09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)

You are now at post Nr. 09 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


Yes… you’re right. This post is delayed. About 9 months delayed! My apologies. The previous post was about pretty much the climax of my trip in 2017, so telling that story felt kind of complete. But I need to finish this, because only then I can tell you about the next CRAZY cycling-thing that’s coming up for me!
So, let’s keep this brief… A story rather in pictures and video clips.
One more post about the very last little stage and a short trip summary will follow within the next days. 
(This post is about the 2nd of August 2017, written on the 20th of May 2018 in Berlin, Germany)

The previous blog post ended with me getting some rest in my hotel room in Tortelà, after a crazy crazy day and after meeting my friends Marion and Thomas. This next morning started in a similarly relaxed way: Marion and Thomas had invited me for an extensive breakfast and a swim in the pool of their super luxurious chateau-hotel. And because for that day I had only a 140km ride planned there was no need to hurry.

Temperature in the morning at 10h: about 30°C. Time for the pool:
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One group selfie with Marion and Thomas. Thanks so much, you two!
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Getting ready in the garden of the Chateau:
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And on the road again, and a bautiful one, and for now mostly downhill:

My bottle cages were still broken from the stress the previous day, so had to improvise:
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And passing Besalu, where the night before I was with Marion and Thomas for Dinner (by car though), this is the apparently famous Pont (bridge) de Besalu:

At some point found an excellent bike shop in Banyoles. They were incredibly helpful and gave me great advice on even a simple thing like bottle cages, and this was also a perfect opportunity to refill my water bottles that were empty already after these just 21km..:
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“Hells Angels” in French:
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After climbing a last mountain ridge before the Mediterranean Sea, there it finally was in the distance, looking onto the city Calonge:
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Already along the Mediterranean Coast at the Costa Brava:
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My original heuristic was: “Coastline = flat”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right around the hottest part of the day I had to face the toughest climbs along the Coast; but again, climbs mean descends:

I was already looking forward to cycling through Lloret de Mar – I guess because my way of spending my holidays was so much different from the way Lloret is famous for. Still, in that moment I shared some features with presumably many of the Lloret tourists: My passion for calories in combination with not really caring what exactly it is I’m eating…
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Slowly approaching the destination of that evening: A campsite in Canet de Mar (50k before Barcelona), still along the coast.2017-08-03 20.33.07.jpg

Just 3km before Canet (!) I got a puncture. Of course I was in principle well prepared: pump, spare tube, patches etc.. But it all doesn’t help if that crappy piece of s*** pump fails me again (like a previous time). It is SO poorly designed; and it deserves to be name shamed here: The TopPeak Racerocket. Do not buy it!! It ruined the valve of the spare tube and rendered it and itself useless. Luckily there was a kind cyclist from a neighbouring village passing by and helping me out. The pump ended up in the trash the same evening, accompanied by a feeling of celebration, relief and revenge.

At some point around 21h, much later than I had planned, I arreived in Canet de Mar, welcomed by my dear friends and colleagues Pascal and Anneke. A cold beer, swim in the pool and… ZZZzzzzzzz…….

It was a great day, with incredibly beautiful landscape, crazy hot – in fact one of the hottest days in that region that summer: around 36°C, probably I drank 6-8 liters of water that day…
I took it quite easy, but also underestimated how exhausting the day would be.

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STRAVA activity: click here

Stats of the day:
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and the route:
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08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks 

You are now at post Nr. 08 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


Without any doubt: this stage is the core piece of my entire tour – crossing the Pyrenees. And I am not exaggerating: in some ways it was the craziest ‘cycling’ day of my life. It went from Casteil in France, to Tortellà on the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain, where I would meet close family friends. This day is special to me in at least two ways: 1. it involved a very high degree of uncertainty because I had deliberately picked a truly remote and high summit (at 2350m) to pass, about whose ground, profile, etc. I had hardly any information, and 2. it turned out to be physically extraordinarily challenging to me as you will read. This post will come in chapters and include regular juxtapositions of my prior planning/expectation vs. a corresponding reality check. (This post is about the 2nd of August 2017, written in Barcelona on the 10th of August 2017)

I will deliver this post in the following chapters – feel free to jump to the one that interests you the most (the threads are linked though):

  1. The night & morning before (or: “Are there bears in the Pyrenees?”)
  2. Planning & expectations
  3. The climb & the summit
  4. Slowest descend evah 
  5. The surprise & its payoff
  6. (Feels like) home


1. The night & the morning before (or: “Are there bears in the Pyrenees?”)

My previous post stopped in the campsite restaurant after two main dishes and a beer, and before a good-night-Congnac whose order was inspired by that nice Dutch couple at the neighboring table, with who I had a chat. At that point I had not set up my tent yet, even though it was already 11pm or so.

That’s where already some complications for the night started. Firstly, this was my compartment on the site; big and empty:


The campsite was clearly laid out for more permanent visitors with cars and caravans instead of ‘spartanic vagabonds’ like me. It was impossible to pitch the tent: the ground was too solid for the tent pegs. So I spread my tent on the ground as a ground sheet and attempted to sleep openair on it – as if my tiny and erected tent wouldn’t already have been a surprising enough view for my fellow campers. I tried sleeping like that for a while; without success: I had to either wrap my head tightly in my sleeping bag and boil in it, or keep it airy and be attacked by moskitos. That way the first 1,5 hours of sleep were lost.

So I inserted the tent bars in the tent and pitched it – the two most strategic points held in place on the ground by the weight of my backpack and one filled drybag. So instable and slack – but at least I had a shield between me and the hostile luxury campsite wilderness. We’re now 2h into my intended sleepy time.

I cannot really sleep well on the ground in a tent anyway plus I guess I was enthusiastically excited about the next day, so I was in a semi-lucid state for a while. It suddenly got interrupted by an incredible, very deep and low, wild growl or moaning that sounded like it was loud not because the animal that produced it did so very forcefully, but because the animal would simply be really big. I would have guessed it to be ca. 100-200m away, somewhere a bit up the hill. This was not one of the campers’ dogs – too heavy; it must have been more like the weight of a bull. But I’ve never heard a bull like that. I lay there for a while, half-awake. And then… did it just change directions? Was that beast wandering along or even over our camp ground? Also very untypical for caged cattle. It growled every 15 seconds on average, I guess. Are there bears in the Pyrenees? I grabbed my phone for a quick google search (not a smart move btw. in such a situation to turn on the display light, like a marker for the beast to find its first aggressor): “There are now some 20 bears roaming the Pyrenees, with conservationists keeping a watchful eye on the population.” also roughly in this eastern region. Imported from the Balkan. “They prefer thick forests”: check, got one right next to me. “…and altitudes between 1000m and 1500m” – we’re on 850m; that’s not much lower. Damn… I was really quite nervous now, not at last because I was the only one who was not protected by a caravan outer shell, but instead presented as a delicate snack wrapped (loosely…) in some ultra light, semi-transparent, silicon-coated tarpaulin. In the (i still made myself believe ‘unlikely’) case this was really a hostile creature, I’d be the first one it could get. I’m not kidding… these were thoughts going through my head – I’m not making this up.

I also have this usually helpful technique to envision unusual or unlikely scenarios as more realistic and justifiable: I think about how the seemingly odd scenario will be viewed in hindsight after it happened – this way, the impossible or unlikely becomes just an interesting turn of events; one of those turns that make for a good story; and good stories happen all the time. This technique is helpful when trying to find the courage for bold decisions, like career choices, or for example the decision to do this (as you will see) seemingly unreasonable way of crossing the Pyrenees. In this case however, the realistic hindsight scenario was an imaginary news report: German tourist, male, 31, from Cologne, tragically mauled by a brown bear in the French Pyrenees. On the more serious news site the article would last half a day; on Bild and the Sun maybe 3 days – then forgotten forever. I wouldn’t find such a news report very unlikely, and thus such an event wouldn’t be unlikely either.

I just couldn’t believe that I would get into such a situation. There must be a simple answer to this weird situation… I was torn between a high pulse as a symptom of mild panic on the one hand, and being very tired on the other hand – because remember: the exhausting trip to Casteil ended just a few hours ago. Don’t ask me how, but somehow I fell asleep in the midsts of the still frequent ultra-low-frequency growls. ROOOOOAARRR…. *beast heavy breathing*

Around 8am i woke up, after I guess 5 hours of very bad sleep, and slowly moved and packed my stuff together. Brushing teeth, unpitching the unpitched tent… getting ready for the big day. I felt messy and sludgy and moved slowly.

Then Jan, the guy from the young Dutch family that I met the night before, passed by and saw me. He’d go to the bakery in the neighboring village down the mountain – because Casteil does not even have its own bakery (I mean, we’re still in France!). He offered me to bring me something – after some short hesitation I agreed..: a chocolate croissant to start the day with some calories would actually be perfect to give me a kick. With that he also set a good example to be active early and maybe that made me a bit more productive and by the time he returned – with a Chocolate croissant and a mini pizza – I had already packed most of my stuff. He raised the social momentum even more by inviting me on a coffee with his wife and kids at their caravan after I packed. Starting this big day with a coffee and kind company: that was too tempting, I agreed and joined them. We five had chats about all kinds of things… Jan’s cycling adventures (he’s also a road cyclist and brought his bike there), the little zoo they visited in Casteil the day before, my adventures, languages, etc etc. all that was a very motivating and warm start into this big day – I had no idea yet how it would turn out.

I left Jan and his family (not mentioning all names for privacy reasons, but if any of you reads this: hi! : ) ) and briefly dropped by the reception to say thanks and bye. Ah, and about… “c’etait quoi l’animal la nuit dernière?” What was that animal last night? – a prompt answer as if she gets this question all the time: “c’est le le lion” – sure… it was the lion. What? “The lion”?? Yes. In the zoo. The one the kids visited. I felt a bit ridiculous now. But on the other hand: please, which town on earth has no boulangerie, but instead a zoo including a Lion!?!? And: how did it change direction? It didn’t… the Cognac had changed my sense of direction.

First adventure today: Staying in a luxurious campsite.

Status: mastered like a pro.


2. Planning & expectations
‘Why Casteil?’ you might wonder – this tiny mountain village and deadend in the eastern Pyrenees. The answer: I wanted to cross the Pyrenees somewhere, but I didn’t want to go through the regular passes that are used by cars, too (e.g. the one through Andorra). Instead I had something more adventurous and ‘liberal’ in mind. I wanted to experience real mountains. And next to all the great infrastructure I had at my disposal on every km of my rides so far, I wanted to get even more into the ‘adventurous explorer’ mode that already motivates me on the even most civilized stages – discovering the unknown. And admittedly, maybe there was also some vanity involved… I mean: everyone can cycle over a pass that is exactly built to get you across/through mountains in the easiest way possible. Additionally I did not want to cross the Pyrenees too far West but stay closer to the Mediterranean Sea (where, naturally, my final destination Barcelona is located) – further East in turn (closer to the Mediterranean) would have been too low altitude for ‘proper mountains’, I imagined. But admittedly, there were lots of assumptions and guesswork involved.

So it had to be somewhere around here. I checked google maps. You really have to zoom in quite a bit to find alternatives to car routes at all. And then search a bit to figure out which ones actually have any connections over, and not just along the Pyrenees. In the following screenshot you have to look closely to figure out the trail – the summit ridge is marked by the change from green to gray ground, btw:

Zooming in a bit further, you see the summit pass here:

And here is a link to the summit location, so you can explore it digitally yourself: CLICK

Clearly this path fulfills all my criteria: it crosses the mountains around the right location, it is really remote, and it goes pretty high. Perfect!

The only problem: google does not offer any information about what kind of ground (or even pavement) these paths have, nor how steep it is. My bike is configured for the road – so there are limits. Streetview ended already in Casteil and starts on the other side only further down the slope. On the last StreetView locations on the route it looks a little… sandy. Satellite offers only some light lines on the ground, like this (couldn’t remove the street overlay now):


And then of course there’s the problem that from above, it all looks pretty flat even though clearly there must be quite some elevation gain.rather late I noticed how high it actually goes.

One last chance: sometimes people upload pictures from up there to Google. I found some in the map. I googled the name of the uploader and miraculously immediately found him on Facebook. A Dutch guy who does incredible adventures – which could have been a warning already as to what kind of path this would be. (Check his YouTube channel!). He kindly replied very quickly, but wasn’t quite sure either if it was cyclable – however, he kind of confirmed the attitude that I had already gained about this path: “I’d just do it”.

In short: everything between Casteil and some place on the other side of the mountains was pretty much a black box to me. Right now, you have exactly the information about that route that I had at this morning of my departure.


3. The climb & the summit

After coffee and conversation, I clipped into my pedals and started the ride. Looking up and ahead into the beginning of the wall I intended to surmount:


Briefly checking Komoot: 12km horizontally from Casteil to the summit. Elevation difference (and assuming no downhill passages: also the accumulated gain): 1,5km vertically. Just now it dawned on me: that makes a 12,5% average over a distance of 12km.

Holy moly. This would be wild. And that with luggage!? Generally I was aware of the option to ‘just’ push the bike if it turns out not to be doable by bike. So I was glad it was ‘only’ 12km and not a multiple of it. So far I was still on a paved road. Already steep though – 8% I guess (but below the average = even steeper than average later). Pretty quickly I reached this point where StreetView stops and where hikers can park their cars as their base to return to:


(Taken from StreetView) As you can see, the road is indeed sandy. It was less even and smooth though, in real. More medium rocks. It was 10.30h and already very warm. I was dripping from sweat already now before the show even started. Just a few hundred meters further behind these cars as the ‘last marker of civilization’ (yes, exaggerating), and the option to push the bike turned into a mandatory reality: too steep – cycling would be extremely exhausting and inefficient. No way I could do this for 12km when I was already struggling with 12m! And importantly: the ground was too rocky and too loose to get any grip or even get into a rolling rhythm. Please not that NONE of the pictures I post here in this entire post even remotely confers how steep it actually was.

The decision was made: I’d have to push it and walk – and hope that there aren’t any other surprises waiting. For example I did not account for the fact that such a route could be closed – I just noticed the possibility when I saw an “Ouvert”-sign for the next section.

Oh, and of course: I had to change shoes. My clip-in cycling shoes wouldn’t be of any use for the next hours. Here again a piece of my planning worked out beautifully: I had bought these sneakers just weeks before, already with exactly this possible situation in mind: heavy profile and (thanks mom, for the tip!) mesh openings for ventilation that worked out perfectly.


Going on… usually in such a situation I would set some landmarks to work towards. I could have picked the Refuge Mariales – some sort of mountain hut (quite large and well equipped even, as i guess) – and some of the major bends on the way. But somehow I didn’t, maybe because in this case landmarks would just have made it easier for me to imagine how far it actually still was, instead of providing any motivational benefit.

As I walked up I passed several hikers at some points. They looked a bit in disbelief – cause why on earth would anyone bring their bike up there? And there were still cars going up here – like the one of a young couple asking me if there’d still be a parking lot up there.

Of course as it was hot and I was really working hard, I had to drink quite a lot. My biggest concern for this day was if I might run out of water – that would have been the only real showstopper I could have imagined. That fear was inspired by the previous day, of course, where I missmanaged my water supply on a climb (see post 06). However, this turned out not to be a problem at all! Because once in a while my path crossed a creek. I hesitantly tried the water, but it was really super fresh and clear and cold, with hardly any dirt in it. So once per, say, 2km I refilled a bottle and got my head wet. Ideal.


I was still on an altitude with rather thick forest so I could usually find some shade to walk – or let’s say: clumsily clump – in. It was certainly above 30 degrees now (I checked in hindsight: 34 degrees). But the vegetation changed at some point. Here you see me approaching the timber line (altitude where the forest stops. Thanks, dictionary).


So I had to prepare against the direct sun and identified my button up shirt (yes, I bring one on each tour) to be perfect: light colour, thick fabric, absorbent (-> sweat).


At this point btw would have been an alternative path leading to the refuge I mentioned. But there was no reason. I went on. And on.

Further up, passed a last parking lot for the daring drivers. A km later, to my surprise a little Fiat 500 approached and passed me from top – incredible that this car managed to get up and down this gradient and rocky surface. In it a young woman who briefly stopped. “Is this a road bike!?!” (“velo de route”) – “yes, a stable kind of road bike” – “I’ve seen mountain bikers just sometimes up here. But this..?!” I mentioned I want to cross the mountains and reach Spain, with the intention that she would then alert me of any issues with the route if there were any. Instead she just wished me good luck and went on. Reassuring.

On and on, step by step. I felt a pain in a tendon in the back of my right knee becoming a bit more prominent. But it felt familiar and I didn’t worry. I passed the mountain hut of the Fiat-lady – strange shape… round, white plastic like truck tarpaulin, garden chairs in front and some empty kind of cattle compound next to it. Good bye last hut! Slowly, with the gained altitude, the air was getting a bit fresher. Up and up. Drinking, stopping, mueslibar, up and up – I still hear the creaking of stones and sand under my shoes and the rattling of the poor, pushed bike on the rocks. I tried to see my bike not as much as baggage that I had to push up and along, but as a kind of walking cane I could lean on a bit. I think that way of fooling myself helps sometimes.

Now probably around 1900m altitude. I thought about the nice morning with coffee and chocolate croissant. And the night, where I couldn’t sleep properly. Yet, strangely, I was very awake right now; that was probably because every step asked for my attention and I constantly needed to plan where exactly to place the next ones as to get the least resistance. Last night… now quite amused at the fact that the roaring was ‘just’ a Lion in the next door zoo. But now for real: Are there bears in the Pyrenees? Crap. If I would now encounter one.. what would I do? Nothing. I had pepper spray with me, but that would hardly impress a brown bear. There would be nowhere to go. Getting a little nervous again. I heard cracks in the scarce vegetation to the right of me, up the hill. Suddenly I was more aware of all sounds, my pulse a bit higher. I know it’s ridiculous – but it was all a somewhat unusual situation for me.

Luckily: Slowly I approached what I later recognized as a summit cross, which was odd, because it was clearly placed at the bottom of another slope. No idea what it meant. In any case I bumped into a group of hikers up there who were about to descend. This must have been at 2000m. We had a very brief chat, looked up the mountain and they reassured me (more with gestures than words) that it was getting a bit flatter soon. “Ah! Cyclable?” I asked hopefully. “Naah, not so sure” one of them said accompanied by a wide smile that seemed to stem from his internal comparison of my naive optimism with the rocky reality he saw up there. Bonne journee!

And further up. Still thinking a bit about the bear thing, but really: there was not a trace of a forest and I was above the general bear zone (probably I was never even in one). Should be fine. The next bend I knew would be the last one before the summit. I took a picture – the camera is facing back into the valley I came from – somewhere down there must be Casteil; down on the left you see the path I had come from. (Camera placed on a rock, with timer)


And going on, indeed the path became flatter but not in the slightest more rideable. And since the terrain was getting flatter overall, what I call “the path” was actually rather like a visual suggestion where to walk, but not really any more walkable than the surroundings. In fact, I noticed it was now much easier to move on the grass covered rocks next to ‘the path’. Anyhow, now it didn’t matter anymore anyway. The top turned out to be more a kind of plateau, which is not so surprising since there were some other higher, more peak-shaped (but inaccessible) summits many hundred meters next to this one in both ridge-directions; so this was really some kind of pass. The 2350m high bit was a smooth, wide hill situated right next to the rocky path, grass-covered and soft in shape and look, but not smooth in terms of its actual surface. Because of these hill-features, ‘climbing the summit’ was a gradual experience and not so much a situation of ‘now I’m there’. In fact, it was not so easy to distinguish which was really the highest point here.

Anyway, the moment of truth, around 14.15h:


And here an obligatory summit selfie:


I took a greeting video for my family. And spent quite some time up here. Maybe half an hour. This moment was the central part of my tour. It was somewhere in the back of my mind throughout every km I cycled before through Germany, Switzerland and France. So I had to wallow in it for a bit. My ‘old valley’ to the North, and my ‘new valley’ to the South.


One technicality: here I had the first and almost only material failure of my entire tour: my bottles, each 1 Liter (= 1kg) were putting the bottle cages under such stress during the wild, bumpy and lengthy ascend, that – while I put down my bike on the ground – the front bottle cage broke off completely, and I noticed my rear bottle cage was broken, too, at the bottom, so the bottle had slipped through it. (See the summit selfie) There were two things somewhat ironic about it, in the Alanis-Morrisette-sense: a) that this failure happened exactly on the summit instead of at any other point. And b) these bottle cages were the only part of my bike and equipment where I deliberately picked the cheapest and simplest option – falsely thinking a simple thing as a bottle cage wouldn’t require special attention. And they failed. So from there on I’d strap one empty bottle to the rack, and put one in my backpack and still had a smaller bottle strapped to the aero bars. Could be worse.

Back to more essential things: A theme that really struck me up there, which I anticipated already, was: loneliness. In fact my desire to experience this sentiment was one major reason to cross the mountains in this way at all. It might get a bit sentimental now, but: up there, that was true loneliness. Only me. Some rocks and wind. No one in the surrounding kilometers would be higher than me. And to get here, to get me, there’d be some way to cross through all 3 dimensions and more obstacles. It was a moment of escape. I was hidden from ‘the world’. No one saw me, I saw no one. My current state only counted for and to me and itself. Importantly: yes, the loneliness was prominently presented to me here… but was the basic feeling really different from any everyday situation? Aren’t we always lonely in a way? I will not go on with this now – if you like we’ll have a personal chat about it, that’s probably more interesting and appropriate. Let me just say: all this was a moment of happiness, satisfaction, positive prospect and beautiful memory. Pretty touching, too. But most of all it was just now.

4. Slowest descend evah

I declared the official summit moment to be over. It was already around 15h. But keep in mind: all that text before was referring to only 12km of horizontal distance. I wanted to arrive in Tortellà in Spain in the evening, which was over 100km further. Continuing on the rocky path, for a while it seemed like the mountain could not decide yet whether to keep me on the ascend or finally put me on the descent. It guided me around another hill, opening up the view into a new valley. Going uphill again. In the meantime I terminated some attempts to cycle: still way less efficient than walking and pushing.

Going along the mountain ridge:


POV:


Up to the summit I had been primarily occupied with the struggle of getting up there. And I used the following heuristic with which you’d probably agree: “up = difficult, down = easy”. But Pustekuchen (look that word up! ; ) ). After another turn around a rocky hill it was clear: now it’s going only downhill. I mounted my horse with enthusiasm, optimism and full of energy. A state that lasted for about 5 meters when I noticed: the path’s surface was at the best marginally better than on the other side of ‘the Pyrenees’. Sure, I did not have to invest any more energy into propelling myself upwards – getting ‘up’ is a very simple challenge, it only requires energy, but not so much thought. Instead I was physically challenged very differently now: I had to a) absorb constant shocks, so I could only stand on my bike and not relax any of my muscles at any point. Constant tension. And b) I had to steer my bike with a precision of less than centimeters over and through the stones, rocks and sand. A mountain biker would have known this before. But I’m a road guy, and I completely underestimated this. Also: I had road tires: 28″ slicks, 5,5 bars, 32mm wide. This was a job that did not require just raw energy, but challenged my fine motor skills under force – continuous attention. Of course, previously I had envisioned my descend to be rather smooth and rapid, but now realized: 8 km/h downhill would be my average speed until I’d reach paved roads again – and that would be several km from here (not sure how many exactly).

This meant: the descend would not be much less challenging and only a bit less time consuming than the ascend. How could I have been so foolish to underestimate this? Maybe it had been a motivational and protective psychological mechanism to simply neglect it.

Somewhere on the way:



And like this I continued for a long time… at least I had some spectacular views on the way. Very interesting, exactly around the summit the colour of the mountain changed. You remember the map-screenshot further back? Where the summit ridge was represented by a change from green to gray? This was real! While the north side (facing Casteil) was characterized by rather thick green and warm sand colours, this South side looked much ‘colder’. The rocks were grayer, dryer, rougher and it looked more alien and hostile. This surprised me, because I would have assumed the South side to be more “friendly” and alive, since it was facing the sun.

My path downwards:


The whitish, ‘cold’ stone on the South side:


The descent took ages. Sometimes more sandy, other times more rocky. Constant rattling, shock, absorption, missing a rock, sliding away… You know that feeling when a body part gets numb. I had this in my left arm.That tickling sensation indicating a obstructed blood flow or pinched nerves or something. It feels a bit like tiny water droplets sprinkled of your arm, hardly noticeable. Well, surprise! Or: reality check! My little water bottle between the aero bars was leaking. No worries; my arm wouldn’t die; it wasn’t so bad. Instead as soon as I realized it was the water, I embraced the refreshment.

FINALLY at some point pavement began!!! Very shitty pavement, but in that moment it felt perfect like the surface of a velodrome track! Time to change back shoes. This was the first time since 10.30h in the morning that I could get on my bike and execute more than 3 or 4 normal turns of my crank. It felt fast. And great. Because to me it meant:

I have crossed the Pyrenees.


pavement begins!


5. The surprise & its payoff

Of course now it was a long downhill ride. The road was getting gradually better. At some point I was surpassed by the red jeep that you saw on one of the pics and that belonged to two hikers who I saw and who saw me shortly before the summit. They new what I had behind me and gave me some friendly and encouraging honks.

The route now lead me to Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste, the first village to pass on this side of the Pyrenees. I did not have water left, so I refueled my bottles there in a Café. I was damn tired. And still had to process how the day went so far. Holy shit. I just walked over the Pyrenees – to put it a bit dramatically. Through a scatter of rocks, uncertainty, memories, anticipations, pain, exhaustment, views, all kinds of shallower and deeper thoughts. I was really quite done now. Somehow the real exhaustment waited to catch me just now as if I was numb about it before, similar to the pain that sets in only a while after a severe physical damage and after the danger of the injury-moment is over. I had 80km left. So despite it being such an eventful day already, I had only covered less than 1/4 of the distance. There were two things that kept me motivated now: a) the idea that I would arrive in a hotel later and meet my family friends Marion and Thomas – a motivation that was present already all day like a light but constant breeze (to emply some romantic metaphors here). And b) the (presumed) fact that it would be mostly downhill from here. I mean, it would be downhill, right?

It took me just a few hundred meters to realize: no. It would not be downhill now. In fact I read something of another ‘col’ (pass/summit) on a sign. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I stopped the bike at the side of the road. Immediately began dripping from sweat again, because it was still hot (34 or so degrees) and this was back down at 750m – lower than Casteil! I checked GoogleMaps to get an overview. And realized my so far heaviest route planning error: while planning I had assumed all those curly streets behind Prats-de-Mollo to go down to the Spanish border. Instead they would go up! The Spanish border would be on top of a pass.

This is the part I’m talking about: the D115 from Prats-de-Mollo up to the Spanish border which you see in the bottom left. Sure, now with the elevation markers it is obvious.


Facts and figures: Prats-de-Mollo is on 750m, the Spanish border is on 1500m. Distance: 12km. Consequently an average gradient of 6,25% but really with most of it above 8%. This is a killer. To me at least, after that kind of day.

But is there anything I can do? Yes: do it. So,  I sent a brief message to Marion and Thomas that my arrival would be delayed; just “another climb of 700m”. Getting back on my bike. I spent most of the climb standing. The short parts of ‘only’ 6%-gradients made for excellent ‘relief’ phases. Had to stop several times; actually this was one of the first times on my tour so far that I had to really stop because my body uncircumventably dictated it – my muscles, my circulation, my temperature, or the burning sweat in my eyes (that was actually the biggest problem)… many reasons to stop many times. I don’t think I had a climb of that quality before – and its timing wasn’t good.

One last view back onto ‘my Pyrenees’ before penetrating the border ‘wall’ to Spain:


At some point I approached the last 4 short, but pretty steep bends and stretches that culminated in a last straighter stretch towards what I’d now call the “gate to Spain”, cause, if you look on the above map, that’s really what it is: a gap  up in the mountains through which you first look down and then ride down into Spain.

The gate to Spain (marked) as seen from 1km or so away:


Spanish border, basically on top. I guess you see the exhaustion in my face (and some traces of the Catalan independence movement – not in my face though, but on the sign):


Looking back into France…


…and looking literally into Spain. A pretty ‘magical’ moment to me:


On the border and the viewing platform there was a Dutch family. The dad carried his son on his shoulders and said to him in Dutch (assuming I would not understand him): “Look, Bouke, that guy cycled all the way up here!” – how right he was. I had to smile.

Ok, this was tough. You read it. I remember it. But let’s move on. The day wasn’t over yet. Still about 65km to go until my arrival in Tortellà. To briefly summerize the situation now:

  • I was now in (or on the border to) Spain.
  • I had finished all climbs for the day (I promise. I checked!)
  • It would go almost exclusively downhill from here
  • The weather was warm, but since the sun was already low, the temperatures were getting better
  • I could now anticipate an arrival in a hotel (=shower and clean clothes!)
  • And most importantly: I would, after this crazy crazy day of loneliness in foreign terrain be united with two very familiar friends. As I mentioned, a recurring theme of motivation today.

You’ll agree that all this sounds perfect. And it was. Superficially it was almost as if the rest of the day had never happened; but certainly all the past events of today heavily shaped my inner and outer of the moment. The first descend started. I didn’t take many photos, but some videos instead, because taking videos while cycling takes less time and it also captures the atmosphere better:

Right after crossing the border:


It turned out my route planning worked out excellent now. Instead of following the main ‘veins’ I branched off East earlier at Sant-Pau-de-Seguriès into a very quiet valley with only one but perfectly paved(!) road. This way I would remain rolling downhill without going lower than my final destination – and thus without ever going uphill again today. It was a beautiful ride:​


At some point I was already very close to Tortellà, and it was getting dark. Time to switch on the Christmas tree:​

​​

Entering Tortellà:


Witnessing the first signs of real Spanishness – older people hanging out outside very late:


Arrival at the hotel:​


6. (Feels like) home

I was now in a country whose language I mastered even much less than French. But somehow the communication with the lady at the hotel worked out. In the process Marion and Thomas arrived but it was a bit too hectic for a proper ‘hello’ yet. The hotel lady was very funny and lively and nice. Certainly an example for how the Spanish are very different from the French (not judging though! both charming). A quick shower in this really excellent hotel room. New born. Then went downstairs where I was welcomed by Marion and Thomas who took this photo of a clean and happy Malte:


Now I was in a presentable and huggable state: HELLOO you too! Immediate familiarity. How nice this was.

We got into their car. A modern VW. A CAR! I was sitting(!) in a relaxed position while covering many km at high speed. No sweat in my eyes. The smell of new and clean leather. Perfect climate. Casual, effortless conversations. Miraculous. This felt very alien to me. Such a contrast to the rest of that day. Villages, road signs, street lights – things that would usually really occupy my mind, demand my attention and be crucial for my route and arrival – now zipping by almost unnoticeably. Surreal.

We drove to Besalu. A town further South, with a midevial city center. It had become so late already by now, 22.30h I guess, that most places didn’t serve the so much needed food anymore. We found a touristy restaurant on the main square though. Everything works. Lord… that beer – so refreshing. Thanks, you two, for that evening and invitation!

Of course I told Marion and Thomas about my day. But I was very happy that they also told me about their holidays and we talked about my friends (their kids) Lena and Helen; because I had not really processed this day sufficiently yet to give any explanations. All day I was occupied with so many internal and external impressions that this was the ideal conclusion – a perfect moment to get accustomed again to a pleasantly more normal state.

The day was full of what I called ‘reality checks‘ in the title of this post: where reality hit my expectations or filled gaps of non-expectation. Now this was a ‘reality check’ in a different sense – and excuse me if that sounds a little far fetched; I thought quite a bit about what made this situation so special and I believe this might be an explanation: Somehow it felt like here I got presented with my usual and predominant, more familiar reality of myself: two kind and familiar friends who are a reference to all my past life (because I have known them for as long as I can think) and in that way the situation pointed towards the entirety of my person. All this in a civilized and very comfortable environment. That is much closer to how my life usually is, and how most of this day was not.

After this great dinner (for other reasons than the food) they drove me home – it felt less alien this time. I went upstairs and fell asleep.
STRAVA: Click

07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’

You are now at post Nr. 07 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


After three days to Lyon and three days through the French Massif Central, with this day, my tour enters its third third and the Pyrenees/Spain section of my tour. The day trip takes me over 150km from Carcassonne to a tiny place called Casteil in French Pyrenees at about 800m altitude and where the paved roads transition into hiking paths ‘of some sort’ (more on that in the post after this one). Casteil will be my ‘base camp’ from where I’ll do my uncertain trip over ‘my’ Pyrenees summit. But first this blog entry on a fantastic(!) ride into new terrain! (about the 1st of Aug. 2017, written on 6thof Aug. 2017)

I was going to start this post with something like “This was an exhausting day, Blabla…”. But I had to realize at the latest now: none of the days are easy to me, despite a very(!) noticeable trainigeffect over the days. There’s always a lot of sweat, exhaustion and sometimes also some pain involved – that is my currency for the distance and/or elevation I cover and places and things I experience. The same holds for this day: it involved a lot of climbing that – in that moment – felt as if it was the first time I experience that kind of challenge; it always comes in a new context – a new destination, a new surrounding, a new length or a new kind of prospect for relief. And what I received in turn? Spectacular views, deep canyons, and also some to me quite symbolic places: Here’s a short prequel to that day – flashback to 1/2 year ago:

In my very first post (00a) I had explained to you how I got to the idea to do this tour to Barcelona this year – that I was doubting whether to do a bicycle trip at all (because, you know… it’s kind of exhausting : D ) but then in January or so, I had casually and randomly zoomed into some places along the route on StreetView and was blown away by how beautiful these just randomly selected spots were – already on StreetView! How crazy would it be in real!? One of the first random spots that was mainly triggering my decision process towards doing the tour would be on today’s route: A ‘kind of canyon’ on a short country road (D10) before Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet, which in turn is in a valley half way to Casteil. So, all my subsequent route planning – even the general decision whether to go along the french Mediterranean coast or through the inner country (Cevennes) – was based on the ‘fact’ that I just ‘had to’ go through this landmark on the D10 road. If my random Streetview-beaming would have placed me at some other place (e.g. closer to Perpignan or Toulouse) my route would have looked considerably different.

Outcomes of my streetview session half a year ago:


That was enough prequel, but I thought it is a relevant piece of background story because it set’s the tone and importance and expectation of that day.

Now to the current day: It started off around 8am with a surprise: I thought, now that I was in more Mediterranean airs, I could count on hot summer weather. Instead it was raining a bit and consistently clouded:


It was just little enough rain that I decided not to put on my rain gear that I had – the night before – so carefully locked away in the depths of my perfectly packed dry bag. I got on my way, catching a brief breakfast at the central station. This was one of the places in Carcassonne where I felt the most comfortable – not kidding (I had mentioned in my previous post that I would deliberately skip any account of Carcassonne itself, because this is a GREAT vacation)


I went on, again following the beeps of my GPS. Firstly: my optimism about the development of the weather turned out ok: it was actually quite refreshing: a little rain sometimes on the skin, mild temperatures, no blinding sun or sweat – felt perfect actually!

And secondly: it was again an interesting experience to compare how I had imagined this landscape South of Carcassonne to look while I planned the route, and what I actually cycled through. Because, just like on the previous stage, there was no one obvious route (besides the main motor way), I spent a lot of time trying different road combinations. Therefore I was surprised how quickly all those places I so thoroughly looked at on the map zipped by in reality: Saint Hilaire for example – I memorized it as the first land mark town, but in fact I was there so quickly and it was so small and unspectacular that I hardly noticed it.

I had imagined this stripe of land to be rather dry and rocky, but instead it was covered in thick green bushes and forests which was emphasized by the slightly wet weather. And: there was a clearere pattern of climbs and descends than I had imagined. At first it started out very smoothly. For example with an interesting road that guided me along the slope of a mountain on a more or less constant altitude; the road then perfectly draws that altitude slice of the mountain which looks like this: (the mountain is in the east/right)


Or this stripe of land on a moderate altitude (#morecowbell !!!)

Then followed a climb…


…that made me pass Auriac, a midevial mountain village with a fortification:


Up there lives a middle-aged woman, who has a little shop selling home made confiture and juices and a little kind of visitor center. I think she didn’t expect anyone up there in the middle of nowhere under these weather conditions and the busy sounds of cutlery in use indicated to me that I was disturbing her at lunch time. But it was too late: her dog already smelled me and barked an alarm and she came downstairs. I had a glass of delicious apple juice and a quick read in the information folder about the village. 23 inhabitants (down from 150 around a millennium ago), first mentions in  1028 or so. Old!

She also showed me on an elevation profile that I had a little more to climb and would then slide down to Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet (the place I mentioned above, behind the D10). And indeed: after some more climbing I reached the needle eye that was carved into the rocks (similar to previous video) of the pass and after which the landscape opened up again.

Surfing South, downhill to Soulatgé and then westwards through the valley to a village called Cubières-sur-Cinoble. Here I saw a bar where I had a quick coke and a refill of my bottles and spotted signs to some “Gorges de Calamus”. Sounds interesting, I thought. “The Canyons of Calamus” – like some modern fantasy fairytale (sry… tautology?) about the wizard Calamus, emperor of his mystic canyons and ruler over its tribes of elves and leprechauns. Would there also be a secret door magically displacing me straight to the other side of the Pyrenees? Those were some silly thoughts that occupied me while slurping on my lemonade until I realized: It’s the D10!! My indeed kind of mystical phantasy place that – up to this point – could still have been just a fictional fabrication of the GoogleMaps and StreetView mafia.

I bumped into a trio of girls with heavily packed touring bikes who were travelling from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. They were also heading towards the “Gorges of Calamus” and the way they talked about it it sounded like it was a real thing – like it’s obvious that the only reason to visit this area, and in fact this bar, would be a visit to those Gorges. And, you guessed it… the Gorges were the thing on my StreetView pics.

I followed my route, the D10, that was straight heading into a wall – rocky mountains – the way to it was embedded in thick, green vegetation.


At some point behind a corner the Gorges unfolded. On those Streetview pics it looks like a very small gap (see yourself above). In reality, I guess the road that was going along the left (South) side of the Canyon was about 20m above the at times pretty wild stream at the bottom. The rocks surpassed the road by I’d assume 3 times as much.

Because it is such an attraction there was substantial traffic, that was concerted to only travel every 15 through it in one of the two directions – formally that held also for bikes, but if I would have followed that rule none of those photos could have been shot:



(better photos from my proper camera will follows these are iPhone pics)

So, very clearly: this went way beyond my expectations: instead of a couple of meters of road going through a small cut in the rocks, I was basically cycling through the massive geological history of this part of the pre-Pyrenees: monumental.

Upon exiting the canyon, the valley in which also the aforementioned village Saint-Paul-de-Fennouillet is situated (almost literally) unfolded in front of me. But where there’s a valley, there are mountains – so I could at the same time see the next (but not last or highest) level of Pyrenees dreadfully waiting for me:


I went on, down into Saint-Paul which – just like Saint Hilaire – did not turnout as important as I invisioned it in it’s landmark role. As I went on I passed something that I in that moment declared “the gate to the Pyrenees” which I later saw looks like that even on the map:



Now came a bit that I thought in my planning would be the beginning of the final climb, simply up to Casteil. But surprisingly it went on pretty much on a constant altitude along a stream. At some point a flock of heavy motor cyclists surpassed me – German number plates, Harleys and other heavy machinery. Cool, somehow… my biker friends! : D A few kilometers further, behind another bend, I met them again while they all stopped at the side of the road, lined up and having a short break, snacking bananas. Somehow I found it really nice, almost cute. It looked a bit like some boys (and one girl) on a school trip. While passing them I wished them ‘Viel Spaß’ and they kindly returned it.

It went on like this for a while but slowly transitioned into a solid climb up to Sournia. I should really have studied this segment of my tour better: because in Sournia I thought now it would go just downhill to Prades. So I finished almost all of my water, believing not to need it on the ride down. Two more curves, and it was clear: another climb. I did not know yet that this would be the real climb of the day – from the yet rather cute 500m NN to 1000m NN. Otherwise I would have turned back to Sournia to refill my bottles. Instead I went on.


The weather: more cloudy again. A little rainy and very humid. Normally rain comes from above, sure thing. To me however it felt as if I was cycling through exactly that air where the rain was created, coating me evenly and thoroughly from all sides like a Schnitzel that is being prepared for the crumbing. Very dense and so saturated with water that sweating had no cooling effect whatsoever, so that I sweat even more. Additionally, the higher I climbed, the hotter and dryer it got. I got more and more dehydrated and was actually a little worried – checked how much longer this climb would go on. 1/3 of a Liter left in my bottle which I had to treat very economically. Of course it was not getting dangerous yet. But really strong thirst does not make for a comfy ride, to put it mildly. I think I got the most out of those last drops. The bottle was empty by the time I arrived on the top – at only 990m altitude; nothing spectacular usually.


From there I had a clear view down on Prades (see previous pic in the left), and the long downhill roads leading there (see next pic). In Prades I was now not only going to do some grocery shopping to prepare for the next day’s adventure over the Pyrenees top, but also going to put myself back into a state that would allow me to properly finish the upcoming really last climb of the day from Prades to Casteil. But first: dowwwwwwwn!


In Prades I did a quick detour to a huge Super U supermarket; I parked my bike in a way that I later realized made it very vulnerable – even forgot my phone in the food pouch while shopping. I really have to be more careful. Speaking of it: By coincidence there was also an ‘Expert’ electronics store where I finally got a multi-USB charger to replace the one I got stolen several days earlier in St.Martial (so long ago!) and that would make my electronic life easier again.

Refuled with a cold Coke (sry, but CocaCola is just so good) and Orangina (for a change) and icecream and Müsli bars and a sandwich…. I was ready for the last bit to Casteil. Prades is at just under 400m alt. And Casteil just over 800m. So, calculating optimistically, that’s a last 400m climb. It started smoothly again; hardly noticeable that the gradient was already in the positive.

Here you see the road leading into the main mountain ridge of the Pyrenees; Casteil would be somewhere in between the mountains in the back.

(last stretch to Casteil)

I was a little worried even, because I had only 15km left, and every single meter at a low gradient would mean that in the end I have to climb up much steeper roads. Indeed it got up to 8-10%… but somehow it all went rather quickly. Also because I luckily deviated a bit from my GPS route in order to maintain every little altitude gain and not to cycle downhill anymore.

After some friendly, motivational honks by a line bus driver (and all the united passengers, as I vividly, but certainly falsely imagined), I was up there in Casteil. Turning left into a final few dozen meters at >15% to reach the entrance of the campsite; heavily breathing, soaked in and dripping from sweat… The lady behind the the restaurant bar gave me some empathic looks that somehow created a very immediate, personal bond through the chaos of our (well… ‘my’) verbal language barrier. She opened the office and showed a lot of patience while I constantly interupted the formalities with a reach for my camping towel.

A (as usual) heavenly shower and changing session later, I found myself in the campsite-restaurant, nipping on a beer and ordered and devoured a large main dish. And a second one, to the astonishment of other guests sitting on the restaurant terrace by the pool. This is where a great social encounter with a super nice, modern, young Dutch couple and their kids picked up.


I’ll leave it at this ‘cliff hanger’, as the next day would start in exactly that social setting. I now arrived at my base camp; and as you know, the base camp is the last moment of rest (or peace?) before the madness; tomorrow would be the central climb over ‘my’ Pyrenees summit and a very eventful day full of uncertainties, exhaustion, happyness… all features that already characterized today’s trip. It is all a bit overwhelming to me, I must confess. So much stuff happening in, with and around me in just the course of a day. Life is pretty dense these days…

STRAVA: click


06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions

You are now at post Nr. 06 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


This is the last day of my tour’s middle section leading me to Carcassonne. It concludes the rides through the Massif Central/the Cevennes. I started after a relaxed rest day at the river Tarn (swimming, eating, hiking, reading). The route lead through the south west end of the Massif Central before reaching the flatlands that stretch from the mediterranean through Carcassonne. In the planning this route was tricky because there were no obvious valleys to follow which lead to a lot of accumulated altitude. (about the 30th of Jul. 2017, written on 5th of Aug. 2017)

Of the 3-day-stretch from Lyon to Carcassonne – 549km in total – I had finished 346km in the two previous stages; so for this day from Rozier at the Tarn to Carcassonne there were 203km left. These numbers I established now in hindsight – I originally thought this trip through the Massif Central would have 100km less in total (3 x ca. 150km). That is certainly a distance that would occupy me all day, but what made it trickier: There is no one obvious route to take. No long-stretched valleys in the direction of travel; instead, several mountain-rows to cross (two main ones) = many accumulated meters of climbing – 2683m in the end.


I had considered changing my route going south around all the mountains (passing just North of Bezier), but I figured the convenience of having a prepared track to follow (on my GPS) is worth more + it would have been more km in distance (like 280… thanks, no, not today) + I trusted my past self (the one that prepared the route) to have taken all things as well as possible into consideration.

It started of course at the Tarn in Rozier: Packed my tent and stuff around 8 in the morning. Got into some fresh cycling gear and headed off along the Tarn to the next bigger city Millau.

Bye bye Rozier (taken from it’s Tarn bridge):


There I added a little breakfast to a banana I had earlier – very nice café with very good music (“smooth rock” I’d call it). Millau was the warm-up milestone about 30km into the ride. Now would follow a longer stretch, slowly gaining altitude before reaching the first real mountain row. It started with one warm-up climb that made me pass under this apparently famous bridge which they call a viaduct.

Viduct As viewed from before Millau…:


…and after Millau:


I continued towards a place called Saint Afrique. On the way I noticed one thing again: It is hard for me sometimes to visually tell if I’m cycling slightly uphill or downhill. All the way to Saint-Afrique and beyond, visually it looked like I was on a completely flat or slightly descending road (0 or -1% gradient). The more surprised I was how hard it was for me to keep a normal flat-land pace of 28-30 km/h. Instead I was crawling around at 22km/h. Only my Garmin would remind me that I was climbing.

I had envisioned this first part on the D992/999 to be very long and tiresome; maybe because I spent a lot of time with it in the planning, because it was a bit tricky to find a good route connecting Rozier and Carc.. At some point – after Montlaure – I turned left into a very wide flatland, passing an airfield that I remembered as a landmark (again: surprised I was there already) and at Belmont-sur-Rance (see photo) started the first real climb – from 450m to 1000m of altitude.


By now it was pretty hot and the afternoon started. After the arrival on top I surfed quite a bit downhill into Lacaune (see elevation profile; the first dip on the first high top). I was very much looking forward to a cool coke, refilling my bottles and having a bite to eat. In Lacaune it turned out there was some local street-“festival” going on: Many Cafés were open, people sitting on the streets, a fleamarket. That might all sound very idyllic to you – but it wasn’t to me. I was tired, hot, it was Sunday, so apart from the Cafés nothing was open, and the Cafés were severely under-staffed. it was quite dirty, crowded, loud. I was not in the mood. At some point managed to get a cold coke, found a fountain to fill my bottles, and then escaped the town – it took all much longer than I had planned or hoped. Outside the town, the next climb started, back to the previous 1000m(alt.). But before, I sat down on the first pole after the town-exit-sign and made and ate some sandwiches and stretched my legs. Then ready to go.

And then again, on top, followed by a well needed descent to a large water reservoire. Another ascend and descend to the village Anglès, and one more ascend. Finally the cascade-pattern of my descending was broken and I was about to have a long and smooth run down to Lacabarède.
The following picture was taken on top of that last… top – probably around “Le Rec”. You look to the South and the wide view indicates a long downhill ride. But you also see that mountain chain in the background? Yes – that wall was still between me and Carcassonne. So: I was already pretty beaten by that time, and really had to force away any thoughts about that last “super-climb” coming up in order to enjoy the long descent first.


At some point I arrived in Lacabarède. Here it turned out that apparently I was a bit sloppy in my route planning 2 weeks earlier: My GPS would have lead me straight up the mountains on some unpaved and presumably super-steep paths. It looked like an extreme shortcut to the long car-route that was going over the mountains at a healthy angle. No way; so I had to improvise a new route: Simply follow the main road for the cars (which – as usual – later turned out to be a normal, rather quiet country road). I feared I’d run out of energy for that climb. So while I was cycling westwards through the valley towards the entry of the pass through the mountains, I suddenly came across this extremely cute little caravan-bar on a parking lot. As if it was sent from heaven. The owner was very nice. And after some other custumer – who had a very obnoxious way of speaking to me and referring to my Germanness – had left, we had a charming chat about e.g. the fact that he was there with his Caravan bar – from 1970, self-refurbished – two months every summer at this parking lot, serving passers by with all kinds of snacks. I had fries with chorizo and lemonade and a coffee. Perfect!!


That really made me feel fine again. I thought I was ready for the climb – still wondering which route exactly to take. The app Komoot (which I sometimes consult because the planning interface is pretty nice to handle) suggested to me a way up on more “hidden” paths, narrowly winding their way to the top. I was a bit sceptical, but also that bar owner said it was a good and beautiful route for the bike. I have no idea what kind of killer cyclist HE is, but: I went on and into that little suggested path that should get me to the summit on a shorter route – and miserably failed. Already before the first bend I knew: I wouldn’t manage: Too steep, too much gravel and rocks – not for me – I had to turn around and did what a road cyclist is supposed to do: took the road (the D88 from Albine to the summit just before Lespinassière). The gradient was actually really fine. I mean, mathematics worked out again: the longer the leg of a right triangle, the smaller its angle (=my road’s incline) to the hypothenuse… that I could have figured out earlier.

Here, in the following pic, I was basically on top. And this was also where for the first time I saw Carcassonne on a road sign:


Quite a relief to know that I did not have to climb anymore. And now followed the return on investment that I mentioned in my blog post 04: A loooooong descent through a very beautiful and narrow valley!

Lespinassière, the mountain village on top:


Suddenly the air was different. More humid, maybe? Somehow it smelled more summery and… more Mediteranean, which makes sense, because I was basically on top of a wall that was previously separating me from the Mediterranean Sea. All this made me feel like new born; I knew I had not much energy left today, but it didn’t matter, cause despite the still ca. 45km left to Carcassonne, there was hardly any work left to do.


When I arrived down at the bottom at Caunes-Minervois and saw the first houses and village after being on the Mediterranean side, the change became even more visible, in very predictable ways: The houses looked more roman/greek (more columns, those roman roof tiles, flowery ornaments) and the flora: I saw the first palm tree of my trip! My previous intuition to consider Carcassonne a landmark and a valid geographical dividing point of my trip was already confirmed.

The new, Mediterranean look (grey clouds in the background but Sunlight from the right(West)):


Now I just had to make it through the flatland to Carcassonne. 30km left. Luckily, the roads were still declining a little towards the river Aude in Carcassonne, so I had an easy and very high-paced ride on very straight roads with not too much traffic and interesting new landscapes: Very softly hilly landscape that was patched by either thick green or dry farm ground – wide views. I’m not exaggerating when I guess my average speed must have been around 38km/h here – aero bars, a feeling of relief and happiness and the so common energy boost that kicks in on the last miles, no matter how tough the day before was.

The day before I had announced to my land-lady of the BnB that I’d arrive around 21h. I arrived at 21.03h. Damn. Too late!

I was damn tired. It was humid, dark… but I was there. On schedule. And – as usual – a shower put me back together.

I will leave it at that, because telling you about how I experienced Carcassonne (spent there two nights)  would destroy the positive note I hope to just have left us with. So, that’s it for now: I arrived in Carcassonne, exactly according to my plans after 6 days of cycling. So far this trip was working out so well: the landscapes, the rides, the people and friends I met (that was during the rest days), my gear… it all was even much better than I had hoped in my most optimistic ideas of the trip.

STRAVA: click


05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day

You are now at post Nr. 05 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


So far my travel days consistently progressed both in terms of their physical challenge and scenery. This day is no exception. It was extremely exhausting to me at times, particularly on the later climbs. But equally rewarding: the landscapes: no words. And how I flew down into the Tarn valley: a mind blowing experience. Here’s more: (today also more photos/videos)

I got up around 7.30h to put together all my stuff (packing the tent, bags and bike, dressing, etc.). Sadly I was optimistic enough to leave my high quality 4x-USB-charger and one battery pack in the socket in the bathroom. Someone took it. Damn, this was really a valuable piece of equipment. Also when building up my tent the night before, one part of the tent bars broke… an improvised fix did it for the moment.
Bye bye Lac de Saint-Martial (for video impressions check the previous post):


I decided not to leave on an empty stomach and got a small breakfast at the beach bar of the little Lac de St. Martial. Luckily! Because the day would start with a long and heavy climb. The gradient hardly ever went below 5,5% and by noon I already had accumulated 1000m of altitude. Yes, it was exhausting. But these views made it very bearable (also for my ‘climbing psychology’ check the previous post):

What is particularly striking is the smells around (again, more on that in the previous post)… especially when riding uphill, the pace is slow enough and one is sheltered from any headwind, so the fragrances can really work there way into my nose and mind. In this region it’s often the smell of pine trees, camomile and other things I do not manage to identify but smell very familiar.



Oh, I like that prospect on my Garmin:


And (intermediately) finally: arrival on top:​


On the summit I had a chat with a couple who recommended me to do a just 200m(!) detour to see the source of the River Loire! Without meeting these two I would have raced right past it! Voilà: “Here starts my journey towards the ocean”… how I love personifications – so powerful. Cute in this case.


But this was just a tiny fraction of that day’s stage. Naturally it continued with a great downhill ride…

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…followed by a lot of up and down on a high altitude (about 1200m) towards Lagogne. There was also a short piece of gravel on the way: almost lost control of the bike on the pebbles and sand… (simply due to the filming with one hand. Yes, mom and dad, I’ll be more careful!)


In Lagogne I really needed some calories. The bar owner was just about to close for the noon break, but was willing to make me a pizza and let me sit outside while he closed; also had a nice chat about Tour de France (which I don’t know much about…)

What followed was a somewhat ‘risky’ bit: the D71 leaving Lagogne to the south. There was no streetview available for that road; which is usually a sign that it is not paved. But: this road was the perfect connection of the route, I hoped it to be scenic (just judging by  the terrain profile and intuition) and I believed, if this road has a number as a name it must be paved. This time my optimism turned out justified. The road started with a pretty level stretch, actually even a descent:

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…but quickly turned into a real long climb. Exhausting, really. But boy/girl was it worth it: Naturally it was followed by a downhill ride from heaven; it started here, on the summit of that road. Surfing down into the valley:


From there on it was a lot more up and down… e.g. via the D41 (in case you’re bothered to look it up). A lot more down than up actually, which was nothing good: in a moment when I was already very tired, I had to do another ca 800m (of altitude) climb to get onto a plateau into which the river Tarn  – my destination for that day – had cut its way throughout the passt millionenia (yes, a new word. From now on). That was really heavy. But at some point I did reach the top, and it had its very own beauty:


The God of the cyclists (Merckx or someone) wanted to torture me a little more, though. This came in the shape of needles; almost literally: very sharp peaks on the plateau: short, but really steep climbs (>10%) in combination with headwind. Luckily relief stages in between, like it’s supposed to be for a solid torture session. But – to keep it biblically – at some point I saw the light: DOWNHILL. Into the Tarn valley. Not just a bit: really long, incredibly well paved, pretty steep, no sharp bends. I think I broke my personal speed record: 75 km/h. With luggage. In these situations my chosen setup really pays off: it is rock solid. Nothing is moving, all bags tightened – in combination with the stability features of my road-configured cyclocross bike: pure control!

Here’s one impression of that ride. Excuse my scream. It was honest. Hell yes!


And at some point, very suddenly, the Tarn valley opened up in front of me. These are moments that will last for as long as I do.

That silence after the wild ride… unforgettable. The town at the bottom is Sainte-Enimie. From there it was still another 35km to the campsite that I had in mind in Le Rozier. Sure, I could have put up my tent here. But since my next stage (after one chilled day at the river) should get me to Carcassonne – and not jut 35km before – the old rule was valid once more: every km I make today is one I don’t make tomorrow.

Luckily the wind didn’t reach out into the niches of the deep canyon and I was cycling along the direction of flow of the here still pretty wild water (meaning going at a slight but helpful decline). On top of that, now set in what I experienced already many times in the final part of a day’s stage: a sudden boost of energy that makes the pedaling feel so easy. I’m sure this is to some extent a psychological/psychosomatic effect – somehow the body ‘knows’ that the end of the tour is near, but that there’s still work to be done.

In any case, this is roughly how it looked. Of course there were places like crazy tunnels in the rock, brick-bridges, weird rock formations, chateaus, etc… but I really wasn’t in the mood for taking more pics. Yet here’s one impression:


At about 21.30 I arrived at the camp site. I had previously announced my arrival by phone. Turned out it was run by a Swiss family. And their snackbar-caravan was still open so they made me an excellent burger! I put up my tent, showered and slept; not necessarily in that order (except for the sleeping). I don’t remember. I was too tired… it was a long and eventful day.

STRAVA: click

04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)

You are now at post Nr. 04 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


or: On Climbing & descending – the beauty of investment and return with compound interest…

What a day… things are getting real. I started in Lyon and from there entered the Cevennes. It’s amazing what (other) beautiful landscapes we have in the heart of Europe. To get this across I’ll include the few pictures and clips I took that day. And besides that I have a short text about roadbike climbing and financial investment… äh.. yes.

[pardon the inconsistent use of tense] On my third day to Lyon I already felt the training effect. The two rest days there apparently didn’t do harm. My legs are fine and as usual after a couple of kilometers they’re back in their flow. The route started several kilometers southwards along the river Rhone, and just before Saint-Pierre-de-Boeuf right (west) into the Cevennes. This is where the first smooth, longstretched climb started. At some point down into the valley towards Annonay and again a loooong valley climb through e.g. Saint-Julien-Vocance. Some more of that and at some point in the evening I arrived at my destination; the Lac de Saint-Martial, which I had picked mainly because it was at just the right distance from Lyon (not too much less than 1/3 towards Carcassone, which I wanted to reach within 3 cycling days), and because it looked pretty cute in the satellite/Streetview pictures. As you will see below, reality did not disappoint me!

Climbing & descending – the beauty of investment and return with compound interest.

As mentioned above, there were multiple long stretches of climbs today that added up to 1880m altitude gain (on 157km). Quite something when you include luggage in the equation and the fact that I have hardly and longterm mountain experience. Luckily though, most of those climbs were stretched out enough to have gradients between 4 and 6% with some outliers up to at least 10% (estimated). I remained mostly in the saddle. In fact I realized again how inefficient standing up is on climbs – but sometimes necessary and good just to change the position, stretch a bit and shift the load onto other muscle groups – just for a few dozen meters, and then back into the regular position, slowly but consistently winding my way up.

A skill I gained now and value a lot is pacing: I follow the basic principle as I do on flat stretches: choose a gear light enough to have just a little perceived resistance at a healthy cadence (I counted once: 90rpm feels good to me). I am not shy with the small chainring (34T currently). On a climb I will go slow. I never checked my power output, but I guess it is rather low. But I know that by cycling on low pressure I will endure for quite a while; and greatly: it does not feel much heavier over the course of a climb (or day, in case of flat stages): at my healthy power/cadence the end feels almost just as exhausting as at the beginning and I can go on for quite a while.

While climbing I try to not think too much about the climbing. For one thing, climbing makes for a very different placement in the surrounding: because of the low pace and because often the mountain shields from headwind, there is no wind noise in the ear which lets you hear all of the wonderful sounds of your immediate environment: grasshoppers, bees, wind moving leafs, sometimes other animals being busy in the bushes (with ‘other’ I do not mean ‘other than me’ but ‘other than the bees’. Just to clarify. But sure, in the end I’m also just an animal pacing that world).

Then, the lack of moving air also makes scents much stronger: usually the smell of pine trees, other wood, camomile, and other things that smelled incredibly familiar but I couldn’t identify. In any case: like a high class and and ‘all natural’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean) soap bar box. Just more subtle.

And another effect from the slower speeds: I see more; obvious. I can stick for much longer to little details that are very close by: the pattern of the year rings in that log, two butterflies mating on the pavement, the old lady on her bench on her front porch, the multiple times rolled over ferret-kind-of creature whose tragedy is approaching me with every creaky crunchy turn of my tires and crank… beautiful!

When those things do not keep me busy enough, I prefer to deviate my thoughts into anything from e.g. tonal excercises, doing accents, contemplating past events or human relationships or silly mind games. One of the latter that was circulating around my mind is about climbing. I think an analogy of financial investment very much matches my psychology on climbs:

Winding my way uphill is an investment; I give away and invest current ressources – namely calories and more importantly the (primarily clearly) negative experience of work and exhaustion – and receive a return in the future – a downhill ride that is a fun experience, cooling, physically relaxing, usually had a great view and also moves me forward on the map very quickly. The thing is: that investment is very solid: I know that I started on several hundred meters above NN in Freiburg, and I will end on 0 NN in Barcelona. The return is guaranteed; like with a current German government bond. So you’d expect there to be no interest on it (since there’s no risk involved (no: Barcelona will not rise from the sea anytime soon)) – but there is: a future descent has a much higher value to me than a current descent. That is because a future descent includes the descent itself, and the hindsight memory of it, but also the joyful anticipation of it! On another level there is even some sort of cumulative interest involved: because I have the feeling that my joy on a downhill ride increases exponentially with it’s length and the length is proportional to the amount of uphill riding which naturally in turn is proportional to the time spent. So: the longer I climb, the exponentially higher the return. What a deal! Take my money!!

So, ja, I admit it might sound a bit far-fetched but I think that’s about the mechanism at play. Bottomline:

  • I like climbs because they pay off very profitably
  • Climbing makes you make up weird analogies

But here’s the practical application: The day was in fact concluded by a very solid climb that climaxed in a really steep section on the very last few hundred meters. Strangely, my destination, the lake Lac de Saint-Martial was situated right on top of that last climb, which means that one edge of the lake (my arrival edge) was immediately bordering a steep valley front; almost surprising that the wall of the sea bed is apparently stable enough to hold the lake. As you can imagine, this situation made for a great arrival: instantaneously from ‘torture’ to paradise – impossible withought the climbing. Just look at this video that I took right at my arrival:

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​Just a few meters before the campsite.​​


Landscape

I knew of course it would be pretty. But I didn’t expect this… even parts that I in my planning expected to be rather dull, necessary sections to bridge the highlights turned out to be really pretty. But as we all know: pictures say more than 1000 words (I realized now that I don’t have too many pictures/clips available; sorrrry. Many though in the next post):

Cola break in Maclas:

Lunch break:



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More (and more valuable) photos will be in the next post!

STRAVA: click


03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)

You are now at post Nr. 03 out of 10 for this tour.
If you want to read the post of that trip in order, voilà:
00a Freiburg – Barcelona preparation
00b Freiburg – Barcelona READY to go
01 Freiburg – Lake Neuchâtel (206km, 1200m)
02 Lake Neuchâtel – Geneva (119km, 968m)
03 Geneva – Lyon (167km, 1585m)
04 Lyon into the Cevennes – on climbing and descending… (157km, 1885m)
05 Lac St. Martial – Tarn (187km, 2900m) Prototype of THE cycle touring day
06 Tarn – Carcassonne (203km, 2683m) – A long day in 3 dimensions
07 Carcassonne – Casteil (148km, 2635m) Arrival at the ‘base camp’
08 Walking over the Pyrenees and cycling down into Spain (110km, 2671m) – reality checks
09 Hot as hell. Tortellà, Costa Brava, Canet de Mar (145km, 1468m)
10 La Final: last 48km to Barcelona & recap. What a tour…


I’m not sure a cycling day could be any more diverse than this third one…

  • from strong rain to blue sky
  • super hot to really cold
  • perfect pavement to heavy gravel
  • long 5-15% gradients to Dutch-type flatness
  • -Thick air to stable headwinds

In general this day was another good preparation for the centralparts of my trip (Massif Central and Pyrennees) because today’s distance was pretty ok, and there was some climbing involved. I mean, in the end I got myself (and 25kg of equipment) over the southern Jura mountains.

After a very sleepless night in a hostel (I had a room’mate’ who remarkably mastered both smelling and snoring on a pro level) and a pretty decent hostel breakfast I started off at blue and cloudy but dry weather in Geneva.

The ride started with this bright encounter: Within the first couple of km I approached two cyclists with a label “Barcelona” on their panniers! We had a brief chat. Turned out that Florian and Johannes were also German (started in Ingolstadt) and we’re following a similar route as I am (generally more South). We briefly exchanged contacts and I’m confident we’ll meet up for a Cerveza later to celebrate our arrivals together.

I went on, and the weather turned. Sadly I was so optimistic about the conditions that my feet were already kind of wet by the time I put on my rain gear. In any case: real rain… wrapped up like a mummy, I arrived at Chancy, a little border bridge, and entered France. And that’s where also the Jura starts. By now it was sunny again. The first road into the Jura turned out to be a super steep, slippery and rough gravel road – This can happen… that I missed some of those spots in my route planning. But more problematic (to me) was that from the first second of that climb I was accompanied by an aggressive little dog that – as far as I interpret it’s behavior – tried to catch me. It almost had me… but I gave all I had and escaped; perfect: that adrenaline got me through the next steep and rough 400m. (Ja, I’m not really a dog kind of guy).

Some impressions from when I entered the Jura (still at lower altitude): here the feeling of exploration and adventure really set in; because I have never seen this kind of area (while I had already ideas about the previous landscapes in Switzerland)


Then paved road again and the real long climb began… Gained about 800m altitude over a rather short distance. 7% gradient on average, I guess. And now it was hot and sunny. Certainly better than climbing in the rain.

Judging by the chalk letters of famous cyclists on the ground I was following a Tour de France road.


At some point I arrived at 1100m where I had a nice chat with a local who like me enjoyed this fantastic view and agreed to take my picture. In the background behind the clouds, usually the Montblanc would be visible.


Up there it was really cold and now there was no mountain between me and the solid west wind anymore. But generally very quiet up there!

From there it went mostly (not exclusively) downhill. But once more I ended up on heavy gravel in the woods. And in terms of rain now shit hit the fan. Felt like a wet winter. Here’s an impression from a rainless moment in the woods:


Luckily no uphill fights anymore. At some point I reached a low altitude where it was warmer and greener again. And then surfed down a valley… unbelievable:


Sadly, at some point my potential energy that I worked for so hard earlier, was gone.. At this point I was really exhausted. Just the perfect moment to get the Bifi Roll into the game that I received from Diana and Micha three days earlier.


At some point I was liberated from the shadows of the Jura and absorbed by the width of the Rhone valley landscape. 60km to go to Lyon. And now strangely I felt really strong. I put on some motivating music.

Soundtrack of that Stage:

  • Tom Misch and
  • Talking heads

Perfect!

I raced down towards Lyon. Apart from another unwanted gravel episode on the last few km along the Rhone, everything went really smoothly and fast. I guess I nailed more than a 30km/h average there.


Arrival in Lyon about 20h. That night (and the next 2 days) I would stay at my friend Bérengère’s and her boyfriend’s place. We went out to have some original Lyonnaise food that night. My Lyon stay is something for some other post, but let me say that these 2,5 days with Bérengère and Geoffrey were very lovely and relaxed and fun! Thanks so much to both of you once more! Bérengère and me had not met in 6 years…


STRAVA: click