When not listening to the Doors on my iPod, my day's riding was accompanied by the following bit of verse going round and round in my head as I completely failed to remember how any of the rest of it went:
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And something something something something something something something
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
(Full and correct version here.)
The previous day's route had been almost entirely motorway, but today was my first experience of Spanish country roads. And straggle they did - through country wilder and more rugged than my previous experiences riding in France, past lakes tinted blue by clay particles, and occupied by thundering great lorries.
We were riding to the marker system, in which the leading and tail-end riders stay in those positions but the rest of the pack shuffles round. At a junction or roundabout where the route leads anything other than straight ahead, the leader waits for whoever is currently running second to appear and places them as a marker, there to wait until the tail-ender appears and slot into the penultimate position.
The benefit of this method is that there's no need to keep the rider in front or behind in sight - everyone can go at their own pace. I spent the morning and indeed much of the holiday riding by myself, but apart from an occasional attack of paranoia that I'd missed a marker this suited me fine; I could get on with things my way, secure in the knowledge that I'd find someone waiting for me when the roads diverged and that we would all meet up for a rest and a chat in due course.
We had a coffee and ice cream stop in Jaca, which I claimed and still claim is pronounced 'hacker', then pushed on to the abandoned railway station of Canfranc, a Franco-Spanish cooperative effort as doomed as it was splendid. JCBs were burrowing around the Victorian ruins, but whether restoring or destroying we couldn't tell.
After my morning of isolation, Howard was good enough to ride with me for much of the afternoon. I hadn't got the measure of the rest of the party yet, but here was someone I'd ridden with before and I knew wasn't going to do anything unpredictable or pass judgement on my riding, making for a pleasurable experience. (It's funny how companionable riding with another person can be, given that you can't talk to each other.)
We crossed the border into France around teatime, travelling via the sort of road tunnel which always puts me in mind of Bond movies. Immediately the road surface deteriorated and we were faced with sheer drops and hairpin bends. It was a relief to stop on a narrow country lane with a beautiful view, even when it turned out that the reason for the halt was a GPS error and the discovery that the penultimate and rear riders had gone missing.
One group moved on while the remainder waited in the hope of gathering up the strays. I stayed with the latter party, enjoying the view and the evening sunshine. After half an hour we gave up and pressed on: along mountain curves, through little villages, snow dotting the ground. If I hadn't been worried that two members of our party were dead in a ditch somewhere, it would have been a glorious ride. Happily we were reunited with the missing pair as we entered Bagnères-de-Luchon. The relief, and a fabulous meal plus charming waitress, made for a riotous evening.