Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

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.

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