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D´tour detour October 1, 2006

Posted by Amanda in Travel Diary.

One thing about this sort of travel is that it gives you a lot of scope to change your plans at the last minute. We went off on a pretty major tangent this week. On Tuesday night we were at Pisa airport waiting to fly to Girona in Spain and got talking to an American guy sitting next to us. It soon came out that he was a keen cyclist on his way to the Pyrenees in southern France for a cycling holiday. As you can imagine, he and Chris had a lot to talk about and eventually Mark asked Chris if he wanted to hitch a ride and come cycling with him. After some hesitation (mostly involving something to do with a 42/23 gear ratio??), we decided that chance to first drive across the Pyrenees and then for Chris to cycle there was too good to pass up. For those of you who are not cycling obsessed, the Tour de France regularly goes through this area and it is usually the first of the mountain stages.

So we took a spectacular drive through the mountains and ended up in the small town of Ax-les-Thermes (Axe Lez Thurmees to some). Mark was staying at a B&B he had stayed at previously and we took a chance that we could stay there too. Chez2e is up above the village with a fantastic view over the mountains and Alan (the owner) and Globule (the cat) made us very welcome even though a misunderstanding meant that Alan had been waiting for us for about four hours when we arrived. Mark was even nice enough to let us share his room on the last night.
Ax is a spa town which also has ski fields and great walking and bicycling nearby. Except for one foot bath in the square, all the thermal baths are in hospitals that you have to have a prescription for.

The next day Chris went on two rides with Mark. In the morning they went for about an hour and a half up two ‘cols’ (mountain passes) that were about 1400m high. In the afternoon they did part of the ‘haute categorie’ Tour de France stage that Lance Armstrong won two years ago. ‘Haute Categorie’ means that the climb is so tough that is beyond the category system.

On Friday Mark and Chris rode to the Vallee d’Orlu and the Col-de-Choula which had a gradient of 8.5%.

What was I doing you ask? I was sitting on the verandah patting the cat, reading books and taking photos of clouds and giant bumblebees. It was great.

On Friday night, Alan cooked us a Moroccan feast that we shared with a French family that could have stepped out of a magazine. There was the beautiful and slim, dark haired mother, the handsome and funny salt and pepper haired dad and four gorgeous, incredibly polite children named Camille, Louis, Melanie and Florian. Each of the children kissed us all on each cheek and said ‘Bon Nuit’ before they went to bed. They had a golden labrador Cece who was also very well behaved. They were staying at L´Alpage for a mushrooming weekend.

Today we said goodbye to our new friends and caught the train to Barcelona.



1. Phil - October 1, 2006

Nice detour, how’d Chris fare at altitude? Not to mention the gradients.

2. sonael - October 11, 2006

Wow. That’s something I could definitely enjoy, as I love mountains. It reminds me of the “Restaurant at the end of the Universe” in Nepal but it’s probably nothing like that at all! A very inspired detour indeed.

3. Dev Tobin - October 11, 2006

I stayed at Tooey’s with Mark on our bike trip in 2004.

It really is a wonderful place, the deck is awesome, and Tooey is the perfect B&B host.

Ax is a delightful town, though it does need a way for travelers to get more of the hot water than the foot bath, which is historic and all, but limited to feet.

The best thing about travel is the serendipitous “d’tour,” like yours with Mark in Ax.

Your photos are great, and evoked fond memories.

Thanks for the vicarious cyber-trip to Ax.

Have a marvelous, safe trip the rest of the way.

4. Mark - October 12, 2006

Hey Roomies! (that’s American slang for roommates),

Glad to see you made it to Spain and I hope the train ride was better
than the motor route.

I must admit on the drive back I got some motion sickness on that really winding road in Spain.

I wish you could have stayed a few more days, if just for a few
more laughs.

After I dropped you off at the train station, I did the Col de Pradel (the first right turn going up the Chiola) and returned to the house to find new best friends and sure enough Phillipe and Valerie et al were back from that day’s mushroom forage.

The girls had schoolwork spread out on the dining table and Valerie was intently helping them while Phillipe and the boys prepared the day’s catch of cepes. We had a mushroom break (delicious!) and Phillipe joined in with the schoolwork for a while and I played with
the boys.

After an hour or so, Phillipe announced they were going to dinner in Ax and did I want to join them … Oh, the joys of new friends!

So this prudent and proper family ,after a serious mushroom hunt and four hours of strict homework (on a Saturday?), all piled in the SUV, as did I.

Then IT happened. Phillipe got a wild look in his eye as he keyed the truck, and in the same motion he pushed a CD in the player and the volume to MAX. It was DEEP PURPLE’S SMOKE ON THE WATER at a digital threshold the likes of which this American heavymetalhead had never experienced.

Immediately there were six French heads bobbing in unison as well as six throats chorusing the initial oh-so-familiar bars. Soon the vehicle itself was bouncing to the booming bass beat as Phillipe drove the half dozen switchbacks down to the village like a frenzied Formula 1 race driver.

I just laughed really hard the whole way down, with my fingers in my ears.

After adopting me, the next day they left for Toulouse, and Alan, the
perfect host, became my new best friend by default.

I cycled every day following his suggestions, and every route was
fantastic. The major climbs were the Col de Pailhere and the Plateau de Beille (which will be a Tour stage finish in ’07). Both were19K and 7 to 9% gradients.

Phil, I can attest to Chris’s stamina for I was there. Pushing a heavy
gear (was it 52/12 or 53?), he would have impressed the Kaiser himself. Seriously, he outpaced me and I’m no slouch in the hills.

The greatness of the Pyrenees are the length and steadiness of the climbs with little relief of gradient, the absence of traffic, and excellent road surfaces.

I must also note that not only did Amanda carry her own bags, she also carried mine some distance from the hotel in Gerona because I was to wimpy to drive the rental car down the narrow street it was on. (They really were narrow!)

Thanks Amanda, and cheering up Globule after you left was no easy task!

Cheers, Chris and I hope you get some good tail(wind) always…


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