Cycling touring in the Dordogne and the Midi Pyrenees.
L-R, Sarah, Mike, Fran, Richard, Dan, Richard, Nick, Jill, Richard, Chris, Louisa,John, Phil, Ken, Moi and Lesley
The last time I cycle toured in the Dordogne Region was back in 1994 to see the Tour De France, the year it had come to England and two Brit’s, Chris Boardman and Sean Yates had worn the coveted yellow jersey. Although that holiday had focused on taking in the race I had seen enough to make a note that one day I would love to return and explore the area in more depth, so at silly o’clock on a bright sunny May morning Louisa and I found ourselves at St Pancras station to catch the Euro star to the tour start at Lalinde near Bergerac. St Pancras station has recently been renovated, impressive to the extent that it now arguably matches the some of best in the world, looking around in nodding approval I noticed a long Champagne bar and in a moment of pure indulgence we enjoyed a quick flute or two, all very naughty at that time of the morning and for sure not our usual start to a cycling tour; but made all the more perfect for it! Sometimes these things just have to be done.
Louisa is a nosey thing; just what was this bloke looking at?
The tour was circular, starting and finishing at Lalinde, taking in the Dordogne and Lot Rivers as well as numerous stunning villages and scenery in an area referred to as the ‘Midi Pyrenees‘. Unlike my early visit to the region this was to be a supported tour with www.bikeadventures.co.uk, so our luggage was taken from Hotel to Hotel, plus more importantly I knew from previous tours with them that they would have researched what did infact turn out to be a superb route; plus I much prefer group tours; the chance to meet and make new friends and as is often the case hooking up once again with friends from previous tours is for me one of the main attractions
Monpazier, was the lunch stop for many of on the first day
The first day had us heading across from the Dordogne to the Lot River, rolling hills and long valley passes were to be the norm’ and even though it rained on and off the tailwind contributed to making it a very pleasant ride; wet enough to make me feel like a very brave intrepid explorer mind you, pushing the boundaries of daring do and at the very least on nodding terms with Ray Mears and Ralph Fines, yet in reality the rain was warm and I actually really enjoyed it! Today, like most, the mileage was up to the mid fifties, so many of us soon settled into a daily routine of a mid morning coffee break, dinner, then an afternoon ice-cream stop; again this is something I seldom do at home, I may stop once, even on 100 mile plus rides, yet on holiday I frequently drop the mileage and crank up the stops, plus I discover a passion for items I never touch at home; I can buy Orangina at my local supermarket, but do I? Never! Yet I suddenly become an Orangina connoisseur on tour and give any cheeky garcon a disapproving look should he get it the whole Oragina experience all wrong; it needs to be chilled, just at the right temperature, he must start to take the top off the bottle when it’s upside down, give it a carefree yet highly skilled flick as the top hisses off too mix the contents before pouring into a chilled Orangina shaped glass; anything less and in a fit of pique I will flip him my best disappointed look to teach him a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry; I have even been known to add a ‘Tut‘ if I am a little tired at the end of a long day!
Hardly anyone is looking at the road as we head down to St Cirq-Lapopie
Many of the villages on route are listed as amongst the prettiest in France, I would add that the in between bits weren’t bad either, many of the villages cling to the sides of gorges that typify the area and made for some breathtaking views, again this contributed to the three stops a day, as it often seemed like the respectful thing to do, to pass such a pretty place without stopping for an ice cream would be so wrong!
Day 4, on route to ‘Figeac’ this a typical morning climb
Fifty (ish) miles per day with frequent stops can make it seem something of a doddle, yet Dordogne is not referred to as the ‘Midi Pyrenees‘ for nothing, the routes along the rivers are indeed relatively flat, yet venture into the surrounding hills and it is easy to then see why they deserve the name, I have done a few tours in the Pyrenees and the resemblance is plain, yet stunning to see. Naturally this means that we spent quite a bit of time climbing at Pyrenean gradients, yet not Pyrenean durations; it’s the latter that can make a mountain such hard work as you are climbing for such a long time it can grind you down. This isn’t the case in the Dordogne, yes you will have to work on the climbs, quite a bit, but the top is reached well before your bottom lip begins a quivering and you start crying for your mum! Put it this way, like many audax bikes mine has a triple chain set with three chainrings, I never needed the smallest chain ring that is reserved for steep or long climbs; not once. That said we did climb nearly 1500m on the day from Figeac to Carennac; for much of it the climbing and descending was stunning with spectacular views as we meandered from one valley up and over to another, but note, Norfolk this isn’t, also note though that at the end of that very day I heard more than one say that this was the best day they had ever had on a bike! Never heard anyone ever say that about Norfolk!
Day 5, Sarah and Ian on route to Sarlat.
I have often admired the work life balance and pace of life that exists in France. These days modern life here in the UK seems so fast and full on, we seem to work longer hours with fewer breaks than ever before, often not even getting time to eat a lunch let alone actually have a break, where as in France time seems to have stood still, the pace of life is slower and even those who do work at lunch times seem to do so in a carefree manner, on route to Carennac most of us stopped for a quick lunch stop and all ordered the ‘express menu’; we were there two hours! There is something rather admirable about that; I can’t help fearing that they get it right and we here in the UK just don’t!
Day 5 had us finish in the lovely old town of Sarlat La Caneda where we were to stay for two nights, with a maze of small picturesque streets offering restaurants and cafés a plenty as well as ’touriste information’ walks highlighting the historical points of interests of some of the old buildings and areas, I confess none of these were of significant interest enough for me personally; for as much as only three days later at the time of writing I can’t remember any of them! To be honest I couldn’t care less about ancient French History. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t enjoy this walk, I did, immensely; I loved the fact that it‘s old and indeed must have some kind of history, it‘s simply that I enjoy it for what I see and feel now and not for what it was once was, I loved all the nooks and crannies, the way the buildings had small terraces that residents use to good effect, I loved the indoor market located in an old church, but I was far more impressed that they had made an old disused building good again than I was in the politics that must have gone on resulting in this no longer being a church anymore; there was another big churchy thing just across the square anyway and that still looked all churchy inside with piped chanting a warbling out of speakers to add to the whole churchyness of the place, no one was selling so much as a sausage in that one so I dare say that keeps most happy!
The last day had us heading back to Lalinde on what was a hot clear sunny day, our last large lunch pedalled off as we headed back into the hills surrounding the river as we passed yet another pretty French village, although we were getting rather blasé about them now, early on in the tour we had all stopped at the first sign of a Châteaux or pretty village, they had to be a bit special now to even get a second glance! Toward the end of the day many, myself included were flagging in the heat, however luckily you may recall that in my world I am on virtual nodding terms with Ray Mears and Ralph Fines, so I simply asked myself what would they do right here right now? We needed a true bit of bush craft to save us all from certain peril; result, a quick paddle in the Dordogne river and a last ice cool Orangina for the road to cool us down and we were on our way. (Note when free styling off piste like this it’s perfectly ok to drink Orangina straight from the bottle)
Louisa riding across the old bridge just before our last lunch at St Cyprien
So the tour came to an end back where we had started; so was it worth coming back after my earlier visit? Yes and with big bicycle bells on, the route was superb, in places to rival as good as I have ever done, the scenery was far more stunning than I thought it would be, the food was good, as was the wine and on the whole so was the weather; yet once again it was sharing this ride with my old and new friends that help the make these memories all the more sweeter.