Cycling in thesouth of France – Part One

I would think that many casual cyclists who watch the Tour de France each year are drawn to the idea of spending a little time cycling in the Pyrenees or the Alps themselves. To watch the “climbers” of the Tour sailing up the steep gradients with little apparent effort makes one itch to try cycling these passes personally. For this reason we put together a little group to spend a week in the south of France, deep in the Pyrenees, and ride a few of the “cols”.  The group was to consist of my brother, Ken, my son Andy, Andy’s father-in-law, John, and myself. None of us are competitive cyclists and we planned the trip as a cycling holiday rather than as a competitive event in any manner or form. (Well, okay, I admit that Andy and I had a few beers wagered on who would get to the top of the Col de Tourmelat first!)

Unfortunately just a few days before we were due to leave for France, Andy’s wife, Katy, was admitted to hospital when complications developed related to her pregnancy. This naturally meant that Andy had to withdraw from the trip. We were very grateful when John decided that he was still prepared to undertake the trip, and equally grateful that Andy was prepared to let us use his car. Ken and I had travelled a long way, he from South Africa and I from Namibia, and it would have been a disaster if we were forced to cancel the trip even before it started. Andy’s presence was sorely missed, and he had played a major role in organizing the trip from its very conception. He was quite philosophical about it, however, and the arrival of his twin daughters while we were in France underscored the fact that he had made the right decision to stay at home.

John, Ken and I left Bedlington at 2:15 pm on Friday, with the three bikes on top of the car, and started the long drive. John had all the driving ahead of him as, in Andy’s absence, he was the only registered driver of the car, but he knows the road well and in spite of encountering some heavy traffic we made very good time to Folkestone. Folkestone is home to the UK terminus of the 50.5 km channel tunnel and we boarded the Eurostar Shuttle for the trip under the Strait of Dover to Calais in northern France. We lost a little time on this crossing as apparently a “door open” warning light was activated while we were travelling as 140 kph and the train was brought to an abrupt stop. It took the best part of an hour to locate and correct the fault before the train got going again.

Once in France, we still had a long drive ahead of us. We had a short sleep in the car during the early hours of the morning and eventually arrived at our destination in Bagneres de Bigorre at 7:30 pm after over 29 hours on the road.

Bagneres de Bigorre lies in a stunning location in the south of France, close to the border with Spain, but more importantly as far as we were concerned, it is well located for some of the important cycling climbs in the Pyrenees. It is a small village, with a population of about 8,000 persons. Established as a spa town, the glory days of the town are probably over, although there is still a spa, and while walking through the town one gets the impression of a somewhat faded grandeur.

Comfortably installed in our accommodation, we took a short walk into the village, but after a quick meal we returned to our temporary home and went to bed early. We all felt that we were behind on our sleep!

The following morning, Sunday, we did a little shopping in the village and at noon left for our first cycle in the area. This was to be a gentle ride of sixty kilometres or so through the French countryside to ease us into the climbs that lay ahead.

We set off intending to follow a route recommended by Mike, a keen cyclist who ran the gite in which we stayed, but soon (and unintentionally!) we deviated from the route and ended up following our noses the rest of the way. The villages in this area are a delight. Very small and separated from each other by farmland or patches of forest, each seemed to have a patisserie selling the freshest of bread and the most tempting of pastries. Stopping for tea and cake was to be a feature of the week’s cycling!

After passing through the little villages of Ordisan, Antist, Montigallard, Les Angles, Neuilh and probably one or two that I have missed, we found ourselves just 4 km from Lourdes and decided to take ourselves to this famous spot for tea.

The history of Lourdes as well known and certainly well documented. In 1858 an apparition of a lady, later to become known as “Our Lady of Lourdes”,  appeared some eighteen times to the young daughter of a miller, one Bernadette Soubirous, and gave her an assortment of messages, one of which included a request that a chapel be built at that spot at Lourdes. This was done, and many years after her death Bernadette was canonized by the Catholic Church and is now known as Saint Marie-Bernarde Soubirous. The shrine at Lourdes has become a major site for pilgrims and is visited by more than five million people each year, many hoping to be cured of their ailments and many of them in wheelchairs. The town itself has grown up to support this huge number of visitors and there are many hotels, as well as shops selling religious icons or souvenirs such as crucifixes, plastic dolls dressed as Our Lady of Lourdes and miniature  copies of the well known statue of the Crowned Virgin that stands in Rosary Square opposite the Basilica of the Rosary.

After a short visit to the shrine, we found a quiet spot for a cup of tea before continuing our ride. On the outskirts of Lourdes we passed a funicular railway making its way up the side of a mountain. The Funiculaire du Pic du Jer, to give it its proper name, was constructed in 1900 and has a length of 1,100 metres. The maximum gradient is an incredible 56% and the time taken for a trip to the top is about 15 minutes. It seems to have been constructed as an added attraction for visitors to Lourdes rather than for any practical purpose.

From Lourdes we made our way back to Bagneres de Bigorre along a fairly flat and interesting stretch of road. Today’s ride was very pleasant and served as a good introduction to this small corner of France. It was not without its hills, though, and according to John’s rather sophisticated cycle computer, we climbed no less than 800 metres during the ride.

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