I've just come back from a week away – well, two weeks actually. The first week was work, leading a tour of the Picos de Europa with Bruce "Teapot One" Smart. The second was an actual holiday. On a bike. I know: you're questioning what the difference is. And to be fair, it was a great group on tour so it definitely resembled a biking holiday with a bunch of mates (which is what we want, after all).
But on the final day, after dropping everyone at the ferry terminal, I turned around and rode back to the airport as Ali, my girlfriend, was flying in so we could ride home through France: her first European bike trip. The initial challenge was the packing and flying one: wearing bike boots, kevlar jeans and her leather jacket she had just two hand-luggage bags; everything for the trip in a small topbox liner bag plus her crash helmet. I think I'd have struggled, but she breezed through.
Sadly, things began damply as we headed to the first night's hotel halfway between Santander and Bilbao. Thank goodness she'd bought an Oxford one-piece rain suit. Next day I wanted to put in a shift on the motorway to get to the Pyrenees quickly… but with horrendous crosswinds, it was tough going and I could tell Ali was tense. "It was the only thing I didn't like," she admitted. "It's the only time I've been worried on the bike. Can they be blown over?" No…
One thing that did help was being able to talk about this as we went. We both have Cardo headsets on our helmets and, even with them being on all day, there was never a day when they ran out – my Packtalk Edge was normally on 50% charge after the ride.
Things picked up as we hit the mountains outside Pamplona, flowing through the foothills, then climbing the majestic Col de la Pierre St Martin and crossing into France. We headed across the less well-known Col de Marie Blanque, with all kinds of livestock. Then we were rushing down the valley to Laruns and picking up my favourite of the passes entirely in France, Col d'Aubisque. It's steep, it's challenging, it's scenic… and Ali absolutely loved it. Phew!
Unfortunately, my Honda CrossTourer – usually so reliable – wasn't loving it. At least, not fully loaded with two humans on top. I thought I was getting brake fade on the Pierre St Martin. On Marie Blanque I was convinced of it… and on the steeper descents as Aubique fed into Col de Soulour, I was scared by it. There's only so much you can do with low gears and the back brake. I knew the front brake would come back when it cooled, but it never comes back perfectly once the fluid's boiled… and with Ali on the back, I was taking no chances. Sadly, as this was a Sunday night, I knew no bike dealers would be open next day in France to fix it.
That meant a day off the bike… and in the heavy rain on Monday morning, I didn't really mind. By the afternoon I was champing at the bit, though… so when the sun came out, we went to the zoo (actually the Argelès-Gazost Parc Animalier des Pyrénées). Which was excellent. And made it feel like a holiday. Glad I did it in shorts and flipflops, though… there's a lot of steep walking and it would have been hard work in bike kit.
Tuesday morning came, and with it a recovery van. We went to Top Moto in Tarbes, where the top techs dropped the brake fluid and replaced it with fresh stuff. Admittedly, this took a good chunk of the day so, with a hotel booked in town, we used what was left of the afternoon for a shakedown test: heading over the highest pass in the Pyrenees, Col du Tourmalet.
I love this pass. It's not as wild as Aubisque – and it's often busier – but it has everything going for it: amazing corners, majestic views, generally a great surface (it's been in every Tour de France, so it's well maintained for the cyclists) and of course a decent café at the top. Though they were busily building a new visitor centre when we arrived, so there was a bit of dust and chaos. "That one just blew me away," said Ali. "The views, the road... it was amazing. Definitely the best pass we did." That's a relief. The bigger relief? Brilliant brakes on the downhill stretches. Time to crack on...
Unfortunately, the next day was wet. Proper wet. We headed north from Tarbes, splashing through our way out of the Pyrenees and across the Lot & Garonne, not really stopping at any of the charming olde-worlde villages along the way. It was only as we crossed the Dordogne – high and brown after days of rain – that the sun finally came out. It seemed like some kind of miracle, arriving in Sarlat le Canéda in sunshine. While damp gloves and boots dried in our hotel, we headed into the medieval heart of the town to discover some kind of music festival going on. Glasto it wasn't, but it was amusing enough…
"What an amazing place!" Ali kept saying, every time we turned a corner to see another collection of charming ancient buildings (many with shops or bars or restaurants). "It's an absolute must-see place… as is the cave."
Ah, yes. The cave. Next day was planned to be her birthday treat, going to the Gouffre de Padirac. It's a huge cave with an underground river. I think there was more water outside, though, as we rode through a relentless downpour to get there. It was definitely worth it, though – descending into the bowels of the earth. Again, a fair bit of walking (in bike kit) but at least it's always 13°C down there so I didn't overheat. And it was amazing. A must-see.
It kept on raining as we emerged, so the afternoon's planned ride – over a dormant volcano, stopping at a chateau on a lake – went in the bin. Instead we took the most direct non-motorway route to our hotel, but even so Ali's boots, gloves and oversuit had all let water in by the time we got there… just as the sun came out again...
Thankfully, that was the last we saw of the rain. Next day dawned bright but slightly misty as we made an early start. Now we had to cram three days' riding into 48 hours... but I didn't want to use any more motorway than was necessary. Which meant about 40 miles to start the day, then we were off, heading cross-country on some of my favourite roads, heading across Burgundy and into Champagne.
"I can't get over the variety of the roads," said Ali. "After the high passes and hairpins of the Pyrenees, we had everything – really wiggly ones, faster sweeping ones… and then we'd hit a little gem of a village. The views were changing all the time. I know we were riding the full length of the country, but it was amazing to be able to see it change."
Our last night was in Épernay, home of champagne. It'd had been a long day, but not too punishing. "I was expecting it to become hard work, because I knew we had to go a long way," said Ali. "Actually, it was fine – no problem at all. The bike is really comfortable but also I think it helped that we were on constantly changing roads, not just sitting on a dull motorways all the way. It was still fun." And even when you have ground to cover, it still has to be fun...
The final push was over through the vineyards of Champagne, then up through the Somme – passing by lots of memorials but, with time to make up, only stopping very briefly to pay our respects. We got to the Eurotunnel with time to spare, but still had to get on the booked train – no offer of an earlier one.
Overall, I'd say it was a typical bike trip: a bit of weather, a bit of mechanical drama, lots of fun. But how was it for Ali? "I loved it. Next time, we need to go for longer…"
And what has she learnt about touring? What advice would she share with other pillions contemplating their first big trip? "Make sure you trust your rider enough to be completely relaxed with them on the bike," she says. "Plan the trip within your limits and communicate with each other about what you want from the trip – how long you're happy to be in the saddle, how much time you want off the bike to see things. Make sure you're on the same page and know what to expect. Then just enjoy it."