Seeing Other Cyclists Day - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Seeing Other Cyclists Day

St-Maurin, Beauville, Laroque-Timbaut, St-Sylvestre, Monflanquin, Lausson, Bertis

"We are riding down to the Pyrenees, along the mountains, then up through the Massif Central and the Alps..."
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"We've ridden from Holland and we're going down to the Pyrenees," said the lean-faced man from Holland. Not just lean-faced but with less fat than a greasy chip. As well he might be, having come that far with his wife. And even leaner he will become, too, because, as he said: "Once we get to the Pyrenees, we will ride along their whole length, from pass to pass, then go on to the Massif Central and then the Alps."

I gasped. To me, mountains are sights to be seen from below. Unless there's a way up that doesn't make my lungs burn like an overheated tram car. But then maybe you see things differently if you come from a land where the highest peaks are railway bridges.

"We're retired," the Dutchman said. They'll be not simply retired but tired as well if they carry on like that.

And off they went, heading for the peaks they lack at home
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Today has been Seeing Other Tourists Day. Do you have days like that as well? You go weeks without seeing anyone with bags on his bike and then they all come at once. Today, we set off through the fields of sunflowers that surround us this year - sad to think they're of no value to farmers until they've grown black and rotten - and off on the road that will lead us to Saumur.

Sunflowers everywhere: sad to think they have no value until they're rotten and black
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Saumur is in the Loire valley, about two-thirds the way to Paris. People who live there think they are almost in the south. Those of us down here in the south think that only Paris to the north distinguishes them from Belgians. We'd barely got started when down the road came two men on sporty bikes and a woman with straight handlebars who did actually come from Up North.

"We're going to Nîmes," the Head Northerner said.

"Why?"

"Because it's there, really."

Good reason. It's a nice city down in the south-east, its star attraction a Roman amphitheatre so undamaged that it is still used for opera and pop and other spectacles. Not for battles between Christians and lions, though.

"That never happened in France," a guide told us once. "The Romans built these places because they wanted to make the French more Roman by interesting them in things that interested the Romans, but they never had animals here. Animals were reserved for Rome."

I told my fellow travellers that. They looked at me oddly, less taken at not seeing Christians being eaten than that I even thought it a possibility.

"Where are you from?", I asked, thinking it time to change the subject. "Pas-de-Calais," they said.

The Pas-de-Calais is that area tucked up in the north-west that is within sight of England across the Channel but, so they say there, largely overlooked by Paris. Calais itself is full of hypermarkets selling cheap booze and cigarettes to the thousands of British who pile off the ferry to fill up, literally, by the van-load. A Frenchman, looking with a curled lip at the sight of so many fat Englishmen in bulging white T-shirts and tattoos, once told me "We elsewhere in France are grateful for Calais: it acts as a filter to stop people like that wandering further into the country."

I thought that was enough encounters for the day but, blow me, a couple of hours later we met two more Dutch cyclists, this time from Eindhoven.

"We won't be the last you meet," they said. "You know about the Frankrijkweg?"

They - a smiling man with a laughing wife - showed us a guide to France for Dutch cyclists. "It's superb," he said. "It shows all the best roads to ride, and where to find accommodation and so on. The trouble, of course, is that all you meet is other Dutch people. They're all riding the Frankrijkweg. We didn't come to France to meet the Dutch."

I said I liked meeting them.

"But then you're not Dutch, are you?" he said with a smile.

We exchanged e-mail addresses and went our way.

Only a cycle-tourist has a proper appreciation of the subsidiary sandwich-preparing role of bus shelters... especially bus shelters with their own art gallery
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There's not a lot here about the countryside we passed through because, of course, it's all local to us. There is a satisfaction in starting and ending a circular journey at home but the price is that at least the first and last days will be on roads you know. Certainly in countryside you know. I'll let the pictures do it, therefore, because better than I can they will describe the rolling countryside, green and rich but stonier on the low plateau, the villages of warm brown stone, the buzzards circling in the sky with their surprisingly effeminate cries.

Rolling hills, heading for the apples beyond the Lot
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We rode north, the day growing hotter. We crossed the Lot, the second of France's east-west rivers counting from the south, and moved into the more shadeless countryside and hillier apple country beyond. Villages now perched on hills, like Monflanquin, which from a distance looks so Biblical that a decent photo ought to capture a giant finger pointing at it from heaven.

Welcome to Monflanquin
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The first day away can sometimes be hard. For Steph, it was harder than it was for me. I'd had a few days' touring in the last month and, despite breaking my pelvis a while back, I'd begun riding moderately often again. Less so for Steph and it was a tired if uncomplaining wife who tackled the final and unexpected hill to a pleasantly remote camp site and wondered whether life would grow easier next day.

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