14 July 2010

The French know hospitality

But many think cycling is a bit crazy
It seems to me that the French are great at hospitality and tolerance. Yet many commonly respond to any tale of cycling with "ooh, tres difficile, ya oui?"

I think they tolerate us cyclists, as they do all the other visitors to their beautiful country, but they don't seem to want to go out and do it themselves, unless they are a cyclist. They also say they are scared to drive around us. I explain I am more afraid of driving around a cyclist in France, than having a car drive around me on a bike. Worse than the cyclists and motorcyclists and crazy drivers from Germany are the camper vans that overtake the routes of the Tour de France. I now understand the camper vans come down from the north fully supplied and do not spend much money in the local towns, and block the roads and stay for days.

The French are absolutely excellent at hospitality. I may tease about their limited hours, or it taking 45 minutes to have a quick espresso in a cafe, because they are assuming I actually want to sit and relax (or waiting for someone else to sit and relax with). But I am an American, I refuel and go. This has taken some getting used to for me.

I was off the grid for awhile as I traveled from Ariege (near St Girons) into the Barouse Valley of the Haute-Garonne (near Barbazon). I had a horrendous stay at VeloPyrenees in Crechetes (don't go there). They are quite intolerant, the absolute opposite of typical French hosts. They also neglected to tell their guests they had no phone reception, no wi-fi and no TV (which was not so fun for the Dutch guest who arrived on World Cup final night!). It is difficult to explain, and I understand that sometimes we all just happen upon bad places to stay while traveling, but I never even came close to feeling comfortable at that place.

I am now at a wonderful place called Chez Annie et Loic in Guchan, France. All the guests feel very comfortable here, and gather out in the garden and around the big table inside for meals. It has a great feel. The Chambre d'Hote is located between Arreau and St-Lary-Soulan. This valley is a bit touristy, but at least touristy areas have life to the towns. Which I think feels good as a cyclist. For me, it is more fun to climb a big mountain in quiet and arrive into a lively town.
In the past days I have ridden the Col de la Core and the Col de Portet d'Aspet. I visited the Fabio Casartelli memorial on the descent of the Portet d'Aspet before the Col des Ares. The next day I rode into Spain over the Col du Portillon and a few other roads around Bagneres-de-Luchon. Other than that, I have been busy trying to figure out what to buy at the super markets, trying to find gas and cash, hand washing my kits, really appreciating my car GPS system, and watching the Tour de France in a few cafes. I seem to arrive at the cafe in time to see Lance Armstrong again coming from behind, but can't understand why he is always coming from behind. The French TV labels the situation as the "Armstrong Peloton" and leaves it at that.

I am now in Guchan at the foot of the Col d'Aspin, Col d'Azet, Le Pla d'Adet, Col de Peyresourde, and Cap-de-Long (lake & hiking area). Feeling happy to be back in the valley where I was two years ago with my brother and friend Dash.
Some images from the past days:
Looking down on the town of Seix from the Col de la Core (the route over the Col de Port, Col de la Core, Col de Portet d'Aspet, Col d'Ares is good. The other smaller roads around the Ariege are pressed gravel and VERY rough. There are some nice active towns with cafes along this route of Cols):
Typical Ariege/Haute-Garonne town (personally I think there was not much in the Pamiers, Foix, St Girons areas. The town of Ax-les-Thermes will be a hopping place on the day of the Tour de France in 2010, but it is not a super valley to ride in. The valleys with big national highways can be a problem for cyclists, the towns are a bit shabby, lots of hippies, and the roads rough. But it is very green):

One of the reasons why I'm not loosing much weight, but building muscle:
Me on the Col du Portillon (outside of Bagneres-de-Luchon), same jersey, different mountain (I do have 3 other jerseys with me). I liked this ride (not too many horse flys):
This is the valley with Bagneres-de-Luchon at the base. The climb of the Col de Peyresourde begins in the middle/right, the Col de Portillon begins on the middle/left side, Superbagneres is the hillside straight ahead. Bagneres-de-Luchon is like an Aspen, Colorado of the Pyrenees. You'll see mountain bikers, downhill bikers, road bikers, hikers, spa goers, and people dressed all-fancy. It is a town of shops, cafes and 1*-star hotels next to 4*-hotels. This town will host the Tour de France finish of Stage 15 and the start of Stage 16 in 2010:
I finally had a crepe at the famous cafe at the top of the Peyresourde. The women at the cafe is so nice, asking everyone, "where are you from?", and they didn't even make me complete the wooden puzzle (a tradition) before serving me a crepe. It was a fun place to stop.