France is undoubtedly the best place in the world to cycle. It has warm weather, sparse traffic away from the cities, plentiful accommodation, delicious food and a beautiful terrain. I hadn’t had a French cycling holiday for sometime. So with the intrepid explorer, Tony Franco, we flew into Toulouse Blagnac Airport with easyJet. The plan was to cycle north east from the airport to the Dordogne where we’d then cycle west along the river and have a rest day. After this then it would be a return to Toulouse knowing that the last day was basically a flat run for home.
In fact we flew from ‘London-Luton’ Airport. It makes you wonder how strong the brand of London is that it necessitates ‘Luton’ having the prefix. London is 40 miles away. ‘London-Luton’ mainly handles budget airlines (used by UK residents) and so who are they fooling with this nonsense? I used ‘Meet & Greet’ for the car parking. This had a slightly worrying feel to it. I drove up to the third floor of a multi storey car park and a fairly scruffy bloke appeared, smiled in a friendly way and took my car keys, hopped into the Merc and then disappeared down the ramp. Manoeuvring two large bicycle boxes onto a trolley and repeatedly taking them off to enter narrow lifts was a chore. Eventually I found Tony and after lobbing his bike into the spare empty box (with loving care) we headed for the check in.
The plan was to re-assemble the bikes in Toulouse Airport and cycle ten miles north to a hotel before embarking on the tour the next day. I had travelled in my cycling kit however Tony hadn’t. Not a problem until he decided to change in the Arrivals Terminal with small children running around. I half expected to leave the airport to the accompaniment of police sirens searching for a British exhibitionist.
DAY 1 Toulouse Blagnac Airport to Bruguiéres – 14 miles
With my expert knowledge of France I had implored Tony to invest in some food to take with him to France. I opined that France would be ‘shut’ on Sunday evening as regards finding dining solutions. Dutifully we shopped at Luton for food. As we cycled away from Toulouse Airport then the landscape was heavily populated with open restaurants! This may have irritated Tony but as I had stupidly left my food under a seat on the aeroplane then this was a good discovery.
The fairly modern hotel in Bruguières, in the suburbs of Toulouse, was adequate although there was some type of depot nearby and with the window slightly ajar my sleep was interrupted by roaring diesels all night.
DAY 2 Bruguiéres to Villefranche-de-Rouergue – 74 miles/1,300m of climbing
The next day was Monday morning redolent with rush hour traffic. There were a number of stops and starts as we attempted to find our route to the North East. It was good to be underway and soon we were truly on the open road and aiming for Gaillac. The weather was now in the early 20º’s and no rain in prospect. The lunch stop was a delight with French cuisine (ribs) from a small restaurant in the town centre. The locals were quaffing wine and beer but with so many miles to complete and the potential for dehydration then water was the lubrication.
One striking aspect of riding at this time of the year are the fragrances as you ride along from the crops, trees and flowers. We were en route to Villefranche-de-Rouergue and we were high up and rolling mainly through arable farmland. After Gaillac we came across the beautiful tourist town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, which is an ancient fortified town high on a hill. I had stayed here on a previous 2007 cycling tour. Climbing into the town was done in heavy rain but it soon disappeared and the sun came out for the rest of the day. We stopped for a coffee break and Tony took a couple of business calls (whilst I helpfully added my enormous business acumen on European food trends to his sum of knowledge).
Leaving Cordes-sur-Ciel we saw a stop for shoe repairs after a mean little climb for a mile. Back on the road there would occasionally be a long descent, which was a relief and delight but the ‘invoice’ was soon presented with a climb immediately when you reached the bottom of the hill. One such arose in 32ºC heat as we bottomed out at Saint-Martin-Laguépie. As soon as we crossed the River Tarn there began a one hour climb. It was all about a 4 to 8% gradient and I ground up in the granny gears very slowly. As all tourers know then you are praying that this is the last hill before you hit the top. Inevitably you turn a corner to find that there is more to come. I often watch the cars coming and going past – what gear are they in and how fast are they going? This can all point to whether they have experienced an immediate climb or descent.
Throughout the week I always stayed in touch with Tony when out on the road. This was a brutal project where you attack the day and cover the terrain whatever the weather, mileage or elevation. Tony had received his initiation in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire last year with lots of miles, climbing, late finishes and changing routes. Surprisingly, he signed up for a further larger dose of exertion.
As I’d cycled over 1,200 miles this year and spent sometime in the Yorkshire Wolds climbing I was in good shape. Tony had been out training when he could but it seems most of his recent cycling had been in gyms in Shanghai, Melbourne, Dublin or Bogota whilst instructing millennials to locally best market their beer. He gets about. So you can take the view that I was his guardian angel ensuring that he was never left behind or abandoned. I, personally, would take the view that I was a nagging pain in the butt, often short of humour if he’d switched off his phone so that I couldn’t contact him or taken a turning that wasn’t fully ‘authorised’. It was on this climb from Saint-Martin-Laguépie that I came to rest wondering how far I was now ahead? – was it 5 minutes or 20 minutes? Did he have any water left? So I was just finishing leaving him a text message when he hauled into view much to my delight. He ate some of my precious stock of midget gems, took half of my remaining water and we pedalled on. I knew at this point he should be able to get through the week (but maybe I should wait less if he was going to eat my sweets).
Another glorious four mile descent took us into Villefranche-de-Rouergue and we eventually found a B&B. The room only had a double bed and so the landlady told us to go and have dinner whilst she swapped the beds around. This was no problem other than two very sweaty and weary men arriving at your restaurant wasn’t necessarily attractive. As regards conspicuous then apart from lycra shorts then one was wearing the Croatia home football shirt (red and white checks) and the other was in the leader’s jersey from the Giro d’Italia (pink). A full stomach of pasta, a couple of beers and a shower ensured that sleep came easily!
DAY 3 Villefranche-de-Rouergue to Saint Céré – 55miles/1,400m
After finishing the evening before in sunshine we awoke to rain and a fairly gloomy prospect from the bedroom window.
We bonded so closely with the landlady and her husband that we couldn’t shake them off at the door as we packed the bikes to set off the next morning. I blame Tony who can speak French reasonably: I find my limited school boy French soon makes the natives disperse. The road out of town was wide albeit with trucks but well surfaced and the miles were eaten up. I often stop to take photos and on one particular bend I was told by a shouting Dutch lady that I shouldn’t stand there; I was summoned to join her.
Margit was 50 something and domiciled in a small village near Figeac. With her husband, Fran, they’d bought a house 19 years ago and since retirement life seemed to be about landscaping, building, fitting, general construction and moaning about how unsocial the other expat Brits were. When Tony joined us we were invited to their house for a coffee. Why not? I stayed behind to take my photograph. I then discovered that their house was not ‘just off the main road’ and pedalled around for a long time up and down hills trying to find them. Out of the Seven Dwarves then I possibly resembled Grumpy when I eventually came to rest with the smiling Margit suggesting I had no sense of direction.
So we had a coffee and listened to Margit who amongst much information sharing enquired as to my age? Being hilarious I offered her three guesses. By her second guess she had suggested that I was 70 years old. To be positive then the age gap was coming down with each guess but I eschewed the last insult and told her my correct age. She was very proud of her former career in Holland showing international customers around various projects on the disposal of human waste. Mischievously I felt that Tony should now step forward and talk about his world class knowledge on beer. He absorbed this ‘ambulance pass’, with good grace, and as he expanded on my introduction Fran then volunteered that he had drunk most of the brands Tony had come across!
With time flying and the thought of lunch in Figeac we thanked them for their hospitality and headed down the proverbial (and literal) road, over the River Lot, and then into town for another splendid outside lunch in a pedestrian precinct at a small restaurant.
From here came a very tough afternoon as we climbed up from the River Célé valley. I failed to find the most direct route to our next stop. Fortunately Tony never detected the error as we climbed and meandered along minor roads in heavy rain. It was scenic and the only chance of seeing another car was if it was as lost as we were. By way of deflection when we pulled up for a discussion, on the weather, conditions of our legs and how far to go, I proffered him a Mars Bar. Never have I seen such a happy human being.
With my bearings re-established we found Lacapelle-Marival where we dried out by stopping for a coffee before the last push. The weather dried up and the scenery was hilly and rural with odd settlements, however, progress seemed slow. With yesterday’s climbing in the legs and with this latest bout of mountaineering I will never forget the large village of Leyme. It had a long main street that just got steeper until ascension and departure was only possible with the negotiation of a tight steep hairpin. This joy was accompanied by the obligatory dog ‘going off’ like a burglar alarm at my passing a large house and garden.
All over the world dogs sit in their gardens barely raising their head at the passing of aircraft, trucks cars, cats or walkers but as soon as a cyclist pedals past making no noise at all then something makes them go ballistic. (There may be money in identifying the chromosome that leads to this canine madness).
However after passing Leyme there was a long descent into a damp Saint Céré where an adequate hotel had been reserved via Booking.com. The small town had its charm and the next morning it looked like a busy and interesting place to hang around in despite the heavy rain. However the Dordogne now beckoned.
DAY 4 Saint Céré to Sarlat-la-Canéda – 54 miles/ 600m
Quickly we were enjoying the flat roads and made our first ‘pit stop’ for a coffee at a café run by a couple of Brits in Carrenac on the banks of the river. From here on very minor roads we trundled along the river. These were probably the quietest roads we’d found and through the trees we had the Dordogne on our right.
It was the type of route where trucks were advised not to use as their Sat Nav would let them down by picking an impassable route. This came to pass in Floirac where a truck was nearly wedged between two buildings. Tony established this from a local who reported that it was quite routine.
From here the road rose up and fell and we ended up on a sublime piece of road. This led us beside a large rock cliff and gave us fabulous views of the river. Somehow it seemed like the tour had been aiming to reach this very road such were the delightful views. Keeping on we reached Creysse where an omelette and as many French fries as a cyclist can possibly eat in one sitting were consumed.
The route to Sarlat involved a climb and we cycled past one of many monuments you can find in France to fallen members of the Resistance from the Second World War. I like the fact that these young people are still commemorated and their sacrifice is unquestionable but I’ve always harboured a feeling that, at best, some French had a very mixed war.
Sarlat was reached and it was clear that this was ‘Tourist Central’. Beautiful stone buildings with foreign tourists from farther afield, than Tooting and Acaster Malbis, were evident on what I suspect was their whirlwind tour of France. The ambience and attractiveness of the centre was clear but this was maybe not the France I came to find.
Certainly the hotel was not what I came to find. An internet booking went wrong and the hotel were simply intransigent. On discovering the room we wanted was not available, at the price I booked it for, cancellation wasn’t allowed. Paying another €50 seemed the only solution. I argued the toss but made no progress and in fact was made to feel quite shoddy and a bit of a ‘chancer’ by the manager. Anyway the next morning we paid and left. The upshot was this testimonial I left on Trip Advisor. Booking.com gave me half the ‘overcharge’ back in compensation. Frankly I still don’t know what I really did wrong.
This unpleasantness meant that we decided not to have a rest day in Sarlat but moved onto Bergerac. However, the town did offer up the best breakfast of the tour – it was the usual bread, croissants, coffee and juice but this seemed more plentiful and fresh.
DAY 5 Sarlat-la-Canéda to Bergerac – 46 miles/500m
You might think that riding along the Dordogne would be flat but unfortunately that isn’t the way it works out. We kept to the main road, which wasn’t too busy. There were continuing delights to see including Beynac-et-Cazenac.
After a Croque Madame (cheese on toast with a fried egg on top) in Lalinde we sped into Bergerac. Earlier I’d been sat in a layby ringing a bike shop in York about my front wheel bearings when Tony sped past. I called to him yet such was his concentration and gusto he didn’t hear me. Later harnessing this graft I ‘sat on his wheel’ into Bergerac and marvelled at how he was getting into this touring lark with all the road cyclist deft moves that help you cope with traffic, hazards and still maximise speed.
I’d stayed at the Hotel de Bordeaux, in Bergerac in 2007 and 1997 and so it was familiar albeit much improved. It was spacious and a good place to come to rest after the hard miles.
Day 5 Rest Day
Yesterday’s Stage winner appeared in the room the next morning with a cup of coffee and orange juice for my consumption. It helped me get over the loss of the midget gems (a little bit). From here a lazy day ensued of bike cleaning, a trip to a bike shop to get my front wheel bearings checked over and a short ride to the edge of the town for Tony to increase his wardrobe at Decathlon. Another fabulous outdoor meal confirmed our satisfaction with Bergerac as a rest day stop.
Me and Cyrano – an uncanny resemblance?
Day 6 Bergerac to Valence d’Agen – 69 miles/ 900m
Thoughts were turning to home and the need to get south. To this end we made a beeline for Agen before heading from here east to Valence d’Agen. As it was Saturday the traffic was light and as the sun beat down (it touched 38ºC). This peak coincided with being directed off the main road onto a side road due to bicycles being prohibited. It was one of those tortuous minor roads that offered endless steep climbs.
If there are a couple of things about my time with Tony that I should report then it is that he gained an appreciation of McDonalds and had begun to swear like a navvy. Being from Italian stock and South London then fast food was a deplorable development until he worked out that whenever you stopped the place was air conditioned, had clean toilets, a safe place to lean your bike, low prices, efficient wi-fi, quick food and didn’t require a major deviation off route. (On a serious note though I am still amazed at all the packaging that comes along with a meal eaten in the restaurant. So much paper, tissue, plastic and wrappers – they really need to pick up their game). As for the swearing then I can safely say that I for one never uttered a profanity or expressed displeasure at drivers, hoteliers, oiks on noisy motorcycles, rain, hills or dogs. I’m not sure what set him off (cough).
Agen was busy and industrial but Valence came into view shortly afterwards. I cycled to the centre and booked a room in the only hotel in town. This was a super place with lots of space and a good price. After a hot day in the saddle the Leffe beer went down well as did the pizza at the only restaurant open on a Saturday night in the town?
Day 7 Valence d’Agen to Toulouse Blagnac Airport – 53 miles/ 170m
The manager re-appeared the next day to serve our breakfast. In the night there had been a dramatic thunder and lightning storm and she described the noise and light by the delicate phrase of “fuck”. Which is what Tony and I thought when this petite and attractive young lady suddenly uttered the word. It transpired her English lexicon had been expanded by a year in Beckenham as a chef!
The ride began on a canal tow path that was beyond exquisite as a start to the day. For much of the way it ran beside the River Garonne. Dodging the twigs scattered on the path after the storm we made steady but slow progress. Along the way were lots of middle aged ladies walking with hiking sticks and the odd fisherman enjoying the solace and hopefully biting fish. Locks came at regular intervals but seldom a moving boat. We discovered that this was because they were all moored up in Moissac. A morning market was drawing crowds as we passed through.
It wasn’t a difficult ride to the Airport but I thought that we were going too slowly. We needed to have insurance against problems on the road and have enough time at the airport for dismantling and packing the bikes. So we used the quiet roads to get to our destination.
I’m still surprised by how many shops are open on Sunday in France nowadays. In a boulangerie we bought some sustenance and came across this birthday cake. I hope the driver was gentle on the brakes and corners as they took it home!
Packing the bikes was always going to be a chore. First you have to repack your panniers because you can only take one in the cabin. Then you have to break the bike down, protect it and put it in a bag. This took an hour. At check in the airline then said that we could only put the bike in the bag and not a pannier and so we had to re-pack! I have to say easyJet were reasonable and we were allowed to take two cabin bags at no extra cost.
Eventually we got rid of the bikes and grabbed a bite to eat. The next challenge was going through Security with a bag full of tools, metal pedals and other chunky objects. We both got singled out for detailed bag inspection – my heart sank. My inspector pulled out my Swiss penknife and muttered ‘bicyclette’ under her breath to explain this stuff and put it back! Even I was expecting confiscation.
Due to those nice people in French Air Traffic Control we were late taking off and getting to Luton but it went without a hitch. Back in Blighty I helped Tony assemble his steed and then we parted – him for the train and me for the multi-storey car park.
So where next? I may have answers soon…