Thursday, 20 September 2007

Pyrenean Adventure - Part 5

Massat - Col des Caougnous - Col de Port - Saurat - Tarascon Sur Ariege - Les Cabanes - Ax les Thermes - Ascou - Port de Pailheres - Mijanes - Le Pla - Querigut = 90km
Lodging : Auberge du Donezan les quatre Saisons

I was pleased to have put the hardest climbs of the trip behind me. I woke up feeling fresh and at ease about what the day had in stall for me.

It had become customary for the proprietor of each place we stayed to give us pointers about what to expect that day - the terrain, and where they knew it, the weather. At Le Globe bar and hotel they told us it "should hopefully" stay dry, but be careful around the Querigut area - "ca grimpe bien". So we were warned of the tough climbs ahead - well nothing could be worse than the Portet d'Aspet or Le Marie Blanque so that didn't bother me. As for the weather, we'd been lucky so far - hot sunny days, no rain. But today looked threatening. The dark grey skies gave me a feeling of anxiety at the possiblity of getting soaked - especially if we were on the side of a mountain.


COL DE PORT


After bidding goodbye to the nice folks at The Globe, including the resident "Bard" (aka drunkard) we set off. Once again, our day began with a climb. The col de Port (preceded by the minor col de Caougnous). This col was a real joy to ride up. The gradient was very gentle for the whole of the 12km. It never went above 6%. This was also the only climb of the whole trip that Stan and I actually rode and finished together !

All the way up the sky looked threatening, and the folks along the side of the road warned us we would get very wet very shortly. The rain finally came, at the bottom of the descent (thankfully) just outside Tarascon sur Ariege. It was heavy but not torrential.

We took shelter in a bus shelter for about half an hour, and then decided to continue once the rain became lighter. Tarascon seemed a dour place. It reminded me of St Girons but without all the paper factories and warehouses. We very quickly joined the route towards Ax.

Sadly the route was quite uninspiring - A busy stretch of national road (N20) that was interminably long. We were out of the mountainous area so we didn't even have anything to look at - just fast cars and lorries.

Ax-les-thermes was a very pleasant town. We had lunch next to the spa in the main square. We both stopped and bathed our feet in the warmer while soaking in the sun.

A couple of locals came up and talked bikes with us. They were about to start a Transpyrenean route to Coullioure by mountain bike. They were surprised to see the size of our panniers. "You don't need all that", they said. "Just take loads of washing powder and you'll be fine." I'm not sure when that ever fixed punctures ! Seriously though, they gave us lots of advice about cycling in the area. We had to avoid the national road to Perpignan as much as possible, and for the ride up to Querigut we would need to take all our water with us as there'd be no shops.


PORT DE PAILHERES


The ride up to the Port de Pailheres was long - 10 miles, but the last 3 miles were done through low cloud. As we got further and further near the top the visibility decreased and the temperature dropped. At the top I could only see a couple of metres in front of me - I didn't even know when I had reached the summit ! The descent was wet and cold - colder than anything I'd ever experienced. It was only after 4 miles of descending that the fog lifted. The rain had started again though, and everything looked grey and morose - a stark contrast to the weather on the other side of the mountain.
After half hour of cycling we arrived at the ancient hill-top town of Querigut. Evening consisted of a hearty meal and a walk through the tranquil streets to admire the Pyrenean peaks in the moonlight. It was a great way to contemplate what we'd done, and look forward to arriving at the coast the following day.



DOWN TO THE COAST

Querigut - Carcanieres - Col de Moulis - Col de Garavel - Roquefort de Sault - Col de Jau - Catllar - Marqixanes - Col de Ternere - Bouleternere - Thuir - Elne - St Cyprien - St Cyprien Plage = 120km
Lodging : Hotel du Port


We left the hotel bright and early. The proprietor was from St Cyprien and was excited about the fact that we'd chosen to ride there. She did warn us, with a somewhat grave tone, however of the Tramontane wind we'd have to challenge first.

Our ride was very scenic. The area was desolate. As we were completely off the official Raid Pyrenean route we saw no cyclists and very few vehicles. We really had the road to ourselves. Apparently we went over 3 cols, though I hadn't noticed ! The sky was grey, but as our ride progressed the day brightened up. At the summit of col de Jau we were offered coffee by the English guys. We then made our way down the mountain.


BYE BYE MOUNTAINS !


All I can say was this was the best descent of the whole trip. Lovely sweeping bends, passing through scenic villages and wine producing properties. We did about 20 miles without having to pedal ! The changing architecture indicated we were getting closer to the sea. I was getting excited !


The last part of ride did involve a challenge though. We stayed very briefly on the main N116 to Perpignan. That was a real case of pedal for your life ! We then left the road at Bouleternere to join the quieter D16. There were fewer cars, but it was still extremely winder. When the wind was with us it was great. But many times we had a cross wind which, on a few occassions almost blew me over. That was the Tramontane wind for us !

I was so nervous when riding, and only calmed down when we reached the porch of the Hotel du Port. I was just relieved to get off my bike. We'd made it. We'd done the crossing - and in one piece !

It was late afternoon when we reached St Cyprien. A quick shower and we were immediately out again to celebrate our Transpyrenean ride, and our last night on French soil.
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