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