“As I’m not particularly religious in any conventional sense, it took me years before I came to see myself as a pilgrim, and to use that word unselfconsciously. Now, I call myself a pilgrim when I go on the Camino, and I regard all of the other people there as pilgrims too. I no longer see this word as being uniquely associated with organized religion, and I use the word…to refer to everybody who sets out from their home on the open road looking for something—meaning, answers, solace, purpose.”
—from “Walking Guide to the Camino de Santiago,” by Gerald Kelly
We climbed up a tiny, partly tree-lined, sometimes fenced road in the neighborhood of 15-percent average grade, alongside rock walls, through lush green fields, and past farms and all the sheep in the world. It was a gray day without the hint of the possibility of some kind of sunshine—and it was beautiful. The giant cloud above us was white and without texture. We rode into it. It was every bit as dense as it looked. We rode through this eerie expanse, away from the farms and walls and trees and into the wide open, higher and higher.
It’s possible that it wasn’t all that wide open. It’s possible that the world ended about 50 meters to the left or right of us. It’s possible that the world might end directly in front of us. Obviously, this isn’t true, because Google Street View does in fact confirm the continuing existence of the planet up on that lonely road.
For the limited amount of the world we could see, it was just us, a road about as wide as the two of us riding side by side, closely shorn grass (thanks to the next parts of this sentence), and then large congregations of sheep here and there plus a few collections of horses to keep it interesting.
And then two stooped shapes appeared out of the white wall in front of us. We couldn’t tell what they were at first, but the faded silhouettes got our imaginations going full gas. You’d never guess, but a little physical struggle, some weather-related visual mystery and two hyperactive, happy riders is the perfect recipe for fantasy. It turns out the mysterious forms in front of us were not international diamond smugglers trying to make their way over the French-Spanish border undetected. They were hikers with large backpacks and long staffs, trudging upward in good spirits, offering friendly hellos and a wave—and then they disappeared into the whiteout behind us.
Actually, I guess they could have been diamond smugglers. I forgot to ask.
It happened again…and again…and again. What was going on? Had all the cars and bikes in the Basque Country broken down? No, they hadn’t, because two farm trucks had scared the lightness from our being when they erupted out of the whiteness and sent us off-road, happy to be scared and not smeared. To be fair, it was no real fault of theirs considering the lack of visibility and the fact that we took up the entire path-sized road.
Through the invisibility cloak that hung around us, we plodded up the road’s never-ending steepness. We thought we were riding at a walking pace—until we came across some more hikers. They made us feel better about our pace and let us know, in Italian, with a laugh, that we were cheating by riding bikes on this road.
I never thought that riding up a climb at approximately 8 kph could ever be construed as cheating.
Who were these people?
I had heard and knew vaguely what the Camino de Santiago was. I thought it was a Spanish thing though. I didn’t know that the most popular path along the medieval pilgrimage route started in this little corner of France. I also didn’t know that we had just ridden up the first major climb of the route—and what many call the most difficult section of the entire route. Of course, I didn’t walk this part, but as a bike rider, I can wholly agree that the first climb is difficult. For someone in the opening moments of a grand monthlong walk it must be a sobering, though outrageously beautiful, beginning.
The Camino Francés, the French Way, the Way of Saint James—or just the Way for short—starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and finishes 769 kilometers later in the far northwestern region of Spain, Galicia, in the city of Santiago de Compostela, which is believed to be the final resting place of the apostle, Saint James the Greater. The route has formally existed for a millennium, but was used well before even that.
There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. The six most popular are the French, Portuguese, Northern, Original, English and Via de la Plata. The Camino Francés is the most popular, netting 63 percent of all pilgrims who earn their Compostela certificates—individuals who walk at least 100 kilometers (or ride 200 kilometers) of the route. In 2016, exactly 33,720 pilgrims left from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to walk the entire route—that’s 12 percent of the total of 278,000.
Keep in mind, when we saw the two-dozen-or-so hikers on our ride, it was the end of October, not all that early in the day and definitely in what one would call the low season.
BACK TO THE CENT COLS
When I first saw this little fantasyland hidden in plain sight straddling the official border between France and Spain, but very much, simply, the Basque Country, we were on day six of a 10-day, 2,000-kilometer, 50,000-meter climbing odyssey through the Pyrénées with Phil Deeker’s Cent Cols Challenge (CCC), presented by Rapha Travel.
Remember that idea of the pilgrimage?
I can’t say that I arrived the day before the CCC Pyrénées in Rivesaltes looking for “meaning, answers, solace, or purpose”—but when I lined up the next day in the pre-dawn mist, the ephemeral pieces fell into place and I clipped into my pedals that day with something resembling purpose. I wasn’t looking for the answers to the great questions of our time, but I was looking for the far reaches of my own little physical and emotional world. And I was going to do it with my partner in all things, Ashley.
The Cent Cols Challenge lives up to its name. It’s not a tour, it’s not a vacation and, for at least three different extended moments per day, it’s not even fun. (Waking up is the first and worst bad moment). The name says it all. It’s a spiritual quest. I started it with trepidation, but no real idea of just how enormous the mountain was before me. When we finished—in that same grotty old hotel in Rivesaltes 10 days later—I left with what felt like a limitless horizon of what is possible on the bike. And if I’m allowed to dream a little bigger, I felt like more was possible in my life as a whole and I felt like I had some concept of more. It’s probably some kind of logical fallacy but, in my mind, if I can manage to survive that, it would seem to follow that pretty much anything else is possible. It might not actually be true but if I tell myself that innocent little lie enough times it just might be true.
The CCC is a lot of things in my head but on a very practical, very entertaining level, it’s pretty much the best way to see a lot of amazing roads in an exceptionally short period. Okay, that might be misleading, because eight- to 12-hour rides are not a short amount of time, but to be able to ride 2,000 extremely difficult kilometers in only 10 days? That’s something.
The problem is, if you don’t really pay attention—and it’s very easy to fade away into an exhaustion-induced, eyes-open daze—it’s easy for amazing road after amazing road to fade into one uniformly amazing road; but then you think back later and realize that you can’t remember a single specific road from a specific day, or perhaps multiple days. I have to take a few minutes after each day to write down climbs and thoughts to have any hope of keeping track of it in the future.
I remember the exact moment when we emerged into this heaven though. It was a chilly, damp morning. That day, we had 200 kilometers and 5,100 meters of climbing in front of us and it was all on remote roads no one had ever heard of. Usually, there’s something out there—a Tourmalet, a Plateau de Beille or some other familiar surroundings. This area, though, just consisted of long words spelled with x’s and z’s. In this giant question mark of untold possibility I’d normally be pretty excited, but halfway through this adventure I wasn’t waking up in the morning with visions of untracked exploration.
By the time we started the first real climb of the day, I was in a bad mood. Ashley’s mood appeared to be even worse. She was quiet, sullen and slow. Really slow. I was just in a bad mood, but she had the unenviable combination of a bad mood and bad legs.
We climbed quietly and slowly up the nondescript, narrow, wooded road. It was steep, as they all are in this area. We passed straight through the middle of a flock of sheep on the move, making their way from one pasture to the next, shepherded by half a dozen Basques. There was a laughable dotted line down the middle of the road, which allotted enough space on each side for something about the size of a moped, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.
In our CCC group, we were last on the road at this point. Every once in a while, a distant body would bob up and down fighting the good fight against an unbeatable foe and I’d look over to see Ashley’s head down, legs turning over slowly, shoulders rocking in hopes of providing some support to their southern neighbors.
We came to an intersection—one went down to the left, the other up and to the right—with dark resignation (we barely checked our Garmins); there was no way we were going down at this point. But that was apparently the lowest point for Ashley, because moments later her speed began to tick upward. Minutes later, shapes began to appear in the gathering mist and, just like that, we were rolling.
And just as Ashley came to life, we emerged out of the trees and general forgettable-ness and were suddenly riding that same hilariously narrow, two-lane road along the edge of a steep mountainside completely bereft of trees, perfectly decorated with wispy clouds and a never-ending sea of pointed mountaintops. We rounded a bend and rode into an area that looked nothing short of the most beautiful moorland high country that the UK has to offer—and right through the middle was this flickering ribbon of dark pavement.
Guilty. I’m 100-percent guilty to being desperately in love with the moorlands of the UK. I love their isolation, I’ve loved their desolation and I love their absolute beauty. They’re perfect for me—and this part of the Basque Country was everything that I loved…and then some more.
And it just got better. It was exhaustingly beautiful just trying to keep up with the task of making sure that I never let my mind wander beyond: Wow!
We only spent a couple of hours in that section on the sixth day of the Cent Cols Challenge Pyrénées. At the end, we crossed through this big tunnel, left the cool, cloudy mistiness of France behind and emerged into wild remote Spain and all the sun we could handle. Just like that, it was gone.
I remember riding out of the back end of that tunnel wondering if we’d make it back to the area. When I think back to it now, I realize that I didn’t even know the name of a single town…or climb…or really anything.
I knew where it was on a map, but that’s it.
BACK TO THE BOOKS
A few months later, with this dreamland carefully tucked into my memory—that is to say, more or less forgotten, I opened up a photo book by the photographer William Albert Allard. A friend of ours had recommended Allard’s 1990 book: “A Time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland.” I bought it, because I love photography books and I have a soft spot for the Basque Country. But then I opened the book to a page that stunned me, both for the fact that it looked like Allard had not clicked the shutter so much as he had pulled out an easel and painted it—and because I knew exactly where it was.
It was an image from dusk, in the gloaming. Two small children were running—no, it looked like they were floating, flying through the air with arms outstretched to a waiting mother down the steep road to the village below. It’s a beautiful picture. I hope I can make something half as beautiful someday, but if I can’t I’ll be happy to look at this one for the rest of my days.
I had seen that spot.
I didn’t know how I could be so certain, couldn’t believe that I felt so strongly about it, but I was convinced that I had seen it. Underneath the picture was printed the name: Béhorléguy. I searched for it, frowned, looked up my ride from September—yes!
I didn’t tell Ashley anything, just asked her what she thought of the image. Of course, she said many different versions of the word “wow” and then said: “I’ve been there. I remember that spot.”
I say that to say this: Over those 2,000 kilometers, over those 50,000 meters of climbing in 10 days, there’s so, so, so much that I can’t keep track of. And if I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot, Ashley remembers even less. So for both of us to have that “I’ve been there” moment on a fairly nondescript, perfect road (of which this trip had untold numbers), it was a bit of a jackpot.
That picture got me thinking. It entranced me. It still does.
I started researching the area more and more. I started plotting routes. I started making a plan. Then a window opened in our schedule; we drove the seven hours and, suddenly, we were there-ish.
We stayed in a tiny town about 10 kilometers from those children who will forever float on that negative—and we set about doing the kind of thing we always talk about doing, but never do: going back and exploring.
We didn’t come with our road bikes though. We had Rodeo Labs Trail Donkeys—gravel bikes. I didn’t intend to become a fan boy of the latest craze but we somehow fell into it. We spent an entire fall on these bikes with our “nearly mountain bike” gearing and 40mm tires and I never found myself wishing for a road bike. The chance to ride anywhere we wanted to—and we wanted to go absolutely everywhere—motivated us no end. Each day, we’d ride what we thought was the perfect loop, then we’d go back to the house, research some more…and beat that loop…and then again. All of the little lines on the detailed local map were possibilities. We went from main roads, small roads, to falling-apart roads, to dirt roads, to grass roads, to hiking paths, to absolutely no path whatsoever, over and over again. We seamlessly made our way across the countryside—simply happy to explore.
We’d ride a dead-end paved road to the top of a mountain, ride across the grassy field at the top and then connect to a paved road on the other side. We rode up beautiful sculpted dirt roads with nothing but our breathing, a light breeze and rocks crunching beneath our slowly turning wheels. The silence was eventually broken by a small gang of dirt bikes. We marveled at them from afar, and they returned the gawking gaze a few minutes later when we rounded the bend. We all gawked moments later when a tractor and corresponding trailer came bouncing down this path of sorts that we all figured no one used anymore.
We never made it all that far in one day, but we certainly managed to go up a whole lot. We rode slowly, both because of the steep roads and because everything seemed like it was sent to us straight from our wildest cycling fairytale.
My words are weak next to what we saw. I look back over the images from those few days and they make me smile. I just want to lay them out on the table in front of you to show you, to get overly excited about, to tell you that, no, this was the best road and for Ashley to quickly offer a rebuttal that, no, this was, and I’ll look at it and agree…until we see the next shot, that next road that twists its way up the narrow ridge, with the dense clouds finally breaking in the background, and this ethereal light casting a golden glow across everything as Ashley climbs a nearly 30-percent concrete wall of a road.
We’ll settle on that for a moment, but then we’ll start the whole process over again.
Rarely have I ever felt so strongly about a place that we’ve visited. I can’t say that it’s an easy place to ride; I can’t even call it difficult. It’s a “10 out of 10” for hard and it won’t be everyone’s slice of cake. The climbs are hard, the descents are narrow and difficult, there isn’t a fast-flowing section anywhere to be found from what we saw, and there’s really not all that much around in general save for thousands of sheep and the people and dogs needed to tend to them.
But for those willing to put in the hard, slow revolutions, there’s a delight around what feels like every single bend. There’s magic everywhere. I want to ride through the pixie dust that falls from the sky. I want to fly like those two children in that perfect image from long ago….