Reflections on the Bike Trip
This is mostly a note to myself for the near future and other possible bike trips. It is also a reminder to about five people on earth about what kind of bike trip I would like to do. So a little more personal than usual.
Overall the trip was a total success. I could mention little blips, with the car, adjusting bike seats, some horrible meals we ate, and hotel choice not always perfect. But there would be little point, except to learn from mistakes, so as to move on and make different ones. Seldom is a holiday perfect in every aspect.
My cycling partner was Mickey, with whom I shared the same small junior high school class, high school and even the same university. We played on the same high school tennis team. Although we had completely lost touch for 45 years, we had both decided we would enjoy the trip and both have a fair amount of social experience and travelling experience, so it worked out just fine. Mickey turned out to be a fine navigator either in the car or on the bike. He liked knowing where we were, never having been to France before. Yes, it worked out fine.
As for the cycling, we seemed to find it hard to get going before 9h00, although if there were a very good reason, we might have been able to do it. We cycled on seven days, although we were together for eleven. Three days in a row did not seem to be a problem as long as we were not TOO tired from the previous day. We did nothing much on his arrival day, after a transatlantic flight and train ride from Paris. I doubt we should have done anything else. Mind you, the positive factor is that Mickey got to see where I live and to meet Naurika. The next day we drove for six hours to get to the Dordogne, so neither of us was keen to ride. A trip for a cyclist from England might be different. The picking up from airport and arriving in the region chosen for riding, could be all in one day. There was also one day when we only drove through the Cevennes. The second day we drove through the Cevennes and did a wee warmup ride when we arrived in Apt. I was reminded how long the climbs sometimes are in the Cevennes, but correspondingly there were some very long downhill stretches. The other days we rode for 56k, 51,47, 19, 44, 34, 51. We attempted to carefully plan the rides, but were sometimes overtaken by a spontaneous change of plans or we came upon hills that were harder than we thought, or we just took a longer route (sometimes by having inadequate maps. The blue maps for walkers also are useful for cyclists who don’t go too far, that is, off the map. The planning exercise was more like “getting the lay of the land”, seeing what was where. I remember one day when we didn’t seem to notice that two “most beautiful villages (henceforth MBV) were on our trajectory. So two stops to explore these villages seemed to be in order.
We usually rode until we could find something to eat for lunch. Lack of good planning and lack of respect for classic French eating habits meant we sometimes ate rather poorly at lunch. There are an awful lot of mediocre restaurants or food sellers in France, if you don’t plan a bit. I had a simple dish of pasta, if we found a resto open. Still, all we usually did after lunch is head for “home”. One day it was only 9k to our hotel, and other days it was 15k. Neither of us seemed very strong and lively in the period after lunch. We then both had a nap, and fiddled with our mobile devices (Mickey read two books on his Kindle), chatted and tried to figure out the appropriate place we might eat dinner, given our appetites and feelings on the day. The small hotel in the Dordogne where we stayed for two nights had excellent food, really quite good, demi-pension. But when we foraged for ourselves not eating at the hotel, we sometimes ended up eating who knows what. One evening we ate on the banks of the Dordogne out of doors (obviously, we were tourists), it was slightly cheaper, and looked like they had a salad for Mickey. But it was mediocre, just a huge mass of quite normal salad veg, and for me a meal of below average quality that took so long to arrive, that I went back to the hotel for warmer clothing. I think in future, I might pay a few euros more, do better research or have the evening meal as part of the hotel deal. In fact, one of the hotels in La Roque Gageac, was both a “bib gourmand” resto and a good hotel. La Belle Etoile. Right on the river. But it is more costly than a low level two star. I think one day it might be a nice place for a romantic quality three day break for two people.
I think the “best” place we stayed was the one we had for four days, even though it was not the most memorable hotel. The staff got used to our routines and bikes. We got to know the roads in and out of town, and even rode on the same road more than once. Also if you stay for several days in one town, you can choose more carefully where you eat. So when we got to Apt, even though we knew nothing, we were able to take our time exploring. As a result we found a resto that we liked and ate there twice. Ate in a Chinese all you can eat once, and also a very typical family French Traditional resto. Overall we ate better if we had good intelligence, and could take our time.
A bit more of my impression of the actual cycling, without going into the details of each ride. For the first time in my life I was the strongest cyclist, not the weakest. On all previous rides, br one with a girlfriend decades ago, I had always been the one that had to stop on hills, or at best, was the last one to the top. I still liked my holidays on the bike, and my partners were always understanding. But being the stronger rider is quite enjoyable actually. I could relax, use a smaller gear, not push things too much, wait for Mickey by simply “stopping”, sometimes at a scenic point to take a photo. On the flat we were much more equal, he could tootle along at a fine pace for a fair distance. But the reversal of the usual situation was a very different perspective. The guy who is stronger has a different set of problems and reflections than the guy who is weaker. I discovered (surprise!) I would rather be the stronger cyclist than the weaker. When a cyclist is weaker sometimes it seems a problem of survival on certain hills and at certain times (end of the day). Can I keep going? But of course you have to, because you can’t just stop your bike in the middle of nowhere to eat or to sleep. And if you stop, you just wait for the others to realise you are not there or have some agreement to meet at the end of the day. In any case, it was a delight to ride through and between all the cuteness, richness, depth and lovely small roads of the Dordogne, or rather a very small bit of the Dordogne. It is a long river. We sampled on 40-60k segment. Oh yeah, I re-discovered the different between a main road with traffic and the smaller roads. I know about it here of course, but traffic is huge sometimes on the main roads. The small ones have nearly as good a surface, and are traffic free almost. France is such an great country to ride bikes in, just outstanding.
So I never had an average daily heartbeat over 100, and when I ride at home on my own it is always over 100. To put that in perspective, during the last three or four months, I have never had an average heartbeat over 110. Highest heart beat on the day is usually in the one-thirties now. But I have to say that in spite of this relaxed style, well below “hard work”, I was still quite happy to get back to the hotel and crash out for a nap of an hour or so. I was usually tired at the end of a ride. Mickey once slept two hours. I don’t think I am really in my top shape just yet. The lesson was that two older people can ride at roughly the rate of the slowest, and still be a bit tired, me anyway.
We saw some cyclists who must have been able to stop anywhere for more than one day. “Wild Riding”, is that term been coined, even though, like “wild swimming” it is not new at all. They seemed to have tents, sleeping bags, space for daily shopping, and cooking gear. I have never doubted that my style is “credit card cycling”, especially now that I am older and weaker overall.
Twice we climbed over 500metres in one day’s riding. Once over 400 and three times around 300. So except for two of the climbs, the climbing was mostly very pleasant false flats that both of us enjoyed both up and down. Whenever there was a climb I usually stayed with Mickey for a bit and then just drifted away, without really trying hard. Descending pretty much the same thing. But waiting to re-join at choice points was seldom more than three minutes. Maybe a bit longer. It really is no big deal to wait for someone. I previously thought it was more annoying for the stronger cyclist. But it is not at all bad. Knowing that will help me next time I am the weakest rider. I can relax a little back there too.
The road surfaces were 85% glorious and sometimes on tiny roads a little bit rough. But in the centre of a back road, there is often a good surface, and since there is almost no traffic, you can usually ride mostly on the middle, the good surface. I still do not fully understand why as semi second-rate economic power in crisis, they still manage to make good roads. Apparently BOTH the American roads and British are way worse in every way. Mickey says there are potholes on motorways in the USA. And the condition of rural roads in the UK is notorious, apparently even worse in the USA.
Overall, this was a superb way to see France. I loved it. A little more research on hotels and eating is a good thing. I must be a little bit less reluctant to spend just a tiny bit more (like everything) to buy quality rooms and eats, as high a quality as anyone would sensibly wish. Just a few euros more, money that is actually “well spent”. Mind you, on a Sunday night in the sticks, there is not much on offer. Florac will remain on my mind forever.
Right, so now it is up to you five or six people who might want to have a bike holiday in France, with me. I have the car and the bike rack. Don’t forget that with a bit of searching one should be able to rent a quality bike, eliminating the transport problem. However, I must admit to being stumped so far to find an actual bike shop that is accessible to me, and which rents quality road bikes. I will keep looking.
Over to you.
Not really getting around to write much these days. Mostly because I am doing the holiday in a particular way. A bit like my normal life, not too disciplined, not writing every day. Mickey is making his little journal in a very determined way, an example to us all.
Today was mostly driving. About six hours, including the stops we made for map reading, to pick up a couple sandwiches from a supermarket for lunch, but we ended up in Florac. Florac is a small mountain town, a few hotels and places to eat. Exactly the reason we chose it. I should say also it was at the end of a very long, very delightful drive through the Gorges du Tarn. Even on the drive here from the Dordogne, I was appreciating the rich and varied and lovely terrain that makes up France. It really was a pleasure. We also drove on all sorts of roads, and apparently the American roads, are way worse. The motorway we took for 21k surprised Mickey, as apparently on USA ones there is often lots of work going on, there are actual potholes in the road. The lovely surface of the French one (A20 was it?) was a bit noteworthy. I loved arriving in the Cevennes, with its signs to places I knew very well, but a few hours to the south. No idea what kind of life I have led to never have gone back to cycling in the Cevennes. Plenty of others were, including older people, heavily loaded tourists, fat tired bikes and “serious cyclists”.
Although I know there are larger, deeper canyons on earth created by rivers, the ones in the Cevennes will do me fine. How big does a gorge have to be before it is “a gorge”. The smallish one in our neighbourhood is nearly as good. That is, the sense of depth and closing in with a good flowing river is the essense of a gorge. The Cevennes canyons or “gorges” are steep, rocky, full of wee villages built many centuries ago, roads that wove crazily (especially behind these camping cars who don’t know their width), a river which is sometimes invisible from the road, but often visible. I have no idea how high the walls are, but they must be five or six hundred metres, more in spots. We won’t have time to drive through the causses themselves. But I think he might have got the idea, even though those limestone plateaus are quite a geography. Surprisingly, they are populated to this day. As if there were many scattered farms in the Highlands of Scotland. The Cevennes is not a rich area, not at all like the Dordogne. But people still live here, often helped by a bit of extra money from one tourist gig or another. Canoes on the river all day. In any case a very good drive. I noticed that driving up the Dordogne we probably picked exactly the right area for our little cruises on almost trafficless little roads, getting to know false flats up and down, and one small serious climb. I don’t think we are, as a team, suited for too much climbing. Se we won’t do it.
Some data. We rode 45k and 47k, less than the first day, and less climbing. So although we did go up and down, we did it in that pleasing French way. Suddenly, because our map does not have elevations, we found ourselves on a 7k or more false flat descending. Of course to get back to Belves, our “most beautiful village in France” where parked the car, we had to do the false flat ascending going back another way. So we re-learned what cycling makes obvious. Unless you are in exceptional circumstances, you always get up and down, loafing down, requires loafing up. I do like those false flats that allow you to look around a lot, and for me to be able to push a lower gear than I would if I were alone or with a stronger cyclist. Mickey seems to have good determination, a sense of what he can do, and the desire to do a little bit more than “what he can do”. So I get to relax a bit, BUT I get to ride every day. We saw various clubs pass us on Sunday. Made me think I knew about life in France.
At the moment, it is raining. We made it all the way through the Gorges du Tarn in very fine weather, got settled in, I watched the last 30k of the Vuelta, and then the rain started. Since we don’t want to walk around in the rain looking for a resto in a strange town, we are eating at the hotel. My pal John who comes to stay in a family hamlet near here, says the food is OK. So no walking around (see below, we did walk around searching for food). I am not even that hungry, no cycling today.
Which reminds me to describe a bit what we did the last two days. We basically picked a direction and wandered off to see various “cute villages”, and see where roads went. Mickey gets to more or less choose the route and keep track of it. But we discuss and consult quite a bit. Our plans keep changing. Like yesterday we took a lovely ride that took through two extra cute villages that I didn’t know were cute. And we had those lovely false flats, plus our coffee stop, when it was time to rest a bit. We are not doing very well fitting in to the French eating timetable. One day we picked a cheap but nice resto at the end of “the big climb” to Domme. Then we hung out in the park for over half an hour, only to find that by then, the entire resto was full and we would have to begin looking again, with loads of people taking Sunday to drive into the countryside and eat out. I really should have known, but sometimes health concerns take precedence. Mickey was having some trouble with his sight when we stopped, not when we rode. So he had to relax a bit before all was well. I am trying not to think about the eye problem or worry about, I hope he can handle it. But when one does that impromptu rest, the rest of the world passes us by to eat “on time”. I won’t even say exactly what we ate, but in France, land of gastronomy. But it was worse than our lunch today. That was two quite good sandwiches and some crisps from a supermarket. Actually neither of us was very hungry, so it was right. I am of the view that by the time we part, Mickey will have picked up so many new pieces of information that he will be reminding me about stuff I forget. It is simply a different world where he is from, at the level of when customer needs or information is available. We would do better if either of us had a smart phone.
We did have a fine meal yesterday evening. We darted up in the car to check out Sarlat, the most visited town in the Dordogne. We were going to cycle, but there were too many hills, as we can read the map even better now. I had a conversation, to try and find the two restos I had earmarked. But both of them were quite a walk out of the centre it turned out. Bad research! So I randomly asked a nice woman in a shop about where a veggie could eat in the land of liver and duck and fat. She was actually totally helpful, especially when I went back the second time to do more commiserating. It seems that it is actually quite difficult to eat a prepared veggie meal. Way more so than in our area of France. These Perigordians are totally obsessed with their own food. I said to the woman veggie that I saw that there were 129 restos in Sarlat, surely one must be good for veggies. She said, yeah, 129 restos, but 129 ducks and foie gras. Anyway the second conversation elicited one place where she had really enjoyed some mushroom ravioli. So we went there and there was an actual veggie special menu. I had the menu too, but the local one, and ate all the dishes they love. It was the only time and I would NEVER come back to the Dordogne to eat out. Never. Of course they love it, those people. Except the nice woman who helped us out.
Overall, we are doing really well. Mickey has his things that he does, like sleep and use his Kindle and read maps and chat. I have my things. And we get along fine. Tomorrow, up early, drive along the Corniche de Cevennes, and as quick as we can, get to Apt. We stay in our Apt hotel for four days, same hotel, same streets etc. Looking forward to that. This moving about is harder than it looks. Better to go somewhere and stay there.
I know I have been taking it easy, not straining myself because my pulse usually averages between 105 and 111, when I am riding around at home. Now it averages 94-5 for the three days. I really rather enjoy not climbing hills so much, and just rolling along. My average speed is about 2kph slower as well. We ride for 2-3 hours right now, lots of stops though, partly for photos, so we are out on the road for four or more hours. Quite a pleasurable pace really.
Eating out was a reminder tonight. I forgot that everything is closed on Mondays, or could be. So there was no action in the hotel kitchen tonight, so no food. Wandering around town searching for dinner we managed a brasserie, the only place open. Totally packed out. But only what was on “the set menu”, no real chef there tonight. Had the bottom end of the French cuisine, although perfectly good in many respects. A ham and cheese pasty, followed by a sausage for Mickey and pice of pork for me, then dessert. Hot enough, tasty enough, probably all microwaved in the kitchen below. But the only place open. Always humbling to forget basic rules of hotel travelling, and be reminded about them. I am just not that good at knowing all this stuff, and glad to be reminded.
Early evening for early start in the morning. Luberon ahoy.
The bike part of the holiday has not really started, as we have not really got on the bikes yet. But we are in place, in the Dordogne, staying at the first hotel, ready to eat dinner. But it was a bit more than a six hour drive, and Mickey, my cycling companion, was a bit wasted from the plane trip he took yesterday, so a bit of sleeping was in order. The plan is to stay in the Dordogne for a few days, then drive, in two stages to the Luberon, where we will ride around for a few more days, then Mickey goes to a walking holiday and I go home. That takes us to the 14th. Today is the 4th.
I doubt we will ride all that far each day, but that has yet to be determined, as Mickey is riding a rented bike, and we don’t really know how that will go. For those who don’t know, Mickey is a friend from high school, not a “best friend”, but someone I knew and liked all the way from age 12 in Junior High through High School. We also went to the University of Michigan at the same time, but kind of drifted apart, and didn’t see much of each other. Somehow, over the last two years, after a re-meeting two years ago at our 50th high school reunion, we developed this idea of a holiday in France. He has never been to France, although he has been to Spain for a month last year and also to England for some time during his twenties. Overall then, a bit of leap into the unknown, based on some kind of intuition, on both our parts, that it would work out well.
So today, I drove the bikes and us to Siorac, at a very nice hotel I found for us. Shortly we will figure out what to do tomorrow, but today was more of a introduction to each other. Yesterday he stayed at our house, met Naurika and set up his bike. Without going into deep detail, I found that the drive through the medium mountains near us, as well as the rest of the drive, on small roads mostly, reinforced my notion of France as an incredibly beautiful landscape. I feel fortunate to live where I live, at least as far as the geography goes. Lucky me. On with the riding. Weather prediction is for sun all day.
5 September, Friday
Good meal last night. Eglefin, which turns out to be haddock, with a crumble on top, including chorizo, plus some courgette puree and a rather good flan of I forget what vegetable. Very good goat cheese salad, and they looked after Mickey’s vegetarian needs with no trouble. So now, off we go for the first warm up ride to see how we feel.
The ride is over. We are back in plenty of time to take a shower, look for l”Equipe (sold out at the only outlet), and have a nap. Although I am not quite able to sleep, even though I have been riding. A little bit overexcited perhaps, riding in territory that is gorgeous, but also unknown. Proper cycle- touring. We were perhaps a little overambitious, but it turned out to be, probably, within both our limits. Maybe Mickey had to work harder than I did today. We will work all that out in time. So we did 56k, climbed 422m and were riding for three hours and three minutes. We look to be pretty well matched. I am happy riding every day, and not being exhausted. He seems to be the map reader, since he likes maps, so can read the French ones well. We both want to stretch ourselves a wee bit on the bike, but are rather cautious about being over the top and ruining the holiday by having our backs pack in, or whatever. We also have a model of 20-20-20 as our vague goal. Twenty k, coffee, twenty k, lunch, twenty k, back to the hotel for an early day, some writing, some photo taking, some watching of the Vuelta, that sort of thing. Mickey writes in a journal as well. We both do, probably for fear of forgetting when we get home or in six months. Characteristic of old guys, or at least the two of us.
In any case, we broke the model already. We didn’t stop for coffee for over 30k. But it was early, the road we chose had little traffic, the temperature was around 20 or so, the tourists had not awakened yet, and it was a delight to ride. We had our coffee in Les Eyzies, not a deeply memorable town, but a great stop. Then we had only 16 for lunch, but we didn’t quite know it had our first climbing experience. Admittedly it was only about 4k long and never more than 5%, but it was our first one. I think a doable challenge for Mickey, but in the end he did it without any trouble that we know of, yet. Tomorrow we shall see how we both are. I am optimistic. I think he might have enjoyed the three or four k descent for lunch. After lunch we only had 9k to go for home. So that was easy. We stopped at a pizza place in St. Cyprien for lunch. We have a big meal tonight, our last one in this place. For the rest of the holiday we have to go out and find a place to eat every night, both interesting and not too expensive. Maybe at noon in the next two days, we might look for a place that is not THAT expensive, but outstandingly good. Big decisions coming up.
Overall the ride was very pleasant. I never left my middle ring, except going downhill. Nice and easy. As I result I am not really exhausted, and can write this before Mickey wakes up from his nap. Not sure when we can check into the next hotel, so we have got to ride a bit during the morning, around here or around there. “There” is 20k up the river, at a slightly cheaper place, but in one of the “most beautiful villages in France. Beynac and Cazenac. We will only “stay” in one of the officially certified lovely villages once. I thought that should be part of the holiday I was organising for both me and my pal who has never been to France, ever.
No idea what is happening tomorrow, as Mickey now has enough knowledge to make some judgements about what he wants to do. Until today he had no references. Now he pretty much knows the terrain, and knows much more about his rented bike, his legs, his morale and what he wants to do. I can most likely do whatever he wants. Maybe by the end of the trip, while we are in Apt, he might know EXACTLY what he wants to do. Then I can loaf a little more and just “be”. Not that the responsibilities get me down. I love planning, and in this case the plan is actually happening, which is even better. Planning without execution is still a great deal of fun, and I continue to do it often. But this trip seems well executed as well. Feels good anyway. We shall see, another week ahead of us. As in the life and theTour de France, anything can happen.
A good day so far. The basic thing happened and was good. We rode. Now we eat.