Riding to the roof of the European world might sound like a daunting task, but it can be made simple.
Time is precious. I’ve ridden 1000 miles in a day on several occasions over the past 20 odd years of biking but I know that even if I live to a ‘ripe old age’ I will never wish I had spent more time on a motorway. With this in mind, when I spotted Bikeshuttle online I knew it would tick the right boxes for me and my wife. As with most people, work is super busy and holidays are precious. We didn’t want to spend two days’ riding getting to the Pyrenees if there was another more cost effective way of getting there quicker. In short, we wanted to get to the fun bit without burning through tyres, money and petrol.
Also, my wife Yana wanted to ride her own MT-09 Tracer ‘Cassius’ (’cos he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee) rather than hiring abroad as she doesn’t easily ‘dial in’ to different bikes. Bikeshuttle is a relatively new company but its got the process nailed. Helpful website, people who answer the phone and a slick but personal set up. They transport your trusty steed to either Geneva or Toulouse while you hop on a flight for a couple of hours and then grab a good night’s sleep before your bike turns up the next day just after breakfast. Winner!
We left White Dalton Motorcycle Solicitors HQ and headed up to Northamptonshire where Guy from Bikeshuttle met us, helped load our kit into secure boxes and sorted the paperwork out. We were in and out in 30 minutes. Bikeshuttle would have taken us to Luton Airport in their minibus but we decided to pop home for a few hours before the flight.
Fast forward to the next morning, a croissant for breakfast and our bikes arrived at the hotel ready to wander. And we were off. We bowled out of Toulouse for an hour-ish ride on the motorway and then turned off towards the Pyrenees which were now looming large in the landscape. We were soon riding through smooth snaking roads with only the odd battered Renault to overtake and leave behind in the distance. Awesome.
For the first few hours the sun was shining and we followed the sweeping D627 road to Saint-Girons where we stopped for a leisurely lunch including local ham and cheese. When I was younger I never used to ‘get’ France. However being a little older and perhaps a little wiser, I’ve grown to love its rural areas. They are filled with its fiercely proud but friendly local communities selling local wine and produce. My French is nonexistent but despite this a smile and a “Bonjour!” resulted in nothing but help and kindness throughout our trip.
Post lunch, we climbed back on board and pointed ourselves towards Bagnères-de-Luchon. This is where experience paid off as the weather changed within an hour, dropping from 20ºC down to 5ºC, from sunshine to freezing rain. Thankfully good waterproof textile kit and heated grips did the job as we traversed switchback after switchback over the tops of mountains. I’ll be honest, I was done about an hour before we stopped as the big ZZR1400 is not exactly a mountain goat and we had taken a road not even featured on the map! Yana on the other hand had the perfect all-rounder being the MT-09 Tracer with its high bars and punchy triple engine. As such, she sauntered into town on good form despite the roads now being rivers post-rain.
Bagnères-de-Luchon is an absolutely stunning town that turns into a Mecca for skiers during the winter months. However, before the heavy snow descends it’s a perfect spot to use as base for a couple of days on motorbikes.
It’s located near the Spanish border south-west of Saint-Gaudens and if you fancy a day off the wheels relaxing it has thermal springs that you can plunge into.
There’s a reason it’s greener on the French side of the Pyrenees and with that in mind we decided to go chase the sun in Spain on our bikes. However, our best laid plans nearly came to a grinding halt as it was Sunday. What’s not open in France on a Sunday? Pretty much everything including petrol stations. However, luckily Google came to the rescue and we fuelled up at unmanned station that accepted bank cards.
Once the bikes had had a big drink we aimed south down the N230. September is a perfect time to ride this region in my view as there are so few people there. There’s a window of opportunity between the summer holiday tourists with pushbikes and campers and the winter thrill seekers on skis carving through the snow that will fall in a month or two.
The mountains changed from lush green to red and brown as we entered Spain. Brexit was on no one’s agenda here and Free Movement of Man and Machine allowed us to ride on over the border. If you’re in Spain you must ride the N260. It stretches from Portbou on the east coast right across Spain to the west and the section in the Pyrenees is outstanding.
We joined at El Pont de Suert and headed to Sort for a coffee. What an absolute belter. The Spanish certainly know how to build roads and the tarmac is smoother than a baby’s bottom. If you know anything about Michelin maps (see my top tips on the opposite page) I can confirm most of it is highlighted green which means scenic. And boy is this road scenic.
Over the next few days we moved from sunny Spain into Andorra. Andorra is a tiny, independent principality situated between France and Spain nestled in the heart of the Pyrenees mountains. From here the views are endless. The highlights are usually found losing yourself on the back roads and mountain passes. The roads are good, the locals friendly and the views incredible. However, be prepared for it getting cold as you will end up riding above the clouds and at snow level on occasion.
As with any holiday the days raced by so I wanted the last day on two wheels to be a belter. An early start meant our trusty bikes were heading up and over the mountains via the town of Pas de la Casa. Both Yana and I had on full textile kit and winter gloves with a spare fleece in the panniers. While you can be wearing your shorts down in the valley in 20ºC sun, an hour away in the mountains saw the temperature drop to as low as 4ºC while we were there. Bearing in mind Pas de la Casa is at 2080m above sea level, we decided we would rather be a bit sweaty in the valleys than too cold up a mountain.
What goes up must come down as they say, so after navigating the final mountain pass we hopped on a motorway back to Toulouse where Bikeshuttle picked up the bikes before we flew home the next morning after a lazy last night in town. So all in all, epic mountain views and motorbike riding all just two hours from the UK via a cheap flight… brilliant.
Top tips for a Pyrenees-up
1. If time is short, plan roughly where you want to ride before you get there so that you don’t waste time.
2. Make sure you have a sat-nav. To state the obvious, navigating through Pyrenees towns to find your hotel can be a little tricky.
3. Take a map as well as a sat-nav. It helps visualise where you are and when the sat-nav goes astray a map will not lose reception. We recommend Michelin maps. The roads highlighted green are scenic and those are the ones to aim for.
4. Take a smartphone and use Booking.com (or equivalent) to book accommodation. It means you can be flexible in your planning and also save money.
5. Take good kit and make sure you can add layers to stay warm. Waterproof textile kit rather than leathers is the way to go.
6. Travel light.
7. Find a reputable company to transport your bike (www.bikeshuttle.co.uk is fantastic).
Motorcycle Monthly December 2017