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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 3: Oschagavia to Bielle

Despite Roberto's protests, he seemed quite recovered the next day, but in the interest of trying to cover some ground, I gave up on the idea of attacking the triple climbs Portillo de Lazar (1129), Portillo de Eraice (1578), and Col de la Pierre St. Martin (1760m). I will admit that part of that was driven by the desire to escape from Spain as quickly as possible.

The alternative, Port de Larrau (1573m) and Col d'Erroymendi (1362m), was marked as scenic on the michelin map, and indeed it was quite pretty, but for most of the climb we were dogged by a large number of flies which whirled around our head creating an annoying buzzing sound. As we neared the summit of the climb, we saw the reason for them --- there were lots of horses, goats, and sheep on the road (no cows, though), and the fecal matter on the road was substantial. Once we got through the summit tunnel, however, we were exposed to a North wind that got rid of most of the flies and descending speeds meant that no flies could keep up with us.

Past Col d'Erroymendi, the road got really steep, and the descent was amazingly fast. Even Roberto admitted to pulling on the brakes out of fear at some points during the descent. In Larrau proper, Roberto asked for a lunch stop, and we treated ourselves to a two hour French lunch after the anemic Spanish equivalents the evening before.

Unfortunately, French lunches take no less than 2 hours, and it wasn't till 3:00pm that we ste off again down D26 towards Tardlets-Sorholus. Once we got to the intersection with the minor road D759 at Atherey, however, I couldn't resist the white road and chose to head towards Haux and Montory instead, which took in the minor pass Col de Serra (368m). That dropped us off on D918 where a minor climb to Lanne-en-Baretous led us to a descent towards Aramits, then Arette, and the major road towards Escot and the Col de Marie-Blanque.

It was at this point that we first encountered the official Raid Pyrenees groups --- unloaded cycle tourists who'd committed to doing 18 cols and 720km in 6 days. Being unloaded meant that they could do longer distances a day, but having to have support meant that they couldn't decide which hills to do on a daily basis, since the Raid Pyrenees organization decides which Cols must be done. They passed us in a maze of color, and we watched them go buy, knowing that we were paying half their costs by carrying lugguage ourselves.

Co de Marie-Blanque (1035m) was our first tough pass, averaging between 10-13% grades almost the entire way from about 300m or so. Coming in at the end of the day, it was a fun challenge, but the overcast skies made the climb quite enjoyable. Light traffic meant I could eschew my helmet in favor of my cycling cap, and made me feel like I was really touring. I was hoping to get to Laruns that day, but by the time I got to the summit, it was nearly 6:00pm, which made that unlikely. Fortunately, I ran into a French cyclist at the summit who knew the local hotels, and he called and made us reservations at a hotel in Bielle, though apparently the hotel was not serving dinner that night, so we'd have to go elsewhere to eat.

When everyone arrived at the summit we started the descent. Given the fading light, we could have gone fast but the descent was so pretty that we slowed down often or even stopped to take pictures. Not that photographs could have done the scenery justice --- the descent was gentle swooping curves overlooking a valley, with pastures and beautiful houses to the side, and an occasional rise so you could see how much more descending you had to do and how high you were with respect to the valley.

The hotel was a Logis de France operation, and pointed us at a restaurant in Castet a good 3km away, so we had to drop our lugguage, put lights on our bikes, and ride to the restaurant for dinner. All in all, a good day with 97.9km, 2116m climb, as respectable as a day in the Alps.
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