Stage Twenty-one: Collioure to Collioure

… in which we… No, no clues, you’ll have to read the blog!

Time: 3h29m
Distance: 48.97km
Average speed: 14kph
Distance from Calais:  1659.37km (1031 miles)

By the time we had sorted out the tyre problem last night it was getting fairly late, so we had a small but enjoyable meal in an open-air restaurant beneath the walls of Collioure’s fine castle before retiring. Our hotel is Catalan in style, set around a series of courtyards, one of which hosts a tempting but chilly-looking pool. For the first time on our trip we’re surrounded by English voices, and seeing cars with British number-plates.

We awoke this morning to gloomy skies, to our disappointment. By the time we had finished our breakfast, though, the skies were clear blue and the temperature rising quickly. We restored the wheel with its pristine new tyre to our tandem. The rest of the tandem looks somewhat less than pristine – it too has worked hard, after all – but nothing that soap and water won’t cure. We left the hotel through the shady arch that separates it from the outside world.

Our route took us initially in the direction of Port Vendres. Leaving the beautiful harbour of Collioure behind us, sparkling in the sun, we climbed out of town, past the rather Orwellian-sounding Centre de Reeducation Fonctionelle.  We were trying quite hard to be gentle with the tandem, given the mechanical difficulties of the last couple of days – it felt almost as though we were tiptoeing up the hill, hoping against hope that nothing would break and keep us from our final goal.

The top of the first col of the day was soon reached, and we dropped down to Port Vendres, a cheerful-looking place with a fairly large cruise ship moored in its harbour. The descent, and the trip around the quayside, gave us some respite before the next and highest col, one of two we had to climb before arriving at the next town, Banyuls-sur-Mer. We climbed past vines labelled with the local Banyuls-Collioure appellation, past aloes and prickly pears, even past a blackberry bush, bearing plump fruit tantalisingly out of reach on the steep scrubby terraces at the side of the road.

These were our first serious climbs in days, and gave us the benefit of striking views over the frilly, fractal coastline and the increasingly steep slopes forming the foothills of the Pyrenees. We could see north to the coastal towns through which we passed yesterday: St Cyprien, Canet-en-Rousillon and Le Barcarès. The view south to Spain though, was blocked by the hills we’d still to climb.

Two cols later we swooped down into Banyuls-sur-Mer which, incidentally, is twinned with the lovely Yorkshire Dales town of Settle, and looks nothing like it in any way! Again we had the benefit of level ground for a while then, all too soon we started uphill again. The temperature was rising all the time, eventually reaching thirty degrees, and we were grateful for the three bidons of water we carried on the tandem.

The next and final town on our southward journey was Cerbère. We were by now receiving considerable encouragement from people who were reading the sign on the back of the tandem and realising we were approaching our goal. We had realised earlier in the trip that we’d misspelled Cerbère on the sign, adding an erroneous ‘s’ on the end. Fortunately, either no-one noticed or they were too polite to point out our mistake!
A series of headlands, rising in altitude, separated us from the town. Surmounting the last of these we spotted Cerbère at last, and began the long descent to the harbour, stopping for photographs by the sign at the entrance to the town. It felt wonderful to have arrived.

Our journey, though, was not yet complete. Four more kilometres and another hefty climb separated us from our true final destination, the border with Spain. So, having spotted some candidate restaurants for lunch on our return to Cerbère, we set off uphill, encouraged by tooting horns and occasional unintelligible shouts of support from inside passing cars. A series of hairpin bends took us up, followed by a long straight climb before a sharp bend in the road brought us to the former customs post, now a (sadly closed) bar. A hundred metres later we reached the border, or at least the sign saying “France”. The corresponding sign reading “España” was, curiously, a little way downhill on the other side. To be absolutely sure we rode past it, ensuring that both wheels and all four feet were firmly placed on Spanish soil. It was a deeply satisfying moment for both of us. A friendly French couple took pictures of us with our camera (giving us one last opportunity to do “The Joke”), and we savoured the views south into Spain for the first time.

Right, job done! Well, of course we still had to ride back to Collioure, across all the same cols. First though, we needed to refuel. The four kilometres back to Cerbère seemed to take no time at all. Just before we arrived we finally removed the sign from the back of the tandem, not wanting anyone to point out that we were now going the wrong way!

So, what did we choose for lunch? Paella du Chef, of course, and very fine it was too, in a harbourside blue-canopied restaurant. We washed it down with modest quantities of beer then remounted the tandem for our return journey. Curiously, even though we had removed the sign, we still received lots of encouragement. Perhaps this is because tandems are more rarely seen in France – we have only seen four others in our entire journey.

Our friendly lunchtime waiter had kindly refilled our bidons with ice-cold water, for which we were extremely grateful as we reascended the cols in the searing heat of the afternoon. The road was busy and narrow, so we stayed close to the kerb to let the cars pass. Finally we descended to Port Vendres and began the last, more gentle climb over to Collioure, passing the “Petit Train” (a tourist road-train, ubiquitous in French coastal towns), only to suffer the ignominy of being re-passed by it further up the hill! At last we dropped down into Collioure, ascended Rue de la Republique, turned right, arrived at the hotel, and stopped pedalling.

So our journey is done, and what an experience it has been. This is our last posting for now, no doubt we will post some reflections on the journey when we have arrived back home. We’d like to say a big thank-you to those who have helped us, both before we set off and en-route. In particular, we’d like to mention Ruth and John at the fantastic J.D. Tandems in Gargrave, and to the helpful people we encountered at the various cycle shops here in France.

Tomorrow, we shall be by the pool. Not a pedal will be turned!

Stage Twenty: Port-la-Nouvelle to Collioure

… in which we find the flamingoes at last. Both of them…

Time: 4h40m
Distance: 75.02km
Average speed: 16.1kph
Distance from Calais:  1610.4km

There were still a few hardy souls on the beach when we headed out to dinner last night, surprising given that the wind was blowing all the sand in great clouds off the beach into the sea! There was even a rainbow, probably down to the wind whipping droplets of water into the air. We had some good Italian fare at a beachside restaurant, and turned in back at the hotel, to get a good night’s sleep before our last full day’s cycling.

The wind seemed to have dropped this morning when we got up – all the palm trees were looking relaxed, rather than hanging onto their fronds for dear life as they had been when we rolled in last night. We set off out of Port-la-Nouvelle towards Leucate, knowing that we had to do a few kilometres on a busy road before hitting the minor coast road proper. But no! A side road loomed, and we realised we could take that nearly all the way to Leucate. It was lovely, through the vineyards, with friendly waves from the the secateur-wielding workers in the vines.

We reached the busy road, and a group of cyclists approached us from another minor road ahead. One of them told us that the minor road was a much nicer way right into Leucate, adding, in an impossibly sexy French accent, that we shouldn’t go on the main road because ‘eet eez vaire dangereuse’. We took this advice, since ‘vaire dangereuse’ is not a good idea at the end of a long tour, if ever!

And so it was that we finally caught up with the flamingoes. They must be on holiday or something, they’d left a skeleton team on tourist duties, with just the two birds in the Etang de Leucate ou de Salses. Still, it was good to see them at last. Leucate looked like a good little village, and it was shortly followed by Port Leucate, which was more of a holiday place, with seaside apartments and a very attractive beach.

We had another tiny spit of land to negotiate to get past the long etang, and found a completely unused road between the coast road and the etang, so we toodled along that, thinking how nice it was of them to build us our own road. There was a sign in French that said that it was just for emergency vehicles, but we couldn’t understand it, so we decided it was fine…

After La Barcarès, another pleasant seaside village, we picked up a cycle path, but it was very slow, it kept turning cyclists up winding concrete paths to the road bridges to cross rivers, so we chose the road instead, with its wide tarmac strip to the right for cyclists. At Canet-en-Roussillon our route planning fell apart briefly, when we arrived at a junction to see a ‘no cyclists’ sign on the road we had expected to use, in pictures this time, so there could be no doubt. Fortunately there was a voie vert just next to it, which initially appeared to go in the right direction. Unfortunately, it then headed off in completely the wrong direction, but had obviously been taken by lots of people trying to go the same way as us, because there was a clear footpath going our way. We walked the bike along the footpath for the hundred metres of disallowed road to the roundabout, where we were once again permitted to ride.

We stopped for lunch at St Cyprien, in a créperie with a very friendly waiter. Whilst we were finishing our lunch with a coffee, the heavens opened. Just as in Orange, the streets were soon awash, and hordes of wet people came up from the beach, heading for their nice dry apartments. Our friendly waiter kindly offered to call us a taxi and look after the bike for us until we could collect it! Tempting, but we had only around 15km to go, so we waited until the rain eased a little and set off.

It wasn’t far to Argelès-sur-Mer, where we spent a holiday many years ago, and we’d just seen our first sign for today’s destination, and the original end-point of the trip, when the back tyre suddenly deflated. We had known that the tyre wall was quite worn, but had hoped it would last. No problem, we put in a tyre-boot to protect the inner tube, reinflated, and rode the last few kilometres into Collioure, where we are booked in for three nights.

After a consultation with the very helpful hotel receptionist, we decided we would head back to the bike shop at Argelès to replace the tyre, since it was just a short trip in a taxi. Bizarrely, we had experienced exactly the same thing on the Lands End to John O’Groats ride, replacing the tyre for the same reason in Thurso. Our replacement tyre is even the same make as the one we were given in Thurso. Very spooky.

So we have one last bit of business tomorrow – the Spanish border. It’s only around 20km from here – you can almost smell the paella…

Stage Nineteen: Agde to Port-la-Nouvelle

… in which we do battle with Zephyrus, the god of the west wind!

Time: 4h30m
Distance: 84.1km
Average speed: 18.6kph
Distance from Calais:  1535.38km

Our hotel in Agde was beautifully positioned next to the Hérault river, whose limpid green waters flowed slowly past our bedroom window. Sadly, that was the only beautiful thing about it! It was scruffy, in urgent need of decoration and repair, and the proprietress insisted we pay in advance, presumably in case we decided to move on elsewhere.

It was, though, somewhere clean and quiet where we could lay our heads for the night, and that is the most important requirement of an hotel, after all. Across the river on the quayside were a series of restaurants, each floating on caissons in the river. We ate well, particularly enjoying the plight of our poor waiter, who, providing Jonathan with his paté starter, apologised for the lack of toast, which had blown into the River Hérault as he brought the plates to our table! We also drank a good bottle of wine, before walking the short distance back to the hotel.

We had hoped for another early start, but breakfast was deemed to be at 8:30, no sooner, no later! Another ten cyclists had arrived overnight, so our first task was to extricate the tandem from behind six mountain bikes. That done, we cycled west out of Agde. The weather forecast for today was not pleasant reading from a cycling point of view – 35kph south-westerly winds, gusting to 65kph. Yuck! To start with, though, it was very pleasant, warm and breezy. We soon turned off onto the minor roads near Vias, cycling alongside the Canal du Midi. The roads were quiet, there were cyclists and joggers aplenty – all in all a great start to the day.

After a while we passed the entrance to Port Cassafieres, local headquarters for Le Boat ( see blogs passim ). Here we recalled a previous visit, when a mendacious Agde taxi driver tried to charge us 60€ for a 20€ trip from Agde to Port Cassafieres. When he tried this on, Clare headed to the boat company office to find out what the correct fare should have been, and Jonathan threatened him with the police. After a couple of attempts to browbeat us, he scarpered, without taking a euro cent, so we had lunch on him!

The roads south of Vias didn’t really follow the coast, and we zig-zagged inland and back to the coast, trying (mostly successfully) to avoid the busy N-roads, often cycling alongside Muscat vines. At Valras-Plage we saw goats, donkeys and a llama, but still no flamingoes, sadly.  Shortly thereafter the road came to a sudden halt at the edge of the River Aude. A helpful man from a nearby campsite indicated that we needed to go down a gravelly track to find the bridge. We followed his advice, and the gravel gave way to tarmac after five hundred metres or so, after which the bridge came into view. Crossing over we headed inland, soon encountering a short sharp climb into a low range of hills with fabulous views over Languedoc vineyards.

The rolling hills continued for a while as we passed through Salles dAude. By now the wind speed had increased considerably, and we battled into a very strong head-wind for the last ten kilometres into Narbonne. Here we took lunch, and the helpful proprietor refilled our bidons, then put them in his freezer for an hour so they would be cool when we recommenced cycling.

What to say about this afternoon…. Well, it was, um, interesting. The N-road south-west out of Narbonne was unpleasantly busy, and we couldn’t achieve any great pace because of the wind. The promised strong gusts of wind had by now materialised, so we had a very uncomfortable fifteen kilometre ride, stopping occasionally for a drink and a break, before turning off the main road toward Sigean. This turn took us away from the wind, and we took it with some relief.

In Sigean, we were cycling happily along through the town centre when we heard a familiar crack from the rear wheel. Oh no, another broken spoke. We up-ended the tandem and took a closer look. In fact we had two broken spokes close together, both of which had sheared where the spoke joins the “nipple” at the rim of the wheel. This wasn’t good. There were two positive factors though. Firstly, and most importantly, we still had two spare spokes in the bag. Secondly, the broken spokes were on the easier side of the wheel for repair, opposite the cassette. Jonathan set to work, while Clare made enquiries as to the location of the nearest bike shop, as the wheel would need to be “trued” as soon as possible after we fixed it.

Off came the brake disc, tyre and inner-tube, and fairly quickly the two spokes were replaced, and tightened to the “this feels about right” international standard. Well, when “pinged” they sounded a note similar to that of the neighbouring spokes, and the wheel, while certainly not fully true, was good enough to take us the few remaining kilometres to our destination for the day, Port-la-Nouvelle. So, back on went the tyre, inner-tube and brake disc and (hearts admittedly slightly in our mouths) we set off.

A few kilometres later we arrived at Port-la-Nouvelle, which has the air of Blackpool about it, and a similar smell of candy-floss. Our hotel, though, has excellent views over the sea and south to the Pyrenees.

Clare’s research had established that there were two bike shops in the town. The hotel receptionists knew better, unfortunately – both of them had closed down. They suggested we tried a “location de vélo” (cycle hire shop), but as we cycled to it things didn’t seem very promising – the shop was just a hut, and the cycles were mostly four-seaters designed for families. Ah well, might as well try, we thought. Summoning up the French term for the trueing of a wheel (devoillage) we approached the man in charge. “Bien sûr”, he said, and proceeded with masterful speed and technique to return our wheel to the correct, er “wheel” shape! What a stroke of luck, we so nearly didn’t ask him.

So the tandem is (again) restored to health. Of course, we have no further spare spokes. On the other hand, we have only a day and a half to go. Tomorrow’s destination is Collioure, about fifty miles away. The day after, all being well, we will cycle up to the Spanish border from Collioure, then back to Collioure, a distance of some twenty-five miles. Then, our journey (or at least the self-propelled part of it) will be complete.

Stage Eighteen: Aigues Mortes to Agde

… in which we do like to be beside the seaside, beside the sea!

Time: 5h13m
Distance: 82.41km
Average speed: 15.8kph
Distance from Calais:  1451.28km

We opened the curtains on the morning of our rest day in Aigues Mortes, half expecting rain, which has been a feature of rest days so far, but no, it was sunny, hurrah! We had a lazy morning, then wandered out for lunch, choosing a very friendly little restaurant down a side street, still inside the walls of the medieval city. We noticed a Vin des Sables on the wine list from Montcalm, and since we’d cycled right past those vines only the day before, we had to try it. It was lovely, of course.

We realised that this was our third visit to Aigues Mortes, and on each occasion we have arrived by a different mode of transport, first by boat on the canal, then by car, and this time by tandem. Next time it’ll have to be on horseback, or in a helicopter or maybe a skateboard…? We had a quick peek in the church, which was all set up ready for the wedding of Chloe and Jean, and then spent the afternoon on the hotel’s sunny terrace and in the pool. An early dinner, and an early night, and our rest day was complete.

We’d planned an early start today, aware that it could be hot and was certain to be windy along the coast. Unfortunately, on wheeling the tandem out of the garage, we found it had developed a flat back tyre whilst snoozing in there. It was quickly sorted out, a ‘pinch’ puncture, we reckoned, where the tyre is pinched by the wheel rim, rather than something penetrating the tyre.

We headed out of Aigues Mortes’ medieval walls, and along the canal towards le Grau du Roi and then la Grande Motte. What a weird place – all the buildings are white, mainly apartment blocks in a very individual style, with no straight lines at all. The wind didn’t seem as bad as we’d feared, and we made good progress along the coast, seeing the sea for the first time since Calais. It seemed really strange to see water with waves after our many days next to the mighty Rhône.

At Carnon we stopped at an open bike shop, where we borrowed the track pump to make sure the rear tyre was sufficiently inflated, and checked with the owner on the next part of our route. We’d tentatively planned to cross to Palavas-les-Flots along a tiny spit of land between the sea and the Etang de Mauguio, which looked to have a path along its length. The owner of the bike shop confirmed that there was a good path, although he came out to check that he thought our tyres were suitable!

We followed his instructions to find the start of the path, and struck out across the spit. It was barely 15 feet wide, running next to the Canal du Rhône à Sète which divides the sea from the brackish Etang, quite an extraordinary sight. It was pretty windy, but the surface was fine except for a short section where some maintenance vehicles had cut it up into ruts – we walked that bit!

After around 10km on the tiny sliver of land we rejoined the mainland near to Frontignan. The wind was incredibly strong now, right in our faces, very energy sapping. There was a good cycle path alongside the road, and next to that was the Etang d’Ingril, which was full of windsurfers and kite surfers making the most of the wind. We headed into Frontignan for lunch, and were directed by a helpful local to an Italian cafe bar. Its owner, Luigi, initially said he’d stopped serving food, but then offered us a salad provided we could be done in half an hour as he had to be somewhere at 2pm, and ended up providing delicious ice-creams to follow and telling us about his friendship with Geoff Capes! He was definitely late for wherever it was he was going!


After lunch we navigated around Sète, spotting bits we recognised from our canal holiday a few years ago, including the hotel where various items of clothing were left (you know who you are…!), and then headed out on our second spit of land, this time between the sea and the huge Etang du Thau. This time the spit contained the cycle path (an official voie verte), the road and a railway line. Or at least it did to start with, until the voie verte finished abruptly, leaving around eight other cyclists and ourselves to hoist our bikes over a fence onto a gravel path.

The path ran alongside some vines, and a tall bamboo screen had been planted to protect the vines from the crosswind. The bamboo also benefited the cyclists, it really broke up the wind, and we were very grateful for the shelter. After a few kilometres hiding behind the bamboo we reached the end of the Etang, and the start of another voie verte. We had a long chat with a lovely Norwegian cycling couple, who told us we should come and cycle in Tromsø ‘to warm up a bit’!

A last grind into Agde, and we arrived in our hotel just in time to see Mark Cavendish win the last stage of the Tour de France into Paris, and indeed the green jersey, first Englishman to do so. Good for him!

Given the wind and the heat, we’ve rescheduled slightly, aiming tomorrow for Port-la-Nouvelle. There have been no flamingos so far in any of the etangs we passed. Fingers crossed for tomorrow, our last day amongst the etangs.

Stage Seventeen: Remoulins to Aigues Mortes

… in which we reach the Mediterranean.

Time: 3h55m
Distance: 75.79km
Average speed: 19.3kph
Distance from Calais:  1368.87km

It was early evening by the time we strolled along to the Pont du Gard, yet it was still almost stiflingly hot. We had visited before, years ago, but it was well worth a second visit. This Roman acqueduct, 160 feet high, and formed from three layers of sandstone arches, used to supply water to the city of Nîmes. It towers dramatically above the valley of the Gardon river, and in the evening light, was casting long shadows over the slopes below. In the river were canoeists and swimmers, and the bridge itself was host to hundreds of visitors, even so late in the day.

After a cooling drink at the café we strolled back to the hotel (liking this verb strolling, it makes a pleasant change from pedalling)! We liked the Hotel Le Colombier and its cheerful proprietor, and ate a good meal on the hotel terrace, watching bats swoop around the trees in the darkening sky.

The alarm was set for 7.30 – we were aware that the afternoons from here to the finish could become extremely hot, and so we wanted to get an early start and, if possible, an early finish! Not that we did ourselves any favours by taking the wrong road out of Remoulins – not sure what it is about leaving places first thing in the morning, but we frequently get it wrong. The effect of our mistake was fairly benign though, and we climbed quickly back up to Fournès, the hill that had caused us problems the previous day. Today though we had clearly got our climbing legs back, and ascended with no problems.

The climbs led us to the top of a low plateau, and to the lovely town of Montfrin, set attractively along the banks of the Gardon river. We hadn’t originally planned to climb to the plateau, but we were pleased we did – we saw apples, plums and olives in rows by the side of the road and, after a while, the vineyards of the Costieres de Nîmes appellation. These were a feature of the next twenty kilometres or so, as we passed through Jonquières-St-Vincent (getting slightly lost in the maze of tiny streets) and finally dropped down from the plateau at the town of Bellegarde.

We were already starting to see fields of the white horses for which the Camargue region is famous. In fact we stopped to talk to one (any excuse for a break). The temperature was rising now, as were the westerly winds, and after Bellegarde we had a long, fairly tedious slog along the D38. Originally we had planned to use the towpath of the Canal du Rhône à Sète for part of today, but on inspection it looked rough. So the road it was, for several kilometres before we followed the Centre Ville signs to the centre of Saint Gilles.

We had been here before too, at the end of a fondly-remembered canal holiday, and after an early lunch at the Café de la Gare we stopped on the bridge next to the Port de Plaisance for a nostalgic look. Soon thereafter we turned happily onto the quieter back-roads of the Camargue. We passed two teenagers on their bikes – one clearly regarded this as a challenge and set off after us, but our legs are battle-hardened now and we saw him off easily!

On entering the wetlands of the Camargue the landscape changed. By now we were down at sea level, and cycling past fields of rice and, later on, Vin des Sables. There were canals and water channels everywhere, and the rice fields were occasionally punctuated with fields of white horses and Camargue bulls. We saw countless dragonflies and, later on, an old stone tower topped with a populated stork’s nest. There were no towns at all, but occasionally a grand mas (Provençal for “house”).

We had made good time up to this point,  but as we turned due west we were met with the full force of the wind. We battled against it, alongside the increasingly busy traffic, as we approached our destination. On crossing the canal we looked left to see (as we knew we would, from our previous canal holiday) the Tour de Constance, a striking feature of the town of Aigues Mortes.

For a while thereafter it was roundabouts, furniture shops, supermarkets and D.I.Y. shops until at last we arrived at the main gate to the ancient town. Dismounting, we walked inside the walls, wheeling the tandem past large numbers of visitors, in search of the Hotel Les Arcades. It’s an attractive place, set in the quieter streets away from the bustle of Aigues Mortes. The tandem was stowed safely away in a garage, where it will stay for two nights, as tomorrow is a rest day, which we intend to spend lazing around the hotel pool.

Over the last three weeks we have developed quite ridiculous cyclist’s suntans.  Our faces, lower arms and the ends of our fingers are brown.The tops of our knees too are nut-brown, the calves slightly less so. The remainder is a colour best described as “Yorkshire Summer”, an interestingly pale shade of white. It’s certainly an alarming site in the mirror. So we hope (carefully) to redress the balance by the pool tomorrow by embrowning some of the white bits!

We haven’t yet decided on our destination for the day after our rest day – we were hoping to stay in Marseillan but hotel rooms there seem scarce. We will have to investigate further.

Stage Sixteen: Bédoin to Remoulins

… in which we bid farewell to the Rhône for the last time

Time: 3h50m
Distance: 75.4km
Average speed: 19.7kph
Distance from Calais:  1293.08km

Another lovely evening meal in the chambre d’hôte at Pieravon last night, during which we had, of course, only one topic of conversation – good job there was no-one else there to bore with our exploits! Thanks to everyone who commented, emailed, texted and phoned yesterday, it really made the day complete. Indeed, thanks for all the comments and contacts all the way along, it’s been great to have your thoughts and encouragement as we’ve made our way south.

The day dawned clear and hot today, and we had a later breakfast and then took some time to check over the bike, and repack the panniers and bag properly. We’d gone as lightly as possible on our Mont Ventoux attempt, so everything was all over the place. How so little stuff can spread out quite so far is one of the mysteries of touring…

We looked back at Mont Ventoux as we left, marvelling again at just how far up it looked. The clouds were scudding across the top again, the Mistral winding up for today’s cyclists. In Bédoin we could see people getting ready to set off on their attempts, and it felt strange to be heading out of the village in a downwards direction. It’s a good job we were, though, we had legs like limp celery after yesterday’s big effort! There was a tiny rise in the road at one point, not even twenty vertical feet, and we both found our legs suddenly burning with lactic acid. Should have gone for the ice bath…

We rolled along down to Carpentras, not really needing to pedal for mile after mile, then out to Monteux and Bédarrides on wonderfully quiet roads between tiny villages. We were miles from Mont Ventoux now, but, as on the way in, it absolutely dominated the landscape. We turned south, towards Avignon, initially still on quiet roads. What followed was called the ‘Route Touristique des Bords du Rhône’, but it was probably the most uncomfortable section of road we’d encountered so far, dual-carriageway, lots of traffic, a wide cycleway at the far right, but with occasional broken glass to be avoided. We turned off with some relief onto the road towards the Pont d’Avignon, but it was worse! No cycleway now, and two lanes of constant traffic. We were given space by all the drivers, but it was an uncomfortable couple of kilometres.

The Palace of the Popes and the Pont d’Avignon appeared, and we hopped off the bike to take a look. The bridge now only partly spans the river, apparently it has been damaged by flooding many times over the centuries, finally being abandoned in 1668 after a particularly catastrophic flood.

We spotted a nice shady restaurant across the other side of the river, and threaded our way through the traffic to the road bridge, crossed the river and   declared lunch. There was a fantastic view from the restaurant to the Avignon city walls, the palace above, and the incomplete bridge, and the placemats helpfully contained the words to the ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’ song, in case you felt like giving a rendition.

After lunch we headed off, still feeling rather underpowered after yesterday, but the cycling was flat and the Mistral kept us cool, even if it was trying its best to blow us back to Bédoin. We headed away from the Rhône for the last time, having followed it on and off from Lyon. We were amazed to see that the riverside markers now read 243k – back on the voie verte after Sablons it was only 63k.

The terrain has become very arid now, dusty and dry, with olive trees as often to be seen as the vines. The cicadas now provide a constant soundtrack to the day, so much so that we’ve almost stopped noticing it. Today we did realise though that the cicadas in a single tree seem to synchronise their rasping somehow, so that they are all scratching in the same rhythm.

A small hill (requiring, for today at least, the smallest chainring!) took us to the autoroute, and after a few kilometres on the other side of it we hit Remoulins, and then our hotel for the night, just 800m from the ancient Pont du Gard. When the temperature has dropped a bit more, we’re planning a pre-dinner stroll along to see it.

Another shorter day tomorrow to Aigues-Mortes, where we’ll officially arrive at the south coast of France.

Stage Fifteen: Bédoin to Bédoin

… in which we tackle the Géant de Provence

Time: 4h21m
Distance: 46.01km
Average speed: 10.5kph
Distance from Calais:  1217.68km

After an aperitif by the small pool of this excellent and incredibly scenic chambre d’hôte we joined the friendly and engaging Dutch couple (Dennis and Sabrina) for a fine home-cooked meal and some local wine straight from the barrel. Jonathan’s illness seemed to be receding, and we listened with great interest to the account of Dennis, who had ascended Mont Ventoux on his solo bike that day. If anything his helpful advice gave us more confidence, and after a convivial meal we retired early, as we had booked breakfast for 7.30am.
All traces of illness had disappeared by the time the alarm clock woke us up this morning. We ate our breakfast in an atmosphere of quiet nervousness,, struggling to eat enough to provide fuel for the day.

Saddling up, we rode off down the slightly gravelly track to Bédoin, through fields of olive trees and prickly pears. A few nervous-looking riders were flexing their muscles in the village main square, and trying not to look at the looming bulk of Mont Ventoux behind them.

It is a singular mountain. The lower and middle slopes are covered in rather stunted-looking pines, victims of the seasonal Mistral wind. These give way on the upper slopes to an almost lunar landscape of shattered rock, the whole topped with an ugly meteorological station. Its fame derives not from any physical beauty, but rather from the iconic position it claims in the history of the Tour de France. From a British perspective it is perhaps best known for the demise of the cyclist Tom Simpson who, suffering from ill-health and fuelled by a combination of brandy and amphetamines, collapsed some 800 metres from the summit. Urging spectators to “put me back on my bike”, he wobbled a few more yards before collapsing again, never to recover.

We decided to skip the brandy and amphetamines. The road from Bédoin rose gently at first, at a gradient of about three percent, providing a welcome warm-up for the muscles. The day was growing warmer, but we could see signs of the Mistral above, as the clouds were scudding quickly across the sky. After about three miles the climb kicked up in gradient to seven, then nine or ten percent. We have tackled much steeper climbs at home, but they were much shorter and usually shelved. This climb though was relentless, twisting through the forest. Frequently we were overtaken by riders on solo bikes (one cannot climb as quickly on a tandem). Some offered encouragement, some expressed doubt as to our sanity, some engaged us in conversation. A few passed without a word, listening to their iPods or perhaps preferring to concentrate on their objective. One or two dismounted from time to time and walked, but we stayed in our saddles and climbed steadily on, stopping occasionally to have a drink or eat an oat bar.

Our first target was Châlet Reynard, six kilometres from the summit. Before reaching there we had to tackle the crux of the climb, where the gradient rose yet further for three kilometres. We’d decided to take a break at the châlet, and it was with some relief that we emerged from the forest and spotted it ahead. The strength of the wind became apparent as we left the shelter of the trees and headed inside for a coffee. It was very much like entering an on-piste ski restaurant, with the same smell of coffee and relative warmth.

After our short break we remounted and set off into the shattered landscape. Only six further kilometres to go! The gradient had eased somewhat, and the first two kilometres passed really quickly. As we climbed ramp after ramp though, the wind grew dramatically in strength, and it was difficult keeping the tandem going in a straight line. We had donned arm-warmers and rain jackets when we stopped, and it had proved to be a good move – the wind was bitterly cold, and gusting at fifty-five kilometres per hour. So our main struggle now was not the gradient, but the wind. Again, we saw several riders choose to push their bikes through the windier sections. At the Col des Tempêtes a particularly violent cross-wind blew us halfway across the road. The visibility was poor now too, we had lost the spectacular view across Provence.

The last two kilometres were painful, because of the wind. We stopped briefly at the Tom Simpson memorial near the summit. Here it is traditional for British riders to leave a token cycling-related item. We still had our broken spoke from yesterday, so Clare placed it on the memorial among the other bicycle parts, bidons and flags.

A few minutes later we turned the final steep corner, joining tens of other cyclist at the 1912 metre summit. We were grinning from ear to ear, very happy indeed to reach the top! It was busy up there, and extremely cold, so after taking some video we turned around and descended a short distance to the mountain restaurant. Here we refuelled for an hour or so. Briefly the clouds cleared, providing a great view down to Bédoin below.

We had slightly dreaded the first part of the descent because of the crosswind, but we arrived back at Châlet Reynard quickly and safely. Here Jonathan made the mistake of testing the temperature of the brake disc with his finger. The finger quickly blistered! We had another drink in the café while everything cooled down, before re-entering the forest. The descent was steep for some kilometres, and we stopped periodically to let the brakes cool. Eventually we reached the shallower gradient of the lower slopes,  where we could let the tandem run without braking. In what seemed to be a very short time we arrived back in Bédoin, where, after doing a small amount of shopping, we climbed back to the chambre d’hote. A quick swim in the pool helped to ease the muscles.

So we are two very happy tandemists this evening – there’s little climbing now until the Spanish border, and the south coast of France is beckoning. Tomorrow we’re heading for Remoulins, close to the Pont du Gard. Better still, it will begin with a long downhill section!

Stage Fourteen: Orange to Bédoin

… in which we ride with the brakes on for 8km

Time: 2h53m
Distance: 43.85km
Average speed: 15.2kph
Distance from Calais: 1171.67km

The very welcoming lady patronne at the Hotel Lou Cigaloun recommended three or four restaurants in Orange, and we headed out for dinner via the ancient amphitheatre. It’s very actively used, and there’s a series of events taking place there during the current weeks. We couldn’t seem to get inside, but the ancient stonework we could see outside was very impressive, and there were pigeons nesting high up in the walls.

We chose one of the recommended restaurants, Le Bec Fin, and had a table outside in the warm evening air. We had a great dinner, very friendly waitress, interesting menu, and a bottle of Gigondas, still a wine of the Rhône area, but from east of Orange. We were late enough back to need to use the access code – first time for that, and after well over 100km too!

It was very overcast when we awoke this morning, and as we were getting ready for breakfast there was suddenly an extraordinary racket from outside, which turned out to be incredibly heavy rain, the street was under inches of water in no time. After breakfast our hostess kindly rang a bike shop for us in Carpentras which we’d identified as a possible better option, and they were happy to expect us within a couple our hours for our repair. Carpentras is about half-way to Bédoin, our destination for the day, so this approach would mean we would waste less time waiting for the other shop to open.

Jonathan was feeling a little off-colour, so we set off steadily, the rain having abated, thankfully. As we left Orange behind, a military jet started up and blasted into the sky to our left. It was lost in the clouds almost immediately, but we could hear it for ages. We closed the distance to Carpentras gradually, but becoming a little worried that the shop would have closed for lunch by the time we arrived, and after a bit of messing around with the one-way system we rolled up at 11:55. The sign outside said lunch was between 12:00 and 14:30, so we fully expected to have to wait, but the owners couldn’t have more helpful, and the spoke was soon replaced and the wheel trued.

We had a quick lunch in Carpentras, and ignoring Gary’s proposed very silly long way round route, set off on what we knew would be a climb up to Bédoin. We seemed to be going awfully slowly, no strength at all on the front, which we had put down to Jonathan’s malaise. “It’s like cycling with the brakes on”, he said. We looked at each other. “I’d better just check them”, he said, “just to be sure”. Ten minutes later, with the brakes released, we felt almost turbo-charged in comparison – we’d come 8km with the disk brake on the back partly stuck on! It must have happened somehow when the wheel was put back in.

We climbed steadily, and much more comfortably now up to Bédoin at 1000ft, the start of the Mont Ventoux route, and then further to Pierravon at 1300ft, where we are staying for two nights. We arrived at the same time as a Dutch couple, he dressed in cycling gear. He’d been up Mont Ventoux today, and said it was pretty cold up there.

So, we’re here, at our Mont Ventoux base camp. Fingers crossed that we’re up for it tomorrow, that the bike is up for it, and that it’s not closed because of the wind – it’s forecast to be 30kph up there!

Stage Thirteen: Bourg-lès-Valence to Orange

…in which we break our speed record, and another spoke.

Time: 4h55m
Distance: 111.2km
Average speed: 22.6kph
Distance from Calais: 1127.82km

We stayed at a hotel on the edge of Bourg-lès-Valence, perfectly comfortable and friendly but in a commercial area, next to a “Buffalo Grill”. We ate in an Italian style restaurant, notable mainly for the arrival of pimp-rolling drug-dealer types part-way through our meal. For some reason they seemed to get preferential treatment!

We’d chosen the hotel for our rest day because it had a lovely swimming pool. So it was no surprise to open the curtains to torrential rain. Still, we had a very relaxing day, watched Mark Cavendish win yet another stage of the Tour de France (hurrah!), then the sun emerged at about 5pm, just in time for us to have an aperitif by the sadly neglected pool.

All through the late afternoon we watched vehicles arrive in the car park, some belonging to Tour de France officials, some to the two teams staying here for their rest day: Katusha, from Russia and Movistar, from Spain. We were thrilled to discover that the main rival to Mark Cavendish for the (green) points jersey, Jose Joaquin Rojas, was staying in room 214 (we were in 216), so we were very tempted to throw a noisy party at 4am!

We ate in the hotel restaurant, served by somewhat distracted staff who were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two teams. The receptionist had insisted we arrived early for our meal, so we arrived at 7pm, ate a leisurely dinner with an excellent bottle of Crozes-Hermitages (one should always try the “local” wine!) and returned to our room at about 9pm, by which time there was still no sign of either of the two teams. In fact their coaches arrived at about 10pm, disgorging some very stiff and weary-looking riders who were no doubt very much looking forward to their rest day.

Mindful of the fact that we had a long day ahead of us we rose early, with the aim of being on the road by 8am. We’d already packed most of our possessions into the panniers last night, so we grabbed a quick breakfast (we did wear our cycling gear but there were no Tour riders around to see us) and set off on the eastern side of the Rhône. The traffic was fairly busy as we crossed a bridge over to the western side and headed south through Soyons.

The Rhône valley is the obvious transport route south, so river, rail and road are sometimes squeezed into a fairly narrow corridor on the valley floor. Today this limited our options for diversions onto more minor roads, but the main N86 running south on the western bank of the river served us well – it was busy, but not overly so, and with a smooth surface, a light tailwind and the cooler morning air we were able to set a cracking pace as we approached the place in which we had originally planned to stay at Le Pouzin. Passing Beauchastel we could see that it was beau but couldn’t see a castle – perhaps it was set back from the road. What we could see were the limestone cliffs of the Ardêche (giving way to sandstone later in the day) and the occasional striking volcanic outcrop.

After two hours of cycling and more than forty-five kilometres we decided to stop for refreshment in the village of Meysse. Obtaining coffee and fruit juice from the café, we tried the boulangerie for a morning croissant, but it was shut. Not a problem, the tiny supermarket provided other choices and, as elsewhere in France, the café owner was happy for us to eat food purchased from other premises on his small sunny terrace.

We were really pleased with the pace so far, and after our short break we rejoined the main road, speeding along in the bright sunshine and making the most of the tailwind. We passed Montélimar on the other bank without really catching a glimpse of it, heading on toward Viviers. At this point Clare spotted a group of riders on the other side of the road and, as usual, waved vigorously at them. There was absolutely no response, and as they grew closer we realised why – it was the Saur-Sojasun Tour de France team, out for a leg-loosening ride on their day off!

It’s becoming apparent now that we’ve reached the south of France. The first thing we noticed, over the last couple of days, was the increasing noise from cicadas. Today we started to see dry river beds, Cypress trees and a change in the arable crops – there’s still plenty of wheat, but now we’re seeing signs for tomatoes, courgettes and asparagus. We haven’t yet seen any lavender, but we’ve certainly smelt it. Now we’ve entered Provence (this section of the blog is hereby subtitled “A Gear in Provence”!) the signs at the start of each village are shown in two languages: French and Provençal (a dialect of Occitan, or the langue d’oc).

After another thirty kilometres, achieved at a very good rate (for us, anyway!) we lunched on Quiche Lorraine and Croque Monsieur at Pierrelatte in a sunny square. On leaving there we cycled past the enormous nuclear power station at Lapalud, before crossing the river to the eastern bank at Bollène. Suddenly, to the south-east, we spotted a huge mountain with a bare rocky summit surmounted by a meteorological station. It could only be Mont Ventoux, which we will be attempting to climb in a couple of days. It looks daunting!

It was beginning to look as though, even on a long 69-mile day, we would be in our hotel room by 4pm. Whilst speeding down the N7 near Mondragon, though, we thought we heard a ping from the rear wheel and, when we stopped to check, we found another broken spoke. While this is not a major problem in the short term (each wheel on our tandem has 48 spokes, so the wheel is robust), it is not something to ignore for a long distance. Unfortunately, as before in Villefranche, the offending spoke is on the “cassette” side of the wheel, that is, the side of the wheel with the gear cogs. This means that a repair requires a bike shop, as the cassette must be removed in order to gain access to the spoke.

We cycled the last kilometres into historic Orange, which has an Arc de Triomphe, said to date from the reign of Augustus, and a fantastic Roman amphitheatre. Dropping off our bags at the Hotel Lou Cigaloun we cycled off in search of a helpful bike shop. It being Monday (French shops are often closed on Monday for a long weekend) we found only two shops open, and neither of them could help us, at least not today. We’re promised assistance at 11am tomorrow, and this should be fine as our cycling day tomorrow is a short one – 22 miles and a climb of 1300 feet to Bedoin, “base camp” for any attempt on Ventoux.

Stage Twelve: Chasse-sur-Rhône to Bourg-lès-Valence

… in which we ride alongside the Rhône on a lovely voie verte

Time: 5h36m
Distance: 97.68km
Average speed: 17.4kph
Distance from Calais: 1016.62km

Our room last night at the Mercure had a great view of the Rhône heading off towards the Mediterreanean Sea, only slightly marred by the Autoroute du Soleil in front of it! The hotel had a restaurant which we decided to try, given that we were pretty tired after a hard day, and the only alternative nearby seemed to be a McDonalds. It was really busy, full of very tired looking groups and couples who had probably spent all day travelling. And us, of course, although we were feeling surprisingly perky, safe in the knowledge that the tandem was all fixed and fine now.

We were woken at 7:30 by a child running down the corridor outside having a loud tantrum in French, so we decided to get up and on our way. Initially our route took us along a busy road right next to the Autoroute, where there was a bit of a “bouchon” going on – at one point we were keeping pace with the cars going south, which must have been frustrating for them!

At Vienne we crossed the river and had just started along the road when we spotted a cycle path running right alongside the river bank. As soon as it was feasible we turned across the road to join it – it was a voie verte! It was brilliant, smooth and wide, away from the traffic and right by the river. It was very popular, and we exchanged greetings with countless cyclists coming the other way.

The Rhône had carved itself quite a valley, and we started to see vines growing on the steep valley sides. The process of viticulture must be very different here to the way they do things in Burgundy, because the terrain is so different. Here the vines grow on terraces cut into the hillsides, surely impossible territory for those alien-looking vine straddling machines we saw in the neat cordon rows of vines in Nuits-St-Georges. There were also huge ‘Hollywood’-style signs up on the hillsides indicating the vitner’s name.

The voie verte ended at an area of vegetable and fruit growing, and we wound on little paths through trees bearing apples, pears and apricots. It had an ‘allotments’ feel, and there were people tending the plants and trees in the sun.

At Condrieu, a very pretty town, we picked up the voie verte again, forewarned by others that it starts very anonymously in a hotel carpark (and it really does!) and rolled along very efficiently, enjoying the views of the river and the absence of all traffic. We headed into Sablons, and realised that the voies vertes in this area are now really well signed, with green lines and triangles on the road to guide you between traffic free sections. We stopped at a restaurant with a great shaded terrace outside and had some lunch, Jonathan declaring his pavé de boeuf the best in France so far – the host was very pleased! He gave us the right direction to rejoin the voie verte, and we were off and running again.

The path was partly shaded by trees, which gave us good respite from the sun, it’s been really hot today. There are trees alongside the path at various points, and their roots are just starting to disrupt the surface of the path – might become more of a problem in a few years’ time. We passed a fencing supplier’s timber yard, which had a lovely woody smell from the big stacks of prepared fencing stakes. They looked like bunches of enormous pencils.

At Andarcette the voie verte ended, but a lady cyclist who had caught us up told us that we could pick up the next section at Tain-Hermitage, and that it would take us all the way to Bourg-lès-Valence, our destination for today. We joined the road, crossed the river, and time-trialled to Tain-Hermitage to find it. Well, sort of. We did stop for a bum-rest and a drink, and played ‘spot the wine-producing village’ – Crozes-Hermitage was a surprise, didn’t know that was in this area.

The last section of voie verte began as hard-packed sand and gravel, but soon gave way to tarmac, and before long we were arriving at our hotel, where we’re staying for two nights as it’s a rest day tomorrow. The lady receptionist was very welcoming and happy to accept the tandem into one of the conference rooms, but said we’d have to find somewhere else for it tomorrow night because two of the Tour de France teams are arriving here tomorrow night after the stage into Montpellier for their rest day. Jonathan says there is NO WAY we are going down to breakfast on Monday morning in our cycling gear….

Stage Eleven: Villefranche-sur-Saône to Chasse-sur-Rhône

…in which our mechanical problems are solved by a veteran champion cyclist

Time: 4h03m
Distance: 67.36km
Average speed: 16.6kph
Distance from Calais: 918.94km

France was largely closed yesterday, for Bastille day celebrations. The hotel receptionist directed us to the only open restaurant in the centre of Villefranche: La Fleurie. Initially we were the only ones there, but the welcome was warm and the food excellent. We asked the owner to recommend a good cycle-repair shop (sounds daft I know but everyone in France either cycles or has a close relative who cycles). She was, in fact, delighted to be asked, and telephoned her son, who duly supplied the names, addresses and telephone numbers of two shops, both of which were close to the hotel.

We retired to the hotel and were just falling asleep when we heard the sound of fireworks. We opened the curtains and discovered that by leaning out of the window we could just see the spectacular short firework display, across the city by the river Saône.

We rose and breakfasted early this morning, keen to get the tandem repaired. The first cycle shop we tried, unfortunately, was too busy. Worrying somewhat that this was going to be true of the other shops we cycled on to Jacques Desportes cycles. This was a much smaller, less modern shop, but encouragingly there was a cycle on the rack outside the shop undergoing repair. M. Desportes was the owner and sole employee, and asked us what we needed. Anticipating such a request (!) we had consulted our long glossary of cycling-related vocabulary, and were able to respond, in our usual halting fashion. To our relief he seemed to understand, and agreed immediately to replace the spoke and “true” the wheel. Initially he seemed rather less keen to fix the broken “petit-plateau” (small chain ring, sometimes known as the “granny ring”). After a few minutes he warmed to the idea and managed to find a replacement in his workshop. While he was working we noticed trophies and photographs on the wall of the shop – M. Desportes had been a veteran champion cyclist and, when prompted, he proudly showed us one of his “podium” photographs.

Within an hour the work was complete and our tandem restored to good health. We thanked him effusively, mounted the tandem and returned to the hotel to check out. Of course by now we had lost a good portion of the day, and we lost a further hour attempting to find an hotel or chambre d’hote for this evening. We tried several potential towns and villages but everything was “complet”. Eventually we found one hotel, the Mercure in Chasse-sur-Rhône, attractively situated next to the autoroute! We booked it immediately before it became full, and set off at about 11.30.

Half-an-hour later we were still trying to escape the city, victims once again of a tortuous one-way system. Eventually we crossed the river and turned south in the direction of Trevoux. The traffic was heavy, and we headed away from the main road at Parcieux, climbing steeply in search of quieter roads. This worked, briefly, before we were returned to the riverside road. There were cycle paths by the road though, good wide ones in fact, so we used those until, after about twenty-five kilometres we founds a good spot for lunch, on a terrace by the river. A cool beer or two helped to counteract the heat of the day, and lunch was good – the restaurant specialised in frogs’ legs, but we settled for more mundane fare!

After lunch the traffic became progressively heavier as we approached Lyon, continuing along the riverside road. We passed an enormous Swiss river cruiser, long and low, clearly designed to pass underneath the low bridges hereabout. We stayed on the east side of the Saône as it approached the confluence with the Rhône. Spectacular palaces and mansions appeared on the sky-line to the west.

Lyon was more impressive than we had anticipated, neither of us having seen it before. Spotting another tandem approaching we stopped to say hello to another English couple on a tour of Burgundy and the Rhône. Tandems seem rare in France, and those you do see are often ridden by British people. After a brief chat we headed off again, crossed the river to the western side and set off along the quay.

“Route Barrée”, said the sign. Oh dear – on checking the map we could see that the only alternative to our chosen route involved a steep climb on a busy road. We had no choice, though, so off we went, and it proved to be a good test for our new granny ring as we climbed to over nine hundred feet in the searing afternoon heat. We received plenty of support though – throughout today we’ve heard frequent cries of “Bon courage” and “Châpeau” from friendly French drivers.

Arriving at the summit of the climb we descended to La Mulatière and the river Rhône. There then followed a seemingly endless succession of traffic lights, all of them at red. After a while we began to look around, fearing some prankster was changing them all with a remote control! It was impossible to achieve a decent speed, so frequently did we have to stop. At last they were replaced, by a seemingly endless sequence of roundabouts, leading to Vernaison where we crossed the Rhône in search of our hotel, still a few kilometres away. Another steep and unanticipated climb took us to Ternay and the final descent to our hotel. A friendly receptionist locked our tandem securely away, and we headed to the bar for a large, cold bottle of fizzy water.

As a result of our lost morning we’re a little off-schedule, further north than we’d expected by 13km as the crow flies, but probably at least twice that along the river, so tomorrow’s destination is yet to be decided.

Stage Ten: Tournus to Villefranche-sur-Saône

… in which we pass the half-way mark and have some mechanical problems

Time: 4h37m
Distance: 81.29km
Average speed: 17.6kph
Distance from Calais: 851.58km

We walked out down to have a look at the river last night, and then found a great restaurant for dinner. We had to wait for ten minutes or so before our table was free, so we helped ourselves to a couple of bar stools in the corner and sat at the bar. As soon as we sat on the very posh-looking height-adjustable stools, the seats descended gently towards the floor – we felt very silly, of course they were in the corner, they were broken! Our table was soon ready, and we forgot all about it, until a second couple appeared (briefly) at the bar, sat on the broken stools we’d stupidly left there, and descended gently to the floor, just as we had, until all that was visible was the bun on top of the lady’s head.

After dinner, we headed back to the Hotel le Sauvage, which had been a good choice, our room was lovely, with parquet flooring and beautiful tiling. There was no sign of any Bastille fireworks. We slept well, and headed off in the morning after breakfast under patchy skies.

We knew we had some climbs coming early today, the last for a few days, and as we hit the first one Jonathan shifted into the smallest chain-ring, the one which makes the climbing easiest. It felt a bit odd, and when we stopped to investigate we discovered that it was egg-shaped, having lost some of the bolts holding it on. We’ve been fully-laden up some steep climbs in the last weeks, including the Struggle in the Lake District (25% in several places and 3 miles long) and the steep climb on the way to Nuits St Georges, which felt like it was at least 16%, so perhaps we’d just over-strained it.

We realised, though, that this was the first time we’d used the smallest ring since that big climb, because the terrain hadn’t really required it, and that provided we could get over today’s fairly modest climbs in higher gears, we’d be fine for the next few days without it, and indeed for the rest of the trip, Mont Ventoux excepted.

So we pushed on, taking it steadily over the next hills, cycling in vines again today, the Mâconnais district now. It was really pretty, surrounded by hills and the roads incredibly quiet. As we passed through one village the local inhabitants were observing the Bastille Day commemorations, heads bowed and flags held at half mast. It seemed a bit disrespectful to flash past in a blur of lycra, so we stopped and waited until the citation was complete.

As we headed up the last climb we were joined by a French cyclist, who chatted away and asked us lots of questions about our trip. It was good to chat with him, and it does take your mind off the climb, trying to recall the French grammar you last used properly as a teenager! On the back of his shirt was a map of some of the serious French climbs, the Tourmalet, the Galibier, the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez. He confirmed that he’d done them all – we were very impressed! He did say they were all ‘tres dur’…

After the climbing was done we glided down towards the floor of the Saône valley, with fantastic views on either side. We arrived in Crêches-sur-Saône to find an open cafe serving Turkish food, which was a relief, this being Bastille Day and hence a public holiday. A very cheerful group of motorcylists was having lunch outside. It was at this point that we discovered the French equivalent to ‘She’s not pedalling on the back’, when one of the motorcyclists shyly came up to out table and asked very politely how it all worked – did we pedal at the same time, did the person on the back have to pedal all the time? They were all very friendly, and suggested that when we got to the Spanish border we should keep going to Santiago di Compostela!

After lunch, we continued through the Beaujolais vineyards, and had our second mechanical problem – a loud twang from the back indicating a broken spoke. We followed the recommended option of slackening the spokes on either side, and continued, knowing that it was flat for the rest of the day and not far to go. Tandem wheels are very strong, with 48 spokes, so we were confident it would hold.

Before long we were coming into our day’s destination, Villefranche, where there are five cycle shops. Our plan is to pop in tomorrow morning and see what, if anything, they might be able to do. It would be good to get the spoke replaced (we are carrying spares) and the wheel trued, but there may be nothing they can do for the chain-ring. Not replacing that would put paid to our attempt on Mont Ventoux, although we would have no problem continuing to Cerbère and the border without it. We have various options over the next few days if we can’t resolve it here in Villefranche, so we’ll keep you posted!

Stage Nine: Nuits-St-Georges to Tournus

…in which we have some company, and join the River Saône

Time: 4h47m
Distance: 91.13km
Average speed: 19kph
Distance from Calais: 770.29km

Our rest day in Nuits-St-Georges was a welcome opportunity to rest aching muscles and recharge batteries (real and metaphorical). No sooner had we finished washing our clothes and writing the blog than Simon and Dianne arrived on their tandem from their campsite nearby at Prissy. We had planned to go into town for a meal, but the restaurant in the hotel looked good, and we were tired after two long days. So we stayed at the hotel, ate well and drank relatively restrained amounts of Burgundy.

On the following day, against our better judgement (it was a rest day, after all) we got back onto the tandem for a massive one kilometre ride into Nuits-St-Georges. In the main square, next to the vine-clad belltower were sunny outdoor restaurants, perfect for a relaxing lunch, before we cycled back to the Hotel for a swim and some delicious cool beer. In the evening we returned to the town for a convivial dinner. Mindful of the fact that our cycling would recommence today we left Simon and Dianne to drink the town dry and returned to the Hotel, marvelling at spectacular bolts of lightning filling the skies to the east. In fact the impressive storms seemed to continue for some hours after we went to bed.

Today dawned cloudy and wet, but without thunderstorms, thankfully. We retrieved the tandem from the hotel garage and cycled the three miles to Simon and Dianne’s campsite, as they had decided to join us for the first part of today’s journey. So we set off, on our tandems, in tandem, in the direction of Beaune, initially on tiny roads surrounded by vines, and later, near Beaune, on busy, noisy roads (poor planning on our part, sadly), before returning to the quiet lanes toward Meursault. Dianne won “pun of the day” when she declared: “The quality of Meursault is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”. She was wrong though, it was definitely rain dropping from the heavens, as we continued through Puligny Montrachet to our early lunchtime stop at Chagny. We ate at a small café, where the team, in jocular mood, were delighted to find “Frites petites” on the menu, and promptly set it to the tune of Reet Petite!

We said farewell to Simon and Dianne after lunch, they set off back in the direction of Beaune while we headed south out of Chagny (still in heavy rain). Almost immediately we found a voie verte alongside the Canal du Centre, heading south east toward Châlon-sur-Saône. The track was smooth and wide, beautifully maintained and enabled us to keep up a good pace for the next 16 kilometres, waving frequently at friendly boat crews who, despite the weather, seemed to be having a good time. So were we, it was a most enjoyable section. We spotted rental boats from “le Boat” (formerly Crown Blue Lines, before some fool in marketing decided on a name change!), familiar to us from our journeys on the Canal du Midi and the Charentes.

All too soon we left the canal, cycling on busy roads through the city of Châlon-sur-Saône. Cyclists were still well catered for, with good cycle paths throughout. Arriving at the River Saône we joined a rougher “piste cyclable” alongside the river. We had planned to remain on this track for the remainder of the afternoon. Unfortunately, after a couple of kilometres, it petered out into a rough muddy track. After much consultation, map-reading and head-scratching we formulated an alternative route, through a series of small villages en-route to today’s destination of Tournus. The villages proved to be attractive and well-kept, some with village wells. The roads were very quiet and generally flat. Eventually the rain stopped as we approached the main N6 into Tournus, joining it for the last kilometre or so to our hotel.

Tournus sits on the banks of the Saône, and has an historic church, (boasting a typical Gallic-style tower) once linked to a nearby Benedictine abbey. Tonight being the eve of Bastille day there may be fireworks (assuming they haven’t become damp in today’s heavy rain!) and other celebrations. We will report on this tomorrow, when our destination is Villefranche-sur-Saône.

Stage Eight: Fain-lès-Montbard to Nuits-St-George

… in which we climb a big hill and cross the watershed of France

Time: 5h19m
Distance: 98.5km
Average speed: 18.5kph
Distance from Calais: 679.16km

We enjoyed our stay at the Château de Malaisy very much. We’d chosen a lower price room, but it was clean and bright, and dinner in the restaurant in the evening was superb. Quite a menagerie was to be found in the grounds – horses, donkeys, goats and sheep, various cats, a peacock and a frilly white French hen. Oh, and some wild German children who were up until all hours.

We were away by 9am, conscious that this would be a long day with a big climb, and left under sunny skies, soon warming up the legs on the initially flat road. In fact, like yesterday, the road was climbing almost imperceptibly, but it was gloriously winding today, with constantly changing views of beautiful countryside. It made a nice change from the ruler-straight (Roman?) roads of yesterday, we really enjoyed the contrast.

The hills rose on either side of us, fields full of cows (doing the robotic head thing) now, rather than arable land for the most part. We stopped in a picnic area to eat an oat bar to fortify us for the climb, and when we got there we were glad we had – it was awfully steep! We climbed for about 3 kilometres, gaining hundreds of feet in height, until we reached a plateau at around 1750 feet. Yes, we’re still for some reason measuring the climbing in feet, even though we’ve gone metric on distance. Not sure why…!

It was awfully hard work in the heat, but it was soon done, and we rode across the plateau gaining further height, although more gently, until we topped out at just short of 1900 feet, next to an enormous electricity station. It was huge, with long lines of pylons marching up the hills around it to meet at the top.

After the climbing, of course, was the descending, and we quickly dropped down to the valley of the Ouche, riding alongside the autoroute for a while until we reached the canal. Right next to the canal-side cycle path at Pont de Pany was a restaurant, which were very glad to see. We had a good lunch with lots of really good bread and some blond beer, and after all the exertions of the morning it brought us slowly back to life.

The cycle path next to the canal was our next direction, and it was fantastic, wide smooth tarmac right next to the canal. It was incredibly popular, lots of cyclists, a few pedestrians and even a roller-blader. We cycled past an older gentleman, and bid him ‘Bonjour’ and as we went past he caught sight of the sign on the back of the tandem. The sign says ‘Calais to Cerbère’ and has a little map showing our route. On the road we get lots of toots and thumbs-up from passing motorists, and on this occasion the gentleman cycled hard to catch up with his wife, whom we were now just passing. He shouted ‘Cerbère!’ after us, giving us an opportunity to use ‘The Joke’, which is to say ‘Oui! Mais pas aujourd’hui’ (copyright: Rob and Jon, in their excellent account of a similar journey to ours, ‘Wine-ding down through France).

We loved the cycle-path, a brilliant way to enter a big city like Dijon. We knew we’d have to leave it just before Dijon to pick up the Route des Grands Crus, and we were just gliding to a halt to check the map when a fellow cyclist pulled up to see if we were lost. Our fellow tandemists, John and Ann, had told us that they had found everyone really helpful during their recent tour in the more southerly areas of France, and it was just so here too – we hadn’t even quite stopped! We also had a halting but very friendly French conversation with another cyclist using the path. He was alarmed to hear we were proposing to go up Mont Ventoux later in the trip – he told us that it would be his 80th birthday in a month, and that made him far too old to do that sort of thing. Given how long it had take us to catch him up, though, we reckoned he’d still be bowling along the canal when he was 90.

After skirting the very outskirts of Dijon, we hit the start of the Route des Grands Crus, a lovely quiet road through the vines. We started to see famous Burgundy names – Marsannay, Gevrey Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée. The villages were beautiful, and between them long sections of vineyards, with strange alien-looking machines straddling the vines in order to work on them.

We were soon approaching our destination for tonight and our rest day tomorrow, Nuits-St-Georges, and rolled up at our hotel, just a little out of town, but with a pool (hurrah!) feeling very tired after a long day.

What a brilliant day, though, the cycling had been wonderfully varied and we’d enjoyed it all enormously. We’re meeting our friends, Simon and Dianne tonight – they are on their way north after a long trip in Europe in their camper van, and it looks like our plan to rendezvous in wine country might just have worked!

So, a rest day tomorrow, then, having passed the watershed of France, it’ll be pretty much downhill to the Med. Oh, apart from Ventoux, of course…

Stage Seven: Bar-sur-Aube to Fain-lès-Montbard

…in which we cycle with raptors.

Time: 4h47m
Distance: 96.8km
Average speed: 20.2kph
Distance from Calais: 580.64km

The skies cleared to blue at the end of the day in Bar-sur-Aube, and we took the opportunity to eat at “Le Jardin des Delices” (dans le jardin of course)! Despite the close attentions of a number of French wasps we had a very good meal, the steaks were excellent.

We awoke to cloudy skies and cool temperatures. This was not entirely unwelcome as we had our longest day yet in prospect. Thankfully the headwinds of the previous two days had diminished. Aware that we were going to need fuel for the day we tried to eat plenty of breakfast, but it’s not easy when you know you’ll have to cycle the first hour on a full stomach. We saddled up and set off at about 9am.

Bar-sur-Aube is still within the Champagne-growing region – we passed plenty of wine producers and pressing plants but few vines. The road south from Bar-sur-Aube follows the river south in a deep wooded valley, there was little traffic and we achieved a good average speed of over 20kph for the first hour. Every 10 miles or so we stop for a drink and to get out of the saddle – tandems don’t provide many opportunities for standing up while riding (“honking” in cycling parlance), so it’s important to have frequent breaks.

We crossed the A5 autoroute, which heads south at this point to Dijon, a city we hope to reach tomorrow. Above the fields on both sides of the road and sitting on fence posts nearby we spotted several birds of prey, some of them hovering skillfully in the breeze above their intended targets. It was blissful to ride in the absence of headwinds, instead it started to rain as we reached Montigny-sur-Aube. Initially the rain was light. Soon however it intensified and we were forced to stop and don our rain-wear. Before too much longer it was bucketing down, and despite our waterproof tops we were soon soaked. This sounds worse than it is – we discussed it and agreed that we preferred rain to wind any day! Once you’re thoroughly wet it doesn’t really get any more uncomfortable anyway, and it remained warm.

At Montigny we turned away from the valley of the Aube, and said goodbye to the Champagne-Ardennes region and hello to Bourgogne. The roadside signs now offered Cremant de Bourgogne instead of Champagne. For us, however, hot chocolate may have been preferable in the conditions. We were making very good time though and climbing steadily onto the plateau on which we would remain until Montbard.

When studying our route for the day we had identified Châtillon-sur-Seine as a likely lunch stop, although we were slightly concerned that, today being Sunday, all the eateries would be closed. So when we spotted an open créperie at the entrance to the town we grabbed the opportunity to stop for a bite to eat. The waitress, spotting our saturated state, moved us to a side-room where we couldn’t damage anything! Galettes were consumed and enjoyed, and we lingered over coffee, hoping that the weather was clearing. It was not to be – it was raining gently as we got back on the tandem and torrentially within minutes.

We were still enjoying ourselves though, and speeding along on undulating roads over the plateau. On passing through Ampilly-le-Sec and Coulmier-le-Sec we couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t very, well, sec! Coulmier-le-Saturées, maybe… Eventually the road dropped down toward Montbard, though we had to descend cautiously as the road was so wet.

At Montbard we turned south-east to Fain-lès-Montbard and found our accommodation for the evening, Château de Malaisy. Almost immediately on arrival the skies outside cleared to blue. Let’s hope they stay that way for tomorrow, when we face another 63 mile day and a long climb up to 1800 feet en-route to Nuits St Georges.

Stage Six: Vitry-le-François to Bar-sur-Aube

… in which we battle against the wind again

Time: 3h57m
Distance: 68.66km
Average speed: 17.4kph
Distance from Calais: 483.84km

We wandered into the centre of Vitry-le-François last night to find a lovely central square, dominated by a huge church at one end. We enjoyed very good pizzas and some wine, and turned in fairly early. We’d wondered what the ‘le-François’ signified – apparently Charles V razed Vitry-le-Perthois to the ground (for some reason), and later François I built Vitry-le-François in his own honour. Kings, eh?

At breakfast our paper placemats were maps of France showing the location of all the hotels in the chain to which ours belonged, and it was quite surprising to see just how much of France is still south of us. We were delighted to find that we were officially south of Paris now, though.

We saddled up and headed out, and it was only after about 20 minutes that we realised that we’d managed to leave town without any navigational errors. That never happens! Sometimes it’s tricky one-way systems (Reims), sometimes it’s Gary the Garmin having a tantrum (Calais), sometimes it’s not being where you thought you’d start from (Ardres), but we always have to get off, consult various maps and scratch our heads before we get going properly.

Not today though, we bowled along making great speed for the first hour in bright sunshine and a light headwind. With the wind growing in intensity we arrived at the Lac du Der, where we joined a cycle path around the edge of the lake. The cycle path was elevated, above the lake on one side and the road on the other, and with that extra height it was incredibly breezy. The lake was very picturesque, stretching off into the distance, and we’d expected to see lots of birdlife, but it must all have blown away…

We left the lake and headed south, trying not to fight the wind too much. Cycling into a headwind is really energy-sapping, you feel that you’re pushing hard but going so much slower than you expect, and the temptation is to push even harder to achieve the speed you’d usually have. On a shorter day like today, though, we could try to ignore the speed and just pedal as we usually would. We’d be slower, of course, but it wouldn’t really matter.

We stopped for lunch in Montier-en-Der, very typical of the villages we’d been cycling through. The houses here are mainly wattle and daub, not black and white like it would be at home, but dark and light brown, very attractive.

With few kilometres remaining, we pushed on against the wind, and finally reached the ridge we’d have to surmount to get to Bar-sur-Aube. As we climbed we entered a wooded section which sheltered us from the wind, and had some great views of the route we’d taken. After the climb, up over 1000ft for the first time on this trip, our reward was a long, winding descent into the valley of the Aube. As we reached Bar-sur-Aube we encountered a very sombre-looking march through the village. One of the gendarmes who was guiding the traffic away from the procession told us it was in honour of a local man who had been killed in an accident, a ‘marche blanche’ he called it.

We checked in to our hotel, the St Nicolas, and braved the freezing pool for a swim. They do say an ice bath is good for tired muscles!

Noticed a weird thing about cows today. If they spot you coming or you attract their attention as you reach them, perhaps by shouting “Moo” in a French accent, they turn their heads to look at you. They don’t follow you with their heads, though. They watch until they can’t see you properly, turn their heads a bit more, watch a bit more, turn again, watch again and so on. It looks really robotic. These are the things you think about as you tap along on a flat road into the wind…