Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

Category Archives: European vacation

Another French tour: Nice to Groningen

This is the luggage at the Ottawa airport. That's 30lbs I'll be hauling up the hills...

This is the luggage at the Ottawa airport. That’s 30lbs I’ll be hauling up the hills…

I’m going on another tour, and I was looking for something hillier than the last trips (Texas and Quebec). I have 14 bicycle days to get from Nice, France to Groningen, Netherlands. That distance is technically 1500km, but I’m unlikely to be able to keep up the 150km/day pace I had in Texas.

First I’m starting with an established route called Le Tour des Grandes Alpes. which runs from near Nice (Menton) to near Geneva (Thoulon). Normally it’s run southbound, but I’ll be doing it in reverse. It is 600km with a total climb of 20,000m. includes Bonette (2800m), D’Iseran and various others. These are higher than anything I’ve done before.

The second part is getting from Geneva to Eindhoven. I’m expecting I’ll have to take the train for parts of this. I have no real plans on how to do this. I’ll meet up with my parents there; they’re there to reminisce about where they grew up. After that, to Groningen in the north where my sister is celebrating her 50th birthday.

A lot of this is just easier to arrange now. I know what equipment to bring, what to expect, etc. I’m always worried my bike won’t make it or that I’ll suffer some horrible mechanical problem that can’t be fixed.

I’m really bad at blogging during trips. Maybe this time will be different.


Roadside garbage – an international survey

Here’s a summary of roadside garbage I have noticed while biking I’m various countries:

Japan: none. Littering is shameful.
USA: beer cans, fast food wrappers
Western Canada: beer cans, shredded truck tires, Coke bottles of urine
Ontario: beer cans (king cans), Tim Hortons cups
France: crushed driverside sideview mirrors from clipping oncoming traffic and very little else
Spain: beer cans, TVs, fast food wrappers, cigarette cartons, liquor bottles, diapers, sofas, pregnancy test kits, plastic bags of unknown waste, etc.

Day 12: A day went missing, and Elkartuna!

Arrette  to Elizonza 104km, 1340m

This is going to sound strange, but there’s a day missing in my recollection of the trip. For reasons having to do with Internet connectivity, it just isn’t possible to write this blog entries live, which is why they come in clumps. I know that when I woke up on August 28th, I was in Arrette. And on the 29th, I arrived in Elizonda, Spain. There’s a 104km between them, but I think I spread it out over two days.

I regret not having brushed up on my Basque.  It started a few days ago with a bit of Basque, but now there’s nothing but Basque for a lot of the time. This looks like no language I have ever seen.

I have no problem with minority languages, but the pure practicality of it must hurt their tourism. The map I have nicely transfers from French to Spanish when crossing the border.  The erasing of Basque signs started yesterday, but it is increasing now. And the Spanish names look nothing like the Basque, so I’m trying to navigate using place names in a different language.

More on navigating in Spain in the next entry…

Day 9 – Arruns to Arrette

73km, 1500m of climb

Today, lots of French amateur cyclists whipping by. Dozens of them, all happy to be outdoors, not realizing how much easier they have it.

I spent some time thinking about the different regions of France I’ve been to, and there’s definitely an uptick around here. The abandoned towns have disappeared and there’s a lot more French plates from abroad, plus some Spanish ones.

I was ready to arrete when I came across Arrette; not because there were any huge hills up ahead or anything, I’d just sort of had it. I’d done the math, and there really was quite a bit of slack in the schedule. So I rang the bell, got a room, took a shower. This room did have a south-facing window, and the eternally wet clothes from yesterday were dry just like that.

I hung out for a beer enjoying the little town, and befriended some intelligent Brits who had rented a house for the week nearby. They’d just gotten there, and were exploring the town, and would I like to join them for dinner? So I biked on over to their place, and had a fantastic bean/sausage casserole dish, plus rice and salad. I think I ate as much as they did combined. It was excellent.

And they were smart; they had some informed opinions about American and British politics, and it was thefirst time I’d spoken to an Anglophone in more than a week.  And to top it all off, they gave me the name of someone we can stay with when we’re in Limerick.

Biking home in the dark on narrow roads was less excellent, but I managed with the lights I had. It’s one of those moments where you realize there could be someone 1m behind you and you wouldn’t know it. Creepy.

Day 8: Campan to Arrens

65km, 2050m

I think of the French as being a scientifically savvy people. They have brought us Penicillin, SI units (metric), the derailleur and various radioactive substances. But plumbing is not their forte.

The story that really needs to be told here is of the hotel in Arrens. I cannot remember its name, but it is the only one in town.

My ideal hotel has the following qualities:

– cheap

– adjoining shower

– no newlyweds next door

– a bed with sheets, and a towel

And the following less obvious qualities:

– a showerhead that actually affixes to the wall

– a window that opens that faces west, for easy drying of clothes

– a toilet whose function is familiar to me

I’m afraid Arrens failed in this last category. Read no further if you are sensitive.

I should have been tipped off by the eight air fresheners that were within a meter distance of the toilet.

I investigated the device carefully before using; it plugged into the wall as well as with traditional plumbing. It had no flush handle, just a button on the top. I pressed it, and this cylindrical stainless steel plate, driven by a motor, spun around while water flowed around it. Neat, I thought. It’s a combination blender/toilet, something that could take anything you (figuratively) threw at it. I couldn’t quite see how it worked, but after testing its basic operation I thought I’d give it a try.

This did not go well. It was more of a shredding and spraying than grinding and flushing. Fortunately, I had the lid down, and it was never raised again while I rented the room. What had gone wrong? It wasn’t a bidet… there was no other plumbing, and there was no other toilet-looking device in the room. If there had been some other mechanism to flush properly, it wasn’t labelled in any language. Believe me when I say I know toilets, I do not see what I could have been doing wrong.

In Spain, there’s a requirement that all hotel guests have proper ID, but this is not the case in France. I do say this anonymity only encouraged my silence. By using the bathroom in the hall, I completely abandoned the bathroom I was paying for. And the next morning I left without a word.

I feel bad for the cleaning staff, however I do feel that Hotel le Tech bears some responsibility for providing what is

The next morning, its retail multiplied by about a hundred as the local market was on. But I was focused on sprinting out of there, even if it was up the Col de la Soulor (parts are more than 10%).

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.