29 July 2012


Oh, now I understand.............

As I’m writing this it is proving awkward to hold the pen and I hope that the poisonous bite doesn’t kill me. A melodramatic sentence but in some ways I thought it would be quite a funny way to go and if you’re reading this I obviously survived at least long enough to type up my scribbles.

After injuring, I guess, the nerves in my left hand my climbing took another set back when Pete pointed out the adder.  A massive snake no less than about 300mm long and as thick as a man’s arm’s finger it was coiled by the side of the road at l’elephant.  I’d watched Steve Irwin on TV and knew exactly what to do so I grabbed a stick to pin the innocuous vipers head to the ground as I tried to corner the adder it tried to slither in to the bushes a few times and made no aggressive moves so I pinned it down as planned, once trapped I reached down and pinched it by the neck with my thumb and forefinger then lifted it off the ground.
Wow! I thought “look how flexible its, it can turn it’s head right round”.
Caroline helpfully pointed out “What ever possessed you?”
I only wanted a closer look but nature has a cure for that kind of thinking.

It was painful

To this day I can't see why that venomous viper undertook a completely unprovoked attack after I picked it up.

Welcome back home.  A massive crop of blackberries

28 July 2012

On Safari

If it isn’t vultures tracking me then it’s fat water voles bolting when I move rowing boats and more carp in the moat than you can shake a stick at, but best is to come………

27 July 2012

My Cadence Defence 2011

Last minute decisions - typical. My outline plan was seeming harder and harder to actually put in to action. No big deal though, I wasn’t risking anything more than a week of my life, but I was wondering what to do with the big pile of work clothes, climbing kit, camera, camping equipment, cycling gear and a bike I used to ride to school on. The pile shrunk as I managed to distribute bags in to other vehicles* that I hoped would eventually land back in the UK, I kept things I thought I would need during my tour west along the Pyrenean foothills towards the coast. Suddenly everyone relocated to the UK, Barcelona and Africa I was left in a motel somewhere North of Pau. *apparently Gendarmes get slightly irate when the reply to their question “what’s in this bag Sir?” is “I don’t know, it’s not mine”..... They stopped short of taking the doors off the van.

Lundi 65km +300m -300m
It was raining and I had hoped to be on the road already. I had been delayed by jamming a lot of things, it turned out I didn’t really need, in to two panniers. It had slowly dawned on me what was to come after I had loaded the bike carrier - no tent (I had a bivvy bag and a see-through sleeping bag) not even any food or water and still the bike was too heavy to lift! I should have left behind the spare lens, flash, approach shoes, flipflops, climbing shoes, chalk and electric razor.... but at least I had a nice shirt screwed up in to a little ball and a litre of shower gel in case I got invited to dinner. Oh well. I had a plan to get to Fontainbleau, now it was time to try and get there.
The drizzle had stopped and I got on my bike. I got off. There was no way I was going to ride round a roundabout without getting used to my heavy bike. By the time I reached Pau Centre Ville I had got to grips with it, but during the trip I was always careful with my 80’s steel frame with the bent top tube and dented rear wheel. As I only occasionally rode to the climbing wall (about 2 miles?) I wasn’t in much shape for riding all day and my lowest gear (53”) was a tad high for climbs with panniers, luckily though my 1:280,000 motoring map of France didn’t have any contours and the rolling hills I encountered on Monday were small. Despite my map hiding the hills from me I had a few clues about my theoretical route, mainly that the impending light coloured area with no villages and marked with the word col was probably high ground, with this is mind I stopped before it at a little farmers field camp site for a 10 Euro! night. As I lay there on a 3/4 length inflatable mattress, warm, in my sleeping bag and bivvy bag I hoped it wouldn’t rain. As the rain started I put Plan A in to action, grabbed the bike and wheeled it under the cover of a lean-to roof then laid down next to it. That night I found out that frogs love to spend the night out when it rains. I also discovered frogs make some very persistent very repetitive noises, unfortunately I spent quite a while listening to high pitch croaks drifting in and out of phase with heavy showers.

Mardi 59Km +800 -900m
So, as with the first day I started day two waiting for the rain to stop, the good news was that the temperature wasn’t low and as long as I was riding (or walking) a fleece and shorts was adequate. Somehow I never got completely soaked and avoided being caught out in the heavy showers that were sweeping through the mountains and valleys during the day. Note - take a waterproof jacket next time. And....oh yes.... I did some walking that day! I must have got off my bike to walk about 10 times on the way up to the 1000m col. The sustained 600m climb didn’t ever seem steep but never had a downhill rest. At first I tried quite hard to cycle all the way up it, then I really tried to not stop often, however by the end I could only manage short bursts of pedalling before having to get off, place both hands on the saddle, bow my head, and push till my calves burnt from walking on cleats. Then pedal again.

As one of those persistent soaking showers started and I dodged in to the doorway of an isolated stone hut that was just visible from the road at 12.2 kilometres near the top of the first col. Walking down the slippery track from where the road cut in to heather covered hill, shoulders hunched I noticed some of the shutters were ajar then as I stood in the door recess, pressing myself away from the drips that queued on the lintel I could hear sounds inside, conciousness focussing back on the drips that reduced the hazy landscape to sharp miniatures before falling and swirling with the blood on the ancient and deeply worn basalt steps by my feet.
Well, that was a bit more interesting to write than "I sheltered in a doorway"! and I'm not actually sure what was making the chopping noise but it didn't come out to offer me a cream coffee and I didn't knock to find out (and sorry no blood!). Once up in the high valley, the trees virtually vanished although the map indicated ‘Foret Des Arbailles’ a little to the North, I almost thought I was in Wales for a minute as the bracken covered hills appeared through the mist and drizzle. As I turned in to a strong wind and stood on the pedals to grind up, what I hoped was, the last climb to Font. D’ Ahusquy (exactly what Font. D’ Ahusquy is I never found out - one look at the hairpin trail further up the mountain dampened my inquisitiveness). A quick glance at my soggy 1:280000 “Motoring Atlas of France” directed me to: hesitate, study closer then guess a direction. The northernmost fork. As my chosen decent road ascended through an atmospheric landscape of chiselled ridges loaded with cloud I even stopped to unpack a pannier and dig out my SLR (maybe a bar bag should be big enough to carry a camera). Somehow this eastern Basque? area looked a bit south American to me, but maybe I was hallucinating from the shock of suddenly cycling 100km.

Looking back I was gifted with some luck that day, for example: I rode up the less steep side of the pass and when I was on the final summit, basically a featureless bog (with a track) and the rain closed in again a front loader digger big enough for me to shelter behind happened to be parked in the mist. Best though, was during the tiring fast descent a vulture with a span considerably bigger than mine slowly overtook me, close, at eye level without moving a feather.
When I finally got to the valley floor it took me several minutes sheltering from the latest saturating downpour in the lee of the Mairie to get some feeling in my fingers and toes. Grip returned I entered a town I suddenly recognised and made a profitable visit to a tourist office getting info that led me to some slightly quirky accommodation in Bidarry. The lady who showed me round the small 2 bed ‘apartment’ (with a cooker and fridge in the bathroom!! or did it have a shower and toilet in the kitchen????) got a bit upset when I offered 14 Euro for the room, I showed her a price written in the brochure from the tourist office but she insisted in taking only 13 Euros. She pointed out the shower - like I could have missed it in the small en suite kitchen!!! and my heart sank when I saw a single pipe connecting the shower tap to the cold taps over the sink. Braced for a cold shower, I was more than slightly delighted to find the apartment only had hot water.
Clean, I stumbled across a small restaurant and ordered rabbit. When the lapin arrived it was tough, from years of running up steep hills to avoid huge birds of prey I guess. As I sat there listening to some tedious brit droning on about something he though was important I tried not to inadvertently launch bones across the otherwise quiet restaurant and remembered the last time I ate rabbit: a Sicilian stew at Isatis, much better.
Several times on my way through the South West my eye was caught by geometric patterns and carvings, when I crossed a valley on the first day I noticed red sandstone blocks that had been deeply carved in to corner stones and Roman arched doorways that were decorated by many faceted cubes with cruciform cross sections, is that shape even possible?. Then moving further in to the Basque country the rounded swirling Lauburu became more frequent.
Leaving the restaurant I needed some time to walk off the rabbit - surely it had done enough travelling? so I took a wander round the village, which took about two minutes as apart from houses there was only a church and a fronton (basically built the same way!). Drifting through the terraced church yard it struck me that all of the not-so-grave slabs were embellished with lively carvings, plastic flowers and fading photos then in the middle of the kitsch plots was a polished black granite rectangle, a name and two dates subtly carving in to the smooth stone. Maybe it would have made a good photo…………

Mercredi 82Km +a little -100
Down hill to Bayonne and the Atlantic Coast. At Capbreton big houses on a pine covered peninsular suddenly blocked the view out to sea, the blend of trees and big roofs looked like Bournemouth Sandbanks except about ten times bigger, looking over to my left it was obvious the ridge was exclusively for people with money. Further north along the huge sweeping arc that sharply ends France in the bay of Biscay I started thinking about where to spend the night and decided on the beach, I had seen a small village marked on the map and headed for it. Locating the village gave me some trouble but after doubling back where the road weaves around black lagoons I eventually found the track I was searching. I still can’t believe the cartographer had actually included it (maybe they live in the village?). What I found at the end of their generous plotting could not have looked like a better place to sleep on the beach, but summiting the last dune disappointed me with storm clouds crowding out blue sky, never mind I could stay at the cedar chalet - obviously owned by people with money and style.

This tiny track was on my motoring map of France!

Storm clouds out West

Dry but slightly windy

Jeudi 124Km
Somehow I had known about the 100m dune for years and while heading north accidentally found it on the map. Once I had got it in to my head to go and take a look it became the target of the days journey, keeping me pressing on through the hot boring forest. When I arrived, spent from cycling, sure enough it looked awesome. From behind! But sadly to me on a hot busy July day the famous drift had gained that sort of seaside atmosphere, that chip fat stained concrete, amusement arcade and traffic-jam-atmosphere.
With nowhere safe for my bike.
I barely stopped.
I’m going to go another day, during a winter storm……………I hope.

By this time my bike, which was ‘set up’ for hacking in to town, became a bit of an ergonomic disaster the main issue was the short stem and chopped down straight bars. By the end of the day I worked out that I had been riding with the ends of the bars (with worn grips) pushing in to the heel of my hand. That evening I was unhappy to find that I couldn't turn on a tap!! because my left hands fingers were numb and weak. When I prodded my hand I found that I could induce pins and needles in my fingers by pushing near the palm which I'm sure is not ideal preparation for a bouldering trip. And the hotel that was attached to the tap wasn't good value.

Vendredi 49Km
As I travelled through each area the drivers attitudes were obvious from the way they drove and it wasn't until I reached the coast that I really noticed any cars, probably because there weren't many in the mountains and those that there were always pulled wide to pass. As I sweated from Bayonne to Bordeaux traffic increased and the number of foreign cars increased, usually Spanish drivers kept to a friendly distance then it seemed that Dutch and Belgium pushed past closely, near Bordeaux people got the City Stress and a couple of drivers shouted at me for riding on the road and not using the [uneven, winding] cycle lanes.
Good route planning on the last stage in to Bordeaux landed me on thirty kilometres of flat straight road heading east with a westerly wind. A make-it-up-as-I-go train journey to my sisters was turning out to be painless but then the hotel morning oversleep returned to haunt me and I had to transfer in Paris and take the RER (airooair) back out of town. At one large Parisian station people rushed and milled and I had a sinking feeling for a while as I could imagine myself sleeping in the station but luckily my gloom was caused by nobody being bothered to tell me to walk to the platform downstairs - then they did.......
Drag bike downstairs.
Through ticket barrier.
Up lift.
On to 4th train of the day.

26 July 2012

Tour de Fraud - 2011!!!!!!!!!


French Pyrenees apparently……..

I had been to the Pyrenees only twice before (for a Catalan wedding and to try canyoning) at opposite ends of the range and in different countries, both visits were interesting but seemed like a long time ago so when Rob said that there was a work trip/holiday to Gers I was quickly reaching for a map. Research finished. I was pleased to see the potentially interesting places surrounding Stu’s house where we were planning to work. Most importantly it was not too far from the mountains (visible, on a clear day, from Stu’s). Lourdes, the Basque country, coast and Biarritz were all close enough for a day trip.

As soon as we arrived we set to work.  Everyone quickly lifting pizza and beer after the journey despite Rob somehow managing to get free meals most of the way. The tour of Stu’s place revealed a long oak frame barn, half of which had been developed in to a house complete with a two story living room overlooked by a mezzanine. The other half?… was our objective for the next couple of weeks. After a few days of ordering materials and 6m of concrete the local merchant was saying Stu’s account?

The first floor of the newly betoned barn was in original, full character condition.  A slightly leaky roof and a couple of hundred years of hay storage had taken its toll on the thick oak floor boards turning them in to worm sponge, so they had to be removed. We took it in turns using a crow bar and pick axe to lift the boards up from beams while trying not to catapult ourselves through the gaps on to the new ground floor. Unfortunately the rotten oak still retained enough strength to be awkward to remove and as I was pulling the end of a stubborn plank I watched it flex to the point I thought: “better stop now or it’s going to spring up suddenly” Luckily my thumbs relocate themselves quite easily. Dragging the shattered boards outside we accumulated an impressive pile of wood. We obviously set the lot ablaze, despite a smattering of rain it burnt for three days.

As Le Tour was in town (half hour drive away to be accurate) we took a rest day to go and check it out. After we watched them spin past we were motivated for the next stage of our tour - the Col de Tourmalet (or the Tour du Bognour stage?). We had all acquired bikes from different locations, I had dragged my beater from below the bouldering mats, tents and Christmas trees in Matt's garage, Robs classic Roberts was found beneath a bulk bag in his garden and Paul and Stu had Stu’s kids bikes!!! The looks we received from the spectators parked up to the summit was amusing. To get back down relatively safely Paul borrowed an allen key to stop his handlebars falling off, descending flat out through cloud was a buzz especially when I heard Paul using the classic feet-on-the-ground braking close behind me.