Mot09: The Discovery of France (and bits of Spain) non-FF

(if he can use my name, I can use his title)
I like my French atlas. At 1:200,000 it is a good scale and every road is marked. Trouble is, they have messed around with the road numbers and what is clearly marked on my map as the N158 is now the D658. This is not just an isolated event, most N road numbers seem to have become not-quite-the-same D-numbers and not just where an AutoRoute gives an alternative. When did this happen? Why did it happen? Does is imply relinquishing of responsibility from national to departmental control? Will this mean the deterioration of these lovely roads? All I know is I don’t like it! – And I’ll have to buy a new atlas.

Rather worryingly, when investigating this phenomenon, I came across the statement from an observer that
France has taken so heavily to the GPS that I don't think anyone takes any notice of road numbers any more.
This increases my suspicion that because everyone has GPS; there is no need to have a logical road numbering system or spend money on good signage. A trend that can only continue on this side of the channel too. Woe!

There are still great roads in France however and you can travel fast for many miles on traditional N and D roads with a good surface, very little traffic and just enough crests and bends to keep you awake. Long may it be so.

Bit of Rough 1
The first attempts at some rough work on this holiday were thwarted. At the western end of the Pyrenees is the attractive French town of St Jean Pied de Port. Southeast from here, a track on my map offered an alternative route to Spain. Nothing if not adventurous, we braved the regional cheese sellers and reached the target border point without really going rough - tiny roads, sometimes covered in sheep and their by-products, but roads nevertheless. The real disappointment however was that the road around the lake on the Spanish side, which all our maps showed as real, had now been designated a <nature trail> and no motor vehicles were allowed. Despite the temptation to carry on, it was clear they did not want us there so we crossed by the more conventional route. Later that day we did brave a no-entry sign on a route linking two exquisite Spanish valleys and nobody fined us or shot us – in fact it was more of a racetrack surface. I don’t think the road around the lake would have offered that.

oNe road to remember
If you get to the Pyrenees on the Spanish side, look out for the N260. This is not so much a road number as an attitude, which runs all the way along the range, and is almost invariably allocated to a very twisty, but very well maintained piece of black-top. This road is proof if any were needed that whoever teaches Spanish road engineers is a biker at heart.

Faded Elegance
Crossing back over to France we overnighted at Eaux-Bonnes, which had seen better days as a 1900s spa-town and boasted an art-deco casino. However, our night-life did not go much beyond ending our meal with the day’s unsold boulengerie along with some fine Cognac. I don’t think there was much else.

Chilly Bear County
Coming back over a very wet and cold border pass, we encountered the N260 again – where else might you see the welcome sign indicating bends for the next 35kms? Enjoy, but concentrate!
Now we were in the high Pyrenees - Monte Perdido. A nice lady in the park office told me that the waterfalls were only 1 hour’s walk. I said I’d put it to the vote. No chance.
It was warming up however and next hotel was in the Maladeta national park, where Mike’s desire to understand the tapas concept meant we had 2 meals by the end of evening. No complaints, even if it was a very suspicious looking sausage.

Bit of Rough 2
Most Pyrenees tours involve Andorra. We confirmed however that Andorra La Vella – the town – should be avoided, although it is almost the only route through the principality. The Ski-area to the north has some great mountain roads, but we did discover that the old smugglers’ route over the rough pass to the west is now no entry; on the Andorran side and tougher than it used to be on the Spanish side. This may have been caused by track maintenance and/or the recent rain, but we did not succeed in our attempt to enter Andorra this way – and some of us needed a day to recuperate after the attempt – both bikes and men.

Toes in the Med
After even more amazingly perfect twisties of the N260, we crossed to France for our last Pyrenees stop. As we were early at the hotel, we continued on without luggage to dip our toes in the med. at Banyuls-sur-Mer. OK, but not like the mountains – and a lot more traffic. Maybe we should have taken this as a warning to steer clear of the towns.

Black Hawk down
Well. More like blue VFR, but he was still down. If one of your mates on a touring holiday is taken out by a wayward french tractor, you’d do your best to look after him: Right ? Not us.

We did not plan it that way. The run north from the French border on the eastern Pyrenees, was always going to be long and hot. We had started the day ambitiously, taking a tortuous route of cols and gorges, up to Carcasonne. This was supposed to be a coffee stop but ended up as lunch, due to losing touch a couple of times.

When you have five riders together, you would have thought that keeping in contact would be easy. The problem is GPS. As every rider is being individually directed, depending on the waypoints they have entered and their GPS’ interpretation thereof, what seems like one route can end up as many – particularly in towns or on minor roads. Hence if you lose line-of-sight contact, your GPS can send you off the route taken by those in front, who then wait in vain for you to appear; and it can be 30 mins before phone contact is made and they realise you are miles ahead. This is what had delayed us in the morning and as a result of that, by the time we regrouped south of Mazamet, we were seriously behind schedule and very hot.

Now it all fell apart. Steve wanted to checkout Castres on the way north. The rest of us did not. Tony was very sensibly relaxed enough to make his own speed without trying to keep up in the twisty bits, so would do his own thing. Mike was busy with his emails whenever we stopped – and can ride fast when needed, so would also make his own way. Tom and I therefore decided to keep the last semblance of a group and head for the hotel some 200 miles distant and not worry about who was or was not lost. Some 120 miles of hard riding later, after refuelling, my phone had a plaintive message from Tony <in Mazomet hospital but ok>. Further calls revealed that a tractor had changed lanes into him and although he had not hit it, the 30mph lock-up and drop had been enough to damage his shoulder such that he would not be riding further this holiday. The VFR might be patched up but without a rider, it was going nowhere. All this had been a few miles from the regroup point, but because we all took our own routes through the town, none of us spotted him. Messages on phones were not reviewed until much later, when the extent of our neglect became evident:
I can’t pick the bike up – where are you ?
The police are here
I am losing control of the situation
I am going to the hospital

When we did speak to Tony from our distant fuel stop, he had resigned himself to arranging his own way back and getting Footman James to transport the bike. Had we then turned back, we could have only offered belated moral support and precious little real help – and we would have been left with a 600+ mile trip the next day to the ferry.

So we abandoned Tony to his fate and headed off for the hotel. The next day, he flew from Toulouse to Leeds before we got to the boat.

He is still talking to us.