Friday 1st May
May the first will be forever marked for me and Eric as a really bad day. On May the first 2020 we will be saying to each other: “Remember May the first 2015? That day really sucked!” And in 2030 our children will ask us: “Mother, Father, why is it that we must close all the curtains and be silent for the entirety of May the first each year?” And they will watch with great unease as a shadow passes silently across our faces.
I think I might have actually built this up too much now, but the fact remains that this day was very annoying. Let’s start at the beginning…
We woke up to the sound of light rain on the tent. By the time we were leaving – around 9.30 – this had turned into a solid downpour. “There’s good weather in Carcassonne!” joked the campsite owner when we told him that this was where we were going.
Our first stop was at a supermarket on the way out of Lourdes. Strangely enough the place was shut. After double checking that it wasn’t Sunday, we realised that May the first was of course a bank holiday. As this was France this meant that everything but the boulangeries would be closed. Oh dear. This wouldn’t have been such an issue, but the evening before the gas cannister for my little camping stove had run out, so there was no way to heat up the food we kept for emergencies like this.
Luckily not that long after we cycled past a fruit and veg stall, and I bought some tomatoes, carrots and bananas. Then I picked up four small baguettes at a boulangerie. I thought that this was quite an excessive amount of bread to buy. In hindsight I can say that we needed every calorie!
We had just stopped at a traffic light in Tarbes when things got bad. We heard a very loud bang. My first thought was that somebody had let off a firecracker, Eric’s first thought was that somebody was firing a gun (I think this was a North/South divide moment).
“What was that? Was that us?” We (either one of us) said.
The light turned green and we rolled forward. There was another enormous bang.
“Is that a puncture?” said Eric.
Eric had hit the extremely annoying nail on the head. But it wasn’t just a puncture, it was a big hole. The trailer tyre had an actual hole in it. Bang number one had been the unknown object going in. Bang number two had been the unknown object coming out.
We were both gutted. We had bought Continental trailer tyres because as far as we know, Continental make the toughest tyres for cycle touring. Whatever tore a hole in this tyre must have been, well… really big and extremely sharp. I had a look for the offending item out of curiosity but couldn’t see anything. Like a ghost, it had disappeared!
We had some tyre patches for exactly this type of occasion (basically a plaster for tyres). However, because of the rain the adhesive failed. We got out the electrical tape and used it to stick down the tyre patch instead.
Here’s the hole, and you can see the tyre patch underneath.
So this was now an issue. We had managed a quick fix, but couldn’t know how much longer this tyre was going to last. It would need replacing as soon as possible… but of course all the shops were shut! We would just have to continue and hope for the best.
We rolled on out of Tarbes, checking the state of the trailer wheel every few minutes: it was holding. Good.
The rain continued. It continued continuously.
Then we reached the soul-crushing hills. We had thought that we were exiting the Pyrenees, but they were not done with us yet. They were the kind of hills that twisted around and around, so that as you inched round each corner you would think: “maybe this is the top?” only to see moments later that you had been a fool to hope. We cycled maybe a couple of these hills fully, by which point I had reached the icky stage of not being able to tell what was rain and what was sweat, before we admitted defeat and got off and pushed every time. Trudging up steep hills in the pouring rain pushing a heavy bike for hours was … character forming (twitch, twitch).
I don’t like to sound so moany, but I do want to convey how much we really hated this day!
Anyway. Things were about to get worse. You know how we had been having issues with the back wheel puncturing on downhills, but then we realised it was a faulty wheel ribbon and we got this replaced, thereby solving the problem? Well. GUESS WHAT? The back wheel punctured while we were going downhill. Eric changed the inner tube (did I mention it was raining?). Now we were not only worrying about the trailer tyre – whose hole was getting gradually bigger – but we were also worrying about the back wheel as well, which we had thought wouldn’t be puncturing again any time soon.
By the way, if anybody has any ideas why this back wheel might be constantly puncturing when we go down hills please let us know!!
More hills, more rain. More worrying about tyres.
Finally we reached Castelnau-Magnoac, the location of our campsite. As we entered the town we noticed that everything looked disconcertingly closed – even for a bank holiday. The village somehow had a look which said: “Come back in June.” You can see where this is going.
We descended a long hill to the campsite… and saw a closed off field with grass as high as your armpits. This was it: soaked to the bone, cold and tired, panniers as soggy as your pyjamas after a year four swimming lesson, we were faced with the prospect of a rainy night in this field, with nothing but a wet baguette standing between us and hunger.
By this point we were saying with great bitterness “Of course it’s closed!” Life was giving us lemons and we were eating them with pained looks on our faces.
But we rallied, reader, we rallied. We had seen a “Hotel Du Pont” back in the village, so we pushed up the big hill to investigate. As we approached the hotel a grizzled man emerged and started smoking a cigarette – there were people inside, this was good news! Encouraged, we approached, and Eric (the superior French-speaker) went in while I watched the bike.
Through the glass-fronted windows I could see a man at the bar and three customers, all old men. I saw Eric speak, I saw the man at the bar shake his head. After another exchange Eric turned and walked away, smiling at me as he caught my eye: a bitter smile confirming that the hotel was closed.
The three old men emerged: it looked like the bar was closing too. They stopped to talk with us and name some hotels which they knew of. All of them were 20KM away or more. It was 5PM and we were too tired to do it. The field beckoned.
Then the bar owner emerged. “I will make some calls” he said (in French). Eric followed him back inside. Eric told me afterwards that he called several hotels, all of which were closed. Then, thanks to the bar owner, we got our lucky break! He found someone who would take us in.
Another customer, who sort of popped out of nowhere, offered to lead us there in his car. So with many thanks to the bar owner we got back on our saddles in the knowledge that soon this would all be over! 15 minutes later we were pulling up at a b&b gite, and probably 15 minutes after that I was lowering myself into an extremely hot bath.
We had a dinner of a carrot, a tomato, baguette with honey and dates. We paid a bit extra for wifi and spent the evening watching children’s films in a kind of dazed stupor.
If I ever meet a stranger in trouble I will have to make sure that I pass on the good deed. Where would we be without a bit of help now and again? The answer is: in a field, freezing our soggy socks off.
Saturday 2nd May
Miles on a bike: 26
Miles on a TRAIN: 100!
So, we were in a bit of a dark place yesterday, time to regroup today.
Before the exhausted slump we sank into yesterday evening, Eric, or Super Eric as he will temporarily be known, managed to form a plan to accommodate our tyre needs. We would cycle to Auch, a nearby town, where we could catch a train to Carcassonne, our next stop-over. Through the powers of the Internet Eric had been able to check train times and which trains accommodated bikes.
So after a b&b breakfast we set off early to catch the 2 o’clock train (croissants bread and jam – very nice, but after three meals of bread in a row I was getting a bit sick of it!)
Unlike yesterday (shudder) the miles today slipped by. We traveled through straight roads which were generally at a slight decline all the way. There were no punctures and the weather was good.
We arrived in Auch and had a huge lunch. I had woken up with a headache, and had been a bit worried I had picked up something, but once I had my couscous and fish (NO MORE BREAD) I immediately felt better, so I think I was just lacking some salt.
We got our bike on the train without much difficulty, considering how big it is. One of us had to stand up and make sure the bike didn’t fall over during the journey, but after yesterday’s push, standing up on a train seemed like quite a nice way to pass the time.
And we were on a train!! The miles were whizzing by effortlessly. The seats didn’t murder your arse!
Although it was nice to have a break, I did feel a bit of a pang that we weren’t cycling it. It wasn’t the same watching the scenery through a window.
Anyway, after changing for the connecting train – lots of faffing involved – we arrived in the lovely Carcassonne and cycled to our campsite, where we splashed out on a caravan! (Without a bathroom – so still sort of roughing it, of course…)