The Pyrenees - Paradise for Two Wheels

story by Bob Stokstad, Photograph by Bob Stokstad, Created Oct. 04, 2007
BACK TO THE ARTICLE PRINT
Slowly but steadily, some 25 million years ago the Iberian plate pushed northward against the European plate, forcing a geologic uplift that would become a motorcyclist's paradise. The steep valley walls were honed by ice and water until all was ready for man, the road builder.

The roads in the Pyrenees, that big rock barrier separating France and Spain, reflect centuries of effort that began with the Romans to carve passages in rock precipices paralleling streams a hundred feet down from the stone rails marking the edges. The time it took, both geologic and human, to create these serpentine cliff hangers suggests we ride slower, look around, and expand our sensual intake. The motorcycle, however, tempts us to compress the experience to a series of slalom turns on asphalt slopes until, at the bottom where the road widens, we can exhale and relax.

The peaks of the Font Negre range from Pas de la Casa
Headroom in the auto-train is minimal.

'The Pyrenees lie 700 miles from Munich, where our group of four started and I'd picked up a BMW K1200GT.'

The Pyrenees, which are older than the Alps, offer the motorcyclist more than mountainous terrain and twisting roads. They present a different and even unique motorcycling experience to the European as well as to the American rider. Like the plates colliding below, Catalonian and French cultures meet in the mountains.

Romanesque churches dating from the 11th century dot the countryside. Vineyards in the rolling foothills become smaller and steeper as one progresses up canyons leading to switchbacks and the high passes that define the heart of the Pyrenees. And, just for contrast, plopped in the middle of this is the boomtown of Andorra, a former smugglers' oasis that thrives today on selling cheap gas, alcohol, cigarettes, consumer electronics and everything else on which a consumption-oriented bargain-hunting society feeds.

The Pyrenees lie 700 miles from Munich, where our group of four started and I'd picked up a BMW K1200GT. While the GT is the perfect bike for the autobahn and autoroute connecting Munich with Narbonne, the other bikes (a '73 BMW R90S, an '80s Harley, and an '05 BMW 650CS) were less well suited for the long haul, and the overnight auto-train was clearly the way to go. (And cheaper, too, if you consider the costs of riding: gas, tolls, meals and lodging.) What I had not expected was that the most nerve-wracking part of this week-long ride would not be gravel-strewn mountain roads nor the cement truck just around the bend; it was to get the fully loaded K1200GT onto the auto-train.

Motorcycles are put on the lower section of the rail car where the vertical clearance is only 5' 6". I couldn't even sit upright on the bike. I had to put my chest down on the tank and tilt my head back just enough to see ahead through the windshield. Hunched over, elbows below my kneecaps, I rode through four of these railroad cars, up and down the ramps where the rail cars join. A pit formed in my stomach as my helmet began to slide forward, obscuring my vision. When I raised my head to breathe or see better, my helmet would bang on the corrugated ceiling that forms the floor of the upper level. The top of my helmet now has scratches filled with paint (Deutsche Bundesbahn Autozug red.)

With that challenge behind us, we could enjoy a gourmet dinner (which we brought with us), a good night's sleep and arrive in Narbonne the next day. By one o'clock we were on our way to the mountains and our base-camp, Andorra.

Roads carved into the rock.

A map of the Pyrenees with a scale of 1:300,000 or better will typically show three classes of roads, usually in the colors red, yellow, and white. Major mountain passes are visible even when the map is held at arm's length, as the red lines suddenly take on the appearance of tightly coiled entrails. The best roads are the ones with a yellow or white line paralleled by a green line, indicating scenic superiority. (There is another class of road - the unpaved - but that's another trip with another bike and a different map.) You just can't go wrong when mapping your own route for a day's loop by optimizing your travel on these small, scenic roads. The only thing that can screw you, it seems, is the weather.

'The colors of the rock south of Andorra evoked images of the U.S. southwest and Mexico's Copper Canyon.'

Our trip in mid-September was post-tourist season and provided lower hotel rates and lighter traffic...and rain. God, did it rain. I wear my rain suit under my Aerostich rather than over it. This works well, leaving me with access to the stuff in the suit's many pockets. But, with time, this system's weak point emerged as I felt something cold begin to trickle down the back of my neck. The GT's heated grips and heated seat took some of the edge off the cold and damp. But let's be honest: riding mountain roads in the rain, especially when you've come this far to do it, sucks. With most of our days spent in the cold and damp, those times when the clouds broke to reveal a Mediterranean sky and warming sun were ecstasy. The roads dried and traction returned. The pace picked up and lean angles increased until -- suddenly -- an isolated roadside cafe beckoned and we paused to sit, lift our faces to the sun, and down a double espresso.

The landscape of the Pyrenees is much more varied than I had imagined. Peaks are high and jagged, like the Alps or eastern Sierra. In other places the rock is older and eroded. We saw layers of sedimentary deposits, once absolutely flat, now thrown upward at all angles, very much like the geology around the northern reaches of California's San Andreas fault. The colors of the rock south of Andorra evoked images of the U.S. southwest and Mexico's Copper Canyon. The stone houses, small towns, and fortresses built on ridges and peaks for self-defense in bygone times are still there and glow in the afternoon sun.

Village built for self-defense.
The city of Andorra.

Looking around in the more remote areas, it's hard to see how people make a living. Compared to the rest of Europe, it appears a hard-scrabble existence with subsistence agriculture and no industry to speak of. Everything, particularly the houses, appear run down and in need of repair. Yet it is just this state that appeals to tourists, including those on motorcycles, because you can imagine that this is the original, the unvarnished, the old and picturesque way of life.

If the foregoing is what appeals to you, then don't spend a lot of your time in Andorra, the principality, or in the city, Andorra La Vella. Choked with traffic and heavy trucks, pinched between steep valley walls, full of cranes erecting more hotels on postage-stamp sites, Andorra seems an affront to the senses. Avoid it -- unless you like to shop. It's the three-dimensional realization of the duty-free catalog you may have glanced at in the airplane on the way over. Anything taxed elsewhere sells here for less.

There's even a kind of red-light district at one end of town catering to motorcyclists. I refer not to the sale of fleeting companionship but to accessories like leathers, gloves, helmets, and everything moto, all displayed in gaudy windows at prices lower that what you'd pay at home. Andorra also has the disadvantage, we soon discovered, of being hard to leave. If your temperament or equipment restricts you to paved roads, be aware that Andorra has but two exits, both time-consuming.

For the same reasons the hilly terrain attracts motorcyclists, the un-motorized come here as well. The Tour de France uses these mountains to separate the very strong from the merely strong. Cyclists' favorite passes are identified by graffiti on the roadway, marking progress toward the summit and encouraging the athletes to greater effort. At Col de Tourmalet (6,980 feet) is a famous steel statue of a cyclist in agony, straining at the summit. The scenery surrounding these winding asphalt paths is spectacular. But keep your eye on the road, too, as large domestic animals share it and leave their own graffiti.

One-lane switchbacks.

We made three one-day trips out of Andorra. The first was to France over Pas de la Casa to Ax-les-Thermes (N-20, red road). Pas de la Casa, the northern exit from Andorra, at 6,900 feet, affords views of jagged peaks in the Font Negre range. From Ax we climbed out of the valley on a yellow road (D613) to Belcaire and on to the village of Espezel. There we discovered a small French hotel-restaurant where we enjoyed the best meal of the entire trip.

Roads you have to love.

'I almost felt a twinge of guilt in the way I could gain altitude so effortlessly by cracking the throttle on the K1200.'

Sated and fighting drowsiness after dessert, we diverted to a narrow winding road (white-green, D107) that shares the bottom of the Rebenty canyon with the river that formed it. (The green line really does mean beautiful.) The steepest of the canyons are called, appropriately enough, Gorges. We went through the Gorges de l'Aude on D118 (yellow-green), a road that must have consumed much labor in the making of short tunnels and overhanging rock roofs in the roadway. It was noticeably darker in this deep recess where, in some sections, the sun can be seen only for a short part of the day. But before long we found ourselves in Escouloubre looking for another tiny road up into the mountains. Nearly all this road from Escouloubre back to Ax was one lane in width, sometimes less.

The switchbacks leading up to Col de Pailheres were clearly part of a bicycle race course, judging from the amount of spray paint that had been used to exhort those pedaling their hearts out. I almost felt a twinge of guilt in the way I could gain altitude so effortlessly by cracking the throttle on the K1200. Just before the pass we came across a small herd of free-range Haeflingers -- beautiful brown horses with white manes that looked built to pull either a plow or a beer wagon with equal ease.

Our circle route was completed once back in Ax-les-Thermes. After a long coffee break in the afternoon sunshine on the main square, we headed back up N-20 to Pas de la Casa and wove our way through traffic down into Andorra. By now the Beemer and I were the best of friends, and quite at home in the Pyrenees.

Haeflinger horses ranging free.

Our other two day-trips were south into Catalonia and followed a similar pattern. The scenery was quite different, however, as the southern sections of the Pyrenees are not as steep as in the north; much like the difference between the western and eastern slopes of the Sierra. And, best of all, on one of these southern excursions, there was sunshine the whole day.

The land of the Cathars.
K1200GT in afternoon light.

Of course, we covered only a small portion of the Pyrenees on this trip, and any guidebook will make it painfully clear how much more we could have done with more time. Several of our party rode west to the Atlantic coast and Biarritz, visiting Lourdes and riding several of the famous Tour-de-France passes along the way.

I opted instead to head back to France and the land of the Cathars. This region in the shadow of the Pyrenees was home to a heretic sect that flourished for several centuries during the Middle Ages before they were exterminated in the thirteenth century by The True Church. The Cathars built many fortifications, or added to existing ones, including the walled cities of Minerva and Carcassonne, deservedly well-known tourist attractions.

I spent a few days in a tiny village, Babio, consisting of about 10 houses, located in Le Pays ('the land of the') Cathare. A French family I've know for many years had recently acquired a small winery and were now at the peak of picking the grapes. The shiny black K1200 parked in the weeds out back of the crusher seemed incongruous with the old stone buildings of the winery. It sat there undisturbed for two days while I helped with the vendange. Finally, I couldn't resist taking the bike down into one of the vineyards in the late afternoon light and photographing it from every angle. Here it looked at home, because it's a touring bike and supposed to take you to places like this.

The next day it was back to Narbonne and the Autozug. It was only 20 miles of country road that afternoon, but exercising the K1200, which by now felt like a second skin, was pure joy. And there was room in the top case for a few bottles from the first harvest two years ago and for the cheese left over from lunch. The train trip back to Munich was going to be just fine.

copyright (c) 2013 Verticalscope Inc. Story from http://www.motorcycle.com/events/the-pyrenees-paradise-for-two-wheels-67456.html