Friends: It may have only been a metal cut-out of a cyclist climbing a steep incline, but there was no mistaking the features of Miguel Indurain, not that it could have been anyone else on a roundabout in the town of his birth, Villava, a suburb just to the north of Pamplona. There was no need for a plaque identifying the cyclist or listing his palmares. All know that he won the Tour de France five times and was the only one to win them consecutively until Lance Armstrong came along.
As I searched out his monument, all I asked lit up with delight at the mere mention of this local and national hero. He may not reign as supreme as Eddie Merckx does in Belgium, where a subway station has been named in his honor in Brussels, the only living person so honored, but Indurain is a virtual deity in the cycling circles and beyond in Spain. If I had defied a no bicycle sign preceding a half-mile tunnel through a ridge to the north of Pamplona, as I was tempted, I would have been denied the Indurain monument. There was no sign welcoming me to Villaha, and I didn't anticipate it coming so soon, less than two miles from the heart of Pamplona. If it hadn't been late afternoon with a lot of traffic, I could well have just bolted through the tunnel and saved myself several miles and the headache of trying to find my way back to highway N121A heading north to France and been way beyond Villaha before realizing I had passed it. There were no signs outside the tunnel giving an alternative route for cyclists. I would just have to figure it out myself. As I headed around the ridge, just three blocks away, there up ahead was the mighty Big Mig himself in all his glory, perched on a bike pedaling upwards toward the heavens.
A couple of Guardia Civil motorcycle cops were loitering nearby. I asked them if there was any Indurain Museum or street or plaza named in his honor as well, or perhaps a plaque on the house he grew up in. They said they didn't know of any. But they were able to give me directions back to the highway. It wasn't too complicated, but five minutes after I left them, they came up from behind me to make sure I hadn't gone astray.
As I bicycled around the outskirts of Pamplona, I couldn't help but envisage the thousands of miles of training Indurain had put in on the very roads I was riding, inspired in his youth with visions of riding in and possibly even winning The Tour. But this road out of Pamplona was probably one that he avoided, as it was full of 18-wheelers and lots of traffic. It climbed to nearly 3000 feet before descending to the Mediterranean and France through a canyon with quite a few tunnels that were off-limits to cyclists. At least there were marked alternative routes around them on quiet roads with zilch traffic. Tunnels were still being built to streamline the route. I was forced onto a dirt road for six or seven miles on the opposite side of the river from the paved road. There were still tunnels on the dirt road, unlit and one long enough that it was pitch dark, requiring me to dig out my headlight.
I crossed back into France at Hendaye on the Atlantic, at the far south western corner of France, though its neither its most western point, which is up in Brittany where I'm headed for the start of The Tour, nor its most southerly, which is on the Mediterranean on the Spanish border north of Barcelona. Hendaye is the starting point for a bike ride known as a "Raid" from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean over some 20 of the most feared Tour de France climbs, including The Circle of Death. The challenge is to complete it in 100 hours--four days and four hours. Do so and you can earn a certificate.
The last 100 miles into Bordeaux have been leisurely cycling on as flat a stretch as is to be found in France, several miles inland from the Atlantic through forests providing a wind and sun break, with occasional roads off to the beach. The road also passes several fresh water lakes that were most welcome in the 90-degree heat, the hottest its been so far on this journey. The trees were all pine, some planted in rows with periodic patches of clear-cut. There were almost as many recreational cyclists out getting some exercise on the occasional bike paths along the road or its sometimes wide shoulder/bike lane as motorists, at least until the end of the day when it was almost bumper-to-bumper motorists returning to Bordeaux.
For those without a bike there were plenty of bike rentals. There was also horseback riding and an "Adrenalin Park," a mini-boot camp with ropes and walls to climb. I was in no hurry, as I only needed to do 80 miles to camp within 20 miles of Bordeaux, allowing me to slip into France's fifth largest city, behind Paris, Marseille, Toulouse and Lyon, during the quiet of a Sunday morning. I stopped at every cemetery and public toilet I spotted to fill my water bottle, soak my shirt and douse my head.
The first 40 miles into France weren't so flat or quiet, linking assorted resort towns including Biarritz, and clinging to the Atlantic and its cliffs for a spell. There were waves to surf and many places renting boards. As I took a swim in the Atlantic I had to think twice that it had been less than 24 hours and not several days that I had been in the high country of Spain bathing in a river. The contrast in terrain and culture and the many miles I had come made Spain seem a distant memory already.