Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Cycling the Pyrenees

How two people in their 60s cycled 500 miles from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – and how you can do it too

Peter Farnell-Watson and his wife Bunny are in their early 60s but look little older than 40. They’ve recently cycled the Pyrenees – coast-to-coast from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic; the latest of 20 years’ worth of cycling adventures that have also seen them conquer routes in the Himalayas, India, Scotland, northern England and Wales. Not bad for a couple who are not professional cyclists and maintain that neither took a particular interest in off-road cycling before they met. They are already planning their next trip, to South America, where they will cross a stretch of the Andes that separates Argentina from Chile.

On the day that I visit Bunny and Peter at their immaculate house in Richmond, south-west London, I happen to have aching thighs and buttocks from my own version of extreme cycling: riding from my house in east London across the city to where I work in Hammersmith on account of a tube strike that shut down the entire underground network. It’s a pitiful eight miles or so and, while I initially felt quite proud of myself, it doesn’t take long in the company of the Farnell-Watsons to feel rather humbled by the couple’s more robust achievements.

I’m here to talk to them about their trip across the Pyrenees, which involved cycling from their house to Kings Cross where they caught the Eurostar to Paris, and then taking another train down to their starting point, Banyuls-sur-Mer on France’s Mediterranean coast. Then they rode for 19 days across the mountains to Hendaye-sur-Mer on the Atlantic.

“This particular trip was one that we’d both wanted to do for a long time,” says Peter. “For us, the purest form of cycling is being able to leave the house with nothing but our bikes and our kit and just get stuck in – no motor or air transport at all – and this trip, although we had to take a couple of trains, was pretty much that.” Bunny adds that in many ways it was more enjoyable than cycling in the Himalayas which, she says, was “rather more hardcore”. “The scenery was just as breathtaking, too,” she says. “Whenever we stopped there was always something exquisite to look at.”

So how do they prepare for such a trip? And what motivated them to undertake it in the first place?
“We’ve always done sporty things together – scuba diving, sailing and so on,” says Peter. “But neither of us had ever been hugely into cycling. Then, when the children were small and we were living in Hong Kong and California, we started cycling and they used to come with us and then gradually as they left home we’ve started doing more adventurous cycling. We wanted to do proper journeys, rather than just day trips.

“It started with us cycling the length of the River Thames over the course of about 18 months. We were taking a car and cycling down the towpath and then riding back along the road to the car. We got a bit more adventurous and started going by train and staying somewhere overnight and then cycling back the whole way, and gradually this gave us the confidence to push our boundaries and do more ambitious, off-road rides. Since then, our cycling has just sort of evolved and now, in terms of planning, we really do have it down to a fine ‘t.”

The latter is, as you’ve probably guessed by now, an understatement. During the course of our conversation it becomes evident that the Farnell-Watsons take the planning of their trips incredibly seriously. They also appear to get a deep enjoyment out of the preparation involved. Peter – who is particularly practical and methodical and answers my questions in an extremely measured way – produces a pile of maps and endless sheets of paper documenting the details of the trip: the planned route, where they will stay each night and the contact details for each hostel, how far they will cycle each day and the daily budget – around €100 each. He also shows me his logbook of the completed journey: the distance travelled each day, the altitude reached, the hours spent on the bikes, the average speed and so on, and his eyes light up as he takes me through this meticulously recorded account of their journey.

The key to planning a trip like this, according to the Farnell-Watsons, is to work out where you want to go and then, before even buying a map, track down “the knowledge” from someone who has already cycled there. Peter says that he wrote to a magazine, Mountain Bike Rider, and put in a request for anyone who has cycled in the Pyrenees to contact him. The person who responded was a French girl who had written a book on her trip. With her help, Peter and Bunny started to plan their route. They had originally intended to cycle from the Atlantic to the Med but discovered that, because of the way in which the mountains are formed, they are impossibly steep to climb if you are going from west to east. So they decided to travel the other way – towards the Atlantic. “These are the sorts of seemingly minor, yet absolutely crucial, bits of practical information that you can only ever get from someone who’s already done the trip,” says Bunny.

The next thing to do, Peter says, is to work out realistic targets for how far you will cycle each day. “Our average speed was about 10 kilometres per hour,” he says. “Which might not sound very fast to some people, but you have to remember that you are riding up steep mountains most of the time – often only at four kilometres an hour – and you are sometimes forced to get off your bike and carry it due to the terrain. The other thing is that we are not trying to break records or beat each other up. We are not in any particular hurry, we just get on with it and when we want to stop, we stop. You have to know how far you are prepared to push yourself, otherwise you’ll always be fighting against your body and you will be miserable.”

But while the Farnell-Watsons claim that they just “pootle on”, they’re not fooling me. Later on in our conversation, they say that they have attempted to cycle with other people – including a brother-in-law who isn’t fond of off-road cycling and likes his kit to be carried for him – but that nobody, as yet, has matched their own ability. “We are naturally fit, yes,” says Bunny. “And, while we don’t go to the gym or anything like that, we prepare for a trip like the Pyrenees by doing a series of coast-to-coast rides across England to improve our stamina. So it’s not great to go with people who aren’t of like ability because if they can’t take the hills it takes your enjoyment out of it because you’re constantly worrying about them.”

But Peter says that there is an unspoken “cycling etiquette” that prevents the more competent cyclist from speeding on ahead. “I’m obviously stronger than Bunny so I will always wait for her if I reach the top of a hill before her. It’s also about safety – you never know what might happen and if we’ve separated and I’ve carried on ahead into the next valley that could potentially be dangerous.”
Bunny adds that she thinks the couple are “quite stuck in their ways” when it comes to their cycling routine. “We always have the same routine – particularly when we arrive at where we are staying for the night,” she says. “I will unpack and do any necessary washing – we pack so light that we basically wear the same clothes every day – and Peter will fill in the logbook. We try and plan our route so that we can stop cycling at about 4pm and have time to rest, wash, have a bit of an explore and eat a proper meal – often with a bottle of wine.”

She says that, where possible, they try and get a massage, too, “as your shoulders get very knotted up from carrying your backpack – you don’t notice it when you’re on the bike but you really do once you take it off!” She says that her rucksack usually weighs about 7.7kg while Peter’s weighs 9.9kg. Peter says: “We literally take the bare minimum: lightweight, good quality cycling clothes, one spare set of clothes to wear in the evenings, a windproof jacket and a rainproof one and undergarments. The rest of the space in the packs is taken up with maps, compass, first aid kit, toiletries, cameras, mobile phones and bike maintenance equipment such as spare chains, tyre pump and inner tubes.”
Were there any serious dramas over the course of the trip? “Not at all,” Peter says. “I fell off my bike a couple of times and Bunny fell once into an electric fence, but we emerged unscathed and there were no problems with the bikes or anything. You have to expect to fall – it happens, and you just have to get up and get on with it.”

During the couple of hours I spend with the couple, I learn enough to realise that this comment is typical of Peter – whose admirably stoic approach is no doubt just what you need on such a trip.
I ask if the couple have any rituals or superstitions when they are undertaking a cycling journey. “When we’re doing a coast-to-coast ride we always pick up a stone each from the first coast and toss it into the sea once we get to the other side,” they say. “We also pick up our bikes and dip their wheels into the water on each coast.”

One thing’s for sure, this lovely – incredibly warm – couple are passionate about their hobby and have even, dare I say it, inspired me to look beyond the parameters of the City of London and try my hand at some more adventurous cycling myself. I shall keep you posted.

Key statistics on the Pyrenees trip:

  • Total distance covered: 820km
  • Total height climbed: 18,000m (“The equivalent of two Mount Everests!” says Peter)
  • Total ride time: 126 hours
  • Average speed: 10km/h
  • Bike models: Cannondale cross-terrain – worth £2,900

Bunny and Peter’s top 5 tips for people wanting to undertake a similar trip:

  1. Decide what you want to do and where you want to go. That’s the fun part, says Peter – get your idea, find “the knowledge” and do your research. The couple recommend reading The coast-to-coast mountain bike route pack by Tom Woodcock, £7.99 from www.amazon.co.uk.
  2. Planning, planning and more planning. Peter and Bunny said it took them at least six months to prepare for the 25-day Pyrenees trip.
  3. Set reasonable and realistic daily rates – if you try to do too much you’ll knacker yourself and you’ll always be fighting against your body, says Peter.
  4. Get the right kit and equipment, for instance bikes and spare tyres, and pack the right clothing – if you don’t get it right you’re either too hot or too cold and you’ll be miserable, says Peter. Also make sure you eat and drink properly – Peter and Bunny took sips of water every 15 minutes, adding one and a half energy tablets to each litre, and ate every half an hour, even if it’s just a banana or an apple, and had a lunch of baguette, cheese and salami every day.
  5. Go with the right people who have the same levels of fitness and ambition. It’s like choosing who you go on holiday with, says Peter. Also don’t worry about the weather – what happens happens, you just have to get on with it, he says.