Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

Monthly Archives: August 2011

Day 7 : Luchon to Campan

65km, 1750m of climb.

After a day of resting the knees, it started out again on the Col de Peyresourde (1569m), which is a good 900m climb.  But my knees were rested, and I had the intention of covering Col d´Aspin and Tourmalet in one day. But it rained an awful lot. After Peyresourde, I coasted down in the rain to Arreau. There, I sat in a restaurant and had a pizza for lunch with a glass of wine, all in the hopes of warming up.

Biking in all this was pretty crappy. Coming down d´Aspin,  couldn´t see 20m in front of me, so had to slow down incredibly. I figured the beauty of the last two cols was shot because of the weather, it might be worth waiting another day for Tourmalet.

I was pulling in to Campan, which has a great Tour de France legacy. Eugene Christophe in 1913 was whipping down Toumalet and his fork failed. The rule in those days was you had to repair your own bicycle, so Eugene walked down the mountain and found a forge, and fixed the fork himself. He he didn´t win the stage or the tour.

So I found this cheap place (25 euros) which is covered with Tour de France paraphenalia. I wandered over to the epicerie and bought a can of beer and read my book a bit. Around 7:30, I figured I should try to find some dinner. There´s just one cheap restaurant that looked okay, but I couldn´t stomach yet another pizza (everything else was sold out). So I hightailed it on over to the epicerie, and was stopped at the door. The owner told me the store closed at 8pm, and what did I need? I said a baguette and a bottle of wine. He could have just gotten both of them for me, but told him that so that I´d learn that 8pm was the closing time, he wouldn´t sell me the wine. Nice.

Day 6: An extra day in Luchon

0km biking, lots of walking

Ever wanted a vacation day from a vacation? This was it.

I caught up on the previous blogs (although this one is being written in the future from Mutrika, Spain. Internet access is spotty, and just too hard to compose entire posts from my iphone.

After that, I read a book I´d stolen from (Stolen Secrets by Alice Munro), and loitered around cafes until I got glances from the staff. There was a nap in the afternoon, then a beer to recover. And then dinner, pizza on a little terrace run by a man who immigrated here from France.

In the evening I went to go see an actually French film (Les Tuches). The premise is this: the French redneck equivalents win 100,000 Euros. It is the wife´s dream to live near Princess Stephanie, so they move to Monaco. They get bilked by a conartist and have to move back to their old life which isn´t so bad. But their 10 year old son has actually stolen the money back, ready for sequel. I understood maybe half the jokes.

To sweeten the deal, the hotel/hostel is just 19 euros a night, 18 for the second. And the owner has bike tools you can use. Le Lutin is a winner in my books.

Day 5: St-Lary to Luchon… Michael is back.

From St-Lary to Luchon

80km, 1000m of climb

One of the things that Louise, the proprietress of the chambres d’hote in St-Lary did was make this wallhangings of questionable utility and taste:

You’ll notice the top left, and the dedicated among you will notice how this relates to my great fear of the trip. Another omen is that my Iron Ring went missing, never to be found in the pit of economic despair that is St-Lary.

Col de Portet d’Aspet was the first and major climb of the day. This is remarkble in a few ways. The first is that it is really only 6km long and an average of 7%, but the peaks ascents are well in the double digits in places. You can imagine the descent, too.

I didn’t sense that it was actually ever 17% either up or down (such signs are often inaccurate), but I’m sure it wasn’t far off. You can see how this is a dangerous hill to go down, and indeed it is. One bit of Tour de France lore is the death on this hill of Fabio Casartelli in 1995. There’s some hand writing in Italian (hard to make out in the photo) that seemed pretty recent. It made me check my brake pads.

The tour had been through here a month ago (and in most years), but there wasn’t nearly the amount of road painting that I’d seen when I did the Alpe d’Huez a few years ago. Lots of complaining about how the reintroduction of bears was going to ruin humanity.

But the scenery has changed, now cycling is everywhere. There are lots of weekend warriors doing their dream assisted tours, and lots of professionals around. I’m sure I saw some famous cyclists whizzing by, followed by their coaches. I got a bit lost at an unmarked intersection, and got directions from a few 160lb British cyclists halfway through a 200km ride on carbon fibre everything bikes without so much as a pump.

After Col des Ares (just 760m) around 40km, Michael Jackson came back, and suddenly.  It wasn’t with the opening sequence of Thriller, but more like Scream he did with his sister Janet. Within metres I was on the ground carefully considering my options; even one pedal stroke was agony on my right knee. It had come back with no notice at all.

I worried a lot about what would happen next; both that day and on the tour in general. I took a nap because there wasn’t much else to do; I couldn’t bike, and needed to consider my options. Another problem was that I was exactly on the edge of the last map I have, so I’d need to find a grocery store or gas station that would sell me the next (and fourth) map of my trip.  An hour later I hobbled on the remaining 12km, I knew I’d be in Luchon which would have what I needed to figure out what to do next.

My fortunes changed in Luchon. This is a village nestled in between ski hills and has an active natural spring that attracts tourists. I’d hoped in my trip to be charmed into staying an extra night at a town. I think Luchon might be a bit too touristy to be charming, but it does have a healthy number of cafes and hotels to be appealing.  So the plan was to take advantage of Luchon’s facilities while trying to let the knee recover.

A lot of the chambres d’hote have been expensive. Over the course of my trip I’ve paid 42, 42, 40 and 30 Euros (some with breakfast, some without). Yet here in Luchon the room was just 19, and included its own bathroom. And it doesn’t smell of damp basement or wet dog. And the wifi actually works (a first).  So staying here another day isn’t so terrible. But finding a pattern in the pricing is difficult, maybe more popular places have more competition so have lower prices? When you’re on bike in a valley makes it difficult to shop around.

I’ll add something about plumbing here. When in Europe, one quickly adapts to local cutoms: men here wear pastel coloured pants. Not acknowledging the presence of others is not considered rude. Service in restaurants is not to be expected. And the plumbing sucks. This came up in conversation back in St-Lary. It went like this:

A local: “We were at this resort in Marrakech, and the toilets didn’t flush properly! Imagine, people live like that there.”

Another local: “That’s terrible! The world would be lucky to have our plumbing.”

Red table wine just about came out of my nose. I do not wish the world to have French plumbing. Here’s the plumbing availble to the four stories of the house I was staying in. Ground floor: kitchen sink, toilet (no sink). Second floor: bathtub, sink. That’s it; I was staying on the third floor so had to go down to the kitchen to use the toilet, and back up to the second to wash hands.

So Day 6 will be hanging around Luchon taking care of some basics (catching up on this blog as there’s an Internet cafe, laundry, administration, etc). And Day 7 I’ll try and get through two major hills: Col de Peyresourde (the hardest hill on the trip, a 900m rise in the first 15km), then Col d’Aspin.  We’ll see if it is Bad or not.

Day 2: The hills start here

Prades, France to Puigcerda, Spain

90km, 1700m of climb

It was difficult leaving Prades; my hosts Antoinette and Miro had a fantastic vegetable and fruit garden, and I was told I could take all the peaches, nectarines, figs and tomatoes I wanted. The limit was really the amount I could carry, of course. Like all little French towns in the area, they have their own stream from which to get potable water. I’ll dig up some photos later.

I’d now be following the Route de Cols.


The bulk of the day was spent climbing Col de la Perche, which is only 1500m, but very drawn out. It is also more difficult when it is very hot out; whereas the previous day it was just 30+, today it was 40+. No, really. It was that hot. And the peak is barely signed, what a letdown.

I can’t say enough about the courtesy of the French drivers. Some of the route is on the N116, which has a maximum speed limit of 110 and has a shoulder of maybe 30cm in some places. With one exception (Dutch plates), I never felt that cars weren’t giving me enough room. I would much rather bike on the N116 than on the bike lane on Lyon St. in Ottawa.

The Catalan graffiti continued too. Lots of signs had the French crossed out and the Catalan spray painted over top, or just “CAT” written over top.

So far, there were very few other cyclists. And the only tourists I’d seen were French or Spanish.

I ended up in a situation in the afternoon where I would have continued a little longer, but there was a large col (du Puymoren) coming up, and quit so I’d have it first thing in the morning. So Bourg Madame (population 300)  it was supposed to be. The first hotel was closed (as it was vacation season, they do that here). The next one was full because the first one was closed.  Then I wandered around, found the tourist information which was closed (as it was Sunday and visitors do not visit on Sundays), and there wasn’t a map or a listing of gites or anything useful.

Here’s an interesting experience if you haven’t had it before: try having a discussion in  foreign language with someone on the street who happens to have dimentia. See how long it takes to figure out that communication barrier is because they think they’re talking about something completely different.

Somehow, I hadn’t realized how close this was to the Spanish border. Puigcerda is actually much larger, and has lots of hotels, so my panic was for nothing. Immediately across the border, I talked to a police officer who was dealing with a road closure. I started talking to him in French (as I speak no Spanish), but he said he didn’t speak any, but he switched to English which was really a far better language for him. The strange thing is if he’d gotten the right angle, he could have spit into France, yet spoke none of their language. And you can easily cross that border without being aware.

So I found a dingy two-star hotel with wallpaper that would make your eyes bleed, took a shower and went into the town.

I’ve found it difficult to eat on this trip. Back in Barcelona, I bought a large jar of Nutella as per tradition, and haven’t been able to stomach the idea of eating anything like it.  It sounds revolting. I hope this doesn’t last long.

Puigcedra is a pretty large city, and they happened to be having a very large festival. “Half of Barcelona is here, you’re lucky to have a room at all”, the guy at the checkin counter said (in English, he too spoke no French). I was interested in seeing the festival; it featured some live music on a big stage and thousands of people. I had dinner in restaurant on a charming square (but they are all charming, no?), and waited for the parade to start.

Another interesting foreigner experience is attending a festival whose reason is unclear. There were people wandering around drunk in home made tshirts with Spanish writing, and some times groups would break out into song and dance.

The parade was lacklustre. Worldwide, parades need to be attended by various community groups such as baton twirlers, martial arts groups and the fire brigade. This was a bit different, though, as the fire brigade display had a simulated fire going on on the float.  And there was lots of drinking going on by the people on the floats.  There was strange cultural mixture as the last floats intermigled American movie themes (copyright-infringing Toy Story characters, mobsters).  The music was a mixture of English and Spanish, but the crowd would only sing and dance to the Spanish music. Why not just stick with the Spnish?

And it isn’t clear to me what the point was to all of this, and if it really was great enough to warrant travel from Barcelona, it says something about Barcelona.

I haven’t been keeping close track, but I think I’ve been drinking ten litres of water per day.

And tomorrow starts off with Col Puymoren!


Day 4: Tarascon to St-Lary


Today’s start was later than usual, it usually is.

The Col de Port is almost immediately outside of Tarascon, and the start of the day is the best time to start climbing. After a 10km prelude, I got to the real start which is a 5.5% grade for 9.8km. Given that it was cool and I was fresh, this was not a problem, and I did the whole climb without stopping, and even kept up with the unloaded cyclist ahead of me.

I hit the same situation as before; I wanted to go further in the day, but there was a second larger hill starting around the 80k mark. I didn’t really feel like starting the 800m Col d’Aspet at 4pm, both for tiredness and logistics. I figured I should start looking a few villages before the base of the hill, to get me as close as possible.

In Orgibet, there was a sign to a Chambres d’hôte, which sounded promising, but was off the beaten track. After a km or so of the road at about 6%, I wondered how far this was out of my way, but I didn’t want to turn back in case it was a great opportunity and just 100m ahead. Then I found this:


So the entrance way swoops back down the hill I just came up, and I couldn’t make out the actual building. It may have been there, maybe not. Or maybe they were full. So I cut my losses and cursed the Col de Rien.

So I wandered into the absolute last town before Col d’Aspet, which is St-Lary. I asked around, and found a Chambres d’hôte from an old woman. Talk about kitch… plastic dolls and trinkets everywhere. But I now have different expectations, so this is ok with me.

I went to the local epicerie and felt like a drinker when I bought both a beer (pre-dinner) and wine (with dinner). I had a baguette with cheese for dinner, but then the owner brought me back in for crepes. Afterwards, others from the town came over to the chairs they have in the front yard to chat.

The state of small French towns is sad. You can see A Vendre signs everywhere; younger people are moving to the cities where there are jobs, so these cute places are being abandoned. The people who do live in them are vacationers (many of whom have inherited the properties) or older people (who can’t afford to live anywhere else since their property is worth so little). St-Lary used to have a few hundred people and several stores. Now the winter residents count just 32, with the summer being closer to 130. And you see this everywere.  Maybe this is a buying opportunity.

Le Tour brings some economic potential to the depressed area. Because of its proximity to Col d’Aspet, it gets the tour going through there most years. The owners of the place were a retired couple with too many trinkets, he a retired SNCF worker who had left the region just once (a pilgrimage in Spain). He had watched the tour every year it had passed through, and saw Fabio Casartelli plumet to his death in 1995.  He had this huge collection of water bottles and other things he’d found by the road, including a Jan Ulrich special. One thing he said was that there were always scouts coming through, charting the hills or to prep the professional teams.

And I’m done with taking breakfasts at the places; this morning’s (included, mind you) was a toasted baguette and some jam.

Tomorrow is Col d’Aspet. 800m climb out of the gate.

Day 1: Biking into France, the hills have started.

Figueres, Spain to Rodes, France

130km with 2000m of climb

The normal first day of a bike tour starts with thinking if all the things you wished you’d have brought. And it ends with thinking of all the things you shouldn’t have.

The goal of the day was to join up with the Pyrenean Raid route. It technically starts on the coast, but I was coming from a different angle. So I was heading north, using pretty good maps but without any real perspective of the terrain. I didn’t figure it would be this hilly already.

It was really hot. After 10am, there wasn’t a single moment the computer thermometer didn’t show more than 30C. And it was often around the 37C mark.

Around the 50km mark I was starting to worry. I’d gotten up to 950m or so, and could tell heatstroke was close. But I stopped quite a bit, and finally got enough of a downhill stretch getting into Amelie-les-Bains. Then it was straight up again, but this time under cover of trees.

Heading back up from 200m to 800m, I ran out of water at the 80km point. But I spotted this waterfall with a virgin Mary statue and a fountain. It could have been a religious experience.


I stumbled through the rest. I got concerned at one point when oncoming motorists started to give me the thumbs up. What did they know about the terrain that I didn’t? But it was because they had just driven up the hill I’d be going down. The last 30km were actually just fine.

I had planned on stopping near Vanca, but spotted a stall selling fresh fruit and vegetables. He didn’t think the yellow peaches were worthy of my money, and I had to turn down the free peaches and nectarines. I am not sure what to do with a kilo of fruit. But I don’t feel much like hauling it up Col la Perche tomorrow.

I had a good feel about the place, so wandered into the town of Rodes, and asked around until I found a gite, which includes cats. I had this great 4 cheese pizza and half a liter of wine. All good.



And now I am aligned to the existing route I intend to follow, 640km to the Atlantic hitting the major hills. And it starts tomorrow. We’ll see how far I get, but this is where the hills really start.



Leaving Barcelona

Jetlagged, I fell asleep at 4. It was clear that the day’s priority would be to find an alternative to the Warmshowers Worst Case Scenario. But I couldn’t find anything on my iPhone, so prepared to bike to an Internet cafe. The are remarkably hard to find online. So I spent a big part of the day just biking around town.

I sometimes wonder why my hometown of Ottawa can’t be a bit like other places. Barcelona is a way out there when it comes to urban planning, and in a way we could never quite achieve.

Barcelona seems like a great night town; it would be difficult. To find dinner before 8pm, and people start to come out of their apartments. Here’s something I saw that was great: a carless boulevard with a combination of bike route, outdoor cafe and playground. If you wants to, you could have a beer with some friends while watching your kids. Or just shoot the shut with other retirees on the public benches. Given that this is right up against the typical 5 story apartments, I imagine these are locals just hanging out with their neighbours. It is really nice, actually.

The sad thing in all of this is that we’ll never get there. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but the chances of Ottawa getting even some of this is small. Moving one lane of parking to encourage active transportation takes an act of God.

Transportation management is a pastime for me, and Barcelona is an interesting study. That the bike lanes just randomly ended reminded me of the NCC. But nobody seemed to care. I just did as the locals did: bike on the sidewalk or road when necessary. Nobody cared.

I’d have thought a big city would have huge traffic jams, but I never saw them. It was notable how calm everyone was. European cities are always remarkable in how much better they deal with modal choice, but Barcelona’s residents’ lack of motorist entitlement and their flexibility meant a different level of cooperation that made it all just work. There’s some TDM magic here.

I will enjoy this aspect of the trip, but I won’t be able to take it home with me.

I biked past La Sagrada Familia, but couldn’t bear competing with the other tourists for an internal tour. The architecture and sculpture was literally awesome, no words or my photos will explain this to you. This is worth going back to.

I caught the train at 5pm to Figueres, a small town that gets me closer to the French Pyrenees. I met Edgar on the train, a fellow touring cyclist. He felt confident of an independent Catalonian state. He warned me that my tires would be too narrow.

There was also an entertaining fistfight. It is surprising what a large portion of personal violence I have witnessed is in other countries an never really understood. Drunken fights on the Helsinki public transit system or embarrassing attacks on feckless Tokyo sushi bar owners come to mind.

And I got to the Hotel Los Angeles. Not quite the Beverley Hilton, but also lacking the permanence of the Hotel California. And I had the first progressive shower of the trip: I felt cleaner at the end than at the start.

I met Claudia and Fred, cyclists at the tail end of their tour from their home in Bavaria to Barcelona.

And when I fell asleep, there wasn’t even the faintest hint of rotting meat.

How to avoid Michael Jackson while biking

How I will remember Michael Jackson

It was clear early on that the Marin hybrid I’d brought on the cross-BC tour with Jim was not suited for the trip. The aluminum weld holding the bottom bracket should have been a warning, but the real problems were the straight handlebars and the crappy shifters.

The seatheight for that trip was chosen randomly when reassembling in YVR. It was fine for the first few days, but when Jim and I pulled into the municipal campground into Cranbrook, BC, the knee pain was intense; every stroke got worse.

So we hobble in to the tiny registration office to find this middle-aged couple avoiding the nice weather by huddling over this grainy TV picture. You could tell by their eyes there had been hours of weeping. The crawl was reporting that Michael Jackson had died, and they were playing Billy Jean in the background. And my right knee was throbbing. Now, I think of the ex-King of Pop when my knees ache.

I have since developed some MJ avoidance tactics. The first one is just a better bike. The Surly LHT offers several positions, so you’re not stuck with just one. The Deore XT MTB parts offer much better gear ranges; with a chainring of 24 and large sprocket of 34, I should be able to get up anything (just slowly). And that should reduce the strain.

I also had a bike fitting at with Mary Paterson to set up the cleats, handlebars and seat.

And if I can try and slow down a bit and take some time off, I can tell the knee pain to beat it.

Getting to Barcelona

Actually leaving is always hard, but I don’t think you’re reading this blog to hear about mopping and vacuuming. But you’ll understand there’s a sense of relief when you’re actually out of the house.

This time, I am surprised at how light my bags are, weighing in at just 10 and 12lbs each. Mind you, some of the heavy stuff is in my handlebar bag which isn’t included. But creditcard traveling really is easier.

My father was kind enough to drive us to the airport.

Everything at the Ottawa airport was fine, but a note of caution that Air Canada appears to be ending it’s program of giving away bike bags. We are okay with this trip as we have extras we are bring with us. But this makes traveling with bikes more complicated with AC.

Anouk frequently complains of the terrible Air Transat flight she had to Toulouse in 2002. I’ve been trying to show her it isn’t always like this, so we went first class with Air Canada to Frankfurt. Thank you, Wind River, for shuttling me to San Francisco and Portland so frequently, it meant we could afford the points. The last I saw of Anouk was at FRA; I was catching my connector to BCN and she to AMS. Let’s hope she didn’t get picked up by a suave hinge salesman on his way to a conference in Delft.

There was slight trepidation in the baggage hall in Barcelona, one is never sure one’s luggage will arrive until it does. After an hour of limbo, I found someone who told me I was waiting at the wrong sporting baggage carrousel (despite signs to the contrary).

My warmshowers host had agreed to put me up a few weeks ago, but since then decided to do a tour a few hundred km south of here. So he met me at the airport, guided me through the bus/train connection (which is good, it would have been hard to learn otherwise that construction made it into a bus/bus combo). We got to his small, lived-in apartment, he packed and left me, a near-perfect stranger, the keys to his room. So I’m hosting the party tonight. That would sound more appealing if there was more than 1 square foot of floor space available.

This afternoon, I found my way over to Decathlon to pick up a few things: a rain jacket and another attempt at finding good socks. The socks topic is worth a separate post, if have enough time and bitterness.

Then I found a park bench and napped away some of the jetlag. And now I am writing this up on my iPhone having a beer. Or two.

Heading for the hills

For reasons not suitable for a public blog, I will be finding different accomodation for Friday. The intention was to stay another night in Barcelona, but I am going to stay elsewhere instead. Finding a place to stay further north from here is a bit difficult, as it is still busy season. So I am going to skip the coast and head to Figueres by train.

Total biking on this trip so far is about 30km around Barcelona, all unloaded.