The train ride from Girona to Narbonne was stunning. There must be an engineering award for building a railway line across water that makes you feel you are actually on a boat! It was made completely enthralling by seeing flocks of flamingo wading, washing and seemingly whispering in the water.
With my mind full of memories from Spain, I began to start focussing on France and what my cycling goals were. Clearly the aim was cycling high – beating my hill phobia to a pulp. Spain had dented it slightly but not enough. This week was going to be tough – pushing me to my limit.
As I reached Toulouse the first thing I noticed was the difference in temperature. Of course it was much colder than Spain but it was a dry cold as opposed to the damp British wintery cold and because of that and the scenery it didn’t really become an issue – all week.
The drive from the station was an eye opener to the sort of landscape that would be my new training ground. As I chatted to one of the co-founders of Rhino Velo Pyrenees it was clear that I was going to be working on climbing day by day which gave me a confidence that by the end of the week I would be fearless (nearly) of hills.
Rhino Velo Pyrenees are based near Foix and run a B&B for cyclists. It combines a home from home experience with a cycling prowess that was more than I ever, ever thought it would be. Mike Jones is an ex pro who knows absolutely everything about cycling and even though is relatively new to the area has really, really researched it both for their clients and for Rhino Velo Club.
As the wife and mother of cycling pros and the co-owner of a cycle shop Wendy Jones understands all aspects of cycling and what cyclists requirements are – whether its big carb-filled breakfasts, welcoming the end of rides with home made cake or washing the team kit which makes the whole experience of staying with them a welcoming and totally winning combination.
No sooner had we arrived, lunch was served and then we were out on our bikes for a gentle warm up. Not long, but four hairpin bends that woke up my thigh muscles. Adjusting my pedal stroke – quicker on the flat to make a higher cadence then slightly harder on the hills to push the point, trying to take longer breaths and control my breathing without letting asthma raise its head. Things were already improving and I hadn’t even unpacked! Arriving home in time for tea and cake in front of the fire set the scene for the entire week.
Assessing my fitness and hill weakness, every day Mike plugged a new route into my Garmin that took me to my absolute limit which meant that I really had to push myself yet it didn’t actually break me. Just when I thought I couldn’t push another pedal, it turned out I was 2km from home and the thought of a cup of tea always took me straight there.
Being winter it was not sensible to start too early. Breakfast at 9 and leave at 11 once the sun had been up enough to take the chill from the air and to be home by 5.30 before darkness set in became the routine.
A Saturday ride to Mirepoix was just what the doctor ordered. Up and down rolling hills, through farmyards, hamlets and villages.
A quick stop in the very pretty square for a sandwich that turned into Le Saint Maurice for a perfect omelette and salad.
In true pro style – Mike was downing a short sharp highly-caffienated Americano whilst I was dabbling about with a pot of tea!
The rides each day were different, a bit harder, higher and longer yet every single one completely breathtaking in vistas. The scenery absolutely blew my mind. The rolling hills seemed like Shropshire then Scotland – often I thought I was on the North Coast 500 but without the sea.
Cycling through hamlets where the road turned so sharply it looked as though it actually went into the farmyard, overtaking the postie as its yellow van leapfrogged its way through this rural living. Apparently in the summer these roads are too hot for cycling. The North Coast 500 would be a great busman’s holiday whilst Rhino Velo Pyrenees is perfect at this time of year on these roads! The summer in the high Pyrenees must be stunning.
As the Garmin moved along the route, there were often those moments when you look across to a hilltop and see the church spire that, as you near it, is actually on a hilltop further on the horizon. A clein d’oeil (optical illusion) that I learned on my first ever gobsmacking 100 mile ride Dieppe to Paris in 2012.
Sheep and chickens roaming in the road with their not-bothered attitude. At the bottom of a hill a sheep dog came flying round the corner with its metal lead dragging along the road behind it, barking its socks off then tried to knock me off my bike by nuzzling (quite hard) my foot. I shouted at it and kept pedalling. Further up the road it was clear it was too icy to continue so we came back the same way – only for the dog to have another go at us!
At every turn, the view changed. The clouds appeared some days and not on others. It was only at the end of the week that I realised the stares and glares from the cows, sheep and horses were because I was probably the only person they’d seen on a bicycle that day. The locals were waiting for the summer. They clearly didn’t understand the power of Castelli Clothing or (thanks to Mallon and Taub) Adidas eyewear!
The way the roads are built means that the water drains away very quickly and apart from what tractors left behind there was no mud. The dry air ensured that despite the grey skies it didn’t feel damp and somehow even when it was -6 one afternoon it just didn’t feel that terribly, terribly cold.
Although I was wearing Gore over-trousers and a Castelli wind jacket over four layers the first of which is always Icebreaker merino. This was the only time the Assos winter gloves let my hands become slightly cold.
On the horizon, the Pyrenees seemed to be silent spectators, willing me along the road. Their snow-covered access roads were out of bounds but the enormity of the route options available thanks to Mike did not disappoint.
Handing my Garmin to him every evening was a bit like handing in my exam papers! Uploading to Strava I won trophies and broke records! Me! It was such a motivation to push a bit harder the next day.
Cycling through villages, taking tea in the sunshine outside bars and restaurants before setting off again made each day a memory. Without doubt though it was the weaving, rolling roads and the vistas that absolutely took my breath away. It was all so beautiful.
Thursday brought another height. Roquefixade sits at the top of a hill. Looking up at it, I wondered whether James Bond had been there. The road climbed up and along, up and along – my pedal-turning rhythm was being perfected right up to the moment that a tractor with huge, huge wheels appeared accompanied by a sheepdog that seemed to be on an imaginary lead, moving in unison.
The higher we went, the more snow appeared on the road side. The views across to the south were truly stunning and I had to keep pinching myself to see if I was really there. At the top a bench surrounded by snow gave me the perfect photo spot.
This year the Tour de France is heading to Foix and I am not surprised as it is so perfect for cycling at any time of the year. A community meeting took place to encourage local businesses and authorities in this region of France, L’Ariege, to work together promoting this most beautiful part of the world. It was a privilege to be in attendance. If I can weave my way there in time for Bastille Day in Foix – I will.
It was the perfect cycling holiday as its tailor-made routes that really were just-for-me allowed me to be so distracted by the beauty of the scenery that I didn’t notice the burning sensation from my thighs as the hills dug in.
Combined with the home from home experience – drinking tea in front of a log fire laughing our socks off – it was like staying with friends rather than a guest in someone’s house. Achieving that balance is very rare and Rhino Velo Pyrenees you excel at it. Lucky, lucky me.