bells, either on cows or goats, as we rode upwards.
At this point I was riding by myself when I came up to an old lady standing in the road.  I said:  gBonjour! h but she looked at me as if I had come from space.  I then realized that Martin and another in our group was standing with her.  He told me that she had been wandering around on the road and seemed disoriented and could not say where she was going.  I said I would go for assistance and rode on up ahead, although as usual all the houses in the vicinity showed no sign of life.  Luckily, a kilometer up the road I came upon a man and a boy with a small truck who were collecting wood.

I carefully explained in French that we were a group of cyclists who had come across an old lady further back on the road when the man looked at me and said, in British English,  "You don't speak French, do you?", which took me aback a bit.  Not wanting to point out that I was considered officially bilingual, I explained the situation.  He asked:  "Is she wearing a red jumper?" and when confirmed this he said he would look after things and got in the truck with the boy.

Riding out through the last bit of forest, I came to the clearing where the col sign was.  A very large brown cow was standing next to it but I did not ask her to take my photo.  Instead I went to the restaurant just down the pass and dragged out one of the Lost Boys to get the shot.  Unfortunately the cow moved out of the way before we got back.  Anyway, it was time for a hot chocolate and time to get the gear on for the final descent of the day.

We blasted down through a series of hairpins and then some excellent straights.  Our arrival in Tarascon was exhilarating, even though the last bit saw, unsurprisingly, yet another rain shower.  But nothing would slow us down or trouble our high spirits at this point.

Our hotel in Tarascon had a special bike storage area and we put our bikes away.  Then I went for a short walk to take some photos, admiring the rapid river and the fine old buildings.  I really enjoyed the ride today: three cols, 131 kms and 3300 m of climbing with no cramps or exhaustion.  The Lost Boys Hammer Week was finally coming together for me and I knew there would be more great riding ahead.

(Note:  I have reconstructed the routes at but they are not always 100% accurate!  My Garmin Edge will only hold 12 hours of data, and as I did not have a laptop to download it, I lost the maps for most of Hammer Week, but not the raw data of distance.)

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