As we had several immovable appointments towards the end of the year we decided on a three-week trip to France to revisit some of the towns I passed through on my ride earlier in the year.
The plan was to drive to Provence and work our way back through the Loire Valley where Kaye could enjoy some cycling on relatively flat roads and as we were in the vicinity Kaye allowed me a slight diversion off route to ride Alpe D’Huez.
With the motorhome loaded on a grey and windy September day we headed to Portsmouth for the afternoon crossing to Ouistreham (Caen).
The crossing was uneventful as you always hope it will be but I could not help but smile in the duty-free shop where you could buy any of the five different flavours of the giant bars of Toblerone,and 3 for the price of 2. I was reminded of a previous crossing in our old Landrover when we took up the offer and travelling overnight to Austria the chocolate was in the footwell of the vehicle and taking the full force of the heater. The following morning at our Austrian hotel when we came down to unload the vehicle the Toblerone was a triangular shape of frozen solid chocolate that we had to break with a hammer and was a danger to teeth.
After landing at Caen we drove the short distance to an Aire-De-Service and an overnight stop before taking on the French roads. Heavy overnight rain had stopped but low cloud and drizzle greeted us, we were aiming to drive 336 miles to another overnight stop at La Palisse. There must be an EU subsidy for French farmers to drive humongous great vehicles on the roads and cause traffic congestion, most of these seemed to have an escort vehicle as an oversize load, one escort was 1980’s Peugeot with one working light, plastic sheeting on the side windows, the suspension collapsed on one side, not a single straight panel on the vehicle and the exhaust smoking like a Russian Aircraft Carrier.
After a long day on narrow French roads we arrived at La Palisse and located our Aire for the night. A beer was required and then into walking boots to explore the Old Town, and what a gem. The houses were all timber-framed and overlooked by the most imposing castle, the roads in the Old Town had been relaid in tarmac but with cobbled gutters and kerbs and it all looked very expensive and tastefully done. A lot of the shops had for sale boards, probably a result of the global economic downturn but the shop windows were infilled with giant panoramic photographs of the property and surrounding area from 100 years ago giving you a unique view of yesteryear and how little had changed on the property scene.
The following morning was a relaxed start and the relatively short 180 mile drive to Le Bourg-d’Oisans, there were several campsites to choose from but the popularity of the area for walking, cycling and water sports came with a €23 price tag per night. Arriving just after lunch the temperature was mid 20’s so we took the opportunity to cycle into and explore the town and of course afternoon coffee and cake, well to be accurate coffee and French tart.
Clear skies, a chilly start and a valley still in shadow at as I left the motor home at 7-45 to take on the 22 bends to the top of Alpe D’Huez. The campsite was situated just yards from the start of the climb and almost immediately the GPS was showing a gradient of 10 – 12% and my legs were suffering from lack of a decent warm up. Each hair-pin you come across is numbered and named after a Tour De France rider as well as giving you the altitude so you can chart progress. I did not see any other cyclists on the ascent and at half distance I came across some workers moving rocks off the road, as I cycled past they were about to close the road to deal with the rockfall. I continued on and approaching the summit had to pay careful attention to take the correct turning as there were no other cyclists to follow. On reaching the finish line the place was deserted, I took a few photographs and selfies and eventually found a very helpful local authority worker who took my picture on the Tour De France podium, a must for any cyclist. The temperature at altitude was still cold so I donned my rain jacket before the trip back down the mountain. After a couple of turns I caught a large articulated lorry who was cautiously descending and progress was brought to a halt at the road closure where a digger was now moving the rockfall. The closure lasted another 30 minutes and as the road was re-opened an amazing sight as over 100 cyclists who had been held up continued on their personal challenge. I got back to Kaye at the motor-home by 10-30 and after a shower and breakfast we decided to drive to Provence.
The sat nav gave us a route of 106 miles and a time of 3 hours 30 minutes to Bedoin which suggested progress would not be quick, the reality was it took 5 hrs 30 minutes. The roads were narrow and steep, a lot at 20% and we were amazed at some of the crazy overtakes we saw with drivers overtaking on blind bends with narrow ledges and steep drops. Our fears were realised on the final stretch between Malucenne and Bedoin where the road was closed as the emergency services were dealing with a head-on crash between two cars.
Our first full day in Bedoin saw the temperature rise to the mid 30’s and a warm ride on a familiar route to Flassan, Villes-sur-Auzon and the start of the Gorge de Nesque before returning via Moimoron. The local grape harvest is just beginning, farmers were stacking boxes by the vines and much debate while inspecting and tasting the fruit.
The following days continued with high temperatures and we enjoyed easy rides on the local lanes, I had worked out a fairly flat circuit for Kaye to which I could add a climb to the lovely named old town of Crillon-le-Brave. The weekend is the time to see the groups of French club cyclists riding out in club kit and in formation, one thing I noticed that a lot of the older riders were riding road bikes that seemed much too big for them, saddles were tight on the top tube and did not look comfortable by modern standards.
Saturday evening in Bedoin is a social gathering time, we walked into town and took an outside table at a bar for a bit of people watching, we were rewarded by a parade of more than a 100 vintage motorcycles through the town and this was followed by the Saturday evening market of fresh produce and wine that brings out the locals to buy and enjoy the company of friends and pastis at the bars
Sunday continued the status quo as one of the 300 days a year of sunshine in Provence and Kaye drove the motor home to Sault as I took the leisurely route en-velo through the Gorge de Nesque. Sunday in France is devoted to the bicycle and the roads in Provence are certainly crowded.
The route through the Gorge was very busy, I passed all manner of bikes and people enjoying their rides. I was pedalling along at a steady tempo and became aware of a wheel behind, the rider stayed with me and then produced a sprint past me and across a bridge at which point he stopped and waited, my new Italian friend explained that he had to get to this point inside 30 minutes, he was happy he had made his target so nothing bad would happen !! cycling OCD !!. After riding together for a while I stopped at a view-point to take some photographs. As I approached the top of the climb my friend was in the middle of the road in animated conversation with a large man who was the image of Fidel Castro with big bushy beard, army green fatigues and hat and matching green Wellington boots, I had to stop and take a photograph to prove to Kaye I was not delirious or suffering from heat stroke. Leaving the Gorge I had one final climb up to Sault and a rendezvous with Kaye at the municipal Aire and our campsite for couple of days.
Sunday is also the day of the long lunch and after a walk around the town we spent the afternoon with a few beers looking out at Ventoux and watching the locals demonstrate the skills needed for the game of Petanque.
Earlier in the year I had climbed Ventoux from each of the three routes and one of the reasons for the return was to allow Kaye to climb the mountain. After her back operation last year she was delighted to be back on the bike and the plan had been to hire an electric bike for the ride however she decided she would rather try it without mechanical doping and was very happy to make the halfway point unassisted which given her back problem was a great achievement. Every ascent of Ventoux is special and should not be underestimated, on this ascent the wind was raging at the top and my descent was halted by a herd of sheep on the road that were reluctant to move. Back at the motor-home after a celebratory coffee and cake we decamped back to Bedoin and spent the afternoon watching the clouds gather before a thunderstorm erupted over the mountains.