MY TRAVELS, EXPERIENCES AND THOUGHTS ON CYCLING AND MOTORCYCLING. HOWEVER ILL INFORMED

Thursday, January 27, 2011

BIKE TRIP 2010 - PART 5

Now, I’m not an arty type, though I do like poetry, just as long as it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen is just too flowery, Sassoon says it like it is. I think. I don’t like pictures, though I appreciate a good view, and sculpture is just there, not worth noticing. As for architecture, I happily wander round town and fail to notice the buildings around me. I once read something that described Cambridge as architecturally bereft, that only the university buildings had any merit, it said. I read it in the car and have yet to check if I agree. Proof, I think that I don’t give a monkeys for whatever bridge I may be travelling over. Today though, was different. There is a bridge over a valley in the south of France that is rather famous. Not only was it built in France and designed by an Englishman, it looked striking in all the pictures I’d seen and, on a rainy night in a bland Cambridge pub months before, we’d all decided we wanted to ride over the Viaduc de Millau. First we had to get there.

We turned left out of the hotel, not right, so were unable to see the architectural wonder of the Cité de Carassonne in the daylight. Desperate for fuel, we circumnavigated an industrial estate north of town instead. We found the petrol station but couldn’t find a way in, I lost patience so set the sat nav to resume the planned route which, coincidentally, took us to the petrol station entrance.

On the road proper, we continued yesterday’s journey on the D118, north towards Mazamet. It started fairly quietly, just another country road, but as we climbed the Montagne Noir it became twisty, though not brilliantly surfaced in places. A flashing green cross, ubiquitous outside French pharmacies, flashed briefly to tell us it was 28.5 degrees at 10.30am, but the road was shaded by the thick forest which surrounded us until we began the descent to Mazamet. This section was steep with a reasonable surface, and plenty of tight bends as the road followed closely the contours of the mountain side. We were much higher than I had envisaged and the view through the trees was wonderful. Of course the French being the French, they had taken the time to show it off and we all stopped at a view-point tacked precariously to the side of the road. Here Lee let us each play with his camera, so long as we took photos of him with it, whilst the rest of us captured the view.



Some time wasted, we set off down what was left of the mountain road and into town where we joined the N112. This is wide, well surfaced and open. It is also a major route and carried traffic to prove the point. Though not tortuously slow, progress was hindered; every time we got past one lorry, we’d come across another equally slow one. For some reason though, I didn’t detect the increase in tension or frustration that this sort of riding normally brings. Perhaps we were all just content, we were in a beautiful place and not having to work too hard just to get somewhere.

Enough of this placid stuff. At a place called St-Pons-de-Thermieres, we took a left onto the D908. Check it on a map; it looks uber-wiggly, but it’s not, it’s good stuff with open bend after open bend and smooth tarmac. With very little traffic to hinder progress, the pace increased with the heat of the sun, which beat down into the valley the road followed. We spotted a small roadside restaurant in a lay-by at a place called Mons-la-Travalle, parked our bikes under a beautiful tree and asked if we could eat. The owner, just opening up, was at first reluctant, saying he had a coach party visiting, but realizing we were four hungry Englishmen and would spend good money, he relented, though sat us at an outside table furthest from the door. This surely was one of the best lunch time stops we’ve had over the years; quiet, dignified, friendly with good Viande Paysanne, we sat and gassed and laughed. Perfect. Sure enough, after a while the place was full, not only locals, but also a coach load of New Zealanders.

bikes sheltering from the heat, until the sun moved



We probably sat there too long, but it seemed all too soon when we left, though it didn’t take long to get back in the swing of things. This area really is the epitome of rural France. The smaller villages were deserted and the towns bustling, the roads in between quiet in the main. We left what appeared to be the old valley road at Bédarieux and climbed up on a much newer, but no busier stretch. It was wide open a wound its way over high ground, taking us quickly down to Clermont-l’Herault, where stopped for petrol. A quick look at Google Earth shows how brown the valley is and it really was oppressively hot here, 36.5 degrees, not somewhere I wanted to stop for long, not with my clothes on anyway.

The next bit was on the A75 Autoroute, which would culminate by crossing the bridge at Millau. I don’t mind riding on motorway, it’s a means of getting to the good roads quickly, but this was a good motorway. It was obvious we were going up hill, but I recall rounding a right hand bend and seeing the sun glinting off cars moving along the top of an escarpment high above us. I remember feeling astounded, and a little excited, as I realized that the Autoroute we were on was the same road carrying those tiny little specks sparkling above us. What followed was the steepest twistiest bit of dual carriageway I’ve had the pleasure to encounter: perfectly surfaced, it wound its way up to the point I had seen, then settled into more mundane motorway fayre. The landscape was a bit like moor land in the UK; we were high and surrounded by long, bare, browny grass sprouting from low rolling hummocks. It reminded me of the military training area at Sennybridge.

I do like a bit of music when on motorways, it helps me concentrate, and this bit was no different. My Garmin Zumo has an MP3 built in and I switched it on to make the miles to Millau more interesting and to increase the anticipation. As we travelled further north, roadside signs began a sort of countdown to the bridge and ‘A Glorious Day’ by Embrace began playing in my ears,

“Let them all keep their plans
Cos all I want is in my hands
And I can’t look down…”

Sang Danny MacNamara. There was a grassy bank on my right, the road having entered a cutting; the view was short, no more than about 400 metres. Then,

“You came along, on a glorious day
By the time that you left
I was crawling again…”

It all opened up in front of me: Glorious was in my ears and GLORIOUS! was in my eyes. The bridge stretched in front of me, it’s stunning piers high above, elegant, white and beautiful connected to the road by ghost-like white cable-stays. In turn we were high above the land below. The view was sublime: perfect sunshine illuminating the huge landscape either side. I caught my breath and slowed, a sin to cross this at any speed.
A lump in my throat,

“…you came along, on a glorious day,”

A tear in my eye.
Beautiful.
Stunning.
Glorious.

It’s a bridge, I hear you crow. Yep, it is. But it touched me. And with some northern bloke, my brother-in-law reckons can’t sing, telling me it was a glorious day, I couldn’t help being moved. If this had been built in Britain, some road safety buffoon would have forced the erection of concrete sides to prevent the view. Had the design not been deigned too poncy, they would have painted it grey, just to make it less attractive. It is art. It is drama. It is the greatest man-made structure I have experienced and I would recommend a journey just to cross it.

Viaduc de Millau

the landscape it was built to cross

Millau from the visitor centre

There is a péage just beyond – well, you didn’t think it’d be free - and a viewing station with a visitor centre. We stopped and took photos, though a walk up close was not possible in the heat and what we were wearing, then had an ice cream before setting off again.

We by-passed Millau town, by mistake really and joined the D907 to head up the Gorges du Tarn. I was expecting an awful lot from this road, what I got was not what I expected, but great it is. It starts benignly enough, twisting and turning through the odd village, the walls of the gorge getting closer and closer, higher and higher above our bikes and us. I really had no appreciation of how long this road was, so was getting a bit bored, the anticipation dissolving into hints of disappointment. However the villages became fewer and farther between and the road became twistier and less well surfaced. This is not a race track, it is hard work, very challenging. At one point we were riding through a shaded section, right on the white line. The road was about one and a half cars wide and had such a crown, it dropped about 18 inches to the kerb on either side. It was bumpy and had numerous repairs consisting of tar poured on cracks, the tar melting in the hot weather. Occasionally, however, it smoothed out and became a real joy. To ride it is an achievement.

Of course we stopped for some photos. AJ and I were parked up, looking at the scenery when we heard Lee coming. I set the camera, lined up my shot and waited, then round the bend he came. Riding a ZX6-R the two Yamaha FJR 1300s close behind him seemed huge and slightly ungainly, especially as they were cranked right over. I decided I wouldn’t snap, especially when I realized the two tourers were in fact Gendarmes, right up the chuff of the oblivious Lee. They smiled at AJ and I, then tracked Lee round the next left-hander, one of them with his left hand held high in the air, pegs near the ground.

Gorge du Tarn

Lee explains to AJ why he's so photogenic

On and on we went, savouring a great place with a great road running through it. It was breathless. So breathless that we turned off a bit earlier than planned. Perhaps I was deceived by a sign for Mende in the village of Ste. Enimie. Or the fact that the road seemed to go straight up the side of a high grey rock face. Whichever, we all turned off onto the D986 and enjoyed every sort of bend from tight hairpins to open sweepers. Up the rock face we sped slowing for the stupendous view on our right. Over the top and back onto that moor like landscape on a perfectly surfaced road which dipped, dived, swooped and turned before dropping again, where I nearly took out John by braking on the exit to a hairpin(?). Just brilliant.

The Garmin found the Hotel de France in Mende, where we sat on the opulent terrace drinking beer and sweating, surrounded by crisp white tablecloths covered in sparkling silver cutlery.

What a great day.


Excuse the cars and Mr Clarkson, but this is the bridge



And this is the song. It's not about bridges and I'm not clever enough to have it over the film

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

BIKE TRIP 2010 - PART FOUR

It is to my eternal pride that I speak my mind; some may say I’m blunt, though I like to think I’m honest but tactful. Sometimes I don’t say anything at all, even when I should. Sometimes I’m so honest that I’m not at all tactful. In fact sometimes I’m so tactless I get in trouble. The worst times are when I’m tactless and dishonest, that’s when someone gets it. What I’m trying to say here is that, on day four, I got my knickers in a twist and shouted obscenities at one of the group for no reason whatsoever. Sorry AJ.

It was probably the heat getting to me, as once again azure skies and fierce heat (by English standards) greeted us as we emerged blinking into the daylight from the car park beneath the hotel. The sat nav, by now working, though intermittently, did a sterling job of getting us out of town and finding us a petrol station. I was especially impressed as the petrol station it located had a very healthy stock of porn DVDs on display behind the counter. This caused the sort of sniggering and behind-the-hand comments from us that only teenage boys, or those routinely acting like them, cold possibly stoop to.

Porn a distant mammary, we headed out on the same long boring dusty road that had brought us into town only a few hours before. Off to our left the promise and excitement of yesterday’s mountains loomed on the horizon, though we just plodded on through brown countryside, even though the road surface was perfect. Every now and then, glancing in my mirrors I’d see AJ standing on his pegs and I learnt later he had his camera round his neck filming what he could, though so boring was the road I stopped to take a photo of just about the only bend we saw in the first hour.



Just short of Oliana on the C-14, about half way to Andorra, we stopped by a house, careful to ensure we had enough of its shadow to shelter from the sun. The road was marginally more interesting now, but the landscape had taken a definite turn for the better. Obviously heading up a river valley, we were now surrounded by mountains, which were gradually closing in on the road, perhaps hoping that we wouldn’t notice them coming. We had a drink, Lee and John smoked and we all took photos of the increasingly dramatic view. The mountains were craggy, with green scrub giving way to bare rock the colour of which altered with the angle of the sun. And we were heading their way.



Through Oliana the road changed direction and we arrived in those mountains. We rode up, passing a dam, then followed the reservoir to our right. The road didn’t feel like a mountain road though, no tight bends, just gradual sweepers following the contours and the lake. Every few K’s we would go through a tunnel, though each of them had an older road branching off by the opening. These roads were bound to skirt the lake more closely, so I turned off passing one of the yellow signs with red writing I had spied at all previous such junctions. I don’t speak Spanish, either Catalan or Castillian, so prepared the excuse that I didn’t know it said ‘No Entry – Dangerous,’ even though it was very obvious. There were rocks strewn on the tarmac, indications of the danger, but it was worth it. We paused and took a couple of photos, before cracking on, returning to the major road, which maintained its slightly twisty, slightly below potential nature until we reached La Seu d’Urgell.



As we studiously stuck to the 50kph speed limit, following a locally registered BMW R1100R, we were surprised to see motorists frantically flashing their lights at us, so understandably but pointlessly slowed – just in case. Just in case was good. As we rounded a blind right-hander on the crest of a small hill we were all ushered into the entrance of a small junction by three Police Officers, who had cunningly and dangerously plotted up to catch errant motorcyclists. We exchanged nods of incomprehension with them, before they let the local bike go on its way. The wiry, grey-haired, very grumpy looking sergeant really was very grumpy and proceeded to use his worst English to lecture AJ and I on how it is both and dangerous and illegal to use any form of headphones whilst riding a bike in Spain. I reckon he was talking bollocks, but it was all he could find wrong after checking our documents and bikes. As we left I waved, shouting, “Thanks for your help, have a good day.” I hope he sensed the sarcasm, though I doubt it.

For months now, it seemed to me that this little episode had marred AJ’s view of Spain and its roads, but in retrospect, it had not been a great morning. You can accept uninspiring if you can go fast, but our pace had been very pedestrian and somewhat frustrating. Here’s a revelation: AJ, you were probably right. The rest of our journey back to France was much the same: awesome scenery boring roads.

If, as I do, you like France but, unlike me, you think the country is entirely wonderful, I have two things that will help you change your mind. Firstly, travel from Charles de Gaulle airport on the overland train into Paris city centre. Second, visit Bourg-Madame. This small dusty town was where we finally re-entered France and it’s a shit hole. High up in the Pyrenees, even the peaks hosting near-by ski resorts are just small green lumps on the horizon. We parked in a stony car park and crossed the road, avoiding the dog shit on the pavements. We ate with the flies in a café attended to by two scruffy, dirty young men working in a grimy kitchen cooking from a tatty, faded colour menu. They served anaemic chips and water from bottles with peeling labels; and the toilet was pink porcelain with a seat that stuck to your backside and moved with you. The pizza was OK, though I for one was pleased to be on our way.

I had thought long and hard about which route would be best for the next bit of our journey. I had driven though these parts five years before and had taken the N116 to Perpignan then. I thought it’d be nice to go a different way this time, so we headed up to Ur then along the D618, rejoining the 116 at Mont-Louis. This was a mistake, it was populated almost along its entire length, one ski resort following another, with the attendant speed limits and their frustrations. We turned left onto the D118 towards Axat, which was also a bit of a mistake, I reckon. It started OK, a sweeping rural mountain road across a high, rather bleak landscape, but entertaining enough. It was when we started heading down hill proper that things got a little difficult. I don’t mind difficult and challenging, the next day proved that, but this was ridiculous. The road was very steep, narrow and clung to the side of the mountain as it wound through the trees down towards the valley: I don’t think there was a barrier. Scattered across the bumpy tarmac were rocks, which had fallen from the sheer face to our right, and patches of gravel or melting tar, seemingly placed just to piss us off. It was bloody hard work and luckily deserted, except for some twat in a van who obviously knew his way down and two scruffy, weathered, young bearded blokes leading two donkeys, which carried what was probably all their worldly goods. Our group stopped for a chat not long after passing them and they tramped past us, not meeting our eyes or responding to cheery ‘bonjours.’ I imagine they disapproved of our mode of transport, so simple was their apparent way of life.

gravelly, bumpy hell

Once again the sat nav had packed up, so I crossly reset it and re-programmed the route again. It was hot, over 30 degrees and that, combined with malfunctioning technology and the horrendous road was testing my normally thin patience. The sat nav packed up again within about a mile of setting off, so my mood was more grim when the others stopped for photos in the spectacular Gorges de St Georges, through which the river Aude rushed on our left. The sheer walls rose hundreds of feet above us, in some places even overhanging the road. I stopped and waited for the others at the exit of the Gorge, which ended so suddenly a giant handyman could happily have fitted a gate. I again reset the sat nav and took a couple of photos, just to prove I’d been there.
Read reviews of this road at www.bestbikingroads.com/motorcyclegps.php?code=1fba84



An impressive site, you can barely see the entrance to the gorge




The weather on its own would have had me steaming and sweating into my helmet, but a lot of things were conspiring to raise my blood pressure even further. Re-mounted we drove about a mile to a roundabout where I had planned, and was being instructed by my Garmin Zumo, to turn left onto what I knew was a wider less troublesome road. However a couple of pesky ‘Route Barre’ signs stood across our path, goading me, ‘what are you going do now then, English heathen?’ (Their English amazed me.)
“Ride right bloody through you, you garlic munching sheets of inconsequential metal,” I wish I’d shouted into my helmet. I probably muttered some sullen profanities, before we chanced our arm.
Ah, this was more like it. Wide, well surfaced and unsurprisingly quiet, we blatted along for a few miles until we came to a barrier across the mouth of a tunnel. AJ briefly enquired with a bus driver and we all did a U-Turn.

Those of you familiar with sat nav units know that they always do their best to get you where you want to go, it’s just they don’t care how they get you there. The route was pre-programmed, so my Garmin was desperately trying to get me back on track. Eventually it changed its tune and told me to head east and take a turn on my left. Plenty of experience taught me that I needed to check I was not being sent round the houses and back to the road closure, so, after a fast blast along the D117, I pulled into a conveniently placed lay-by for a very quick check of the map. This took about a minute of blinking through the sweat rolling from the soaking lining of my helmet. I was just about to re-mount and head off when I noticed Lee and John, their helmets off, jackets un-zipped, each smoking a cigarette. We were late, it was hot, they’d had one at the end of the gorge not 30 minutes ago and, worst of all, I was cultivating a right proper monk on.

I silently waited for them to finish, then we set off in the established order; me leading, then Lee, John and AJ bringing up the rear. We turned off, as instructed and checked on the map, at Caudies-de-Fenouilledes and, after nearly having a head on with an ambulance, joined the N109, which would bring us out in Quillan, probably about 3 miles from the tunnel where we had turned round. This road took us over the Col de St. Louis, narrow, not well surfaced and, because it was a diversion route, it was busy. We topped the pass, the sun baking us in our heavy jackets, then passed under a bridge, followed the road round and within 300 yards went over the same bridge, an interesting little quirk, I thought.

I don’t like going down hill on a motorbike. I don’t like the weight on my wrists and always pick the wrong gear. Today this was exacerbated not only by my mood and the steadily worsening road surface, but my throttle and brake hand had been going numb all week and I now had no idea if what I was asking it to do would actually happen. I was at the front of a long queue of traffic, the white Vauxhall estate we had followed up the hill and long since disappeared down the road. My ineptitude darkened my mood even further and I chuntered into my helmet. After a while AJ roared past me, slowing immediately, telling me stop. “You can fuck off,” I thought, “You’re not telling me what to do.” I managed to resist the temptation to kick his pannier as I passed, but did stop a few yards on. He pulled up next to me and explained that the car behind us had been so close to his back wheel it had nearly knocked him off. Sensibly and sensitively I told him to fuck off. More than once. I even made reference to his weight, failing to consider he had lost a lot of it recently and no longer ate all the bread waiters brought to our table. I think I mentioned ladies’ private parts too. I succinctly told him I would not ride with him again that day. I got off my bike and like a spoilt four year old turned my back on him. Petulant, stroppy tosser.

AJ rode off into the sunny, beautiful French countryside, armed only with the knowledge that we were staying at the Ibis in Carcassonne, but no maps or sat nav to help him get there. A minute or so later, bewildered the others followed me for the remaining miles to the hotel. This was completely uneventful, except for a youth driving a Peugeot fitted with tin can exhaust pipe, who was obviously contemplating suicide. It felt like Cambridge, but with trees and hills.

I was expecting AJ to be waiting at the hotel, beers already poured for John and Lee, but he wasn’t and I was worried. We checked in, parked and unloaded the bikes, then ordered the obligatory Stella Artois. I kept walking outside to look for the missing link and, sure enough, about 15 minutes after we arrived AJ rolled up. I apologised, but…

Showered and refreshed, I tried to build bridges with AJ whilst all four of us wandered in search of a restaurant, though we should have turned right instead of left out of the hotel.
Wrong.
Though the place we found was nice enough, had we turned right we would have found the Cité de Carcassonne, the old fortified city which sits on a hill on the opposite side of the river to the Ville Basse, where we were staying. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cité is still inhabited and has restaurants and hotels. If you’re visiting the area, visit, it is stunning. From the outside at least.


Cité de Carcassonne



Lee being beamed up from the Pont Vieux