30 July 2011

return to paris

samedi 30 juillet
Cats, silent as stolen kisses, slink home before light cracks the night sky. A gorgeous day is about to break over the Pyrénées, but not yet. And not for me.
No light shines inside or outside Gare Luchon, but two couples with cases huddle in the dark under the station verandah when The Iceman drops me off. The bike pod and my backpack hold up a wall. A deserted bus squats on the forecourt.
A droog approaches from the left, the town: shaved head, black denims, mohawk slicked back in a lank ponytail. He opens the rear bus-hatch, peers at the mechanicals inside, pokes something. He’s our driver, this bus the train.
At 6:22 it begins its mazy journey on empty roads and village streets narrow as right-wing opinions. Hamlets sleep on after the rigours of the week.
An hour later the seven passengers who embark in Luchon—a mother and teenage son with a kitten in a basket, an age-spotted couple, a young woman, a solid woman who rode in on an old bike, breathless, just in time, and me—disembark at Gare Montréjeau.
Another hour later we disembark into the horded subway and sprawling waiting-hall at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse. Ninety minutes to kill before my slow train to Paris Austerlitz. I buy a baguette stuffed with Brie and a packet of cheap butter biscuits for my seven hours on the non-TGV.
The train grande vitesse rockets through the countryside, but the 10:22 TEOZ service is the TPV—the train petite vitesse. It burrows through the endless tunnels of the Massif Central at worm rather than warp speed. The French have a Freudian thing for tunnels.
French trains are comfortable, practical, and punctual—when they don’t run over and kill people en route. But the right to travel comes at a cost: last-minute platform information; subways like the gory alleys of Pamplona; a crushing human funnel at each carriage door.
Non-TGV French trains are scaled rather than stepped into: it’s a claustrophobic uphill tug-of-war, backwards, lugging awkwardnesses, like a bike pod. (The verb to lug: hence, lugging, lugged, luggage.)
There are trains with living-room-sized luggage compartments. There are trains with luggage racks, baggage bays, and elasticised nets for small items. There are trains with special accommodation for bikes. And there are trains in which a bike pod might as well be a giraffe.
Seating comes in every conceivable configuration: pairs in line, pairs facing, and raised and lowered seats. Most have tables for food, books, computers or maps, and individual bins for wrappers, cans, and personal effluvia. Hooks and handles are thoughtfully located, the toilets clean and functional at departure.
I have a cheap last-minute first-class couchette, number 91, that turns out to be a velour-covered mattress. It has no backrest, no cushion and no table, so you can lie down or you can lie down, which is fine if you require seven hours sleep in the middle of the day.
The compartment is comprised of four couchettes, two up—95 and 96, and two down—91 and 92. The whereabouts of 93 and 94 are a mystery. They are not in the adjoining compartment.
The pod occupies half a skinny corridor. The conductor points to the space under my couchette. My French is not up to this: I shrug and say in English that I tried. He shrugs. I study the mechanics of the couchette and try again, folding it to 60 degrees while juggling the pod and ladder to the upper couchettes. In it goes.
The trip is long and tedious. My companions, a 20 year-old boy with a smartphone and ear-buds and a girl upstairs reading a book titled The men who don’t like the women, if my translation stands up, utter not one word. They sleep while I wake and wake while I sleep.
At Gare Austerlitz a little boy slides on a dog turd in the tiled corridor setting off a stink still clinging to me in the fresh air of the taxi rank. Fifteen minutes later I’m in the Hotel Diana. The fresh young Jewish concierge hands me the key to the room I left 22 days ago, room 32. It feels like home.

29 July 2011

port de balès

vendredi 29 juillet

My final ride in France, this trip, maybe forever. The ascent of the Port de Balès reminds me—as if I didn’t need it—that big boys shouldn’t climb hills. They can, slowly, but mountains are for skinny young men. My legs are knackered after weeks of clambering up incredibly steep slopes.
The Iceman and I saunter down the main road from Luchon, first along the valley of le Pique, the valley of la Garonne. At Salanche-Siridan we hang a left up the valley of the Ourse to Mauléon-Barousse. We have 19.7kms to climb: the sign says so.
I have no computer today—it’s on my bed, left behind in my haste to be on the road. I am naked without it: no gradients (maybe a good thing), no distance to the top (ditto), no temperature changes as we hit the clouds (ditto, ditto).
The beauty of this climb eases its agony. From Mauléon-Barousse we sidle up the Ferrère valley, idyllic scenery and a glorious river burbling right beside the bitumen. The gradient is benign enough for me to enjoy every second.
After six point five kilometres of three and four percent, the road crosses the river, the valley narrows to gorge, and the real stuff begins, the river further and further below in deep shade. No village, no house, no wayside shelter relieves the solitude and the final bleakness of this climb that tops out at 1755 metres.

The perilous descent south into the Oueil valley is goat-track narrow with the tightest chicanes. The final 5.88kms to the top was only sealed in 2005 so le Tour could come over here for the first time. Only way down in the lower reaches dare I release the brakes and flash through the corners.
 And then it’s done. I open the iron gate at Le Poujastou, our chambres d’hôtes, and lean the Cervélo against a wooden garden table. I remove my wrap-arounds with prescription inserts, my blood-red helmet, a dripping bandana, and unpeel two sticky mitts.
After trudging up four flights and stripping off my Alpe d’Huez jersey, my best bib-nicks and new socks on honour of the occasion, I lie down for a few minutes. My next task is to wheel the pod from the garage, unfurl my multi-tool’s Allen keys, and disassemble my machine.
There it lies, in pieces in a black box—wheels, seat-post, handlebars, derailleur—at strange angles, incapable, Alpe d’Huez, the Croix de Fer, the Glandon, the Télégraphe, the Galibier, the Izoard, the Portillon, Superbagnères, and the Balès behind it. Before them, the Tourmalet, the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Agnes and the Aubisque.
There are a million mountains to climb: they’re everywhere, every day. In France only one remains for me: the Ventoux. It stands alone in a place I have not been.

28 July 2011


After lunch—salad Italienne for Mick and a crepe for me—and a siesta—thirty minutes with one eye shut, we tog up and assault Superbagnères. It’s not a mountain so much as a ski-field. But at 1800 metres it’s a major ascent.
No easy climbs in France, and Superbangers as I christen it, is no exception. It’s warm and I ride sans casquette, wrapping my helmet straps round the handlebars. In no time sweat drips of the peak of my cap, streams down the lenses of my glasses, and makes a shimmering lake of the face of my computer.
It’s an 18-kilometre ascent, the last three into cloud so heavy I can see only five metres ahead. Cows with bells clanging fade into tiers above the road. The bike wants to keel over; it seems as tired of this heavy haulage as I am. It’s twelve degrees at the summit.
Unfortunately the cloud lowers itself into the valley of the Lys and the descent is as cool as the climb was the opposite. The final ten kays snakes back into Luchon: it’s high-speed exhilaration all the way.
[73.81kms @ 18.8kph. Montage 1757m, Max alt 1800m, max climb 16%]

stairway to heaven

jeudi 28 juillet
The Iceman takes the car to do research for the 2012 trip so I pedal to Gare Luchon, then ride to Gouaux de Luchon via Bagnères de Luchon, Montauban de Luchon and Juzet de Luchon. Cier de Luchon is over the road but I don’t go there.
Gouaux de Luchon village perches on the side of the mountain up a hammy-twanging five-kilometre climb. The usual thoughts assail me: how do people live up here? They can’t all be farmers: what do they do for a living? A small, but new, car sits in a nook outside every house: how do they make an income?
The village at first seems dead. I sit at the well. The road outside is littered with free range barkers' eggs. Fat ones. An old woman emerges from a doorway and totters down the chemin with a plastic bag of garbage in her hand. The shutters on a doorway fold back, the door opens and a sleepy young bloke steps out as though half past ten on a bright sunny day is simply too much for him.
A woman is chatting garrulously to a neighbour over a stone wall. Two blokes are working in the cimitière in the churchyard. Bright flowers clutter every grave. A walled garden is full of beans, tomotoes, herbs and other legumes. A sage older man strolls down the road, decides all is as it should be at the village boundary, then strolls back.
As I wheel the bike along a narrow lane the garrulous woman’s whippet rushes the fence to warn me off. She coos at it, bonjours me. In the yard of every house is a perfectly stacked woodpile ready for the snowy months to come.
I can’t help but think that life here might be slow and sleepy, but it’s good.

27 July 2011

the portillon

mercredi 27 juillet
Every river—la Garonne, le Salat, le Pique—gushes furiously. But finally after three days the rain gives up its relentless descent. But first …
Monday we travel all day, by car and train and car again. It’s a nightmare. The train kills two people, the hire car is sequestered in an impenetrable dungeon at Gare Matabiau, and Toulouse is one grand bouchon—a monster traffic jam. It rains, and keeps right on raining into Tuesday.
We abandon the bikes, wander the streets of St Girons, encounter the slowest postal worker in France, motor over the Col de Portet d’Aspet, dash from dripping shop canopy to dripping shop canopy in Aspet, and return to the gîte.
We sneak out from Figarol in the late afternoon between downpours for a 31km jaunt along the Garonne valley, up through Aspet, and back to the gîte, black clouds circling like vultures. We’re almost back when the sky opens and we take refuge in a bus shelter.
We quit Figarol early this morning and drive across to Luchon, poking our noses up various roads out of various towns to occupy the time. Rain falls. Luchon’s main street teems with piétons (pedestrians). At 12:30 on the dot every rack of cheap clothing, and postcards is hauled in, doors are bolted and it’s a ghost town.
Le Poujastou, our chambres d’hôtes in the adjacent village of Juzet de Luchon only accepts its guests from four till seven. Ringing the gate-bell at two proves pointless. So at two thirty The Iceman and I extract our bikes from the hire car on the roadside near Luchon.
On the climb to the Col du Portillon we figure the rain is over, we have time, so we go over the top and just keep going into Espagne. The nine-kilometre climb features a nasty ramp at 16 per cent and plenty of hard slog.
We wind down a broken road into Spain to the touristy town of Bossost. Traffic is not enjoyable along the valley of la Garona (the Garonne). In a blink we’re back in France and cruise into St Béat. A fast 20km ever-so-slightly uphill drag with a tailwind sees us back in Luchon.
[61.15kms @ 22.5kph. Montage 920m, Max alt 1320m, max climb 16%]

26 July 2011

nicknames, monikers and sobriquets

My last circumnavigation of Tasmania earned me the nickname The Tractor. Pulling along the rare long flats in huge gears attracted the attention of pithy tongues. I feel tractorish as I chug-chug-chug relentlessly up mountainsides.
Sporty models need fine-tuning; tractors go on forever.
In France Mick gives us call signs: The Iceman, The Pirate, Hulk, Doc, Crash. I am Legs. No one bothers to call me that. Do I not look like a Legs? Are my legs unworthy of eponymy?
Sometimes when churning up something steep, only the legs exist and I am indeed legs, all legs, and nothing but the legs.
Sometimes when I haul my arse out of the saddle to use some different muscles, I look down at my legs. They look good. I like them. Legs are good. Legs are great. Rather lose an arm than a leg.
In French the legs are les jambs. Ham is jambon. The legs are hams and the hamstrings are the pistons of the legs. When they ache they ache right up under the nates and it’s no dull pain, but the singing of too-taut catgut, deep in the flesh.
At 90 kiolgrams I carry too much weight. But when I lose it, does it come off a bulging gut? No, it comes off the legs, the only part of me I think looks fine.
On a forgotten ride on a forgotten road long ago, Dr Landucci was born—in my mind. He’s a doctor of everything and nothing. He’s both myth and mythical. He can do anything he sets his mind to. Sometimes when I’m spent, I call on Landucci to get me over the line.
On those seemingly endless long days when 100 kilometres stretches to 150, 160 and beyond, Landucci clips into the pedals and wraps his weathered Roman fingers around the bars. He’s indefatiguable, and inscrutable.
He has an imagined life, shared only with a small dog. He does as he pleases. The bike is as much a part of him as his arms or legs. He looks like Burt Lancaster and has his fabled grin, all creases and bonhomie, though he seldom employs it.
Would that I were Landucci.
Some people live in their heads; most live somewhere else—shopping centres, in front of reality television, in a land of delusion and superficiality. Landucci is deep within himself.
What’s in a name? Plenty.   

a tragedy

lundi 25 juillet
Our plodding Rhône-Alpes regional service from Grenoble connects with the TGV at Valence, which rockets through the French countryside toward Toulouse.
Earlier. A throng of apprehensive travellers gathers under the information board in Gare Grenoble; un accident personel means trains to Lyon are delayed. The platform for our service to Valence appears late and we scoot our bike pods to Quai F with little time to spare. Our train departs a minute or two late.
Gazing unfixedly out the window I wonder what constitutes un accident personel and whether the obvious translation is accurate. We are about to find out. About fifteen minutes before we are due in Toulouse our high-speed juggernaut judders to an unnatural halt.
“Well, that’s that,” I venture. It’s a flip remark but its underpinning premonition is uncanny. Passengers look at each other for any sign that someone knows more then they do about our unexpected stop.
My father has been on a train that struck and killed a schoolboy on Melbourne’s outskirts. A friend of a friend threw herself under a train at her local station in the throes of a deep depression. Watching someone leap out of bushes into the path of a train approaching Croydon Station traumatised a student I taught.
Only yesterday driving to Briancon, The Viking, a train driver for 30 years, regales us with train driving stories. He says matter-of-factly that trains strike and run over people; the implication is that if you drive the things, you’d better get used to it.
The announcement comes over the PA: there has been un accident personel. We will be delayed. Men in orange jackets walk the length of the train. People peer our the upper level windows though its more likely if someone was hit that the lower level is a better vantage point.
A helicopter woop-woops overhead then puts down in a field beside the train. SNCF staff come into the carriage to inform us of a two-hour delay. No one knows exactly what has happened. Two people hit has currency. A gendarme wanders along the adjacent tracks.
Passengers mingle and chat; the toilet does good service. The bar re-opens as the afternoon drags on. Straight grey rain descends and a thousand droplets trickle down my window. Two hours later it’s over and the train rolls silently to speed and rockets through the soggy French countryside.
Things that should happen don’t when I travel with The Iceman. And things that shouldn’t happen do.