Thursday, July 27, 2017

La Jonchere, France to Perpignan, France: Beaches, Mountains, and Francois

When we last left off, more than two weeks ago, I was staying in a cabin graciously lent to me by a stranger I met in England. That was wonderful, and part of me didn't want to leave; as is always the case, however, I had the rest of the world to see!

A few reminders/notes/whatever before we begin:
- As I've said before, it can be some time between updates. We're at more than two weeks now! Blogging takes time, especially quality blogging. I will always choose adventure over finding wifi, and when I pass through areas that don't have much wifi or if I don't have a lot of free time, it will be a while between updates. I will try and post a photo or two to Instagram (which then auto-posts to Facebook) so people know I'm alive, but I make no promises.
- I do, however, enjoy writing. It's as much for me as for my audience, so I will at some point catch up, if only so I can recount the past for my own benefit (and perhaps the benefit of a book, one day?).
- Since I do have more than two weeks to catch up on, this post will be quite long. I will try and insert breaks so you don't have to read it all at once.

1. - - -

I left La Jonchere to continue down the coast of western France, hoping to run into Hans again (see previous post if you don't recall who Hans is) so we could have good laughs together. The next few days would be a blur of beaches and croissants and heat waves; my schedule became something like:
- Get up around 7.
- Leave camp by 7:45.
- Head into town and find a boulangerie, have breakfast.
- Bike until about 2, or whenever it gets so hot I feel I can't continue.
- Find a beach.
- Take lunch.
- Pray nobody steals my bike, locked up in the most covert corner or the parking lot (not very covert) with my wallet and phone hidden inside, while I...
- Go swimming.
- Take a nap in the sun.
- Return to my bike, find water, bike until 9-ish, find a place to camp.
- Sleep almost naked on top of my sleeping pad until about 2 AM when it's finally something not resembling "hot," get into my sleeping bag.
- Repeat.

Some beaches were touristy; others were not. Some towns were touristy; others were not. I didn't meet many people these few days – I did see many other tourists, but few were going my way. There was a youth group headed my same way, but the kids seemed to be focused on being kids and the adults seemed to be focused on watching the kids. Once while having breakfast at a boulangerie, I met three English tourists headed my same way, and we had breakfast together, which was nice. They left before me, and I passed them again in the next town, but I haven't seen them since. No Hans.

Chasson aux pommes (apple stuffed croissants), my favorite French pastry.

I did meet two very kind Germans on vacation at one of the beaches – they had lost the keys to their camper so were stuck there for a few days while a friend mailed a spare key to them. I was sitting along at a picnic point and they asked if they could sit with me; thus commenced our friendship. One of them played the uke, and I was actually wise enough to get a recording this time! So that will go up on the map when I have time. They almost convinced me to stay at the surfing school for a week and learn to surf, as it was that magic 2-o'clock lunch time and the last thing I wanted to do was cycle. Yes, I seriously considered staying at a hostel on a beach in France for a week learning to surf... but eventually the road (and my budget) called me onwards. After my ritual beach swim-nap-oh god is my bike still there? I tried to catch them for dinner, but they weren't at their camper van. I left a thank-you for the food, wine, and friendship they had shared, and went on my way.

France has some beautiful beaches. The bikes help.

Most of the southwestern edge of France, it turns out, is pine forest – you're either in a town (the "beach" part of the town, full of tourists, or the not-beach part of town, usually about 15 km away, where the locals live) or in a pine forest (a friend I made while staying at La Jonchere said to me, "I will never again think twice about how much toilet paper I use!" I'm not sure one forest could make up for everyone being callous with their paper use, but I get it... there were a lot of trees. Trees for days. Literally).

The first of these days was also broken up by Bastille day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a turning point in the French Revolution. I passed through a larger town call La Rochelle, where, downtown, people were everywhere, partying, eating, buying stuff, walking... you know, celebrating life by being outside and with friends. For me, it was either go through the city center or take a 10 mile detour around the city, because of the way the bridges worked. I opted to go through the city center, though with my bike I wasn't able to enjoy the party too much as I was worried about theives. But it was nice to see so many people outside celebrating. I found a spot just outside town and watched the fireworks from the beach. Those in La Rochelle were nearest, but from my vantage point on the coast (with islands and therefore cities in every direction) I saw at least 5 other sets of fireworks from a distance. It was beautiful, and a nice trade for having missed Independence Day in the US, but I was a bit lonely.

2. - - -

After four nights of what I'll call "the hot beach routine," I finally found myself a Warmshowers host in Bayonne, a city in the southwest corner of France. My plan was... make a plan! If I didn't mention it in my last post, I was, basically at a crossroads: do the Camino de Santiago and end up in the northwestern corner of Spain, needing to backtrack everything I'd just done to get to Italy, or...? I could do whatever I wanted, of course, but I absolutely loathe both backtracking and flying with my bike, nor did I have enough time to do the perimeter of Spain, so doing the Camino seemed a sure way to frustrate myself. It's on my bucket list, but it wasn't high on my list when I arrived at Bayonne.

Turns out, there was another tourist staying with my host that night: Francois.

Francois is from Quebec, Canada, and he's on his second tour, which he calls the Tour de France. The thing is – it's actually a tour de France. When he was little, he used to watch the Tour on TV and think, "Man, that's cool! They see all of France! The coast, the mountains, the rivers..." One day, though, the truth was revealed: The Tour doesn't actually include all of France. They hope from place to place, doing only a fraction of the perimeter, or even of a vertical or lateral crossing. So Francois's idea was born... do an actual Tour de France. He flew into Strassbourg, Germany about 6 weeks ago and came across the top of France, down the western coast, and was now heading in the Pyrenees to do the Route des Cols, an extremely difficult route along the French-Spanish border comprising of about 15-34 cols (depending on the exact route). "Col" doesn't have an exact English translation, but we might say "summit" or "top" – the part of the road that crests, the local maxima.

The altitude map looks like this:

Needless to say, I was intrigued. Someone to travel with; a beautiful, challenging route through a part of the world I'd never been to before; and a way to move east without feeling like I'd done Spain too much injustice? Yes please.

That night, Francois and our host, Lucienne, shared touring stories, hosting stories, music, wine, and food, and I went to bed feeling like I'd been handed the next week of the tour on a silver platter. Dinner was "omelette," which made Francois and I laugh because it wasn't an omelette, it was more like eggs, potatoes, and vegetables put in a pan and stirred, but it was "supposed to be an omelette," said Lucienne, it just got away from him. Regardless of what it was or what it was supposed to be, it was delicious. That night was special for Lucienne, too, as usually he just hosted people doing a tour of a few days, or, via Couchsurfing, people in town for a few days. We were his first cross-country tourists, and there were two of us.

We spoke mostly in English, which I appreciated. Having had to speak French exclusively since leaving La Jonchere, my head hurt a bit. Francois grew up in a French speaking family, so he and Lucienne would occasionally converse in French. I tried to follow, and could occasionally join in. I wanted to speak French since I was in France, but it was nice to have conversations I knew I could completely understand, too.

The next morning, Francois and I left to begin Le Route des Cols. The next week would be one of the most physically challenging of the tour, but Francois and I would become fast friends, and the end result would be an incredibly rewarding experience and a memorable week (spoiler alert?).

3. - - -

We stopped at a beach to get our bearings – the Route didn't translate easily to Google Maps, so we would spend a lot of time mapping the Cols on the Route to a map we could use to navigate. We made out way to the next town, St. Jean-de-Luz, where both the Route and the Camino officially started. Here we had lunch and confirmed we were a good fit – we both biked about the same speed, had the same ideas about when and where to stop (for breaks, finding food, etc)., and we shared the same sense of humor. After lunch and some difficulty leaving town (we tried to stay on the signed Eurovelo 1 route, but it sometimes chooses scenery over speed, and we would get plenty of scenery in the Pyrenees... eventually we left it and made our own way out of town), we started climbing.

The first col wasn't an official col, it was just a high spot, but already it was one of the longest hills I'd done – the only one longer perhaps being the Mendips just south of Bristol; the only one taller perhaps being any hill in Pittsburgh (okay, I'm not counting the Continental Divide in the US because it was only a 2% grade, though a 2% grade for about 200 miles). We entered Spain, descended, and then began the actual first col, Otxondo, to an altitude of 602 meters (about 2000 feet, or 2/5ths of a vertical mile).

Remember, earlier that day we had done some route planning on a beach at sea level.

A quarter of the way up, we passed some tourists admiring the view. I told them we were looking for ice cream – was there some at the top, maybe? Shortly after I spouted a few swear words, and Francois's response was, "You know this is one of the easier ones, right?"

At that moment I wouldn't describe my sentiment as doubt, exactly, but I definitely knew I was in for a challenge. I didn't, at the time, know that I was a quarter of the way up. I didn't really have any idea how far 602m was, or how long it would take, or how I would feel at the end. I ended up taking my shirt off to stay cool, and it ended up taking about 30 minutes of pedaling uphill.

We celebrated the summit with croissants, galettes (butter cookies), fruit, and peanuts (I haven't mentioned this yet but there's no peanut butter in France – it's only imported from the UK, and therefore it's very expensive. They'd rather have cheese or jam on their bread. Which isn't exactly devastating, as I love cheese...). I felt as if I'd run the first part of a marathon. I could definitely do another... but 10? 15? 35? I didn't know. I just resolved to pedal until I couldn't pedal any more.

4. - - -

The second col was easier. It took a bit longer, but it was a consistent, maybe 5% grade, which is strenuous, but not so strenuous I ever needed to stand up. I could just exert a continuous, non-draining effort, and even have a conversation with Francois at the same time, and ride all the way to the top. With my shirt off, of course. I run hot.

We stopped at the top of the second col, on the French-Spanish border, to route plan and refuel a bit. The Tour de France was on TV and the barista spoke French with a Spanish accent, which was interesting. Some pictures at the top and we began our descent.

And then it began to rain.

And then it began to hail.

And then Francois's brakes began to fail.

This was about the time we began to joke about jinxes, which of course aren't real, but when you're riding throught the Pyreness and you get hailed on and your brakes go weak on a 400 meter descent, you don't want to take any risks. We found a roof and Francois adjusted his brakes while we waited out the rain. The rain would come and go over the next few hours, for the most part it would be just a little warm but with a cool mist, and at one point I found myself coasting shirtless on a carless road, a breeze cooling me, underneath the mixed weather, my arms stretched out like I was on top of the world, because indeed, for a brief moment it felt that way. I had done two ascents, I had survived hail, I was in the middle of the freaking Pyrenees with a new friend, and even a few cars that passed by honked encouragingly at my shirtless status (climbing cols is a group activity, obviously).

We made it to a grocery store just at it was closing – "five minutes!" they shouted as we ran in, and we got a feast to celebrate having met and having begun this portion of the trip together before continuing to the third col. The combined adrenaline of having made two cols, riding shirtless through the breeze and the rain, and needing to rush to get our groceries was almost too much. After a snack outside the closed store (and encountering a very drunk vagabond as we searched for a place to relieve ourselves), we made a wrong turn as the rain poured down again, but by the time we made it to the col, the rain had let up.

We went as far as we could while the sun set in the distance (the first 200 meters were much steeper than advertised; I am not ashamed to say I zig-zagged at times), and when we couldn't go any further a cheese factory appeared out of nowhere and we made camp behind it. There, with the smell of fresh cheese flowing out of the vents and the rain holding up just long enough for us to pass a bottle of cider back and fourth between the vestibules of our tents, we celebrated our first day in the Pyrenees. The only downside was that in our rush to get out of the grocery store, we didn't notice the cider was only 4 proof – still delicious, though, with M&Ms, sausage, chassons aux pommes, and cheese and bread.

5. - - -

The next day we awoke not to rain, but to fog. One hazard of climbing mountains in the Pyrenees is that you sometimes find yourself at the same altitude as the clouds. We packed up camp, warmed up our legs, and continued on up the hill. This one was higher and seemed steeper than either the first or second col, and it had what we deemed a "mini col --" a col just below a higher one.

We made the top of the mini col and descended about 200 vertical meters, with cows and cars occasionally coming out of the fog to greet us, before coming upon a cabin in a mini valley where we stopped for water. Or, we thought we were going to stop for water, but then we saw... a fireplace.

Oh my god we wanted to stay there forever. I managed to stumble my way through flirting with one of the baristas, too ("stumble my way through flirting" = "you have a nice smile." Subtle, I know). The cold and wet of being inside a cloud had seeped through our clothing, and for the rest of that day and the next our options for staying warm were be by a fire, pedal up a hill, or change into dry clothes (which would promptly get wet). Here again we became wary of jinxing it... though of course jinxes aren't real.

We made it to the top of the not-mini-col, and at some point I (unbelievably) passed Francois, as he wasn't at the top when I got there. I was a little worried we might lose each other, as he had the route and I did not, and service was spotty so we couldn't exactly call each other. I asked in broken French if anyone ascending had seem him, but nobody had. Turns out he'd just gone off the road to use the loo, as he showed up eventually. But just for the record, I did beat you up one col, Francois... (this is a joke. I'll talk more about this in a bit, but climbing like we did is very personal. You're only competing with yourself, and you're hardly competing. More later...).

This is part of a series called "dwindling enthusiasm," which we may or may not have actually completed.

As we descended, Francois had to stop again to adjust his brakes. Just before we started to freeze from not moving, he managed to get them going well enough he could descend. The rest of that day was fairly non-eventful except that we managed to somehow find wifi in exchange for a 3 Euro basket of fries... wifi in the rural Pyrenees, you can imagine, is not so easy to come by.

We stopped in the next semi-major town to get new brake pads for Francois and somewhat expensive food for the next climb before heading out of town. The rain continued and this is when we began calling things "average..." we didn't hope for weather or dare be happy when the rain let up, as it would just continue again. Francois's panniers were "semi-waterproof," so after basically two days of rain all his clothes were damp except those on the very bottom. His electronics bag was leaking, and the mount for his camera broke, too. With all that was going wrong we decided to skip two cols to spend the time on repairs instead. I didn't admit this to Francois at the time, but I was still trying not to feel doubts about my ability to do ALL the cols, and skipping two of them gave me a slight sense of relief.

Around 8 PM, we were wondering what else could go wrong, when I heard Francois let out a laugh: his tire had flatted. At that point we decided, jinxes or not, we should cut our losses. We'd passed a barn just as his tire went flat; the owner was very, very oddly insistent that we not smoke (he said it three times when we asked and came by later just to remind us that we not smoke), but we were out of the rain for the night and set up a clothesline in the barn to dry everything overnight.

I wouldn't exactly say we were hanging on by a thread, but morale was low, and we were wondering, but not saying we we wondering (okay, occasionally saying we were wondering), if anything else could possibly go wrong.

6. - - -

The next morning, it wasn't raining! That is, until Francois put on new brake pads – then it was raining. His brakes aren't exactly made for his bike, so it took us about two hours to get everything set. As much as we would have loved to stay in that barn, out of the rain, we were determined not to be beat by the weather, mechanical failures, or the god of jinxing – not that there is one (or would that be double jinxing it?).

We made it to the next town and prepared for our biggest climb yet and the second largest of the journey, the Col d'Aubisque. Often used in the Tour de France (the "real" one... or the not real one?), this remains my favorite climb. At the grocery store beforehand I found a bag of mini chassons aux pommes, which, if I haven't said it enough yet, is my favorite pastry. They weren't the best chassons aux pommes I had ever had, but the fact that there were a lot of them and I could have one or two as a "boost" when climbing was spectacular. As we ate in the vestibule of the grocery store, techno music blared over the speakers, and just before we left, a slow, quiet build-up song much like Requiem for a Dream or something by Two Steps From Hell played. It was as if even the grocery store was cheering us on, but I'm sure it was just someone who picked the wrong radio station. Francois and I both picked up some candy as a morale boost, which would become a theme over the next few days (some grocery stores sell packs of 6 Snickers bars for 1.25 Euro...).

I was, in a word, pumped.

The climb was quite challenging, but since we rode through a cloud, it was quite cool. Francois pulled away from me after about 20 minutes, which always happens, so for the most part I was alone. Periodically headlights would appear in front or me or I'd hear an engine straining behind me to indicate a passing car. Periodically a racing bike would go by and we'd exchange bonjours, or I'd hear a freewheel clicking as someone appeared out of the mist ahead and the disappeared just as suddenly below. But for the most part, I was alone, with the fog keeping me cool and nothing but my breath, my thoughts, and the occasional distant cowbell to keep me company. It was one of the most zen things I've ever done.

About 85% of the way there was a village which seemed to serve no purpose other than hosting tourists and spectators of the Tour (I apologize if I got this wrong – it was a nice village, but there was not much there besides hotels and restuarants, and I assume no locals except for shepherds and those running the establishments. Perhaps, though, this is just my narrow-minded impression from my five-minute visit!), but for us it served as a quick break to refill water and view a break in the clouds. We could see the summit, and this energized us enough to continue onwards just as the clouds took over again. Again Francois pulled away from me, and I was alone in the clouds for 25 minutes until I started to emerge from them, and then I could hardly pedal as the view was so spectacular.

I could hardly pedal, so don't ask me how I took this photo while pedaling.

We feasted at the top, enjoying the view and the sun, before the clouds took over once more. A mini col, a beautiful descent, some wifi at a restuarant where we split a huge plate of sausage spaghetti, and a great camping spot ended the day.

7. - - -

Day 4 in the Pyrenees would be my hardest yet – the biggest climb of the route, the Col de Tourmalet. It took me about three hours. Three hours of going uphill. I ran out of water and had to stop at a creek to refill – I hoped it was high enough that there was nothing higher up which had contaminated it. What seemed like hundreds of other cyclists were doing the route, and there were motorcycles and cars as well – zig-zagging was out, even for the last km, which had an average grade of 10%. There were photographers there taking your picture and handing you their card, and as I started the last 500 meters a Kiwi passed me and said with an accent, "What a way to finish." Francois was waiting 30 meters from the top, and he jogged along beside me, cheering me on.

I made it to the top of the Col de Tourmalet.

We celebrated briefly, but the only picnic tables were proprietary, so after changing into warmer clothes for the descent we continued into the town below to take lunch. While changing I dropped my wallet and almost left it at the top, but after about 50 meters I checked my pockets and found it missing – thank goodness I checked then! -- and walked back up to get it. I was briefly, playfully shamed by someone for walking up before I explained I had dropped my wallet, and he backed off.

Immediately after lunch we started another col. Coming after the Col de Tourmalet, it's the first col I had serious doubts about. I was extremely hot, even shirtless and with my helmet off (sorry Mom – not passing out from heat exhaustion takes priority over the slight possibility of a mobile accident), and had to stop multiple times to let my heartbeat calm. But eventually we made it to the top of our second col of the day.

We descended into the city below, stopped a grocery store and decide a proper celebration was in order. That night, we'd use my cookset to have gnocchi, sausuage, and tomato sauce, and I bought some fresh goat cheese as well (Francois doesn't like cheese... more on this later, maybe). We found a perfect spot to camp, almost invisible from the road, by a river, ended early, and spent the night yammering and feasting and riding the high morale that came from the high altitudes we'd achieved that day. And... it didn't rain.

In France, even small grocery stores have ALL THE CHEESE.

8. - - -

Don't worry though, the jinxes would begin again. Or, the bad luck. Or, whatever you want to call it. The next morning I checked a wobble in my tire to find the sidewall had torn and it was at risk of blowing out. If a tire blows out, it can cause you to wipe out. Going down a hill at 30-40 mph, this can be extremely hazardous. It was extremely disappointing because this tire is the gold standard of touring tires and it was bought in England, not 1,500 miles earlier. I had expected it to last at least 5,000 miles if not 10,000.

We stopped at the bike shop in the next town despite a 1.4/5 average rating. "We're just getting a tire, right? How bad can it be?" It wasn't a jinx, because jinxes aren't real, but the first sign of trouble was that I wasn't allowed to bring my bike in the shop. Pro tip: never go to a bike shop where you can't bring your bike in. That's like taking your car to a mechanic where cars aren't allowed in the shop.

We had what I thought was a simple exchange: I asked for a tire and he gave it to me. I went outside and checked and it was bigger than what I'd asked for. When I went back to ask if he had the right size, he took the tire, went out, held it up to my bike, and insisted it would work. I knew for a fact it wouldn't since I had trouble getting the current tires to fit, which were already larger than I wanted on my bike. I was willing to be humbled though – if I tried it and it didn't fit, could I return it?


Okay then, I wanted to return it, since I was almost certain it wouldn't fit.


I explained the situation and he said okay, let me go help this other customer and we'll talk then. Three customers later Francois interrupted him because we'd been waiting 15 minutes for him to fix his mistake. He explained that he couldn't process the return because I'd paid with a credit card. Francois said a lot of things in French I didn't understand, but he wouldn't process the return. I tried as best I could but the end result was the owner going through papers at the checkout and me saying, verbatim, "So you're just going to ignore me?"

He did.

Never have I been so angry at the service I recieved. But there was nothing to do but leave. I tried the tire just for giggles, and even without the fender, it rubbed on my rack. I decided to ride on it anyways, but partway up the next climb, I could feel it holding me back – I was going 3.5 mph when I should have been going 5, meaning I'd be pedaling an extra half hour by the top. I changed to the wobbly tire and barely made it to the top, having lost so much energy fighting the tire that rubbed in just the first few km. At the top, I changed back to the big tire. This would be the trend for the day.

I tried to be positive about it: I was a super fancy cyclist, I joked. I had an ascending tire and a descending tire! Surely there were no other cyclists as fancy as me. At first I'd tried to fuel my ascent with anger at the owner, but in the end compassion came over it – I wondered what had happened to this person that he cared more about making money than how happy his customers were.

Francois and I shared some chocolate and managed to laugh about the situation. He paused a moment to put on Top Gun's Danger Zone before we descended, me on my fancy descending tire. There were a lot of switchbacks, and halfway down Francois turned his had and shouted, "I HATE THESE TURNS!!!" I was laughing so hard I almost crashed into one of the cement barriers. It was very reminiscent of the bus scene in 500 Days of Summer.

I changed to my ascending tire, we got water from a restuarant that smelled amazing and could we please order everything on the menu but holy **** it's expensive nevermind, and we began our second col of the day.

At the top, it was rainy and cold, but there was a little shack selling crepes for 0.50 Euro.

I could have had 100. I settled for 4. A few other cycle tourists stopped by as well (a guy from Germany and two girls from Scotland), but we had to get to the next bike shop before they closed. I changed to my descending tire and we raced to the bottom. My heart raced as we descended for 30 minutes, once hitting 40 mph, and the distance markers to the next city got smaller... and smaller... and smaller.

And then, lo and behold, after five tire changes...

To top off that day, we had an awesome host we'd set up two night before, Thibault. Thibault is like the ultimate hippy. He once vagabonded for three years on his bike, making money as a busking accordionist.

You heard that right. He once vagabonded for three years on his bike, making money as a busking accordionist. This came out when he saw my uke, which he thought was a violin, and I said I used to play accordion, and out came the accordion, which I promptly hugged and played a tune on, and then Thibault blew us away. Turns out when you play accordion for hours a day every day for 3-4 years, you're a virtuoso. I was smitten.

Also he was a tea connoisseur and I liked this photo.

9. - - -

The next morning, after changing our tires (mine for the sixth and final time to the "good" one; Francois's was just old so he got a new one, too), Thibault led us out of town the next day to show us the community bike shop he ran. I mentioned I was smitten, right?

The next day we left town and it wasn't raining but... after getting kicked out of a grocery store (in France, almost everything closes from 12:30-2:30 for lunch), Francois's chain dropped into his spokes and a spoke broke.

We spent ten minutes deciding what to do – ride on a really wobbly tire? Call Thibault? Get a cab? Eventually we decided to try a "tool" I had called Fiberfix, which is a flexible spoke. I had decided to carry it instead of the tools necessary to replace a spoke, which all told weighed in at about 250g. The Fiberfix is about 20g. I had never used it before, but I had read some very enthusiastic reviews. We fiddled with it a bit, and thank goodness it wasn't raining – we were already stuck in an alley just off a very busy road with no roofs in sight.

It worked.

We did a col and a mini col as it began to rain again, and halfway up our second "real" col for the day (which we'd hoped to finish before spending two hours figuring how to replace a spoke without the proper tools) we called it a night.

10. - - -

Our last day we swapped a harder col for an easier one since we were hard on time, so by the end of the day we would do three "real" cols. The third was our last "real" col in the Pyrenees. I remember going up it and thinking, I'm really going to do this. And I did. It took a Snickers bar and two hours, and the view from the top wasn't as spectacular as some of the others we'd done, but mentally, it was amazing. I'd actually made it! Eleven cols! I recalled wondering multiple times if I could make it, and if I did make it, that I could tell myself I'd done a portion of the Route des Cols – something I can carry with me for the rest of my life. Not the whole Route, not even the three hardest cols (though, two of the three hardest), but on a touring bike? That's an accomplishment. Also... it didn't rain that day, though the morning was cool and we spent a lot of time hoping the sun would come out. Then it did rain, and we spent a lot of time wishing it would go away so we could climb without sweating gallons.

I have no idea what this is but eating it for breakfast in the sun by a river really hit the spot.

The last col: Actually 3 cols in one (with a 4th in another direction).

Of course, I couldn't have done it without the laughter, friendship, and encouragement of Francois. He's a really, really cool guy. He admits his reason for doing such a challenge is his ego – he's always looking to push himself farther, harder, but I never felt as if he'd judge me for quitting. He never judged me for taking breaks, or finishing after him, which I always did except for the one where he stopped to use the loo. He really made me feel like the decision to keep going was mine, and whatever I chose wouldn't be judged in any way, shape, or form. A feeling too rare.

We descended for an hour or so, and a portion of the road had just been refinished, so despite a few switchbacks we had a nice wide, smooth surface to play with. I'm sure there was a song playing in my head but I can't remember what it was. Something celebratory.

We took a last look behind us and set out to find a place for the night. An "average" place. Everything was "average..." the only way not to jinx it. If jinxes were real. Which they aren't.

The next morning we did what I'll call a mini mini col before descending into a semi-major city, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The coffee was expensive, the boulangerie was expensive, the chasson aux pommes were burnt and made with apple sauce instead of baked apples (and a very thin layer of apple sauce, it was practically just a croissant with a hole in the middle). I did pick up some goat cheese from a farmer who had come to market from the mountains, and it was amazing cheese, but... it would have been better melted on some bread with a bit of meat. All the same, we tried to enjoy what we had, which was, of course, the feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps this was one last jinx – I mean, official send-off of the Pyrenees, reminding us what would happen if we came back.

We went through a windy canyon, three more mini mini cols (each one more mini than the last – but over the past two days we technically did 6 cols...), and down a wine valley where we participated in multiple wine tastings. Eventually we made it to Parpignan, where Francois had arranged to stay with the parents of a friend of his. We found a bike shop for Francois to have my Fiberfix replaced with a real spoke. Francois's friend's parents have been kind enough to let me stay an extra day while Francois continues onwards, for which I am really, incredibly grateful. We had dinner with one of their brothers, which, with the wine tastings, means I tried 15 different wines yesterday. The meal was gespacho as an appetizer, grilled calamari (caught locally two days ago – did I mention we're on the Mediterranian?) for the entree, a cheese course (yes, cheese is a course in France...), and ice cream for dessert. It was all, in a word, delicious.

Now it's just for fun. Or was it always?

Should we do a wine tasting?

We're in a wine valley...

Ok yep let's taste some wine.

Aaaaaaand once more for good luck.

I'll remember Francois for a long time.

Plus I mean we're Facebook friends so that's like forever in dog years.

I've also added "more time in Spain" to the bucket list – I have a friend who might be willing to do the Camino with me one day. It is a sad thing that on tour you often have to choose one adventure over the other; as is a theme of this trip, there is always more world to see than can possibly be seen. I now have a few days to kill as I'm waiting for a friend to arrive in Lyon before me, so maybe I'll go to Spain, maybe I'll splurge on a surfing hostel and learn to surf (did I mention it's freaking hot again? For a week we woke up not wanting to leave our sleeping bags, and now I'm sweating it out at sea level again), I don't know. There is definitely another blog post in the works though – what I really feel I need is a home for a week. More on that in a bit.

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