I tap the gear shift button. Nothing. Fucking fuck! I’ve just snagged the di2 cable in the seat clamp rebuilding the bike outside Montpelier airport and now I have no gears. Or rather I have one gear: 48×17 or maybe 19 by the looks of it. That’ll be OK today which is pretty much flat but the next few days are anything but. Fuck. Today I’ll ride west along the Mediterranean and inland to the Pyrenean foothills of Corbieres to stay with friends Gus and Sarah for a couple of nights. I’ll see if I can fix the cable tomorrow and if not work out a bodge. Fortunately I’m not heading into the Pyrenees after them but north, though even factoring out the Pyrenees the bottom half of western France is lumpy and I have three days with significant amounts of climbing. I wheel the bike into the airport and look for a cafe. Sitting with a coffee and a doughnut I try to calm down. You absolute fucking idiot.
Away from the airport the roads are bigger and busier than I’d like but I couldn’t find any quieter alternatives when plotting the route. I get caught at every set of lights. Liminal spaces and scruffy hinterlands, telegraph poles and pylons. Canals and freight trains, industrial estates and car dealerships. A standard routing error, a broken concrete road that turns to gravel and ends in a field next to the road I want to be on. There’s a deep ditch between me and it so back the way I came, then a no left turn onto the same road so back another way again, round the back of some houses the wrong way down a one way street and I get myself onto the road I need to be on. It’s big and fast and shit.
I’m really not into this. The landscape and weather are not heartening, the flatness and greyness mirror my listlessness. I was feeling a bit out of sorts before I left home, something didn’t feel right, an unwanted anxiousness. I’m not convinced I’m in the right headspace for a long solo ride. All the doubts and fears usually fall away the moment I start pedalling. Not this time, trepidation lingers. I feel agitated and on edge. The busy roads aren’t helping, nor the stupid cyclepaths to avoid them that go all the way over there to get just over that other way. Knackering the gears has only compounded my disquiet. I’m only a couple of hours in to a week long ride though, I need to give this time. There’s always part of a long ride that is a bit crap, perhaps it’s the start of this one. Flick ‘long ride shuffle’ to a happier song.
The sea appears on my left as I join a cyclepath parallel to a narrow beach. The wind picks up, sand is blown across the path. The sun comes out, I take my jacket off. A few kilometres of listening to the wind and waves. Turn inland again. Deserted adventure parks, silent rollercoasters and dry water slides. All the cafes are shut. Out of season melancholy seeps into my bones, I still don’t feel settled. Towering reeds and long straight roads. Smaller quieter roads between the bigger roads now. The towns all feel very north Italian, narrow streets and a little scuffed around the edges. Coffee and Orangina from a side street bar. Faded, peeling shutters. A small climb past the motorway and descent onto yet more flat roads towards Narbonne.
Gus and Sarah are driving back from the UK via Narbonne so there’s a possibility of crossing paths with them and cadging a lift the rest of the way. However I’m a couple of hours ahead of them so I may as well continue and overlap with them nearer home. Another busy road out of town, I resist the temptation of a 24 hour McDonald’s on a large roundabout. Things start to change, the road starts to rise and fall, large hills appear in the distance, a jagged horizon. The landscape turns a deeper shade of green, more verdant, less wind scorched. I ride down strobing sunlit avenues of plane trees. Vines glow orange-red in the dying sunlight. A feeling of calm starts to fall over me as I drop into the shadows between the hills. I’m not sure how to get to Gus and Sarah’s house so I turn towards Lagrasse to look for a bar and wait.
I’m poking about in my upside down bike with the spare spokes I’m carrying in my framebag. The di2 battery and rubber seatpost holder have dropped into the seat tube and got stuck. After a bit of silent swearing I manage to hoik the battery out. I inspect the damage I’ve done to the cable. I’ve not cut all the way through it but stripped the rubber insulation back to the bare wires that must have touched and shorted the system. I’m hoping if I cut out the damaged section and reconnect the wires it’ll work again, that the wires touching haven’t screwed the battery or one of the junction boxes. The Swiss army knife and electrical tape from the other framebag pocket are called into action. It’s not a pretty fix but the cables are reconnected and I metaphorically cross my fingers as I plug the cable into the battery. I notice the green light flash on the bar end junction box. YES!! That means power is restored. I tap the shifter button and the mech moves. I stuff everything back into the seatpost and insert it back into the bike…far more carefully this time. Tap the button again to make sure. The mech clicks again. Relief washes over me.
After brunch Gus shows me on a map one of his favourite two hour loops around the local hills. The forecast looks a bit iffy, possible thunderstorms, but the wind is strong and this high up there’s a good chance if I get caught in bad weather in one valley it’ll be clear in the next. Worse case scenario is I turn around. It’s worth the risk. I head off tapping away at the gear shifter. I get caught in torrential rain at the first summit but it passes quickly, a rainbow appears by the next summit, and then I’m under blue skies. The post-storm light and the views are worth the wet socks.
After breakfast I make a mid-morning start from Gus and Sarah’s towards Carcassonne. Unlike the last couple of days there’s a chill in the air but it is soon offset by the effort of climbing, twisting through vineyards up the side of a quiet hill. Before leaving I noticed the Garmin map indicated many an ‘Isolated dwelling’ scattered around the hills. I’m riding between farms and remote houses, occasional villages, so silent they almost feel haunted. No sight nor sound of people. It’s just me and the buzzards. I fall between two hills and start to climb again. I think this is where Gus said he had his accident. A moment’s reflection about how lucky I am to do this. Follow the line of telegraph poles with my eyes to see where I cross to the other side of this ridge. Quiet isolation.
Suddenly the land drops away to a wide plain that stretches all the way to dark lumps in the distance, black silhouettes shrouded in cloud. Proper hills. Actual mountains. Through sunlit curves the road swoops quickly down to Carcassonne. I totter through the old town cobbles and look over the orange and red roof tiles of the town from the ramparts. I find the remains of the concentric circles painted on the walls that I saw on television watching the Tour de France in the summer. Time for a quick coffee and then head for those dark hills, the Montagnes Noire.
Thirty kilometres of up, not steep but constant. From the main road I can see the Pyrenees to the south jutting through cloud. I turn onto a lesser road and follow a river along a valley of trees for a few kilometres after which the climb steepens on small lanes. The verges are full of golden leaves. The gradients ease and I realise I’m nearing a plateau, a wind turbine pokes above the trees, I look behind me at the mountains one last time. Once I get to that wind turbine I won’t be able to see so far south again, I will have tipped north over the summit of the mountain. The road enters dense forest and I follow a gravel track shortcut through autumn colours. The far side of the mountains are clad in mist and the road damp. The descent is fast and cold and sketchy at times, the road has been resurfaced – “Gravillons” – but seemingly only in random corners which keeps catching me out. Coffee and Orangina in Castres. Pick up an emergency sandwich and tuck it in the musette on the way out of town.
The land changes again, low wide rolling hills, big vistas, huge skies, long straight roads lined with Plane trees. Archetypal French roads. The sort of hills that give you a kicking if you don’t pay attention. I sit in a bus stop in a hilltop village and pull the sandwich from the musette. Thirty kilometres left to Albi. The sun comes out and shadows lengthen. Just one more hill, oh hang on… no, one more… what the… another one? I’m glad I sorted the gears. The setting sun catches the top of the cathedral as I arrive in town.
Get up early and leave in the dark. Constant up and down and up and down and… each time getting a little bit higher. Big wide hills push me nearer the low grey sky. Autumn alchemy turning greens to gold. It’s going to be a day for the rouleurs. I’ve noticed the last couple of days that many village name signs are in both French and something looking more Latin. I realise it must be the Occitan language. The first half of this week is being spent in the French region of Occitanie, part of a wider historical region of southern Europe that took in most of southern France as well as parts of Spain and Italy. Having spent a lot of time in northern and central France there’s definitely a different look and feel to this part of the country, the architecture has often made me think of northern Italy. The land and buildings are starting to subtly change though, cream render and red clay tiles giving way to stone walls and brown tiles. A gentle shift to the central France I know.
Thick forest coats the hillsides, lakes of cloud sink into the valleys. A fast misty drop to a small river and switchbacks back up the other side. Climb even higher again. A long descent into the Aveyron valley where I have a coffee and pastry beside the river. A gentle but long climb on a main road to the next large town, a tailwind gives me a gentle shove. I notice every other place name on roadsigns ends in ‘ac’, must be getting close to Lot. A fast drop to the river Lot and across a bridge into the department named after it. A short sharp shock of a climb in almost rain to Figeac. A round the houses detour thanks to roadworks (I’m noticing a lot of roadworks this week, is it the end of the tax year in France so departments and communes spending their money before they lose it?). The daily coffee and Orangina combo on an empty square.
Last set of hills. Same ones as I’m used to a bit further north, I’m only 45 kilometres from my parents house. Hills that seem to go on forever, tilting away from you so any summit is always just beyond the horizon, not obvious until you eventually find yourself on a mildly flatter bit of tarmac, briefly. The wind picks up and the rain starts to fall. Copper chestnut and beech leaves drop in the woods, nuts and shells crack under wheel. Still climbing, 400 metres, 500 metres…pretty sure this should top out at about 600. T-junction, left turn onto a ridge. “Terrou 7km”, hang on I know Terrou. Home (from home) roads, and it should be downhill all the way from here to Saint Cèré. Home and dry, except it’s damp and cold. The sky closes in a little tighter, the rain falls a little harder, I pull my buff and jacket zip up. Wet brakes squeal on the town square in Saint Cèré. I know lots of pretty ways to do the last bit but I’ve over 140km in my legs and most of those ways involve at least one big hill, but it’s mainly the weather dictating the short easy way, let’s just get this done. Past the paper shop and the bakers, the cinema, the jam factory for the hundredth time. Under the railway bridge and straight into a warm shower at Mum & Dad’s.
The two photos of me were taken by Gus