Ah zis is vare funny - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Ah zis is vare funny

Just outside Aire, there's a bike track. I don't mean a bike path; I mean one of those wall-of-death race circuits. I'd seen it on a ride to the Semaine Fédérale, the big annual bike rally - 15,000 cyclos taking over a region for a week - but I hadn't stopped. This time I did. A magnificent track it was, too, and steeply banked. I couldn't go inside because it was locked but I stood at the gates and saw that the legend above them dedicated the track to Jacques Anquetil and Luis Ocaña.

Jacques Anquetil was my hero when I was in my teens. In France, you had to be for Raymond Poulidor or for Anquetil, in the way that

Jacques Anquetil remembered
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in Britain it wasn't allowed to like both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. France was split by the issue, some going for the amiable, slow-talking Poulidor who always came second and some for the cold, matter-of-fact Anquetil who won five Tours in as unadventurous manner as he could contrive.

To this day, politicians are asked who they favoured in their youth. When a reporter asked Lionel Jospin, he said he loved Poulidor for his grit and determination in the face of insuperable odds but he admired Anquetil for being a winner. Jospin, who was prime minister but never the president, was a Poulidor who dreamed of being an Anquetil.

To this day France is divided in its view of Jacques Anquetil
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Luis Ocaña was neither. He was the Spaniard who lived in France and looked the only man capable of beating Eddy Merckx. Like Anquetil, he died young. Unlike Anquetil, he shot himself.

The main road grew dull after Aire. A climb out of the town and then a flat route nationale which led line-straight to Pau. The traffic was manageable and riding that way saved time and a lot of climbing. But I was glad to turn off for Arzacq, another village visited on the way to the Sem Fed.

That road turned out a treat, not least because I'd expected it to be hilly. That was my memory. Instead, there was a drop and a lengthy section of flat riding almost all the way. The only drawback was the heat. The temperature had been high for days and now it was probably in the mid-30s. Feeling tired, hungry and thirsty, I turned into a shaded area beside a stream and opposite a collection of houses and fell asleep for half an hour on a bench.

It wasn't total salvation because I still didn't have the energy to ride the hill into Arzacq but it did make a difference. And bananas, a bottle of drink and a coffee made a bit more. By now, my route was on the Compostelle pilgrimage route. People cycle or more usually walk it from all over western Europe and maybe from the east as well. There are long feeder routes which come together after the Pyrenees to lead to the place of pilgrimage at Santiago.

Going into Oloron-Ste-Marie for that Semaine Fédérale, I passed two Belgians doing the walk. I shouted to them on the other side of the road and I'd have liked to have talked. But I couldn't because the traffic was too heavy to cross. And why would I have liked to have talked? Because they had walked from northern Belgium... pushing a builder's wheelbarrow.

The Jacquots who reached me in Arzacq - someone who walks the St-Jacques-de-Compostelle is known as a Jacquot - were walkers rather than wheelbarrow pilots. I'd passed them on the approach to the village and they recaught me as I sat in the shade and downed a bottle of fizz.

"Where's the centre d'accueil?"

I had no idea. What centre d'accueil? I apologised for not being from the area. The idea of the Compostelle hadn't occurred to me. Later I found I'd been just 60 metres from what was in effect a youth hostel, although whether it was solely for pilgrims I never found out.

There is only one feasible way from here to Mourenx, the entry town to the Pyrenean foothills and the town in which Eddy Merckx won a stage of the Tour by eight minutes after riding alone for three and a half hours. Maybe it was that sort of spirit that inspired me to camp wild. I found a site in a long grassy field between trees and a maize field. I dreamed that some horrible crime had been committed in the maize - a product of distant voices and a worry of being discovered, perhaps - but apart from that the night was wonderful.

Mourenx on the other hand was horrible, an industrial gas-producing annex to Pau. I bought bread and coffee in a concrete market area, then escaped to ride the hills to Navarrenx. Some unfortunate signposting which appeared to send traffic on a circuit of the inner town had a surprise benefit. Not only did it give me a better view of the town's ancient ramparts but it brought me up to a couple in their 50s, astride loaded mountain bikes and staring into a shop window.

"We are riding back from Santiago", the man said, pointing to the shell hanging from his many bags. The shell, I discovered, was the symbol of pilgrimage. "We are from Germany. We are riding back."

"And you rode there as well?"

"Yes."

"So how long are you away for?"

"Three months, maybe. It isn't important."

Was I also riding the Compostelle route, they wanted to know. No, I said, I was riding to Madrid.

"Why?"

Because my mother-in-law was visiting and it was better to be in Madrid - or anywhere - than at home. The man roared with laughter, with that special ho-ho that only Germans can manage.

"Oh, ho-ho, zis is vare funny. Ho-ho! Yes, muzzers-in-law. Ho-ho, yes!"

He was still laughing as I rode off. I rather liked him.

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