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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  8/1/2006

Cyclists (and ducks) welcome

Allez les canards!
Go Ducks!

There I was, standing on a busy street corner in Luz-St. Sauveur in the south of France, shouting at the top of my lungs. I was cheering for Jim as he pulled into town with two members of our French Pyrenees tour along the Route du Fromage.

A little explanation: Jim is an alumnus of the University of Oregon, aka the Ducks. On June 8, he was proudly riding in his green and yellow Ducks jersey. And he had just come from climbing the infamous Col d'Aubisque, a Pyreneean mountain pass often featured in the Tour de France. After driving the luggage sag to our hotel, I could hardly resist accosting him in heavily American-accented French.

We were in the Pyrenees as leaders of a 12-day tour for the Bicycle Adventure Club. Eight other BAC members had paid to join us for a ride over many of the same cols that the Tour would cover a month later.

I have to hand it to those intrepid riders. Couples John and Sue and Peggy and Jerry from Sacramento, Shelagh and Bob from Berkeley conquered every single col. So did Bill from San Jose and Rick from southern Oregon (oops -- how'd he get into this group of Californians?)

Funny thing about our "token Oregonian." He'd been the one most leery of the difficulty of this tour. "Are there going to be a bunch of racer-types on this trip?" he'd asked me cautiously in April. After I'd heard a little bit about the tours he'd done in the past, I told him, "You will have no problem." I was right; Rick was the "stage winner" on almost every col.

Why the Pyrenees?

I have to confess that this was Jim's trip. Left to decide myself, I would have picked less challenging terrain for our first tour as BAC leaders. But Jim had supported Pyrenees tours for Outfitter Tours in years past so he knew the roads and towns well. And it's in France, a country we've both come to love, for the fantastic cycling as well as for the rich and varied culture.

The French love cyclists. Not just the Tour de France racers but anyone who's willing to hop on a bike and ride country and mountain roads. In fact, the Federation francaise de cyclotourisme (FFCT) supports tourists of all stripes with signed routes, maps, even guidebooks recommending hotels and restaurants along the way.

Finding good cycling routes is a snap. It's really easy to stay off busy truck routes or to stray from a straight-line, point-to-point course and explore. Just choose the white roads (also called "petites routes" or small roads) on the Michelin or IGN maps. (The best ones are the ones highlighted in green, which indicates scenic routes.) Yet it's hard to get lost because directional signs at every intersection point you toward your destination.

Then there's French hospitality. Hotels, B&Bs, campgrounds and gites (sort of a cross between camping and B&B) are eager to host cyclists and help out with our logistics issues, such as secure storage for bikes and hearty breakfasts. Demi-pension plans offer reasonable rates that cover rooms along with two meals a day.

And those meals are formidable! As they say, en France on mange bien (in France one eats well). Our best demi-pension deal was in St. Girons, at Chateau de Beauregard. The hotel is a refurbished chateau with gigantic rooms and clawfoot tubs in the bathrooms. The affiliated restaurant, l'Auberge d'Antan, is built around an open wood-fueled cooking fireplace and serves traditional 19th Century Gascogne food. We dined on cabbage soup, mussels swimming in a garlicky broth, roast suckling pig stuffed with sausage, and pasta au gratin (yeah, it was mac and cheese, but made with local sheep cheese to die for).

Lastly, for moi, just being in France, soaking up the culture and speaking the language, was an unbeatable high. My knowledge of French actually improved on this trip, especially in listening to and understanding native speakers. Sure helped as we watched the French sports channel's World Cup Soccer coverage in the evenings.

The view from the sag

OK, I'm not ashamed to admit that I wasn't quite up to climbing all those high-altitude cols with grades many long grades in excess of 12%. So I ended up driving the sag on those days. Uh, let me rephrase that: I drove that monstrously long, frighteningly powerful Volkswagen Transporter van on some of the narrowest, windiest mountain roads in all France. There were times when my entire body was shaking as I shifted from overpowered first to barely containable second gear.

But I had great fun greeting each rider at the top of each col, snapping photos like crazy. I made the acquaintance of some four-legged natives, as well. Cows, horses and sheep roam freely up and down the Pyrenees cols.

On Col d'Aspin, when I stepped onto the pasture grass to take a photo, one cow lumbered over and gently pushed me back onto the road.

But I didn't have to stay in the van every day. I rode the first day from our start at Pau to our hotel east of Oloron-St. Marie. The weather was perfect and I was having a great ride, until I hit the hotel driveway into our hotel. Never did see that grate at the gate, but it caught my front wheel. Down I went. No biggie, though. Just a little road rash (and a little more embarrassment).

After two days of col climbing, we spent three days in Luz-St. Sauveur, which gave us a chance to take a side trip to the Cirque de Gavarnie. It was uphill all the way (except for the flat crossing on the Napoleon Bridge) and then -- wow! What a view!

Wow again to the terrific descent back to our hotel just outside Luz. It took about two hours to get up there and a half hour or so to get back down.

After that I was relegated to the van for the rest of the official tour. The weather got hotter and the humidity got worse. Onward and upward went our intrepid group. From Luz-St. Sauveur we continued over the Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin and Col de Peyresourde to Bagnieres de Luchon, then over the Portet d'Aspet briefly into Spain, and on to the Ariege and Aude valleys to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne. Through it all sunny to cloudy, overcast weather bit no more than an isolated sprinkle here and there. Hailstones fell on a couple of late afternoons but by then everyone was safe and sheltered (outdoor cafes notwithstanding).

Although many of our riders had to struggle up some of the climbs, everyone had a great time. The last night of the tour we gathered in Carcassonne for our final dinner in the old medieval city. It didn't hurt that our hotel the night before had presented us with two free bottles of the local sparkling wine, a gift for two birthdays -- Sue's and Jerry's -- we were celebrating at tour's end.

The next day we dropped everyone off in Toulouse and Jim and I headed east to scout a trip for next year: two weeks of wine country, river gorges, rugged plateaus and country petites routes in the Tarn, Aveyron and Cevennes regions. And this time I'll get to ride it all -- on the back of our tandem.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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