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A fortnight in Provence

Sean Kerrigan remembers changing landscapes, a Quadrathon, and parts of Le Tour during a cycling tour through French countryside.

June 4th 1994 was yet another wet Saturday. Les Bean was cancelling the Club ‘10’ and I was waiting at a roundabout outside Waltham Abbey for the Bolero Bike Bus. Also at this pick-up point was the organiser of this CTC tour, Audrey Hughes, and a half dozen other participants. Right on time the double-decker coach, pulling a covered trailer, turned up and we loaded our bikes and our selves on board for the 18 hour trip to the south of France, and the sun! Across the channel and all night through France the rain continued, but just after dawn as we approached our drop-off point the skies cleared and the sun started shining.

Not a good start

Bikes, loaded with panniers and saddlebags, and cycling gear on we were soon pedalling into Remoulins for Sunday morning breakfast and then on via quiet country lanes to Nîmes, famous for its Roman amphitheatre and temple. We stopped briefly at the temple but were soon hassled by three gypsy girls looking for generous tourists. However their motives went beyond mere begging as Fred, one of the Yorkshire contingent, was soon to find out. Without him feeling a thing his bumbag had been unzipped and his holiday cash, £300 worth of French francs, was gone. What a start!

The matter was reported and official forms obtained so that insurance could be claimed - luckily for Fred his wife had some traveller’s cheques. As if to compensate for this disaster the rest of the day was very pleasant with a tailwind bowling us along at 17’s (very fast for touring bikes).
The next day we crossed the Camargue seeing the white horses, the black bulls and the hundreds of pink flamingoes the region is famous for. We also saw the Mediterranean, for the first and only time on the tour, at the pretty sea-side town of Stes-Marie-de-la-Mer, where we stopped for drinks and ice-cream , barely distracted by the topless on the beach.

The first hills

The next few days were spent heading inland towards Les Alpilles - a small region most famous for the medieval walled town of Les Baux - this was also the first sign of anything resembling a hill. We continued our journey eastwards and instead of passing north or south of the Luberon range we perversely went over the top of it. Much of this was bottom gear stuff (28 * 26) not just because of the incline, but also because of the mistral which was doing its best to blow us off the road and into the abyss. Here the differences in rider fitness and experience soon became apparent - the climb took between an hour and a half and three hours - with the three tandems finding it the most difficult.

I was not the strongest on the climbs, that honour went to a chap called Guy who twiddled a 24" gear up all the steep bits. He pedalled so fast that nobody could stay with him. He lives in the Lake District and cycles to work at Windscale via a 1,000 foot climb every day - draw your own conclusions !

After this first real bit of climbing many questions were asked about how the gradients of the Luberon compared with the Ventoux. The ascent of the Ventoux (pictured) was to be the climax of the tour on our penultimate day in France. Those ‘in the know’ said there was no comparison - the Ventoux was much longer and steeper. As it turned out their memories failed them - Mont Ventoux was "a piece of cake" but the prospect of it looming ever closer kept us in anticipation of the worst!

Time to explore

There was now a couple of nights at the Auberge de Sauvignon to give us the chance to relax and explore the local area. The hotel was in a remote location, set at the end of a steeply wooded valley three miles from the nearest village, but was very popular with rock climbers and walkers

On our ‘day off’ most followed Audrey’s suggested route around the town of Apt but I went back into the Luberon to see the hillside towns of Menèrbes and Lacoste. Menèrbes of course is the village that Peter Mayles wrote about in "A Year In Provence" and still seems to me quite unspoilt. However I believe that Mr Mayles has since been drummed out of town for encouraging a tourist invasion and now lives in California.

The following day started with a long descent and then an undulating ride into Manosque which was our destination for the night. This is a town described in the Michelin guide as tedious, which can’t be argued with, however we were pleased to be ensconced in our hotel as the late afternoon was extremely wet and miserable.

We continued heading the next day in the direction of Nice, less than a hundred miles away, although our ultimate destination was the Gorges du Verdon. On route we stopped overnight at the "Grand Hotel d’Allegre" at Salernes, which had catered for cycle tours before and it showed. This was the only hotel that fed us a satisfactory volume of food including platters of chips and shish kebabs. Everywhere else we stayed the only way to fill your stomach was to keep asking for more bread. French bread is nice but the novelty soon wears off.

And so finally to the "Hotel le Provence" at Palud on the north rim of the Gorges du Verdon. The last 20 km was all uphill, with as usual Guy doing his Pantani impression and the rest of us following in his wake. Palud-sur-Verdon was a nice enough village for a lunch stop but was a bit limited in opportunities for a three night stay - anyway there was always the circuits of the inner gorge and the outer gorge to do !

The following day I needed to change some traveller’s cheques so had to go to the nearest town to find a bank. This was a beautiful fourteen mile descent out of the gorge and an hour and a half slog back but at least I had managed to find a bank open. This became a joke on the tour - whenever anybody was looking for a bank invariably the bank in the next town we passed through was closed for the morning/afternoon or wasn’t open till to-morrow - moral of the story : don’t bother with traveller’s cheques in France.

The gorge

Whilst I was off getting my francs five brave souls were attempting the outer circuit of the gorge - La Route de la Corniche Sublime - which is a very hilly ride of 54 miles. They left heading eastwards at 10 am and returned from the west some time after 4pm. Six hours - it was our intention (Guy and me) to do better the next day. Shortly after breakfast we began our marathon. It was a fantastic ride with long downhill stretches alternating with arduous uphill sections. At every climb Guy twiddled off but I would catch up whenever he stopped to admire the view and the view was superb. The whole area is designated as a Geological National Park and it is easy to appreciate why with the amazing rock formations either side of the gorge. At times the road ran very close to the edge of the rim and it was possible to see the green strip of river running along the bottom. Four hours after starting we arrived back at the hotel both of us exhausted but satisfied that we had completed the circuit.

Moving on the next morning Audrey led the way northwards out of the gorge. We cycled first along a minor road, then a track which became a trail through a forest. There followed 10 miles or so of roughstuff in very remote country - no vehicles, no people, not a sound to be heard. Even when we eventually reached a small village still nothing stirred. For many people this was their favourite day as there was a real sense of discovering a part of France that nobody else knew about. From the village we spiralled downwards through rugged, breathtaking scenery passing alongside mountain streams and waterfalls and then along the edge of a wooded gorge. We continued to descend but slowly, insiduously civilisation crept up on us again, with the odd car and farm building now appearing. Then with a final flurry the road descended very steeply through a quick succession of sharp hairpins down to a main road and more level countryside. The afternoon was an amble through quiet by-ways to the "Hotel du Lac" at Chateau-Arnoux, half a mile from the nearest lake !

The next day was the last before the climb of Mont Ventoux so nobody was storming off the front. As usual the flat ‘bits’ were interspersed with the odd col or two just to keep the scenery interesting and the muscles working. Every now and then the white peak of Ventoux taunted in the distance - to-morrow we would know if we were up to it!


And then we there - looking down from the summit at the other cyclists snaking their way up and around the last few hairpins. This was a Saturday so there were lots of cyclists on the road, all of them except us on stripped down racing machines. Although we had come up one of the main routes (and there are three ways up) the climb had been surprisingly easy. The road from Sault (the signs said 26km to the summit) dragged at first through farmland and pockets of forestry but then seemed to level out. So quite quickly we got to the 6km ‘to go’ sign. At this point the road from Carpentras joined ours - this was the route the 14th stage of the Tour came up this year. From here on the terrain changed dramatically - there were now no more trees and all one could see was a barren landscape of loose white rock stretching up to the TV mast at the summit. Most of this was bottom gear stuff (28 * 26) but slowly the top was getting closer. With about a mile to go we reached the Tommy Simpson memorial (pictured) where we stopped to take photographs - the black and white archive film of Simpson weaving across the road before his collapse came eerily into mind.

And then back down

After a brief stop to buy souvenirs at the summit we started the descent to Malucene. This began very steeply and rims were soon getting very hot with all the braking. This would have been exhilarating on a racing machine but on a loaded touring bike it was not wise to go much past 30mph. At the bottom we followed our route sheets to the town of La Caromb. As we left the main road to follow a quieter country route we came across some marshals and support vehicles for what we assumed was a road race. Eventually three riders appeared, two girls and a man, who turned out to be the stragglers of the event.

The Quadrathon

We continued but further along our route was barred by the finishing line and the headquarters of what was in fact a Quadrathon. In broken French we managed to work out that it was a four man team competition comprising a 40km bike ride, a 2km lake swim, a 15km cross country mountain bike ride and a 10km run through the streets of La Caromb which finished the event.

As one team member finished his speciality he passed a numbered sweat band, like a relay baton, to the next member of his team. It certainly looked like an interesting, enjoyable event - although there were obviously a few elite foursomes the vast majority of teams looked as if they were just composed of friends out to have a go! The local newspapers carried reports on several Quadrathons in the area so it seems to be a popular pastime in this part of France - maybe the idea will spread.

La Caromb was the last night of the tour so much French beer was drunk and, fuelled with this alcohol, attempts, partly successful, were made to communicate with the locals. Sunday morning, just like the typical club run (dream on!), was a gentle poodle past vineyards and olive groves across to the town of Orange where our rendezvous with the Bolero bus was made.