Roule, putain, roule! - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Roule, putain, roule!

That was the end of the laughter, though. The hills continued to Mauléon and then the road fell worryingly flat - worryingly because in the shadow of the Pyrenees that means the main climbs are coming. And it was hot and I already felt weary.

A brief rest in the shade did nothing but make me muddy, so I pressed on along the valley that separates Tardets from the start of the climb below Larrau. It was at Larrau that I thought the serious business would begin, but I knew I was wrong when I was already walking four kilometres before I got there.

A Logis de France stood at one side of the road and I stopped for a drink. My belief was that the road would drop a bit before starting to rise again. But two Belgians told me otherwise.

"It goes..." With his hand one of them imitated an aircraft taking off. "Like that. Ten per cent for another eight kilometres. Whoof!"

Depressed, I asked for a room at the hotel, to be the fresher next morning. But a car rally had taken all the beds for far around and the Belgians were staying there only because they'd booked the previous January.

"We're riding to Santiago", the more talkative one said. "From Belgium." His jersey was a mass of advertising in Dutch. I held off talking about wheelbarrows. "You have too much luggage," he said, pointing at my bike festooned with bags and a tent. "You should travel more like this."

To my disbelief, he reached under the table and brought out no more than a cloth shoulder bag little larger than the ones they hold out in the Tour de France to kit the riders out with sandwiches.

"You don't need more than that," he said. "You want a drink? You'll need one. When you get to the top you'll see I was right."

At first I could ride, but then the gradient steepened and I began to walk. Most climbs vary in gradient and it's possible to walk a bit, ride a bit, even if the proportions aren't equal. But when the Belgians said eight kilometres at ten per cent, that was just what they meant: it went straight up without a hint of relief.

The more it rose, the more I began to grow weary and the more the sides of the climb were steep upwards or downwards. No hope of pitching a tent. And when I did see a plateau below the road, it seemed too near the top and also too open to public view to be of use. I pressed on.

By now shortage of oxygen began adding to my troubles, and a growing shortage of water. I am no good when I lack either. For the first time in my life, I hitched for a lift. Traffic, though, was sparse and almost restricted to cars. No room for bikes. A delivery van slowed, then accelerated. Then two Spaniards heading for Pamplona halted and filled my bottles. But other than that and the break from walking every dozen steps, there was nothing. Only at the very top, the last few hundred metres, could I ride again.

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The col de Erroymendi is at 1,350m but it's not the top of the mountain. From there I could see the road fall steeply again. I couldn't see where the climb started again but I knew it was there and I knew equally that I couldn't chance finding somewhere to camp. The summit, on the other hand, was a near-hairpin in the road with short mountain grass on both sides, a rise in one direction and a fall in the other. A single house stood in the dip caused by bends in the road. Sheep by the hundred grazed on the other side of the road.

I scouted for a tent space but the ground was corrugated and broken by small rocks. Nevertheless I found somewhere and debated for a while whether to sleep in a small wooden and roofless enclosure instead. At least then the sheep couldn't trample the tent if they changed side of the road in the night. There was nothing to stop them doing that.

In the end I pitched the tent where nobody would see it without looking and obstructed one side with my bike and the other with wood pulled from the enclosure. I fell asleep immediately.

Perhaps an hour later I was woken by the ringing of sheep bells. They were getting closer and I grew concerned that the flock had decided to move to my side. But no: they were being rounded up by a dog and moved to, presumably, an enclosure for the night. By the time I peered out of the tent, the ringing had already started sounding more distant.

The night was warm and still. But not for long. Mountain winds build in no time and within minutes a gale was blowing, plucking at the tent and making sleep impossible. I lay there for a while and then remembered my ear plugs. I climbed naked out of the tent, found them in a side pocket of a bag, fitted them and eventually went back to a less than perfect sleep. Next morning the wind had dropped but the valley had filled with thick white mist, making me higher than the clouds.

It was beautiful, like being on a rocky island in a fluffy grey sea. For the first time I was glad I hadn't had the hotel bed instead of the Belgians. I may have had the harder time and the less sleep-filled night but I had that wonderful dawn view. I was on top of the clouds. And that in turn meant they would be grimping up the mountain that morning through thick fog.

That morning, I woke as if on a rocky island in a fluffy grey sea
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I didn't feel too bad, considering the day before. Hungry, though, because I'd eaten neither in the evening nor that morning, and dry because I'd finished all but a mouthful of water the previous day. I began the drop and then the first part of the second climb. After that it didn't seem worth fighting any more so, with the help of water that I trusted had come from a spring as it plopped erratically into a sheep trough, I rode where I could and walked where I couldn't.

The top of the port de Larrau is on a hairpin with a drop to one side and a ridge of rock on the other.

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"Ils arrivent toujours à pied, les cyclistes" joked one of the walkers on the ridge. Which was probably true, because if you had anything more than Belgian cloth bags, it was easier to arrive à pied - on foot - than to ride.

The walkers waved me good luck - it wasn't until later that I wondered how they had got that high so early in the day - and then I heard more noise from a group of youths hidden from view. Why they were high-spirited at that time of the morning, I also don't know, but it was concerning.

"Roule, putain, roule" one of them shouted. A not entirely polite encouragement to get on and ride. I tried to ignore them and propped my bike against the summit sign on the other side of the road. A handful of pebbles came in my direction, not intended to hit me but to scatter on the ground. And then a couple of youths with an eiderdown over their heads ran - entertainingly, I have to admit - a handful of steps before pausing as though they were invisible beneath their cover, then running again. I laughed but when they got to the bike and made to run off with it - unlikely given its weight - I told them they'd gone too far and fortunately they went off without protest.

I was glad to be at the top, glad to leave them, disappointed that there had been no frontier sign for Spain. The best I had for a photo was a scarlet panel welcoming me to the region of Navarra.

No welcome to Spain at the summit... just news of another administrative region. All that sweat for nothing!
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