Published by Lyn on 28 April 2012
Nancy Brook is author of Cycling, Wine, And Men: A Midlife Tour de France, which catalogues her 700-mile ride from Bordeaux to the Alps
It had been a lifelong dream for you to cycle in France. From reading your book, it seems the trip lived up to your expectations...
I'd wanted to visit France for more than 25 years, and life always seemed to get in the way. As a single parent responsible for raising my daughter, spending so much on a trip to France seemed frivolous and decadent. Saying “yes” to visiting France meant saying “yes” to myself.
The actual experience of visiting France went beyond anything I could have imagined and it far surpassed my expectations. The villages I visited were astonishingly rich in history, the French people gracious and friendly, and the countryside was breathtaking.
What was your first impression of cycling in France when you started your cycle tour in Bordeaux?
The first thing I noticed were the extensive bike lanes in Bordeaux – the city streets seemed built for biking. I also noticed that French drivers were very courteous to cyclists. Two young men in a car even shouted out, “Tour de France!” as another tour companion and I pedalled by – I didn’t realise at the time but it was the start of the Tour on that day. I found that comment funny and welcoming! In America, drivers can sometimes be rude to cyclists.
The countryside surrounding Bordeaux surprised me. I saw rows of corn, pastures and pine trees, which could have been a scene from the US. As a traveller, it’s probably common to compare what one sees through tourist eyes with what one knows back home.
How had your first impressions changed by the time you reached the summit of Alpe d’Huez two weeks later?
Everything about France was more than I expected. The countryside was beyond beautiful, the villages were living history and the people were warm and friendly. France was an unspoiled paradise. From the vineyards, the river valleys, the cols and finally the Alps, the countryside continued to amaze me. And across all of France, there were flowers everywhere: both in window boxes on people’s houses and growing wild in fields. I'll never forget sunflowers bobbing in the wind, poppies blooming below the Alps, and lavender sweetening the air in Provence.
The villages were treasure troves of architecture, history and legends. It was fun to watch how villages looked different from one part of France to another. And the French people: everywhere I went I was welcomed with open arms. I had a bartender in Bordeaux try to help me with my French, a woman patched me up after a fall, and pétanque players danced for me and let me photograph their game.
What’s your most vivid memory from the trip?
Without a doubt climbing Mont Ventoux. It's such an epic climb, and I'd worked for months to get myself in shape to face the challenge. Reaching the top was a peak experience, not only for digging deep within to accomplish the challenge but also because of the camaraderie I witnessed that day.
Personalised messages of support were chalked on the road for specific riders; other cyclists would give me a thumbs-up or say “Allez!” as I climbed up and they rode back down. There was a young man who rode near me most of the way up – as we neared the summit, he looked at me and said, “We did it!” Mont Ventoux was truly spectacular. I couldn’t believe how much of France I could see from the top. I felt so happy and relieved to have made it; I felt like bursting out in tears!
Beyond the personal accomplishment, the most inspiring part for me was witnessing my tour companion, Ian, reach the summit. He was a sixty-something Aussie who had been told by doctors that he may never walk again, so it was quite a moment to see him climb to the top of Mont Ventoux. My tour companions were so inspired that they broke out in the Australian national cheer: “Aussie, Aussie Aussie, oi, oi, oi!”
You cycled Ventoux with a hangover – I’m guessing you’ve told that story a few times…
Yes, that’s another reason why Ventoux was such an accomplishment for me. The day before the climb, I overindulged in Bastille Day festivities. It started with wine, progressed to sake and was capped off with a mojito. This was a very bad way to prepare for such a tough climb.
I really didn’t think I'd be able to ride when I woke up with a pounding headache and queasy stomach in the morning. Like many things in life, sometimes if we just start, we can face the challenge. So I began my ride on the flats from Avignon to Bédoin thinking if things got really bad, I could always get a ride in the support van. The more I rode, the better I felt.
If you could come back and ride anywhere in France, where would you go?
That’s a challenging question to answer! I really loved so many places in France. The thing about a bike tour is that you don’t get to spend much time getting to know a place and its people, so if I had the opportunity, I’d spend more time in some of the villages I loved. Some of the most memorable places were Saint-Émilion (great wine and macaroons), Conques (an amazing, spiritual place) and Saint-Céré (for the Victor Hugo hotel).
And where would you avoid?
Really, the only time I didn’t enjoy France was riding on busy highways and sleeping in a leaky tent in the rain. I would avoid these situations next time. Other than that, I found France magical.
How did you go about identifying a tour company?
It was a fluke that I found my tour company. I knew I liked wine, so I did a Google search of 'cycling tours Bordeaux'. From the search, I had several options. Some were way too easy, showing riders on fat-tyred bikes and riding plans of 25 miles a day. Others were too vigorous with massive climbing and 80 to 100 miles of daily riding. The tour I found was in between. I also thought that camping across France would give me a better perspective of the countryside more than staying in hotels.
You rode from Bordeaux to the Alps. What made you plump for this southern route rather than opting for a northern route or a north-south itinerary?
Since I had never been to France, I didn’t have much of a plan in considering west-east versus north-south routes. I just thought it would be great to travel through vineyards and ascend some of the famed cycling climbs like Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez.
In your book, Cycling, Wine, and Men, you're quite critical of some of the others in your tour. You thought they missed out on meeting local people and experiencing French culture, which for you was a priority. You described yourself as an outsider in the group. What advice do you have for others looking to book a tour rather than cycle independently?
I think part of my problem with the tour members was the judgemental way I was viewing them. It shouldn’t have mattered to me that they enjoyed their cycling holiday by hanging out with each other versus experiencing French culture. And I also didn’t take the time to get to know my tour companions because I was off doing my own thing. So the reason that I was an outsider was my own lack of connecting with them.
I’d say that booking a tour and cycling independently are both good options, depending on a person’s cycling experience and goals. As a first-time cyclist in a foreign country, I would highly recommend a tour. You won’t have to map a course, lug saddle bags or figure out lodging. For those who have more experience or are more adventurous, I think cycling independently makes sense.
What three items can’t you cycle without?
There are four essentials: camera, water bottle, spare tube, money.