Pyrenees: a trip inside as much as outside.

This blog could focus on any of three different messages, all of which could be a could be a couple chapters long.  The uniqueness of the people, the history of the places, and how the ride changed me are all great stories to tell.  I will sprinkle a little of each in here.

Climbing mountains holds an appeal for many cyclists because of the challenges involved. On a long mountain pass there is no respite. You can’t just stop pedaling and coast to relax and get your breath back. Once you start climbing, you physically suffer.  “Voluntary childbirth” or “Sadistic sporting” are great adages that hit the heart of the matter when used to describe mountainous cycling .  As such, it attracts a unique sort of athlete, one who is drawn to overcoming adversity. It is like running a marathon…daily….for a week.

It fits me.

Jeff Gaura at the top of the Aubisque
Top of the Aubisque stands a statue of a polka dot bicycle to commemorate the king of the mountain.

The People

My learning style has always been one of “move over and let me try that.”  When it comes to visiting new places, that protocol applies, too. I like to show up with a limited plan that demands integrating with the people so I can “do it myself,” and learn how things are done.  This trip would not use that technique.  Instead, I signed up with an organized group focused on cycling tours.  They took care of route planning, sleeping and eating arrangements as well as providing some support mid ride.  I was responsible for making choices each day about which of two routes I would select and what I wanted for meals.  That is about it.  Call it all-inclusive cycling.

Our group of 23 people included three staff and 20 participants.  As to be expected in Europe, there were many nationalities represented:  USA, NZ, UK, AU, IRE.  I was the only American there, and most folks claimed Great Brittain as their country.  Everyone there, except me, had done the ride before or was in a group of people that contained others who had experience.  I felt like it was advantageous to have neither experience nor any previous relationships on which to lean, as it demanded that I integrate and learn from the lot.  Most folks are scared to travel solo and interact with a group that they have never met before and instead go in a group of similar people.  That breaks my heart.  I can’t imagine anything more exciting than meeting people while doing something you have never done before.

Jeff Gaura, on the Atlantic Shore at the start of his Pyrenees trip
Our group, on the Atlantic Shore, at the start of the trip.

Have you ever been to a party and met a stamp collector?  They conclude that you are interested in stamp collecting or are a collector yourself…just by asking their name.  Cyclists behave not much differently than a stamp collector at a party.  Cyclists are quick to conclude that you like cycling, too, even if you could care less.  They display a fondness for an event that includes voluntary suffering that others don’t appreciate.  All these wonderful people were professionals in their non-cycling lives but while we interacted together, it was all about cycling…whether the lady behind the counter at the hotel wanted to hear it or not.

Despite my recent embrace of cycling, I quickly discovered that I had a long way to go to learn the history and psychology of the sport, let alone the techniques and strategy of becoming and staying a good climber.  The Pyrenees are the Disneyland of cycling, so it only makes sense that the people who are repeat visitors know all about Mickey Mouse and princesses.  Our first meal together, the conversation was all that I hoped it would be, and more.  These guys had more experience than me and were both quick and glad to share it.   During a moment walking in the rain on our first night together as a group, I lifted a prayer of gratitude that I was about to spend the next week with those who repeatedly travelled to and climbed in the Pyrenees on a bicycle.  I felt like a middle schooler, looking forward to attending high school for the first time.

The organizers rotated roommates, and that facilitated good one-on-one time with folks.  Paul, Neil and Guy and I all got to spend one-on-one time together.  Neil was an encyclopedia of knowledge and experience!  I probably learned the most listening to and watching Neil.  Guy and I both enjoyed each other’s company, and we engaged in a couple of conversations about the meaning of life.  Talking to him helped me ask great questions of myself, challenging my assumptions about why I am here and what motivates me.  Poor Paul – he got and stayed sick, on and off, physically, most of the week.  That said, it was impressive that he was able to get away for a week, as he had an 8-month-old at home.  I particularly loved hanging out with the Scottish lot in attendance.  Most were drinkers (imagine that!), and they loved storytelling.  They were all friendly and most had visited the US at some point or another and knew where I was coming from.  I wouldn’t hesitate to invite any of these men and their families to come visit and stay with us back in North Carolina.

Scenery off the Western coast of France, in Basque country.
Scenery off the Western coast of France, in Basque country.
Eugene, the young one, at the start of the last day!
Eugene, the young one, at the start of the last day!

My expectations of the people were all met.  Indeed, the best part of the trip was the people.  Many of us connected on social media, and I get messages from them, even though we have already departed.  Great stuff!

The History

Wikipedia documents the stories of the great events in cycling connected to the Pyrenees.  There are too many to list here.  The biggest are the stories of events that happened on Tourmalet, yet it was the stories of people crashing and dying on the descents that made me think the most.  In America, it is common knowledge that there are medical conditions that shorten the length and quality of life of the athletes in football, powerlifting, etc, due to the physical impact of the sport on their bodies.  Yet, we don’t hear stories of football players who die on 3rd down in the 1st quarter of a football game.  In cycling, people get in wrecks and die, moments later, too often.  Sure, they wear helmets now, but safety remains a lower priority than most US sports.  At a couple of locations, there were monuments to famous cyclists who died on or near that spot.  It created moments to pause and think and set aside the suffering of the climb to ponder their fates.

In America, cycling is known as the sport of cheaters, and the most famous cheater of all time is American.  As such, it will be years before cycling interest in the US will be in the same order of magnitude as Europe.  Interest in the history of the sport or the places that made it famous don’t exist in the US like they do here.  In the US, we have football, baseball and basketball, all full of comparable cheaters, yet, for whatever reason, we extend forgiveness to each of these other groups, but we don’t do that with cycling.  I will never understand that.

Cycling is one of the only pastimes where it’s possible for the complete amateur to ride the same routes as the professionals. It’s the equivalent of football fans being able to play a game of tackle football at 3 pm in their team’s stadium, take a shower in the locker room, then walk back out and watch the Dallas Cowboys take the field and play a game at 7 pm on the same day, on the same field.  As we traversed the Pyrenees, there were chalk writings on the road meant for specific riders.  Peter Sagan is the ladies’ favorite, but I also saw Valverde, Froome and others names glorified by the graffiti written in their honor, on the asphalt leading up some of the climbs.  I was riding on historical roads used by the best in the world, literally a few weeks ago.  That was cool.

Lastly, with cycling a big part of the country’s history, France and the surrounding countries have mini aid stations set up on the roads where cyclists can dip their head in a cool bath of water and fill up their water bottles using fresh, cold mountain water.  Some of these fountains are nothing more than a faucet coming from the rocks.  Others are elaborate fountains.

The Changing views

Starting on the West coast of France meant starting in glorious history, natural beauty and wealth.  The southwestern portion of France is known as the Basque region, and the I spent two days in Biarritz, FR, doing recovering from the trip and the changing time zones.  The hills, coasts and greenery are best shown in these photos, not with my words.

Jeff Gaura on the coastal cliffs of Biarritz
Biarritz coast, deep in the heart of Basque Country

During the middle days, we cycled through the Tour de France imagery that the media has made famous.  We climbed famous cols like Aubisque, Pau, Tourmalet, Peyresourde, Marie St. Blanc (the hardest one, for me), Aspin and who knows how many others.  The photography on the top of those cols is the stuff that my father-in-law would stay up night thinking about.  Many of those stops will be remembered all of my days.

On the final day, we traveled through wine country.  That warm, humid and windy climate turned our group of hill climbers into a bunch of time trial experts, as we pushed nearly as hard in those flats as we did in the mountains themselves!

Cycling through the different parts of Pyrenees parallels what you might experience hiking the Appalachian trail, only faster.  We traveled through both high rainfall and low rainfall areas.  We wore jackets and removed layer after layer as the temps hit the upper 90s as we poured sweat on a climb up Col de Jau.  Describing the Pyrenees is like describing the USA to a person who only has a minute to listen…there is too much diversity to cover it all!

The Old Man at the Sea

I take away value from words that people say and acts they do, as memories of the majestic views fade over time.  Their words serve as inspiration.  On our ride, there were two “young men” in their 70s, taking on the course like anyone else.  They were loved by everyone in the group, and during breaks and meals, one of them would occasionally add a tidbit of wisdom to the conversation.  At the end of a long, hot day, when we would all pull into our designated hotel, people would do their thing.  It was in those moments that the tidbits would escape.  Having lived a generation or more than the rest of us, their experience was priceless.

Jeff Gaura on the Mediterranean coast
Helen, Pete (from Pyractif), and I celebrating the completion of the ride.

I was SO not expecting that benefit.  Nearly all of the participants knew that I was there to prepare for the World Championship, with my anticipated take away from this trip is that I would be an improved climbing and have higher fitness needed to do well on the Zofingen course.  As as side effect, I got inspired.

Andy, Everton man turned Scottish, riding through farmlands in the middle of the Pyrenees
Andy, Everton man turned Scottish, riding through farmlands in the middle of the Pyrenees

It was their sincerity that got to my heart.  They shared what others were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say.  Eugene shared that he struggled with thoughts of inferiority, wondering if he could make it or even get out of bed the next morning.  He didn’t hide them…he disclosed them.  How brilliant, and what a great lesson for the rest of us there: don’t keep secrets to yourself.  Get help from others, instead!  His peer, Brian, would leave early on each segment, knowing that the younger lot of us would pass him and leave him fending for himself at the end of the day if he didn’t.  He never took the nudging of the group’s leader to leave lunch or break early to get a head start as offensive. He could have been upset that he had less rest and recovery than the others in the group, but he never voiced it, nor did he believe it.  Indeed, he embraced his role as the old man who needed a head start.  That said, he did the same course as the rest of us, and he did it with an attitude of gratitude and joy that he cold still participate in the challenges of the generations behind him.  He was my hero from this trip.

Not surprising he was voted best rider by the group on the last night.  Go, Brian!  I hope that I can nail the Pyrenees at 72 years young.

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