September 13, 2012


 Skies this morning were grey and low, the hills had disappeared. Méteo France promised rain, on and off, all day.  What to do? After a short bit of dithering I decided that the absolutely perfect, reasonable and prudent use of the day would be to try that route I described several posts ago to Col de Méhatché, on the border, at 844m. There are two ways to get there, the one I chose today included a number of low percentage climbs, followed by one at 17% and two at 19%, surely into the clouds. It was somewhat  longer, but avoided a 21% climb, then several steep, but not specified climbs, and a 21% descent before getting to the 17, 19, 19 mentioned above. I haven't climbed more than 13% that I know of, and that was leaving Cirque de Navacelles several years ago. How would 17% and 19% go, I wondered. What would that feel like? Could I do it even? Surely I am a stronger climber now! It would be a good day to learn some things. I took my rain jacket and an orange along with the usual stuff. Soon enough I was wearing the rain jacket.
 The road leaving Espelette becomes  quickly rural and pretty, passing through La place with its fronton court, then on to Itxassou, famous for its crop of delicious cherries. I'm enjoying jam made from them for breakfasts. At the intersection with the D918 I stopped to look at a map poster, located at the side of the road. These maps are found in many regions near hiking trails, and the GR10 passes near here. They always have useful tidbits. I didn't get out of one clip quickly enough, so the bike and I went gently to the ground. I have only done that once before, long ago. Perhaps today the ground was sloped more than I anticipated, because my wrong foot was free. No problem, though I felt pretty stupid, and we (that is Papillon and me) went on.

The route follows the Pas de Roland, a tiny narrow twisting little road, where according to my  history book Roland never set foot. No matter, it is a fun ride, along the Nive River. There was a lot of traffic, I guess because it is so extremely scenic. It couldn't be the fastest way anywhere.  The road is wide enough for one car. Sometimes, not always, one car and a bike.

There were birds high up in the sky, that landed on a cliff. Larry, Shari?

 My bike computer has been making me a little nuts recently. In trying to set the altitude exactly to sea level at St. Jean de Luz, I did something weird, because it frequently tells me I am well below sea level, and I know very well that I am not. As the real climbing began, I glanced down to see what kind of crazy number it was telling me, and it was .... gone. Didn't take long to figure out it had come off in the spill. I like my bike computer, had no intention of leaving it there, so went quickly back. Hooray, there it was, no worse for wear. Turned around and retraced the 2 or so miles of gentle climbing.

As I suspected, quickly after my turn-around point the road went up ... and up... and up. These are the tightest switchbacks I have ever seen, and steep. Cars are incredibly polite, though I almost always pulled right over to let them pass. Once, when I stopped and waved the car on, the car stopped, the window rolled down and the driver and passenger looked at me. I mean, they were no more than 6 inches, literally, from me, though they had space enough to continue. I asked why they had stopped. Turned out they thought I needed directions, since I had stopped for them, so they wanted to be helpful. This is why so many cyclists say French culture supports cyclists!

While climbing one very steep section, but not yet the 17%, I stopped to let a car pass, and then ...  couldn't much get back on. The road levelled a little, a cyclist on a mountain bike came along (the only other bike I saw all day) and I was inspired to hop back on. We rode together for some distance, talking, or gasping, whichever the road called for. There were some short fast downhill bits,  where we took turns going first and warning each other of cars. At one point I was screeching something like ayeeeyayyaye and he agreed that the road was slippery. Very slippery in the hairpins. We climbed, descended, then made it through some of the 17% together, but I couldn't keep up, and waved him on with an Allez, allez! 
The road to Artxmendi turned left, the road surface looked brand new, I thought I could see the mountain biker up ahead, and the road went straight up. Really, straight up. So did I. This was the first 19% climb. This was really hard. No way was I getting off the bike, because no way was I going to be able to get back on. All the traffic had continued straight, not a car was to be seen climbing up this mountain, so at least there wasn't that to contend with. It just kept going up, and up some more, past the horses in the road, past blooming heather, all the time getting windier, rainier, and with the clouds getting ever closer.

 Eventually, yes indeed, I got off the bike to catch my breath and took a look back. Steep! It was going to be a steep and fast very fast descent. I walked the bike for a bit, to the top of the first climb, not far at all from the spot I put a foot down, hoping to see the col nearby. It wasn't but it was certainly rainy and windy. I could have continued, perhaps walking some, I probably could have walked the bike well beyond my descending skills, but .... there was no real need to, the top was in clouds, the descent was going to be hair-raising and I was remembering how many family and friends I had promised to ride reasonably and prudently. Safely, that is. This no longer felt like either, so I turned back. Maybe riding with two people we would have continued, but solo it seemed unnecessary. Maybe with dry roads under a clear sky.  I had learned how steep, how very steep, 19% is, and that was my goal. This is your cue, family and friends, to say "Right decision Suze, right decision. Good cyclist." The tone that goes with that is "Good cat!"

 At the intersection with the main (ie narrow narrow one lane road) I met two hikers, sort of lost, looking for a farm. We took a look at my map, but it doesn't show farms. I continued the descent, slowly enough, and reached an intersection that didn't look familiar. The sign pointed to Espelette and so I turned that way. The road descended for a while, then started climbing, in what I thought must be those quick-quick sections I had ridden with the other rider. But after a while, it felt just too steep and I turned around again.
As I was looking again at my map, the two hikers whom I had seen higher on the mountain reappeared, we looked together and I realized that I had been climbing the section of 21% pitch on the alternate route. No wonder it felt steep!

Now unquestionably on the right route, the remaining descent was fun, the cars back, all still totally polite and I finished the ride with no more drama. Dinner will taste good. Lunch was the orange. A very successful day of exploring the little roads of France.


  1. Great tiny roads of France, how I love thee! 21% is hard. Hope you don't have too many of those roads on your trip. Still, it's good to know, isn't it?

    1. I'm with you on loving these tiny roads, they are great fun. And will from now on rigorously avoid the 17, 19, 21 etc. inclines. It was good to try, but only required, for me, once. I am sure I will never get strong enough to get up them with any kind of grace. I think most of the "major" climbs are steep, but not as crazily so.

  2. "Right decision Suze, right decision. Good cyclist." A solo descent of a 19% grade on an unfamiliar narrow road in the rain are several good reasons to be concerned.

    Vicariously enjoying the trip - thanks!

    1. Thanks... that is, as you know, exactly what I wanted to hear. I will even admit, in public here, to walking a bit ... downhill!

      Good to know you're reading and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Look like eagles, possibly Golden Eagles.

    I look forward to each installment of your adventure. Pix are great!

    Stay well & safe.

    1. That is exactly what I wondered. Those birds were huge, and didn't seem vulture-like at all.

      Raptors are migrating now, I have seen a number of kettles of 10 or more. Met a couple birding high up in the mountains today, who were taking pictures. They said eagles, when I asked. Perhaps that can be confirmation. The birds are headed to southern Spain and Africa.

      I am sure I saw a kite or two, very very forked tail, many hawks and various kinds of heron-like birds. You and Shari would like it!


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