Cycling in the Pyrénées

In September 2018, I went for a cycling trip with my longtime friend Marc. It's something we'd been talking about for years, ever since we rode up his home hills behind Barcelona and discovered we made pretty good cycling buddies. The trip was also special because it was my first multi-day cycling trip! It was the catalyst I needed to get back into shape after a few years of "sitting on the couch". So the cycling bit of the trip was three days long but the whole adventure included three months of CrossFit and working up towards pedalling for hours on end.

Day One - Paris to Foix by train

The first day was all about getting myself to the town of Foix, deep in Occitania, to meet Marc. We had a few options for towns but I chose this one because Google Maps said there was a castle (Château de Foix). Traveling in France with a bike turned out to be a whole other thing, so I gave it its own section below. It was too dark to see much of Foix so we called it an early night - after getting drenched in huge torrents of rain between dinner and going back to the roadside hotel! Not the most auspicious beginning but I was too excited to care :P

 

Day Two - Foix to Espezel through Montségur

The next morning, the château gates were still closed so we rode out of Foix and soon found ourselves wrapped in a magical mist as we rode in and out of gorgeous hills. It hadn’t taken long at all to be surrounded by beauty!

We stopped for coffee at a hostel in one of the villages, and I changed the angle of my left cleat, which had been causing knee pain in previous weeks. I’m glad not to have powered through it in my enthusiasm of the first day. My knee was fine for the whole trip, which was a fine lesson to learn.

Lunch was a huge cassoulet in a pretty inn, which I burned off as we rode up some Very Big Cols. The minutes crawled by as I painstakingly made progress one push at a time, completely alone in the thick mist. Col de Montségur was one of the most technical and physically demanding hills I’d ridden. Suddenly, I saw a grinning Marc standing at the summit.

Not a glimpse of Castle of Montségur could be seen, which seemed fitting. I’ll have to come back one day.

After conquering - if not falling over counts as conquering - that beast of a climb, the other Cols seemed much more doable. We made some fun detours until it started to get dark, and decided to stay in a tiny village called Espezel. I find that villages and towns in rural France tend to be well-kept - I haven’t come across many that feel run down or ‘left behind’, even when it feels empty and light on year-round residents. This one was no different, with fresh flowers at the old well at the center of the village, and news bulletins on the doors of the town hall mairie.

The hostel was clean with hot showers, and I napped for an hour, instantly falling into a deep sleep. A delicious state where it feels like every muscle in your body had sunk into the bed and was working full speed on rest and repair while the mind blacks out.

Even though I’d had a huge lunch, I was hungry and excited to learn that the only restaurant-bar in town was serving gardiane that night. It’s a slow cooked beef stew from Camargue that bring back fond memories of a past trip to Arles. Marc wasn’t hungry and poked at some green things while I dug into my stew, washing it down with beer and occasionally dipping chunks of bread into a cup of honey that someone had given us.

 

Day Three

This village has a population of two hundred and it still manages to have an artisanal boulangerie. Somebody please explain to me how that works out? After knocking back a few espressos at last night’s bar, we picked up a fancy baguette and finished off the rest of the honey. It was a perfect breakfast to start off another day of cycling.

About ten minutes down the road though, just as we were settling in, we encountered a series of inviting signs for cheese. We obligingly got off our bikes to select some pieces of cheese from the family-run fromagerie. Look at that pleased look on Marc’s face!

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To be continued.

 

Day Four

In progress.

 

Day Five - Back to Paris

In progress. Not much to say here, though.


Traveling with my bike on the French trains

I had five trains to manage:

  • TGV - Paris Montparnasse to Toulouse

  • TER - Toulouse to Foix

  • TER - Rivesaltes to Narbonne

  • TER - Narbonne to Toulouse

  • TGV - Toulouse to Paris

I was nervous about traveling with my bicycle. If an unforgiving hill got the best of me, there’s always the option of walking. But what if I couldn’t get on a train with my bike, or worse, not get off?

Most high speed TGV routes offer a bicycle option when you buy your ticket. The TER Regional trains have free bike racks on a first-come first-served basis. In theory it would be fine. Unsurprisingly, it was more complicated than that!

On the TVG train from Paris, a sticker said that two bikes could fit in the space next to the window but maybe they meant kid’s bikes? I shoved mine in at a precarious angle, and then watched incredulously as it disappeared behind a mountain of suitcases. People whose suitcases were on the bottom were crabby, and people who had to put theirs on top were crabby that they got complained at… luckily Toulouse was the last stop so I just waited for everyone to get off.

On the way back from Toulouse, there was already a mountain of suitcases when I got on. I looked for space in the hallway to stand with my bike. Luckily, another person was in the same predicament and he had a cable lock. With that and some elbow grease, he locked our bikes in the tiny space next to the door (last photo), and we took our reserved seats next to the ‘espace vélo’. The guy had a joke ready for the conductor so we wouldn’t be told to move the bikes - he cheerfully agreed there wasn’t any other option -, pretended not to notice when a lady with a child stroller gave up using the toilet next to it, and matter-of-factly lowered my bike onto the platform when we pulled into Gare Montparnasse. A fine example of how things work themselves out in France. Thank you, sir!

The TER trains were much better but mostly because the trains were empty. It was fun to see the different types of racks and like the geek that I am, I took photos of all of them. The vertical rack was a bit daunting - lift 15kg of unwieldy aluminum and bags above your head onto a big hook while the train moves - but some big guys helped me hoist it up and down.

So with the help of some luck and a few friendly strangers, I managed. Phew.


Packing

Of course, much more daunting than the trains was the thought of all of the big hills to be climbed! I did a lot of online research about light backpacking strategies - such a fun topic - but gratefully and sheepishly accepted Marc’s offer to borrow his extra rack and panniers.

I packed and re-packed to get my things as light and non-bulky as possible, running through various scenarios to figure out what I might need or want. Weight is important but at the same time, I’ve spent enough time on conbini-less roads to be aware of the small things that will throw me off-kilter. I don’t like being cold, basing hair-washing frequency on hair dryer availability, mysterious bug bites especially at night, being in unfamiliar locations without food, and not being able to start the day with fully charged devices. The key is to know your body and moods well, and solve for them, yes? Plenty of things don’t bother me at all, like doing laundry in the sink or getting rained on!

It worked out really well in the end, and I’m happy to document here in too-much detail my packing list.

In the removable bag on my front handlebars

  • Chapstick (Important!)

  • Wet tissues

  • Otokoume hard candy

  • A cash clip with cash, ID and credit cards

  • Loose change

  • iPhone (pulled out for photos, maps)

  • Glasses in a soft bag with a cloth (This was useful because we rode in the mist a few times)

  • Head band (so I can take off the helmet…)

What I was wearing while cycling

  • Helmet

  • Cycling cap

  • Fingerless, padded gloves

  • Cycling shorts

  • Short sleeved jersey

  • Road bike shoes

  • Sunglasses

  • Small face towel

Strapped to the bike

In the back panniers

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A plastic bag of toiletries

  • Tooth brush

  • Small tube of toothpaste

  • Two packets of good shampoo/conditioner

  • Face wash

  • Face cream

  • Disposable plastic shavers

  • Eyebrow pencil

  • Tiger balm (For bug bites. And anything, really.)

  • Sun block

Shoes bag

  • Sneakers for train-time and walking around town

Clothes bag

  • 1 pair of cycling shorts, to alternate

  • 1 pair of long pants for train-time and walking around town

  • 1 long sleeved shirt for off-bike and sleeping

  • 2 sets of underthings and socks

  • Sleeping shorts

Electronics bag

  • Multiple USB charging station

  • Garmin charging cable

  • iPhone cable

  • Battery pack (power bank) and cable

What to add/replace for next time

  • Nail clippers - I think the rule needs to be that I have a nail clipper for any trip longer than three days.

  • Coin purse - For the spare change, which actually needs to be around 6-8 euro to be useful.

  • Small knife - I got one for emergencies during hiking, which turned out to be quite handy for cutting sausages and cheeses. It would have been useful for this bike trip, too.

  • Waterproof windbreaker - I have half a dozen city jackets but the next trip would be a good time to invest in a technical windbreaker.

  • Repair kit and extra tube - I left my saddle bag at home for this trip, as Marc offered to carry his kit for the both of us.

  • A clip for the face towel - I like to have an absorbent piece of cloth closeby during exercise to wipe the top of my sweaty nose. My little towel fell out of my pocket on the first day of riding, which was upsetting because I knew it might happen, so I need a better system…

  • The right kind of Japanese sun block, to replace the Nivea bottle I grabbed from the Monoprix which leaves white streaks on my skin.

  • A couple of band-aids? I didn’t bring any first-aid stuff unless you count Tiger Balm, so that could use some thinking.

  • Plastic baggies. I usually tuck in 1-2 bags for hiking or travel because they’re useful for temporarily storing unfinished food or food trash like banana skins.