Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tour de France

With the Tour de France well under way a couple of weeks ago, culminating of course in an emphatic win by a fellow Aussie - Cadel Evans, a group of Aussies (and one other)also set off at that same time for their own Tour de France. A four day cycling tour of the Loire Valley resulting in pushing the pain barrier for some, visiting a number of spectacular châteaux, various winery hydration stops, huge women beers vs small men beers, long lunches with carafe-loads of rosé,  strange green shots and an underground French night club. It was certainly a tour of France like no other.

Stage 1

Orleans to Blois - 3 hours 18 minutes – 75.72 km.

The start of our odyssey, on France’s National Day, began with prompt departure from my place at 10am to catch our train from Paris to Orleans. Kitted out in the French blue, white and red of my Cycle Laurent gear (the kit of one of the oldest bike stores in Paris), a quick bike to Gare Austerlitz saw us arrive well ahead of schedule. No matter – given we had open tickets we were able to jump on the earlier train.
Got to love the French train network

The French train network is very accommodating of cyclists having special racks and areas to be able to transport your bike. Bikes neatly stowed, we settle in for our 1 hour 20 min journey whilst we searched online for accommodation in Blois for that evening. After a number of phone calls, we manage to find what would turn out to be a quaint little hotel – now just to get there.

Arriving in Orleans just before lunch, it is not as sunny as Paris and the air is a little cool. On come the arm warms and vests. This was a tough day in the saddle for Kathryn who was still feeling the effects of the nasty tummy bug she caught from swimming in the Seine. However, after being told “to eat some concrete”, in true Kathryn style, she hardened up and pushed through the pain and urge to be sick, to get to our first port of call – lunch, about two hours away.

A leisurely lunch with the first, of what would be many bottles of rosé, together with our first group photo, meant that our cycling adventure had well and truly started.

Tour de France Team

Our next stop would be Château de Chambord, in of course Chambord. Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley and it was built to serve as a hunting lodge for King François I.  Riding upon it, you’re struck by its enormity. One of the architectural highlights is the double-helix open staircase that is in the centre of the château. The two helixes climb three floors but never meet.

Chateau de Chambord
Double helix staircase
And is said that Chambord, the black raspberry liqueur we know, was introduced by Louis XIV during one of his visits to the château.

Onwards to Blois, which also has a château, we arrive close to 7pm. The Hotel owners recommends a lovely restaurant for the evening, which we dine at, with of course...more rosé. Following dinner we go to a wine bar, elegantly named ‘Vinorama’, where we all partake in a confusing wine tasting.

Following the wine bar we take a midnight stroll through Blois, but only going as far as the bar by the Loire river, where the boys had the smallest Guinness’s ever seen, whilst the girls had HTFU-sized beers. Yep, Kathryn my party pal, was well and truly back....thank gawd!
Man vs. Woman

Stage 2

Blois to Tours – 3 hours 22 minutes – 74.32km

After breakfast at the hotel, we take a walk around Blois and look at the Château de Blois, which it too is known for its spiral staircase, although this one is on the exterior facing an internal courtyard. Not too much before midday we climb upon our trusty steeds for a long first leg of the day to Amboise.

Amboise is where Leonardo de Vinci lived and ultimately died. Of course, Amboise wouldn’t be complete without its very own château. Although at €15 entry, we decided that those funds would be better enjoyed over yet another long lunch, with our obligatory sampling of the rosé the restaurant had to offer.

Energised by lunch and the lovely sunshine, it was high time that we located a winery and partake in tasting the local wines that the Loire Valley is famously known for. The majority of production is white wine from the chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and melon de Bourgogne grapes. There are also red wines made, particularly around the Chinon region, typically from the cabernet franc grape. Loire wines tend to exhibit characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours....mmmm, yum!

Lots of sunflowers en route
We finally find a winery...which strangely seems difficult to locate in the region and get served the biggest tastings I’ve ever come across. Whilst sipping and slurping away (yes slurping is necessary for oxidisation of the wine to appreciate its full flavour) - not all of the tasting mind you, as there were six varieties to get through, and still more cycling to be done, we start chatting to the American tourists on vacation from their base in Belgium.  The guy is sporting a ‘Marathon Finisher’ t-shirt and he spots my Garmin bulging from my wrist.

Joke: “How do you know when there is a triathlete in the room?”

           “You don’t. They’ll tell you!”

Inevitably we start speaking about triathlons and his young son proudly announces that his father will be doing his first ironman soon. We wish each other good luck and hop back on our bikes heading for the direction of Tours.

A further 20 or so kilometres into our journey we arrive upon Vouvray, where we find a wine cellar (known as a “cave” and most often they are literally caves) stocking local wines of the region and offering wine tastings.  We stop in and saddle up at the bar in the cave and listen to its history (in French) and its extensive tunnel network beneath the city and the faux wall built at that the cave’s opening to trick invading forces as to its true extent.

Back on our bikes, we make the final push for Tours. As we are cycling in the Tours city centre, navigating our way to our hotel, I hear the unmistakable “ping” sound. Oh no, a spoke of the rear wheel of the shit-hot Colnago bike that Istvan is riding breaks.  We all walk the 800 metres to our hotel. Poor Istvan really didn’t have much luck with the bike. As it turns out, the timing of the break was ideal in some ways given that Istvan was leaving the group the next morning to head to Spain to catch up with some friends.

Late dinner in Tours, bear sampling at one of the local pubs, random Jagermeister shots, we call it a night as Isty has a super early train to catch in the morning.

Tours, France
Stage 3

Tours to Chinon – 3 hours 4 minutes – 59.44km

After narrowly missing his train due to almost being unable to take the bike onboard, Istvan is safely away back to Paris, then on to Spain.

Over breakfast the remaining team discuss a change of plans for the tour. Given that one of the lead riders had departed meaning the average pace would drop, and the forecasted bad weather, the closer destination of Chinon was decided upon.

We set out on the designated bike path, which we somehow quickly lose. As a result, I find myself “paddock bashing” like back in the 80s on my BMX, except this time I’m riding a carbon time-trial bike with carbon rims on a single dirt track through some paddocks and at times woods – very random and unexpected. Thankfully Seymour the Cervelo survived unscathed. This was of course before stumbled across a very uneven cobble path that seemed to stretch well beyond the horizon. Kathryn and I send the non-Australian out on reconnaissance to determine whether we are able to traverse the incredibly bumpy and jaggered road. We get the signal to come down the path, and we bobble along and brace ourselves until we hit the smooth path again.

We cycle back out to the road and stop off in the next town for lunch by the river. With the usual rosé rehydration ordered, we don our rain jackets as the weather sours.

“Right! Where’s the next winery?” we ask. Given the undesirable weather, we best look for indoor activities.

After about an hour’s worth of cycling, we find a little vineyard where we sample their offering. We’re particularly interested in the pear juice that the winery also makes and ask if we could try some. We’re met with a stern “No”, ok then!

Second winery of the day

The winery owner's modest home
The rain is coming down, although thankfully our next winery is only 5km away. We’re met by a pleasant man who occupies a beautiful property that makes very tasty white wines. We chat away, whilst the rain turns to a drizzle.

After two wineries in close succession, we merrily ride towards Chinon which includes a steep decent of 10% for a couple of kilometres. Whilst we hit some impressive top speeds then, it wasn’t until we actually got to the outer edges of Chinon and descended through the narrow streets that for the first time ever in my life I didn’t know whether I could hold on to the brakes long enough. The 2km decent down what seemed like a sheer stone wall meant that my forearms were burning with lactic acid as I desperately was trying to slow myself down. I finally came to a stop...only just, and release my hands from the death grip of my hoods. My mind then turned to the fact that we would have to leave this town the next day...I sure hoped there was another way out.

The evening in Chinon poured with rain. What do you do in such circumstances? Find a pub and settle into a beer. Unfortunately for us, the hotel was undergoing renovations so we had a curfew of 11:45pm, as we needed to enter via the restaurant which closed at that time.

At 11:30pm we’re having our last drinks when Kathryn looks over at the table across from us and asks “What are those green shots they’re drinking?”

With that simple query the night was then to become a bizarre sequence of random events. The guy at the table hears Kathryn’s inquisitiveness and promptly drops three green shots on our table. He instructs us as to how to have them. It tastes like menthol mouthwash...not bad. The guy then asks whether we want to go out with him and his ‘boring’ French girlfriend, who is sitting in earshot. We explain the curfew situation to which he scoffs and says it’s not a problem as he knows the owner and that he’d simply go and get the key for the hotel.

Ten minutes later, hotel key in hand, we’re proceeding with the random guy, his boring French girlfriend and some other people to an underground nightclub. Upon entry our new host promptly buys a bottle of vodka and the boring French girlfriend then pours everyone virtually half a glass each.

Kat igniting said dance floor
After momentarily and accidently being locked in the men’s toilet, Kathryn emerges for us to ignite the dance floor. I’m sure the French people of Chinon were hugely impressed by our fashion sense  which consisted of Skins leggings and running jacket for myself and cargo pants for Kathryn, teamed with black flat shoes for the both of us (there is only so much you can carry in a backpack whilst cycling). Some impressive vodka-fuelled dance moves ensued, and a French version of the ‘Nutbush’ was attempted. The boring French girlfriend didn’t seem all that impressed with our host’s ‘friendliness’ and they abruptly leave. We get back to the hotel at some unknown hour.

Stage 4

Chinon to Tours – 3 hours – 68.56 km

After a dismal breakfast, we take a walk of Chinon and explore the cobble streets. It starts to rain...again, so we make our way to the hotel and wait for it to ease.

Thankfully we find a far more acceptable gradient for which to climb out of Chinon. It’s only about 10km down the road that we find a lovely small château which doubles as a winery to have our first sample of wine for the day. We were equally impressed by both the wines and the 2kg loaf of bread on the table, baked fresh that day. We also learnt that the château had been the family since the 1600s.

Winery just outside Chinon

Chateau d'Usse
We decide to head to Huismes for lunch. This is not before we change our only flat tyre for the trip. Being a Sunday and arriving after 2pm, we found the quaint little town shut. Hungry and with the sun back out, we ride to Rigny-Ussé which is sure to be open given the impressive Château d’Ussé in the town. It is said that this château is the castle that Charles Perrault had in mind when writing Sleeping Beauty.

Thankfully we find a restaurant that is willing to serve us and we try and soak up some of the fleeting sunshine as we sit on the terrace.

With a most appreciated tail wind, we fly back towards Tours trying to stay ahead of the ominous black clouds on the horizon. Although our day wouldn’t be complete without one final stop at a cave. We enter and immediately feel its instant coolness and we can see the steam rising from each of us. A rotund man in an apron is waiting behind a wooden bar with the cave artfully lit behind him. He offers us a number of tastings, serving pieces of cheese and bread in between each variety.

The Cave

Convenient wine storage
Poetically, it is at the very last winery of the tour that I finally decide to buy a case of red wine.  We then explore only a very small portion of the 300km of tunnels leading from the cave, before making our final journey back to Tours.

With speeds of 35km/hr and more, we’re back in Tours in no time for a relaxed dinner and drinks to reflect on the experiences of the last four days.

Stage 5

Tours to Paris

On the train, we arrive back in Paris by midday. A most brilliant tour of France was had, with lots of memorable moments. It has inspired me to cycle more of this great country.

A big thanks to the non-Australian for his navigation and French language skills – certainly made the tour all that much easier.

In memory of John Cornish (29/11/1980 – 22/07/2011). Post ride brekkies with you were always entertaining, but it was your good sense of humour I liked most. Particularly the time when, not even flinching, I without warning patted down your bum looking for my keys in your back pockets that you were so kindly minding for me. All I was met with was a cheeky warm smile. Rest and forever ride in peace.

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