Tuesday, June 14, 2005

St. Girons, France

Friends: Once again, persistence and good fortune, my most valuable allies, saved the day and rewarded me with another exemplary bicycling shrine.

I departed from my scouting of The Tour de France route to search out Pyrenean Pursuits, a bicycle-themed small lodge catering to bicyclists. I had read about it in a British cycling magazine and also in the book "French Revolutions." I understood it to be in Oust, a small town flush up against the high Pyrenees that form the Spain-France border. However, when I arrived in Oust Sunday afternoon I could find no evidence of the place nor anyone who had heard of it, not even the lone hotel in the town. It being a Sunday, with everything closed, didn't help my search.

It was 7:30 in the morning back in Chicago. Fortunately, I had purchased an international calling card a few days before and Oust did have a pay phone, so I gave Joan a call to see if she could google it. I was lucky it was steamy hot in Chicago and Joan was home, having forgone her usual Sunday morning ride. I gave her ten minutes to find out what she could on the Internet and then called her back. And when I did, she had all the information I needed--town, address, phone number, email address and the names of the new proprietors. It was in Massat, fifteen miles away.

As I headed up another idyllic quiet road along a river, a storm moved in bringing the first rain I've experienced since Cannes three weeks ago. I elected to quickly set up camp and put off my quest to the next day. That was another stroke of good fortune, as it allowed me to arrive fully rested and to make connections that I might not otherwise have made.

I was lucky to find a tourist office in a town as small as Massat, just four hundred people, and lucky to find someone at the office on Monday, when it is normally closed. That someone told me he thought Pyrenean Pursuits was temporarily out of business, but directed me to the home of the former owner, a 64-year old Englishman, Nick Flanagan. I was lucky to find him home, just back from leading twenty cyclists on a four hundred-mile ride, a "Raid" from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean that crosses eighteen cols (climbs) in one hundred hours--four days and four hours. The heart of the trip is through a series of cols known as "The Circle of Death," my next destination. He leads four such trips a year as well as tours of the Tour de France. It is lucrative enough that he just sold Pyrenean Pursuists.

Nick and I talked for half an hour. He was a wealth of information. I told him I was in search of bicycling memorial sites. He told me about a few I didn't know about and elaborated on some I did. He is a bosom body of Graeme Fife, an English author who is an authority on the Tour de France. He dedicated one of his books, "Inside the Peloton," to Nick. He had accompanied Nick on his latest Raid and would be writing about it for "The Telegraph," an English newspaper. He has written the most literate and entertaining and informative book on the Tour in English, "The Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders," a book that Joan gave me for my birthday shortly before I left. Nick is an avid reader as well as rider. One of the lures that brought me to Pyrenean Pursuits was its extensive library of cycling books.

Nick told me I had passed his former lodge on my way into Massat. It was a mile back. It had no sign, but I would recognize it by the two bikes welded together forming a gate to its patio. He said it was rare for someone to show up without a reservation. The former farm house beds only ten in three rooms with shared showers and toilets. Its primary clients are bicycling clubs who rent it out for days at a time. Nick told me the new owners, Sally and Austin Roe, were out on a ride this morning, but I ought to just show up and await them on their patio.

I didn't have to wait long before the slight Sally and husky Austin rolled in all aglow from their ride and greeted me as if I were an old friend.  Their warm and exuberant personalities seemed perfectly suited for the hospitality business. They apologized for not being there when I arrived, as if they had been expecting me, but explained it had been over a month since they'd been able to go on a ride they had been so busy.

They were into their third month of ownership of the business,  and were loving it they said.  They had no regrets trading in their careers on the other side of the Channel in England as a nurse and a butcher for this new venture. Sally was more of a cyclist that Austin. His sport was rowing, though he was quickly embracing the bicycle despite his bulk. They were ardent travelers and had visited many of the out-of-the-way places I've biked--India, Peru, Iceland... I had hoped to devour their library, but we had way too much to talk about to allow for much reading.  I was a rare guest, they said, who preferred a tent to one of their rooms.  I was their only guest for the night, but we were joined for dinner by friends of theirs from England. Sally could cook as well as she could converse. The center piece of our multiple course meal was duck.

Every room of the house was adorned with bicycle photos, posters, paintings and bike art of many varieties, just as I hoped. Nick had left most of his mementos, including a signed jersey from Sean Kelly, the greatest Irish cyclist of all time who had won The Tour's green jersey quite a few times. There were Tour de France course markers from over the years and a large photo of The Tour passing in front of the lodge a few years ago. The library was full of gems. I was lucky that many of the books were in French, including four on Raymond Poulidor (Pou-Pou), so I didn't feel even more frustrated at being unable to give them more than a bare perusal. I'll definitely have to return for an extended stay.

Later, George

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