Summary: Viewing the Pyrénées stages of the 2003 Tour de France inspired me to choose this itinerary. I knew that replicating the actual TDF stages would be much too long (as the stages are not interconnected) but at the end of the day, I rode 2,488 km which is more than 2/3 of the actual length of the Tour: 3427 km! Having said this, my general average was 82.7 km/cycling day, a very small number by TDF standards.
The general game plan for the demi tour was sketched on a map of France (1/2,000,000). The trajectory chosen as I rode was varied, never dull, grandiose in the Pyrenean cols and valleys, and sprinkled with a number of spectacular towns and cities (Bourges, Toulouse, Poitiers, Chinon, Blois, Chartres, Versailles to name only a few).
Stayed in hotels (generally 2* which is admittedly pricy!), B&B’s and in a Youth hostel (10 Euros/night). Travel can be cheap in France, even without camping. I carried 17 kg of gear.
As with all my previous European trips (I generally do one every year), this was a solo event. I am interested in riding with one or more partner(s) however, and if my style of traveling suits your circumstances, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to explore options. My name is Louis Tousignant, a French Canadian in his fifties living on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia.
Day 1 – Charles de Gaulle – Melun (82 km)
After a sleepless night on the plane, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) at 10 AM. At 11 AM, my bike was assembled, the 4 panniers installed and the tire pressure reading was close to 100. By the way, I did not have a single flat tire during the trip.
My plan was of course to go around Paris…
As you can see from the 312 local Michelin map (1/150,000), exiting CDG to get to Le Mesnil Amelot (D401) is extremely easy. Less than 1 km of auto route, turning right twice at “Autres directions”, as you exit the airport. You will arrive at a traffic circle. Go around, take the left exit and then turn right towards Le Mesnil Amelot. Potato field country. At Villeneuve, I took the D26 to Thieux, the D9 to Juilly, the D404 to Claye-Souilly, the D418 to Thorigny and Ferrières en Brie (yes… the cheese). From there, I crossed the Armainvilliers forest and followed the D471 all the way to Rubelles, just outside Melun.
On stretches of road paralleling auto routes, you get a feel for the traffic nightmare that Paris must be. I was on a high all day. I rode through la Plaine de France, a mixture of farmland, small towns and residential suburbs.
Stayed at the Formule 1 hotel in Rubelles (a good chain of cheap hotels – 25 euros - but they generally are located at the outskirts of cities which can be seriously inconvenient). Dinner at the Ibis Hotel across the road was excellent. I slept like a log, beating jet lag on the very first day!
Day 2 - Melun – Pithiviers (83 km)
The town of Melun is on the other side of the highway from Rubelles and in retrospect that is where I should have spent the night. Quiet old town traversed by the Seine.
Followed the D39 to Vulaines, a nice scenic ride along the Seine, and carried on to Fontainebleau. A stop at the château is a must; I only did the grounds in horse drawn carriage which is a total waste of money. For the same price you can visit the château.
Exited the town on N152, took a left at the first crossroads (le Gâtinais), to Recloses. This is a beautiful quiet ride in the Fontainebleau forest… you have the road to yourself.
Rejoined the N152 at Ury and carried on to Puiseaux on the D36. There, I took the D112 to Givraines and Pithiviers. Nice 14th century castle in Yèvre if you have the time and the inclination.
Pithiviers is all hills (small) and its dubious claim to fame is the existence of a concentration camp in WWII… Needless to say this is not advertised! Had to stay in the outskirts at Relais Saint Georges (a 2* Gîte de France) since the few hotels available in the center were booked.
If you follow my route, buy dinner at a grocery store in Pithiviers and find a chambre d’hôte (B&B) in the country side.
Day 3 - Pithiviers – Orléans (50 km)
I switched to local map 318 to carry on. These maps (yellow – 1/150,000) are great, easy to follow, but there is considerable overlap from one to the next. I recommend the regional series of Michelin maps (orange - 1/200,000); little if any overlap. You can’t find them everywhere as the local maps are the new line of product pushed by Michelin, but it’s worth the search. News-book stores in larger towns carry regional maps.
The D921 goes through the Forêt d’Orléans, a clean smelling and quiet ride in the shade. Switched to the D709 from Fay to Mardié and then to the D960 to Orléans.
Decided to stop in Orléans because of it being the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc and a likely historical treasure. That was a mistake and I should have gone down the Loire, towards Sully or further South…
Orléans is decidedly not a must see. Consultations with locals however led me to ‘Le Chalut’, a first class seafood restaurant. A restful day was had.
Day 4 - Orléans - Saint-Brisson sur Loire (88 km)
Crossed the tram bridge out of Orléans, turned left at the first opportunity and followed the cycling path to Jargeau, along the Loire. A nice scenic ride with a group of local cyclists. I arrived first in Jargeau, which felt good considering the group of youngsters carried no baggage.
Crossed the River to Saint-Denis and took the D960 to Châteauneuf. I should have stayed on the cycling path on the south side of the river, as that stretch of the D960 is nondescript with heavy traffic.
I then followed the D60 to Saint-Père-sur-Loire. I stopped to photograph the local railway barrier station when the owner – seeing the flag of Portugal on one of my saddlebags – asked if I had been there… His wife offered me lunch (kidneys with whisky sauce!!!), a nice conversation ensued and addresses were exchanged. Great people.
Crossed the river again to Sully (the château is spectacular) and followed the bike path (which starts on the château’s grounds) to Saint-Gondon and then the D951 to Gien. Photographed the château de Gien from this side of the river, without entering the town. This would probably have been a better alternative destination than Orléans, the night before.
I carried on the D951 to Saint-Brisson, which I decided to visit to photograph the castle. In the village, I asked the owner of ‘Hôtel Chez Hughette’, a young chef, to check out room availability 30 km or so down the road… I ultimately decided to stay put and visit the castle to finish off the afternoon.
I highly recommend the hotel (28 Euro for the room) where I had a fantastic gourmet dinner. It rained during the night, as it did the night before in Orléans, which is the way I like it.
Day 5 - Saint-Brisson – Bourges (83 km)
This segment of the trip, in the Berry region, marks the beginning of relative cycling difficulty. The day started with wet weather. False flats replace flats on the D52 to Autry, the D53 to Cernoy, the D50 to La Fousserotte and the D57 to Barlieu. The descent from Barlieu to Vailly is lots of fun.
The ride continues with the D926 to Villegenon and the D7 – D11 to Henrichement. From there to Bourges on the D11 is the most spectacular stretch of country road since the beginning of the trip, mostly in rolling hills. The château de Menetou is worth a short stop. As you reach the D940 to enter Bourges, there is a cycling path into town, which is quite nice.
Bourges is a beautiful medieval town. The Office de Tourisme is located near the cathedral and for 1 Euro, they reserve rooms. They put me up at Hôtel Saint-Jean (28 Euros) a great place just a stone throw away from the old town centre. Had dinner at the Louis XI, a first rate steak house.
Bourges is illuminated at night and has a lot to offer (music, photo and entertainment). Consider it for a rest day.
Day 6 - Bourges - Aigurande (100km)
Exited Bourges on the D73 to Châteauneuf-sur-Cher. The community church is spectacular. The D940 brings you to Lignières and La Chatre (Georges Sand’s – Chopin’s lover – home town); it is flat all the way. At l’Embranchement, I took a left on D951b to Crevant and Aigurande. This latter section was the toughest roller coaster yet, particularly against the wind.
It was a Sunday, when all is absolutely dead in provincial France. At Crevant, I found a restaurant but they did not have rooms. The owner connected me to le Relais de la Marche (2* Gîte de France in Aigurande) and the owner, Josiane Chambon, agreed to wait for me and provide me with dinner and a room even though the hotel was closed. Thank God for nice people. Lots of hills between Crevant and Aigurande and I sure was glad to be expected when I arrived.
Always book a room ahead of time on Sundays!!! I could have been caught flat footed that day.
Day 7 - Aigurande - Limoges (104 km)
Cool morning air greeted me, but the 10 km descent to Chambon (D951) was great! The road to La Souterraine was a long roller coaster. The center town restaurant (as opposed to the one near the railway station) is the place to go.
Moving south on the D1, there are serious hills between Fursac and Laurière. Between Laurière and La Jonchère (D914), the first ‘col’ of the trip is awaiting, le Col de la Roche (about 450 m).
Just outside Ambazac, I literally flied on a long coast to Rilhac-Rancon where I decided, examining the map, that it would make sense to take the D207 to le Palais-sur-Vienne and follow the river to Limoges. The map gives no hint on what to expect and it’s a wonderful surprise.
The ride starts with a long, sharp and windy descent and then a 7%+ 3 km climb on a small road through a cool forest, fields with horses…a bucolic grand finale to a tough day on the D914.
I then reinserted the real world and entered Limoges in traffic, coasting at a fast clip. At the train station (an impressive architectural marvel), SNCF personnel helped me find a room at Hôtel de la Poste (37 Euros) just across the street. It’s a working man hotel, with working man food at working man prices; a comfortable place.
This was the most spectacular and demanding riding day to date.
Day 8 - Rest in Limoges
I decided to have a day of rest as a precaution. I probably should have carried on as Limoges is not particularly interesting. It can be walked in a couple of hours and is of limited photographic interest.
I arrived too late at the porcelain factory to see how porcelain is made and I did not visit the porcelain museum… Both visits are no doubt worthwhile. You will have guessed by now that Limoges is the porcelain capital of France.
Day 9 - Limoges - Saint-Rabier (94 km)
Left at 8 AM and it was chilly. I took the D11 to Condat, Solignac, and the D32 to Le Vigen. Hilly stretch and no traffic.
I then opted for the D704 as it is the most direct way south. There is a 6 km hill right out of Le Vigen and I carried on until la Traverse. The road is large and the traffic heavy, so I decided to take the D17 through La-Roche-Abeille to get to Saint-Yriex. That was the right decision. The village is a marvel and the remainder of the ride through the country side is spectacular. I saw only 4 cars along the way.
In Saint-Yriex, had lunch at Le Cheval Blanc (a great eatery) with a table full of French men, a nice break… followed by a meeting with a couple of young Brits cycling to Perpignan. In their 30s, they were taking a year off…surprising but a great idea for young executive types. I remembered I had the same dream way back when…
I then returned to the D704. The transition between the Limousin and the Dordogne regions can be noted as stone houses and farm buildings become the norm. The ride down to Saint-Rabier was spectacular, in light traffic. Spent the night at ‘Les Courtissoux’ a farm turned into a B&B by Christian Lagorce and his wife Zita. Great meal, lots of fine liquor before, during and after, and fascinating conversation on the demise of agriculture, the English and Dutch invasion of the region and the fate of the world… A great evening was had.
Day 10 - Saint-Rabier - Dégagnac (79 km)
From the Lagorce’s farm to the RN 89, it’s downhill all the way. The best way to go to Montignac is to carry on from there through La Bachellerie. The village is a long hill and there is another one shortly after. The (in) famous name of Virenque is painted on the tarmac, the first official indication this is serious cycling territory!
Do not bypass Montignac, as it is an interesting village. If you wish to visit the Lascaux grottos, you in fact must buy tickets in Montignac, near the Office de Tourisme. I chose to pass as a horde of tourists was lined up…
I returned to the D704. The road to Sarlat climbs more than it descends… On the way, make the detour to Saint-Geniès on the D64. It is not only quieter, it is sublime. I had lunch in Sarlat and on a whim, decided to visit the medieval section of the town. This is a must, particularly for photography.
Took the D57 southwards and at the fork, I chose the D46 to what I thought would lead me to la Roque Gageac. A big mistake as I missed Beynac, a beautiful medieval village, and the ride along the river on the D703 towards Domme. I compounded the mistake by by-passing all of these places, which are jewels in the crown of Dordogne tourism. I regret it to this day!
The D46 leads out of Dordogne into the Lot area, which is obviously poorer, less picturesque. In mid-afternoon, I stopped at Dégagnac for a beer and found out there was little by way of lodgings for a long stretch down the road. I was tired of fighting the wind and the owner of the bar-grocery store where I was found me a room, at an equestrian farm near by. Had a nice meal of micro waved regional dishes, with a good bottle of wine, and spent a quiet evening in a comfortable cottage in nature.
A great finish to a great day in beautiful country. The only sad note was by-passing the trio of medieval villages.
Day 11 - Dégagnac - Cahors (35 km)
The D6 climbs to Lavercandière, goes down for 3 km or so and then stabilizes into shorter rolls and coasts until Catus. I got hit by a storm and barely had the time to suit up before being forced to stop and wait for the outpour to stop.
The hilly stretch between Catus and the D911 is interesting. Just after the traffic circle, a cycling path civilizes the entry into Cahors, which would otherwise be dreadful in heavy traffic.
Arrived at noon and had lunch at la Brasserie Le Palais, a superior affordable restaurant on the main street. I decided to stay put, dry up and do some photography. At the Office de Tourisme, I met a group (1 man and 4 women) of cycling Finns who were doing the pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostello. They were planning to go to the youth hostel to stay for the night and have their pilgrimage passport stamped. Acting as an interpreter, I made the arrangements for them and decided to join them. A room for 6 costs 50 Euros. The place was quite clean and populated by friendly people of all ages.
We visited Cahors separately and regrouped for dinner at the same Brasserie. Britta, the group leader, told me afterwards that this was the first time they actually knew before a meal what precisely they would be eating! We had a great evening together.
Day 12 - Cahors - Moissac - Dieupentale (116 km)
We started off the day together on the D653, as the pilgrims route to Moissac is in the general direction of Toulouse, my proposed destination before entering the Pyrénées. The shorter alternative would have been to go to Montauban on N20-E09, a route nationale. I avoid these roads whenever possible because of their dullness and the heavy truck traffic.
Being much faster than my newfound friends, I lost them early on and stopped in Montcuq, a picturesque little town, to wait for them. I had a long chat with a local man about possible routes to Moissac. Tired of waiting, I decided to leave and follow his advice…
I took the D55 to Saint-Cyprien, escaped from 3 dogs, and carried on straight to Sauveterre. This is a heavy duty roller coaster ride in total communion with nature. The hill leading in to Sauveterre is a humdinger! Out of Sauveterre, at the crossroads, I took the D56 which joins the D927 to Moissac. My adviser had said I would see no cars…5 were sighted. If you go for this trip, I think the D27 to Lolmie, the D7 – D54 to Lauzerte, the D2 to Durfort and then the D16 – D957 to Moissac is probably more scenic… But I followed a nice back way into Moissac nevertheless!
Moissac, famous for its cloister, is a beautiful town. I had lunch, circled around to see if Finns were sighted and decided to carry on along the river Garonne towards Toulouse, without formal goodbyes.
The N 113 to Castelsarrasin is not a fun stretch of road. Too much traffic. I therefore left the nationale and took the D45 to l’Abbaye de Belleperche. The idea was to continue along the Garonne on the D26 but I mistakenly took the D14 instead. I found out about the mistake in Larrazet and switched back to Mas-Grenier via Saint-Sardos on small back roads. When I arrived in Verdun-sur-Garonne on the D26, I was tired. No hotels or B&B’s in sight. I was told I could find a hotel in Dieupentale, on the N113.
I had started off at 7 AM and arrived at 6:30 PM in the perfect non place. Had a so-so pizza for dinner and slept well.
Day 13 - Dieupentale - Toulouse (40km)
Pouring rain greeted me in the morning, but staying put was simply not an option. I took the N113 to Grisolles, the D49 to Grenade and past Seilh, at the fork, stayed left on the D2, along the Garonne and entered Toulouse. There is an intermittent cycling path starting in Blagnac (near the airport) which facilitates navigation in the city. I made my way to the stone bridge (Pont des Arts I think) and made my way to the Office de Tourisme barely just before it closed.
They booked me at Hôtel Hériot (45 Euros), a first rate establishment managed by very helpful people. They provided me with a print out of the Tour de France’s Pyrénées stages which would become invaluable later on.
Spent the afternoon photographing in Toulouse – the rain had stopped by now – and had dinner in a Chinese restaurant for a change. Toulouse is definitely a beautiful city where one can have a productive day of rest.
Day 14 - Toulouse - Mirepoix (89 km)
Well rested from the previous short cycling day, I decided to carry on.
The simplest way of getting out of Toulouse is to follow the cycle path along le Canal du Midi, which is picturesque and lively. I got on the road at Gardouch. This was the best place to start following the TDF route, as advised by Hôtel Hériot’s night receptionist.
Seeing on the map that, from there on, I would be in a totally rural environment until Mirepoix, I decided to have lunch in Villefranche. L’Hôtel de France on the main street, which is reached by circuitous means, is an extraordinary family restaurant. After a seafood entrée, I had cassoulet as a main course and not only was it delicious; I simply could not finish the plate. I gave my dessert (which looked fabulous) to my table mate. Total cost with excellent table wine: 13 Euro!!!
I have now clocked 1,000 km and the reading goes back to 0 as I enter the Basses Pyrénées. The ride to Mirepoix on the D625 is basically flat and quite agreeable. This is la Vallée de l’Aude and the way to the Col de Pailhères, the first Pyrenean col of the TDF. Names of French riders – Virenque, Moreau – are freshly painted on the road. It’s quite the feeling to ‘wheel in their stream’.
Mirepoix is a quaint medieval town and the main square is full of good photos. Stayed at the Hôtel Commerce (32 Euros), a first rate establishment.
It started raining as soon as I settled in.
Day 15 - Toujours Mirepoix
It continued pouring during the night and all day… I stayed put, as did the entire cycling community across the Pyrénées, as I found out later in conversations. Cycling is big in the region.
In retrospect, this opportunity to rest before tackling the mountains was probably beneficial.
Day 16 - Mirepoix - Méjanes (85 km)
After leaving Mirepoix, I took the D7 to Chalabre and the D12 to Puiva, following the TDF stage itinerary. Continued on the D117 and just before descending into Quillan, had a long conversation with a local couple about possible alternative routes to Ax-les-Thermes and decided to stick with the TDF route. The descent into Quillan, the first serious descent of the trip (a drop from 601 m to 289 m), was sort of a freebee as I was not aware of having climbed that much since Mirepoix.
Had lunch in Quillan, next door to the Office de Tourisme, where I reserved a room in Méjanes which – at 1100 m – is a bit more than half the climb of the Col de Pailhères. That was a brilliant idea!
A few kilometers outside Quillan, I entered the Défilé de Pierre Lys, an absolutely spectacular stretch of road which I remembered seeing in TDF broadcasts. The road winds through cliffs that sometimes overhang above your head, and the soundtrack is the torrent nearby…And it is easy riding, as this is a valley! Now I really understood why I had opted for the Pyrénées.
The serious climb starts at the Grottes de l’Aguzan (on the D118) and really starts at the crossroads where the Col de Pailhères is officially posted. The summit at 2001 m is 15 km away, the average gradient is 8.1% and maximum stretches are at 10%. A lot to look forward to, as I entered a first set of hairpin curves…
The scenery is spectacular but all I remember is climbing! When I saw Rouze, I thought it was Mijanès…a road crew guy of course told me it was ‘Un peu plus loin’… When I finally reached the little overpass leading into Mijanès, with kids smiling at me probably because I was so slow, I was extremely pleased with my decision to cut the climb in half.
The room, many beers, dinner and breakfast at le Relais de Pailhères cost 50 Euros. They sell a board game, ‘L’Échappée Infernale’, which is of course about road racing, with miniature cyclist figurines in – of course - blue, white and red. A game invented by the hotel owner’s grandfather… She further told me that the TDF passed trough Mijanès in a flash, as if they were all descending!!!
Day 17 - Mijanès - Tarascon (60 km)
When I looked through the dining room window, I saw there was wind, lots of wind, in the wrong direction…
Mijanès is at 1130 m and by the time you reach the ski resort, a few kilometers away, the elevation is 1600. I stopped at the refuge pastoral (shepherd’s refuge) to recoup from the fierce fight with the mountain and the wind. I had barely started the day and I was sort of wondering if I would have to turn around… Right after the refuge, the road narrows and the climbing gets really serious. That’s where the 10% stretches are. The wind was so strong that I had to walk some hairpin sections, only to be literally pushed up when riding in the other direction.
German motorcyclists flashed by… They were at the summit when I arrived and one of them took my photo under the road sign. 2001 meters! My first Category 1 climb! I was a proud fellow.
I just breezed along from the summit to Ax-les-Thermes, being careful on the way not to miss a photo opportunity of the town and the road to le Plateau de Bonascre, the ultimate destination of the TDF for that stage. I did not climb there, as the hill is a 13 km killer leading to a resort and a dead end.
In Ax, I met a couple of 30 something Belgian cyclists who had started off in Biarritz, en route to Perpignan, planning to traverse the Pyrénées in 100 hours! Hats off. In the same vein, I could not help thinking that the TDF peleton had left Toulouse in the morning and reached the top of the Plateau de Bonascre mid-afternoon the very same day. It took me 3 cycling days to cover the same ground, minus the last climb…
Took the N20-E9 to Tarascon, which is still a beautiful downhill ride in spectacular countryside. There is lots of traffic but the shoulder is wide. This route is also the only easy alternative. At the Office de Tourisme, I reserved a room in Seix (about 60 km and 1 col away) for the following day and stayed at Hôtel Bellevue where the room and a dinner (salad, copious spaghetti Bolognese and 1 half liter of red) cost 36 Euros. This is the place to stay in Tarascon! Not only is it affordable, the people are super.
Day 18 - Tarascon - Seix (58 km)
It starts climbing at the very start of the D618, but not seriously until after the sign announcing the col. Summit 9.3 km, at 1250 m, mean gradient 5.95% with spurts at 8%. But then again, with no wind, the Col de Port is a relatively easy climb. High gradient sections are very short and you climb 550 meters on 8 km, compared to a similar climb in the few kilometers separating Mijanès and its ski station.
The coast to Massat is spectacular and steeper than the climb. An old Lance graffiti is painted on the road, the vestige of a previous Tour. From there, you are in the vallée de l’Arac, an absolutely sublime stretch, as is the ride in the vallée de Salat on the D32 to Seix, probably the nicer way to get into the village (the alternative being the D3).
In Seix, I found 400 ASA film at an exorbitant price (always buy that stuff in cities) and stopped at the Office de Tourisme and reserved a room in Saint-Lary, 50 km and 1 harder col ahead… Good thing I did, as the hotel was booked for a mountain bike rally. I got in because I was cycling in…
L’Auberge des Deux Rivières is 4 km out of Seix, up the valley, and the detour is worth it. The chef owner, a Dutchman, is friendly, an excellent host and cook. Cycling and skiing are central to his business and he spoke to me about clients doing 6 cols per day from where we stood. I’m not there yet!!!
Day 19 - Seix - Saint-Lary (50km)
Le col de la Core (1400 m) is relatively easy. I climbed it in 3 hours, compared to 2 hours for a couple of guys in their 50s without baggage. There is a break in the climbing from the 6.5 to the 8 km mark, which helps. Graffiti from an old Tour barks ‘Armstrong dopé’… The scenery is absolutely spectacular, as has been the case since Mirepoix.
As you descend, stop at the lac de Bethmale, a beautiful sight…Had a small lunch at the café de la Core in Arrien; the owner, Mme Marty, is very hospitable; family food at family prices.
The TDF itinerary resumes on the D618 to Saint-Lary, a gradual climb along the Bouigane River. L’Auberge de l’Isard in Saint-Lary with its restaurant is the only game in town (the local B&B is owned by the same family…)
An English couple in their 60s, Pat and Joan Johnson, arrive at the same time, from the other direction. Over dinner, we exchange notes on cycling – as they are serious aficionados – and on the 2 cols that I will have to do the next morning… I was fretting a bit at the prospect, but I was inspired by their knowledge of the area and experience. I felt much more confident as a result.
Day 20 - Saint-Lary - Luchon (53 km)
From this side, le Portet d’Aspet is short and relatively easy. In the early stages, the steep ride though the village is quite interesting. At the top (1069 m), I was greeted by the mountain bike people who were engaged in their 100 km time trial through awesome terrain… The descent is much steeper and I of course stopped at the memorial to Fabio Casertelli, a professional rider who lost his life off the road in the descent. Pat Johnson told me there is a short stretch of 17% on that side…
Shortly thereafter, I climbed le Col de Menté (1349 m), a tough regular ascent from the bottom of the valley. There are cyclists everywhere, real ones. An elderly gentleman with no shirt and a pair of ordinary shorts passes me, calling me “le facteur” (the postman) because of my saddlebags. An hour later, we crossed again as he was coming down, still without a shirt! He said he was impressed by my performance, as I was telling him the same about his…I was flattered. There is a hotel-restaurant at the top.
The descent to Saint-Béat is breathtaking. From there, I carried on to Luchon via the valley (D125), as opposed to the N125 - the TDF route - which would have meant climbing le col du Portillon before entering Luchon. The D125, where a cycling path will have been completed by the time you read this, is a nice and easy scenic ride all the way.
Day 21 - Rest in Bagnères-de-Luchon
I stayed at the Hôtel Panoramic (2* Gîte de France) which is first rate on all counts. Management is super helpful; they helped reserve a room in Saint-Marie de Campan, on the way to the Tourmalet. First time I got a real breakfast with normal toast and protein.
Decided to rest 1 day considering I had to climb 2 big mountains on the following cycling day.
Luchon is a spa town and not particularly interesting from a tourism – photography point of view (many would disagree with this assessment). The best restaurant (affordable as well) by far is the table at l’Hôtel des Deux Nations on a side street. Reservations are a must as the hotel is fully booked with “curistes” who eat there. There are more fancy and expensive eateries on the main street but they simply do not stack up.
Day 22 - Luchon - Saint-Marie-de-Campan (62 km)
The climb to the col de Peyresourde is absolutely spectacular. It is a 13.7 km ascent, with an average gradient of 6.7%. There is lodging half way up and if you decide to follow this itinerary, it is an option to consider, particularly if you decide to try 3 cols (Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet) in one day.
The descent to Arreau is also great. The bottom line is that this region is paradise… If you want to have lunch, Arreau is the only available option.
The col d’Aspin starts immediately outside Arreau. It starts at 3% but there are sections at 9.5%. It is a long and tough climb. On the way, I felt the hand of a cyclist on my back and he pushed me up for a while, which lifted my spirits. Took me 4 hours to climb to the top and my helper, Gerard Tyrell from Dublin, was there to cheer. Met with a German cyclist with about 40 kg of gear, riding in the opposite direction… this placed my effort in perspective!
I dodged a few sheep and cows on the descent, as is customary on all cols as they are “zones pastorales”. After a beer in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, I started climbing towards my hotel (Hôtel Pyrénées) on the way to le Tourmalet… Dinner was fantastic. I had my first taste of garbure, a hearty vegetable soup, a specialty of the region.
I met a fellow cyclist I had encountered at the top of the col de Menté, Frank Neukirch who was moving about in a car, climbing TDF cols every day. I found out that I had climbed 4 category 1 cols, that tomorrow a “hors catégorie” (the highest) was awaiting and that only Portet d’Aspet and col de Port were lesser challenges. Knowing that le Tourmalet was my last mountain, as I had to get back to Paris within two weeks, I was pleased with my performance to date and slept well.
Day 23 - Sainte-Marie de Campan - Lourdes (68km)
Frank left in his car, on the way to Luz Ardiden, the final and brutal ascent of the TDF stage. He gave me Power Bars and a couple of booster packs of energy as this was his last day before returning to Cologne. This stuff came in handy…
All the other cols pale in comparison to le Tourmalet. The average gradient is 8.9% and the summit is 16.5 km from the hotel. It took me 4 hours… As usual, the scenery is grandiose. It is unfortunate in a sense that the La Mongie resort town is scarring nature, which is probably less obvious when snow blurs things out… I stopped at the Office de Tourisme in La Mongie (the last few kilometers at 10% are demanding…) and I was rewarded by the offer of receiving an official certificate for having climbed the col! It is a fabulous souvenir (I received it a month later) and be sure to get yours if you pass by.
I had lunch at the summit, savoring the moment and glided down to Luz Saint-Sauveur. Sheep were actually sleeping on the road near the summit. Needless to say I did not climb Luz Ardiden…Again, it had taken me 3 cycling days (minus 2 cols) to cover this particular one day stage of the TDF.
I carried on the D921 to Pierrefitte-Nestalas, in spectacular country. Spectacular is an understatement when referring to landscape in the Pyrénées. I turned right in front of the city hall in Pierrefitte, looking for the train station. I took “La Voie Verte des Gaves”, a cycling path on abandoned railway bed. This ride at the bottom of a valley, suggested by my friends the Johnson’s, is very restful… no exhaust fumes, no risk and signs to explain the sights as you go along. I suddenly found myself in Lourdes, mid afternoon.
I stayed at the Hôtel de Biarritz and then proceeded to visit the “sanctuary” and the surrounding cluster of souvenir shops…There were thousands of pilgrims, burning candles…the works. Not my kind of scene, but quite the experience.
Day 24 - Lourdes - Mont de Marsan (126km)
The best way out of Lourdes is definitely the D937. In fact, the D940 to Pontacq is to be avoided at all costs as it is the main thoroughfare to Pau. The ride on the D937 is scenic, mostly downhill.
The sanctuary at Betharram is a must photograph. Just past Nay, the road becomes the D938 and is perfectly flat, going through corn fields. This is Aquitaine and I thought I was out of the Pyrénées, having done 505 km in this fabulous region…Wrong! This is the Basses Pyrénées still!
The best way at this stage is to go through the villages (Mirepeix, Baudreix, Bordes, etc.) on the parallel road to the left. Not taking this quieter and no doubt more interesting route was simply an oversight on my part.
In Pau, I went to the train station to see if I could get in Charles de Gaulle Airport by train. The short answer is not really. Only TGVs stop there and you have to put your bike in a SNCF approved bag…but hey... I’m getting into the long answer. After lunch at the station, I crossed Pau without further ado. It’s probably a better stop than Lourdes, unless you like kitschy religious stuff.
I took the N134 (Route de Bordeaux) out of Pau, the only way out really, going north. Just before the first hill on the N134, I switched to the D40 to Arzacq, which is much nicer and quieter. After a longish hill, you ride a crest with beautiful vistas on all sides. This type of road is what cycling is all about!
The Landes region begins just after Arzacq, so the ride in the officially defined Pyrénées was 560km. The D944 to Saint-Sever is very picturesque, with enough hills to make the point that this region is not perfectly flat.
The D933 to Mont de Marsan, which I took towards the end of the afternoon, is as bad as it gets… Lots of trucks, heavy traffic, no shoulder and reflecting thingies embedded in the asphalt every 20 m or so… No picnic.
I stayed at Hôtel du Sablar, which is fine, but the place to stay is the Hôtel Richelieu in the old part of town. The restaurant there is first class! But having said this, Mont de Marsan is definitely not an interesting place. I should have bought food and found a “chambre d’hôte” on a farm somewhere…
Day 25 - Mont de Marsan - Langon (94 km)
There are two ways to get to Langon. The D932 to Roquefort is not the right choice! I consulted lots of people on this, so trust me. The best way, by far, is to take the N134 towards Bordeaux…and then turn on the D651 to Luxey (nice scenery and lots of shade), the D 4 (not as nice in terms of road and scenery quality) to Lagassey, the D104 – D9 to Prechac and the D222 to Langon! Sounds complicated but it’s a piece of cake.
This is probably the cleanest air I have breathed since the very beginning of the trip. And that includes the Pyrénées where there is lots of traffic compared to the Landes.
Langon is uninteresting. The Office de Tourisme booked me a room at the Horus, near the highway and 3 km from the city center… There again, a room on a farm somewhere would have been preferable.
Day 26 - Langon - La Roche Chalais (104 km)
Having no time to visit Bordeaux, I headed straight north towards Libourne. I started off on the D10, turning off at Béguey on the D13 towards Créon. In the first section, I should have paralleled the D10 where possible to better see the châteaux and vineyards. The road to Créon and the continuation to Libourne on the D20 are in the Entre-Deux-Mers wine region. It’s quiet, picturesque and a roller coaster. “Les vendanges” are on, with lots of mechanical grape picking in most vineyards and with teams of young foreigners picking by hand in “grand cru” parcels.
Libourne is a quiet older town where I had lunch and reserved a room through the Office de Tourisme in La Roche Chalais, 50 km north in Dordogne. They recommend going via Saint-Emilion on the D243, Lussac on the D122 and Coutras on the D17, which is a great ride in one of the best wine producing regions of France. Saint-Emilion, a remarkable medieval community, is chockablock with tourists; it is definitely worth a stop. The last section on the D674 is flat and uninteresting.
Stayed in le Soleil d’Or, a good 2* hotel with a fine restaurant. Through them, I booked in another Gîte de France in Mansle, about 100 km north, for the following night, a Sunday!
Day 27 - La Roche Chalais - Mansle (100km)
The ride to Chalais on the D674 presents little interest; there was no traffic because it was Sunday. In Chalais, I took the D20 to Blanzac, a roller coaster in nice scenery. I switched to the D5, a flat section that becomes rolling hills again at the fork to Mouthiers (D12). Continued on the D12 to get to Angoulême via La Couronne, but you should try the D42 to Les Fontaines and Tuteboeuf, which is more scenic according to the map. The ruins of the cathedral/monastery near the cement plant in La Couronne are an interesting sight.
There was a classic car race in Angoulême and I climbed up the hill to reach the old town and have a beer. On balance it was a waste of time because of the road blocks which closed off the nicer sections of the medieval part but this is a much more interesting place than Langon or Mont-de-Marsan.
I exited the city by la route de Vars (D737) which I followed to Montignac, turning off on the D18 to Mansle. This was somewhat of a dull ride in lots of traffic, but an infinitely better option than the alternative, the N10.
L’Hôtel des Deux Rivières (2* Gîte de France) in Mansle is actually quite nice, with terraces overlooking a quiet river and an excellent table. The town is quite ordinary, not a destination to be planned on.
Day 28 - Mansle - Poitiers (98 km)
The N10 is simply not an option; it’s much too busy. The D56-D26 to Ruffec is very picturesque. It’s as if one is back in time in a landscape sprinkled with old mansions, churches and farms.
The D8-D1 to Civray and Gençay is simply quiet riding on generally flat land, a fast section. I stopped for lunch, avoiding a rain shower.
I then took the D741 which goes straight into Poitiers. This is a high traffic highway but an excellent cycling path kept me out of trouble. Stay near the highway however; I got sidetracked in Smarves.
Poitiers is a nice and engaging university town. The Office de Tourisme, just opposite the cathedral, found me an affordable room at Hôtel Central.
Day 29 - Rest in Poitiers
I was not really tired but nevertheless decided to take a break. I walked the tourist paths (marked with painted lines on the streets) but did not find many photos…surprisingly.
Day 30 - Poitiers - Chinon (81 km)
September 24 already and this was the first fall day: sunny and crisp. I found getting out of Poitiers to take the D757 complicated and, as a result, did a stretch on the N147, rejoining it in Aventon. I rode against the wind and arrived in Richelieu for lunch. The cardinal’s castle and the interesting character of the main street make this town a famed tourist attraction.
The D749 brought me to Saint-Lazare and Chinon, where I decided to stop as it was less expensive and more interesting than Azay-le-Rideau according the person I had consulted at lunch.
I stayed at l’Hotel Boule d’Or (yet another 2* Gîte de France) which was disappointing. Expensive and no quality/quantity to support the pretentious service in the restaurant.
Chinon wine is unbelievably good. As well, Chinon is a beautiful medieval city. The home of Rabelais, the city is also renowned for its connection to Jeanne d’Arc. Richard Lionheart was there too!
Day 31 - Chinon - Blois (116 km)
Instead of crossing the Chinon forest, I decided to take the D16 to Huismes and then follow the Loire River. That was the right decision! There is a steep hill as you leave Chinon, and an easier one before Huismes, but after that it’s flat all the way. At Ussé, just in front of the castle, cross the bridge and take the small road (D16) on the river bank. It is peaceful, there are no cars… I crossed the river at Langeais (the bridge and the castle are beautiful structures) and returned on the D16 to Villandry.
This is la Vallée des Rois and there are castles all over the landscape. From Villandry, follow the D7 into Tours. Even though Tours is a large city, simply follow the cycling path and as you reach the Loire, take the D751 to Amboise. Amboise incidentally is probably a more interesting destination than Tours. Having said this, there is too much traffic and not enough to see on the D751 and if you are in the neighborhood and have the time…leave it and take the D40 to Chenonceaux and from there the D81 to Amboise.
In Chaumont, I stopped at the Office de Tourisme and reserved a room in Blois. In Candé, turn left into the village in front of the hair salon and follow the D173 to Blois. This is the best way in. Cross at the second bridge, the older stone one, and you arrive in the historical center.
I stayed at the Hôtel Monarque, another 2*, but do not eat there. I did not visit Blois but it looks like an interesting city.
Day 32 - Blois - Chartres (111 km)
Welcome to Saskatchewan… The D 924 to Châteaudun is absolutely flat, in the middle of endless fields. Only the local architecture in the small villages reminds one that this is indeed France.
Yet again, as you exit Châteaudun, the N10 is not an option. The best way to reach Chartres is the D111 to Dancy, the D130 to Aigneville, the D127 to Dammarie and the D935 into Chartres.
The cathedral must be visited, as well as the medieval section of the town, a photographic gold mine. I had an excellent dinner at l’Estocade. Even better places, where I could not get in for lack of a reservation, are the Saint-Hilaire and le Feuillantine.
Day 33 - Chartres - Versailles (82 km)
I took the D6 to Saint-Prest and Maintenon, a nice quiet and picturesque ride along the Eure River. There is an alternative route on the other side of the river but if you take it you will miss the château de Maintenon (Madame de Maintenon was the longest lasting mistress of Louis XIV) as well as the centre of this nice historic town.
The D906 to Rambouillet is a beautiful road, a return to roller coasters. This is a very high end neighborhood, with thoroughbreds and pheasants a common sight.
From this point on, I returned to my first local map (312) which is a must as Paris is near and, as a result, the road network becomes more and more complex.
I continued on the D906 to Cernay-la-ville, after which I took the D149 to Senlisse, entering le Parc Régional de la Haute Vallée. Surprise!!! There are 2 nice hills, more than 4% gradient. From there, the D91 brings you to Voisins-le-Bretonneux.
At this point, cycling paths are the norm. There are 2 options to get in Versailles. The shortest is to follow the major highway through Guyancourt. The second is to carry on the D36, turn into Toussus-le-Noble and enter the city by the D938. A cyclist recommended the latter and seeing it would add 15 km to the ride, I opted for the former.
At some point on the way, a sign reads Versailles Cuteil (it could be Euteil, my notes are unclear). One has to be bold, go down on the auto route and then take the first left, crossing 3 lanes of traffic. Piece of cake on a Sunday, which it was… Any other time this would be a killer! If you do this trip be sensible and enter Versailles by Toussus-le-Noble!
The Office de Tourisme found me a room in the Hôtel de Paris, another 2*, informing me this was the last available room in the entire city. The manager, learning about my trip, was duly impressed… so much so that he asked his colleague to help me plan my 2 last nights in France. We settled for a stop in l’Isle-Adam, followed by another hotel in le Mesnil-Amelot, the village just outside CDG airport where this beautiful ride had started! Armed with phone numbers, I made hotel reservations from my room. At the end of successful conversations, the prospect of problems to get at CDG and to leave France on schedule simply evaporated, to my great relief…
I had already visited le Château de Versailles on a previous visit. If you pass by, plan on at least half a day to visit the buildings and the grounds. It would be criminal not to do so.
I had a quiet dinner at “À la Ferme” a first class affordable restaurant. Roberto Heras won the time trial, and therefore La Vuelta Espana. The world was unfolding as it should…
Day 34 - Versailles - L’Isle-Adam (51 km)
I could have crossed Paris to create more excitement but my plan – which of course was the right one – was to stay in the outskirts. The annual Paris-Versailles marathon was on and traffic was minimal as a result. Took the D7 to Marly-le-Roi and I continued on towards Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Just before getting there, at Le Pecq, I crossed the bridge to Le Vésinet, with a view to following the Seine on the D121 and then taking the smaller path going to Herblay.
Thinking I was at a dead end along the way, I deviated into Cormeilles, got lost and climbed to the very top of the village. This was a very hard climb, with at least 1 km at 6%+. The area is so densely populated that the map is not really helpful beyond providing place names (Franconville, Taverny, and Méry) that I used, asking locals for specific directions. This was great fun, perplexing and interesting all at once, but it confirmed the soundness and simplicity of the initial plan to follow the Seine to Herblay.
Once in Méry, it gets really simple. It’s the countryside again and the D922 which follows the Oise River brought me to L’Isle-Adam. This is a nice and quiet little town. I stayed at “Au Bonheur de l’Isle”, a hotel/Chinese restaurant. A couple of art exhibitions and photography occupied the afternoon.
Day 35 - L’Isle-Adam - Le Mesnil-Amelot (44 km)
It is getting chillier as I leave for Beaumont on the D922. At the fork after the village, I took a right to go into Noisy, Asnieres, Seugy, returning to the D922 to get into Luzarches, then straight into Fosses. I then entered in Marly-la-Ville and rejoined the D9 to Villeron and Vémars. This all happened in sleepy little hamlets and towns, in a rural setting. But on four occasions that morning I passed over or went across literally rivers of cars streaming in and out of Paris, on the major arteries seen on the map.
I had a quiet journey man lunch in Vémars, at a restaurant owned by Portuguese, and quietly made it to Le Mesnil-Amelot, at the Comfort Inn, returning to the beginning of a 2,488 kilometer ride across France.
In the afternoon, I used the hotel shuttle to go to the airport and get a pair of bike bags from Air Canada at CDG. A first service representative told me the baggage people’s store was closed and… after a minor tantrum on my part… another person got me what I needed. I discovered that putting all the panniers in a bike plastic bag and wrapping the package tightly with duct tape is the way to go. Simple and effective!
I had planned on a 5 week trip and as it turned out, that wild guess was exactly the time needed. The weather cooperated with only a couple of days of rain. A great time was had. Try it, you’ll like it!