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BlacktopMotorcycleDiaries

Haydn Thomas


Prologue My first European tour had been triumphant, a real success, and all the guys who went agreed that I should organise another one the following year. As we had just been to the largest mountain range in Europe, and as those mountain roads had indeed proved to be as exceptional as we believed they would be, there was only ever going to be one real contender for the 2008 tour, Europe’s second largest mountain range, the Pyrenees. I’d come back from the Alps hooked on the thought of touring at least once a year and although the old Duc had done mightily well, after ten years of ownership, one complete rebuild and a recent new paint job along the way, I decided that it was time for a new steed, something better equipped for all of this touring I had in mind. Well, that and finally conceding that the Ducati was in fact a little on the small side for me. My budget was quite tight but my requirements quite specific so the choice was somewhat limited. I hankered after a BMW R1200 GS but my funds wouldn’t stretch that far and for me, the older 1150cc version didn’t quite have the same appeal. Then I remembered a bike that I’d liked the look of a few years earlier, another BMW, the K1200. After some research, I discovered that not only did they make the ‘sporty’ RS, but also a GT variant which came with colour coded panniers, heated handlebar grips, electrically adjustable screen and a heated seat! And, most importantly, they were right on budget. Well what wasn’t to like. I test rode couple and what a different machine to the Ducati it proved to be. Although lacking the character of the old Duke, the BMW’s silky smooth power delivery, planted and surefooted cornering, and much better riding position for my 6’8” frame, made it a good option. The guys at Wollastons told me that the 6’10”, ex-England rugby player, Martin Bayfield had bought one and that was good enough testament for me. This, I thought, will be brilliant for my trip to the Pyrenees, and with that, I bought one. Come May of 2008, I’d had my new motorcycle for four months and it’s next service was due so booked it in to SBW Motorcycles in Hertford. A couple of days and a significant amount of hard earned cash later, my bike was returned feeling a lettle better for it. Another couple of days passed when I had a quite unfortunate incident. Rounding a tight left hand corner, I felt the rear wheel slip. This wasn’t one of those little tail twitches of an inch that feels like you’ve moved a foot, this was a foot! I thought I’d ridden over some diesel, at least I did until smoke started bellowing out from the front of the bike. Dismounting the Beemer, I could see what little oil that was still in the engine was trying to escape through a newly formed hole in the engine casing. Oil was everywhere, covering the bike’s underside from front to back and the rear tyre was caped. No small wonder then that I’d nearly come a cropper. The bike was duly recovered to the garage who admitted full liability for the damage and happily loaned me a 1200 GS for my trip. I was, to be honest, a little disappointed not to be doing the trip on the bike I’d purposely bought to do it on, but the idea of doing the next 2500 miles on their bike and wearing out their tyres, not mine, in the process was a pleasant one. All of the previous year’s attendees were signed up, Anton, Howard, Phil, Rich and myself were all excited at the propsect of heading off on another biking trip, and in addition to

Pyrenees Tour 2008


the new bike, we also had a coupe of new recruits joining us. Despite Steve’s previous antics on a Wales weekender the previous Autumn, I had agreed that he was welcome to come, as long as his partner in crime Ryan didn’t. The second newbie was Simon, AKA Sid. I had been playing rugby with Sid at Vauxhall Motors Rugby Club for several seasons but had only recently discovered that he too rode a motorbike. Having both rugby and bikes in common, we could hardly fail to get along and Sid was only to happy to be invited along. In the months leading up to the trip, Phil had been adamant that catching the Friday, overnight ferry to Caen was the best route and wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise. I, believing the train to be both the cheaper and better option, remained equally immovable on the matter so before we’d even started, we’d ended up separating into two groups. By the time my party, (me, Anton, Howard and Sid), departed from Clophill, Phil, Rich and Steve would be at sea, just an hour or so from docking in Caen. That gave them a good couple of hour’s or so head start on us in France and with a hundred or so less miles to cover than us, they would arrive at our first night’s accommodation well before us giving them plenty of time to get the beers in.

Left to right: 1. My new-to-me GT seeing happier days. 2. My replacement loan bike.

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It seemed an unsavoury hour to be up as we pulled out of Howard’s driveway at 5.30 on the Saturday morning, but there were 500 long miles to cover between us and our first night’s accommodation in the little village of Jumeaux, deep in the Auvergne region of central France, so the earlier we started the better.

Calais

Being early and the roads quiet, we made quick progress down to Folkstone under the bright early morning sun for our 8am crossing and before we knew it, we were breakfasting on a service station baguette and strong coffee in Calais. I’d planned a route on a mixture of autoroutes and national roads heading south A16 from Calais to Rouen where we’d pick up the N154 to Évreux, Chartres and Orleans. There we’d join the A71 autoroute for the final 200 miles to Jumeaux, 30 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand, and, if my timings were right, we’d be there just in time for dinner. It was never going to be an interesting day’s ride, despite how good the French roads are but at least using the national Abbeville roads broke up the monotony of the motorways, and avoided the rigors of the Paris ringroad where we’d almost certainly have gotten lost. The A28 highlight of the ride was when Anton, following his TomTom to the letRouen ter, decided that a single lane farm road was in fact the main N174 to Orleans, despite there being a massive sign in front of us stating otherwise. After much micky taking at my expense following a similar ocEvereaux curance the year before, the oportunity to retort couldn’t go unmissed. Orleans passed by, as did Bourges, and after a couple more hours, Clermont-Ferrand was behind us with just a few miles left to go. We arrived at the Hotel de l’Ille on the banks of the river L’Allier at about seven in the evening and were greeted by our host Fred and his wife Wendy who had taken over the hotel since I’d made the booking some six months earlier. They certainly made a good first impression on us by having round of very welcome cold beers to the ready and Fred told me to call him when we were ready to check in. Phil, Rich and Steve had been there for a couple of hours already and Phil, being another rugby fan, was particularly happy due to a French rugby match being aired on the television in the bar which he was watching with some of the locals. I really like little hotels like this one. Simple, characterful and most importantly, typically French. We sat for a while on the veranda to the front and drank our beers, chatting about our respective

Pyrenees Tour 2008

N154

Paris

Chartres N154 Orleans A71

Bourges


journeys and taking the mick out of Anton about his TomTom fixation. I called Fred over who checked us in and due to a cancellation, and my being tour leader, he very kindly gave me triple room to myself at no extra charge. Returning to the bar, Wendy produced a very nice, typically French three course dinner, then over a few more glasses of wine, we tucked into some local cheeses. Our hosts proved very amiable and after the others had retired for the night, I sat with Fred for an hour talking over a few drinks. Suffice to say his English was a bit better than my French...alright, a lot better.

Top: The tour group outside the Hotel de l’Ile with owners Fred and Wendy. Left to right: 1. Howard during first coffee stop. 2. River l’Allier 4. Hotel de l’Ille

5. Steve the valet. 6. Taking a break at French service station.

A71

Clermont-Ferrand Jumeaux

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I was abruptly awoken in the morning by Steve storming my room at what felt like an unsavoury hour and jumping on my Jumeaux bed. A short burst of jovially expelled expletives on my part followed and with that he withdrew leaving me to get up. N102 To be fair, it was good time of day to be rising, the early morning sun already brightening the clear skies overhead and by the time Le Puy I got downstairs for breakfast, Steve was busying himself wiping the heavy dew from all the bikes. We had another long day’s ride ahead, some 330 miles to the town of Prades in the foothills of the Pyrenees where Phil was lucky enough to have a second home. Although we were just off the main A75 autoroute south, my route would take us cross country to Mende and N88 through the Gorges du Tarn before joining the autoroute at the Millau Viaduct. After breakfast, we loaded up, a lot easier this year with the clip on panniers, and headed off in search of a nearby petrol station. ‘Phil’s group’ had filled up the previous afternoon in the next village, Brassac-les-Mines, but attempting Mende to retrace his route, we immediately got lost. To be fair, being Saturday, it was market day and so the route they’d taken though the centre the pre- Gorges du Tarn vious afternoon was now cordened off. Eventually we found it and were soon on our way again, but not for long. The petrol station incident had thrown us off route already so we didn’t really know where we were. Phil suddenly blasted off with Rich and Steve in hot pursuit leaving the rest of us parked up on the roadside. Rather than ride on aimlessly, I Millau decided to take a look at my map but no sooner had I stopped, than Anton too went flying off down the road. I don’t know if he thought Millau Viaduct we were behind him or not but Howard, Sid and I were still sitting there on our bikes. We’d stopped by a row of three or four houses and by chance, one of the residents pulled up in his car. I approached him and asked for directions which got us back on track but we were still missing the others. We rode for a couple of miles and parked up again on the verge of the road we needed to take and waited to see if the others turned up. There was still no sight of any of them so I called Anton and Phil and suggested that we met on the outskirts of the next big town on the N102, Brioude, A75 and within the hour we were all reunited. I was fuming by this point and once back on the road, took to riding as fast as I dare as we headed towards Mende. I wanted to ride on my on for a while and on reflection, I should have dropped back to the rear of the group, but the red mist had descended and I was de-

Narbonne Clockwise from left: 1. Le Drakkar Brasserie, Mende. 2. Millau Viaduct. 3. Sainte Enimie, Gorges du Tarn. 4. Sid, Phil and Howard waiting for us at Angessac, (we were eating an ice cream in Sainte Enimie.) 5. Notre Dame and Saint Privat Cathedral, Mende.

Pyrenees Tour 2008

Prades

N116

A9

Perpignon


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termined to put some distance between me and the next rider, Phil. The trouble was, on the fast open roads we were on, Phil was riding pretty swiftly himself and this only served to exasperate my already darkened mood and left no option but to wind the Beemer up further and beyond my comfort zone. After a few miles, my mirrors were clear and after a few more my anger disipated and I slowed to let the others to catch up. By the time we rolled into the pretty town of Mende in time for an early lunch I was feeling decidedly calmer and navigated us to a square beneath the impressive looking fourteenth century Notre Dame and Saint Privat Cathedral. On the same square was a pleasant looking brasserie, Le Drakkar with shaded tables outside which would do nicely. We sat for an hour enjoying lunch before the others were off getting their kit on whilst I was still eating my moules frites. The trouble, was that we were in a race against time due to Phil having arranged for us to eat at his place at 7pm sharp. It was becoming apparent that we were being hurried along all day so as not to be late. It was of course very kind of Phil and Carol to host us for the evening but it made for a rather tense day. Mende is situated just a few miles from the end of the Gorges du Tarn, and within half an hour we could see the beginnings of the gorges ahead. Suddenly I realised that we were on the wrong road and that we should have been riding along the bottom of the gorge so I pulled over to correct us. Instead of pulling in behind me, the others all careered past and off round the next corner. Pulling a u-turn, I back-tracked for a mile before cutting down a narrow lane to the base of the gorge. The gorges make up part of the CÊvennes National Park which was created in 1970. It covers more than 3100 square kilometres and is considered such a remarkable and beautiful place that in 2011 it was awarded status as a UNESCO World Hertitage Site, and justifiably so. It was stunning, and only got better the deeper into the gorge I rode. Around every corner was photo opportunity and not wanting to miss any of it, I undid my jacket and just pottered along, taking my time and stopping whenever I pleased and enjoying half an hour of solitude. At Sainte-Enimie I bumped into Rich and Steve and we parked up, bought a round of ice creams and sat on a wall above the river, watching the holiday-makers swimming and canoeing beneath us in the cool waters. We all agreed that it would be a place worthy of returning to for a family holiday. With time against us, we mounted our bikes again and rode the remainder of the gorge until we reached Millau. With no sight of the rest of the group, I figured that they’d gone to the visitors centre at the bridge so continued on. Finding their bikes lined up in the car park but with no sight of them, I took to climbing the steep path to the viewing platform that overlooks the mighty three hundred and forty three metre high bridge. The sun was beating down savagely and in my biking gear I was

Pyrenees Tour 2008


burning up quickly. I reached the top to find that amongst the twenty or so viewers, that not a single one of the guys were there. Hot, bothered and very sweaty, I made my way back down to the cafe at the visitor centre to find my six, very cool and relaxed comrades relaxing beneath a shadey parasol, sipping cold beverages. You can imagine their hysteria. After cooling down, we joined the A75 autoroute passing over the hugely impressive Millau Viaduct. At 343 metres tall from it’s base to the top of the towers, it’s the tallest bridge in the world and spans almost two and a half miles over the Tarn Valley. From there we had a straight run to Perpignon before turning west for the last twenty miles to Prades where Phil had booked us a couple of nights at Bikers’ Paradise, a really nice bed and breakfast, run by German couple Mireike and Oliver Zehner. Upon arrival, Phil left instructions that we were to be ready in an hour and a half when he’d return to pick us up for dinner at his place. We were given two apartments between us so Anton, Howard Sid and myself took one, and Rich and Steve the other. The appartment itself was lovely, but only had a twin and double room. It was decided that the snorers, Anton and Howard, would share, and that Sid and I would snuggle up in the double. We were rugby players after all. The hour and a half gave us plenty of time to grab a few ‘help yourself’ beers and take a dip in the pool. It was bliss. After such shot day in the saddle, this was the perfect way to cool down and relax before changing in time for Phil’s return. As stated, he was bang on time and we all piled into his truck for the ten minute drive up the mountain lanes to his retreat, a charming little house with a first floor terrace which was laid out with a long table and ample seating. Carol did us proud and produced a lovely meal whilst Phil made sure we weren’t left wanting for beer or wine. All in all, it made or dinner very pleasant evening and a lot of laughs.

Top: At the Millau Viaduct Left to right: 1. Cafe at the Millau Viaduct. 2. Prades, Gorges du Tarn. 3. Steve and Rich in Mende. 4. Bikers’ Paradise, Prades. 5. Bikers’ Paradise.

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As we were in Phil’s back yard, I’d left day three’s route to him. At about 9am, he pulled up on the gravel driveway of Biker’s Paradise and we all set off in convoy towards the coast. Even at this hour the sun was intense and was working up to being a very hot day. Prior to the trip, we’d discussed riding the mediteranean coastal road from Port-Vendres to Roses, having a spot of lunch at a nice cafe offering nice views out over the sea, maybe even taking a quick dip in the Med. I had imagined a nice leisurely jaunt, riding from cove to cove, the bright mediterranean sun warming our backs, following the twisting road as it hugged the cliff tops high above the sea. In my mind it was perfect. After an hour or so of riding through village after village to get to the coast however, we were all getting very warm in our biking gear. We reached a car park in the town of Collioure and Phil suggested that we went for a wander about. A wander about? Are you kidding? It wasn’t the pleasant 20 degrees of so that I’d imagined in my day dreams but a good 35 degrees and wandering about in my biking gear was out of the question. Howard, who’s bike’s engine had been cooking his legs further still, was about to flip his top and barked that he was going back to the hotel as he wasn’t enjoying himself. I suggested to Phil that we split up and reconvene in the evening when we would be returning to his house for dinner again. With this agreed, I studied my map and picked a direct route into the mountains where, hopefully, the air would be cooler and the riding more fun. Anton and Sid said they would come too whilst Rich and Steve would stay with Phil. Howard, still not happy, said he’d ride with us or a bit but probably still return to the hotel. He’d see. We headed out of Collioure to Le Boulou where we joined the D115 which wound it’s way high up into the Pyrenees. It was a fabulous road that traversed along a gorge for the most part, twisting and turning it’s way beneath the trees. The air was cool and damp and a welcome change to coastal heat. Having gotten away from the searing heat, Howard had deceided to ride with us for the day after all and by the way he was throwing his bike around, he was clearly enjoying himself. We reached the village of Prats-de-Mollo-la-Pretes and decided it was a good time to stop for lunch. A typical little French bar and restaurant, Le Costabonne, presented itself on the main square so we sat for an hour under the terrace canopy relaxing and discussing what a brilliant ride we’d all had. It was a shame that the group had seperated once again but we were all enjoying ourselves which I guess is the point. As we crossed over into the next valley, it was evident that it had been raining and the road conditions deteriorated. Howard had become embroiled in race to the mountain bottom with an Audi which was clearly being driven by a local, or someone as mad as Howard. Anton and I were riding a bit slower but had left Sid trailing somewhere behind. Then it all went a bit pear shaped. Anton received a call from Sid. He’d come off. Christ! Was he ok?

Pyrenees Tour 2008


Left to right: 1. The excellent D115. 2. La Costabonne bar, Prats-de-Mollo-laPretes. 3. An evening at Phil & Carol’s 4. La Collada de Toses

Prades

Collioure

N116

D115

Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste

Puigcerdà

C38 Collada de Toses

Camprondon

N260

Ripoll

N260

Was his bike rideable? Did he even want to ride it again? We headed a couple of miles back up the pass until we came upon a forlorn looking Sid standing on the roadside flailing his arms about in disbelief. Besides small cut under his nose and a dented ego, he was ok and that was the most important thing. Sid divulged that he didn’t care too much for riding in the wet and that his nerves had got the better of him on that particular corner. His bike was now laying on it’s side six feet up a grass bank where it had come to rest. Together we lifted it upright then slowly wheeled it back down to the tarmac. The screen had shattered, bits laying strewn in the grass, and an indicator had broken off and lay amongst the pieces of screen. Apart from that, a few scratches and tufts of grass caught all manner of places, it looked ok. While Anton gave it a thorough check over, I grabbed a plastic bag from his panniers and picked up all the broken pieces of screen and located the missing indicator. Having called Howard to update him, (who by the way had just about managed to hold off the local in the Audi all the way to the bottom of the pass). Sid said he was ok to plod on sandwiched between Anton and me. At Puigcerda we turned east onto the main N116 back to Prades and by six pm we’d made it the 35 miles back to Bikers’ Paradise where we were greeted by Rich and Steve. We decided that a couple of beers and a dip in the pool was in order before Phil came to collect us again. To be honest, after the last couple of hours, we quite fancied accepting our German hosts invitation of joining them and their other guests to watch the European Cup football final; Germany v Spain, eat pizza and drink them out of beer. We had a very kind dinner invitation again though and we knew that we’d have a lovely evening. Phil arrived as promised and again, drove us up to his house where Carol had prepared another lovely meal. And let’s face it, who really wants to watch football anyway. Talk for the evening obviously focused heavily on the day’s events, discussing whether there was a local Suzuki dealer from which we could get a new screen and indicator for Sid’s bike. Having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves once again, and as Phil was way to drunk, again, Carol drove us back down to Prades. We thanked her kindly for their generous hospitality over the two night’s and retreated to our apartments for the night.

blacktopmotorcyclediaries


Having woken in each other’s arms, (not really), Sid and I got up to have another look at his bike. In attempt to be prepared for such eventualities, I’d packed various tapes, glues and cable ties and with my modelmaking skills kicking in, I carefully pieced the screen back together. It looked amazing. From a couple of metres away, you’d hardly notice the damage. The indicator was an easy fix, a few wraps of black electrical tape saw it securely back in place and operating perfectly. My work was done. Sid clearly thought differently though and worrying that the screen would desintergrate, decided a few strips silver gaffa tape would sort it out. I was disgusted, all my painstaking work trying to make it look as good as possible, and I’d missed breakfast in the process, now look at it! Never mind, Sid was happy and confident that it would now stay together, and with that in mind we loaded up for a fun packed day. The route I’d planned, on paper at least, looked to be a corker, incorporating twelve cols including the highest of the Pyrenean paved passes, the 2408m Port d’Envalira. Having paid our dues and thanked our hosts we headed off down the road to the first col just ten minutes away. Phil had driven the Col de Jau a few times in a car but didn’t recommend it, suggesting in fact that we missed it out altogether. Not being one to be too readily perturbed by such pessimism, we were soon turning off the main drag onto the narrow road leading up the mountainside. After a mile or so, however, I was starting to see Phil’s point. The road remained single lane to the summit, and the surface was appalling, strewn with pot holes and gravel patches seemingly on every corner made for an interesting ride, especially when the odd local came racing around a blind bend resulting in the implementation of last minute avoidance tactics. But despite all that, I was really enjoying myself. No doubt it would have been a different story had I been riding my heavy and cumbersome GT, and I doubted that neither Howard or Sid on their sports bikes were enjoying Bagnères-de-Luchon it quite so much but the GS made such Coll del Portillón light work of the poor terrain that all the bumping and skipping about was actu-

Vallée du Lys

Vielha Left to right: 1. Col de Garavel 2. Col de Jau 3. Sid’s repaired Suzuki

C28

Port de le Bonaigua Vall d’Āneu

C13

Sort

Pyrenees Tour 2008

Coll del Canto

N260


ally quite fun. At the 1506 metre crest, we parked up to take in the view across the hills and take a couple of photos. The best thing about those lesser used passes is the tranquillity, especially early in the morning before most are going about their business and this was one such morning. With cameras stashed safely away, we continued on along the narrow winding mountain roads, dropping down into narrow valleys, then rising again over the equally narrow Col de Garavel, Col de Carcanieres and Col de Moulis, passing through remote villages and hamlets like Roquefort-de-Fault and Ribes-de-la-Fargue. At Puyvalador the road widened as we joined the faster D32 to Mont-Louis where once again we joined the N116, this time heading west towards Puigcerda. Between Puigcerda and Andorra lies the Col du Puymorens, a really nice pass with long meandering elevations that provided an opportunity to open the bikes up. Then, nearing the top, a complex of tighter bends, flowing one way then the other, taking us ever closer to the 1915 metre summit. This first day or so had provided an insight into how different we were going to find the Pyrenees to the Alps. The landscape comparatively rocky and barren compared to the lush greeness of the Alpine valleys and the roads were in much poorer condition that the super smooth tarmac we’d experienced the year before. Having descended the western slopes, we almost immediately started climbing again as we turned onto the N22 to Andorra where just before the border, we turned off the main road in order to avoid the three kilometre long Tunel d’Envalira. Passing through El Pas de la Casa and onto the wide open Port d’Envalira. The road was sublime, the coarse surface providing plenty of grip through the corners, we powered our way to the top, passing through the customs post and past all the duty free outlets selling cut price everything. It all seemed a bit distasteful to me. At the top of the pass, at 2408m, we pulled over to regroup and look at the view which, if anything, I found a little disappointing. But that pretty much summed up Andorra for me but maybe I haven’t seen the good bits. We rode down the hill and Col de Garavel through the capital Andorra la Vella, stopping at a service station to refuel and have a drink. It was about midday by then and the sun was scorching Col de Jau

Andorra la Vella

N22

Col de Puymorens

Mont Louis

Port d’Envalira N145

Prades

N20

N116

Puigcerdà La Seu d’Urgell

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so we were glad to be in the shade for a few minutes. Leaving Andorra on the hot and busy CG1 trunk road was a beffiting end to our brief encounter with this little country and as we passed through the border crossing, I vowed never to return unless absolutely neccessary. We’d parked up in a layby to wait for the others to get through customs when a fellow biker riding an old Honda CM250 Custom pulled next to us. This ‘proper biker’, wearing leather chaps and a scruffy old jacket, was heading for the Faro Bike Rally in Portugal and was taking several weeks to ride a scenic route to get there. His bike didn’t look very comfortable for such a long trip, but he seemed happy enough just to be plodding along at his own pace, immersing himself in constantly changing surroundings. With the others through customs, we waved goodbye to our new acquaintance and set off once again. We were heading for the Vallée du Lys just to the south of Bagnères-de-Luchon where I’d booked us into a nice looking B&B above a cafe. From Andorra we crossed the border into Spain on the N145, then at Adrall, joined the N260. Whilst researching the trip, I’d read that the N260 was a good road and it did’t disappoint. From Adrall, we climbed 1100 metres on wonderful fast flowing tarmac, warmed by the hot mid afternoon sun, to the 1725 metre crest of the Coll del Cantó. Surely motorbike touring didn’t get much better than this. At Sort we headed north along the Vall de Llessui following the Noguera de Pallaresa river then at Valencia d’Aneu started climbing again, to the top of the 2072 metre Port de la Bonaigua. Although another good pass, the road surface was in pretty poor condition but apart from the N260, that seemed to be becoming a familiar feature. The good surfaces were increasingly being outnumbered by the poorer ones, lots of repair patches and overbanding, or cracked and gravel strewn, particularly on the Spanish sections of the route. There was one more pass to ride for that day, the Coll del Portillón and it didn’t disapoint. The initial hairpins climbed steeply rising four hundred metres from the base of the Val d’Aran then rose more gradually to the 1320m crest in the Forêt Domaniale de Bagnèresde-Luchon. It was another brilliant ride and a fitting end to what had been an excellent day’s ride. On the outskirts of Bagneres de Luchon, we turned into the pretty Vallée du Lys and rode the six miles to it’s end where we found the Delices du Lys. The cafe stood alone beneath the steep valley walls, surrounded by trees, greenery and a pretty stream. We were surrounded by woods and forests, the Bois de l’Ombre, Foret de Luchon and the Bois de Lis Rouge, and right at the tip of the valley, a couple of hundred metres from the cafe, was a high waterfall, the Cascade d’Enfer, it’s water’s tumbling down the seventy metre drop. It was lovey spot and, judging by the business of the terrace, was a popular retreat from the bustle of Bagneres. We were shown to our dormer rooms which were nestled in the roof of the cafe, dumped our things and adjourned to the sun drenched terrace for a few beers. As the next couple of hours passed the day visitors retreated and the cafe quietened and we were amongst the few left to enjoy this tranquil place for the evening. Rich disappeared for his usual evening phone call home and a short while later returned with bad news. There was problem at

Pyrenees Tour 2008


Top to bottom: 1. The Delices du Lys. 2. Port d’Envalira, Andorra 3. Col de Puymorens.

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work and understandably, he didn’t want to leave his wife Sarah alone to deal with it. The only course of action would be to ride home the following day. Phil, rather gallantly, offered to accompany Rich as it was such along way and he intended to ride the seven hundred miles in one stint. Their imminent departure dampened spirits a little but everyone conceeded that it was the right thing to do. As Steve had very much been accompanying Rich on the trip, he was given the option whether to return with them or continue on with the rest of us. As he was enjoying himself, and going home early paid him no dividends, he chose to stay on and enjoy himself a bit more. I’d had my reservations about Steve due to his annoying habits during a Wales weekender the previous Autumn but so far he had behaved pretty well and proved to be reasonable company. As the sun dropped behind the mountains and the coolness of their shadows immersed the terrace, we retreated to the warmth of the restaurant interior to dine. Our evening meal had quite unexpectedly turned into the last supper, well, with all seven of us anyway, so we ate and drank well and spent the remainder of our time together reminising about the past few days and reflecting on what fun we’d had so far.

Left to right: 1. Coll del Canto. 2. Sid at the Port d’Envalira, Andorra. 3. Cascade d’Enfer, Vallée du Lys.

Pyrenees Tour 2008


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The Vallée du Lys was a beautiful place to awaken to the next morning, so peaceful and cool in the early shade of the mountains. Rich and Phil were already busy loading their bikes up, keen to make headway while the roads were quiet and having wished them a safe journey, we watched them trundle off down the valley toward Bagneres. It was a shame to see them go but we still had several more days before our own trip would end. Having packed up our own bikes, we headed off back into the mountains. With the sun already high in the clear blue sky, it looked set to be another scorcher of a day and the next 160 miles would take us a little further into Spain as we headed for the Aragonian town of Jaca. We retraced our route from the previous afternoon back to Bagnères, then rode the Col du Portillón again, crossing the border back into Spain and along the Val d’Aran towards the Túnel de Vielha. Back in 1948 when it opened, the five kilometre long Túnel de Vielha was the longest road tunnel in the world. It reined as King of the Tunnels for sixteen years until it lost it’s crown to the Grand St Bernard tunnel when it opened in the Alps in 1964. Crossing the Cataluña border into Aragón, we reached El Pont de Suert and returned to the brilliant N260. The road once again twisted it’s way through the mountains, climbing over the 1407m Coll de Espina and 1470m Coll de Fadas and on to the small town of Castejón de Sos. It was nearing lunchtime by this point and along the main road we found an unassuming little restaurant that appeared more like someones garden than and eatery. The lovely garden looked all too welcoming though and offered ample shade from the hot sun so we pulled in for an hour. Back on the road the N260 drew us into the craggy Congosto del Ventamillo. Our route narrowed to a single lane that carved it’s way between two thrity metre tall walls of rock accompanied by the tumbling waters of the Rio Esera that ran alongside the road. A series of little iron bridges criss-crossed the river below and at the end of the gorge, we passed through a cool, dark, narrow tunnel bored through the rock. Exiting into the bright sunlight at the other end, the walls of rock had retreated leaving a wider, more open valley. It was another brilliant ride, travelling through such wonderful and ever-changing

Biascas

Pt

Jaca

Sabinánigo Left to right: 1. Congosto del Vetamillo. 2. Anton in the Congosto del Ventamillo. 3. Inside the Parroquia de Santiago, Jaca. 4. Rio Esera.

Pyrenees Tour 2008

Broto


landscape, the N260 once again was providing some of the best riding I’d ever enjoyed. At Ainsa, we crossed the Rio Cinco and headed north to Escalona on the edge of the Ordesa y Monte Pedido National Park. Again the road narrowed as we rode in the cool shade of the high rocks and trees that lined the deep gorge. The road bumped along, winding alongside the little Rio Bellos until It was mid afternoon when we arrived in Jaca, a pleasant town dominated by the impressive Ciudadela de Jaca, a very well preserved, pentagonal fortress that dates back to the late sixteenth century. It deffinately looked worth a visit but we were more concerned with gettin to our hotel in order to get out of both the sun and our sweaty biking gear. The Hotel a Boira imediately proved to be a good choice being close enough to the town centre to explore on foot, but easliy accessible on the bikes too. The private underground garage was an added bonus and having checked in to our very pleasant, air conditioned rooms, we set off for a wander. The centre was dominated by the Parroquia de Santiago church

Bagnères-de-Luchon

Coll del Portillón

Vallée du Lys Vielha

to. de Cotefablo

Castejon-de-Sos Coll de Fadas

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N

Coll de Foradada

Ainsa

60 N2

Campo

0 26

N2 60

Coll de Espina

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which we had a quick look around. It was all very impressive but not as much as all the tapas on show in the many bars. Well it all looked very appetizing, to good to resist in fact. We sat and sampled a good few of these traditional Spanish appetizers accompanied by a cold, refreshing beer or two before moving on to explore a little more of the town centre. By now it was getting on and we decided to seek out a restaurant at which to eat. Wandering through the maze of narrow side streets, came upon the lively La Tasca de Ana, with people spilling out onto the street. There were no tables left inside but one remaining bar barrel and a few bar stools set outside on the street would do us. I suggested that we went for tapas so that we could try all manner of different Spanish dishes to which everyone agreed. Having asked the waiter to bring us a selection of dishes, one after another, a procession of tapas commenced. Plate after plate of delicious local fare was brought to our table and as soon as one was emptied, another arrived. There were spicy meatballs, patatas bravas, marinated pork, sizzling prawns and some sort of fois gras, which didn’t appeal to all, or in fact many. It was a great evening though, sitting there eating and drinking amongst the locals, feeling properly part of a Spanish Wednesday night.

Left to right: 1. La Tasca de Ana, Jaca. 2. Entrance to Ciudadela de Jaca. 3. Aewsome riding. 4. Church of Parroquia de Santiago. 5. Ciudadela de Jaca.

Pyrenees Tour 2008


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The next morning I was deeply regretting the fois gras, or maybe it was the beer, either way I was barely able to leave my hotel bathroom. It was looking like being an uncomfortable day’s ride and one that had the potential to see me dashing for the bushes every few miles. Having made the journney to the hotel’s underground garage without incident, I gingerly mounted the GS, fired it up and crept out into the bright morning sunshine. My insides had settled down enough that I felt confident enough to make it to the morning coffee break and I was feeling happier to have my butt nestled firmly into the bike’s seat. It was Thursday and we were heading back into France to the hamlet of Lasse, a hundred and sixty miles away, where I’d found a rural cidery that offered accommodation. It was also our last full day in the Pyrenees Lasse before we started the long ride home. Heading westward out of St Jean Jaca, we followed the Rio Aragón until Puente la Reina de Jaca Pied du Port where we turned north through the Valle de Hecho. The roads surfaces were again not very good and we were forced to stop regularly to wait for the road gangs to allow us to pass. Even at ten in the morning the air temperature was decidedly unpleasant, too hot for me and unbareably hot to be working outside, let alone operating road surfacing equipment which only added to the heat. At end of the valley we stopped for a quick look around the pretty mountain village of Hecho. With it’s narrow cobbled streets meandering amongst the old stone houses and a sleepy atmosphere, it seemed like a nice place for a peaceful retreat. Returning to our bikes, Sid’s Suzuki failed to start. It seemed a bit odd as it had been running well all morning but now it simply refused to turn over. After quarter of an hour’s head scratching, tugging at wires and fiddling with anything that looked as though it had the potential to cause a problem, someone acidentally brushed Sid’s drying underpants away from the rear light and the Suzuki burst into life. It turned out, that his drying pants were obscuring the imobiliser preventing it from deactivating. What a hoot! From Hecho, the 176 turned into something of a racetrack, a super smooth ribbon of tarmac that twisted and turned through the mountains, passing through tunnels and rounding hairpin corners as it climbed to it’s 1100 metre summit over the Sierra del Vedao. Although

Top: Hecho. Left to right: 1. Countryside around Hecho. 2.Taking 5. 3. Port de Larrau.

Pyrenees Tour 2008


only about eight miles long, it was a brilliant ride, challenging and thoroughly engaging. The GS was proving itself to be a worthy companion and made me wonder if I’d enjoyed the trip half as much had I been riding my heavywieght GT. I feared that I probably wouldn’t have but enjoying the Larrau fact that fate had dealt me these cards meant I was able to enjoy myself more than I probably would have done. Col d’Erroymendi

Col Bagbargui

Port de Larrau

By lunchtime we arrived in the small town of Isaba deep in the Roncal Valley. We pulled up at the first eatery we came upon, a Portillo de Lazar little panaderia, (bakers), which served pizzas and sandwiches. It NA-140 wasn’t particulary notable but the food filled a gap if nothing else and at least it gave Anton the oportunity to take a dreadful photo Isaba of me eating, (see below).

Roncal

NA-176

Ansó

We arrived at Lasse at about 5pm after another great day’s ride. We were deep into the rural countryside, the cidery set on it’s own, surrounded by fields and although there were other houses nearby, the hamlet was quite spread out. It was

Hecho A-176

Puente la Reina de Jaca

N240

Jaca

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all very peaceful. We were greeted by the owner Sébastien who showed us to our accommodation in a seperate building to the rear of the cidery. It was basic but comfortable enough and had plenty of parking right outside for the bikes, an all important factor. Anton decided that as we were only twenty miles from the coastal town of Biaritz, that we would take a ride there and back before dinner. Sid decided to tag along too and when Steve caught wind of this mid shower, he leapt out, dried off in thirty seconds flat and joined Anton and Sid for the ride. Howard and I opted out, deciding that we’d had enough riding for the day so would stay put. Once the others had left, we took to the lanes through this pleasant little hamlet, walking amongst the houses and church, all painted in the traditional red and white colours of the Basque region. A couple of crowing cockrells strutted about whilst their hens rummaged around in the hedges. Ponies grazed peacefully in the fields or stood in the cool beneath the shade of trees. Having explored enough, we returned to the cidery where Sébastien showed us the four great cider barrels that were set into one of the walls, each containing that years’ brew. He then proceeded to demonstrate the traditional method of filling a glass from the barrel. Having open the tap, he held the glass about a metre away from the barrel and the pressure arced the cider into glass. He didn’t spill a drop. ‘Now, you try’, he said. Well, suffice to say cider went pretty much everywhere but in the glasses and by the time we had filled just two, the tiled floor was pretty well flooded. Sébastien informed us that he wasn’t licensed to sell the cider and as guests, we were free to consume as much as we wanted, or could handle. That sounded like a recipe for disaster especially once we realised how strong it was. We retreated outside to the little terrace bathed in the late afternoon sun and drank a few glasses of this potent brew whilst we waited for the other three to return from their ride. Their return from perving over the ladies on Biaritz beach provided a few laughs as they too attempted to fill their glasses from the barrels, and having flooded the floor for a second time, we dined on local steak and some really nice pan fried potatoes.

Left to right: 1. Cidrerie Aldakurria. 2. Sébastien, cidrerie owner, brewer, chef and hotelier. 3. Cidrerie Aldakurria. Main image: C’est moi!

Pyrenees Tour 2008


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The next morning signalled the beginning of the homeward ride as we started heading north, back through France. The first leg would take us cross country, a little over two hundred miles to the little town of Beaulieusur-Dordogne in the Dordogne region. Having holidayed there on several previous occasions, it was an area I was familiar with and such is it’s beauty, that I was really looking forward to returning. Having thanked our most hospitable host and stocked up with homemade pate and other goodies, we bid the Pyrenees a final farewell and rode the few remaining hilly miles towards Orthez. Picking up the broad and smooth D933, our pace quickened and we were soon munching through the miles. Mont-de-Marsan was soon upon us and mile after mile of forest through the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park that followed. Casteljaloux and Marmande were all but a blur and just before lunch we were nudging the outskirts of Bergerac, sited on the banks of the Dordogne River. Turning east, we followed the meandering river on the D703 as it lead deep into the stunning Dordogne region, passing through little medieval villages like Beynac-en-Cazenac, Vitrac and Carsac-Aillac. The day’s ride had been something of a cross country blast and with only an hour or so to go, I was keen to stop for a leisurely coffee at the pretty, cliff top village of Domme. During the course of the day, Steve had been up to his old tricks again and had spent all morning riding like a complete pillock. As a result of all of his messing about, a few miles before Domme he managed to lose the rest of us and Mont-de-Marsan having waited for twenty minutes, I decided that it was his own fault and that I’d had enough. Announcing my immediate departure to the hill top village. Sid and Howard followed suit leaving Anton behind to find him. Fifteen minutes later and we were squeezing our bikes into any pace big enough between the cars on the village square car park. Just as I remembered it, the choice cafe with the terrific view was already overflowing with customers and not a table free leaving us no choice D933 but retreat to another cafe overlooking the square. Half an hour later Anton, with Steve in tow, trundled though one of the medieval arches

Orthez D933

Lasse

Pyrenees Tour 2008

Left to right: 1.Youth hostel in Beaulieu-surDordogne. 2. Domme. 3&4. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne.


Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne Sarlat-la-Canéda Bergerac

D803 D703

D933

Marmande

Domme

into the village. We sat there, under the parasols of the cafe terrace, for a further hour taking some refreshments and enjoying our pretty, tranquil location.

Back on the valley road, we carried on heading upstream for another hour to the little town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne where I had booked us into the town’s youth hostel. It was Friday, late afternoon, and the D933N locals were already busying the staff in the town’s cafes and bars as we rode through the centre. The hostel was a beautiful old, fifteenth century building located ina quiet street just a few metres from the river. The hostel itself was basic and a little run down, and the narrow staircase that lead up to our attic room proved difficult to climb with our bulky panniers, but the crooked, timber building was quaint and oozed character out of every joint. Having showered and changed, I went for a beer at the restaurant next door and sat on the terrace overlooking the river and waited for the others to join me. After a couple of cold ones, we strolled into the centre of town to see what choice of eateries Beaulieu had to offer. Apart from a couple of takeaways, there was a noisy bar that looked like the equivalent to a Wetherspoons, not particularly appealing, a couple of pricier establishments and one that looked like it suited our requirements. The Relais de Vellinus displayed an extensive menu on the board outside, with enough variety to suit all our tastes. It would do nicely. A couple of hours passed by sitting on the verander as we indulged in a lovely meal and some equally lovely wine.

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8

Saturday was upon us and with it the continuation of the ride north through France. We had a little over three hundred and sixty miles to cover between us and Beaumont-le-Roger, about sixty miles to the west of Paris. It was

always going to be a bit of a dull, mile munching, ride, mainly consisting of autoroutes and service station stops but needs must. It was also the Beaumont-le-Roger last day that we would be graced with Steve’s company as he would spend the night on the ferry rather than in the hotel with us.

A28

Alencon

Le Mans

Breakfast was consumed and the smooth tarmac of the A20 was soon passing under our wheels. Hour one saw the delights of the Limoges suburbs, another two passed by and Poitiers was disappearing from our mirrors. When the service station stops started to become a highlight, I started wishing I’d planned in more national roads. At least the GS was proving itself a worth touring companion though. The Ducati I’d been riding the year before had grown tiring on long rides like this but by the time we reached Le Mans, some five hours after departing the Dordogne, the GS was comfortable and relaxed.

At Alencon we stopped to bid farewell to Steve and a few miles later, he peeled off towards Caen and his overnight ferry back to Portsmouth. Half an hour later and we also exited the autoroute for the Tours final run in to Beaumont-le-Roger, a sleepy little town on the River Risle. The Hostellerie Du Lion D’Or immediately felt welcoming, it’s large garden filled with blooming flowers bathed in the late afternoon sun. There were quite a few people around and we soon learned that hotel was playing host to a wedding reception that evening. Befoe A10 long, the garden was bustling with guests which added to the evening atmosphere. Our evening was spent in the ........ dining room eating a very lovely last night’s supper accompied, of course, by lots for red wine. It was during the course of that meal, meal that we became faPoitiers miliar with the French phrase, ‘le petit soeur’, (the little sister). This, it seems, is used when requesting a repeat order of the same drink, but usually applies to a bottle of wine. I took to that and use it at any possible opportunity when in France, ‘Le petite soeur, s’il vous plait’. N147 The trouble with the second Saturday night of the trip of course Limoges is that Sunday morning all too quickly follows which means the final ride home. After breakfast, I loaded up for the last time of my 2008 tour, fired up the GS and rolled through the old wooden archway of the Hostellerie Du Lion d’Or and through sleepy Beaumont-le-Roger. A20

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

Pyrenees Tour 2008


9

Three hours later and we were boarding the Eurotunnel at Calais signifying the end of the trip. Without doubt, it had been a great tour in every respect. Anton, Howard, Phil and

Calais

Rich had, once again, proved great company, just as they had the year before. Sid had fitted in well and had more than earned his place in the group, as well as providing plenty of ammunition for micky taking. And as for Steve, well let’s just say that he wouldn’t be asked along again and leave it at that. Autoroutes aside, the riding had been simply superb, from the rolling hills of the Auvergne region and the spectacular Gorges du Tarn, to the fabulous N260 and mountain passes of the Pyrenees, every part had been filled with exhilleration, fun, adrenallin or views, if not all of these things. Somewhere to return to. Certainly.

A16

Abbeville

A28

Rouen Beaumont-le-Roger

Left to right: 1. The front of the Hostellerie de Lion d’Or. 2. And the courtyard garden to the rear.

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Me, Haydn Thomas, the tour organiser. I bought my first motorcycle , a Ducati Monster 900, in 1997. It took me a full ten years before I went touring on it but after the first couple of days riding the brilliant Alpine roads, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been organising tours and weekends in the UK and on the continent. My dream is to ride the length of the Americas, from Alaska down to Cape Horn. Until that day comes, I’ll keep riding every year in Europe.

www.blacktopmotorcycletours.com

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