topics: handicapped bicyclists, hospitality, Perpignan, Padraic's departure, Côte Vermeille/Costa Brava, "tra montana" winds, Catalonia, history, Iberian Peninsula; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: June 11-12, 1998

Food of the Day: rousquilles fondantesclick to view a photograph

Two new cycling friends (see the People of the Day) offered us drinks and sweets one early afternoon, knowing that we had a full day of biking ahead. One of the sugary comestibles they placed before us was a cookie-cake made only in the region. Called rousquilles fondantes click to view a photograph, they were shockingly rich, and a delicacy we were sorry not to have seen before in bakeries or stores. Nibbling eagerly, we were extra glad for the opportunity to sample "local flavor" from the Roussillon region.

Person of the Day: Alain and Georges click to view a photograph

As chance would have it, on the day we left Béziers (hoping to make very good time to Perpignan where we had another evening time chat 'n' debate), we met two cyclists on the road click to view a photograph: Alain and George. click to view a photograph Their cordial welcome to the area and wonderfully open demeanor resulted in a loss of the time advantage we had given ourselves, but we could not have cared less. We were excited about both them and their bikes and they were more than helpful in talking about the former and showing and telling us about how the latter work. Our lucky encounter with these two dedicated cyclists was worth every hour we spent with them. We only wish that we could have had many, many more. click to view a photograph

Both Alain and Georges belong to the Fédération Française Handisport (French Handisport Federation) click to view a photograph and have been training together and competing as "handicapped" bicycle racers for nearly ten years. Neither of them has the ability to use his legs, but have they let this slow them down? Not one little bit. They have raced in competitions all over Europe, and also participated in special events in the U.S. and North Africa. They are dedicated athletes not at all concerned about (in fact, quite proud of) the special kind of bicycles they use. click to view a photograph It was no surprise to us that they have also worked in various capacities with students and other organizations to increase and improve understanding about handicaps and the exciting opportunities open to everyone interested in athletics. Today, Alain is president of the Fédération Française Handisport's Narbonne branch and is in charge of overseeing the sports activities for handicapped people in the area.

With regard to their bikes, we were thrilled to get an up-close look at them. click to view a photograph Lightweight and custom-made (by a company called Top End), these machines were designed for speed! Two larger wheels on either side of the "seat" are what the rider uses to propel himself forward while a smaller wheel at the end of a single forward-stretching bar is used for steering. The handlebars, aerodynamically situated behind the front wheel and beneath the "bar" can be used for sharp turns or be locked into wide arc positions so that the bike turns even while the rider is devoting all his energy - both arms - to propel the whole contraption. Comfortably squeezed into a surprisingly small space that narrows at the top (thus freeing the rider's arms and shoulders for the power wheel-turning he needs), the rider, wearing special gloves that lock the thumb in an outstretched upright position and pull the rest of the fingers away, jams his thumb against a rubberized guard attached to the wheel, and pushes the wheel around, thus moving the bike forward. The harder and more he pushes, the stronger the thrust, the faster the bike goes. On a downhill, the rider just tucks into a slipstream position and steers. There are brakes, but only on the front wheel. So, of course, they always have to be very careful... especially when they get going really fast! Both Alain and Georges always wear helmets when they bike, and upgrade their frames and other parts about every two years (or as needed), or as the technology advances.

Ethan really wanted to try one of the bikes, but since they were both quite expensive, custom designed to suit the physique of the riders, and not built to hold someone with the added weight and bulk of non-"invalid" legs, he understood that he couldn't. Still, during a very pleasant afternoon of talk, lunch, and plenty of learning (see more about this in the Rider Notes), we all came away with a much better understanding of the joys and challenges to be faced while training and racing. Of course, they were very similar to those we have experienced all throughout our trip.

All in all, it was an incredible afternoon. One that will not soon be forgotten. We sincerely hope that Alain, Georges, and Alain's family (Nadine, his wife, and Anthony, his six-year-old son) can get access to the Internet and reach this page. We were beyond happy to have shared time with them and look forward to another occasion when we can return some of their abundant hospitality!

For more information about the Fédération Française Handisport, please contact their main offices at:

42, rue Louis Lumière
75020 Paris
Tel: +33
Fax: +33

You should also contact the Association des paralysés en France, which publishes a magazine called "Faire Face". These people can be reached at:

17 boulevard Auguste Blanqui
75013 Paris
Tel: +33
Fax: +33

Place of the Day: Perpignan

Perpignan has always been a strategically important city, stationed as it is at the base of the passes over the eastern Pyrénées. In fact, Perpignan, capitol city of Roussillon (once part of Catalonia) has been fought over repeatedly by Spain and France. Only 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Spanish border, Perpignan today is part of an area that seems to bridge the zone between France and Spain. It has an interesting mix of cultures - French, Spanish, and, of course, Catalan - all of which were influential in its history.

As early as the 13th century, at the time of a kingdom belonging to the Spanish-speaking monarchs of Majorca, Perpignan was a capital city (that of the administrative and central Roussillon part of the Kingdom). Even after the Kingdom's dissolution in 1344, Perpignan remained central to the people of Roussillon, especially when the whole area was incorporated into the mostly autonomous federation of Catalonia. Barcelona, on the other side of the Pyrénées, was the cultural and administrative center of Catalonia, but Perpignan soon grew to become the federation's second city, and, despite their distance from the center, the Catalan people of the Roussillon joined those of the south in developing and maintaining both a common language (Catalan) and a common culture. (For lots more about Catalan and Catalonia, see tomorrow's Place of the Day.)

However, neither the Spanish nor the French were pleased with the autonomy of the Catalans. While the Catalonia south of the Pyrénées fought a series of battles with Spanish monarchs, for almost 180 years, Perpignan and all of Roussillon was beset with battles and repeatedly exchanged hands between the Spanish (Aragonese) AND French courts. Finally, in 1642, after a contracted siege of the then Spanish garrison in Perpignan, the French under Louis XIII and his famous advisor Cardinal Richelieu (both of "Three Musketeers" fame, a book that the BikeAbouters are currently reading) claimed Roussillon once and for all for the French. Despite this, the people continued to identify with their 14th-century Catalan roots. In fact, even today, as we biked into the city, we could not help but notice the road signs in two languages (French and Catalan), and the Catalan flag flying from many buildings.

Tech Fact of the Day: Padraic's summer job

Why is Padraic leaving us early (see the Rider Notes)? Well, it basically has to do with economics. Being a volunteer for the nine months of the BikeAbout journey certainly has been and continues to be a very rewarding experience, but we all need money to live on too. And, well, because Padraic's summer job begins before BikeAbout ends, he's leaving us prior to our scheduled arrival in Gibraltar. But he will still be on his bike!

During the summers over the past eight years, Padraic has been a bike tour guide (or "coordinator") for a Paris-based company called Blue Marble Travel. It will be his responsibility to lead English-speaking adults (mostly from the U.S.A.) on bikes through Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and elsewhere in Europe, and to help them absorb scenery and culture during their vacations. Later in the summer, this will also be Ethan's summer job (he'll be leading trips in France, Switzerland and Italy), and was once Anthony's vocation as well. In fact, Blue Marble Travel is where all the BikeAbout boys met in the first place!

Group Dispatch, June 11-12
picture of Corinnepicture of Ethan

Gazing up at the full moon from our hotel room's tiny balcony on Tuesday night, Ethan predicted rain for the next day. Waking early in hopes of a timely arrival in Perpignan on Wednesday (chat 'n' debate day), we saw that he was probably right. We hate when he does that...

Anyway, as we rolled out of Béziers, we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent views of the church and castle we had not had time to visit. In fact, the whole vista, including the hilltop town and lovely bridges was quite moving. click to view a photograph But then, looking even higher into the sky, we had no choice but to ponder the skies and wonder how far we would get before the rain hit. While today's cloud layer was welcome relief from the blistering power of the sun, the threat of a downpour was a little unnerving.

But that wasn't all... You see, it was Corinne's turn to navigate.

Anthony's instructions, when relinquishing the map to her that morning, had been simple. "Keep us OFF the RED ROADS," he said. "They're terrible." (The "red roads" on our map are the larger byways and main national roads that are full of stinky cars, fast and scary trucks, and the occasional flattened fauna (wildlife) that we have little desire to become.) Fortunately, since the area we are in is pretty rural, there are plenty of alternative roads. That said, they can sometimes be hard to find - tiny, poorly signed, and badly paved - but they are almost always worth the effort: scenic, empty, and very, very serene, passing jauntily around field after field of grapevines. So, of course, Corinne did the best she could, poring over maps and taking painfully detailed route notes during breakfast. The trick was to navigate the busy "red" roads out of town, and then turn as soon as possible onto the more bucolic routes that promise relative safety. Well, that was the trick. The reality is that we were off track within the first 3 km (2 mi) out of town. That said, when we finally found a road that would keep us off the main "red" road for at least 10 or 15 km (6 or 9 mi), we took it.

It was soon after this turn that we came upon two wheelchair cyclists. We later learned that they had paused in their ride to wait for us (or anyone on a two-wheeled machine) because of an upright bike's greater visibility. Training with wheelchair road bikes can be perilous because of how low to the ground they are. Waiting for a "taller" chaperone is the wise tactic these two athletes employ as often as the opportunity presents itself. So, as we came around a turn, they pulled out onto the road and zoomed ahead with strength, dedication, a good deal of grace, and some impressive speed. click to view a photograph

Since it was Corinne's day to write the dispatch, she insisted we try to make these two gentlemen our People of the Day. So she enlisted Ethan to speak to them, to introduce the BikeAbout project, and to request a few moments of their time for a mini-interview and photo opportunity. They patiently listened to Ethan while we all continued biking along, and even approved and applauded our mission. However, they explained that they were training, and would not stop to chat. click to view a photograph As much as Ethan tried to respect this, Corinne was not so easily dissuaded. She rarely is...

Therefore, after a few kilometers and upon reaching the "finish line" of these athletes' training run, which also happened to be our turn-off to the next road, we stopped to get to know Alain and Georges a little better. After a short discussion, and as an extreme show of good will and hospitality, Alain invited us to his home to sit and chat in the shade over drinks, instead of risking our lives in the road. We gladly accepted.

The next several hours consisted of getting to know Alain and George click to view a photograph as well as Alain's very surprised family. We imagine it's not every day that his wife Nadine and son Anthony find four Americans bikers standing in their driveway. But they got over the novelty and soon enough we were all wrapped up in the activities of a very productive afternoon. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Over refreshments, including rousquilles fondantes (our Food of the Day click to view a photograph), Alain gave us a few tips on the best roads to Perpignan. click to view a photograph He also invited a local newspaper correspondent to come learn about our project. And then Nadine offered to make us all lunch. WOW! It's not too often (very rare, in fact) that on a cycling day we have a luxuriously long, elaborate, sit-down lunch! What had we stumbled upon? And where do such nice people come from, anyhow?

So, while lunch was being put together, Padraic and Anthony played a variety of full-contact sports with 6-year-old Anthony click to view a photograph (who tired them both out soon enough click to view a photograph). Anthony is a true bundle of energy who is just beginning to come into his own as an excellent athlete. He had already just won his first real trophy celebrating his finish in a running/swimming biathlon! Meanwhile, Ethan presented the BikeAbout Web site to our hosts and new friends. As cycling enthusiasts who frequently go on tour to sports events for handicapped athletes, they were quite encouraging of our efforts. In turn, both Alain and Georges shared information about some of the organizations that organize sports activities for handicapped people. In fact, as it turned out, Alain is also the President of the Narbonne chapter of the Fédération Française Handisport. (For more information and pictures about Alain and Georges, and the activities of the organizations in which they are proud members, see the longer description at the People of the Day.)

Basically, it was an amazing afternoon. Alain's family was fantastically kind and welcoming. You can well imagine that it was only with the greatest regret and after expressing our most humble thanks that we were again on our way.

Back on the road we made some quick calculations. Despite our early start and our best intentions, we had once again biked only 20 kilometers (12 mi) by 3:00 p.m.! With another 60-70 km (37-43 mi) to go, and the 7 p.m. live chat to prepare for, we knew we would have to abandon our small road strategy and, like it or not, just follow the most direct (and "red") roads all the way to Perpignan. Oh well. Thus the remainder of the day was the same old wrestle with the wind, which had picked up during the early afternoon hours, and the pesky, continual threat of rain. Every day is a challenge...

Nevertheless, despite the natural obstacles, and Corinne's ever-ailing knees, we arrived in Perpignan with 10 minutes to spare. (For more about Perpignan and some of its exciting history as a part of Catalonia which has been repeatedly fought over by Spain and France, see the Place of the Day!) Right downtown, we found the apartment generously on loan to us for the night by Fabrice from the DIA office in Marseille, but quickly realized that his phone was out of service! This meant that our Internet access would have to come from somewhere else. Of course, we scrambled to try and find an alternative. But, at the late hour in that provincial French city there was absolutely nothing to be found. So, much to our disappointment, the live chat had to be cancelled. Of course, this did give us lots more time with which to prepare for Padraic's early departure the next day.

"What?" you ask? "His departure?"

Well, yes, it's true. Padraic is leaving the trip early to start his summer job as a bike tour coordinator with Blue Marble Travel (see the Tech Fact of the Day). But just picking up and stepping out of the BikeAbout program is not that easy. In additional to the emotional challenge, computer files need to be transferred to other computers, paper materials need to be redistributed, and bike and electronic equipment split up among the remaining riders. Sure enough, while divvying up Padraic's files, equipment, and future workload, it became clear to us all just how much we would miss his jovial charm, and his ability to haul gear! That said, the three remaining bikers secretly relished thoughts of the extra food mealtime bonus his absence would bring. But what would we do without his perky morning demeanor? Well, we knew that, if need be, replacing him would not be too hard; unemployed history Ph.D.s are a dime a dozen these days. Still, the weight we all inherited in power packs, cables, adapters, tools, bike parts, maps, etc. certainly added to the regret of having to say early good-byes.

To make matters all the more complicated, Ethan and Padraic had to swap computers and everything on them. (Due to the unusual rigors of the road, Ethan's Compaq has been dying a slow death for some time now, and has become virtually unusable; we have just not had the time to get anything repaired since parts replacement can take as long as a week and we do not have the luxury of allowing for such a delay!) It took Ethan most of the evening and some of the night to make the necessary transfers, complicated by the fact that the A-drive on Padraic's computer is broken and a cable connection between the two computers that would have facilitated the transfer of information was refusing to function. That left only the Iomega Zip drive, which, although an excellent alternative, still required a lot of shuffling.

Sure enough, the next morning we woke up with the roosters (or at least to the sound of Padraic rustling around as he finished packing and then slipped quietly out the door to catch a morning train that would whisk him away to yet another adventure in life). The rest of us, solemnly driven to carry on, took the opportunity to clean up the apartment a little. (You would be amazed at the damage four moderately filthy bikers can do to a poor, unsuspecting shower stall; we considered applying for federal disaster aid, but contented ourselves with a sponge and a little detergent.) We scrawled a quick thank-you note for Fabrice and then stepped out onto the apartment's magnificent terrace for a last glimpse over the city and the near distant Pyrénées Mountains. click to view a photograph That was when we first encountered the wind.

Yes, the wind outside was howling like a pack of ravenous wolves (or Padraic). And it was only then that we recalled Padraic's departing words: glancing at the color of the sky, he had muttered, "Red sky in morning, sailors take warning." Well, we aren't sailors, but we are navigators, so we decided to consult a more reliable source of barometric information. Sure enough, even the TV weather forecast had called for snow in the nearby mountains. We weren't quite sure if that meant rain for us. Or snow, for that matter. (Our luck isn't so good when it comes to snow - see our frigid experiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Pelopponese Peninsula, and the road to Sarajevo. Hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, yes. Snow, no.) So, with our fingers in the air, testing the jet stream breaking across Fabrice's balcony, we watched the clouds race across the sky click to view a photograph and were not encouraged.

Our jackets went on the moment we stepped outside and across our bicycles. It wasn't just "chilly," it was downright COLD! And it was beginning to drizzle. But, off we went, all... three of us... pausing for an extended moment to check directions click to view a photograph and make the obligatory morning phone calls to make arrangements Spain, as we'd cross the border in the late afternoon. As Corinne watched the other BikeAbouters monopolize the phone booths click to view a photograph, she thought that if only BikeAbout had bought stock in all the Mediterranean telecommunications companies, we'd have no budget worries at all and could have paid Padraic to stay and continue carrying his share of gear! Oh well.

Despite our slightly late start, it was time to have a look around Perpignan click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, the last important French coastal city before the Pyrénées Mountains and the Spanish frontier. We cycled around just to take in some of the flavor and then paid a short visit to the Castle of the Kings of Majorca. click to view a photograph

The Castle of the Kings of Majorca has evolved over time but includes structures from as early as the 14th century. Used by all who claimed Perpignan and the surrounding area of Roussillon, the castle has quite a few stories associated with it, the most peculiar relating how its deep dry moats click to view a photograph were the homes of lions reared in captivity. We did not visit the interior of the building (or the moats!) - not enough time - but the exterior, including the imposing entrance click to view a photograph and incredible VIEW click to view a photograph were quite distracting.

But enough history! It's time to get back on the road.

To say that we had a tailwind going from Perpignan to the coast would not do justice to the ferocity of the gusts. We were in the care of the famous "tra montana," a local wind that sweeps from the north and through (or between, thus "tra") the Pyrénées Mountains ("montana"). And what a wind it was. Biking was more like being picked up by the wind, and hurled like an overhand fast ball through the streets. At one point Ethan, giddy with delight, yelled, "After two hundred plus days of headwind, it's about time!" Corinne, on the other hand, watching various items fly by her, quickly developed a "Wizard of Oz" complex and kept on the lookout for descending houses. Getting pelted on occasion by flying leaves, twigs, pine needles and other debris, she was waiting to see a farmhouse or two, or perhaps a twister-driven cow, zoom past. There was none of that, although whole dirt parking lots seemed to get swirled up into the tempest, sometimes blurring the road before us in a murky sea of dust, and the fields of wheat, olives, and grapes looked as if they'd be uprooted at any moment. click to view a photograph However, you can bet we all held on tight and enjoyed the ride.

All along the way, the lower Pyrénées Mountains were visible in the distance. Since yesterday, they had grown from a gray strip along the horizon into a consequential barrier. click to view a photograph When we got to within sight of the wind-thrashed coastal waters, the water's surface was alive with waves and frosted with whitecaps. click to view a photograph

We reached the coast and stopped for lunch in Collioure, a resort village where the only real industry is tourism. Sure, there is fishing too click to view a photograph, but it doesn't amount to much anymore when compared to the capital brought in by eager and hungry tourists. Medieval Collioure, with its excellent natural port, was Roussillon's primary trading point, especially during the Crusades. Later, when the 15th-century Catalan navy was one of the greatest maritime forces in the Mediterranean, Collioure attracted quite a bit of attention. The Royal Castle - built over a dungeon from the time of the Kingdom of Majorca - which divides the town into two parts dates from this time as well and is an amazing backdrop for vacationers. click to view a photograph Collioure is also famous for its wine, highly acclaimed in part because the yield is so small. We thought about this as we purchased food for lunch, but the thought of the many kilometers ahead drove us toward cold iced tea instead.

Our lunch at the base of the castle walls was our goodbye-meal to France. We enjoyed it, sheltered from the wind and the sun and away from the dense bustle of buses that seemed to flow steadily through the city center and along the nearby beach.

Eventually, the cooler temperatures in the shade reminded us to get back on the road and into the path of the wind. You may imagine this was much easier said than done. Now that we were on the coast, following its contours into and out of the little alcove towns and climbing up toward the mountains click to view a photograph, the "tra montana" was a real challenge. A more than forceful wind, it actually carried us UP a few hills - yes, UP! But, as often as we were blown forward, we were also set back by sudden gusts when we came around turns or found ourselves in a surprise wind tunnel. But what an experience to be blown up a hill. We felt like we were cheating nature. That said, on the descents, sometimes we had to pedal HARD coming around a bend, again keeping alert for the sudden sideways gust that could send a person straight into oncoming traffic.

Trying to take photos was also tough (here Ethan is practically being blown backwards) click to view a photograph but we did the best we could despite Corinne's careening hair. click to view a photograph Here's a great shot looking back at Collioure click to view a photograph and another showing the wind-snarled water crashing against the breakwaters protecting Collioure's harbor. click to view a photograph

Starting into the Pyrénées, the climbs were longer, higher, and even more full of switchbacks than we have had in a while. It was a test of our gears and upper body strength; the easy ride to the coast was great, but now we were in for tougher times. We would get pushed up one stretch of hill, only to be blown to the edge of the cliff on the next, while struggling not only against gravity but also severe gusts to get up another one. This would happen again and again until we reached the top of the hill and could stop to enjoy the transition between the French Côte Vermeille and Spanish Costa Brava scenery, the green hills, black rock faces of slate and granite, and the roaring sea waves crashing against the shores.

The Costa Brava, or Rugged Coast, stretches from the French-Spanish border (where the French Côte Vermeille begins) almost as far south as Barcelona. You have probably heard of this coast since, along with the Costa Blanca and the Costa del Sol, it is one of Spain's premier holiday areas. As with any popular summer retreat, the Costa Brava has its share of tourist resorts and overdeveloped beaches; however, unlike other areas, the rough and ragged coastline - with plenty of steep and rocky seaside bluffs - gives the Costa Brava a less frenetic feel than what you might expect. From a distance, it was quite fantastic to look at.

Crossing into Spain click to view a photograph was a pretty big deal, geographically and BikeAbout-wise. Why? Well, because it's our last country (before Gibraltar, which isn't a country unto itself, but part of the United Kingdom)! After 22 other countries and territories, we had finally reached the last significant border crossing. We paused for a moment to size up what the Spanish coast had to offer. It looked beautiful, enticing, and daunting, but also doable, all 2,740 kilometers (1701 mi) of it. click to view a photograph

Our move into Spain also put us on the Iberian Peninsula, so called thanks to the Greeks, who derived the name from local inhabitants living along the Iberus River. Spain, the second largest country in Western Europe (after France), occupies most of the peninsula, sharing it only with Portugal on the southwestern Atlantic edge. Stretching all the way down toward Africa, Spain also offers some of the most diverse geography found anywhere in Europe. We will be seeing a great deal of this in the days ahead, as well as the unique cultures that developed in it as a result of the needs imposed by the changing lands and climate. For example, in the north, the lush fields and plains have always offered locals many farming options. The denizens of the significantly less populated southern area, with never-ending deserts and high, barren mountains, had different choices to make.

By 7:00 p.m., we were ready to call it quits in the small Spanish resort town of Llança, but had trouble finding the tourist information or locating a reasonably priced hotel. So, since Figueres was only another 20 km (12 mi) away, and we planned to stop there tomorrow anyhow, we just kept on going. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Figueres, everything was shut there too. At least we had some hotel information in our Lonely Planet guide for Spain. Still, good thing the sun is setting late these days. It was well after 9 p.m. by the time we had a hotel and showers, and much, much later by the time we ate.

An after-dinner stroll around the deserted town gave us a hint of what was in store for tomorrow: the Salvador Dali Theater-Museum! It had already been a day of surreal signage on the road itself click to view a photograph and in the form of real and imaginary soldiers on the road shoulder. click to view a photograph We could only guess what was next.

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