I woke several times during the night to get comfy on my roll mat and listen to Mike snoring for a bit. It was much cooler now than last night and when we finally emerged from the tent to make tea and breakfast just before 7am, it was still dark. Gradually the sun started to rise and we were met with a stunning inversion in the valley below.
It was quite damp so felt colder than it really was and it was about to get a whole lot colder once we descended into the mist en route to St Jean Pied de Port.
It took us about an hour to have a tea, 2 cereal bars (me), 3 packets of chinese noodles (Mike) and pack everything away. The tent, a superlight single skin tarp, was completely soaked from the condensation and the damp air overnight - which made it nice and heavy to drag about on a bike!
Everything went back exactly where it came out and and we were starting to get our packing routine perfectly refined - everything in its place. We took a few photos of our less-than-stealth camp site and got on the bikes.
We were immediately into a chilly cloud inversion but countered that with a lazy coffee and croissant in St Jean Pied de Port.
Today was a steady but lumpy ride with two main climbs: Col d'Osquich and the unrelenting Col de Marie Blanque.
After grabbing more croissants for Mike, we set off with a leisurely Sunday swagger and a Devil-may-care attitude that seemed quite cocky considering we had115km and 1800m of climbing ahead today. We were soon riding in the sunshine though as the inversion disappeared and the sun dominated again.
First order of business was the oddly named Col d'Osquich, which turned out to be a lovely 6km climb to 500m elevation with nice views off into the distant Haute Pyrenees - the big guys we'd soon be forced to climb. There was a small restaurant at the summit with a terrace which had stunning views off the edge of the hill. I took it all in whilst I waited for Mike.
In this area of the Pyrenees the French and Basque population are little undecided on their view on the reintroduction of brown bears in the mountains....
The descent was short but very quick and on these bikes with all the additional weight, we were getting used to some pretty fast descending already.
It was super hot in the middle of the day so we pulled up in Montory where we noticed there was a small grocery shop about to close. We dived in, grabbed some bread, Ossau Iraty cheese, some saucisson and a tin of peaches each. Our luck continued in finding a shady spot next to the village church with a long bench and a tap with drinking water. We decided that we'd wash our shorts and jerseys and hang them in the sun to dry whilst we had the opportunity. We ate loads, rehydrated and lazed about for far too long. This was becoming a common theme for us!
From Montory it was 25km or so til we had to get into the serious climb of the day and the bit in between was spent chatting and discussing what might might the perfect touring bike. Steel or Aluminium, road or gravel and modern lightweight packs versus standard panniers. Since I was riding a steel René Herse and Mike a steel Townsend mountain bike it made sense that we agreed that steel can be welded and modified more easily no matter where you are in the world - so steel it was. The debate about road, tourer or mountain bike remained unanswered as the Col de Marie Blanque jumped into the road ahead of us.
I knew from reading others' accounts of this climb that, from this side, the climb is tough and the average grade of 7% doesn't tell the whole story. It's not a monster at 9.3km in length but you climb 700m over that time and there are sections of almost 14% in the latter part of the climb - just when your sense of humour runs out.
The climb starts off easily and follows the river in a steep-sided valley where we had to negotiate a route through the labyrinth of cows in the road. Before long there was tarmac between us as we climbed at our own pace again but knowing we were both wrestling with the same bear on our route to the top. 7%, 9%, 11%, 13.8% - it was brutal. The gearing and the weight of everything meant I really suffered at 10% and above where I just couldn't spin it out and, in the beginning, made the mistake of fighting it. Eventually though I faced the inevitable truth of the road ahead and had to climb as gently as I could out of the saddle - not my preferred climbing method at all!
I was literally grinding my way up, turning the most inefficient squares and all the while wondering how Mike was getting on with his bear further down the hill. An eternity later I rounded the bend and exited from the pine trees to finally see the road leveling out at the summit. It was a glorious feeling that couldn't have come soon enough. I like to climb but man that was truly unpleasant and I arrived looking absolutely beaten as lots of people looked on sympathetically from their picnic blankets.
I sat in the shade of the summit sign and rang Charlotte to tell her all about how I'd wrestled a bear and lived to tell the tale! She dealt with my over-exaggerated story in her usual way, we said our goodbyes just before Mike appeared around the bend. He was spinning nicely but his face said it all as he passed me to properly crest the summit.
A few other cyclists were arriving at the top from the other opposite side and one stopped to tell us that we'd done the worst of it and now we had a glorious decent ahead with views that would make the whole ordeal worth while. There were lots of camping options on the plateau de Benou too - amongst wild horses and cows. With that, we mounted the increasingly uncomfortable saddles and headed off to find our home for the night.
The picture above says it all. The descent from the summit to the plateau has one of the best views in the Pyrenees. We'd made good time considering our lazy start and long lunch but we were both hungry and ready to stop for the day.
We both went off and recced different areas on the plateau but Mike won the prize for best camp spot. It was slightly above the road in the forest ,sheltered from the wind and rain which would arrive overnight. It was flat and quite frankly perfect! We were happy men!
The tent was up in no time and we took turns to head down to the waterfall below to get a wild shower and wash our clothes in the rock pools. The water was refreshing but not so frigid to be uncomfortable and we both chilled in clean camp kit ready to eat and settle in for the night.
It was at this point that things got more interesting as Mike revealed the contents of one of his unbelievably heavy rear panniers. From that emerged a large cook pot, 1kg of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce! He topped that with stock cubes and dried herbs too! I had some left over saucisson and cheese from lunch so we'd be eating like kings tonight.
Just when I thought things couldn't be any better, Mike then disappeared to return minutes later with 4 cans of IPA he'd been chilling upstream in the river since his shower! LEGEND! It made his efforts over the last 2 days truly superhuman and better still, he'd be about 3 kilos lighter for when we attacked the big boys tomorrow. I think I fell in love with him there and then - or maybe that was just beer and dehydration!
Up next: Raid Pyrenees - Day 3: Soup, giants and cheating.