Words: Jess Rathgen Pictures: Jess Rathgen & Ryan Carr
Jess and Ryan head to the Pyrenees where Ryan competes in the iconic Zegama-Aizkorri mountain marathon running race. They then cycle and train-hop across France to Chamonix in the Alps for more trail running.
I met up with Ryan in Bilbao, on the northwest coast of Spain at the end of June. I had flown to Europe the week before - visiting my cousin in Rome and treating myself to the joys of travelling solo with oversize luggage. Hauling my boxed bike out of the airport was so much harder than had I reassembled it and rode away from the Arrivals Hall. The loving relationship with my bike was sorely tested with some sweaty pits as collateral damage. However the battered and duct taped 23.8 kg box (sneaking in under the 24 kg limit) stuck by my side on escalators, on and off trains and amidst crowded metro carriages. I was well happy to park that box up for the next four days while playing tourist about Rome. I'm thinking a more compact bike bag for my next foray abroad.
Flying on to Spain I was unenthusiastic to repeat the public transport box-lugging exercise in reverse. Luckily for me, my kiwi cousins had shunned the expected Fiat Cinque Cento and opted for a more pragmatic Suzuki jeep as their city runabout. Suzuki's new tagline: "no box too big".
Getting back to the airport in Rome.
Jump forward eight hours and I'm reunited with my lovely man. Ryan was not so fresh after 35 hours of travel with a middle seat and no sleep. While that alone is enough to make you feel crook, there was no denying that he was running an actual fever. And yes, that little testing kit revealed the dreaded two parallel lines of covid.
We approached this trip with only a loose plan, or freedom by bike as I like to call it. A tent in tow and knowing that food was plentiful, we were more than happy to take what came at us. The only inflexible anchor point was Ryan racing the Zegama-Azikori mountain marathon the coming Sunday. From there we would bike our way west to east across the northern foothills of the Pyrenees before fast tracking to the Alps with some help from a train or two.
We were armed with the MAPOUT app, the cycle.travel website for route finding and the Warmshowers app (hosting for bikepackers) for when we needed a break from our tent. Ground Effect covered our backs and bums with rain jackets and merino bottoms. The essentials were sorted.
Things did start with the harsh reality of current overseas travel. Borders may be open, but the virus is still there. I had successfully caught covid three weeks prior to departure. My energy levels and desire to exercise rebounded just in time. Ryan tried his best to dodge the mighty C to maximise training in the lead up to his return to overseas racing after a two year hiatus. We were handed quite the lemon when the two lines revealed themselves. It wasn’t clear if any lemonade was to come of it.
We had planned to ride 115 kms the next day to the small Basque town of Zegama, with four nights accomodation booked leading up to the race. We shelved that plan and went with a week's 'isolation' - slowly covering the distance with zero running, half hourly assessments for the need to rest, a tent and all the pharmacy goodies that I (the non-covid supplier-shopper-translator) could lay my hands on. While Ryan's symptoms stayed above the neck, we kept moving and spending time outside.
Covid aside, the route was stunning. This was my first time in Europe. We were welcomed by rolling Basque countryside, goats and cows grazing rich green fields with their bells ding donging away, narrow cobblestone alleys, Spanish omelettes, tapas and outstanding cycle paths that just happened to be everywhere we wanted to go.
Cycletravel.com guided us through the towns of Elgeta, Bergara, Onati and Zerain on our way to Zegama. An opportunistic Decathlon store allowed us to fine tune our bike baggage. Decathlon is like Kmart for sports equipment. They have everything you can imagine, and more. Half decent brake pads for $8 even… good thing we didn’t have space for any impulse purchases.
We encountered our fair share of downpours that saw us scampering for shelter. These rain stops helped though - with more enforced rest, options to drink ample amounts of Cola Cao (the Spanish version of Nesquik) and helped satisfy my philosophical need to use every single item packed on tour at least once! Thankfully we got good use of our wicked Ground Effect raincoats early in the trip as from here we were heading into heatwave territory.
Steeper rougher side trails were explored, brakes cooked on long descents and plenty of discovery - including trenches from the Spanish Civil War. There was idle time to make short videos - aka keeping Jess in training as an adequate girlfriend of Instagram… Ryan is far better on the socials than me! Not sure how 'stealth' our camping was that week. That works best when settling on a campsite in darkness. Poised to pitch the tent at 3pm when it doesn’t get dark 'til 10.30pm turned us into good lingerers. Nothing 10,000 games of UNO couldn’t solve.
There are a vast array of bike paths in Northern Spain.
Our bike touring set ups.
Zegama was the driver behind this trip. This event has so much energy. I am talking full town conversion, sound systems far exceeding any NZ legal decibel limit, human tunnels cheering madly along several kilometres of the route - even on a section of near razorback ridge at 1600m. Cow bells and horns in the hands and mouths of EVERYONE, hype that is inconceivable in low-key NZ.
The Basque people are passionate, fit and adore sport. I couldn't appreciate the saying 'Zegama is Zegama' before standing at an aid station with the assembled masses cheering on each and every athlete as they hauled themselves up the steep climb. It was immensely moving for me as a supporter. The emotional boost experienced by the runners on such a tough race was next level.
Ryan defied many odds. He towed the line, soaked up every ounce of the crazy atmosphere and crossed the finish in a rather cooked state. Thankfully he was not a complete wreck for the following weeks. The worry of long covid had been considered, but a cross the fingers and make it happen approach was chosen. He wasn't about to skip this buzz.
Ryan ascending through the Zegama crowd.
San Sebastian Beach Time
After three nights camping in a Zegama park (neighbouring a pack of nocturnal dogs), dining on cold supermarket food and stealing showers at the local Rec Centre while waiting out the tail end of covid, we were ready for a hit of luxury at San Sebastian.
A 60 km trending downhill ride to the coast would get us there. Ryan’s race pack comprised an array of local produce. A bottle of olive oil, one litre of local sidra ('cider'- aka glorified strong alcoholic vinegar), a bag of dried chickpeas and six eggs. The olive oil was the chosen one to travel with us. A drink bottle fodder bag was sacrificed as its home. I couldn’t part with my recently acquired cow bell so that was housed in another fodder bag. So, some Zegama mementos and a pedestrian warning device added to our load.
Our salami and cheese baguettes went gourmet with lashings of olive oil. And yes, I know many will sigh "why the hell not take the cider?" Well, we entrusted it to a friend who we then reunited with later in the trip. So we did eventually get to imbibe Ryan’s earnings.
Aizkorri in the background where the marathon went up.
Following a rest day at the beach, a tapas street crawl through San Sebastian, clothes and bodies washed, we were off on our trip across the Pyrenees. We crossed the border into France at Hendaye and jumped the train to Lorde for a bit of a kick start. Our hotel stay in San Sebastian gave us some time to plan and familiarise ourselves with the Warmshowers website, knowing that we should remain in cautious mode and not run Ryan's health into the ground. We got in touch with two hosts from the hundreds listed in the region that we would ride through that week.
Off the train in Lorde, into the sweltering heat we biked to the small town of Bagners, known for its natural hot pools. No need for any of that today. We had a 4:30pm park bench hook up with our Warmshowers host Aude. Ryan and I were both a little apprehensive as to how this might work out - first date nerves meeting our third wheel I guess. Thankfully we struck gold. Aude became our tour guide, our speedy eBike riding, fresh ginger beer pit stop providing and deluxe catering host. A few hours navigation-free biking was a treat as she guided us to her home.
Pit stop home brewed ginger beer from our host Aude.
It was tough work getting to Aude's village that hot afternoon but we admired her daily 35 km commute to and from work. We rode back roads into small valleys and added 600 m vert in "just three small hills to get home". These delights would have never been on our radar if we hadn’t linked up with a host.
We were well cooked, struggling in the heat while riding our loaded gravel bikes at the end of the day. Being egged along by an eBike had us working harder than my pastry and ice cream fuelled body was up for. We had anticipated that the 80 km day with 1300 m vert would slip down by easily. But no, we were pooped.
A wining and dining evening perched amongst stunning remote hills with our French host was delightful. We exchanged bike trip stories and of course talked NZ sheep - a recurring obsession as we travelled along the Pyrenees. With Ryan working as a shepherd, there was always amazement when our companions realised that none of his sheep had bells around their necks, and there were thousands of them, not just a lawn full.
Waking up the following morning after a comfy sleep in a proper bed, we were greeted with a full breakfast spread before departing. More above-and-beyond from Aude leaving us rather stunned by her generosity. Mental note taken to register ourselves as hosts once back in Aotearoa.
Pyrenees cycle routes plaque.
During the following days we ebbed and flowed along the foothills, dripping with sweat from first light until dusk, playing spot the drinking fountain on repeat. The feel of each town lurched from one extreme to the next. From countryside villages to medieval-like concrete jungles then to quiet abandoned dwellings, followed by lush farmhouses, funky gentrified barns and others that housed some kind of stray animal. It was never dull.
We ended up on a biking network through the Saints – St Gaudens, St Girons and St Martory. One afternoon at around the 70 km mark we followed directions to a campervan camp, interpreting the word ‘camp’ slightly too literally. We were very un-welcomed by ‘campervan’ identifiers, and told to move on.
The next hour's riding consisted of the conversation “how about here”, as we both keep riding. ‘’That could do’’, biking past a flat piece of ground half the size of our tent. “Bit too open” as we spotted flat ground the size of our tent. "Looks like the farmer comes up this track’’ at an actual shady option. ‘‘There will be something better around the next corner". "Ok, after the next paddock’’. ‘‘Should have stopped at that last spot’’. Our minimum standard for stealth camping turned out to be little higher than we had previously imagined.
The bulk of our biking wrapped up near the town of Foix. We rolled round two of the Warmshowers host hunt and hit the jackpot again with Philipe who lived in the small village of Alzen. We delayed our arrival there by a day to coincide with the village pizza night. Philipe texted us the menu, instructing us to place our order in advance as the pizzas were made from scratch. Stoke was high.
Our day to get there was the ultimate cold drink and snack crawl. It was HOT. I definitely walked extra miles down the supermarket isles to maximise AC time. Philipe warned us to save energy for the climb up to his place. Picking wild strawberries and being chased around the perimeter of a sheep paddock by guard dogs passed the time well - humans are as much of a threat as foxes. Alzen is a mostly self-sufficient village with a population of just 200. The demographic is skewed to very young - hippy to a T. The pizzas lived up to the promise.
Philipe quizzed us about the Tour Aotearoa. He had plans to ride it in the coming years. He was one fit bugger, having completed the French Divide last year, and many big trips in Europe. He was eyeing up a 10,000 km Trans Canada Trail. His place was a haven. We could have lingered there for a week. A bush house he called it... open plan, wooden furniture, cozy fireplace, huge windows with tree branches stretching inside. We were wide eyed and in heaven.
It was only 2-3 days riding to the southeast coast of France, but Ryan really hadn’t had enough rest post covid and we were both fried by the incessant heat. It was time to fast forward to the Alps where we could commence a bit more chill time in Chamonix. While inhaling two loaves of fresh bread at breakfast, Philipe helped us sort a train itinerary to get us as far as Annecy.
Riding up to Alzen.
A last-minute decision to catch the next train from Foix that morning almost backfired. Leaving Alzen, a bungy cord from Ryan's pannier wrapped itself around the rear axle. It was eventually cut it free with nail scissors. Then we took a couple of wrong turns, once in the hills and again in Foix. Somehow we made it to the station on time. It was hassle-free on the train to Toulouse. Our connection to Avignon was delayed so we hunted for ice cream. We turned it into a game - spending three hours searching for a place without a massive queue.
Always keeping the bikes close when in the city - even in the ice cream queue.
Our train trip developed into quite the saga. We were scheduled to arrive in Nimes at 9pm with no further trains north that night. We searched for accommodation, but it was a long weekend and our only option was a 600 euro per night room. No thanks. Amidst a police enforced stop to interrogate two young men lurking around our bikes, we met Olivia who also had a bike racked on the train. She was heading home after a two week trip. We got chatting and before you knew it, she was ringing friends in Nimes to see if anyone could put up two Kiwi bikers for the night. Plan failing (it was 8:30pm), she offered us her balcony in Montpellier (one stop before Nimes). The mutual bike language of strangers and the Kiwi reputation abroad seems to get you a long way.
Our sweet balcony for the night
Expedition 'get to Annecy' resumed the following morning - after a short detour to Olivia's local bakery. On to Nimes where our one hour stop turned into three after the Avignon train was cancelled. Town was humming with a bull fighting festival. We happily pedalled around the city absorbing the mood, past street benches that would have been last night's accomodation if not for Olivia.
Stashed on one of the smaller intercity trains.
With the bikes and ourselves back on the train, we steamed on to Avignon. False hope followed us north. The train shuddered to a stop at Grenoble. A tree had fallen over the line ahead and it was now closed. We really were not having much luck with French trains. A lovely man in his early 70s befriended us and translated the updates. An hour later we were on another train taking a detour route to Annecy. Arriving at 10pm to a buzzing town, we found some dinner and once again were confronted with the long weekend accommodation squeeze, so into the bush we went. Pushing our bikes up a hiking track to find any sized flat piece of hill possible, we ending up wedged between two trees. The trees providing some sort of bracing. Now that's living.
Annecy is like NZ’s Wanaka on steroids. Our morning shower/swim was divine, popping down the hill to claim a piece of lakefront for the day, blending in with the endless stream of runners, triathletes, bikers, speed walkers and roller skaters. We were soon crowded out and sought food before meeting up with our friend from Zegama who is based in Annecy. It was fun to cross paths again, indulge in a local’s 'pizza and ice cream' tour of town…. and to be reunited with the cider from Ryan’s Zegama race pack.
Morning lake swim/shower.
The French Alps
A beautiful ride out of Annecy as the sun came up along 35 km of lake shore led us into the mountains to conquer our first main pass of the Alps into Chamonix. Ryan had been talking up the Chamonix vistas, and wow he did not oversell them. Over the next week we soaked up the massive scale of the Mt Blanc area. We walked and ran trails, including a jaw-dropping hike to the junction of two glaciers - lingering there for hours, mesmerised in the front row seats as the seracs groaned and collapsed.
We sure did enjoy the quiet spots within this tourism mecca. The bikes were well used commuting in and out of town from our campsite. The purchase of a cooker and an abundance of fresh veggies on tap was a welcome break from the continuous diet of bread and pastries. Some drizzly mornings brought out these mammoth slugs. The French breed 'em the size of baguettes. We were not tempted to serve them up as protein.
Now that’s a slug.
Almost Like a Swiss Train
As amazing as Chamonix was, after a week in one place I was well ready to get moving again. It was time to make tracks for Zurich and our flight home. With a few more items acquired, we were a tad overloaded. This was certainly no ‘going as light as possible’ bike trip.
We cycled up the valley and over Col de la Forclaz, soaking up the entirety of the never ending descent to Martigny in Switzerland. By reputation Swiss trains run with Rolex precision, but with our established track record in France we managed to find the ones that were late. We would rush across platforms to make a connection with just minutes to spare. Fellow cyclists were generally friendly and interested in what one another were up to... until the train pulled into the station. Gloves were off, adrenaline kicked in and it was a race to nab one of the limited bike spots on the next train. It was quite ruthless. The trains helped hop destinations but sure did add excitement.
All too soon we were in Zurich, bikes back in boxes and us heading home with fond memories of Europe. The simplicity and self reliance of travelling by bike is so liberating. A sobering reminder of how easy it is to fill one's time with work and other complications. On a bike the days fly by just ticking off basic necessities - cycling, navigating, eating, finding somewhere comfy to sleep. Bliss.
Packed to the brim. Zurich here we come.
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