Editorial note: Due to internet connectivity issues, I didn’t get to post a blog yesterday, and apologize to you for the discontinuation of service and any dark thoughts you may have had about my fate up on the Bagargui. The blog that was written is posted below.
Before addressing the title of today’s blog, I should first attend to a few remaining housekeeping items: I finished the Trans-Pyrenees Challenge today reaching the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea by bicycle under human power, didn’t ride in the van once, and didn’t crash, bonk or cramp. There was cowbell, aplenty. And for all the effort, George scoops my final blog idea! Which, in case you missed his comment yesterday, relates to perspective. That is, no matter how much of a challenge this was, it does not compare to the hardship, duress, privation and hopelessness and helplessness felt by many people every day, either through the particulars of their birth, or through the decisions and actions of their leaders. Nor can it be compared to what real adventurers do, never knowing what to expect or even whether they will survive the journey. We always felt reasonably safe, and to the extent that we did not cycle recklessly we were. Our challenge and ultimate lesson was not to give up til we reached the goal, a lesson that I admit should not require riding a bike 600 miles horizontally and 11 miles vertically in 7 days, but doing so does help emphasize the point. For other satisfactions and justifications, please consult earlier blogs and your spiritual adviser.
Day 7 highlighted the Baragui, a monster of a climb, the hardest of the week. Peter Thomson clearly saved the best/worst for last. 21 km long, it features endless stretches in the red, the color code for slopes greater than 10%, including 3 kilometers that easily averaged over 13%, and the final 5 k at the top, which were advertised to be around 9-10% but were definitely more like 10-12. This is leg-breaking steepness over a few hundred yards, but over 5 km……ayyyyh!!! I was resting at 11%!!! I know you’ve probably never heard of this mountain pass. I hadn’t. The reason is that it is in the middle of nowhere and has few accommodations and towns. So the Tour de France rarely passes through it, even though cyclists in the know consider it to be one of the toughest challenges. It was not only tough physically but also psychologically because after the Tourmalet in the Queen Stage on day 5, we thought we had seen the worst of the Pyrenees. At the top we faced the problem of hypothermia again, as a cold wind and fog buffeted our sweat-soaked clothes. Then rain began yet again as we descended on wet, gravel-covered and sheep-shitted roads at 10-15% grades. After this, we moved on to three other climbs and reached the Atlantic Ocean at 5 pm after being on the bike for 8 hours covering 134 km. There were a few crashes today, fortunately none serious, which served as a reminder of how fortunate we had been throughout the week.
Now that the ride is over, thanks are due to those who made it possible. Thanks to Paul T for the idea of doing this. He is right that I will need some time at home to understand how this experience has shaped me. Before cashing in on your credit for a Tour next year though, talk to me! Thanks to Nancy, Carolyn and Clare for encouraging me to do it, and Nancy especially for coping with its effects on our real life. And to all of you readers for your encouragement through emails or comments. Thanks to Peter Thomson and his staff for conceiving of the TPC and for providing the leadership, organizational skill and encouragement to bring us over alive. Thanks to my Orbea bike for tolerating the stress I subjected it to for 7 days. And finally thanks to all the Rough Riders, especially those from Group C, for their friendship, collegiality and encouragement.
I’m now at sea level again, in San Jean de Luz, France, and tomorrow I will not be riding a bike.
Postscript: Thanks also to Merrill Schwartz from Group C with whom I passed a memorable day in San Sebastian en route to Barcelona, where I am currently writing this. In keeping with the challenge theme of the week, we did encounter a few ‘wee bumps’ that needed to be overcome during the day, but they involved our travel plans, not mountain passes for a change. First, we had to search for a place outside the train station to store our bags for 5 hours til the train arrived, and eventually found a pension that would do it for 40 Euros. Train stations in San Sebastian don’t do this because of fear of explosions from bombs planted by Basque separatists, creating a boom market for enterprising fellows like our pension owner. Next we walked the length of the quai along the harbor which was even more beautiful than I had remembered it from my first visit there in 1975. We went to a couple of tapas restaurants along the way to the spectacular geological formations at the entrance to the bay, which now are also the home of the Wind Comb, an amazing work of iron sculpture set in the rocks. Finally, we retrieved our bags, which included Merrill’s oversized bike box, headed for the train station, hopped on and were immediately thrown off by an uncomprising and unbribable conductor who decided Merrill’s bike box was too big for the train. C group bonding required that I go with him, so we both walked away from our reservations, ate the tickets and worked our way to the airport to rent a car, driving 7 hours over the mountains to Barcelona. Two perspectives come to mind from this experience. First, bike travel can be much more reliable than train travel. Second, that felt like a really long car ride that we covered by bike going the other way. Overcoming mountains can be simple compared to overcoming people. I’m now resting my weary body in an avant garde hotel room by the train station where I will begin the next and hopefully final leg of the trip in about 3 hours.