France by bike

Paul’s friend Jonathan, and his friend, had talked about the cycle they wanted to do from the North of France to the South, covering 1,300 kilometers. Paul had planned to meet them a little over half way and do the finishing few hundred kilometers with them, as Zsu drove ahead each day, scouting out the nights camping spots.

Jonathan however, had to board the England to France ferry and take what the French threw at him alone. His friend ended up in hospital the night prior to their departure. How unfortunate!

We met Jonathan five days into his cycle, in a small French town called Brantôme. With torrential downpour, the cafés were noisy and crowded – everyone in their right mind knew these were the only viable places to be. As we sat sipping our hot tea, our minds kept wandering to Jonathan as he battled his scheduled 100km through the ferocity of thunderstorms and relentless rain. When he arrived he was drenched to the bone, but his spirits were high.

After a welcome cup of tea, we got his bike loaded onto the roof of the van and set out for our camping spot. By now the rain had subsided a bit and we found a good place under some dripping trees, pulled the awning out and got the BBQ cranking.

It wasn’t long before the miseries of the rain and thunderstorm were forgotten; a few beers and a giant steak sandwich later along with the tales of Jonathan’s adventures around the warming flames, we were happy to nod off to the pitter patter of the light rain.

A minor electrical problem with the van the following morning meant we were very delayed leaving and ended up driving to Hautefort for lunch. While gazing up at the spectacular Château and its garden on the foothill, Paul quickly threw together some pasta in a cream sauce with capers and the leftover beef from the previous night.

This set us up pretty well for an afternoon cycle to Tursac, where we found a camping spot on a grassy car-park by the river Vésére underneath Maison Forte de Reignac – historic houses that are embedded into the cliffs and have been used as shelter since the pre-historic era. A tranquil and picturesque spot to enjoy Jonathan’s risotto for dinner.

The following day was onwards to Figeac. Winding our way up and down the hills of these incredible ancient towns built into the rock face. The roads are indeed made for cyclists and motorbikes – getting a van around these places was a challenge!

Figeac holds a market twice a week so we decided to camp not far from town, ready to stock up on supplies the following morning before heading on. The prize catch at the market was a beautiful chicken which we planned on having the evening before Claire (Jonathans girlfriend) and her father Gerard would join us riding.

That evening we stopped for ‘wine-by-the-litre’ at Vin Entraygues le Fel, in Entraygues-sur-Truyére. A surprisingly pleasant drop indeed, but perhaps it was the fact it was just over €1 / litre! 

A ‘No overnight camping’ sign in town washed the smiles off our faces – at this point we were ready to sit and enjoy the wine and put our feet up. Equally the long drive and the lack of wild camping spots began to frustrate us. 
About an hour later, the long and winding mountain roads eventually swept us down closer to the river – the evening turned out to be a lovely, mild summer night with a soft breeze on our faces. As we watched the sun shed it’s orange glow on the hills in the distance listening to the crickets chirp away, we got stuck into our wine and discussed our progress.

It was a tough day riding towards St Geniez-d’Olt. Paul was in a bit of panic in the morning, scared of running out of water. To fix the situation he strapped a 5L bottle of water to the back of his bike. Unsurprisingly, he received many strange looks from passing cyclists in their lycro with fancy bikes and minimal weight!
We climbed up and over Col de Goudard. At 1022m it was the hill with the steepest gradient and by far the hardest uphill of the trip! Needless to say, Jonathan dominated this stretch. But, over the other side with the help of the weight from the water, Paul held the upper hand. With shabby breaks it was a short dash to the bottom and then only a few kilometers on the flat until we were parked in a paddock full of cow poop, attempting to make a dent in the 5L of wine, complaining to deaf ears about sore legs and laughing about the already forgotten struggle we surpassed.

Then Mende and over Col de Tribes. At 1132m this was the highest climb of the trip but not the hardest. A long, steady climb made for a more pleasurable experience than Col de Goudard and the downhill also much steadier and longer. Winding down the side of the mountain, passing altitude signs every few hundred meters to remind you how quickly your hard work disappears!
At the bottom we found a gorgeous little spot just outside of Villefort looking out over a lake, where we BBQ’d the chicken we got from the market a few days prior and made a further dent in the wine. It began to feel like the beginning of the end, Claire and Gerard arriving the following day, we were all in good spirits.

Waking early the next morning, we met with Claire and Gerard at the rail station and set out for Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. This section was a bit of a climb – although worth every difficult peddle stroke. The views were amazing, winding our way along the Ardéche before climbing up and through part of the Massif Central, giving us stunning views of the meandering Ardéche river below.

A couple of enjoyable days cycling followed, including (an early) celebratory dinner in Châteuneuf-du-Pape, we basked in the satisfaction we were almost there.

On our very last day we stopped at the local church and things turned out to be unexpectedly hilarious; we were asked by a religious group (who were involved in a photography competition) if they could get a photo of us all alongside their group, with Paul posing as Jesus and a random passerby with a baby as Mother Mary. A bit perplexed as to what was being asked of him in French, Paul obediently followed instructions. Quite the scene in this quaint and delicate little church. 

We arrived in Graveson to some waiting champagne and a few days of down time in the relaxing gardens of the south. Walking through olive groves, swimming, eating and drinking we soon forgot about any sore legs or breathlessness we may have been feeling a few days prior.

Thanks J and the Peverellis for the incredible hospitality. It was amazing to be part of it all!

PS – in case anyone is wondering, Paul was ecstatic at the top of Col de Goudard that he’d struggled a 5L bottle of water to the top!

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