France Cycling

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Late in September I left Quo Vadis in Port Dickson and travelled to France for 2 weeks of road cycling…

…flying from KL via Singapore to Paris and then taking the TGV from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Avignon. The train ride is just over 2 hours; whisper quiet and so fast, as if sitting in a library, where people talk in whispers and even cell-phones are disallowed, -but travelling at 300 km per hour…

I was met at Avignon by Paul, my contact with the group of Canadian men who I was to be with and we drove the short distance to Bedoin, a small town in rural Provence.


There we met with the other members of the group, -Ken, Barry and Tim, -and collected our hired bicycles from ‘France Bike Rentals’  www.francebikerentals.com   owned by Jean and Jean-Michel, operating from a cycle shop in the town.  It is for them particularly, conveniently located, immediately below 1900 metre high Mt Ventoux, which is a ‘Mecca’ to the European cyclist and also frequently features as a major climb in the Tour de France series.


Even in late September, which was definitely in the off-peak and shortly before the end of season, there were still many cyclists visiting every day from all over Europe to pit their strength against that of the mountain.


That was not our immediate objective however.

We collected our cycles which had been prebooked by internet and adjusted to our measurements and specifications. My all black, near new, Scott CR1 compact carbon frame fitted me exactly; never needed any adjustment, or in the 2 weeks riding, any repair. I fell deeply in love with it!
In the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine we went for a short ‘test ride’, but failed to heed the black clouds building over the mountain, it was only when we were in the hill top village of Blauvac that we realised we were likely to be in for a wetting…


There was soon a dramatic electrical storm with heavy rain, -awesome to the Canadians unused to weather of that sort, but to me, I knew I’d been followed to France by a typical Asian storm…. but this one was cold and we were all in cycle shirts and shorts only!

We sheltered a while in a bus stop, but as time went on and with darkness coming, the rain relented a little; we left the dry. The rain hadn’t really eased and it took only a few minutes of riding downhill to become a wet, shivering, then visibly shaking and miserable mess, -not the time to, -but of course someone did, get a puncture… we all got even colder  as with shaking hands and clenched chattering teeth we tried to execute a more than usually difficult tube change!

The warm shower back at the hotel was long and welcome, but even then I wasn’t warming easily, that didn’t happen until I’d had an hour in my bed wearing full merino fleece, plus plus… I recognised that I was in for a climate change from what I had been accustomed to for months, on this trip I’d be using all the warm clothes I had!

That evening in the little family hotel however,it all came right as we enjoyed our first sampling of great French cuisine with local reds, it set the standard of eating we followed for the duration!


The next day we loaded cycles and gear into our matching, leased Peugeot 308s and headed across southern France to the Pyrenees. It was an easy drive, covering a great distance quickly on the toll expressways.


Our destination was a house near St Girons, a town near Toulouse and not far from the mountains. We had rented the place for a week, it was an old recently renovated farmhouse, with barn attached at one end, but very comfortable; spacious, warm and totally delightful. It was fully serviced with appliances, linen, some basic food requirements, open fire and a bonus was the tree with ripe figs at the front door!
We expanded to fill all the space very effectively and were independent there, buying food and supplies from the nearby town, cooking meals for ourselves, experimenting with the local products, but also eating out regularly. That ranged from pizzas in a pizzeria owned by an Egyptian woman at one end of the scale to a full course meal at an old hotel at the other; that had an ancient kitchen


and wood fires still used for the cooking.


Our house was located in a rural, wooded setting off the road and nearby was the very attractive old village of Montjoie



and the larger, equally attractive medieval hill-top town of St Lizier


with its cathedral and beneath it, a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys.




We came to find that behind these shutters and potted plants live ordinary people living and working here or in nearby St Girons. These buildings are not a facade maintained as a tourist attraction.




Pretty as it is, St Girons is not a busy tourist destination either, it is the centre for a farming area and has a couple of sizeable factories dealing with timber and paper, -one of which on the river makes cigarette papers (and going by its large size, it surely must be the global supplier!)



At this time of the year after the summer season if is far from busy, although they say in summer it is more so, but not with tourist buses or day trippers, it is in an area where many Europeans have second homes for summer holidays. In late September it is a sleepy place where businesses open late, close early -AND have a long lunch break…

We were told by our house letting agent that it is the least progressive area of the Pyrenees and probably much of France, but that suited us fine, although some nights it did prove surprisingly difficult to find a restaurant open!

Our plan was to spend a week doing rides and walks from the house in St Girons.
It is a fine riding area, all around is a network of minor roads; along the river valleys through picturesque villages, steady climbs through hamlets perched in unlikely places on hillsides, over passes (cols) and down sweeping descents.

The town of St Girons is at about 400 metres altitude, To the southeast side are rows of lower hills rising to 5-600 metres, to the northwest however they are higher, the beginning of high Pyrenees proper. There the roads go higher too and steeper; the cols are often at 1000-1600 metres.

All the roads are paved and in the main, in good condition, though often very narrow.

The traffic is light and their behaviour is exemplary, -always patient, always courteous, and on a tiny road an approaching vehicle will always pull over 100s of metres in advance to give the cyclist clear right of way…it’s a far cry from cycling in the antipodes!

The drivers are however accustomed to cyclists on the roads, although we didn’t see many others, at the height of the season it is busy with professional cycling teams spending weeks here training. It’s also an area also often included in the Tour de France schedule


and the roadside monuments such as this on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, -elaborate memorials to the occasional casualty -are there as a sobering reminder to us to take it easy…and to wear our helmets, (although they are still not compulsory for recreational riders in France…!)

Especially for the benefit of cyclists, any hill climb of significance is signposted at the beginning with distance to go and altitude to climb; there are progress marker signs along the way and of course a summit signpost, even on the most insignificant of roads!

We planned our rides day to day using the Michelin maps, they give a wealth of information for the cyclist, including the grades, the altitudes and exact distances. So crowded is their information it is essential for aged cyclists to carry their reading glasses, -or a strong magnifier!

We kept as much as we could to the minor roads and avoiding both those too flat or too steep, generally the maximum climbing gradient we chose was 10%, -but that could go on consistently for 10-12 km. We generally rode between 60 and 100 km daily so never over-taxed ourselves, although the planning and decision making for the route would often take a morning of discussion, severely curtailing the riding time remaining!

We did a series of rides from St Girons on 5 days including more than one col on most:

1. (100km) Up the particularly picturesque Vallee Bouigane


through the town of Portet d’Aspet



to the Col of the same name (1069m) then Col de Larrieu (704m) before returning to St Girons via Touille, Taurignan and St Lizier.

2. (65km) A longer climb from the river valley at the town of Les Bordes


steadily up for 13 km through and beyond the small town of Bethmale, which, as so many are, is perched on the side of the hill


with stop off at beautiful Lac de Bethmale


to Col de la Core (1395m), then descending through a series of hairpins into the next valley, climbing again over the Col de Catchaudegue (893m) followed by some ‘intimate’ riding through very small, but ever so quaint farmyards



and small hillside hamlets



before quickly descending a narrow road


to Lacourt


an old town just up-river from St Girons.

3. (53km) Then the less challenging Col de Cap Blanc (519m) getting close up and intimate in more farmyards


followed by an easy climb up to Lazerre and medieval Tortouse


before returning the ‘back’ way to our house

4. (84km) From nearby Massat over Col de Port (1250m), down another hairpin descent


to Tarascon on the river at the junction of the main road to Andorra, but leaving it and gradually ascending to Vicdessos and then doing the climb to Port de Lers (1517m),


where the weather dramatically closed in, -cloud, mist, then cold rain.


-and single minded cattle blocked our way!  After some negotiations with them to allow us through, although better prepared than on the previous occasion, we endured another cold, shivery ride back down into the valley (it snowed in the area over that night)

5. (104km) Then from St Girons to Massat, over very rustic and rural Col de Saraille (942m)



into the Vallee du Garbet and the tiny village of Cominac


with its distinctly rural chapel and cemetery; descending to slightly larger Erce


in the valley floor. From there going higher up the Garbet river to Aulus-les-Bains, a spa town with thermal springs and non-farming income, so able to support some larger old houses


and chateaux accommodation;


then zig-zagging on, up and over the Col Latrape (1111m) immediately above, with its skifields, before a long gentle descent along the Vallee Ustou through Seix, Oust and the ancient village of Soueix Rogalle;


completing the circuit by going down the Gorges de Ribaouto along a disused railway, now road, back to St Girons.



We were all most impressed with the riding, but on one of the finer days chose instead a walk into the alps. Like the roads for riding there is a well signed and mapped system of tracks for walking in the mountains.
We drove to Eylie



and set out walking steeply up,


out of the trees,


into the alpine meadows with crocusses


heathers and berries;


among grazing sheep,


soaring eagles above


and even at that altitude, people living, -in shepherds’ cottages in the distant basin.


More surprising however was that there was an abandoned aerial ropeway to a disused mine also in the basin


and from the summit of the Pic de Lar (2424 m), just below, on the other side is the Etang d’Araing, a man-made lake with a dam and outflow tunnelled through the mountain to penstocks leading to a hydro-electric station more than a thousand metres below, -amazing to me, -unaccustomed to seeing exploitation of the mountains for anything more than ski-fields…


This is the high Pyrenees; the adjacent ridge is the international border and just over that col, is Spain.

Although it had meant leaving the cycles in the shed for the day, we had all hoped for a chance to get high up. It would have been nice to get further, -but even foreshortened, it was a great walk.

It snowed heavily in the area the next day, it had been our best opportunity.

Our week in St Girons had been most enjoyable, lucky with the weather, we had sampled some of the best of French cycling, scenery -and food -in a special part of France.

It was with some hesitation that we returned to Provence, could it ever be as good there?





of course it was; but it was different…




As in St Girons, we had a hired house for the week, -in Mormoiron, -a small town about 7 km from Bedoin but still under the influence of the ever present Mt Ventoux. Like the other, this house came with full conveniences and a pool, (but which I regret to say, none of us dared use at either place, -but neither did we use the small home gymnasium, the ‘ping-pong’ table or the ‘boules’ on offer here) However, both houses seem excellent venues for a group of 6-8 -or more, -for a summer holiday…


Mormoiron is in the heart of the grapegrowing region,


beautiful black grapes hanging on the vines everywhere and they’re of the sweetest, juiciest kind… there are also many cherry orchards, but at that time of the year cherries are finished, but the grape harvest is in full swing,


harvesting by machine and by hand,


and taken off by the truckload!
On the small roads there are trails of sticky grapejuice and the smell of fermenting grapes is on the breeze; surely the CO2 level must often exceed healthy limits?

There are small wineries all over, family establishments, making wine under many different names but all to meet the Cotes de Ventoux standards.
Chateux Pesquie, an excellent wine maker, on the edge of Mormoiron, is bigger than some, but its long driveway lined by plane trees leading up to the grand old house



and grounds beautifully maintained in a Mediterranean style;


are true testament to the excellent quality of its product, -we know!

Like St Girons, this area is off the busy tourist trail; Moirmoiron and the surrounding villages are places where people live and work year around in the Provencal way, although over the summer, they say the place is much busier.

Nearby is Venasque, a walled medieval town atop a steep hill;


with commanding views over the grape vines and cherry orchards of the Nesque Valley.
It has splendidly picturesque narrow streets and shuttered windows;



an ancient church


and a certain style with pride in appearance


where even new developments are in the best possible taste




to stay in keeping with the old.

Mazan is another walled medieval town about 5 km from Mormoiron, but there the evidence of its age is much stronger,


with the ancient gates remaining,


non-straight and non-vertical walls,


ancient timbers,


cracked plasters


and crooked steps; it is run-down, but not ruined; -it has character…!


…it is ordinary people living ordinary lives who live here.

A little more distant is Vaison-la-Romaine


another impressively situated medieval town on a hill and a river;


with a bridge which dates back in part to Roman times. The town is well known for its archeological diggings at the site of a Roman city built there in about the second century.
It’s most definitely on the tourist route,


especially on market days, where by mid-morning, even in this the ‘shoulder’ season, the crowd in the town centre was for me uncomfortable enough…
However, not all the crowd come prepared to walk the steep, cobble-stoned alleys up to the top of the old town on the hill,


where at the summit there is the ruin of a 12th century castle and great views down on the ‘modern’ town


and the vineyards on the hills around.


The narrow medieval streets are well worth exploring on the way down



there are ‘visual treasures’ around every corner





although I have to say the place wouldn’t be half as attractive without the colour of the Virginia creeper;


or the old grape-vine, still there, doing it the hard way!

Of course we ate well during our time in Mormoiron, as we did in St Girons, -it would be hard not to, -as apart from a great choice of excellent restaurants, there is so much eating to be done at home, -with all those cheeses, sausages and pates on sale in the markets;


the boulangerie and patisserie just 100 metres down the street for fresh bagettes, fruit tarts and irresistable chocolate, nutty pastry delights; then there are all those grapes, -and although too late for cherries, -abundant fresh ripe figs; and of course the cheap, good red wine…
We were invited to Jean and Nicole’s home for what they called a Sunday midday ‘picnic’


-a barbecue on the terrace under the grapevine at the back of their house.

It was a very pleasant way to fill in a sunny afternoon after a morning ride; eating simple, but very tasty local fare with a variety of wines. Certainly if it was a picnic, it was one with French style!


Several days later we returned the favour, inviting them with Jean-Michel and Caty, the other bike shop-partners, to dinner at ours…
We didn’t seem to do it quite so easily, without the fuss, or to have the same Provencal panache, but they appeared to enjoy the evening, -or were very, very polite!

We did some cycling between meals.

As in the Pyrenees there is a network of minor roads over the whole region, the traffic generally light and always well behaved; the possibilities for cycling routes endless.
However, the hill climbs are less dramatic. Mormoiron is at 240 metres and apart from towering Mt Ventoux at 1900 metres, mostly the rides are only to 4-700 metres and the gradients easy.

We did: 1. (68km) a fast ride with Jean from the cycle shop and his friend Alain on tiny roads through vineyards in a circuit around an interestingly set-of-molar-like low mountain range, the Dentelles de Montmirail;


via the Col Madeleine (458 m) and Vaison-la-Romaine

2. (104km) A circuit of Mt Ventoux, -from Mormoiron up the canyon-like Gorges de la Nesque,




dramatic scenery, but only a very gentle climb over almost 20 km to the summit at about 900m, -with ever-present Mt Ventoux in the background;


to the main road and the larger town of Sault, centre of the lavender growing district


not that there was much left to see of that in early October; but when I was last here (summer, 29 years ago!) -I remember those brown fields being lavender blue…


From there down the valley of the Toulourenc in the shadow of the big mountain (Ventoux of course),


past Entrechaux on its hill



to Malaucene with its old, but unusually understated church and then back over Col Madeleine (458 m) to Mormoiron via Bedoin.

3. (51km) A circuit from Mormoiron to Beaumes de-Venise, Lafare, then a climb to the dramatic village on a rock, Roque Alric (520 m)


and on up quite steeply though great views of vineyards


before dropping a little into Le Barroux


with its hilltop castle,


narrow streets, shuttered windows and grand view of the roof-tops and valley beneath. Down we went too, through Carombe, then to another fortress-like hill top town of Crillon le Brave, Bedoin and back to Mormoiron.

4. This day turned out to be rainy, so riding was off.
It seemed to be a good day to visit the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, -not too far away.
What a mistake to make, -it was so wet


the streets were miserable with wet people,


and the interesting looking Papal Palace crowded with people and umbrellas, all with the same idea and queueing for tickets


-but not for us!


After a passing glimpse of the song-famous bridge and a little something for lunch, we returned to Mormoiron.

Later in day it cleared a little, but too late and still too wet to ride, but it was a chance for a couple of hours walk, out of the house, in the dusk.
There’s a network of walkways everywhere, documented and signposted as in much of Europe, they go to interesting places and are understandably popular, -that is, for those unfortunates who can’t take a bike!!!

5. (91km) A ride from Mormoiron past Vanesque and over the Col de Murs (627 m)


down and across the wide valley to Roussillon


known for being the source of ochre clay, on -and of which -it is built;



so everything, everywhere, is rich red…
Then we rode back across the valley to Gordes. That is a particularly dramatic hill-top town and also particularly popular with tourists, -by the busload we found.



Although the outlook from the town is impressive, it’s a place best appreciated from a distance….
From there we ascended to re-climb the Col de Murs and return to Mormoiron.

6. (71km) This day dawned bright, sunny and cool; as we were running out of days, it had to be the one to climb Mt Ventoux,  -having looked at it, talked about it and been daunted by it for 2 weeks!
As is so often the case, it proved to be not such a hard climb…
We left from Bedoin to go up the sunny side, -although the road is in trees for about half of the 21 kilometre climb, -the gradient after about 5 km is steadily about 10%, there are no ‘down’ bits and the summit is at 1909 m. It is just a steady ‘sitting on the seat’ grind…



(The white at the summit is not snow, -it is the very light coloured rock)
The day was perfect for it, clear and cold on the top, the views spoiled by haze, but it’s probably almost always that way.
It was with a sense of elation to have done it and easily…
The return was understandably more easy, but cold and so not so enjoyable, -inspite of  extra clothing, -down through rich autumn colours of the trees on the Malaucene Route to the town of that name, then Col Madeleine to return to Moirmoron.

7. Having got Mt Ventoux out of the system this was our final day for leisurely riding.
Once again we went over Col Madeleine to Malaucene


then into the hills


by means of a tiny road over a hill to Mollans-sur-Ouveze, where the autumn colours were coming into their best,


seen from the bridge in the middle of town ;


and through the vineyards


to nearby Faucon, -it was a very pretty autumn ride in warm sunshine.
It carried on over Col de St Amand at about 400m to another hilltop village, Suzette, behind those Dentelles, (the ‘molar mountains’),


then Le Barreux once more and back to Malaucene, Col Madeleine and finally Bedoin.

There regrettably, it was time to return the bicycles, swap addresses and say goodbyes…

Paul and I spent that night in a small hotel near Le Barreux, eating haute cuisine at Hotel Les Geraniums in the town, – it was a grand symphony of flavours, -fine French cooking, but not one to repeat often, maybe partially because of the price, but mainly, the richness of the sauces!

About 9.30 the following morning Paul left me at Avignon TGV and by soon after midday I was settled in a hotel close to the Gare Lyon in Paris. My flight to Singapore wasn’t until the next morning, I had the afternoon and evening to myself.


It was a very pleasant time wandering inner Paris, although I could have hired a bicycle!


These ranks of bikes are owned by the municipality and available for public hire. They strike me as being sturdy, -rather than speedy, but an excellent way to get around if you know where you are going and the location of the ranks around the city.

Payment is by credit card, it also unlocks the bike, the first half hour is free, and the price increases progressively thereafter. Great for a quick trip somewhere!







I walked, revisiting the familiar sights



and watching the people, like me, enjoying a warm autumn Sunday afternoon in the big city.




Circuitously making my way through the balconied streets and plane trees


to evening in Montmartre



just coming to life with a rock concert on the steps and with a view of dusk falling over the city….


…it was time for a snack then to return to the hotel.

It had been just the right length of stay to remind me that inner Paris is a beautiful city, but be still happy to leave on Monday morning.
As for the rest of my 2 weeks? -I understand now why the French are such avid and accomplished cyclists, having those places for training grounds and I’ll be following the Tour de France with renewed interest in future.

-I also now look forward with greater enthusiasm to getting Quo Vadis into the Mediterranean; I’m more than ever eager to get there!

-I’m also very grateful to Paul, Ken, Tim and Barry for allowing me to tag along and sorry that John, the 5th Canadian, the snow skier and my cycling mate from Phuket, the one who really invited me onto the trip, wasn’t able make it in the end, but maybe there’ll be a re-run?

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