Between a Rocamadour And A Hard Place

This one’s from our 1997 French bike trip, and a reminder of how bike rentals and my map-reading abilities have advanced over the years.


Rocamadour, France– The most difficult thing about our two-week bike trip through the Dordogne region turned out to be renting bikes.

“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked the woman who ran the only bike shop in the town of Souillac.

“Non,” she said, shaking her head apologetically.

I understand a lot of French words, but putting them together into sentences or understanding when someone else puts them into sentences, especially when they talk quickly, is beyond me. The woman at the bike shop did indeed start stringing together a lot of words into rapid-fire sentences. I did a lot of nodding, not knowing exactly what I was agreeing to.

Finally, I asked the key question: “Combien?”

She told me the price. Actually she wrote it down on a piece of paper. I made a face and she knocked 300 francs off the total. We had a deal. And two sturdy mountain bikes. We would have much preferred lighter, faster road bikes, with racks, but she didn’t have any.

bicyclist passing the road near the river
Photo by Pixabay on

My idea of a perfect vacation day is riding 50 or 60 miles with lots of climbing. This isn’t Susan’s idea of a perfect vacation day. And so, over the years we’ve reached a compromise: we’ll do a lot of 25-mile and sometimes 30-mile rides from town to town on our loaded bikes. Once we’re ensconced in a pretty little village, I’ll go for a long ride by myself the next day while Susan relaxes at a café with her morning coffee and spends a few hours walking around the village, seeing the sights, petting the local cats and taking photos.

With all of this in mind, I set out for a solo ride from Rocamadour, an incredible medieval town and religious pilgrimage destination that’s carved into the side of a 492-foot cliff in the Alzou Canyon.

From the top of the cliffs, I spotted what looked like a bike path that followed the bottom of the valley, hopefully all the way to Gramat, which was where Susan and I were headed the following day. If we could ride this path, I reasoned and hoped, we could avoid climbing up and over a lot of cliffs, which would make Susan very happy.

And, making Susan happy is very important! Especially if I want her to go on a future French cycling adventure.

So, off I went.

At first, the path was smooth and wide enough for a car. Then, it got narrower and narrower. And rockier and rockier. And then, darker and darker as I got deeper and deeper into the thick forest.

I came to a point where I had to ride across the shallow Alzou River and scamper up a rocky embankment with my mountain bike slung over my shoulder, and realized there was no way Susan was going to make.

We’d have to stick to real roads and climb the cliffs to get to Gramat. Oh well. I tried.

Being stubborn, I decided to press on and see if I could make it all the way to Gramat. I continued to follow the so-called path, crossing back and forth across the river at least five more times. At one crossing, I had to walk across a narrow log, carrying my bike on my shoulder.

biker holding mountain bike on top of mountain with green grass
Photo by Pixabay on

Of course, I slipped and my bike and I fell into the water. This gave me a chance to shout a few of the French curse words I know.

I started worrying the so-called path wasn’t leading where I thought it was leading and I’d soon be hopelessly lost, unable to find my way to Gramat or back to Rocamadour. “Calm down, you big baby,” I told myself. “As long as you follow the bottom of the valley, with the river, you’re heading in the right direction, toward Gramat.”

Finally, the so-called path made a big curve to the left and up the steep side of the cliff. I was able to ride for a couple hundred yards, then it became so steep and rocky I had to walk. I climbed and climbed, scampering up the rocky slope, praying it wouldn’t get so steep and rocky I couldn’t make it up with my bike. Going back down, the way I came, looked more dangerous that going up.

Finally, I reached the top of the cliff, found the road to Gramat and rode a 20-mile loop back to Rocamadour.

“Susan,” I said when I returned to our hotel. “I found a great short cut to Gramat. You’re gonna love it!”

After I told her all about my adventure, Susan was more than happy to climb the cliffs to Gramat.

New Note: This was the last time we biked the Dordogne. I think it’s time to return and check out this so-called bike trail again. And, fortunately, I’m still able to get Susan to go on French biking adventires.

Another Note: I couldn’t find any photos from ’97, so I had to use these. Sorry.


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