The great classic events cross countries, or continents, and take a fair bit of planning, unless you have time to ride to the start, and from the finish. In 2003, Francis didnít have a lot of holiday leave, so I set about designing a classic on our doorstep - from the Channel coast (la Manche) to the Mediterranean.
The seed pearl around which this epic grew was the first Bike Bus of the season. European Bike Express run their first buses to Spain in early May and they come back empty, unless someone has already made their way south, of course! Further considerations involved the necessity of a project that would get us both fit for the summer, plus the attraction of riding south to the sun, at a time when the British spring tends to drag its heels rather.
A few test routes in the Autoroute program revealed that the most accessible, and rural, ride was likely to be from Caen, or rather its port at Ouistreham, to the Med just south of a Bike Bus pick-up point outside Montpellier. I had no intention of getting involved in major roads and large towns so worked out the overnight stops at 50 to 60 mile intervals, on minor D-roads, leaving plenty of time for navigation and sightseeing.
Well we rode it, staying half-board in small French family-run hotels, and getting fit, without actually managing to lose any weight. Then registered the ride as an AUK Calendar and Permanent event, and a CTC Tour, for 2004.
Now each year brings refinements. In 2003, we took a night ferry and slept rough but, for the 2004 tour, I booked three 4-berth cabins. In 2005 we took an earlier, day, ferry and rode twelve miles inland for our first night, since Chris Ellison, who provides our tour back-up van, points out that seas can be rough and ferries cancelled in May, which would really put our plans out for an official tour, with accommodation booked in advance!
Thus the first dayís dash across Normandy is shortened slightly, and itís well worthwhile taking time through the rolling Normandy countryside, to view the odd World War 2 site, such as the cafť at Pegasus Bridge, a chateau, or a castle.
The second day takes us into the Pays de la Loire and the countryside becomes increasingly flat. The third day is only a morning ride, which gives time to explore the splendid chateau at Amboise on the Loire itself.
In 2003, Francis and I got seriously lost on the way out of Amboise but in 2004 we spotted a cycle route heading south and were introduced to an even more magnificent chateau at Chenonceau, which is now a regular part of the route. This is another half day, with an exploration of the mediaeval town of Loches in the afternoon. One more flat day in the chateau region through the ForÍt de LancŰme and then we reach the rolling countryside of the Limousin and the western foothills of the Massif Central, where we spend a night by the Lac de Vassiviere, which was used as a time trial circuit in the Tour de France some years ago.
On our seventh day we rode into the Auverne, a popular cycling area, and cross the infant River Dordogne, with views of puys, strange domed hills, the cores of ancient volcanoes. In 2003 we ascended Puy Mary, though the road was officially closed, but in 2004 and 2005 only one or two of the group took this strenuous option.
In 2004 the rain, which had been following us in a northerly tailwind, caught us in the Lot gorge. The upper Lot was an addition to the route and in 2005 we saw this beautiful gorge in the sunlight at last. It should be noted that, whilst we had wall-to-wall sun in 2003, we also had a hot southerly headwind throughout the ride; we canít win them all.
After staying in the little pilgrim town of Estaing we ascended into the Causses, dry limestone uplands with unusual flora. The scenery grew ever more spectacular as we descended to the Tarn.
Up until now we have turned east to ascend the Jonte Gorge but in 2006 we will turn west down the Tarn to Millau and its amazing new viaduct. Next day we will ride into the wild Causse du Larzac in the Cevennes National Park before emerging into the aromatic Mediterranean maquis and the vineyards for which our final overnight town of Aniane is famous.
We stay here for two nights, enabling an exploration of the Gorges de líHerault on our rest day - though some riders may prefer to laze by the pool!
On the final day, we cross a pedestrian/cycle footbridge to visit a quiet Mediterranean beach and, hopefully, once again Chris will have managed to locate some champagne for the occasion.
© CTC Cycling Holidays
web construction: Francis Cooke