When you do not feel good on a bike, there are few worse places, and no one to blame but yourself. Leaving Rodez, I was in a little dark bubble of misery and inward contemplation. What makes it worse, no worse than that, much worse. Is seeing Esther going so well every time I could raise my head. Some days you ‘have the legs’, as they say, and Sean Kelly says rather a lot.
She could, at any moment, have given me ‘the look’. That over the shoulder glance that Lance Armstrong gave Ulrich, and which became known as ‘the look’, before pulling away at impossible speed and a dizzying cadence. The only thing that could stop such a tour defining moment was the knowledge that I have the tent, the credit cards and the washbag.
We climb 900m at 3% and are surrounded by Beech Trees that are yet to come into leaf. This is hard, much harder than can be justified by 3%. Back home when we do endurance races, you know that during the 8, 12 or however many hours of the race, you will have good and bad moments. Sad to say, but if I am on a high, I love being near someone who is not, and I can put in the gutter. There is a strange thing that happens when you have a number pinned on you and not all of it is nice. Same with politics I guess.
Here, it was the road and me, and just at the moment it was the D29 that was winning. We go left, and over the 907m altitude on the gps. Laissac comes up next on the D523, which may perhaps be one of the most perfect cycling roads in the known universe. I swerve to avoid a pro rider from Skill Shimano, who has come up so fast and quiet. You know, there will be carnage when we are all driving whisper quiet electric cars. He descends at a speed that only people being paid to do so should attempt.
Left, onto the D95 and we start the valley of the River Lot. The map shows zigs and zags, and we expect a punishing climb to end the day. Jubilation indeed then, when it is a descent, and steep at that. Down we drop, towards St Geniez d’ Olt, home of all things Marmot. I will give you the Wiki translation to see if you can make any sense of it:-
“According to legend this name dates back to the fifteenthcentury. Where two children of ten years living with their father in a poor house on the lot, had a pet hamster. An evening thunderstorm, frightened the poor animal fled. The children began to pursue and caught him in the mountains. But the storm was raging and they had to take shelter in a hut. When they returned to the village on Lot had overflowed and washed away their home and their father. The children saved by instinct Groundhog left her no more, they were called brats. By extension over the years, this name was given to all residents of Saint Geniez d’Olt.”
We camped at La Bossiere campground, which fronts the River Lot, and at a very reasonable, €10, suggest that you should do the same. We went through the 3,000k in Europe and over the 20,000k in total mark today and the distances are starting to wear out bits of the bike. I have a problem with the front mech, which I solve. But Esther has a problem with a seized pedal, which no amount of WD40 can cure. Good to know then, that in a moment of prescience, we have with us two of every washer and bearing in the pedal.
The local Fiat garage, we are told is where to take your unhappy velocipede. Which is just what we do the very next day and call it a ‘rest day’. We are very taken with the little town, and in what has become a feature of the blog of late, Esther wants to move here. You can see why it would not be an unreasonable thing to wish for.
We pick up the bike from a smiling ‘Mr Fiat’ and all is well with ‘Tapas’, as I call Esther’s bike (mine is called Sebastian, after a horse in a Eastern Block children’s television show about the White Horses of the Lipizzaner Stables. This was just about the only thing broadcast in 1967 for kids, and the main horse was called Boris. It left a lasting impression in Black and White).
In what looks like being a repeat of, ‘the story of the Marmot’, it starts to hail and thunder, with lightning so close that you can see it’s path against the hills of the valley opposite. We catch a lull in the storm and ride back to the tent hoping not to ride into any 4cm deep holes in the road, that are now hidden in 20 meter long puddles. The storm continues for hours, testing the waterproof qualities of our Big Agnes tent. We do not brush our teeth and hope to go through the night without needing to urinate.
At what is just a 3-season rated tent, the ‘Big Agie’ tent does very well indeed and we are dry-happy-camping-touring cyclists in the morning. We take the D998 and ride up and through low cloud. Again, this may be up with the leading contenders, for ‘the best cycling roads’. You must, as a matter of some urgency, buy a house here. You will not regret it one little bit. But do keep in touch and have a well appointed guest room.
We follow the River Lot, which is running fast and very swollen. The morning however, is brightening, clearing any lingering mist. The vegetation is lush beyond belief. Even an idiot could be a gardener here. We are just in the right place at the right time for the perfect lunch. The town of Marvejols at 2.00 pm, and we are sat next to the local Museum curator, Mr Lapointe. Great company and absolutely as mad as they come. A lovely man.
Slightly, and I will have to use the technical term here, pissed we ride on and take a right turn onto the D2, Gorges de L’Enfent. Our map tells us this is a ‘bad road’. We assume that it means ‘bad, as in challenging if you are driving a wide RV and not Michael Jackson ‘Bad!’. We start at 900m and a barmy 21’c and go upwards with every pedal stroke. There is so little in full leaf here. At 1,000m the first Birch are opening tender leaves to a very early Spring warmth. At 1,100m we ride over a white line, evidence of a club hill climb here, and it is down to just 12’c. This is the highest we have been so far in France.
It changes to almost mono Pine cover, and we descend a little through what could be the landscape of Northumberland. We camp at Serverette, on a closed Municipal Campground. The town is grey with granite grey houses standing on grey granite outcrops. It is unfussy architecture. You can not get fussy with rock this hard, it will destroy you or send you mad if you try. It is a 1,100m camp for us and just 6’c before we get in the tent and thick mist is rising as a smoke, from the river.
Morning as cold as we have had. We ride on the D987 with finger ends tingling. There are many walkers out, which is something we have not seen before. 1,130m a new high for us in France and it is only just Spring here today. There are swathes of Daffodils and more Cuckoo calls than ever. Peat brown streams are rushing, crazy and swollen with the heavy rain. Every little culvert and small valley is a torrent of wild water.
1,300m in height and we come to a church on what is one of the routes of the Compostelle walking pilgrimage. It is very popular, in a sort of Pennine Way with a bit of Spirituality, sort of way.
We pass into the Haute-Loire department and it is now just 7’c with trees almost bare of any leaf or bud. We have a warming soup in a bar. The regulars, all of whom will have been born, work and will die within a 5k radius are sitting on well used bar stools. To a man, and one woman, they are displaying a passion for strong tobacco and equally strong spirits along with a disregard for any European-wide legislation. Were they capable of standing, I would be at least 80cm taller than the next tallest person in the bar and it has to be said, ‘there is not a looker amongst them ‘.
Two framed ‘multi thousand piece jigsaw’ hang, framed in the room, testimony to long, dark winter nights.
This is Wolf country, and what we witness next is something I thought I would never see. I am closing in on a field of sheep when one of them breaks away from the flock and runs towards me barking and snarling. This is the origin of the sheep dog. This is a white dog that lives with the flock to protect it and goes back well before all the tricks and the stunts of the modern sheep dog.
He runs at me, hackles up and snarling, keeping pace on the other side of the fence. This is amazing, and done all on instinct. He turns and gives Esther the same treatment as the sheep just stand and watch. This is what your Dulux dog, Old English is designed to do, and most of the breeds called sheep dogs before the Collie came along and turned the job into a branch of show business. I am amazed beyond words.
The end of what has been a short, but cold and brutal climbing day, comes in the little town of Saugues. Which is rather nice.