In 2014 we went to France to follow the Tour de France on a trip organised by an Australian outfit called Bikestyle Tours. We had such a great time we signed up to go again with them this year.
Of several tours on offer we choose the 16 day GC Classic: Pyrénées, Provence, Alps and Paris - starting in Toulouse. Last year I found the transition from winter in Wellington to summer in France to be a little shocking, so this year we planned a week’s secret training in the foothills of the Pyrénées.
We flew into a very busy Nice Côte d'Azur Airport, and took the shuttle bus to the other Nice Côte d'Azur Airport to pick up our rental car. Of course it wasn’t what we had booked, but was a very acceptable substitute with room for us and our bags and our bikes. Soon we were rumbling west along the A8 autoroute heading towards Aix-en-Provence. Our hotel had a lovely swimming pool, which we jumped into on arrival as the temperature was a nice warm 36ºC.
Tuesday saw us back in the wagon, heading west right across the south of France.
We only covered 15 km in the first hour - but discovered the French word for a traffic-jam “bouchon” is the same as for a wine cork, literally a stopper!
That afternoon were arrived at our base for the first week in France, the tiny Les Plus Beaux Village des France hamlet of Camon (population 159), in the Ariège Department of the Midi-Pyrènèes. Our home was the magnificent L’Abbaye-Château de Camon. This was a former abbey built on a bluff above a bend in the Hers river, now a comfy hotel. We had a swim in the pool, and then I reassembled the bikes under the shade of plane trees on the ramparts - followed by a five-course dinner in the cloisters.
Over the next few days we explored the area, both by bike and car. The quiet undulating wooded roads were a delight to ride on, and we were treated with courtesy by the local French traffic (and cyclists). We also checked out the Fontaine de Fontestorbes (an impressive intermittent spring) , the Château de Montségur (a castle where in the year 1244 two hundred and twenty Cathars were burned alive rather than renounce their faith), and the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château - famous for the conspiracy theories popularised be The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code.
Our cycling highlight was a jaunt to the famous walled city of Carcassonne. This 70 km ride on a warm 34ºC day featured an 11 km climb (done both ways) and a section of gravel road, and even a section of dirt track - all thanks to Google Maps cycling directions! It was my birthday, so after watching stage 6 of the Tour de France on television we refuelled with a celebratory meal in the nearby medieval town of Mirepoix.
We were a little sad to pack up and leave Camon, and head north to the big smoke of Toulouse. Here we checked into the Pullman Hotel and met up with our Bikestyle tour.
The 30 participants were the usual enthusiastic bunch, from 21 to mid-70’s in age.
Although mainly Australian, the group included a couple from Jo’burg, a pair of dairy farmers from Ashburton, a neurologist from Argentina, and Spanish teacher from Maryland, and a socialite from Double Bay.
We were accompanied by four guides, including the ex-professional Patrick Jonker, who has finished 12th in the real Tour de France (1996). Pat had a dry Ozzie/Dutch sense of humour and was a real asset to the tour. We traveled in a comfortable bus, with a French driver Bernard, and the bikes followed behind in an excellent trailer. We were also accompanied by a van, fully equipped to service bike racing, driven by a professional Belgian soigneur Marc.
Monday was a rest day for the real Tourists, but not for us. The bus rolled out early and we got to the mountain village of Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the Hautes-Pyrénées by 10:30 am. We were soon on the road, stopping briefly in Ste-Marie-de-Campan to pay homage to the forge where Eugene Christophe repaired his forks in 1913 (having walked 15 km down the mountain). The mountain, yes, this was the mighty Col du Tourmalet. We had perfect weather, 33ºC despite my carrying gillet and arm-warmers.
Passing through the ugly ski resort of La Mongie the road steepens, and I was relieved (with the beginnings of cramp) to reach the summit after 29 km (at 2,115 m altitude). My average was only 12 kph, and I suffered in the heat despite our attempts at acclimatisation! There is really nothing to prepare you for these big climbs. After a brief break for photos we charged down the other side of the col, and after a speedy 20 km descent arrived at our hotel at the pretty mountain village of Luz-Saint-Sauveur.
A cold beer, and soaking my legs in the adjacent freezing mountain stream soon had me ready for dinner and bed.
The routine on arrival at our hotel every day was: cold beer, watch Tour de France stage finish on television, have shower, wash lycra, dinner, and bed. A constant treadmill of riding, washing and refuelling!
The next day we bused to Tarbes, where we watched the start of stage 10. I had planned to meet up with Jack Bauer (the Garmindale rider) but unfortunately he had crashed out on the fifth stage. After the stage start madness we rode back to Luz via Lourdes - with a brief pilgrimage to the Grotte - and on the Voie Verte de Gaves (rail trail) back up the Lavedan valley. This was Bastille Day, so after dinner the town was treated to a substantial barrage of fireworks!
Early on Wednesday we rolled down the Gorge de Luz to Pierrefitte-Nestalas, where the climb of the Col d’Aubisque starts. This is a double header, reasonably steep at first through picturesque little villages, and then in lazy hairpins up to the Col du Soulor. From this col the road drops slightly down to the start of the Col d’Aubisque. The road clings to the side of the mountain around the Cirque de Litor, and the scenery is insanely impressive. We had another gorgeous still, warm, blue day - so lucky.
At the summit (1,709 m) we enjoyed an refreshing Orangina at the café, and then swooped back down through the famous tunnels, a gentle climb up to the Soulor (1,474 m) and a breathtaking drop down the very smooth road to Argelès-Gazost. I then rode up the Cauterets climb with Daz from Melbourne, and we enjoyed seeing stage 11 whiz by 4 km from the finish. The riders were well in the hurt locker, Rafal Majka won.
As soon at the Fin d’Course van was by, we freewheeled back down the climb.
At the bottom I noticed the rider just behind me was Tejay van Garderen - returning to the team bus at Argelès.
Thursday was a transfer day - into the bus we piled. Out of the bus at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val (movie fact: this is where The Hundred Foot Journey was filmed) under shady trees on the banks of the Aveyron River. Just as well it was shady as the temperature was 40ºC. This was a flat day, and so a mere 900 m climbing later a very sweaty group piled into a bar at La Fouillade for liquids and just in time to see Purito win the 12th stage at Plateau de Beille. Our home for the next few nights was Rieupeyroux, in the Aveyron Department of the Massif Central. It’s famous for Aligot, a delicious cheesy mashed potato dish.
The morrow bought another sizzling hot day, we rode to Belcastel, another Le Plus Beau Village. After a coffee and a photo stop here we headed off - another ‘flat’ day of 1,100 m climbing, including a stretch at 18%. I was going so slowly my computer stopped working! The afternoon took us to Rodez, climbing up from the Aveyron River, and then dropping down, and climbing up and down again 4 times. We rattled across the river on pretty little hump-backed cobbled bridges. The river valleys were densely wooded, shady and noisy with cicada song. The tops were covered with bleached hay or wilting sunflowers. I was getting through 1.5 litres of drink an hour, and even the water I squirted on my head from my bidon was red hot. On the descents your eyeballs burnt from the hot air!
In Rodez, Kirsty and I sat in a cool bar drinking beer and eating glacés watching stage 13 on television. As the riders finished (Greg van Avermaet won) we ran outside to mingle with them as they arrived back at the team buses. I was glad to see that they looked hot and sweaty too. We got back to the hotel at 7 o’clock and the temperature was still 38ºC. Swim in pool, Aligot and bed.
Today we set off from Millau and had a splendid ride up, and then back down the famous Gorges du Tarn. On return the Gendarme wouldn't let us ride back to where the bus was parked, so anarchy prevailed and in best Paris-Roubaix style we all ran inelegantly across a railway track. Lunch was obtained in Le Mas, and we watched the Tour thunder through the feed zone. After this we crossed the famous Millau Viaduct (the tallest bridge in the world) to reach our hotel in Nîmes.
The next day was Sunday, and we celebrated by riding - a nice relaxed ride from Nîmes, across the mistral-blasted garrigue, to the Port du Gard, the best preserved and highest of all Roman aqueducts. We lunched at the charming town of Uzès, and were soon at our next base, the Hôtel Les Méjeonnes at Valaurie in the Drôme. This lovely old pink-plastered stone farm house had a welcome pool, and a pergola-shaded terrace where we dined and drank rosé. Of course it didn’t take long before every window was adorned with wet lycra drying in the sun!
In the morning the atmosphere was serious, as today we were to climb Mont Ventoux - the ‘Giant of Provence’. There were three options: ride from Malaucène, Bédoin, or Chalet Reynaud. As Kirsty is no grimpeur, and I had done Ventoux last year, we opted for the soft option - the last 6 km of ‘lunar landscape’ to the summit. It was perfect conditions, cool and clear, with great visibility. Although we got on the road early, it was already quite busy with cyclists of all types and from all nations attacking the mountain. Kirsten climbed steadily, while I buzzed around taking photos. After the obligatory homage to Tommy Simpson’s memorial we arrived at the top (1,911 m). A quick break and we enjoyed the magnificent descent down perfect smooth roads to Malaucène.
At the base of the mountain I left Kirsty in a bar with the others, and pushed on with exploring the area. I soon found a road that wound up a mountainside, and fell in with a Dutch gentleman on a Storck with Lightweight wheels. We rode past the fascinating Gorges de Toulourenc - popular with French holiday-makers - and arrived at the village of Mollans. From here I pushed on alone to Entrechaux and back to Malaucène.
Soon we were resting back at the hotel, rehydrating to be precise.
On Tuesday we went on a recovery ride around the gently rolling hills of Valaurie, riding through fields of lavender that scented the warm air. After coffee in the typical hilltop town of Grignan I carried on alone and was excited to find a perfect little Romanesque church called the Chapel du Val des Nymphes - sited in a little natural amphitheatre surrounded by olive trees. It was very cool. Eventually I scuttled home into a hot head wind, swam, drunk and ate!
The following day we bused to the Alps, and by 11 am were parking in the craziness that is Bourg d’Oisans - the gateway to Alpe d’Huez. It was a straightforward ride in ideal conditions - albeit with some traffic around the Dutch corner. Luckily I slipped past with little attention from the beer drinking (two days before the Tour was to pass) hordes.
At the top I met up with Andy from Maryland, and we descended down to the village of Huez, where we turned right and took the ‘balcony’ road towards the village of Villard-Reculas. This was an amazing experience, the road clings to the edge of a cliff with staggering views of the Romanche valley way down below. Over the Pass de La Confession, the quiet road drops in a series on large switchbacks down to the valley floor - cycling heaven! Back in Bourg I found Kirsten, and we retired to a bar to rehydrate and watch stage 17 on television.
Thursday morning saw us travelling from Grenoble to a little town in the Maurienne Valley called La Chambre. The village was buzzing, and decorated in anticipation of the Tour passing through on the next day. It was a slightly cooler but still sunny day. We headed off to do the Col de La Madeleine. It’s a long 20 km climb of very even gradient. At first forested and the odd village, and then a series of hairpins up past a ski resort to the col at 2,000 m. I had a quick bite to eat at the summit chalet, put on a gillet and had a nice flowing descent back to the bus.
In the arvo we rode as a bunch up the valley to Pontamafrey at the base of the Lacets de Montvernier. The Lacets were closed to spectators, but we had a good view of the race as stage 18 swept by, and we could see the riders zig-zagging up the Lacets.
We then rode back to the bus, and our home for the next few nights Chambery.
The next morning saw us riding up the Maurienne Valley again from Epierre to the Lacets de Montvernier. It’s a highly enjoyable climb, just under 300m gain in just over 3 km, with a hairpin every 150 m on average! At the top we skidded down a gravel farm track to a lookout point, with a spectacular view of the Lacets and over the valley - from a very precarious and slippery perch! We then returned down the 18 hairpins, and rode down the valley to Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines, where we watched stage 19 roll past at the base of the Col de Glandon. That night we wandered around Chambery to find a nice restaurant, it’s a most pleasant and charming city.
Saturday was the biggy - the Col du Galibier - that tops out at 2,642 m! We bussed to Saint-Michel-du-Maurienne, and once again had ideal weather conditions, sunny but not too hot, with virtually no wind. At 10 o’clock I was on the climb of the Col du Télégraphe, a pleasing ride up through a shady forest. At the summit (1,566 m) it was cold and misty, but we dropped down into the sun at the attractive ski resort of Valloire. From here the climb of the Galibier begins in earnest. Steep at first you ride up a long valley (a bit reminiscent of New Zealand), and as it grows bleaker and rockier you claw your way up a series of lazy hairpins to the summit. The climb is about 37 km long! A quick photo stop and put a jacket on and then the long bumpy descent back down to Valloire.
On the way down I noticed the Pantani Forever monument, which is not at all obvious in a grassy field just below a hairpin corner. I stopped to pay my respects, and then continued down, and was soon having beer and pizza in the sun at Valloire. The descent down the Télégraphe was very busy - but all of the traffic was coming up. Back down in the valley we sat in the bus and watched the Tour finish on Alpe d’Huez, and then back to Chambery.
Sunday was our last day on the Bikestyle tour. After breakfast we walked across the road to the train station in Chambery, and at 8 am caught the TGV to Paris. Our bags and bikes were taken by truck, and would meet us at the hotel that afternoon.
At 12 noon we arrived at the Gare de Lyon, and jumped on the Metro to our hotel in fashionable Bercy. After checking in and having lunch we jumped back on the Metro to Champs-Elysées. As we emerged it began to rain, and I queued to buy a couple of Tour de France poncho-jaunes. Unfortunately the woman in front of me got the last two. I was soaked by then anyway, so I joined Kirsten in the Espace Triomphe - the viewing area opposite the finish line.
We stood in the rain drinking champagne and watching La Course. The women finished in grim conditions, but luckily it stopped raining, and eventually the sun came out for the men of stage 21. We drank, ate, and drank, and André Greipal won a superb sprint just across the street from us! By then I was freezing, so we got going and walked back to the hotel 7 km up the right bank of the Seine, getting home at 9:30 pm just as it got dark.
So that was that really - we had a few days relaxing in Paris, some shopping, sight-seeing, exhibitions, and of course lots of eating and drinking. On Tuesday we rode from Bercy to Versailles and back. This turned into a marathon - not helped by a couple of questionable navigation decisions. However it was very enjoyable exploring Paris by bike, and we eventually got home after 85 km meandering through quiet leafy suburbs and busy boulevards. And who knew Paris was so hilly?
In all I had ridden a little over 1,000 km, and climbed 14,649 metres or roughly 83 times up Ararimu Road!