After months and months (cough) of training on the small rolling hills of Surrey, it was time to test our legs following the world’s greatest cycling spectacle – Le Tour de France. We’d be in the country to catch the last week of the Tour, moving ahead of the peloton.
Taking our trusty bikes with us was no mean feat, packing them down with cardboard, bubble wrap and kindly borrowed bike bags. Each weighed about 25kg and made for difficult transport to Gatwick Airport. Unloading at the other end in a scorching hot Marseilles had even more drama as we helplessly watched our bike bags and others (covered in Fragile stickers) being hurled into the luggage room with a few crashes. Bienvenue en France!
After a few hours wait we collected our station wagon and drove off into the spaghetti junctions a new driving experience for the both of us, in a modern, right-hand side drive car with our trusty GPS; Karen Garmin. Karen did try her best, but in her Australian manner, often mispronounced France and gave us last minute turning directions.
En route to our first nights accommodation in Tarascon, we passed fields of sunflowers and many little French villages, complete with a boulangerie (bakery) and local men kissing each other on the cheek – in the most masculine way possible. Dinner was a bit of an experience with a grandfather and adolescent grandson running a nice little restaurant, everything in French without a hint of any English spoken. Tam found out poissons wasn’t actually poison, but fish.
The following day broke out into one of the hottest, with a heatwave in full swing, we drove to Pont du Gard for a cool swim, our first swim in months. Pont du Gard was an ancient Roman aqueduct for transporting spring water to the town of Nimes, spanning a large stretch of the river valley. The water was clear and cool, full of fish.
The afternoon was spent in Avignon, a high walled city baked up high on the hillside, where we walked around the Papes (Popes) Palace watching street performers contest for performance space and people resting under mist spouting nozzles. The crowds were largely due to the Bastille Day (French Independence Day) celebrations.
That night, we treated ourselves to a quirky riverside hotel in Bourg Saint-Andeol in a luxury suite. To offset the costs, we crunched through toast with cheese and chugged back a 2 Euro bottle of red wine. Outside a local rave party went into the night, we considered joining the dance floor, but found it overridden with families and toddlers…
After an early depart to Flassans and setting up our bikes in an apricot orchard (helping ourselves to a few) we rushed to join the convoy of cyclists preparing to take on Mont Ventoux. This day was probably the hottest of the lot and left us wishing we began the ascent a few hours earlier. Multiple shade stops along the way were necessary as we weren’t used to the heat, or the steep >8% gradients on the mountain. We saw many campervans and cyclists waving an NZ flag or bearing the silver fern, supporting hometown heroes Jack Bauer and Greg Henderson. As we got closer to the bald top of Ventoux, cleared by Napoleon when building his naval fleet, the trip got a lot more bearable. However, we were promptly stopped and ordered to turn around by the gendarme (French police), just as they closed the road off at Chalet Reynard for the oncoming caravan.
Finding a place to watch the tour wasn’t too difficult. We just cycled back down the hill a couple of kilometres till we found the most raucous group. Complete with a stuffed boar and French flags, chanting “Allez le Blues” every time the gendarme motored past.
The caravan passed through a few hours before the race, armed with a lot of prizes many are more willing to fight for, for sport, rather than for actual possession. A swag of water bottles, newspapers, t-shirts, cycle hats, fridge magnets, wristbands, condoms and other random assorted items were distributed to the spectators.
The arrival of the helicopter was warning enough to rush down the bank and onto the road to cheer on the cyclists arriving. Froome decided to make his attack on Contador and accelerated past us at great speed, going on to win the stage (we found out much later) with the rest of the peloton not far behind in pursuit. It was great to get so close to the stars of the Tour and cheer them on, some spectators getting much closer than others, being more of a hindrance than help despite their best intentions.
After the cyclists passed it wasn’t long till the roads were clear again to cycle back down the road for a quick exit to the charming town of Gordes for dinner. A bed in breakfast in Robion was our port of call for the night. Our hosts were entertaining guests to a barbeque, which shortly after we arrived, the family pooch helped itself to, pushing over the coal burner and retreating quickly past our room to the backyard. A good laugh!
Our next port of call was to the north, in the Rhone Alpes region, with more mountainous and difficult terrain designed to test out our legs (to follow).