Day 1. Roscoff to Le Relais de Touvent, Bordeaux
Distance – 550km
A humbling experience came my way on my 2013 trip to the Pyrenees. Day 1 was mostly N, D and A roads south, pleasant enough if a little boring. I left the ferry in Roscoff around 11am riding 550km under blue skies to Le Relais de Touvent, a pleasant, friendly 2 star hotel just off the A10 north of Bordeaux.
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The food was good here and my spotless if characterless bedroom overlooked an idealic misty field of vines, as good as a motel can be. Don’t expect too much though, it is just a 2 star, but far better then an F1 motorway dive, far safer parking too.
Day 2. Bordeaux to Montory – Basque Pyrenees
Distance – 420km
Next morning started promising, as I was now within shooting distance of the Pyrenees. The plan was to be there by lunch to ride some of the high back roads and tracks down to the Auberge de l’Etable, Montory which is a regular haunt of mine.
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Unfortunately even the best laid plans can go wrong. This one ran amuck and went tits up with bells on! After a typically French breakfast (meagre) and paying the bill the owner called me into the bar and placed another, but unusually strong coffee on the bar and said “your going to need that”! Why say’s I! Meteo Merde, Tres Merde, say’s he. How bad can it be say’s I, it’s the 18th of May! He smiles and walks off after giving me a blessing as if he were an Irish priest. With my relatives being farmers going back generations I’d always take notice when wizened of guys warn me of coming bad weather, so I kitted up my BMW Rallye 3 jacket with its waterproof liner and a pair of waterproof trousers.
True to his word the sky blackened as I entered the ring road bypassing central Bordeaux around 9:30am, and as I joined the A63/E70 south of Bordeaux the heavens boomed a frightening broadside of electrical mental-ness before I was enveloped by a curtain of rain and hail. A bit too dramatic for you? Well, it was worse than that, and it kept getting worse as a massive Atlantic storm blew in and the road surface water rose with the never ending downpour. Modern motorways are well designed to clear water, but I don’t think any road is designed with this shit in mind!
It was like this for 2 solid hours with my headway curtailed to max 50kmph. But this being France I was regularly being overtaken by 18 wheelers and an endless line of speeding nutters, all the while battling brutal crosswinds in almost zero visibility, for me this was as frightening as it gets. Or so I thought!
Somewhere around the town of Lesperon the rain eased into the kind of Atlantic downpour more reminiscent of Western Ireland alowing me to relax a bit. As I pondered my options (plan A needed updating) a strange looking fast moving, swirling “cloud thingy” overtook me a mile or so off to my left. WTF I thought as it continued south then cut across my path about 5km south when a thought struck me! Oh BOLLOX, Nooooo, it can’t be, it fecken is – that’s a f%c$en tornado! I’ll take most troubles on the chin, but playing chicken with tornados on a motorbike, no matter how small is well off my menu thank you very much. With little choice however I ploughed on.
Yep, that was a tornado alright as I soon came up on a tailback and I then stupidly allowed myself get boxed in between standing traffic. Unable to wriggle myself out thanks to the great big 38ltr metal panniers hung to the sides of my F800GS. Up until now those panniers seemed brilliant and made the bike look the part, now I was cursing them. For an endless hour I stood there, miserably cold and increasingly wet in the pounding rain with matters seemingly being made worse as cagers and lorry drivers looked on at me from their warm dry seats taking great care not to makes eye contact with me. I made a mental note never to stop to help if ever they were in need.
Eventually the tailback moved just a couple of meters, but it was enough for me to make my way to the hard shoulder. Now unbound by the standstill I edged my way up the 5km tailback only to come across a sight of road carnage, straight out of a Mad Max movie. The mini tornado had cut across the motorway forcing one 18 wheeled artic to slam into an other overturning it, and as luck would have it, it was an oil tanker which spilled it’s full load of 1000+ gallons of slick over the motorway. Cars, trucks, lorries, fire engines, ambulances and Gendarme were all mixed up in the chaos. I was utterly stunned at how much damage even a small tornato can do. Note to self, stay the hell out of Kansas!!!
As I pulled up before the mess I was waved down by a Gendarme and tolled in no uncertain terms what I already knew – I was trapped and going nowhere. Then as I pulled in to park to the taunting sound of an enormous thunder clap it went and rained with renewed enthusiasm. With the return of lightening and hail I started to get seriously worried, I was hungry, my energy levels were dropping and I was bitterly cold.
It was around then that I noticed a curious thing, the waterproof pockets of my BMW Rallye 3 Jacket had filled up with water proving the Rallye 3 Jackets unique ability for potentially transporting small fish or other amphibious wildlife. While the inner pocket is waterproof, the overlapping flap is not. The pockets proved to be the only part of the €500 jacket that was 100% waterproof as the inner waterproof liner was failing too. To be fair to the Rallye 3 Jacket it’s stood up to 5 Irish winters and at least a 100,000km, but this day’s weather has beaten it. Luckily I had a backup over jacket, a €15 rain jacket I’d picked up in Lidls which saved the day!
I was now joined by a rag-tag group of equally miserable bikers, we huddled together to share wet smokes and war stories! Somewhere around 2pm we were saved by a fellow biker in the guise of a Gendarme on a R1200RT. As a biker he realised me and the other 2 wheeled lads were going to be in risk of hypothermia if we stayed stood in this weather much longer. He somehow organised hot chocolate drinks for us all, which, believe me, made a massive boost to moral all round as the other bikers, being in leathers, were now in a worse state than me.
The kindness of this French Gendarme did not stop there. Once he had us all smiling with blood flowing again he formed us into a line and led us against the stagnant tailback back down the motorway ordering cars out of our path to an emergency access road allowing us to escape the motorway. This “access road” was little more than a badly potholed dirt track through fields, forest and a farm. And yes, it was now well and truly flooded, I did not mind so much as I was riding my F800GS with a spanking new set of Michelin Anakee 3′s so this actually became the best part of the day so far.
The 3 French lads on sport bikes were not as lucky as each went down in turn. Time and again I had to stop and help them get their bikes back up to the amusement of a herd of on looking cows who were no bloody help what-so-ever. Eventually we got back onto a road where the French lads insisted I follow them to a nearby cafe where we had lunch and I gratefully allowed myself to warm up and recover before we shook soggy gloved hands and went our separate ways.
I’d lost too much time now, and the weather was still shit, so I fired up my SatNav and directed it to find the quickest route to my Auberge, plan A having well and truly been sunk. Unfortunately at the Basque town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port my SatNav switched it’s self off and refused to help me anymore. It seemed 7hrs of solid downpours had shorted out the switch. Upon opening my tank bag to take out my paper map all I found was a paddling pool and a sodden mess of ex-map. I pressed on regardless following road signs but inevitably got turned around by the confusing spaghetti of streets in St Jean and ended up taking the high road over the Pyrenees peaks to Montory.
This turned out the be the original route I’d planned anyway, bastard SatNav! Luckily the rain had stopped, unfortunately it was now snowing and the bikes temperature thingy was flashing -1C, then -2C, then -8C as I climbed up the mountain. I really did not need this alarming information so I switched modes to fuel range to take my mind off the possibility of black ice. Only now I was looking at a fuel reading of 2 bars on the gauge with my range down to around 40km – I now wished I’d left the bloody temp gauge as it was. I should have stopped at the last petrol station in St Jean and asked for proper directions while I was at it.
At this stage I was beyond worried and found myself praying to the mountain Gods. I was not lost, but I thought I was. The roads in the Basque Pyrenees are tiny windy, direction disorienting affairs now made worse by very low visibility, I had no idea where I was or what direction I was headed. There is also something very disconcerting about knowing one side of the road drops into an abyss, but all you can see is a swirling mist. My fear of riding in the snow didn’t help the situation either. I was on my 3rd pair of gloves as the others were soaked, and the ones I was wearing were starting to freeze. I could not remember having any feeling in my hands for hours. Not surprising really, it was -9C as I rode up to 1800 meters in the middle of the worst May storm in a generation. I should have found a bed in St Jean and called it quits, stupid, stupid, stupid!
As I crawled along the mountain top road I began to imagine what I’d do if I got a puncture? ‘There’s no mobile signal up here, I’m in no condition to fix a tubed tyre now and I’ve not seen a house for 20km. I’d now got 25km of fuel left and it’s -9C, Jesus, stop looking at the temp gauge! My mind was now playing against me and the fact it was now getting dark and the cloud was thickening made me think my time was running out to get off this mountain.
At this stage I realised I was starting to panic, and if I allowed that to happen I really would put myself in trouble. Was this not what I signed up for, was this not the adventure I was seeking? If an adventure is an exciting life challenging endeavour with an uncertain outcome then am I not living the dream? Willing my mind to put it’s man trousers back on I forced myself to get a grip, I took my time, concentrating on the road and imagined how good the beer will tase when I make it off this bastard mountain. Yes, you can still count on an Irishman to still think of a cold beer even when he’s half frozen Jesus, that ride seemed endless!
It was with a mix annoyance and bemusement that the hotelier welcomed me to the Auberge de l’Etable as I came across his reception dripping sleet, mud and water from every pocket, bag and orifice. But when he heard I’d ridden from Bordeaux through the storm, and taken the mountain road he insisted I downed a couple of pastis before I collapsed lol…
In ideal weather this route should have taken me 5 hours at a leisurely pace, 6-7 if I’d stopped for lunch and photos on route. It had taken me 11 hours and I had only one photo to show for it.
It will be a day I’ll not be forgetting. I was very unlucky with such unseasonably bad weather, but I consider myself very lucky for making it at all as it was a high risk of accident kind of day. Nor will I forget the professionalism and kindness of the motorcycle Gendarme for the hot drink and getting me off the motorway, or the comradery of the French bikers for making sure I was fed and warmed up before setting me on my way again. I’m not going to forget the danger self doubt and panic can pose if allowed to take hold on a cold snowy mountaintop, nor how dangerous the weather can be if one is unprepared, or fully prepared for that matter. My proudest moment though was actually making it to the hotel bar and having a pint of Basque beer in hand by 8:30pm, ’twas a satisfying pint of amber joy to be sure…
Note to self, practice more what I preach! This day was a classic reminder of how frighteningly dangerous the weather can get in the mountains. While my ride down from Bordeaux was miserable, it was bearable. The ride up and over the Pyrenees from St Jean to Montory was far, far worse and a completely different ballgame. As I rode through St. Jean it was +7C, this dropped incredibly quickly to -9C along with snow and thick cloud. It was also the first time I experienced my gloves freezing. I don’t want to think what would have happened if I’d not had heated grips, a supply of energy bars and glucose tubes.
Day 3. The Party!
After the day before I justifiably had a bit of a lie in. I had planned to spend the day exploring the mountains, there is so much to see and explore in this area. It’s my 3rd time in Auberge de l’Etable and I’d only explored a fraction of the roads here. It was not to be however, the weather was still playing silly buggers. What made it even more of a disappointment was the fact that I’d been joined by another two RoadTroopers also now stuck in the hotel for the day. I tried a quick ride up Col de Pierre St Martin, one of my all time favourite roads in Europe (http://goo.gl/maps/ezT9U) and a pass into Spain. But the snow fall the night before made it too dangerous well before the summit.
Good news however, upon my return I found out it was Michelle, the hotel owners 60th birthday and we were invited to the party in the hotels bar/restaurant that night.
The whole village turned up and it was a party any Irishman would be proud of. Food, drink, drink, singing, dancing, drink, more singing and dancing, beautiful French women, drink and some more drink.
Day 4. Montory to Broto, via Col de Pierre St. Martin and San Juan de la Peña (Resting place of the Holy Grail)
It was 11:30am the next day before my breathalyser stopped waving the red flag at me so it was a late start. It was easily worth it though
View 2013 Trip Day 4 in a larger map
Knowing the high passes were still pointless to attempt I had to re-write the route to make a safer route for the two lads who had joined me.
Updated Day 4 Route – Montory to Broto via Col du Portalet
Distance – 140km
This route brought us along the D918 (Route des Cols Pyrenees) and joined the D934 at Arudy crossing into Spain via a snowy Col de Pourtalet. No point in describing this road when you can watch the video – the first taken on this trip.
The French side of Pourtalet is by far the most scenic, but the Spanish ramp is no pig either. Long sweeping bends with good sight lines ahead are speed educing. You need to keep your speed in check though as those good sight lines work well for the Guardia Civil too.
At the town of Biescas we break left off the A-136 and onto the N-260a heading east to Broto. This road is another gem on a good day, but the bad weather has caught up with us again, in a matter of minutes the temperature drops from +18C to +2 / -3C and the sky bombards us with marble sized hail. I’m kinda used to it now at this stage.
Broto is a typical Spanish Pyrenees village with a couple good bars and eateries.
It’s in an ideal location to take a break in your tour if you fancy something different. Take a day off horse riding in the Ordesa National Park or a guided 4X4 tour on mountain tracks you would never normally see as you need a permit to enter many areas on any vehicle.
The 3 star Hotel Pradas Ordesa in the centre of town is an exceptional hotel, it’s a BMW Motorad riders hotel of choice, but don’t let that put you off As of 2013/14 the beautifully decorated rooms start off at 35€ and a solid 3 course dinner (inc a good bottle of Pyrenees wine) will set you back just 14€. It’s about as biker friendly as it gets. Not surprisingly really as the owner “Angel” is a Paris-Dakar biker spending his winters in North Africa and happens to be an all round nice guy. The rest of the bi-lingual staff could not be nicer, or more professional. Suffice to say, this place gets the RoadTrooper “Best Pyrenees Hotel” award 2013 no question about it.
Day 5. Broto to Saint-Beat via Route des Cols D-918
Distance – 276km
I’d planned to take this route from Broto in the Aragon Pyrenees to Saint-Beat in France to stay a night at Chalet le Chapeau Bleu, another favourite of mine. This is a 1st class motorbike route that would take us over Col du Pourtalet, Col d’Aubisque, Col de Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and finally Col de Peyresourde back into Spain before crossing the border again and into Saint-Beat.
Unfortunately, even though the weather had warmed up dramatically to 20C+, on the Spanish side at least, Cols Aubisque and Tourmalet were closed, hidden under a blanket of heavy snow. There was also still the little matter a RED weather warning (www.meteoalarm.eu) alert for almost the whole length of the French side of the Pyrenees. We decided to err on the side of caution and stay another night in Broto and attempt to get to Saint-Beat the following day via the Spanish side using this route;
Broto to Saint-Beat via Cañón de Añisclo, Ainsa, and Valle de Benasque
Not to worry, plenty to see and do in Broto. One of the lads decided to have a lazy day in town. I was hardly surprised, he turned up for this trip utterly unprepared with riding gear consisting of canvas trainers, a waterproof (yea right) ski suit bought in a bloody supermarket and not even a pair of gloves!!!! Muppet. So me and the other lad, a hardy Welshman on a Triumph Tiger 800 rode the following Route;
Broto – Vio – Cañón de Añisclo Loup
Distance – 95km
Just a few kilometers down the road from Broto is the Valle de Vio and a hidden gem, the Cañón de Añisclo. The Añisclo Canyon is part of the National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido , along with the bulk of Monte Perdido , Valle de Ordesa , the Gorges Escuaín and the head of the Valle de Pineta. The road through the canon is rough and narrow, so during the tourist season it becomes a one way system with access from it’s southerly point.
If this is the case and you are in Broto you need to head south onto the HU-631 and take the road to Vio, and ancient mountain top village. This will the lead you through the stunningly beautiful Valle de Vio, you can then loop back to Broot via the Cañón de Añisclo. Take my advice, don’t miss the opportunity to take this route as it’s a special one, you won’t regret it. The roads are narrow and rough so take your time.
Day 6. Broto to Saint-Beat via ANY route – Not a chance!
The rain was back with a vengeance, and to make matters worse it had become markedly warmer. Why is the warm weather a problem you might ask? Well all that bloody snow up on high was now rapidly turning to water and making it’s way down hill – along with the heavy rain runoff. Streams had now become rivers, canyons became violent death traps, rivers were – well, sweeping away whole villages along both sides of this great mountain range. To give you an idea of how bad it was watch this video from the 2013 flooding in Saint-Beat.
While I actually enjoy adverse weather conditions, to a point, my experience on day two reminded me that while some risk taking is part of a motorbike trip, actually you can not have an adventure without some risk. However, other risks are just plain stupid and should not be taken as we should have an over riding responsibility to return home safely to family, dependants and loved ones. So, under blackened skies and through a heavy sheet of rain we tucked our tails between our legs and made a run for Alicante. Heavy rain and strong winds plagued us the whole way to Valencia before the promised sun broke free of all restraint.