Updated: Feb 2, 2019
Read on for some musings from a middle-aged man's traverse of the Pyrenees by bike.
I guess it's fair to say I'd reached a certain point in my life where I needed to do something big. I needed a challenge to restore lost feelings of grandeur and superiority and it had to involve me poncing about on a 49-year old steel randonneur - nothing else was going to cut it.
Living within striking distance of the Pyrenean mountain range, it seemed too obvious not to plan a 'raid', a solo traverse of the mountains by bike - west to east and I set about planning the adventure to kick off just after our last cycling tour of the year in September.
Like most things that require a good amount of careful planning and preparation time, I spent very little time haphazardly researching the route, prepping my bike, my kit and myself. My neighbour, keen mountain biker and Jedi Master, Mike, either felt a shift in the Force or somehow got wind that an epic ride was on the cards and whilst we sat casually chatting at a weekly village food night - he was suddenly told by his wife that he would be doing it with me!
I was quite pleased to have some company for the trip, whilst planning the start and finish got a whole lot less complicated as he could arrange for a family friend to drop us 4.5hrs away on the west coast at Hendaye and pick us up on the Med 7 days later. Sweet!
Planning something like this is quite easy with online mapping, Strava and the wealth of info dotting around the net. Actually completing the crossing itself was becoming less so and more of a question about our physical and mental health: Mike was going to traverse the Pyrenees on a 25-year old Townsend mountain bike (pink no less and with bald tyres) and me on an almost vintage René Herse - both weighing around 13.5kg each and both easily capable of posing all sorts of maintenance and safety concerns along the way.
Mike spent some time in the run up to trip replacing worn rims, putting the bald tyres back on and playing around with his gearing whilst I spent my time changing out brake blocks, perished Wolber tyres and fitting aftermarket bottle cages.
Time to get serious...
With a few weeks to go the route was almost finished, we'd met over beers a couple of times to talk about kit, plan B's and drink more beers but It was now real. Though I can't speak for MIke, I was dreaming and thinking about it everyday in some way or other. Luckily though we had a week-long cycling tour to run (with some really great folks) and some days filming for the Revisited series of A New Life in the Sun - which distracted me from obsessing too much about the trip! That said, I was only now starting to think about training and I decided that instead of bringing the trusty Colnago out for each day of the tour, I'd lug the hefty weight of the steel randonneur about for a week - along with everyone's spare kit, flasks of coffee, water, and saddle bags in an attempt to acclimatise the legs to the weight and some climbing. Climbing is pretty much a given in our area so that was never going to be an issue but the weight we'd be carrying would change everything...
It's easier than I ever imagined to fall in love with an old bike and especially one so perfectly built for touring and carrying a load. The bike was simply perfect for the job - its what René Herse had designed and built it to do and it was still capable of doing that job exceptionally well even now after 49 years! I mean, I played around with different saddles and seatpost lengths( the original was just waaaay to short) but I put the original Unicor saddle back on it when the an Brooks one I tried massaged me in all the wrong places and so it was original apart from the brakes and a longer seatpost. Was this wise? Would I be forced to eat a big slice of humble pie whilst chowing down on the words "but its an original in almost every way"? I'd soon find out...
So the cycling tour came and went, the legs were good and finally I'd test-packed my bags with all my kit for the trip - food, water, spares, clothes - everything. It was HEAVY.
The day before our departure and I was pretty much ready to go. Mike rode up with his bike to show me his complete setup - which looked pretty neat considering he had various panniers, frame and handlebar bags and a few items simply strapped to his frame. It looked hideous but ready to go anywhere at the same time! Tyres were somewhat more bald than I remembered but he was ready and happy with how everything felt and looked. He seemed decidedly less enamoured about the final weight though and I have to say it felt way heavier than I was expecting.
Never mention anything of mechanical concern to Mike...
With my bike loaded with kit I popped down to Mike's workshop later that day where I found him pottering about in the yard with Archie (our selfless driver for the outward and return trips by car). What happened next opitomises Mike, what makes him tick and how he likes to roll in life.
I simply mentioned that I'd serviced the bearings ("old skool" bearing and race type surrounded with thick grease) in the original Leotard pedals the day before but hadn't got around to looking at the Bottom Bracket - which was concerning me a bit as it had a very slight amount of play. I'd barely finished pronouncing the 'Y' in play before the bike was on a stand and the three of us were surrounded with old bike tools, mole grips, grease guns and ball bearings everywhere. We were leaving in a matter of hours and yet here we were tearing apart a 50 year-old bottom bracket in Mikes yard! Absolute madness! Fast forward an hour and I could relax as the legendary man that can fix literally anything had located vintage tools to fit my bottom bracket, some spare ball bearings of the exact size needed and a shed load of grease to completely rebuild the bottom bracket. It was literally as good as new. No play, no sound and silky smooth rotation. Legend! Now it was well and truly on! I went home, made the most of the final few hours with Charlotte and Amadie and, surprisingly, slept until the alarm went off at 6am...