30 June 2010

I conquered the Col de Marie Blanque today

I can now call myself a road cyclist. I am a Cyclist. Finally!

I rode the Route du Fromage today in a beautiful boucle (circle) that included the Col d'Ichere and the Col de Marie Blanque. I know that bike rides in France such as the Col du Galibier and the Col du Tourmalet are legendary, and they are tough, but they are also doable.  In my mind (and body) the Marie Blanque is one of the hardest climbs in the Pyrenees.  I had to dig deep to get this climb done. The Col de Marie Blanque is included in Stage 17 of the 2010 Tour de France as one of the first climbs of a day that will see the riders finish on the Col du Tourmalet. 

Recommended Route in the Pyrenees: 
Col de la Marie Blanque loop ride   click to enlarge

If you will be riding in France and have an extra day, or perhaps you are wondering what to do on the Rest Day (the TDF rest day, not your own), try to squeeze in this ride. My ride today in France was an 83.1km loop from Arudy, to Assap-Arros, to Arette, over the Col d'Ichere (some gravel on the road), connecting to the Col de Marie Blanque, down into Bielle, and back to Arudy. Most of it was on white/green roads. Those are the wonderful white roads on the Michelin road maps that are highlighted in green to denote a beautiful route. It was indeed beautiful.

I met some fun people out there today, one gentleman who shook his hand and proclaimed "oooo, tres difficile," when I told him I was heading to the Marie Blanque (he took my picture on the Col d'Ichere), and made sure I understood the route was 10-12% gradient and rode with me to the base of the climb. I met a biker and a hiker at the town water spicket prior to the ascent of the Marie Blanque, a nice couple who witnessed my arrival at the Col and cheered, a nice woman from Germany who was herself on vacation (she took my picture on the descent).  Another nice man with a heavy country accent who teased me about the Americans being out of the World Cup.

I also saw lots of cows, horses, a donkey, birds of prey, dogs, cats, and flys. No bear - they do have bear in this region, and wolf are beginning to spread through the Pyrenees again now that they are protected. I am quite tired after this ride today, it was HOT climbing, 24C at the farm right now at 6:00pm. I am so thrilled to have completed this climb. It is super hard (tres tres difficile). I cannot believe that the riders of the Tour de France will ride from Pau, over the Col de la Marie Blanque, down around the foothills, then up the long ascent through Ferrieres, to the Col du Soulour, down into the next valley, and then up the Col du Tourmalet. Come over here and try just one of these climbs in one day.

You too will feel like a "cyclist". I'm not sure what that makes them? But I know I was dancing around happy at the top of that Col today. It was one of the reasons I had to return to the Pyrenees. In 2005 during the Etape du Tour I had to walk a small section of the climb, not today. Today I conquered the Marie Blanque!!!!

Images from my day on the Route de Fromage:
It is June in France, that means gravel on the roads. Gravel is worse than flys because you can hear it coming. My carbon frame is scared of gravel. This is a typical white/green road. Powering up the big Cols (to tick them off) is great, but try to take a detour onto a white/green road whenever possible (like the D13 circle in the Lavenden Valley near Argeles-Gazost. Today it was the D918 in the Valley d'Ossau)
The homes in this region, as I get closer to the Basque Country, have distinctive burnt sienna colored shutters.
What a great idea! Baguette delivery, just in time for lunch.
Views from my bike today (with very few cars on the road).
The Col d'Ichere is a good warm up climb.
This is the sign at the top. I didn't stop to take pictures of all the signs on the way up, because it was steep, and starting again when it is that steep is sort of tricky. the signs look just like the ones on the Col d'Ichere but basically they read 4%, 7%, 8%, 11%, 12%, 9.5%, 13% and then I needed to start ignoring them. The best news of the day is that just at the 13% sign, I discovered I was not yet in my 29 gear, yes, I can do this now I thought!
They kind of got in my way. Just after the top of the Col, it does not descend immediately. There is a large plateau up on top of the Col de la Marie Blanque.
My brother believes this plateau is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
This is the scene on the Marie Blanque - cyclists, motorcyclists, hikers, a few cars come and go. It was very peaceful and relaxed (except for the 13%!)
This is me again looking down on the Vallee d'Ossau and the town of Bielle. By now I am hot, tuckered, and hungry. The town of Bielle has a fabulous bakery (1 block up from the main road in the town square). The best pan chocolat I ever had.
Lots of cyclists are passing through town right now as I sit and use the free wi-fi in the town center. Tomorrow I am going to search for a morning market. Now home to make another great meal and celebrate with a glass of local rose wine. Excellent.

29 June 2010

Road trip to the West Coast of France

I took a road trip through Bearn and the Basque country to the West Coast of France
I honestly think the Pays Basque area of France is one of the most beautiful areas in this country. The Dordogne is spectacular (if you are floating in a kayak on the river), Provence is pleasing (if you are sitting at a nice cafe enjoying a meal), and the Grand Bornand is majestic (if you are on a bicycle), but the Basque area of southwest France is simply beautiful.

The rolling green hills, farms, and vineyards remind me a little of Paso Robles, CA or Sonoma County, CA (in the 1970s), but it has so much more character. I drove from Bearn (Lasseube area), through Oloron-St-Marie, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Cambo-les-Bains, to St-Jean-De-Luz. I explored around the area (Hendaye, San Sebastian) and return home to my accommodations via the Peage. 

I can definitely recommend riding in the area around St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. There were lots of cyclists there. Hopping cafes, hotels, and some good roads, including the climbs of Col d'Ispeguy, and the Col Brgargui. The Rose wine that is produced in the area is excellent. I have been through the area twice now, and I think it would be a good stay. Some of the Brits fly into Biarritz and work their way east across the Pyrenees. This could be an excellent option. 
Images from Pays Basque Region of France
Images from the Coast
Images from Bearn
* I saw a cyclist in a D Durango, Colorado bike jersey today on my way back to Lasseube. Awesome! Tomorrow I have a big climb planned .... the Col d'Ichere, and the Col de la Marie Blanque.
* Oh also, Monien is a nice town, Mourenx is not, don't get them mixed up, and you won't want to stay near Mourenx, is it an unattractive modern concrete city.  There are lots of vineyards south of Monien.

Faster than a landing Fly

I ride a bike fast. Okay, I ride a bike faster than a fly.
My entire goal in France, on a bike, is to ride at a pace faster than a fly can land on me. Paddy (the wise Sage of Saint Savin, as I should start referring to him) recommended that I should ride 10kph or above at ALL times to prevent these little buggers from landing on me. 10kmh? As I understand it Frank Schleck commonly rides these climbs at 22kmh, and I am expected to go nearly half the speed of Franck Schleck? Well, that is expecting an awful lot of me, I'd say.
But the flys are worth avoiding, so 10kmh or faster it will be. Here is the thing, every time I include one of those scenic pastoral images of climbing on a bike in France, and I describe the sound of the cowbells, and include pictures of the friendly sheep - what those pictures don't convey are the bugs. I haven't identified all forms of these bugs, but they are preying on me. I am now a twitching fool on the bike. I used to ride around adjusting the nosepiece of my Specialized sunglasses, but now, I give a quick itch & a scratch while I am at it.
I hear the flys get worse as the summer goes on. There are also mosquitos, and spiders, and God knows what else. So be prepared. I might be descending and what you think is a wave, is really the odd twitch of an itch.
* By the way (BTW), in France cyclists don't wave or smile, cyclists give an upward nod combined with a "bonjour" and of course, the ever important ~eye contact~.  * BTW again, the wise Sage of Saint Savin says the flys are not worth killing because then you simply have dead fly parts hanging from your walls. Wise Sage.
Guaranteed Fly Zone

The Anatomy of a meal in France

I cooked a home cooked meal last night in France 
One of the best parts of this nice long adventure I am currently on in France is the variety I am able to enjoy. Especially the variety of food. I picnic, I eat in cafes, I have other kind people cooking for me, sometimes my meal is a replacement drink and fig bars (while riding), and sometimes I get to cook. Last night it was my turn. I went to the market, bought these simple items ...
I started drinking ... well, you need a nice glass while cooking now don't you?
And voila, a few minutes later (really this did not take long at all), I had dinner prepared and went outside to enjoy the view across the Ossau Valley. It was lovely and delicious.
...and of course, I sent my friends and family a couple of text messages of my "setting" since it was Monday, at 1:30pm in the USA, and they were all hard at work! - poor things.

France rocks!!

28 June 2010

Getting around in France with ease

Tips for Traveling in France

Today in the French Pyrenees I had a partial work day and an organization day. This might seem like an odd thing to do when so much fun abounds (riding, hiking, picnicking, watching the world cup), but sometimes it is worth it.

I checked out of the cycling lodge and drove back to the farm (I love it here!). I stopped by a bike shop in Lourdes (it was closed on Monday, darn). Stopped into E.Leclerc for food and wine. Filled up on gasoline. Searched for a free wi-fi hot spot. Got some cash from the ATM. Planned my upcoming travels and organized my gear after week 1 (of 5) in France. I also sorted my collection of trash into the recycling bins. Unloaded my car, made lunch. Bought a fresh baguette from the bakery, and generally tried to act like a local.

If you are planning (or dreaming) about a trip to France to ride your bike, here are some random tips on traveling in France:

Hotels & B&Bs: large to medium sized hotels accept credit cards. Small B&B and lodges would much prefer cash so they do not have to pay the extra credit card service fees. I prefer lodges & Bed and Breakfasts in France because the service is more personal and the experience seems more french. Also it is wonderful to have a breakfast available to start your day. You may expect coffee, juice, a croissant or pan au chocolat with butter and jam. Sometimes you will be served yogurt or muesli/cereal. Special full breakfasts may include cheese or ham or hard boiled eggs. Do not expect a typical American full breakfast of bacon, eggs, potatoes, pancakes and toast. You will enjoy a typical french breakfast far more if you intend to ride a bike after your morning meal.

Bike Shops: there are a number in the area plus many sports stores. My favorite is located just NE above the center of the town of Lourdes. I have a list of some local bike shop addresses on the Cycling in France Page on this website. You will want to buy the entire shop! They are a good source for replacement drinks, goos, tubes, cartridges, clothing and helmets. (I was also wondering if a second set of wheels would fit in my bike box).

Super Markets in France: Remember to take your 1euro coin and a bag with you. There will be shopping carts as you enter the store. Place the 1E in the coin slot on the top of the cart, and unhook the key/chain that connects one cart to the next. You now have a handy holding cart for all your goods. Commas are periods and periods are commas. E2,80 is 2.80 euros. When buying vegetables you must weigh them first and collect a sticker while you are still in the vegetable section. The checkout person will not do this for you. We generally buy small portions of cheese, dried meats, prepared salads, olives (in a pouch), nuts, cookies, crackers, nutella, water, and wine. (Remember to bring a wine opener with you from home!).

We also buy a couple of glasses, a knife, napkins, and small baggies to store and transport food. I also buy shampoo, soap, toothpaste here in France to avoid carrying the weight on the plane, (I bring travel size sundries for the first night). Markets and bookstores also have great magazines (and cycling magazines!) buy one, and have fun trying to read it. Markets do not give out plastic bags, so bring your own, or simply place all your groceries back in your cart again after check-out and unload them individually into your car or backpack. Return the cart to the cart rack. Slide the key/chain back in place and your 1euro coin will pop out, ready for your next use.

Buying fresh fruit in the morning market or in small towns is quite fun (melon, cherries, peaches), also try the local cheese (goat or sheep!). Buying real baguettes and real butter (buerre) croissants from the corner bakeries (Boulangeries) is preferred. Charcuteries sell cuts of dried meats, it can be challenging but rewarding to try out some local meats.>

Operating Hours: Shops open around 9:00am. Bakeries and small markets are closed during lunch (12-2), cafes are open for lunch (12-2), but closed between lunch and dinner. You will likely be refused if you show up for lunch at 2:30 after a ride. Shops close around 5:00pm, very large stores close between 6-8pm. Bars open after work hours for drinks, but dinner is generally served 7-9. Large boulangeries might stay open until 8:00pm as workers pick up their bread on their way home. Cafes in small towns often close Sundays around 6:00, if they are open at all. Get used to this timing, you won't be disappointed if you know what to expect.

* ALWAYS greet a store owner, worker, waitstaff, cashier, cyclist, hiker, (any person you see) with eye contact and a warm "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur". ALWAYS say "Au revoir Madame/Monsieur" upon leaving. Take a moment and truly pause over eye contact with this person who is working to make your vacation even more special. I can't emphasize this enough. I have friends in the USA who will hardly greet me with a hello, as if they are too self-conscious or have not been taught proper manners. I come to France and everyone, even cyclists on a bike, drivers, pedestrians, every individual treats me with the courtesy to at least regard me. I am fascinated with this word in France - regarder in french means 'to look'. And the French truly see and regard me. It is lovely (and I may never go back to the USA again for this reason alone!).

Gasoline: please don't rely on 24hr gas stations. Our USA credit cards do not have the chips required to use these stations. You must try to find a station with an attendant or a booth. Look for Total gas stations within normal working hours (9-12, 2-5/6). Also look for E.Leclerc, Carrefour, InterMarche super, or other large supermarket chains (open during lunchtime, closed on Sundays). Upon arrival, stand by the pump, pull out the hose, wait, the meter should be cleared to 00.000 for you. Pump your gas. Walk into the attendant, or drive to the booth, (Greet them!), tell them what number pump you were at "numero quatre", hand them your credit card for payment, sign, say thank you and goodbye.

Wi-fi Hot Spots (internet in France): check this link out before you leave home (or use your iphone for a quick research (to locate only), then rely of wi-fi ("wee-fee"). You can search this site anywhere around France for both free and paid wi-fi hotspots. http://v4.jiwire.com/search-wifi-hotspots.htm?city_id=3502270&result_display=map you can also download an iphone app from them http://www.jiwire.com/iphone

ATMs: be sure to call your credit cards and local ATM bank before leaving home to let them know you will be traveling with your cards. This will keep them from shutting down service on your card in fear of fraud. Remember your pin numbers by heart, bring the phone numbers for your credit card companies with you in case of loss, and be sure to find out in advance which cards charge what for fees in Europe. I generally use my ATM card for cash, and my Capital One World MC (no individual transaction fees) for all other purchases.

Recycling: France recycles! I do too, I respect this since I am in their country. I separate out my plastics and find the marked recycling bins. If I stop in a town for a coke, after sitting outside for a drink, (or pouring it into my bike water bottle), I ask the shop owner if they could recycle my can please.>

I had fun today with all my errands. I came back to the farm to unload and made a quick delicious lunch and sat out on the patio in the garden. Now I will do some hand-washing and run back to the free wi-fi hot spot I found in town to try and get some real work done on my laptop. Below I have some pictures from my day in France (off the bike) - including my self-made lunch today, and my newly purchased Official Guide to the Tour de France magazine (in french!), and my view of the Pyrenees from my lunch table.

Another picture of our favorite hand soap for washing our cycling kits and clothes. (Oh bring a hanger with clips, or a small laundry line with wooden clothes-pins for drying. Electricity is VERY expensive in France, so try to avoid using a dryer if at all possible (more likely not available). If you need to do a big load and have a couple of hours to sit around, you can find a laundry station (it looks like a small portable building) attached, but outside, of some of the large markets. Drive around in the parking lot to see if you can find one first. A load will cost you 8-12 euros. I try to bring clothes that can be hand-washed only.

And my car! A Renault Scenic. I love this car. It easily holds 2 people, 2 bikes, 2 bike cases, and 4 bags. Or 3 people, 3 bikes, bags, but no bike cases. (pesky bike cases).

Thanks for all the great comments about how much fun the Cycling Lodge of La Lanterne Rouge in Saint Savin, France looked. I received lots of comments regarding "could it get any better than that?!" I am honestly not sure, it was truly a fantastic place to spend 6 days. Thanks again Paddy and Olive (and Sean). I hope you have room for me on my next visit. Also Paddy is an endless resource for advice on cycling routes, and cycling facts & trivia, Olive is a great cook, wonderful company, and talented with languages. Sean is just plain cute.

There you have it - "more than you would ever dream to know" about getting around in France. That is my friend Jean Paul's term for when we seek to know far more than is really necessary.

Images from my day in France: (I should have included a picture of the 6 bottles of Rose wine I bought today - not all for me, of course!)

Traveling through the Pyrenees

Today I leave the beautiful Lavendan Valley and travel back to the Ossau Valley

I say goodbye to the wonderful cycling lodge of La Lanterne Rouge, and it's myriad of incredible climbs just out the backdoor. To it's kind hosts Paddy and Olive, and it's fun guests who love cycling as much as I do. The 3 doctors from Denmark have moved on, and John from Scotland is here awaiting the arrival of 4 new Aussies later today. It is time for me to move on as well. I hope to play tourist in the coming days with a visit to the west coast of France, and to the Bastide area of Gers, as well as a ride up the Col de la Marie Blanque.

I took a picture of the Danes (Casper and Soren) at the restaurant on the Tourmalet and biking down the Pic du Midi a couple of days ago (snow closed the passage to the top). And John from Scotland heading out on his days ride up and over the Spandelles, Soulor, and Aubisque this morning. 
It has been a wonderful stay in Saint Savin. I will try to post some videos and more pictures in coming days. I will also be writing the Tips on being a fan at the Tour de France page over the next several days. Until then, happy travels and happy cycling....

27 June 2010

Undulating, Unrelenting, Underdressed

Today I rode the Hautacam and the Col de Tramassel

The Hautacam is a fantastic climb. If you enjoy climbing for the pure joy of climbing and are not necessarily trying to get somewhere on a bike, the Hautacam is for you. You go up the Hautacam, you come down the Hautacam.

The climb up the Hautacam starts in the basin of the Lavendan Valley and winds up a beautiful green hill to the ski station. This climb is not visually laid out in front of you like so many other climbs in the area, this climb is not over until it is over. For me, over came too soon, I really enjoy this climb and did not want it to end. You start from the town of Argeles-Gazost, pass a number of homes, more fields, more cows, then the vistas begin to open up. The views to the valley below are breathtaking.

The sky was dramatic today, and it began to rain near to top. I continued to the cafe (which was closed) on the Col de Tramassel (which is just above the Hautacam). Two years ago I completed the Hautacam, but had not continued to the top of the Col de Tramassel. This time warm rain was falling gently and there was no reason to stop climbing.

The profile signs were in place on the Hautacam today, but nearly every white sign I passed reported the coming kilometers would again average 8%. I kept wondering why they were even bothering with the signs, simply to report that it was still 8%! Also I am convinced there were plenty of 9.9% sections in there, and maybe two 12%!


This is funny because this is the second picture I took of the day - the sign at the top! The third, was the view of the green slopes from the top. I must have really been enjoying myself, because obviously I never felt like stopping. I tried to stop for pictures on the way down instead.
The one road wonders, such as Hautacam and Luz Ardiden, do not offer much at the top. The cafe on the Col de Tramassel was closed.
This image below is looking west across the Lavendan Valley from the Hautacam to the Col du Soulor and Col d'Aubisque. I am currently staying in the town in the middle of this picture at the left edge (Saint-Savin). Argeles-Gazost is the larger town in the middle right edge of the photo.
The Hautacam is tucked against the green hillside.
Now I am back in Saint Savin looking across valley to the Hautacam. The road climbs this hillside opening up to nice green (ski) slopes at the top center.
When I see this last bend into the town of Saint Savin, I now I am nearing home.
I celebrated with a Magnum ice cream bar (in honor of my brother Michael) back in town. And then returned to the La Lanterne Rouge cycling lodge to watch the French National Road Championship race (Thomas Voeckler won) with Paddy, Olive, and Hannah. What a great way to spend a Sunday in France.
The Hautacam remains one of my favorite bike climbs in France. It may not be as dramatic as the Tourmalet, but it just feels good.