Virgins in France

Thursday 2 September 2010, Filed in: General

We are running free on the highway. Wind in our hair, sun in our face and the open road ahead. Suddenly we were overtaken, whilst others took up position alongside and behind us. It was no good running: we pulled into the kerb before the sirens and blue flashing lights started.

We are running free on the highway. Wind in our hair, sun in our face and the open road ahead. Suddenly we were overtaken, whilst others took up position alongside and behind us. It was no good running: we pulled into the kerb before the sirens and blue flashing lights started.

Our ‘arrest’ was surprisingly friendly: our first tandem expedition having coincided with one of the Tandem Club’s (West Yorkshire) regular outings. We received no penalty points but a membership form and invitation to ride with them to Bolton Abbey where we had coffee and discovered that it is possible to ride a tandem without a beard!

That trip was on a tandem loaned by JD Cycles of Ilkley, but we were hooked. No inequality of fitness mattered and we had found something to do together which doesn’t wake the neighbours! JDs offered practical advice and built us a great bike, based on a Dawes frame and including front and rear racks for touring.

That was over two years ago and we wondered then whether the front racks would ever be used. Our regular outings are 35 miles and our maximum 100 miles on a charity run. Although we joined the Tandem Club, we have preferred to venture out alone and would never wish to feel we were holding others back.

We did however want to set ourself a goal, and having always loved France, decided to see if we could cycle from the Channel to the Med. Our son was going away with School in July, so (against most advice) July it had to be!

The Route

St Malo to Nice via the Auvergne, Ardeche and Provence: a distance of 831 miles over a period of 15 days.

The equipment:
Dawes frame tandem built by John and Ruth at JD Cycles in Ilkley. 2 v brakes and rear hydraulic disc (hope mini with enlarged disc and uprgraded steel braided hose). Shwarlbe marathon tyres. Altura back panniers, Ortlieb waterproof front panniers.

The weather:
Terrible for the first week: cold rain and gale force headwinds (those who watched the Tour de France will know!) changing overnight from 13% to 39%c in the Ardeche.

Overnight ferry Portsmoth to St Malo. Jet2 plane from Nice to Leeds/Bradford.

None – not even a puncture despite tarmac, rough gravel and worse (must say something for the Marathon tyres and the quality of JD’s bike building!)

70 miles in pleasant sunshine on the first day gave us little clue as to what was to come. Northern France was about to suffer its worse July for years. How could wind from the south be so cold? We were wearing every layer we had brought and still making for a hot chocolate cafe stop rather more often than our bladders would have liked. The headwind made progress very slow even on the flat: what would the Massif Centrale be like?!

Steep’ was the answer. Inclines no worse than many in the Yorkshire Dales but with rather more baggage than usual and a stomach full of local wine and half the cheeseboard, our progress was not particulary fast. Furthermore, our expectation of an increasing feeling of fitness was not being realised. Nor was our hope of a lean tanned look. Regular patisseries successfully fought off any weight loss and rust is just not the same as a summer bronzing.

But the rewards were fantastic. Quiet roads and villages (some not even marked on most maps) with wonderful restaurants (and amazing value, particularly at lunchtime) and friendly family hotels. Chateaux and medieval walled towns with barely a tourist in site, panoramic picnic sites and stunning gorges. Sun flowers and corn fields, forests and heathland: the variety was endless.

There was Interest in the bike and encouragement for our trip everywhere we went, with careful inspection of the componetry, especially the brakes (an issue for heated debate both sides of the channel!). In fact our upgraded brakes behaved impeccably despite scepticism from two club members with a drag brake we met in the Allier Gorge.We saw one other tandem near the Loire Valley, but few other tourers of any nationality.

Near Le Mont Dore, we climbed to 1400 metres in heavy rain and mist …

(the picture proves it!)

... but then descended into clearer weather. Soon the rivers started to run towards the Med instead of the Atlantic, and after descending to 300 metres, the weather changed overnight from 13% to 39%c. Our fleeces were never seen again and our bike became even heavier as we carried a further 3 litres of water to the 2 1/2 litres carried in our usual bottles. At times we needed every drop between shops!

With the hot weather came the luxury of a swim at the end of the day. We found that hotels with a pool were common and inexpensive and our route was altered a little to accommodate the position of the next suitable overnight stop. Good wine and great food continued to be a feature of the trip, including peaches, watermelon and apricots from local growers selling on the roadside. We wonder whether our water bottles will ever stop smelling of peach juice!


We had allowed a couple of days for breakdowns or other mishaps. Suddenly we were within striking distance of Nice, and 3 days before our booked flight. Should be tour the region or soak up the sun? Being practical (and perhaps a little homesick despite the great holiday), we opted instead to fly home early. Jet2 changed the flights and accommodated the tandem without fuss.

We thought that might be enough for a while! But perhaps you have spotted us on our usual trip out to Burnsall in the Dales. If it was you who saw us on a tandem in Marie Curie colours (blue with daffodils), looking redfaced and out of breath on a Yorkshire hill, you will at least know that although we may not be the fastest 4 pedals on the road, we reckon we have at least one conquest carved on the seatpost!

Patrick Walker


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