May 22nd- June 4, 2009
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but the sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.’
I was done. I mean, full-on, flat-out waisted.
For three days I’d climbed in the rain. Ascending steep succession of passes while a dense Atlantic storm lashed at the Pyrenees. Hauling 80 pounds of bike-gear up 10,000 feet of pavement, it felt as if the surrounding mountains would consume me. Moving in and out of mist like dark granitic phantoms I traced the peaks, their dark as edges disappearing into the clouds.Cold, wet, tired and lonely, I pushed my mind body closer and closer to the edge.Six hours into the fourth day, after a 4000 foot ascent up the Col D’Abisque–I reached the breaking point. I was somewhere near vaporous gray summit the demons came. Those self-critical voices that thrive on pain, fatigue, isolation and fear. ’Look at you,” they began, “your getting old…’
‘Your 45, broke, unemployed and unmarried.’
‘Your not fooling anyone…’
‘Your never going to make this.”
This was day 4 of the Raid Pyreneen.
Cycling’s finest ten-day torture-fest. Originated by Maurice Bugard in 1912, the route connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through a twisting patchwork of mountainous back-roads. Spanning 500 miles across the crest of the Pyrenees, The Raid, or long distance ride, climbs 52,000 feet, over 28 mountain passes or cols. Designed to be ridden in under 100 hours on a light weight road bike, the route was intended for the insanely fit. To attempt in ten days however, on a fully-loaded touring-bike, was the practice of the mentally ill. I felt more than qualified. Starting on a curvy strip of asphalt overlooking the French Atlantic, I turned my tires east. There the road leapt lazily into the lush green foothills of Basque country. ’Bon Courage!’ A group of road cyclists yelled as they passed. And courage I would need. Not because of the hills, but because I’d be sharing the road with French drivers; the majority of which drove like James Brown on payday. Secondly, were my challenges regarding money. Like the fact that I didn’t have any. Somehow I would have to cross the Pyrenees, then exist for the next 50 days–cycling 1500 miles across Europe–on less than 600 dollars. This meant a budget of 5 Euros a day. Today, in Europe, Bear Grylls couldn’t survive on that.
But I quickly learned that survival, was a relative term. The fourth night seemed to offer some perspective.Free-camped in a remote patch of woods near the base of Col d’Abisque, I awoke just after midnight to somebody or something lumbering outside my tent. ’Probably just a wandering cow.’ I thought to myself. ’But don’t all the cows here have bells…?‘ I thought again. The sound moved closer. Listening intently as sizable branches snapped beneath the creature’s feet, one thing became certain. Whatever it was–it was big. When the sound moved to the area just outside my tent, I began to engage in that ridiculous self-talk that one partakes in shortly before being eaten.’What the hell is it…?’ I thought.
‘Bear?” ‘No bears here dude.’
‘None of those either bro.’
‘Some as of yet unknown wild European creature that’s going to eat me?’
‘Nope…Europeans ate ‘em all.
Then came another noise. A horrifying high-pitched screech that could only be described as otherworldly.
It was a wild boar.
I nearly peed myself.
From the sound of his call he was either hungry, or horny. One thing was for certain, I sure the hell wasn’t climbing outside to find out which. ’I'll take none of the above please…’ the voice in my head concluded in a prayer-like request. Moments later the beast lumbered off into the woods. It was hardly my last challenge with the European wildlife. I was deep into the next night’s sleep when my surrounding brought a new set of creatures.mNot nearly as dangerous, but equally disturbing. Slugs. Huge, gooey, slimey slugs. Thousands of them. I awoke the next morning to find them everywhere, covering everything: my tent, my shoes, my cookware–even the inside of my bike bags. Flicking them off like mammoth boogers, I’d conclude that I’d ride myself of all of them, then groggily insert a foot into a shoe, or slip my head into my helmet, only to feel a subtle pop.This would be followed by liberal amounts of golden, pus-like goo soaking into my sock, or running down the side of my head.In a word: nasty. But along with the slugs came something beautiful. Sunshine. Packing my stuff, I jumped on my bike, then made for the hills with a renewed ferocity. Thus began a five day hammer-fest.
It began with classic climbs of the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin, followed by back to back ascents of the Col de Peyersourde, the Col du Portillon, then the Col de Mente’. All these were crowned by leg torching ascents of the Col d’Aspet, the Col d’ Agnes, and the Col d’ Palhieres. Then came the last day. A brutal 71-mile ride over three major passes: the Col du Garavel, Col De Jau, then one final push over the Col de Palomere’. The heat was merciless.After 6 hours of riding, I’d climbed the first two. Then came my last climb in Pyrenees: a 3000 foot ascent up the Col de Palomere’. Almost certain I had it in the bag, three-quarters of the way up, things began to go wrong.Terribly wrong. All the climbing, it seemed, had taken it’s toll on my bike. My gears were toast. My brakes were fried. Then my chain just up and broke. Each time I fixed what I needed, only to climb back on my bike and have something else break again. Then, just short of the summit, it happened. A large piece of of glass slit a large gap in my front tire. ’Fsssssssssssssssss,’ came the tell-tale sound of the flat. I had no spare. Miles from anywhere, there were no bike shops, there was no help, no people– no nothing.
I was screwed.
Hot, frustrated, tired and angry, I began to curse. Once again, the demons came.
‘Ha!…I told you…you’d never make this,’ they began mocking.
Stepping back from the bike, I took a moment to gather my thoughts.
Then a wiser voice welled from within.
“You forgot one thing…’ it replied.
‘What’s that?’ The demons hissed back
“Your not even real.”
With that–I reached into my wallet, pulled out a bill, folded it, then carefully placed it between the tube and the split. Pumping it back up, I crossed my fingers. Winding my way nervously up the stretches and curves, I remained fixed my front tire, watching intently for any loss of pressure. Then, an hour later, I rounded a corner and reached the summit. Stretching my vision from the crest, I looked out into the distance. It was there I saw something magnificent. It was the opal-blue waters of the Mediteranean Sea.
‘I did it.’ I said to myself, as tears began to well.
‘I f-ing did it.’
After preparing myself for the final ascent, I pointed my tires downhill, and let gravity do the rest.
As I descended, the landscape seemed to change. Colors livened, and wildflowers bloomed, and bursts of butterflies through the air like a ticker-tape parade.
A grin stretched across my face.
It occurred to me at that moment that I was in exactly the right place in my life; exactly where I was suppose to be.Yes I was cash poor, but I was spiritually rich. As for finding a soulmate, that would happen when the time was right.
Later that evening, I reached the sea.
Sitting by the ocean in the day’s last light, I recalled one of my favorite passages from Don Miguel Ruiz’ book, ‘The Four Agreements.’t read,
‘When you go into the desert, you meet the demons face to face.’
‘When you come out of the desert, all those demons become angels.’