Cycling In France: The Road to Paris

The finish up the Plateau de Beille.
Having journeyed through the Pyrenees, as well as the French, Austrian and Italian Alps on numerous occasions, I was determined to garner a taste of France's Central Massif. After spending the last three weeks riding in Portugal and Spain, Roz and I found ourselves at the bottom of the Plateau de Beille. It was to be one of my last Pyrenean climbs before heading north towards Paris.

It was an unexpected surprise to be accompanied by literally hundreds of cyclists on my way up the mountain's 16 kilometres of unrelenting gradient. I was looking forward to this climb for 3 years but I never expected the company. It was obviously a sponsored ride, even bigger than our Audax Alpine Classic back home in Victoria.

The Spanish Pyrenees from the Plateau de Beille.
My sojourns up these mountains were usually an individual experience, save for a few cows and the occasional appearance of Roz who had taken to parking 2 or 3 kilometres from the summit before walking up to meet me at the top. An open cafĂ©-restaurant provided the energy for a hearty welcome as I, in turn, reached the top. A cool, empty tarmac, devoid of anything but a few head of cattle and a dilapidated building with a closed sign on it, often meant that I was in for an even cooler reception.

We enjoyed a late dinner at a tapas bar in Ax-les-Thermes, a small French spa town known for its sulphurous hot springs. Its waters, which were used by the Romans (of course), are claimed to treat a smorgasboard of human maladies, including rheumatism and skin ailments. The springs were developed during the medieval period to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades with leprosy.

The bottom of the Plateau de Beille climb, at Les Cabannes.
With few ailments, other than the odd sore head, the tapas bar was full with locals enjoying the television coverage of the European Football Cup between Spain and Italy. Judging from the raucous cheering following the umpire's final whistle, Spain’s win was met with solid approval. Along the Pyrenean border between France and Spain, there certainly seems to be a more convivial relationship between each country's inhabitants than the one shared between the English and the Scots. I'm still yet to meet s Scot who would happily cheer an England win in a World Cup Football match.

World War I monument at Comus.
In addition to the scrumptious food, there were a host of European beers on offer. I tried a dark Belgian Trappist brew, a Chimay, for the first time, and true to the Belgians’ reputation for making strong, dark and earthy beers, it didn't disappoint.

The drive back to our accommodation at Comus, via the Col du Chioula, was testing in the extreme. While the pitch darkness and drifting mist made navigating difficult, the narrow, winding road, with its series of lacets towards the top, made the going almost as slow as climbing my bike in broad daylight. The one positive was the absence of another vehicle along the entire journey. Pulling into the car park at our near-deserted accommodation, high on a hill, we presumed that only a pair of Australian tourists would have been silly enough to have been driving on an a remote road like this on such a bleak evening.

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