Here’s another of my cycling stories. It’s 1988, and I’m in Nice, relaxing on the beach, and my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer finally decided, after weeks of hemming and hawing, that he wants me to cover a few days of the Tour de France. Starting in Bordeaux. Where the ride will end, the next day. I took the overnight train from Nice and …
Fortunately, there was a shower in the Bordeaux train station. And, for a train-station shower, it was pretty nice. I paid, showered and emerged feeling somewhat clean, sort of awake and excited to be in Bordeaux to cover the Tour. But a bit disoriented. Even more disoriented when I found out that while my map of the Tour, which I’d torn out of the International Herland Tribune newspaper a few weeks previously, said the Tour finished in Bordeaux, it didn’t actually finish in Bordeaux. The finish line of the day’s 123-mile race from Pau was several miles away at a lake resort I’d never heard of.
Now remember: No internet back in 1998.
It took one, maybe two, buses to get there, and I arrived at 10 a.m. Which was a couple hours before the day’s race even began. Actually, there were two separate races that day, a bit of a rarity and something they don’t do any more. The first was 22 miles from Luz Ardiden to Pau. And then the 123 miles from Pau to the lake near Bordeaux.
In other words, I had several hours to kill. I found the finish line, which was a ghost town. Nobody was there, except a few workers setting up the fences that line the final kilometer or two of the course. Found a bench, and took a nap, like some sort of homeless freelance sportswriter.
A little after noon, things began happening. People arrived, tents and stands were erected. I found the press tent, showed my Philadelphia Inquirer press card and … nothing. They’d never heard of me. There was not a press credential with my name on it waiting for me.
The editor had never called to set it up as he’d said he would do.
Uh-oh, I was in trouble. No access, no story. No great clips.
Finally, after pleading and pleading with one of the press guys, and standing there in silence while he lectured me, he waved me in. And gave me a credential.
I spent the next several hours watching the Tour on the TVs in the tent, while a kind reporter from Belgium filled me in on what I needed to know. There was a large table filled with food, and, famished, as I hadn’t eaten since the night before, I scarfed down as much as I could without drawing attention to myself. The key is to only take a little bit at a time, but to make several trips.
Finally, the peloton arrived, in mass, a colorful flash of bikes and jerseys. Dutch rider Jean-Paul Von Poppel won the sprint finish. I’d been hoping that David Phinney, an American sprinter, who’d won the stage into Bordeaux in 1987, would somehow win again. That would have made for a great story. Phinney finished seventh.
I followed the swarm of reporters, who moved in a giant mass, out of the tent, and then split, amoeba-style, into two packs: One to interview Von Poppel, the other moving inexorably toward Pedro Delgado, the Spanish rider who was the Tour’s overall leader.
Off I went in search of Phinney, as it made more sense for me to interview and quote an American. The 7-11 team was the “American” team and included Phinney, Bob Roll, Andy Hampsten and Ron Keifel. They were the brash, bold young Americans, taking on the more experienced European teams. And the 7-11 boys were doing quite well. Phinney won a stage in 1986 and 1987; Hampsten finished fourth overall in the 1986 Tour; Jeff Pierce won a stage in the 1987 Tour.
Somehow, I found the hotel where the 7-11 team was staying. They were eating dinner by the time I found them. Here’s what I remember: A long table filled with heaping mounds of food. Piles of pasta. I approached Phinney, who was kind enough to agree to meet me in the lobby for an interview.
“This race is one of the most physically demanding events there is,” he said. “You just have to reach down and come up with whatever you have left to get through the day.”
Each day, he said, consists of: Rising early and eating breakfast, a warm-up ride, more food, and the day’s race, which is usually four to six hours long. Then it’s back to the hotel, which is hopefully close to the finish, for a massage, a huge, carb-filled meal, then back to your room to wash out your dirty bike kit (clothes) in the sink, hang them up to dry, and, finally, go to sleep and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.
I’m pretty sure, these days, the riders no longer have to wash out their bike clothes in the sink and hang them up to dry in their hotel rooms.
“I’ve seen guys who have done this (race) for 10 years and it shows on their faces,” said Phinney, who was 28 at the time. “Sean Kelly (an Irish rider) is 32, but he looks 45. I hope I have enough sense to quit before that happens to me.”
I raced back to the press tent and wrote my story, by hand, in a notebook. With the help of the handouts. The handouts included all the results and quotes from the leaders, in several different languages.
Now remember, it’s still 1988. How was I to get my handwritten story from France to Philadelphia? Raced over to a hotel, and made a phone call. Back then, many hotels had a couple of telephone booths somewhere in or near the lobby. You’d give someone at the desk the number you wanted to call, they’d tell you which booth to wait in, the phone would ring, and you’d pick it up and start talking.
Trust me, nobody on the sports desk of the Inquirer wanted to be the one stuck taking my call, and typing the story I read into the computer (yes, we had early-version computers back then). This is a crappy assignment under normal circumstances, and even harder in this instance, as my story contained a lot of hard-to-spell words and names. For example:
FYI (1): Two days later the news broke that Delgado was doping. He tested positive for phobenicid, which is used to mask anabolic steroids. While phobenicib was already on the banned list for the Olympics, it hadn’t yet been added to the banned list of the International Olympic Committee. Delgado was allowed to continue, and won the Tour, but it was a tainted win.
FYI (2): Phinney never won another stage of the Tour de France. He did have a long and successful cycling career, finishing with 328 total wins, the most by any American. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1990. Here’s what sticks out in my memory about him: A really nice guy.
FYI (3): I did a Bordeaux ride in 2018, and looked for the town on the lake where this 1988 state of the tour ended. My best guess was Lacanau, but when I got there … nothing. Nothing seemed to jog my memory. Nothing seemed familiar. I just spent several minutes searching the internet, but no luck. Every website and story said that this stage ended in Bordeaux. But it didn’t end in Bordeaux, I’m sure of it. Unless this is an episode of The Twilight Zone.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been working on a book … a compilation of my French cycling adventures. Here’s one from 1992 …
“Bonjour,” the older-looking guy said, hardly out of breath, as he and his friend pulled up alongside of me as I struggled up one of the tallest mountains in Luxembourg. OK, I know: Luxembourg is a really small country, and so are the mountains, especially compared to the Alps or Pyrenees. The top of this mountain, near the town of Marnach, was “only” 520 meters.
“Bonjour,” I answered, totally out of breath.
The older-looking guy then launched into lots more French I didn’t understand.
“Je ne parle pas Francais,” I panted. “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
“Oui,” he answered. “Are you British?”
“American,” I said.
It seems this guy, and his bike buddy, were from Belgium (one country over to the west) and were on vacation, with their wives, who were spending the day shopping while they went for a ride.
“It’s a beautiful day for a ride,” the guy said. “And not too hard for someone who is 20, yes?”
“I’m 33,” I said. “And this is hard.”
“Thirty-three,” he said with a triumphant smile. Then he pounded his chest with his right arm. “I am 60.”
“Good for you, old timer,” I mumbled to myself. Then he began speaking to his friend, in French, or maybe it was Dutch, which they also speak in Belgium. The second guy laughed and then pounded on his chest.
“He is 62 and says this is an easy ride,” the first guy said.
Easy? What the hell were they talking about? I was already over the 1,000-mile mark on this trip, and feeling pretty darn good about myself and my cycling abilities. And then these two Belgian chest pounders have to go and ruin it.
And then, to make matters worse, they stood up on their pedals, starting spinning faster and pulled away from me. Quite easily. How dare they! I wasn’t about to let these two old guys kick my ass, and quickly rose up and began pedaling faster and more furiously. Nope. Not even close. They kept pulling further ahead of me, and the pain in my thighs and lungs got worse with each and every pedal stroke. I sat back down on my bike seat and began to pedal slower, gasping for breath.
The 60-year-old turned and gave me a wink and a wave, as they pulled further and further away.
In my defense, these were most likely two former professional cyclists. In fact, they were probably once among the top professionals and, perhaps, one or even both of them, had won a stage or two of the Tour, maybe even a mountain stage. Yeah, this sounds plausible.
FYI: I’m now 61 as I write this, the same age as these guys. And can, and have, kicked the butts of some much-younger riders on the way up some pretty long, steep hills. I have not, however, ever pridefully pounded my chest in triumph as I pedaled past and dropped these young riders. That can wait till I’m 70. I’m looking forward to it.
FYI(2): I don’t have any photos from the 1992 trip. The pictures above are from 2018 and Provence.
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…
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.
My aviation specialty: helicopters. Really, it was helicopters.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then, there’s the Gorges des Nesque, a long climb with amazing views.
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.