Thursday 22 July 2010

Resting Above the Clouds


Officially it's the rest day for the cyclists after their massive trip over 3 of the biggest, most famous, peaks of the Pyrenees. This is slightly ironic as they are doing a good proportion of that stage again tomorrow, in reverse. Wow, a way to celebrate 100 years of cycling in these good mountains.

Our day started a little more damply. The rain of the previous evening had persisted a bit but not too heavy. Our view along the valley to Sainte Columbe had completely disappeared into the fog. Well, technically, cloud. We were in the clouds.

As there was no dash to get anywhere we had a lacsidaisical breakfast. Even a second cup of coffee was allowed in these relaxed times. A shave and a foot wash as well. What pampering!

The car meandered up the Ossau valley, through with no control of our own. Now the rest day for cyclists does not mean lying around in a hotel room catching up on the latest soaps. Or even wandering round town looking for some bargains. No, a "rest" means not competing on the bike. They still go out on the bike and do maybe even 60-70 miles. And actually they need to. Not doing so would hamper their performance the next day. So, as we uncontrollably wandered up the valley we came across the entire Garmin squad out riding, complete with team car holding back the traffic.

Now, in Britain the first sign of a bunch of cyclists like this would result in immediate hooting of horns and angry shouts as these terrible people are adding a whole 10-second delay to someone else's journey. In France the reaction couldn't be more different. A careful reverence ensues, only passing when the riders are completely safe.

Further up the valley we saw Levi Leipheimer coming back down at some pace. Descending on a bike is quite a skill. Knowing where to put your weight as you head into then through each corner is vital. Get it wrong and your putting in some offroad activity, get it right and your down the mountain 10 minutes quicker than anyone else. Clearly, training when going up a mountain doesn't finish when you get to the top.

At the head of this valley is, er, Spain. But also there is a long, sinuous, rocky mountain top valley that is designated a national park. At altitudes varying from 1200m at the bottom damn to 1700m at the Spanish border it did have something to recommend it strongly. It was above the cloud. We emerged from a wet lower valley into glorious sunshine. Tempered with a slight northerly, but not strong enough to dishearten.

The park is also known for it's wildlife. Here be eagles, bears, lynx, horses, cows, sheep, campervans. Unlike last time we were here, in 2003, we didn't see much of the more exotic varieties. I did spot 1 eae but only briefly from the car.

What a place to have lunch and go for a bit of a scramble. We rapidly realised we stopped in exactly the same spot as 2003, just not ventured quite as far as that time, as bones ache more nowadays!

After lunch we needed to get back on course for the bike race. Our idea was to get to the Col de Soulor, the lesser of the Thursday Peaks, and set up camp by 4pm. That way we could bag a good spot near the top and maybe have a chance at riding up to Aubisque in any spare time we had. Oh the joy of happy plans are mocked by fate.

Back down into the cloud and up the next climb up over Aubisque. Bend after bend we wre willing the cloud to depart as it had on the previous venture skywards. But no. Alas, even at the top of Aubisque it was foggy. Very warm fog with sunlight penetrating downwards, but fog nonetheless.

And so onwards on a descent to the second peak of Soulor. The views from this road are spectacular. Fog. The top winding road showing 20 miles of mountains. Fog. The lower section across the Cirque de Litor, a road attached to a thousand foot cliff, just unbelievable unless you see it. Fog. The mountainous landscape above the Col itself, awe-inspiring. Fog.

Setting up camp around 100m from the summit was a joy. All kinds of precautions taken to ensure dampness didn't ruin our evening and night. A shelter out of tarps strung between car and tent using umbrellas as corner poles was most effective. And turned quite a few heads. We sat out under our canopy greeting all who walked past. They cheered back, after they'd dragged their jaws off the ground. And spotting the GB numberplate helped a touch. Ah, les Anglais!

Actually the shelter really did matter. The heavens opened. Thunder and lightning rocked the mountain tops. And it went on all night. Flashes bright enough to light up the inside of the tent like daylight. Thunder that echoed for 30 seconds as it bounced off every rock face in the 5 mile area. What an evening, sat under a bit of tarp, followed by a night wondering if we'll evey make it off the mountain.


Wow! The world is still wet, flashing, and noisy. We made it through the night, camped out at 1450m in torrential weather. I'm still not entirely sure how. In a Quecha! Whoever poopooed these tents, not seeing them as good quality tentage, needs to look hard at what it did for us in the past 18 hours.

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