A tale of two cycling holidays – part one

Chasing the Tour in 2013 – Auvergne, Languedoc and Tours 

In the week that Team Sky controlled the peloton in the Pyrenees and Bradley Wiggins tightened his grip on the 2012 Tour de France GC I was waiting to board a flight at Alicante airport with Mrs VCSE. We were returning from a summer trip to Barcelona and the Costa Blanca, taking advantage of the expansion of our local airport that now offered flights to many European destinations less than five minutes from our front door. We would be back home to see Wiggins claim the yellow jersey in the penultimate stage TT and Mark Cavendish take his fourth win in a row on the Champs Elysee (this time in the world champion’s rainbow stripes), but first we had the small matter of a flight to board.

Quiet roads - riding in the Auvergne
Quiet roads – riding in the Auvergne

We were making the return flight to the UK with the same mix of luggage that we had flown with internally from Barcelona to Alicante a week previously although I was about to find out that this was no guarantee that the next flight would be as straightforward. The gate staff showed less interest in my boarding pass than in the holdall that I was using as hand luggage. We had bought the bag in Barcelona. I had long cherished the idea of purchasing one of the various upcycled items that an enterprising Barcelona retailer made out of the vinyl posters that line the streets in the Catalan capital. Imagine something made out of various off cuts of multicoloured sail cloth and you will get the idea that my choice of cabin bag was hard to miss. It was also apparently to big for me to carry onto the plane and the unsmiling agent at the gate relieved me of 50 euros for my indiscretion. As I caught up with Mrs VCSE on the gangway I announced that it was the “last f**king time I’m flying!”. Adding insult to injury (and these are ‘first world problems’ I appreciate) on boarding the plane the cabin crew didn’t bat an eyelid at the offending, supposed oversized bag and contrary to what I had been  told at the gate it wasn’t unceremoniously removed to the hold!

The point of all of this preamble is that the ‘unfortunate incident of the bag that was too big for the cabin’ was the catalyst for the first of the two cycling holidays described here. When the 2013 Tour de France route was announced in October we looked at where we could base ourselves to take in some stages while doing some riding of our own. The 2013 edition of the Tour would start in Corsica before making its way back to the mainland and across the south of France from west to east and into the Pyrenees. The initial plan was to try to find somewhere in the Alpes with the double ascent of Alp d’Huez stage on Bastille Day as a potential centrepiece of the trip. We wondered if we would be able to afford anywhere but price didn’t even come into it as we struggled to find anywhere to stay where we could take the bikes too. We started to look for some alternatives. Having a base around Bordeaux or Brittany was ruled out as we wanted to try to guarantee some sunshine. With one stage finishing and starting (the following day) in Montpellier we set a 50km radius from the city and scouted the ‘net to see what was available. A villa in a small village outside the town of Pezenas was right on the limit of our search area but fulfilled the criteria of private with pool and somewhere secure to store our bikes.

Pezenas is in the Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon and is best known for its association with the playwright Moliere; the principal (early 19th century) theatre in the town is dedicated to him. Today Pezenas is a thriving centre for antiques and the arts within the largely pedestrianised old town. The VCSE base in Nizas is around 10km from town surrounded by local vineyards. With the plan to drive to the south from the UK we also looked for a couple of places to break up the journey in each direction. On the outward leg we found a chambre d’hote (or B&B if you prefer) near Clermont Ferrand and on the return journey we could catch another stage finish/start in Tours. Cross channel travel was via Eurostar as we had a car full of luggage and nearly £3000 worth of bikes on the car.

A quick sidebar here. If you’re travelling any kind of distance by car with more than one bike a rack is essential (there are few cars that can take two bikes inside). I prefer to use a towbar rack if more than one bike is concerned. There are benefits to this type of rack from a number of points of view. They are generally a better choice from an economy perspective although that has to balanced against the upfront cost of the rack and towbar and depending on the model chosen tow bar racks are more secure from theft. Budget around £250-300 for a two bike rack (ours is from Thule) and around £400-£500 for a tow bar and fitting. I have also used a (Thule) roof bar set up and while these are cheaper I have had some bad experiences with damage to bikes with these in use. 

We set off on the same day as the first stage of the 2013 Grand Depart in Corsica and so we would miss the Orica team bus getting stuck under the finish gantry and more significantly the first sign that Mark Cavendish was no longer the fastest man in the peloton. A year before the opening stage in Yorkshire Christian Prudhomme had given Cavendish a golden (or perhaps or more obvious colour) opportunity to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours by foregoing an opening prologue stage in favour of a likely sprint finish. At the time it was blame it on the bus driver, but in hindsight this was the emergence of Marcel Kittel as Cav’s heir apparent.

We chose a route to the Auvergne that bypassed Paris and struck out west and then south via Rouen, Chartres (where Wiggins had triumphed in the penultimate stage in 2012), Orleans and Bourges. The unexpected aspect of the journey on that Saturday was that the weather got worse the further south we went and as we began to climb towards our overnight stay near Thiers (the cutlery capital of France if you were wondering) we entered the clouds in a heavy rainstorm.

Our base for the next day was with Andree and Gary, English ex pats who own a gite in the tiny village of Pitelet. La Maison de Reflexion proved to be the perfect jumping off point for our Tour adventure, but as we drove higher into the mountains of the Auvergne region and the roads became increasingly narrower we wondered what we had let ourselves in for. It felt as if we were leaving civilisation further and further behind as we crawled through the rain and cloud. Just as we had become persuaded that we had taken a wrong turning somewhere we came across a small village and as suddenly realised that our directions had brought us right to the door of our destination.

Maison de Reflexion
Maison de Reflexion

We unloaded the car and Gary opened the doors of the adjoining barn to store the bikes before we were shown to our room on the top floor of the house. The room itself took up the entire floor with a sitting area at one end and a large walk in shower room at the other with the bed. The three windows didn’t offer much of a view beyond the cloud and rain and I was a little surprised to find that there wasn’t exactly wall to wall TV coverage of the Tour to tune into when I switched the set on. My reflections on stage one were not gleaned from the briefest of reports we caught on-screen that night as getting any kind of picture involved holding the indoor aerial at arm’s length and throwing some yogic shapes.

Around the time we booked Gary asked if we wanted a meal when we arrived. There are a choice of two, three or four courses available (from 15-25 euro pp). We took up the offer, at the time thinking of the convenience of not having to try to find somewhere to eat, but it proved to be one of the best decisions we could have made. Andree was a fantastic cook and our hosts ensured that we got to eat the very best locally bought and seasonal food, accompanied by a bottle or two. With a real fire blazing in the background we eventually dragged ourselves to bed feeling totally relaxed after a days driving.

We woke on Sunday to a complete change in the weather. A few white clouds in an otherwise deep blue sky and bright sunshine gave us no excuses for not getting on the bikes, but not before sampling more of Andree and Garys hospitality at breakfast. As they headed off to one of the many markets held locally we cycled out of the village into the wooded foothills of the Auvergne. Pitelet is at 750 metres and the road you take to reach it is a definite climb from the autoroute. There was some gentle climbing for the first part of the ride. We took advantage of the map in the guide-book that local businesses had produced to suss out a route that would allow us to stretch our legs for a couple of hours. With no stops other than to consult the map (good luck finding these roads on a Garmin) or snap a quick photo we soon found ourselves on some pretty steep and winding descents towards the edge of the forest. Mrs VCSE is by far the more confident descender of the two of us and soon gapped me on the bends (think Nibali to my Wiggins) but I was becoming increasingly aware that all of the height we were losing was going to need to be regained to get back to Pitelet. The climb back wasn’t too bad really, under the cool canopy of trees and on a road where we didn’t encounter a single car, let alone another human being.

Back at the MdR and we changed to head for the next stage of our Tour pilgrimage; the Puy du Dome. The line of extinct volcano’s can’t be seen from Pitelet due to the surrounding hills but as you get back on the autoroute towards Clermont it soon becomes clear, rising above the town in the background. The short journey was punctuated with me stopping the car to take pictures whenever there was an uniterrupted view of the ‘Dome. When we actually reached the car park below the peak the pointlessness of these frequently awkward stops became obvious as there was never going to be a better shot than the one I could take from the car park itself. It is possible to ride to the summit of the Puy du Dome (in fact there I’ve tweeted about a petition to increase the opportunities for cyclists to do so) but the main fly in the ointment preventing this is the railway that carries most visitors (and us) to the summit has robbed half of the original road width. It would be difficult to see how riders and walkers could safely share the narrow road surface that runs alongside the train tracks. At the time when we visited in 2013 riders could only climb to the top early in the morning. There’s one or two bits about the Tours visits to the Puy du Dome although this is but one chapter in the history of the peak that as far as humans are concerned goes back thousands of years. Don’t visit expecting to see any statues dedicated to Anquetil under the circumstances.

We came to appreciate the hospitality we had enjoyed the previous evening at the MdR a lot more that night. I have been burnt before by forgetting that the Sundays are a little more old school in France and that it’s not always easy to find a shop or in this case restaurant that will be open. We figured we would head into Thiers for a meal but after parking and wandering around the town centre for a while it became clear that we were going to struggle. The irony of turning our noses up at a McDonalds we had passed as we drove out of Clermont was not lost as we realised that we were probably going to go hungry. When all else failed we stopped at an Aire on the autoroute that had a service station and while our mass produced croque monsieur would have been viewed as some kind of culinary crime by any self respecting French bon viveur it was several steps up from the sort of thing you would get at South Mimms Welcome Break (honestly we probably would have eaten anything at this point). Fed and watered we had an early and final night at MdR before hitting the road again for the final part of our journey to the south.

Maison de Reflexion isn’t geared primarily to cyclists but it would be a great base for a longer stay than ours. Gary said that the area is better known for mountain biking, but the local roads are pretty quiet and well surfaced so it’s good for road riding / touring too. There’s storage available for bikes and the village is VERY quiet so there’s no security risks. We didn’t need to find a local bike shop on such a short stay, but Clermont is likely to have a few bike shops if one can’t be found close by in Thiers. 

The route to the south (assuming you use the autoroute) is direct. Pretty much as soon as we left Clermont we began to climb into the Massif Central. There’s not much to see and even less to do as the road rolls through the area at least until you reach the southern tip of the Massif and Millau. If two people you know have stopped to photograph the Millau viaduct on separate journeys, no matter how many years apart it’s quite likely you will struggle to tell their photos apart. There’s an Aire on the northern side of the gorge that feels as if its sole purpose is to provide car and coach bound tourists with a photo opportunity. Not having done the journey before the Millau viaduct was completed it’s hard to say whether or not the structure is the best solution to crossing the Tarn valley but it is one of things that you can’t really appreciate properly by just driving over it. Drag yourself away from the man-made wonder and the gorges to your left are probably more awe inspiring.

Classic French roads to ride - Nizas
Classic French roads to ride – Nizas

From Millau the autoroute drops away from the Massif and assumes the classic French countryside tropes of poplar and plane lined roads and vineyards. There’s a slight salt tang in the air as you’re not far from the coast here, although this is more of an area for water sports than sun worship. The villages are sleepy with few shops and bars, the largest buildings all seem to be tied in to wine production in what is the largest wine producing region in the country. Nizas pretty much follows this set up, don’t expect to find too much right on the doorstep, but it’s none the worse for it if you’re looking for a quiet place to stay for your cycling holiday. There is a shop in the village. It whiled away an hour or so one afternoon trying to find one and eventually spied it, set back from the road on a side street (tip: get up EARLY if you want fresh bread). There are a couple of cafes too but Pezanas is close by if you have the urge to seriously shop and or eat out. With a pool and accommodation for six we had everything we needed at the villa and once we had taken on provisions at the Pezanas Carrefour we were ready to get stuck into our share of the 2013 Tour.

We booked the villa (see the earlier link) through a website called Owners Direct. The villa is owned by Andrew who is based in the UK but there’s an English speaking local agent who will visit when you ‘check in’. In practice the whole process is super straightforward and we didn’t need to use the agent at all during our stay. There’s room for six at the villa and everything you need including fully equipped kitchen (with washing machine). As with the MdR the villa isn’t geared towards cyclists but there’s secure storage for bikes. There are two bike shops in Pezenas but once again we didn’t need to use them for repairs. Both stock road bikes, spares and clothing so if you do need to pick up something you shouldn’t have to venture any further. I haven’t checked the prices in detail for 2015 but even in peak season a party of six would pay less than £200 pp for a weeks stay. 

I hadn’t paid too much attention to the detail of the stage routes in and out of Montpellier when we booked the villa but closer analysis revealed that stage 7 would pass through Pezenas and even closer study of the map revealed that a short ride would allow us to get onto the route itself. The peloton was making its way from Corsica to Nice when we arrived in the area, but ahead of the TTT the next day I planned a ride along the route to scope out some possible vantage points where we could watch the race pass by on the Friday. Early on Tuesday I set off and climbed out of the village to the plateau with the grass strip airfield and the only piece of land that isn’t dedicated to viticulture. It’s likely that a local byelaw exists that the only road signs allowed must relate in some way to the production and consumption of wine and that the only vehicle ownership allowed is for small battered white vans. Not that this (the vines at least) are an unpleasant view. The constant sound of Cicadas is seldom overpowered by the noise that a Citroen diesel van double de-clutching as its driver shaves a hair off his terminal velocity. The roads around Nizas are gently rolling, narrow and ‘heavy’ in the way that only a rural road surface can be. The stickiness of the road surface is exacerbated by the heat, even early in the day, in July so it’s better to ride steadily and enjoy the sights and sounds that are unlike anything you are likely to encounter in the UK. The small town of Roujan was my first waypoint and where I met the stage route. The road climbed gently weaving its way around the geography while I could occasionally see where the railway line cutting a more direct route northwards. The French appear to take a relaxed view towards health and safety; signs indicated that the stage route wouldn’t be closed until 9.00am on the day so my plan was to find a suitable climb (perhaps the 260m ascent at Faugeres) where we could reach before the road closure. I got back to the villa to find Mrs VCSE fully embedded poolside with lounger and wondered how well my suggestion of a 7.00am start on Friday was going to go down.

Keeping up with the Tour before we could actually get eyeballs on later in the week was made easier by the news that we could get ITV4 at the villa. There’s something to be said for watching the race on the ‘local’ feed particularly if you’re not a fan of Phil Liggett’s spoonerisms but after the semi detached relationship I had enjoyed with the race in Corsica I was glad to get a recap I could follow rather than relying on my pigeon French. Having an internet connection at the villa was useful, even if I wasn’t going to need to resort to Eurosport Player to watch the race. Planning some routes we could ride together and some shorter loops that I could do in the evening was made easier by checking the detail online against my Michelin road maps. For day three we took in some local roads that reached around 1000 ft in places. Now dependent on your location and ‘legs’ this may seem pretty innocuous, but take it from me when you live in the flatlands of south Essex these roads were our Everest. We did feel a little like the professionals as we road over graffiti left from the last time the locals raced over the road to Fontes the areas own mini Alpe d’Huez complete with hairpins. The descent into Fontes was enlivened by the youth four-wheel drifting his Renault Laguna in the opposite direction but when we reached Roujan we were able to set some speed records of our own. Turning towards Pezenas we enjoyed one of the legacy benefits of having a Tour de France stage pass through your neighbourhood; baby’s bum smooth, freshly laid tarmac. The road was arrow straight, plane tree lined and ever so slightly downhill and we road one of our fastest ever 5 mile laps on it. Turning off to cycle through the old town into Pezenas we also encountered a bike shop, notable for its display of original woolen race jerseys more so than their stock. A lazy lunch and some people watching fortified us for the ride back to Nizas that included a straight up climb back to the airfield around 700 ft in length. Another challenge for our weak Essex climbing legs.

Katusha team bus and bikes at our hotel in Tours
Katusha team bus and bikes at our hotel in Tours

I wrote about our experiences watching stage 6 and 7 here so I won’t go into much detail about that again with this post. There were a few more opportunities to ride before we were due to catch up with the Tour again; a mixture of fast TT style routes bisecting the autoroute and river Herault with Paulhan to the north and the main routes to Montpellier to the South. We also ventured back up into the hills again beyond Fontes climbing up to sleepy villages above the vines. When our stay in Nizas came to an end we retraced our steps northbound on the autoroute passing over the Massif again before diverging from our original tracing towards the Loire valley and the city of Tours. I had visited Tours previously and knew it would be a good place to break up the journey home even without the added attraction of another stage finish and departure the following day. We chose a hotel on the north side of the river and we chatted about the comparison between the chain hotels that the teams use on the grand tours and the converted chateau that we were spunking the equivalent of set of Fulcrum Racing 3’s on for one night. We were a bit surprised then to arrive at said hotel and find that the forecourt had been converted into a temporary service course for Katusha with two team buses and sundry other vehicles and team cars. In our excitement at the prospect of an impromptu photo op with Joaquim Rodriguez we forgot all about heading to the finish to see another win for Kittel against Cavendish. Feeling a bit self concious about being a solitary cycling fan boy (and girl) we decided not to hang around for the diminutive Purito and settled for a close up view of the high end cycle ‘porn’ that the mechanics were working on. Keeping up the tenuous porno links I was a bit nonplussed by the inflatable hot tub that Katusha had set up in the back of one of their vans; an ice bath maybe? Other than the thousands of £’s on show in the form of a couple of dozen Canyon bikes this was the generally unseen and unglamorous end of professional cycling complete with an onboard laundrette in the luggage space of one of the Katusha team coaches.

Tours is a university town as well as a popular tourist destination and the added draw of the Tour de France meant that the city was buzzing. If you haven’t been it’s definitely worth a weekend as an alternative to the more obvious city breaks. Obviously being able to sit outside and watch the tide of people passing to and fro’ on the eve of stage 13 was a plus point, but I’ve had a memorable couple of days over a wet weekend in January too. There was a bit of unreality watching the 7 o’clock highlights show that evening back home in Essex after we had spent the morning wandering around the village depart in Tours. Cast your mind back to stage 13 and you might remember the echelons that developed after Omega Pharma Quick Step and Saxo Tinkoff attacked in the crosswinds en route to Saint Amand Montrond. It transformed what would ordinarily have been a bit of a nothing stage for the GC into something a bit more interesting. Chris Froome lost a bit of time on the stage to chief rival Alberto Contador, but the rider that really lost out was Alejandro Valverde who had the added ‘bonus’ of a puncture. Cavendish was able to draw on his own and OPQS experience to put a gap into Kittel and take his 25th Tour de France victory.

Of course it isn’t mandatory that a cycling holiday in France has to dovetail with the Tour our trip proved that it’s entirely possible to do this without incurring huge cost. I wonder how the two weeks we had would compare (cost wise) if we had chosen to head to Paris to see the final stage for example. With the Tour route published in October its pretty straightforward to come up with some options as far as accommodation is concerned. There are clearly some savings to be had by avoiding the Alps although I get that seeing stages here might be important for some people. We wanted to combine cycling leavened with plenty of relaxation so the locations we chose and the stages we got to see worked perfectly in combination. For the same reasons you could reach the south (west) of France in one day if you wanted to but we chose to break up the journey to take in another stage and some more riding. In the next part of this post I’ll tell you about our 2014 trip to Spain and give you my verdict on the best place to get your overseas riding ‘fix’. 

Road sign in the Auverge
Road sign in the Auverge
Allez! - cycling road graffiti near Nizas
Allez! – cycling road graffiti near Nizas
Katusha team vehicles in Tours
Katusha team vehicles in Tours

 

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