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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  11/1/2007

France 2007: Wet and Wonderful

Ah, France by bike. Fantastic food, great wine, traffic-free back roads, charming country hotels. Not to mention rain, fog, zero visibility, wet pavement. Yep, we had it all on our "Vines, Gorges and Causses of Southern France," tour in September and October.

Looking back through the haze and drizzle, I remember some really outstanding days.

Like when the sun came out on our very first day, accompanying us from the outskirts of bustling Toulouse to the Gaillac wine country. (If only we could get that really good, really cheap Gaillac wine here!)

On our second day, we started out in a thick brouillard, the French term for fog that rises from saturated ground. Fog still hung over the quaint village of Castlenaud de Montmiral during our brief visit.

By the time we'd scaled the hills to Cordes, it had totally burned off, leaving us clear skies under which to eat lunch, and check out those sweeping views of the still misty Valley of the Tarn.

The Tarn a Velo
The next day we followed the sunny, well-marked VeloRoute du Tarn along a smooth one-lane river road. We stopped to pick figs growing wild along the banks. And ended up in the quaint village of Brousse huddled beneath its picturesque chateau.

So much for that kind of sunny cycling. Rain greeted us on what was supposed to be our longest day -- some 60 miles through St. Affrique, Roquefort (of the world-famous caves where costly moldy cheese is aged), and on to Millau. At breakfast the group voted unanimously to cut across straight to Millau. It was shorter but dished out plenty of tough climbing. Thankfully the rain cleared up before we reached the best views of Millau's Viaduc, the soaring autoroute span across the Tarn that seems to defy in the most stylish manner.

After a two-day stay in Millau, our sixth day started out looking like another rainy, foggy one. Ha! Fooled again. By the time we reached tiny La Cresse, the weather improved remarkably, but the traffic took on a surreal tone. Construction crews were breaking up the pavement in the middle of what passed for town. And what's this coming up the road? A "bouchon" (French for "cork" and not coincidentally, "traffic jam") A herd of cattle being driven to pasture calmly took over the road. Needless to say, we were charmed and held that feeling all the way through the magnificent Gorges of the Tarn. Every bit as scenic as promoted, the Gorges managed to sparkle without sunshine, offering countless photo ops in the low-contrast overcast.

After the gorges, however, things turned sloppy again. Fog, rain and wet roads often made for hard slogging. Jim and I went down in a heap on a rainy descent when our tandem's front tire suddenly blew. It took him next to no time to fix the flat, and on we went, bleeding and bruised but not bowed. I'm proud to say we finished entire route except for last two kilometers that same day, after he spotted a bubble in the same tire.

We'd planned the tour to go over many fantastic lookout points with vistas of mountain ranges and rugged wilderness. But thick fog blocked nearly all the views and kept our eyes glued to what we could see of the road. Fortunately traffic was next to nil; we shared the road only with construction vehicles, most of which were stopped at work sites. And when we descended a bit out of the fog, vistas opened up enough to gain some appreciation for where we were.

Finally, on our tenth day out, we found ourselves riding back into the Department of the Tarn. No sooner did we cross the department line than the skies cleared and the sun reappeared. It was like we'd pedaled into another dimension as we shed layers, slapped on sunscreen and offered thanks to warm again.

Soon we were enjoying our second rest day in Castres, where shopping took a high priority on everyone's agenda. My favorite shops were the town's many bookstores offering fine stationery, coffee table and souvenir books and even toys.

The Tarn a Gourmandise
You have to work hard to find a bad meal, or a lackluster hotel, almost anywhere in France. From simple country fare to haute cuisine, we were pampered and well fed all the way.

Should you ever find yourself pedaling by any of these establishments -- some of the most outstanding on our journey -- do not hesitate to stop for a meal or a night's stay:

  • Le Relays du Chasteau in Brousse Le Chateau, directly opposite the stone bridge leading to a tiny piece of French medieval history
  • Auberge du Moulin, in Ste. Eninime, on the eastern edge of the Gorges of the Tarn
  • Hotel Mont Aigoual, one of some half a dozen hotels in Meyreuis but the only one classified as "Bib Gourmand" in the Michelin Guide
  • Auberge Cocagne, Christophe and Ginette's country inn carved out of a 400-year-old building in out-of-the-way Aveze

And the wine, you ask? Those first days through the vineyards of the Gaillac appellation were just a start. On our way to Albi we rounded a switchback and the aroma of the crush hit us full on. On our right, in stark contrast to the surrounding vines, stood a most industrial-looking building. We were passing through Labastide de Levis, and the vendange was in full production. More than once throughout the tour we were treated to the best of local wines, from the lightly spritzy Gaillac "Perle" whites to hearty, mouth-pleasing reds.

Town and Country
One of the glories of cycling in France is how easy it is to get in and out of town. Our first day we pedaled past the vast Airbus facilities in Blagnac, just east of Toulouse. But we were crossing the quaint one-lane bridge in rural St. Sulpice before we'd completely digested breakfast.

Riding back to Toulouse on our last day was even more rural. For nearly 75 km, I kept thinking, "Why are we still out in the boonies?" Finally the agrarian countryside gave way to a just a suburb or two before we plunged under the autoroute and into Toulouse. There we , meandered through the bustling bike/pedestrian paths along the Midi Canal, followed by the wide-open path along the banks of the Garonne River. Then it was a mere hop across the river and back to our original hotel in Blagnac.

This was the second France tour Jim and I have led for Bicycle Adventure Club. On last year's tour of the Pyrenees, we hosted all northern Californians save one. This year our riders hailed from all over:

  • Nick and Liz from Wisconsin, who planned many a side trip further afield;
  • Jim and Marty from Wyoming, riding the first coupled carbon fiber bikes I've ever seen;;
  • Ani from Steamboat Springs, CO, our fastest climber;
  • Ron from Denver, who had "nothing to look at"; Mary Jo from San Diego, who took rain, fog and a muddy flat tire in stride;
  • Ruth from Sunnyvale, who could always find a native to converse with in Spanish;
  • Ralph and Jennifer from Sunnyvale, often pacing our tandem on theirs; and
  • Andy from Los Altos, who took more pictures than even Jim.

Then there was Gilbert our "native" sag driver. Without his knowledge of the countryside, his proactive concern for every rider, and his warm personality, this tour would not have been the success it was. Gilbert has driven for many a BAC trip in both France and the U.S. He often stopped along the route to make sure we took the correct turn, guided us through a muddy tunnel in a flooded village, and even provided the detailed maps for our ride through Toulouse on our last day.

Merci Gilbert, tu es un type formidable!
Thank you, Gilbert, you're a terrific guy!

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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