Summer Solstice with Le Bezy Pyrenees
By James Carter French Pyrénées 21 August 2020
As keen cyclists, runners and yogi’s, James and Amy wanted to create somewhere for like-minded people to be able to take a step back from the stresses of everyday life and experience their ethos of relax recharge reconnect and ride. Let James take you on a local 300 km loop through the Black Mountains and Pyrénées.
I met up with my good friend Mike and we set off. Neither of us had ridden the majority of the route that was planned for the day or done much over 200 km. Although I had a gilet and arm warmers on, the temperature was good at around 18 degrees. We took it easy as we made our way cross country at a relaxed chatty pace towards Castelnaudary where the famous French dish of cassoulet originates from. Often the aroma from the dish can be smelled across the town.
From here it is not far to where we thought we’d make our first stop of the day and cross a departmental border into the Tarn to the town of Revel. Easy inclines and rolling hills were the order of the moment.
We rolled into a sleepy Revel down quintessentially French plane tree lined roads and into the main square. There is a large covered market space in the centre that dates back to the 14th Century. No market traders this morning as that is on Saturdays, just the one cafe open. It’s about 7.30 am and as we get our coffees a group of older gents sit at the table next to us. Catching up on the week and maybe months since they last saw eachother due to the COVID pandemic. This part of France luckily saw very few cases, no bisous (kiss on each cheek) but hands were shaken, and social distancing was not observed. C’est la vie.
Coffees sunk we rolled out of Revel and the Black Mountains loomed ahead. The next village we came to was Soreze which is a beauty with its tree lined boulevard and picture-perfect bakeries, something that is a bit of a theme in these parts. We knew our route wasn’t taking us into the Black Mountains just yet, today wasn’t about big climbing, which they can provide, rather we were skirting around them until we got to Mazamet. The riding was still rolling hills but we slowly picked up altitude as the foothills grew larger and the trees and ancient forest that gave the mountains their name watched over our every pedal stroke.
Terrain changes quickly and the farmed sunflower and wheat fields were gone and this north western side of the Black Mountains felt dark, almost oppressive yet still stunningly beautiful. By now we were getting towards Mazamet as we traversed some lower slopes that hugged the northern edge of the mountains.
Mazamet known formerly for its wool industry, looked big as we descended down and eventually found what was a bustling part of town. A couple of pain aux raisins from the market and a coffee later we climbed out of Mazamet past a masked congregation as the church chucked out. Foolishly still in gilet and arm warmers even though my Garmin and forehead telling me it was 25 degrees we rose and within a flash were deep in forest on a steady incline.
For some reason we didn’t get lunch provisions in the last big town and the time was getting on for the French lunch window (between 12-2 pm). With the mountains still on our right we yearned for a pizzeria. We faffed outside a few that looked like they had seen better days and decided to press on hoping the next village would produce the goods! The wind had just started to pick up, but it was on our backs and probably lulled us into a false sense of security. Getting hungrier and with the window closing we stopped at what can only be described as a roadside bread / sandwich shop. Opening hours were long and although it was deserted apart from the owner we felt we had little choice.
Alarm bells maybe should have rung with the taxidermised badger hung over the counter but we ordered saucisse, frites and salad x2. The food came and looked more like school dinner rather than haute cuisine but the frites were salty…. the saucisse was hot and the thick French mayo made it all good! We checked our route and knew that we had to press on. Wind was picking up and that plucked at seeds of fear in the back of my mind that we’d be turning into it in just a few hours time. Imagine our dismay that not 3 km down the road after lunch we sped past a beautiful pizza restaurant! We live and learn! It just shows not everything is on Google!!
We soon turned off our current road that was heading towards the coastal town of Beziers and up our first long climb of the day – the Pic de Montibergues. A steady 6 or 7% we both settled into a rhythm and spun our way when Mike’s new Wahoo Roam took us off the main climb and into an odd mountain hamlet. These are numerous and some look like they’ve seen better days but we blindly followed the technology and ended up on a narrow rough road of about 14% incline.
Cursing, or at least I was, it seemed like we crested that climb back onto our original road. My sense of direction was off as I tend to use the Pyrénées as a landmark on most rides and couldn’t really tell which direction we were facing. With the wind either on our sides or back I still felt assured we were going in the right direction. The temperature was in the 30’s and rather worryingly we’d not filled up our bidons in the last two cafes. We’re both used to the numerous water taps dotted about in the Pyrénées and surrounding foothills but the Black Mountains seemed to have less and what was there seemed to be off or not for drinking.
Any fatigue we were feeling as we crested the climb was soon abolished as the descent was wide and fast. Almost immediately the dark mixed forest of deciduous trees and strong-smelling pines started to give way to more pine and smaller almost scrub like terrain. Big views are to be had up here and we could see back into numerous valleys as we railed around corners at full speed on empty roads!
I can’t remember if we went off instinct or Wahoo instruction but we turned off the main route down the mountain and onto a narrow almost bike path sized road. No more tall trees just scrub, blazing heat, and deafening cicadas greeted us as we ourselves blazed down the descent on almost perfect tarmac.
It turned out it wasn’t a bike a path as a car passed us, it was the only one we’d seen for a while. You almost forget they use the roads too when you feel so isolated up there. We were heavily into wine country now and feelings of Spain washed over me – the smell from the vines is very distinctive and the grapes were easily visible even if a bit blurry as we whizzed through. Finally, a water stop. A rather morbid one …. a graveyard. The French do graveyards well if that’s a thing and almost always have a tap.
Bidons brimmed and some more gramming done we set off again. Our next target in mind was a village or town called Lagrasse. But we had a way to go. Our more familiar Pyrénées in our sites to the south, quicker descending took us into the valley close to the stunning Minerve which nestles amid breathtaking scenery within gorges carved into the Limestone causses. We were making slow progress now as we’d turned into that wind that was so ever present earlier. We crested what was our last Black Mountain climb of the day …. it wasn’t overly tough or steep but the wind made it so!
Through more vineyards we passed through some roads and villages I’d last been on in 2018 when we were house hunting…. I hadn’t ridden them then it was all by metal box on wheels and although familiar they felt hard today in the heat and wind. It reminded me of the years I’d spent riding in Abu Dhabi where that was the norm. We crossed the valley between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées and were running low on enthusiasm and strength due to the toll the wind and heat was taking. Who said riding over 300 km was going to be easy.
We had a brief pit stop in a cafe for a coke (other drinks were available). Karaoke seems to be a thing in this region for the French and a rather inebriated local was doing his best to clear the bar. Onwards… Time was getting on and it was clear we weren’t going to make it home before dark. Praying for the wind to ease we were westward bound to Lagrasse.
More climbing greeted us, it was wide, windy and with spectacular views into the gorge that the river L’Orbieu runs through – averaging no more than 6% we spun up and finally Lagrassse in the corbieres came into view down in the gorge to our right. Another postcard medieval town which is classed as one of Frances’ most beautiful, it felt a shame to not have time to stop at the many busy restaurants that lined it’s streets. The scene was perfect. Not sure why Lagrasse felt like a milestone …. maybe as it was a village Mike had planned to go through due to its splendour.
With easily 85/90 km to go and the time approaching 7.45 pm it felt like the pressure was on. We chatted and accepted the fact we’d be riding long into darkness. More new climbs awaited…. the next was the Col de Taurize at only 498 m it doesn’t sound much but at this stage of the ride and running low on fuel it felt arduous despite the views it offered over rocky and forested mountains above and below us. Mountains can make you feel small at the best of times let alone when fatigue starts setting in. The climb wound through the mountain side and through what seemed like an impenetrable mass. We were back into the Aude now!
Limoux famous for its blanquette, familiar to us as a frequent stop on our rides, was the next port of call and the mention of a dirty McDonalds spurred us on. Light fading as we climbed it was perfect for #lightbro insta pics but my phone remained in my trusty Rapha handlebar bag on charge. A narrow exciting descent hampered by the sun in our eyes was tackled in silence and concentration. We didn’t want any issues this late on in the day. Limoux seemed to be getting further away. Google maps had it at 24 km away a while back and Mike was having teething problems with the Wahoo. Finally, a roadside sign appeared – Limoux 35 km…. wtf! Miffed and desperate for some food we settled in. Spirits remained high and we vowed to head back to this side of Limoux on an exploro ride in a few weeks time without the detour of the Black Mountains in our legs.
We came to the village of Saint-Hilaire, the road pitched up through the village centre and as we danced on the pedals (laboured out the saddle) a local shouted there was only 300 m til the top. He lied … it felt more like 3 km. Eventually after a few more ups and downs over the worryingly named Col du Loup (loup is wolf in French) we descended into a side of Limoux we’d not seen before. A dash to McDonalds was hampered by neither of us having a face mask to go in – no worries – went in the drive through! Burgers, fries and a mega coke sunk in record quick time the clock ticked past 10 pm.
We know a few ways back from Limoux, but we decided against the lumpier route via Mirepoix and headed out towards Fanjeaux. Night was upon us and with the food swirling in our stomachs with any hard effort the rolling hills felt kind to us. The wind had dropped and we felt like Fanjeaux was the home stretch.
Paranoid our lights wouldn’t hold out til home we pressed on the gas and surprisingly the legs felt good – stomachs not so much. The final climb into Fanjeaux is easy any other day…. but now in the dark it’s bends felt like they went on forever!
Out of Fanjeaux the home leg sped past, a rolling straight road towards Belpech has been used in the Tour de France as recently as 2018, usually adorned either side by sunflowers was tonight, in blackness. We had no idea what was there tonight – we didn’t care either.
We got into Belpech as the church chimed midnight. Mike went left towards his place in Gaudies. There’s not many other people I’d rather be riding for 15 hours with, he provides excellent banter – you can’t want for much more. I turn right for the last 10 km back to the farmhouse at Le Bezy Pyrenees. It’s mainly flat, my legs feel incredibly good but the amount of snot running from my nose reminds me of the tough day that’s all but behind me. I huff up the 300 m climb to the house, the glow of lights in the window reassure me that there’s still life awake inside. Bike put away, Garmin primed for upload, I take a hot shower grab a beer and crawl into bed.
Winter solstice awaits!
Welcome to le bezy pyrénées
Five bed Boutique B&B located in the Occitanie region of the Pyrénées.
Under 50 km south of Toulouse ✈
50 km west of Carcassonne ✈
In the Aude department with easy access to the Ariege, Haute-Garonne and Tarn.
Discover the real South of France
Max elevation: 502 m
Total climbing: 3283 m
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