Over the hills

A Real Transcontinental Race

I do not know where this compulsion to travel down unknown roads comes from, but it has always been there. As a child I wandered off the path, up into the trees to see what lay beyond. As an adult I have never really settled in one place, never had the same job for longer than a couple of years at a time. I am fortunate to have strong family roots and security,  which gives me the freedom to live an itinerant lifestyle.

Recently Ioan and I have been following the 6th Transcontinental bike race across Europe. This self-supported 4000km epic is the antedote to the Tour de France; a true test of grit, determination and character. Starting in Belgium and ending in Greece, riders set their own course, passing through 4 checkpoints that lead them on a gruelling wiggle across the continent. This year’s checkpoints included the Belerhohe Pass in Austria, one in Slovenia, then back up to the Karkonosze Pass in Poland, a spot of gravel in Bosnia before the finish in Meteora, Greece. It took James Hayden, a 27 year old Civil Engineering student from near London, just 8 days, 22 hours and 56 minutes to win, defending the title he won last year! As I write it’s day 13 and 20 other super-humans have crossed the finishing line, but you can still watch the ‘dots’ as the remaining 158 participants edge there way south. I’m rooting for Ede Harrison, a vegan from Manchester, who is only 180km from being the first woman home. Go Ede!

What is so compelling about this race, is how this merry band of semi-normal humans continue despite all the odds – snatching moments of sleep on picnic benches only when basic motorneuron skills have failed them, fuelling themselves on sugary pickings from garages and vending machines, cycling alone in the dark night after, night after night, weeping at the beauty of it all & with relief at human kindness, surviving summer temperatures, the likes of which have never been felt before. This is endurance cycle touring and it makes anything we ‘achieve’ on our bikes seem pathetic. That said, I think the riders share a similar thirst to Ioan and I – to see, to try – and are rewarded by the same pure exhilaration and physicality of life on the road. In an entertaining interview with Kristof Allegart, a rider from previous years, he recounts, over strong Belgium beer, how he got into long distance cycling. “Just riding around….If you are always just riding around the church, your world is big enough. I guess!” Despite what Ioan might say we’re not on a futile search for unicorns, we’re just having a peek to see what’s over the parish wall.

V’s Our Efforts

The first stage, of this, our own not-so-impressive trip across a little tiny bit of western Europe, took us from Huesca in Spain over the Pyrennes to Pau in France. A mere 276km in 5 days, but it wouldn’t be flat with a total of 5,814 m climbing and 6,156 m down.

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Images from Google Maps

My sedintary year (see the last post !Vamonos!) had involved almost zero cycling. Only in the last month, with this trip looming, had I started to drag my ever growing ass on short training jaunts around the hills of Cluj.  Ioan, on the other hand, had been going on regular longish rides and as we took to the roads of northern Spain our difference in fitness showed; luckily for me the heat and distance are great levellers!

Wait for me! Notice how spotless the road verges are. We hardly saw any roadside litter in Northern Spain and the rivers were pristine. Plus the drivers were exceptionally curteous, passing us slowly and with acres of space. Dream touring lands. (Photo: Liz Horn)

In an age of mass tourism and cheap flights its easy to fear that there is no where left to discover, but with a little curiousity there are still secret lands. I only knew the Parque Natural de la  Sierra y Canons de Guara existed after scanning Google Maps for route ideas. This limestone massif is cut through with spectacular gorges that hide canyons flowing with pristine water, caves with prehistoric art, abandoned villages surrounded by olive and almond groves, Moorish fortresses, Visigoth temples, pilgrim routes and hermitages, road sides filled with wild rosemary, thyme and lavender bushes, oak forests. And above circling, watching, are golden eagles and vultures (Griffon, Bearded & European). We wound our way up steep valley sides, hid from the midday sun in medieval courtyards, and dreamed of cooling off in the blue-green pools far below. This was a place that need time and we had a place to be; over the hills and far away there was a rendevous to be kept on a windswept Atlantic beach.

Alquezar, Huesca. (Photo: Liz Horn)
The A2205 serpenting it’s way between the canyons.  (Photo: Ioan Leontie) 
The captivating Upper Rio Vero Canyon, with its Prehistoric Art caves and hermitages. We will return one day soon to properly explore this UNESCO heritage area.       (Photo: Liz Horn)
Ioan snoozing off another delicious Spanish Menu del Dia and escaping the midday heat in an oak grove. (Photo: Liz Horn)
The food in Spain was delicious and great value. Moments after this picture was taken Ioan had to leg it outside as an old guy was having a look through my bag. He got quite a shock when Ioan clipped him round the back of the head!   (Photo: Liz Horn)

I chose this route to see a new part of this beautiful planet and it did not disappoint. At one point as the Pyrennes came into view and our path crossed a river I grabbed the opportunity to ease myself into the cool water. There was only another couple a little down stream in this quiet corner of the world and I remember thinking had I come here earlier in life I met never have left. These photos transport me back and I wonder if it would be madness to upsticks once again and go find a little spot near that turquoise river, with its soft kaolin clay banks, to call home.

Our first view of the Pyrennes   (Photo: Ioan Leontie)
Embalse Lanuza with the Peaks of the Anayet in the background.  (Photo: Ioan leontie) 
Ioan on the final stages of the climb to the Col de Portalet, our crossing into France (1,794m)    (Photo: Liz Horn)
The drop down from the Col Potalet into the Valley Brousset was stunning. Finally I needed to put on some of the warm clothes I was hauling over the mountains!  (Photo: Ioan Leontie)  


Note: These are just rushed snippets of our journey but I hope you still enjoy them in the raw. It’s summer & the outdoors is calling us. Much love









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