Beside an eagle

After the long slog on my bike up Col Homme Morte (‘dead man’s pass’ is what I think it means—not promising) the journey down was like flying with birds. Our traveling companion Lynne is in the grip of extreme Francophilia, so I had added a pinch of salt to her descriptions of how perfectly the valley below would unfold before me. I was wrong.

I earnt this experience the hard way, trying in vain to keep my super-fit friend Len in sight. He eats hills effortlessly, powering away with a calm expression, greeting me cheerfully at the top with no sign of the ragged breathing, burning thighs and pounding heart that afflict us mere mortals. He is a few years younger than me, so I choose to take comfort in that as explaining all. Like the best theories, it suits my needs perfectly.

We rode out of a tiny village called Aurel, and I was puffing hard within a few minutes. Most villages in rural Europe seem to be built on top of a hill, because in centuries past this was the best defence against marauders. But Aurel is only half-way up its hill, so cyclists face a challenge coming and going, whatever direction they choose. I soon ditched any pretence, and asked Len if he could go a little slower. He obliged until we came to the main climb, saying he would meet me at the top.

This particular Col is not very steep, but arduously long, for me at least. If you think five or six kilometres of continuous moderate climbing sounds not too bad, just try it. After fifteen minutes or so, you don’t have enough spare energy to take in the views, let alone to sing, which I love to do when I’m riding out of earshot. Keep looking down at the road, not the hill ahead, don’t think about how far it is now, just try to maintain a sustainable rhythm while you gulp in air. 700 metres from the top, here comes Len, riding back down to escort me up to the board that shows we are at 1,213 metres, the highest point of this trip. Standing by the sign for a photo is a great feeling, drowning out the pain in my legs and the coughing caused by my now-raw throat.

So now the descent. Immediately it was a zone of weightlessness and wonder, speeding down a curving road that showed off new terrain at every corner. At the top this was huge cliffs of grey basalt, with scattered bushes clinging to impossible places. Next came silent pine forests, with small trees creating shady spaces that promised truffles. Then, without warning, the whole valley opened up; rolling green hills and fields, dotted with miniature houses and a few villages, stretching ahead of me for thirty or forty kilometres; maybe three or four kilometres wide. The houses and barns were picked out by the morning sun, honeyed stone, with doors and window shutters mostly in the lovely blue/violet shades that make this Provence. Mountains defined both sides, with the ultra-famous (in cycling circles at least) Mont Ventoux dominating all. Ventoux, off-white at the summit, is the towering, silent central point that Provence pivots around—it seems to be there wherever you go.

Coming into all this at high speed on a near-soundless bike almost unhinged me. I was charging alone into a postcard. Nothing could stop me, and I might take flight any time, soaring, circling with the eagle above me, coasting on thermals, gradually descending until I could hear the tractors and smell the lavender not yet harvested. Yes lavender. In this region they farm the stuff on huge plantations, and on a bike you sometimes move through waves of perfume. The aroma completes the sensory treats that had me feeling this was another world, one I didn’t want to leave. Down in the valley, I looked back, and knew I was outside that zone now. Up there for a glorious ten or fifteen minutes I defied gravity and flew alongside an eagle.

For bike riders, coffee always comes next, and we met our partners at a ridiculously scenic spot in yet another thousand-year-old village. I was a bit out of the conversation, not wanting to let go of what had just happened. More hills, more beautiful gorges were to come, that day and the next, and it was all very enjoyable. One downhill ride was probably more spectacular than Col Homme Morte in some ways. But even now as I write, that unexpected, astonishing time when I flew out of my normal time and space is lifting me up; the frisson of experiencing the really new that will reverberate inside me for sometime yet.

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