My First-Ever French Bike Ride

Going a bit stir-crazy durum the Corona Lockdown? I sure am. And it looks like my annual, fall biking trip to France (the Riviera? Sarlat to Avignon/Nimes?) is cancelled. Oh well. It’s hard to be upset or feel sorry for myself when so many people are getting sick and dying.

So, to kill some time and plant some positive thoughts in my mind, and hopefully yours, and remind myself there’s still a lot of beauty out there in the world, it’s time to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s the story of my first-ever French bike trip, the amazing Loire River Valley. All the way back in 1985. Yep, 35 years ago. How is that possible?

OK, here we go; I hope this fills your void for the next several minutes…

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June 1985: I was an aviation writer, in Paris, to cover the Paris Air Show. It’s the world’s largest air show and is held every other year at Le Bourget Airport, which is where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927 on his historic trans-Atlantic flight. This was my third consecutive Paris Air Show. After the previous two, I spent a couple weeks visiting major European cities, by train, followed by a six-month European tour (by train) in 1984 that was financed by my freelance aviation writing.

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Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

My aviation specialty: helicopters. Really, it was helicopters.

Anyway …

It was extremely hot and hectic at the 1985 Paris Air Show. And, no, I don’t expect any sympathy. It’s hard to make an overseas assignment, in Paris no less, sound anything but amazing. Nevertheless …

“Enough!” I told myself when the air show was over. Enough of the big, crowded cities, enough of the long lines and annoying tourists at museums, all jockeying for position to see another Monet or Van Gogh painting. I want to see the famous French countryside that inspired these legendary Impressionists. What would you rather see: A painting of a field of sunflowers or an actual field of sunflowers?

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Exactly.

I consulted my Let’s Go France travel book (yes, we used travel books back then, actual books made of paper that we carried with us) and decided on Blois in the nearby Loire River Valley. I had come to depend on Let’s Go during the past few years of European travels to help me decide where to go, what to see, where to stay and eat. On the cover it claims to be the Bible of the Budget Traveler and is written by specially selected Harvard students. Plus, the New York Times called it “invaluable.”

Who am I to argue with the New York Times? I’m not Donald Trump.

Then again, invaluable makes it sound as though it isn’t very valuable. Shouldn’t the New York Times have called it “a really valuable” book? But, like I said, who am I to argue with the New York Times?

FYI: A few years later, I did some freelance sports writing for the New York Times. It was an invaluable experience.

Back to Paris, 1985, and my Let’s Go France book. I read about the town of Blois, which is located on the banks of the Loire, has a chateau, which I was pretty sure was the French word for castle, and was once “home to French monarchs Louis XII and Francois I in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.” Unfortunately, there was nothing in the book about how to pronounce Blois, which would have come in really handy.

I also read the following in my Let’s Go: “Unquestionably the best way to see this fecund valley is by bike. Distances are relatively short, and the terrain is flat and lush.” That sold it for me: I was going to get a bike when I got to Blois. My Let’s Go even listed a place to rent one: Atelier Cycles.

The only problem was, I had no idea what the word fecund meant. Never heard it uttered, never read it in a magazine or book until I read it in my Let’s Go. Is it a French word? English? Italian? Has to be a good thing, right? Some sort of compliment. Scenic? Historic?  Damn those genius Harvard students and their superior vocabulary.

What the hell, whatever it meant, I was going to bike around the fecund Loire.

***

I slowly made my way to the front of the long line at the ticket counter at the train station in Paris.

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Photo by Adrien Olichon on Pexels.com

Me (very politely): “Bonjour, parlez-vous Anglais?”

Ticket Counter Guy: “A little.”

Me: “Un billet (that’s French for ticket) pour Blois, s’il vous plait. Avec return.”

I took a wild guess and pronounced it Blue-oz.

Ticket Counter Guy (in a tone I found more than a little condescending): “I do not understand.”

Me: “Blow-oz?”

Ticket Counter Guy (in an even more condescending manner … and no one, except maybe French café waiters, can do condescending better than French civil servants): “I do not understand.”

Me: “Blue … blues … blows … bloss … blahs … blue-ah … blue ass?”

Blue ass, by the way, was the mood I was now entering. Actually, flaming-blue ass. One of the least-known but most dangerous Marvel super heroes.

Ticket Counter Guy: “I do not understand … go to the information window.”

And then he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

Now trust me, I’m not that American tourist. I’m respectful of the local culture and customs, don’t expect people to speak English, appreciate it when they do, and always learn a few words of the local language. Especially how to say “do you speak English” and “how much?”

But this, a condescending wave from Ticket Counter Guy … No way!

Me (talking slowly, calmly, yet forcefully, like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry): “Give … me … your … pen … s’il vous plait.”

Ticket Counter Guy eyed me up and down; I stared back. I wasn’t moving; I wasn’t backing down; I wasn’t going over to the information window and waiting in another long line.

It was a standoff.

Finally, with a look that seemed to say, “these Americans are such barbarians,” Ticket Counter Guy sighed, shook his head from side to side and slid a pen through the little opening at the bottom of the window.

I wrote “Blois” on a piece of paper and held it up to the window.

Ticket Counter Guy: Ah, oui, Bl…

He said it with a such a big mouthful of smug and so damn fast I still had no idea how pronounce the name of the home of Louis and Francois.

Me: “Whatever … un billet, avec return.”

Ticket Counter Guy: “This is 147 francs (this was back in the days before the Euro, and there were anywhere from five to almost six francs to the dollar, depending on the day of the week).”

I had a 100-franc and a 50-franc bill in my pocket. That wouldn’t have been any fun. Instead, I dug through my wallet and pulled out my one-and-only, and very precious 500-franc note. One of the things I had already learned about France and the French is they have a pathological hatred of changing large bills. Why? I have no idea. But they do. With a passion. Maybe it has something to do with World War II. Everything over here seems to have something to do with World War II.

Ticket Counter Guy glared at the 500-franc bill for several seconds as if it had dog poop on it (which, BTW, is everywhere on the streets of Paris, so, watch your step and maybe wash your money). Finally, and with another impressive sigh, he pulled the 500-franc bill through the window … and gave me my ticket and change.

I turned to walk away, toward my train – and kept his stinkin’ pen.

That’ll teach him not to mess with … actually, I doubt it will teach him anything or even if there was a lesson for either one of us to have learned, other than the fact that Blois is hard for Americans to pronounce. Actually, come to think of it, I did learn a valuable lesson: Whenever buying a train ticket in a foreign land, always bring a pen and a piece of paper. You never know.

FYI (1): All of the above is true, although I may have exaggerated a bit.

FYI (2): All these years later, I still don’t know how to pronounce Blois, and I’ve been back, by train, a few times. No problem. You can buy tickets online or at a kiosk in the train station and don’t have to deal with Ticket Counter Guys. I guess the internet and kiosks have put a lot of Ticket Counter Guys out of work, which is a bad thing. I feel sorry for them. Well, most of them.

***

After arriving in Blois and polishing off a croissant and a pan au chocolat, two of the greatest foods ever invented and the French versions of energy bars, I went off in search of Atelier Cycles. Found it. It was filled with sleek racing bikes, like the one the guys in the Tour de France ride, and sturdy mountain bikes, like the ones the guys who race down mountains on bikes ride. At the back of the shop, working on a bike, and wearing a yellow, one-piece mechanic’s suit that made him look like a giant banana, was Monsieur Atelier.

At least I think it was Monsieur Atelier. It had to be Monsieur Atelier.

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Me: “Bonjour.”

Monsieur Atelier: “Bonjour.”

Me: “Parlez-vous Anglais?”

Monsieur Atelier (in a very pleasant and non-condescending manner): “Non.”

Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand. Who knows, I may have been the first American to ever rent a bike from Atelier Cycles. Remember, this was 1985. I was a bit of a pioneer.

Using sign language, smiles and my limited French vocabulary, and finally getting it through my thick, American skull that the word “velo” means bicycle, after Monsieur Atelier kept pointing at bicycles and saying “velo,” I was able to explain to him that I wanted to rent a bike … I mean a velo. And no, not a mountain velo; I wanted a Tour de France velo, one with the ram’s-horn handlebars and thin tires. Like the Schwinn Continental I had ridden in high school.

Monsieur Atelier: “Ah, oui …”

Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.

He picked out a yellow road bike that matched his outfit and had “Atelier Cycles” written on the top tube. I’m pretty sure yellow was his favorite color. For all I know, he could have been a former professional rider who once wore the famous yellow jersey of the race leader of the Tour de France.

The bike seemed perfect, and even had a rack on the back onto which I could strap my knapsack with the bungee cord already wrapped around the rack. How I’d carry my stuff on the bike wasn’t something I had thought about until that very moment.

I was such a cycling novice.

Monsieur Atelier began pointing at various parts of the yellow bike, talking faster and faster. And I kept nodding, faster and faster, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He then took a bunch of stuff out of a little pouch hanging under the seat and started explaining and demonstrating what to do with all the little tools inside. He even pantomimed a demonstration of how to fix a flat tire, something else I hadn’t considered.

A flat tire?

Holy crap, that would totally suck, as I had no idea how to fix a flat, and no idea what Monsieur Atelier was saying about how to fix a flat tire with the tools in the little pouch under the seat.

I was such a cycling novice back then.

Finally, Monsieur Atelier wheeled it out of the shop and onto the street. I hopped on, ready to start pedaling my way through the fecund Loire Valley.

Or so I thought…

***

I’d never before ridden a bike with straps on the pedals (also called cages, or sometimes rat traps), and hadn’t ridden any sort of bike in at least seven or eight years (I was 26 at the time). Did they even have straps on the pedals of bicycles in the United States back in 1985? I had no idea. And the thing of it was, it was something any and every 7-year-old French kid did with ease. I could get one foot into the strap while standing still, with the other foot on the ground. But then, no matter how hard I tried, and I tried really hard, I couldn’t manage to turn the pedal with the one foot and get my second foot into the strap. The more I tried, the more frustrated I got. My feet felt huge, like giant, uncoordinated clown feet and the pedal straps seemed to get smaller and smaller the more I tried to get my second foot into them.

On the third or fourth try, I fell … and went down like a sack of pomme de terres. I bounced back to my feet and managed a sheepish grin as Monsieur Atelier did his best to hold back the laughter. I appreciated that. My right hand – upon which I had just landed – was a little scratched up, but other than that I was fine, more embarrassed than hurt.

Finally, after a few more futile efforts, Monsieur Atelier motioned for me to get off the bike. He wheeled it back into the shop as I stood there, feeling like a complete and utter idiot.

“That’s just great,” I told myself. “He’s taking back my bike. He thinks I’m the biggest idiot in the world, too stupid to be trusted with his nice, yellow bike. Now what the hell am I going to do? You can’t go for a bike ride through the fecund Loire Valley without a bike. Can you? No, you idiot, you can’t. That’s called hiking.”

A few minutes later, Monsieur Atelier emerged from the shop with the bike … minus the pedal straps.

Monsieur Atelier: “Voila!”

Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.

Me: “You’re a genius.”

Followed by a bunch of English words he didn’t understand.

I got on the bike, started pedaling, turned to wave goodbye to my new friend, wobbled and nearly lost my balance, but quickly righted myself, and pedaled off into the sunset. I think I saw Monsieur Atelier cross himself. Was his prayer for me – or for his bike?

***

Reading through my journal from the 1985 trip, I discovered my last day at the Paris Air Show was June 6 and that I didn’t immediately head to Blois. As I had remembered. Or misremembered, to be more precise. Instead, I stayed in Paris for a couple more days and eventually headed south, by train, to Nice, for about a week, then back to Paris. And arrived in Blois on June 20. The next day, June 21, I wrote in my journal: “Got up early and went to the bicycle place … got a bike for 35 francs a day.”

Here’s my description of that day’s ride, my first-ever French bike ride: “Went to Chambord, Chambord, Villesavin, Cheverny and Beauregard. Whew!!”

Yep, two exclamation points. And not much description. But hey, 35 miles. Not bad for a rookie. The next day, I wrote: “My ass is killing me, so I took it easy – only to Chaumont and back.” That’s about a 25-mile ride.

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Chambord … many years later, with Susan

Chambord is this immense castle in the middle of nowhere. No town around or beneath it, no nothing. Just the castle surrounded by hundreds of acres of fields and forests. And several large parking lots, for all the cars and the invading army of tour buses. I approached the castle on my bike, turned off the paved road and into one of the parking lots, slid when I hit the gravel of the parking lot … and went down. In front of a few dozen tourists getting on or off one of the tour buses. Several of the tourists found my fall quite amusing.

I was such a cycling novice.

Again, I landed on my right hand. And this time a few pieces of gravel were embedded in my palm. Ah, this is why cyclists wear gloves.

As I’m discovering as I write this: Memories aren’t an exact science. Especially mine. I remembered my first French cycling trip being one continuous ride around the Loire. My journal told me otherwise. After those first two rides, from my home base of Blois, I returned my bike to Monsieur Atelier and took the train to nearby Amboise and got a hotel for two nights. On the second day, I took the train back to Blois, re-rented “my” yellow bike, minus the straps, and rode to Chenonceaux, the castle that goes across a river (the Cher), and then cycled back to Amboise. About 35 miles. Then on to Tours, Azay-le-Rideau and then all the way back to Blois in a single day, about 60 miles, by far the longest and most amazing ride of my life up to this point in time.

Here’s what I wrote about the castle at Villandry: “The gardens were incredible, perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve seen so far.” I’ve been back a few times, and 1985 Steve was right on the money about these gardens. Amazing.

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Here’s what else I wrote: “I am really enjoying the riding and would love to keep going.”

After six days and maybe 200 miles, my ass was a nightmare (ah, so that’s why cyclists wear those fancy, tight spandex pants!), but I was totally and absolutely hooked on bike touring. The freedom, the wind in your face the sights and sounds, the challenge of mapping out a great route, and all the incredible sights along the way had me hooked. This was so much better than touring yet another large, crowded city and visiting one museum and tourist attraction after the next.

FYI: Eventually, I looked up fecund in the dictionary and: Full of flowers and plants and botanical stuff.

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Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder

You never know what’s around the corner, down the cycle path or just past the medieval village on a French bike ride. Like this…

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This strange statue is on the Roger Lapebie bike path that runs 57 kilometers from Bordeaux to Sauveterre-de-Guyenne. I first rode the path in 2018 on my Biking Bordeaux trip, and the statue was just a big block of cement with a few cuts and carves in it. A work in progress.

On my 2019 Biking the Dordogne trip, I rode the Lapebie path again, from Bordeaux to St-Emillion, due to a train strike that prevented me from taking the train to Sarlat. Familiar territory, a nice ride. And there it was: the finished statue, in all its concrete glory. I just had to stop and stare, wonder and even chuckle. I apologize to the artist, as I’m sure he/she put their heart and soul and artistic talents into this. Perhaps some of the cyclists who ride by will like this statue. What do you think? Art is subjective.

Perhaps it’s not finished and the artist will carve out more of the bike. I guess I’ll have to go back and see.

This statue reminded me of this giant, plastic sculpture, which is one of my all-time favorite sights in France. It ranks right up there with the Pond du Gard, Mont Ventoux and the view from Domme…

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What the heck is going on here? Why are the members of this family stacked one on top of the other? And why is the father coughing? Is he sick? Dying, and this is the family’s final vacation together? If so, wouldn’t the kid be sicker. maybe they haven’t told him yet. This plastic bit of kitsch is on the D 110 just north of the little village of Villandrut, where this castle resides…

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I know: The Villandrut castle is a wonderful and an amazing example of medieval castle building and architecture, a reminder of past glories. But come on: Modern man is still capable of creating works of art that will be enjoyed for centuries.

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My Fifth eBook is Done: The Dordogne

Five down and ? to go.

My fifth Biking France eBook is now available: Biking the Dordogne, and the Lot and Cele river valleys. It turned out pretty good. And, it got me thinking: How would I rank the five French regions I’ve cycled and written about? It’s tough, really tough, as each one offers something different and unique, and judging them is all in the eye of bike of the beholder. What I like, you may not like and visa versa. Or even versa visa.

Nevertheless, here I go…

5 … Normandy. This was tough to rank so low, because I have a deep sentimental attachment to Normandy. In 1999, the newspaper I was working for sent me to Normandy, with the U.S. Army Rangers, the amazing men who stormed the beaches and climbed the cliffs on D-Day. I got to know several of them quite well, and will forever be inspired by what they did on D-Day and for the rest of their lives. Amazing guys. While I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a greatest generation, these guys were indeed very special.

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However, we’re talking about bike trips, and the riding in Normandy is really rural and a bit on the boring side. No stone villages or towns/castles on top of the hills, no great climbs and views. Lots of farms, orchards and cows. It’s not unpleasant, but not spectacular.

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Nevertheless, if you’re interested in World War II history, this is a place you must visit. As I write in my eBook, you can use Bayeux as a base and do day trips from here to most of the important sights: the American Cemetery, Pointe de Hoc and several other invasion beaches and memorials. It’s quite inspiring … and my eBook includes much of what I learned from the Rangers, and will help put what they did into perspective for you as you ride along where they landed.

4 … The Loire. Oh man, this was tough to rank fourth, just ahead of Bordeaux. The Loire was where I did my first two French bike trips, in 1985 and 1988. The castles, sunflowers, all the great towns and chateaux. It’s wonderful. In fact, I like to tell people: This is the place for you to do your first French bike trip, either on your own or as part of an organized tour. Why? It’s close to Paris, there are lots of great cities to stay at that aren’t far from each other, the riding is pretty easy and scenic, sunflowers and apple orchards. It the perfect place for a couple.

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So, why only fourth? It’s become a little too touristy. And, the riding isn’t quite as challenging as I’d like – not enough hills and hill-top towns and views. Then again, these two factors may make this a more attractive destination for you.

3 … Bordeaux and the Atlantic Coast. The “and the Atlantic Ocean” is what gives Bordeaux the slight edge over the Loire. For me. You get two distinct regions: vineyards and villages … then and ocean-resort towns. And both are quite nice.

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Then there’s St-Emillion, an amazing and medieval hilltop town surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards. I love the town and the day-trip rides from St-Emillion. Langon, further to the south, isn’t nearly as nice a town as St-Emillion, but the day-trip rides are actuallu better and more varied, and include more castles, cathedrals and, of course, miles and miles of vineyards.

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Then there’s the ocean, and the long, wonderful bike paths that crisscross the region and make the riding safe and enjoyable. The town of Arcachon is quite big and touristy, but OK, and a great base to explore the nearby Dune du Pilat, which is kind of amazing.

2 … The Dordogne and Cele/Lot River Valleys

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This was my most recent trip and book, and it was a really great trip. I think this area, and the Dordogne in particular, has some of the best features of all the other regions: Great riding, with rivers, ridges and valleys and reasonable climbs to get up and over the ridges and down to the river valleys. And great old stone towns at the tops of these hills, like Domme, Beynac and Rocamadour. There are prehistoric caves, so many castles and mile after mile of scenic, less-trafficked roads.

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1 …Provence. This is cycling heaven. For me. So, if you’re a bit hard core and love climbing, like I still do, this is the place for you. It all begins with Mont Ventoux, which attracts thousands and thousands of cyclists every year to see if they have what it takes to tackle what’s known as the toughest mountain climb in all the Tour de France.

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Then, there’s the Gorges des Nesque, a long climb with amazing views.

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I love the rides up to Bonnieux and Gordes, and Susan and I “discovered” the small but wonderful town of Lacoste and the castle ruins up above. And then there’s Seguret, perhaps our favorite French city. I could go on and on … and, if you love pure riding, and a lot of climbing, Provence is the place for you. Oh wait … the Pont du Gard. And the the Roman ruins at Glanum, and then there’s Les Baux and … I could go on and on.

 

 

A Video Tour of the Dordogne….

I’m finishing up my eBook on the Dordogne, Lot & Cele river valleys, and have been browsing through my videos. It’s fun, and I thought I’d share a few. Here’s a selection from the Dordogne. Darn, I miss the Dordogne. It’s a really great place to bike tour.

1-The view from Beynac, my first stop on the Dordogne loop. You have to walk up and up through the cobbled stone of the medieval village, pay to get into the castle, climb up even further and here’s the view from the ramparts … be careful if you’re scared of heights!

 

2-Like climbing? There are a lot of climbs in the Dordogne. Here’s one of my favorites, up and up to the town of Creysse…

 

3-Here’s the view down from Domme, which is yet another medieval village …

4- Here’s something a little different: Justin riding across the bridge over the Dordogne near Carennac …

5- Here’s a really nice stretch between Beaulieu and Argentat, all along the Dordogne. The French countryside is pretty darn nice…

6 – Yet another view from up above! From Rocamadour, which is … yep … another medieval village high atop a cliff. Which view do you like best: From Beynac, Domme or Rocamadour?

7- Here’s a fairly long video and a fairly typical stretch of riding in the Dordogne. Notice the ominous rain clouds, which did indeed start raining down on us soon …

8- OK, last one for now. Riding along the Dordogne and through the cliff-side and touristy town of La Roque-Gageac…

That’s a Wrap: My 2019 Cycling Adventure Is Over, Here’s the Debriefing & Photos/Videos…

I’m writing this from home, which means my 24-day, 850-mile 2019 French cycling adventure is over. Except for the credit card bill to come. I’m kind of scared to look online.

Before the memories of this trip slowly begin to fade from my memory, like the fourth season of Schitt’s Creek, I thought I better jot down some observations and a few of the lessons learned. Let the debriefing begin …

The Dordogne Reigns Supreme

I rode through the Dordogne in 1990 and 1997 … and remember it as a nice place to cycle, but nothing special. My memories were way off. The Dordogne is magnificent and has moved way up on my list of the best places to bike in France. Provence remains No. 1, but the Big D just might have inched its way past the Loire and into second place. Then again, I better go back to the Loire and do some more research before I make such a bold declaration.

Perhaps one of the reasons I underestimated the Dordogne is that I’ve improved. Huh? Well, what I mean is, over the years, and my many French bike trips, I’ve gotten better at planning and mapping out routes and discovering the best of each region.

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Rainy Days and Mondays

There was a lot of rain on this trip. Off and on, and then pretty much every day From Day 11 until the final couple of days. The most rain on any trip ever. By far. Perhaps September would have been a drier, warmer month for this trip than October. Oh well, cycle and learn. And then post about it. Here’s what it’s like to ride in the rain…

Riding in the rain isn’t really that horrible, especially when it’s a misty, foggy rain or a light drizzle, which it was most of the time. There were only a couple of out-and-out downpours (like the one above).

The problem is drying stuff out in a small hotel room. This task is pretty much impossible, which means, item-by-item, sock-by-sock, the dampness becomes permanent and deeply engrained in everything. Especially my bike shoes. Wow were they stinky, despite my best efforts with the woefully unpowerful hotel hair dryers. I was worried my bike shoes wouldn’t make it through airport security and would be classified as a toxic hazard.

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The Lone Wolf

I was by myself the first half of my trip, the Lot and Cele river valleys. Susan has always joined me for at least a portion of past bike trips, but not this one. And so, I was a bit lonely. The days were fine, what with all the riding. But the nights? Boring. Lonely. Fortunately, and despite a train strike, which I’ll get to, Justin (my nephew) joined me for the Dordogne portion of the trip. He was a swell cycling companion.

The lesson learned: 24 days alone would have been way too long, even with the ability to video chat with Susan most evenings. Two weeks max.

Beynac

I’d been to Beynac before, back in 1997, with Susan. And we really liked the town: A nice hotel right on the river, a fantasy castle looming up above, with a medieval village in between.

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However, I never made it up all those steep steps to the actual castle. Until this trip. Which kind of makes me a knucklehead, as the castle – and especially the views from the upper turrets or parapets (I’m not sure what’s the right word) – just might be the highlight of the Dordogne. What a view. Take a look for yourself. Unless you’re scared of heights.

More on Justin

I don’t get to see Justin, or any of our other 12 nieces and nephews, as much as I’d like, what with everyone scattered all over the country and beyond, from England to San Fran to Tampa. So, this trip was a great chance to reconnect with Justin, who lives in Chicago, recently earned his PhD, and got engaged. About 10 years ago we biked in upstate NY (with his brother, Josh) and a year or two later took on Vermont. This was his first biking in France experience.

Here’s the deal on Justin: Smart, interested in everything and everyone and he likes to learn new things. Ready for every challenge or new adventure. Incredibly proficient with technology and a bit of a science nerd, a total foodie and wine connoisseur, if connoisseur means he likes cheap red wine. He’s also a bit of a snorer. Justin didn’t complain once about all the rain, taking it all in stride and smiling through the raindrops.

Justin is also a bit of a dreamer. And, when he thought about this trip, prior to the actual trip, what he envisioned was doing this, which he finally got to do at the very end of our trip, when it finally stopped raining. Don’t look if you have a gluten problem…

“I really wanted to carry a bottle of wine in my other pocket but that wasn’t really practical,” Justin said. Maybe next time

The Great Gouffre

I had vague recollections of the Gouffre de Padirac, which we visited on our 1997 trip. Again: My bad. How could I under-remember a vast underground river that you climb down to and then traverse in a boat while surrounded by incredible rock formations? I promise not to forget this recent visit. Ever. Hey, maybe the lack of an iPhone and the ability to take hundreds of photos back then is why I have memory lapses. Hmmm, it’s something to ponder. Do smart phones improve our memories of memorable experiences?

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Gouffre? It means abyss or giant hole. And I have no idea how to pronounce it.

Justin’s Turn

Here’s what he thought of his first French bike trip…

Justin: The geography blends a winding river, plentiful caves, and dramatic cliffs topped with countless chateaus. Coming from the flat, windy plains (of Chicago), it was amazing to experience some change in elevation. It was serene riding next to the river and crossing beautiful stone bridges. The climbs up to Domme and Beynac are well worth the effort for the breathtaking views of the river.

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Still Justin: But for me, the real killer part about biking around France was the wine and baguettes. Every tiny market has excellent bottles of red wine for less than 5€ and even the “worst” boulangerie has amazing bread. I’m also convinced there’s some secret machine for making the perfect croissant that only exists in France. On the last day in Paris I got an incredible croissant and an espresso for just 2.20€; an inferior version of this would easily cost $8 in the US. Nothing gets your biking day started right like excellent bread and there’s no better way to relax than with delicious red wine!

The Lot and Cele

While the Dordogne was a bit overwhelming, the Lot and Cele rides were a bit underwhelming. Then again, this assessment may be a bit unfair, and only occurred to me after I rode through the Dordogne. I think the problem was I devoted too many days to this portion of the trip, was alone, stayed in smaller towns with fewer things to see and wander around, and didn’t do as much climbing. For me, climbing always makes a trip better.

Then again, the castle at Bonaguil is wonderful.

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It’s actually larger and better preserved than the Beynac castle, but doesn’t have the amazing views. St-Cirq Lapopie is a medieval village on a cliff that rivals Rocamadour (in the Dordogne), and the ride from St-Cirq to Fumel was a great one: Along the Lot with a few climbs up and great views down. For example…

Wait, hold on. I just looked at a bunch of Lot/Cele photos and re-remembered how nice the rides were. See, having an iPhone does help the memory. The Dordogne is still more spectacular, but I have to give the Lot/Cele it’s props.

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The Great Train Robbery

Two French rail strikes!

The first occurred as Justin was trying to get from Paris to meet me in Bordeaux on the same day he flew in from Chicago. It made for a long, long two days for him. And, it prevented us from getting from Bordeaux to Beynac the next day, where I had reserved a nonrefundable hotel room online. Instead, we rode from Bordeaux to St-Emillion, a great medieval village in the midst of Bordeaux wine country. And then we got lucky. The strike ended that night, and the next day we were able to train it to Sarlat, and then ride to Rocamadour, where I had reserved a non-refundable hotel room for two nights.

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The second train strike occurred at the end of our trip, as we were trying to get from Bordeaux to Paris. We had a reservation on the super-fast TGV train. It whisks you from Bordeaux to Paris in 2 hours. It was cancelled due to the strike. Instead, we were able to find and reserve tickets on a super-slow train from Bordeaux to Limoges, had a 90-minute layover, and then rode another super-slow train to Paris. Instead of 2 hours, our journey was 9 hours. But we made it. And our non-refundable flight home the next morning.

Another Great View

I did remember Domme, the little village high atop a cliff overlooking the Dordogne. We stayed there one night back in 1997. And, I certainly remembered the long, steep ride up to the town.

On this trip, I rode up to Domme twice. The first climb was the route I’d taken in 1997: the more-traveled route up from the town of Cernac. The second time, we came at Domme from a different direction, on the less-traveled D46E. I like this way better, as you wind your way up and over a ridge, through the forest, catching glimpses of the river below and Domme above, and then arrive at the gates to the city. Here’s the view from the top…

Life Lessons

I could go on and on, and will in my upcoming eBook on the Dordogne. My fifth eBook on French cycling! The others are: Provence, the Loire, Normandy and Bordeaux.

I’ll finish up with a few quick thoughts …

My first French bike trip, five days in the Loire, was 34 years ago. How is that even possible? 34 years? Anyway, all these years later, I can still do this. And, I’m a much stronger rider now then I was in 1985, although not as strong as I was in 2010. Age and injury do have a way of creeping up on you.

Speaking of 34 years ago … I was single back then, and perfectly content to go on weeks-long journeys by myself. I stayed at youth hostels and met lots of people. Now: I’m married and miss Susan after a few days. And don’t stay in youth hostels. It would be weird.

I still enjoy the sense of adventure and freedom of a cycling trip, love planning a route and then adapting on the fly during the actual ride. In fact, I’ve already started planning my next trip. Or trips. The French Riviera? Maybe, but it involves a lot of climbing, which isn’t so attractive to Susan. Maybe Justin and Josh will join me. The Alsace region south of Strasbourg? I think Susan will go for this, especially on an eBike. It’s wine country. And then there’s my Bordeaux to Nice route, a long and perhaps perfect ride I’m determined to do. One day.

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