Where did I get the gumption to travel solo, in a country where I spoke only the basics of the language? I don’t know. What were my qualifications? Resilience, a spirit of adventure, zeal, perseverance, flexibility. Notice, nothing there about bike handling skills, cardio capacity, speed, strength. I had barely traveled in the past 30 years, never outside of the US or Canada. Thirty years had passed since my hiking and backpacking days.
It was my third cycle tour in France, my fourth cycle trip ever. The first in France was two years earlier, with my husband, the year I turned 60. We hadn’t much cycled before, though I had enjoyed a lovely trip around Lake Champlain, solo, when his ankle took longer than anticipated to recover after surgery. He had planned to go, but couldn’t. We went together to France the next year. I loved it: the riding, the culture, the language. He didn’t. We need not all be alike in all things, and since then I have traveled solo. And come to prefer it.
From Bielle, there were three ways to get to St. Savin, though I really only considered two of those choices. Up Col d’Aubisque, reputed to be a huge bear of a difficult climb, then a very slight descent, up again to Col du Soulor, and down to my destination. Or around, riding down the valley into the foothills, then a bit southeast to the next valley, and back up to St. Savin. That route included a long stretch on a voie verte, what we call in English a mixed-use path. It was a longer ride, definitely more miles, but much less climbing. It would take me through the famous town of Lourdes. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or not. It was the practical, less challenging route and I chose it for those reasons. As I just mentioned, I wasn’t very confident about my climbing skills.
Earlier that day, immediately after breakfast, probably about 8:30, I was on my bike. That doesn’t sound early here in the US, but breakfast in hotels or chambres d’hotes (bed and breakfasts) in France is rarely available before 8:00. My route took me through pretty countryside, delightful riding, the mountains receding behind me. I didn’t like that. The receding part. Especially didn’t like it with the memory of Marie Blanc so fresh. Late morning, I came to a crossroads, and started thinking about lunch. There was a village ahead, and after that, a few miles on, a larger, more traveled road, where I planned to turn back south, towards the border with Spain.
There was also the third route, turning back to the south here, at this crossroad, and climbing to Col du Soulor, avoiding the feared Aubisque. I had noticed it on the map, but not studied it closely. I opened that section of the map. It looked as if the climbing would not be as hard as it would have been on the direct route over Col d’Aubisque. That means: not be as steep, not have such a high average grade. If I turned here, the route offered almost as many miles as the way I had planned, and almost as much climbing as the shorter, steeper route. The best (or worst) of both routes. I needed to decide before going any further. On the spur of the moment, you could call it a whim, that is the route I chose, to turn south and climb back up to Col du Soulor, high in the Pyrénées. Plus, this little yellow road would keep me off the red road. Colored roads? Not as steep? How would I know that? Let me explain.