A couple of weeks ago, I was on holiday with my family in France. Not St Tropez on a superyacht, mind you, we were staying in the cheap bit of the Mediterranean coast, to the west.
I could say that it was a well earned holiday and I was recovering from a grueling schedule of hard work. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. The truth is that I was super-relaxed before the holiday.
The sun shone pretty much all the time. My wife (who still has a job and so appreciates holidays) was relaxing. The kids were having a great time. The pool and the sea were sparkling blue and, as usual, everything was fucking marvellous.
The Escape Artist practices gratitude and does not want to sound like a spoilt whiney toddler but I confess that I felt I was missing some challenge in my life. Emotions come and go…and I know better than to do anything rash that I might later regret. Like get a proper job. So instead I focussed on finding something physical to do.
After searching around the French town we were staying in, I found an outdoor basketball court and went to shoot some hoops. This got interesting when some local French youths came up to me and invited me to join their game. I was slightly scared at this point. The Escape Artist is not the best basketball player in the world (ahem) but makes up for in enthusiasm what he lacks in natural talent. I’d like to think I was a decent ambassador both for Britain and for middle aged white guys, managing as I did to keep up with da yoof and even score some points.
The other form of free exercise that worked well was to go and find a cool and shady pine forest to get out of the heat of the Mediterranean sun and do 5 sets of roughly 200 metre sprints. Its all about the intensity so I don’t mean jogging, I mean sprinting like there’s a lion chasing you. People that say they’re too busy to exercise might be interested to know that this takes a couple of minutes. If you do this once or twice a week, you’ll be fitter than 99% of the doughnut munching population.
But good though this was, I knew there was a bigger challenge within reach of where we were staying.
If you read We All Need A Mountain to Climb (Part 1) you’ll know that last year I cycled up Mont Ventoux, one of the iconic Tour de France climbs. And I’ve done some of the Alpine climbs like Alpe d’Huez and Col du Galibier but I knew there was a gap in my cycling CV: to cycle the 2,115m Col du Tourmalet, the most famous of the high mountain passes over The Pyrenees.
So I googled “col du tourmalet” and found that the Tour de France had gone over the Tourmalet earlier this year, starting from the town of Luz Saint Sauveur. Which was 4 hours drive from where we were staying.
I hadn’t taken my road bike with me on holiday but I guessed I’d be able to download one from the cloud.
A quick bit of further googling revealed the existence of Ardiden Velos. This is the sort of enterprise that The Escape Artist wholeheartedly approves of: a small business run by an English ex pat couple, cycling enthusiasts who had escaped the rat race to open a bike shop in the town square in Luz Saint Sauveur. Capitalism with soul and a human face.
I did not procrastinate, nor worry that it was all an internet scam. I phoned the number on the website, spoke to the proprietor and booked a road bike for the next day for the princely sum of 30 Euros.
Now at this point some hard core frugalistas may be punching their laptops in disgust (or more likely tutting quietly) at The Escape Artist’s ridiculous spending. It’s true that I could have walked up the mountain instead, stolen a bike from a Frenchman or rented a cheaper, heavier bike.
But fuck it, its 30 Euros and cycling the Col du Tourmalet was on my bucket list of things to do before I die. I loved the idea being able to do it on a proper road bike with fancy extras like brakes that work. If you’ve ever descended one of those mountain climbs with hairpin bends and a sickening drop should you go off-piste, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
I’d paid for the bike for a half day so I needed to pick it up at 8 30am and return it by 1pm. So that meant setting my alarm for 4 15am to give myself enough time to get there.
When I was working, I often had to get up at those sort of times to be able to catch a flight to Europe for the day. For me, that was not fun. So it felt kind of odd, setting my alarm to get up at 4 15 in the morning when I was supposed to be relaxing on holiday. This is not “normal” behaviour. But as some smart bloke once said: all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.
At 04 15, everything was still dark. I made a coffee, jumped in the car and was soon on an empty motorway, cruising at a steady speed well under the French motorway speed limit. I use MMM’s excellent tips to reduce fuel consumption, getting over 60 miles to the gallon from the plucky Skoda.
I have 2 modes when driving: Normally, in family mode, I optimise for fuel consumption and safety, driving like your granny would if she were on tranquilisers. But occasionally (when I don’t have any family members in the car) I switch to “pursuit mode”, a driving style which I developed based on a combination of Grand Theft Auto and The Dukes of Hazzard.
On the way back, I drove through the mountains in pursuit mode. This is a family and environmentally friendly blog, so let’s not dwell on that here. But trust me, you don’t need a Ferrari to go fast enough to terrify yourself.
The French have a number of quirky habits, reflected in the design of their road infrastructure. Selfishly, they have put all the toll booth machines on the left hand side just because apparently on the continent everyone has left hand drive cars. Another flagrant example of European Union bureaucracy and anti British discrimination. After Brexit, they’ll be forced to change all that. 😉
So when you are driving alone on a French motorway, it takes a certain amount of gymnastic flexibility to crawl over to the other side of the car, lean out the left hand window to pay the tolls and retrieve your Halifax Clarity Mastercard (no hidden FX commissions or fees when used overseas). It’s best to bring the car to a full stop before doing this.
As I headed west from the Mediteranean coast into the Pyrenees the temperature steadily dropped from 25C (at 5am) to 17C. The sky clouded over and the drizzle started. Even in August, the weather high up in the Pyrenees can be treacherous. I reflected on my lack of rainproof clothing, gloves, cycle shorts etc etc and the fact that this might not end well.
Arriving at Luz Saint Sauveur at about 8 45, I parked in the main square (free!) just outside the bike shop. The proprietor was excellent: he had my 56cm frame bike ready and in excellent condition: tyres pumped, brakes sharp.
Then the fun starts and you turn left on the bike out of the main square and follow the signs to the Tourmalet. The climb is only about 19km in length but it’s the 1.4km you go upwards that makes it hard. It feels like it gets steeper and steeper as you get higher.
As you get into the clouds and fog, the visibility can be almost zero. Which is an issue when there’s a nasty drop just to your right, often with no guard rail. Long may this continue. For me, part of the attraction of the experience is to find a pre-health and safety environment with just enough risk to make things interesting.
As you near the top, each time you think that surely the summit will be around the next corner, the road kicks up again and you realise that you hadn’t seen the next loop. But all good things come to an end and eventually you turn a bend and see cars parked, a couple of gift and coffee shops and know that you’ve reached the top.
The best things in life (the climb, the memories) are free and natural. The purpose of the climb is to challenge yourself, get better and accomplish something difficult. It’s natural to want to record the achievement. So there was a stream of happy cyclists taking (free) photos for each other.
No physical tat is required for these purposes. So why is there is a gift shop at the top selling Tourmalet T towels, snow globes, key rings and other…ahem…non-essentials? This miscellaneous nonsense is the sort of thing that most people seem to be drawn to like moths to a financial flame.
Every time you bring a new physical possession into your life, you take on a burden. Eventually, you don’t own your stuff, it owns you. If everyone had to carry their stuff around with them on a bike, we’d all be minimalists.
Having said that, The Escape Artist is not against some food spending as a reward for hard work. I have to report that the prices in the café at the top were almost as steep as the climb. But when you are as exhausted, cold and wet as I was, refusing on principle to pay 5 Euros for a coffee and an emergency Mars bar before the descent might just fall into the category of penny wise, pound foolish.
Life is about the journey not just the destination. I’ve drawn the analogy before between climbing a mountain and getting to financial independence. And its certainly true that, after you have reached the summit, the freewheeling descent is a lot easier than the climb.
But at the end of the day, when you look back, it’s the climb that you’ll be most proud of.
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