These long famous climbs in France are marked every kilometer by a sign telling you how many kilometers you have left to ride, and what the average grade for the next kilometer will be. I didn’t know, still don’t have a fixed opinion, whether those signs are more helpful, or more terrifyingly intimidating. In either case, when in need of a rest break, I learned how to position myself in whatever narrow little sliver of shade they offered, and so get some respite from the high altitude sun. Because the higher I climbed, the hotter the day became. I learned to hold my wrists in the cold rivulets of water coming down the side of the mountain, and to get my head into those rivulets also, to cool off.
I made it to Col du Soulor, tired, but thrilled. Arrived to the cheers and kudos of the crowd at the top of the pass. Like many other high mountain passes, there is a little cafe, with tables outside, where you can get a coffee, beer, or glass of wine. Maybe a bit of food. The beer was delicious. The waitress wanted to know what kind I desired, but not knowing one from the other I insisted she choose for me. Veronica and Colin Scargill, an English couple whom I had first met a few days before on Col de Marie Blanque, were there. They were riding a loaded tandem, also touring, and were so much fun to visit with. We sat and chatted, enjoying our success, and the atmosphere at the cafe, until late afternoon. Our paths continued to cross a little over the next few days. Later, when interviewing them for my blog, I learned that they had ridden their tandem around the world in the 1970s. They were the first cyclists to do that.
Eventually it was time to move on, and I enjoyed a long, long descent to St. Savin. My host there, an extremely experienced and knowledgeable cyclist said that my route was really no easier, just longer, than going from Bielle over Col d’Aubisque to Col du Soulor. I was sorry I hadn’t gone that way, but glad I had changed my planned route. I will never forget that day. The lunch, the people, or the climb.
Something clicked into place for me at 60, the year of that first trip in France with my husband. The following year I learned that something about solo cycle touring resonates with me. The pace is right, the textures, experiences, smells, are closer at hand. I see more. I think I meet more people. It is easier to make connections with people, and with the world around you, when travelling on a bike. That tour, in 2011, has been followed by two more, in 2012 and 2013. My language skills are much better. So are my climbing skills. I did return to the Pyrénées the next year, climbed the challenging side of Marie Blanc, and Col d’Aubisque, and many more major climbs.
Cycling we all know is good for you, less stress on your knees than running, great cardio/aerobic exercise, and environmentally sound. True, but not why I ride. I ride for the experience, the adventure and independence, the chance to learn a bit about another culture at an intimate pace that suits me.
I hope to keep returning with my bike to France, I don’t have a big bucket list of places to go. France is big enough, varied enough, old enough, rich enough in culture and history to keep me interested. I’ve been back to the Cévennes, discovered prehistoric caves, medieval castles, Roman ruins, Romanesque churches, vineyards, almond and olive orchards, sunny days and rainy ones. But, I haven’t yet seen the Alps. Maybe this year.
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