Thursday, 20 July 2017

Nobody knows the way it's going to be

There is a much deeper hue to the blueness of the sky in the Pyrenees. I think it may be something to do with the latitude and the angle of the sun, but it's one of the things I always look forward to about visiting the South of France.

Of course, I have some deep ancestral memories encoded into my DNA, and given my ancestors flight from religious persecution, I retain that sympathy and romantic association for the doomed Cathar cause. Nothing symbolises that better than the ruined stump of a castle that sits just off the Route des Corniches.

This was taken two years ago, on my third, and probably worst-performing ride across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Med. I'm not sure this picture captures the blue though. Unfortunately I didn't get time to capture a better picture when I cycled up there last Saturday.
Our bodies are wonderful things, and if we look after them, put the right things into them, rest them and test them in the right proportions, they will generally tend to function pretty well. This year I had changed quite a lot in relation to my cycling, with the underlying desire to get more enjoyment from riding, and through that, more enjoyment from life. I had employed the services of a Power meter, which had certainly had an impact, and been a bit more focussed at both the gym and on the road.
I'd even had the sense to ride a bit less, not get caught up in churning out the junk miles, and ridden my heavier steel bike for most of this year in order to build a bit more leg strength. I'd been more disciplined with eating, cut out chocolate (mostly) cut down on sugar, lost weight (not much but a bit) been better but not perfect on getting more sleep.
Although I'd set myself a few targets on performance, I'd not been too stressy about it, but had nonetheless seen some good progress on power, and some of my targeted hill-climbing was coming along nicely. The weekend before I left for the Pyrenees, I'd done my second best-ever performance in the Dartmoor Classic (missing out on the best by a minute). 

Most of all we had set no huge challenge for our time in France, other than to simply enjoy ourselves, ride some nice climbs, watch the Tour for a day, relax, have a laugh. All in all, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Everybody's on the Run

I hate airports. I'm not very keen on flying, it's the residual parental conditioning my Dad had about death in a plane crash. So I treated myself to some new headphones, ones that cut out all other noise. They worked pretty well too, screening out the stag parties, the duty-free offers, and flooding me with the soothing tones of the Boy from Burnage. After all the preparation, it was finally time to escape to the deep blue skies of the Ariege.

After the flight, it was time to meet up with Monmarduman, and go for a quick spin around the block to Foix, lucky I did as we discovered one of my tyres had deformed in transit. We also discovered a castle!!! Always a bonus, and one that dominates the town and the view from our accommodation and hosts at Cycle Pyrenees in Vernajoul.

A better place to play

The Plateau de Beille has been described as "an invasion of human rights", personally I found it tough and long, but not too bad. Certainly the views are spectacular from said Route des Corniches. And of course the view at the top is always better than the one at the start of the climb. Let's face it, no matter how hard these climbs are, it's much, much better than being at work.

Where were you when we were getting high?

Did I mention the Tour de France? The toughest annual sporting event on the planet, synonymous with French culture, a beautiful spectacle and coming to a town near me. Well Stage 13 was wholly in the Ariege, by coincidence too, as our booking had pre-dated the announcement. It would have been rude not to ride the course.

Some nice valley riding heralded a new climb for me, Col de Latrape,  but it was a gentle warm-up before the misty and tougher-than-it looks Col d'Agnes. The Col de Peguere is well-known in these parts, but I'm pleased to say that I was hitting PBs on all of the segments I had done before and feeling particularly joyful about the prospect of the long, sinuous descent into Foix.

A great day.

Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it's all right

Cycling in France is a hideously joyful experience, that sometimes pushes you to the very edge of bliss. Had it been sunny on this day I might well have died of happiness. We decided to have an easy day, cycle over to a local village called Mirepoix, have a coffee, a baguette, see a church or two, cycle back, watch the highlights.

Which is what we did. But we may have laughed out loud a lot as well....

You can't give me the dreams that are mine anyway

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. A cycling trip with no cycling? Whatever next? Freedom? Happiness? Relaxing? What do you think this is, a holiday?

Not every day the Tour comes to a town you are in on Bastille Day, so time to soak up the atmosphere, have lunch, watch the racing over the route we did a couple of days before, and, whisper it quietly, enjoy ourselves. The day was all topped off nicely by joining in the village celebrations, warding off questions about Brexit, and preparing for the big day of the week.

The wheels of your life have slowly fallen off

I only took two pictures. The day had been going so, so well. Another PB up to the Route des Corniches, the plan was to ride its entire length before dropping to Ax, up to the Col de Chioula and into the remote areas near Montsegur, the greatest of all Cathar strongholds. The weather was hot but not blistering, forecast was perfect, it was tranquil and we were both at the top of our game.

I don't exactly know what stung my earlobe. A wasp, or a bee, or a hornet most likely. But it was big, noisy and quickly painful.

Within three minutes I knew I was in trouble, within five minutes I could see and feel it. Swellings, hives, hot skin, across all of my body, not just the place I was stung.

I've had allergies in the past, I've even had severe ones, a full-blown anaphylactic shock was how I discovered my nut allergy. My whole thigh once swelled up after a bee sting, but that had taken three days, not three minutes.

I was just pleased that Stuart is both so calm and practical in a crisis, and also a very, very good liar. He told me I looked a bit ropey, but essentially OK, and that helped. The next day he told me I looked like I'd been beaten about the head, but that was in the future.

I won't plague you with the full detail of how we ended up in Luzenac, about 15km from where I was stung, suffice to say it was the most nervous bike ride of my life. The helpful tourist official in the office there, Stuart, the Sapeurs Pompiers and the ED at Foix hospital, combined with anti-histamines and corticosteroids all got my rampant immune system under control, and out of any possible danger. I'm told the adrenaline whilst cycling was helpful too.

Keep on chasing down that rainbow, you'll never know what you might find

The Doctor told me not to ride my bike for a few days, so the big long ride into remote areas was out of the question, but a little café ride? Of course that would be fine. Anyway, it was our last day, and most of the allergy had subsided, just a bit of a rash on my neck, chest...I'm sure it will be fine.

And it was.

We even got the sky. On a lovely rolling day in the foothills to the impressive Grotto at Maz d'Azil.


I've got a lot of things to learn

One of which is that it might be a good idea to carry my Epipen with me at all times. But is there more?

A great holiday. Gratitude. The colour blue. Good music is timeless. The importance of calm friends. Most of all, take your blessings where you find them. Know what is important, and what isn't. Usual stuff.

A bientot.