In October 2017 I had the pleasure of hosting, photographing and eating chips at midnight on a mountain side with dear friend and endurance cyclist Tim Wiggins as he entered into the final stage of his mammoth 7 Countries, 7 Passes adventure from far north in Denmark to the deep south near me in the Pyrenees. Solo. By bicycle.
I rode out to welcome his arrival at Fabrezan in the Corbieres where his destination of the Pyrenees were still just a ridge lined horizon. Another world from these southern French stone walls and their basking geckos and dappled shadows drying chilies on make-do washing lines.
I bought this almost empty adventurer refreshment in my favourite local tea house and imbibed the feeling of being on the road from this exhausted figure morphed into the sofa he dwelled temporarily like it was a long lost home. The enormity of his pathfinding becoming apparent as his mind played catch up with his now recharging body and soul and our warm and friendly hosts at the Domaine Paul Huc kept the teapot topped up with immediate and familiar comfort.
As we headed back to my house in the Corbieres for a final dinner and proper bed before the journey resumed the following day, a journey that would incorporate some of my local ride loop but continue toward the big mountains after my daily version had turned left and back on itself leaving them an impressive but ominous reminder of what could be.
We put him up at our house, the Maison des Sabots Rouges, a stone village maison de maitre in waiting for friends and bicyclists undertaking just this sort of adventure and after a decent night’s sleep and a local breakfast of fresh madelienes and cyclist’s porridge, I climbed on board our cyclist support Land Rover with a flask of fresh coffee and followed him out of the village and over and over my local cols always pointed in the direction of the snow caps that grew minutely with every crest. And then it started raining.
I remember Cadence Ridgeback giving Tim a knee lick on arrival as her initiation to the clan cycliste in our house but I’ll never forget her look and mumble as he departed the following morning, that although just Doggledegook, seemed utterly appropriate in the way she so often was bang on the money in opinion of the state of affairs.
It doesn’t rain often here. Perhaps once every few weeks. But the day Tim departed pointed toward snow caps, it rained heavily and didn’t stop.
We continued in our steady convoy, my waiting up the hills for photographic opportunities, then watching him disappear a couple of turns down a col cursed loaded panniers acting as now appreciated ballast when things were turned around.
At Arques the first available bakery beamed us in with it’s glow and crusty warm smell of life in an otherwise weather proofed street scene of closed shutters and parked cars.
As in the way I find myself unable to walk past a bike shop, since moving to France, the same can be said of a bakery. Pizza isn’t one of this country’s strong points admittedly, but bloody hell, can they make bread here.
Arques marks the edge of the 600m col terrain I call home now. From there it starts to get craggy and big. And your undertaking loses some of it’s rosy charm as the mountains proper change from postcard scenes to a less inhabited wilderness beautiful yet bleak in it’s unforgiving wilderness. Humans are here by invitation but not colony. Nature is still the law out here.
Rumbling through sleepy Pre-Pyrenean villages in that lull between one season’s activity in the sun and the next that will be under snow was kind of eery. Not closed down as such but a local population estranged. But that was from the relative luxury of the inside of a car. Watching the onslaught of weather front by front coming at Tim sideways in a way that no amount of weatherproofed clothes can really outgun for long was hard to watch but easy to imagine the sensation of having mountain biked for three decades in the UK.
When we bought this car I had half imagined the possibility of using those 90degree wings as picnic tables somewhere. Here, they were christened. By a bloke that had ridden thousands of miles through various countries and yet was perfectly happy with last night’s pasta in a tupperware bowl eaten on a bit of steel rumble strip leaning against a BF Goodrich tyre. Then naturally it was time to repair a puncture. I was most impressed by his producing a pair of black workshop gloves to do it even more than his ability to knuckle down cold and wet and do the necessary. Stoic is a word flagged in my mind that day. I saw a stoicism emerge repeatedly and have come to think of him as more than an incredible cyclist now, rather the rare type of person you could imagine signing up to take on the South Pole with Shakleton but don’t imagine you’ll actually sit with on a quiet village street corner in France and share lunch off a car bonnet with.
A couple of hours later was tea stop two in the kind of grumpy establishment you’re grateful for finding open amongst the mountainous dead zones on the coffee spectrum. We even bartered entry for Tim’s bike explaining it contained his life and must companion his poor refreshment.
Then we headed into pyrenean country proper. And it was open, if wet.
I love the Pailheres. But it is hard to get a Defender 110 up. The switchbacks generally mean a lot of three point turns. I have done it up there feeling awkward at the line of traffic behind only to notice our heading up an coincidental Defender convoy and felt a little less awkward all be it even worse for the poor soul behind three cars doing three point turns at a very corner up a mountain. With a bike behind you sheltering from sideways rain it’s kind of worrisome, it’s a constant balancing act of not squashing him but not gassing him with exhaust fumes. I always handed it to team cars that drift racers back into the action, the nerve they have to be able to do that is incredible. I never thought I’d be trying it out for the first time up a mountain in the rain. But he was still there at the top for a photograph.
It’s a particular kind of peace waiting for a cycle escort headed up your mountain pass. There are a lot of records played, a fair amount of coffee drunk and all the time in the world to think freely as you see the tiny red dot disappear and re-appear around hairpins across the valley opposite, slowly but gradually gaining inches on your position. It’s always a comfortable place for me to be in a driving seat, but there’s something noteworthy about being parked up in the middle of nowhere with an incredible vista unveiled in front of you and only your own thoughts and the occasional ‘how did that get on there?’ song on your iPod to talk to you.
And about half way up the Pailheres the unimaginable happened. The sun came out and we turned into a dry patch of tarmac that even made short sleeves possible for a bit. I had a winged friend appear and rest on the warm bonnet for a while with me on it’s way from here to there that felt a little like that scene in ‘Stand by Me’ when Gordie sees the deer in the woods but keeps it to himself.
It’s hard to imagine becoming a part of nature in a two tonne truck on a mountain pass but that is what always most strongly drew me to cycling, the ability to escape convention and chore alike and close the door on society for a few hours and go and hang out with nature on her terms and conditions.
At Ax le Thermes I saw what I had always heard possible. Chocolate milk actually rescuing a person from the other side and returning them to life. So sensibly he had another to bank a little mojo credit.
I seem to remember him also eating the only thing they had on offer by the time we got there too. And eating it until they ran out. Belgian waffles, brandy and cream.
I’m sure they’ve seen people wringing out their gloves from the front door before so that’s probably par for the course in Pyrenean waffle dining.
Puymorens is a bleak feeling climb, open and wide in sections, before it plays switchback on you it’s kind of industrial feeling in col speak. There are large hydro electric plants along the early steps but as you go up the feeling of urbanisation round some corners when you least expect it does surprise. In a way the presence of a humanity past leads to a greater sensation of bleakness than an uninhabited rock in the middle of nowhere that goats won’t even make their home.
I feel it one of humanity’s greatest privileges to be able to pee in nature. And I have pee’d in some incredible even iconic places that range from 3000m up an alp in a blizzard to an exterior wall of the Coliseum in Rome on a warm daybreak Gran Fondo depart, so it seemed fitting to sign the Col de Pailheres on a foggy non touristic day as I do most uninhabited cols.
There were more cols not that you’d see them in the fog but the final ascent to Andorra was the Col de Puymorens that we arrived at the top of and the Andorran border in the dark.
It felt immense and I’d only watched and tried not to run him over. I can only imagine what that photographic pose in front of the headlights at the border of the last country must have felt like.
As we passed signs for ski stations and hotels I noticed the name Soldeu el Tarter and remembered the post card I had pinned to my door in 1983 when my mother had ski’d here in a rare and not that successful break from the Italian norm.
From here it would be a descent all the way to the final hotel bed and an earned dinner that would in actuality become chips in the closing restaurant one final flight of stairs from the sleep that would seal his mission as accomplished.
The morning after a breakfast on the terrace in a ski town waiting to come to life in it’s normal fashion marked our return leg to the Maison des Sabots Rouges, a ride for fun and more madeleines. As photographic assignments go, this was a privilege to witness and partly aid. I felt honoured to share a final col, indeed see it in a new light (or no light) and I look forward to more travels with this stoical colleague come initial house guest, come true friend.
If you’d like to see exactly where he got up to that little adventure, have a look here at his journal of the undertaking.