Ales to the col de Pendedis - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 9, 2011

Ales to the col de Pendedis

[This area] is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension... They all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. Except for business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl, they have laid aside even the civility of speech. In the midst of this Babylon I found myself a rallying-point; every one was anxious to be kind and helpful to the stranger... A traveller of my sort was a thing hitherto unheard of in that district.

On the road to the Baraque and its itinerant roadmenders
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AT THE TOP of the col de la Baraque - well, by definition the col is always the top - were a group of roadmenders. They were young for the most part, one so young that he'd grown a Clark Gable moustache to look older. The result was to make him look ridiculous.

He was, though, the most animated of the lot.

"Have some wine," he kept saying. "Good for the vitamins." He clenched the muscle in an upper arm to show the effect that vitamins would have. The more I declined, the more he insisted, until the others saw the point and produced a can of fruit juice instead and rolled it across the back of their yellow-painted truck.

The col de la Baraque is the last of three in succession. The climb starts half an hour from the middle of Alès - another town with aspirations to rival Geneva in the fountain department - and keeps going for 20km. It wasn't hard to imagine the people who lived up here in the trees in the 19th century, nor why as Stevenson observed they would often take to drink. Life must have been hard and tempting to anaesthetise with a bottle.

Birds sang, car-drivers stayed away, and a red squirrel ran out of the undergrowth before turning, with an indignant stamp of his heel, and running back again.
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A baraque is a hut or some other humble dwelling. These days there are scattered houses all the way up, usually to the left of the road where the land starts to fall into the valley. You see little but the semi-circular slates of their roof. In Stevenson's day, there must have been just the one building, the baraque, and people named the hill after it.

It wasn't a hard climb but a climb it was, getting more difficult as the road narrowed and then tilted more for the final attack on the Baraque. I'd started with a litre of water and then run dry. The roadworkers, cooking sausages on a wood fire over what looked like a drain grill, had broken off for lunch.

"Ca monte", Clark Gable shouted as I approached. It was encouragement, appreciation, rather than a statement of the obvious. For it did indeed mount. I stopped pedalling and the loaded bike stopped almost instantly.

"Vous auriez pas d'eau?", I begged, hanging out my tongue in a way such an experienced actor would approve. Simultaneously, they all began looking for water and within moments produced a two-litre bottle. In the old days Tour de France riders were from people like these, men who knew hard work and recognised it in others. From that came their kindness, their production of water, their offer of wine and finally an invitation to share their lunch. I declined all but the water, which soaked my insides with a whoosh of freshness.

"Where have you come from like that?" they asked. People always add the comme ça, the "like that."

I said from Alès. They were improbably impressed, in the way that folk often are.

"And how far are you going?"

I lied. I knew where I was going but I sensed that saying so - a campground two kilometres from a crossroads on the far side of the next col - was going to produce more confusion than good. I could see them insisting on driving me there, which they wouldn't see as missing the point.

"I'll just ride on until I'm tired," I said. "Doesn't matter where I go. I'm just a gitan pédalant."

Clark Gable laughed and grew excited. He pointed to the oldest in the group, a round-faced man in his 30s, the man who'd found both the water and the fruit juice.

"He's a gypsy as well," he cried. That's what gitan means: a gypsy. "He's French, Senegalese and Romanian." He didn't say more. This improbable combination of ancestry, especially the Romanian bit - it is well known that all Romanians are gypsies who will steal the shoes from your feet - was enough. Nobody else took any notice and the round-faced man didn't look interested.

They all grew excited, told me where all the roads went at the next junction and what I'd see. It hadn't occurred to me but you'd expect nothing else of a party of itinerant roadmenders. They waved their hands about and described the beauties to come and the hills to be tackled and all the time their sausages darkened on their fire. I just hope they didn't blame me that they burned.

Not high but a long way up when you start from a long way down.
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I rode on up the remaining kilometre to the col, then down to the left in an eagle's swoop before starting another rise to the col de Pendédis and, on the other side, the village of the same name. And there, after a wonderful day of climbing empty roads to the sound of birdsong and the company of small mammals which fled back into the undergrowth at the unexpected sight of a gitan pédalant, I stopped. A campsite lay down a broken minor road to my right, deep in the valley. It was all the gypsy needed.

Deep in the valley, beyond that single house, lay my camp-site
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