10th February 2016
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Adventures Abroad, Part Three
Stuart Urquhart and his riding companions found motorcycle heaven in the Pyrenees. Bit scary in some places, mind...
Day 4: Biescas and the French Pyrenees. 30C, 140 miless
A second stay at the Hotel Rumba in Biescas allowed us to travel light (no luggage) and continue our exploration of the Pyrenees National Park. Today’s plan was to target new routes into the French Pyrenees. For a picnic lunch we bought beers and snacks, and then it was open throttles in anticipation of another day of new discoveries.
Riding in fine weather was the icing on the cake and we soon found ourselves exploring quiet roads that meandered through fairytale landscapes. Many of the mountain roads were shielded by man-made tunnels, built into the mountainside to protect unwary travellers from cascading melt-waters. We passed by many waterfalls and some produced permanent rainbows that added a surreal element to the fairytale landscape. Negotiating mountain passes became a skill in itself, and we were certainly honing our cornering skills on narrow, reverse cambered roads. Countless times my Triumph’s foot pegs skiffed the tarmac as I enjoyed the sensation of flicking the bike from side to side – the Bonnie just ploughed on undeterred through gravel, puddles, mud, torrents, bumps and bends.
Sometimes we held back, pottering through the postcard scenery and taking stops for pictures. As we climbed higher the roads began to fill with lycra-clad cyclists. When we reached the summit car park we gave way to a Renault pace car following a group of French cyclists, all were in tricolour livery and powering up the punishing incline – the French National Cycling team was in town! I guessed we were passing through a popular training ground.
As we began a steep descent through a narrow and damp gorge we were abruptly overtaken by a large group of German motorcyclists, all travelling very fast and laden with bags and panniers. Generally, fast bikes can give you quite a fright as they pass, usually because you’ve become so engrossed in the scenery that you fail to notice their presence. As I watched them snaking down the gorge in formation, much like a Red Arrows display team, I could only admire their bravado and skill at travelling so fast in a tight group – especially as some of the rocky overhangs could easily force a bus or a lorry onto the wrong side of the road.
Not much further on we came around a particularly large overhang to discover a scene of minor carnage. It appeared that one of the bikers had lost his pannier case when it had clipped a car. Clothes and bags were littered all across the road and over the car’s bonnet, which was now blocking the road. We stopped and waited for the clear-up.
Luck was certainly on this rider’s side. While negotiating an overhang extremely close to the cliff edge, he was very fortunate not to have fallen off his GS. A lost pannier was better than a lost life, and this accident could have resulted in more serious consequences for the biker and his companions. As we patiently waited the clear-up, their arguing was providing excellent entertainment. His friends began picking up scattered clothes, bickering in German with one another and with the car driver who was throwing his hands in the air as if to shove them away. I had no inkling of what was being said; but in any language it was a heated discussion.
Several minutes passed before the debris, bike and car were moved aside to allow our group and another waiting car through. I made a mental note to be extra vigilant around these damp bends, and to expect danger at every overhang. Fortunately we soon arrived at the valley floor and out into sunshine and dry roads. We briefly stopped to discuss the accident and how we might avoid such a catastrophe, before heading off to explore the next valley. As we climbed another tree-shrouded slope we were once again sharing the road with cyclists who appeared from every direction, as if by magic. Then suddenly a trio of sprinting cyclists glided past us in silence and I thought ‘Lord help them, if one of them came off on a downhill sprint!’
After another meandering climb we were introduced to some more incredible vertigo-inducing views at Col Du Soulor – a ski resort used as a training ground for the Tour de France throughout the summer months. The weather was glorious and after yet another intoxicating climb through more thick forests and steep, cork-screw bends, we were surprised to discover sculptures of giant bicycles at the summit of Col-du-Tourmalet. We stopped to take some fun pics, absorb the views, and scoff some cakes at a cyclist’s café. Cyclists were wandering everywhere and the café signage boasted it was 1500m above sea level, surrounded as it was by a stunning backdrop of snow-capped peaks. I was really impressed with the ‘iron-men’ cyclists we were sharing the road with and it was no surprise that many had thighs like tree trunks, almost to the point of looking grotesque!
Moving on we noticed the road was hand-painted with graffiti, not the sort you would find in abandoned buildings; but time trial markings, grid lines, figures, hand-prints and what we could only assume were signatures – famous cyclists perhaps, who had contested these punishing inclines. Amazed, we gently picked our way past groups of grunting cyclists to find ourselves a secluded spot with splendid views for a well earned rest (it was tiring work watching these athletes punishing themselves), a beer and some tasty goat’s cheese.
Richard found a large rock to act as a natural picnic table and, having anticipated this magic moment, he even surprised us with plastic plates and stainless cutlery. We settled back to enjoy the view, but we hadn’t expected the company of inquisitive lizards that periodically darted from the shadows and over our makeshift table. I stalked the largest and managed to capture a few pictures as it basked in the warming sun.
Several eagles could also be seen spiraling over the mountain slopes and my attention was diverted from their aerial display to the precarious road we were about to traverse. I was aghast at the sheer cliffs dropping sharply away from the road’s edge. Where the road spanned deep crevices it was shored up with layers of cement and stone, looking very much like ancient castle ramparts. Ominously, roads at these dizzy heights are only edged by breeze-block sized stones (no safety net to speak of), so an accident on this narrow road could be your last. When we eventually negotiated this ridiculously exposed road and tip-toed our way up to the next view-point, vertigo obliged like a kick in the stomach. I tended to hug the cliff-side and only moved over to the ‘drop zone’ to allow any oncoming traffic to filter past.
Once we’d travelled far enough for the day, we returned via a safer route to the cyclist’s café at Col-du-Tourmalet. Here we downed more coffee and cake(s) and planned our evening meal. The previous evening, any restaurants that we’d found in the vicinity of our hotel were frustratingly shut, and we assumed this was because we’d hunkered down in a seasonal ski resort. Our hotel suggested a restaurant in the outskirts of the town. For the first time since arriving we kissed tapas goodbye and dined out like kings.
Next time: the riders head through France, lunch at a ‘Scotsman’s’ Chateau and sample wines in Bordeaux...
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