France to Barcelona, the long way.

Rolling off a ferry in Caen at 6am, there was only one thing to do. An hour later, having had my share of pain au chocolat, I decided to finally address the small matter of cycling to Spain. Loaded up with a fresh supply of the finest French pastries, and not the faintest idea of what to expect from 2 weeks of long distance cycling, I glanced at the map and headed South, threading my way through the French countryside on the smallest roads possible, painstakingly avoiding all larger cities and roads, as these tend not the favour the survival odds of an Englishman on bicycle with zero French vocabulary.

France is hilly. Trust me. You work it out pretty quickly when you’ve pedalling a fully loaded touring bike around it. Days and days of brutal uphill climbs, followed by all too short blasts downhill, that inevitably lead to another one of those uphills… It is however, amazing how fit and adjusted you become to this sort of exertion, especially when you’ve nothing else to do except cycle all day. Cycling is fairly unique in this; that you can set off without any particularly special level of fitness, and in a remarkably short period of time become fit enough to cycle 8 hours a day through challenging terrain, day after day, without ending up a complete wreck.

It’s also a truly brilliant way to travel, and to this day my absolute favourite way to see a country. You travel at a pace fast enough to make decent miles towards a destination, but slow enough to really take in where you are and what is going on around you, and appreciate the change of society and scenery. Life is happening, and you are cycling right through the middle of it as an outsider, observer, and participant, all at the same time. Quite the opposite to being in a car, living your journey in that bubble, while ‘another country’ flies by the window, the finer detail entirely lost in the distance and speed between you and the outside world.

The sounds, sights, smells, and social interactions all complete your immersion in the environment through which you travel, and combined by that perfect pace, cycling is the perfect way to achieve that.

So after many days of getting fit and making good mileage, I reached the beginning of the Pyrenees. I’d chosen a pass that went pretty much straight through the middle, with a long, slow climb to the highest point, and a long, fast descent to a campsite on the other side. In those harder climbs the world shrinks dramatically, and scale of what you are trying to achieve reduces to nothing more than the next 6 feet of road, and turn of the pedals. One more turn of the pedals and another few feet you mind can handle. If you actually tried to process there’s the best part of another 1000m of going up to do, it just wouldn’t happen. So after many pedal turns, and an equal number of 6 feet units, the top happened.

 

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I took this photo just before it started pissing it down with rain, which continued for a long and miserable descent (to perfectly match my long and painful ascent), and for the next 12 hours, resulting in a very soggy night’s camping. It hardly seemed like a fair deal considering what a long and hard day it had been, but it’s easy to forget that the weather really couldn’t care less whether you’d just cycled up a mountain or not.

The Spanish roads were considerably less favourable than their French counterparts from a cycling point of view, with many large highways and no feasible alternatives within sensible cycling distance. The few days it took to get to Barcelona were spent head down, cracking out as many miles as possible, with the occasional stretch on the hard shoulder of a motorway, until 15 days after leaving London, I pedalled my way through Barcelona city centre, and set about finding somewhere to stay for the next week.

This was also an important opportunity to get Claudette looked at, as the bottom bracket and headset bearings had been playing up for a while, and becoming distinctly hard work. It turned out that I had in fact cycled more than half way on a cracked bottom bracket bearings, and an equally ruined headset. Nothing like making cycling the Pyrenees harder than it needed to be!

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