October 2, 2011

Pyrenees Tour: Roads and maps

As I've written before, I rely on Michelin 300-series maps. For this trip I used maps 342, 343, and 344. I don't buy much over the internet except airplane tickets, but lacking a local source, I do buy these maps there, from Omni Maps. They have been reliable and ship quickly.

There are newer versions of these maps that incorporate more geological features, including contour lines, but for now I have stuck with what I am familiar with. They are thorough, showing virtually every road I passed. Their graphics system is very helpful: surfaces are indicated as paved, or not. Road size is indicated by the color and thickness of the line. Both color and thickness need to be taken into account to make a guess about traffic volume, and even then it is hard to know.

White roads are local, yellow regional, red national. As much as practical, I stayed on thin white roads. French roads can be busy, very fast, full of trucks, and without shoulders. With some planning, at least where I've ridden, those roads can be avoided. Occasionally I've used google earth to get a visual sense of the traffic. I keep the map folded to the day's ride, though sometimes this requires a stop to refold during the day. It does require a big map case, they are large and bulky maps.

The white roads were delightful to ride on. I generally found very little traffic, though I was several times warned about them by local residents, telling me that, yes, this is a small road, but it is busy, with traffic for the (school, store, etc.) that drives fast, it might not be safe. Nonetheless I loved riding on them. No shoulders, often no dividing lanes, sometimes no room for cars to pass each other without edging off the roads onto the grass. Some days I rode for hours without seeing a car. I will add quite a few miles to my day's ride to enjoy the pleasures of rural small roads and avoid the busier, more direct roads. Frequently I checked the map as I rode, adjusting my route to include a little road that I knew nothing about. I was never sorry for that.
I have found the road signs in rural France superb. Rarely in my riding there have I been at an intersection where the sign wasn't clear about direction. When I found an unmarked intersection, lacking other indications, I follow the more travelled route.

In my part of the world, roads with this little traffic would be dirt, or perhaps rough gravel. At home my local road is wider than many that I rode on in the Pyrenees and the surface much less smooth. I believe this is weather related: the winter takes a hard toll on New England roads. In the valleys of the Pyrenees there are rarely, if ever, extended periods of frozen ground. I understand that the high roads are resurfaced each spring, though don't know if that is accurate.

The maps also show tunnels, and grades. One chevron is a climb of 5-9 percent; two chevrons indicates a climb of 9-13 percent; three chevrons a climb of 13 percent or more. I avoided three-chevron climbs, though now I regret that. Without more detail, I couldn't judge the actual grade, or distance of the climb. (The Michelin maps with topographical detail would allow a more accurate understanding of the road ahead.) Since I know very well that 14, 15, 16 percent grades wear me out quickly, I just avoided them. With retrospect, and much to my chagrin, this is why I decided not to try Col d'Aubisque. Wish I had.

In photos, without good, clear reference points it is hard to show how steeply a road climbs. I have often thought, watching the Tour de France, that the cyclists faces and diminishing cadences show the steepness, not the road images on the screen.

Occasionally the roads got very small, looking very rarely travelled. If I wasn't sure it was the right road, I turned back. If not, I continued, and always ended up at my goal.

The hardest route-finding with these maps is through cities, where they can't show necessary detail. If I knew I would be passing through a city, I used my tablet and a mapping web site to establish my route.

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