Rob Ennals > Travel > Simon and Rob Invade and Conquer France

Day 2: Starting the climb

Biarritz -> St Etienne de Baigny


  • Oxtondo: 540m
  • 2nd Col: 500m

In order to do a true Atlantic to Mediterranean crossing, it was clearly necessary that we touch the Atlantic. Duly resolved to do this, Simon paddled into the water, and photographed his feet, thus allowing anyone capable of recognising Simon's feet to be convinced that Simon had indeed reached the Atlantic.

Simon's feet fully photographed, we went looking for, and soon found a bike shop. I was now confronted with the challenge of explaining that I wanted a wheel nut, a tyre, and an inner tube, using only mime. Eventually I resorted to just getting my bike and pointing at the things that were clearly broken/missing. Communication thus established, I discovered that the shop only sold two kinds of 26" tyre, and an inner tube that was the wrong size for both of them. I bought the narrower of the two tyres (a 1.2" full slick, beating Simon's 1.3" almost-slicks), and we went on our way.

Our way happened to be a solid 540m climb, introducing us to our first Col (mountain pass). This was a good solid climb, and we were relieved to find toilets at the top. The toilets didn't flush, but at least they were toilets.

Altitude points now won, we traded them in for a wonderful descent back down to the bottom of the mountain, at which we achieved speeds that got me very excited, prompting me to shout of numbers from my speedo, much to the annoyance of Simon, who has an intense dislike of such statistics. Like most mountain descents, our speed was limited largely by our nerve, and our ability to grip round corners. We thus established the general rhythm of the holiday: "go up mountains very slowly, then go down them very fast".

Somewhere around this point, I spotted a large stone object accompanied by a dotted line across the road. I suggested to Simon that this was the Spanish border. Simon agreed that it probably was, and so photographed me standing across it. A few miles further on, we reached a point that actually was the Spanish border. We decided not to bother with a photograph of this - having too much pride to admit defeat. We had little interest [Simon - strictly from a route finding point of view than any cultural disinterest!] in staying in Spain longer than was necessary to be able to say we had been to Spain, and so we exited via the next col.

On this second col, we came across our first competition in the form of a Dutch family (who we were to meet again on virtually every subsequent Col), and a couple of guys from the Cambridge City Club (who we never met again). Being the headbanging competitive types we are, we went to great effort to make sure we went up the Col faster than all these people :-)

The top of the col was occupied by a strange pub-like building from which peculiar chanting could be heard in an indistinguishable language. We concluded that if they sold beer, that it would probably be charged for in Spanish money, and so set off on our descent.

As with most mountain roads in the Pyrenees, these roads had the names of famous cyclists written all over them - left over from times when famous cycle races (including the Tour de France) had used these roads. Somehow this made us feel very hard, despite the fact that we were cycling only around a third as far per day as the Tour riders do. ... but of course, those wusses don't have panniers!

We camped in St Etienne de Baigny, which, like most Basque towns had a large court for Pelote in the town center. Pelote courts are very big and imposing, causing me to suggest that their primary purpose is to say "this town is Basque" rather than to actually allow one to play Pelote in them. A leaflet told us that Pelote is essentially the same as Squash, but played with the hands rather than with a racquet, and it is considered to be a core part of Basque culture. The town was largely dead, but fortunately had a supermarket right next to the campsite - which was all that really mattered :-)