Over the top with the Terminator: Max Wooldridge cycles from Bordeaux to Barcelona and proves you don't have to wear fluorescent Lycra and spray-on shorts to make the grade in the Pyrenees

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The Independent Travel
OUT OF drinking water, with my last glucose tablet long gone, I was stranded on a remote mountain track between Sort and Organa in the Catalan Pyrenees in the searing September heat. Worse still, I had begun to hallucinate. Had I really seen cattle eating at a table, using napkins, knives and forks instead of grazing in a field?

As a newcomer to the joys of the saddle, the logic of joining 100 other cyclists on a 600-mile Bike Events tour over the Pyrenees from Bordeaux to Barcelona had long since been lost on me. Perhaps the hallucinations had started a week earlier. Arriving in Bordeaux from Victoria by train, an alarming number of Jekyll and Hyde-like transformations had taken place in a luggage room at the station. Lawyers, teachers, airline pilots, doctors - all fascinating people I had been chatting with the night before on the train from Paris - suddenly resembled the cast of Starlight Express.

Serious cycling meant donning fluorescent Lycra shirts, spray-on shorts, helmets and cycling gloves fitted with air vents; a far cry from my cotton T-shirts and Bermuda shorts. One cyclist had even shaved his legs to make himself more aerodynamic. Many shared an unnatural relationship with their bikes, caring for them like newborn offspring. Two brothers, nicknamed 'Terminator I' and 'Terminator II', each with pounds 3,000 Yeti Ultimate mountain bikes, slept with their mean machines inside their tents. But of greater concern to most of us were the antics of the 'Assassin', an instant sobriquet for a tall, solitary character never spotted without dark glasses. Many were convinced he was a hit-man, concealing rifle components in his bicycle for use en route.

Final confirmation that I was one of the tour's least-experienced cyclists came in the village of Villenave- d'Ornon, south of Bordeaux.

'What's your gear ratio?' asked one cyclist wearing a Greg LeMond team Z shirt.

'Three shirts and a pair of shorts,' I replied. Sprocket sizes; bottom brackets; biopace chainsets: during the two-week trip I was to learn the crucial jargon for a new language.

If pedalling along the flatlands of the Garonne limbered me up, the rhythmic hum of crickets at the roadside provided a dreamy musical score. Few sights are missed on a bike; churches and farmers on the roadside appear slowly, giving you plenty of time to appreciate them. Tranquil scenes of traffic-free roads and fields of Van Gogh sunflowers were interrupted only by sudden roars of French air force fighters in training overhead. More often than not our only companions were farmyard dogs and herds of cows in fields, with jangling bells around their necks.

Cycling through the deserted tall pine forests of the Landes soon suspended the innate animosity that cyclists have for motorists. Rather than leave a car's width when overtaking, as required by the French highway code, passing drivers often waved and offered words of encouragement, as if you were wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

We entered the Basque country at Labastide-d'Armagnac, a charming, medieval village in the heart of the brandy region. Local restaurants had apparently been warned to expect vegetarians. Their response was to ostracise them in a small windowless room - perfectly in keeping with the town's reputation for wild boar.

Once over the border into Spain our workload increased. Flat, undulating lowlands gave way to the rugged, alpine landscape of the Vall d'Aran. But any pain caused by high and demanding mountain roads was eased by dramatic views of pines and beech trees covering the lower slopes. The ski resorts of Baqueira-Beret and Viella may be popular in winter, but out of season they were ghost towns.

While climbing to the highest point of the ride, the 2,072m Puerto de la Bonaigua, only the thought of the 28-mile, non-stop downhill run prevented me from asking for a lift in the mechanic's van. During the exhilarating 45-minute descent, I clocked a top speed of 40mph, but my hands were never far from the brake levers. One cyclist described the downhill as the longest orgasm of her life. Even the Assassin appeared to be moved.

From Sort we followed the fast-flowing Noguera river towards Organa, cutting through rocky gorges and 30 miles of remote mountain tracks and ruined villages dating back to the eighth century.

It was then that the lethal cocktail of no food or water struck. Two miles from Baen, a sleepy village with more stray dogs than humans, I caught my first sighting of grazing cattle using plates and cutlery. When I reached Baen and refilled my bottles from a water tap above a cattle trough I wondered if my livestock friends would join me with tumblers. It was only then that I understood why some cyclists referred to their water bottles as 'surrogate nipples'. But I knew I had recovered when I saw a quintessential Spanish sight of an old man in a cloth cap guiding bulls into the village up a steep mountain track.

If Manresa, west of Barcelona, restored us to the urban sprawl of a modern industrial city, the monastery at Montserrat retuned us. Rising majestically from the increasingly industrial Llobregat valley, Montserrat's sawtoothed outline is visible for miles. Zig-zagging towards the top in the golden hour before dusk, the gruelling climb to the 'serrated mountain' was the worst lung-buster of the entire ride. I was not the only one requiring a lift from our nurse.

Any concerns that I had had before the ride about the physical demands proved groundless. I had not been overjoyed at the prospect of two weeks' camping, but I soon became a convert to its virtues. By the time we reached Montesquiou on the third night even the most introverted people on the trip were confessing their innermost thoughts.

Before the ride I had worried if I would be fit enough. During the 1,320m climb over the Spanish border, I was so slow that I am sure the insects on the road below must have overtaken me. But simply knowing that what goes up must come down spurs you on to greater heights. There is also the added security of knowing that if need be you can always get a lift in the back of the mechanic's van.

By the time we got back to Calais on an overnight train from Barcelona, I had discovered muscles that I never knew existed. On the ferry back I was enjoying my newfound fitness until I saw the Assassin sharing a joke with the Terminators. When he removed his dark glasses and smiled at me I thought I was hallucinating again.

Bike Events' next Bordeaux-to-Barcelona tour is from 4-19 September 1993. The pounds 465 price includes 13 nights' camping, breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner, a nurse, mechanic, carriage of baggage and route maps, and overnight train from London to Bordeaux and Barcelona to London. Bike Events also operates winter cycling tours in China, Cuba and Kenya. Between spring and autumn, tours operate in the United States, France, Italy, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland. Bike Events, PO Box 75, Bath, Avon, BA1 1BX (0225 480130).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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