There was an easier way. There invariably always is. It would have involved the Canal du Midi, a leisurely stroll through the flatlands. I opted for the hills and Cathar country, whatever that is. Something medieval I suspect. It looked hilly, but only the first 35 miles. And so it proved.
It was a bit chilly for the départ fictif, but emboldened by the change in wind direction I felt that it was going to be a good day. This lasted around 30 minutes, at which point the roads did did that “gradual degradation” thing as I started climbing for the départ actuel. It’s almost imperceptible at first, like a smell of gas, it’s there then gone, a narrowing, a few extra potholes, a crumbly bit, some chausée deformée. It provokes a minor existential crisis, an alertness and paranoia… Is the road getting better or worse? It sneaks up on you. The road got worse, in tiny increments of disrepair. I headed into the forest and the tarmac was still there, but patchier, until suddenly it wasn’t there. But it was ok because it was a compacted scree and wouldn’t be very long. A small section. It then got worse, especially where the bedrock rose up and the scree became sharp stones and rocks.
It lasted for around 6 miles. It was amazing, in the simplest sense of the word, but also incredibly quiet and slightly unnerving. Solo touring is beset by minor anxieties, and being alone in the silent expanse of a French forest amplifies the sound of these minor worries. Sometimes the signage is resolutely unhelpful.
I reached the end of the road, literally, in a desolate farmyard with the sound of chainsaws mingling with dogs barking. I snuck through the yard and a kindly lady pointed me towards the main road. I stopped to take a picture of the Pyrenees, shimmering above the horizon in surreal celestial beauty.
At which point a big, snarling shithead of a dog ran out and barked with hackles up. He was all fangs and hot wet breath, and he went for the handlebars, stripping a bar end as a souvenir. He chewed it like a finger, with crunching and cracking noises. A man came running out and shouted “Bonaparte! BONAPARTE ARRET! Tais-toi! N’oublie pas le dernier cyclist et le sang! Monsieur allez-y! Je tiens le bete sauvage!” I went.
At 30 miles I had crammed in 3000ft. It was undulating and a gradual hoick upwards to around 2,500ft. It’s the stuff of heavy training rides. I was eclipsed on one climb by a couple of sharp frenchies on their Look velos. I came across them later at the side of the road, one of the cranks had snapped clean off. Too much French power. I offered to help but could only say “c’est vachement caissé Monsieur”, which did nothing to further pre-Brexit relations.
I stopped at Revel, an edenic french market town basking indolently in the spring sunshine. I played the “is it not meat if it’s homeopathic in nature due to the lardon quotient” game and bought an onion tart and a donut for later. l forgot to fill my bottle. I knew it was fairly straightforward to Toulouse so didn’t panic. After a roadside picnic I rolled on and at one point took my armwarmers off. It must have been warm.
At the beginning i had only one bidon. This is because I carry tools on the bike in a chopped bottle thing, and I don’t drink that much. However, it’s been hard to drink enough and it isn’t easy to get your bottle filled up. I bought another bottle to have on the bike and make sure I’m drinking enough. It’s one of the lessons I’ve learnt. I also got some chain oil.
Toulouse is very nice. It’s chic, relaxed and a great city. For all that, a corner of this southern Metropole is forever England in the 1980s.
Tomorrow: Agen (azhen, not azhon).