Ride Until You’re Completely Chateau’d – Roy Booth
More ambitious plans for trips further afield having gone awry, last year the RCC trip to see the Tour de France was reduced to myself, Russell, Jon and Laura Airey, and to the modest journey 200 miles down from Caen to the Loire Valley, to do some cycling – get this, surely some mistake? – on the flat, and to intercept the Tour on stages 2, 3, 5 and 6.
I’d opted for Chinon, a mediaeval town midway between tour finishes at Loudon and Tours. Russ and I were first on site (August 1st), Jon and Laura arrived later, having driven from the Chunnel. Our first active day was Sunday, when we set off through the vineyards of Chinon to circle through Richlieu to Loudon. This was a curious day to be spectating: it was the European championship final that evening, and France was collectively saving itself. Rather mixed weather, so we waited in a café for the Tour’s arrival: a full bunch, with the sprinter’s teams setting up Steels for his win (everyone dashed back inside to catch the finish on the box). In much better weather we returned to camp.
That evening I initiated going into town to see the football and sample the atmosphere: and, amazingly, Chinon managed to produce fighting in the streets between members of its ethnic population. Everything removable was stolen off my bike before I realised I’d better go out and look after it (clutching my Basso amid a crowd of shirtless and bleeding Algerians). After they had gone, Russell, Jon and Laura came down the street, and we opted to return to a café back across the bridge to the campsite. We found when we came to the bridge that the Algerians, perhaps quarrelling by now about my mini-pump, computer, tubes and tyre levers, had been throwing one another off the bridge (maybe 30 feet into a couple of feet of water).
Getting past all this fun, I was surprised to find on the far side of the bridge a far superior mini-pump, stolen and lost by the same set of combatants. So I felt a) lucky to have a bicycle left at all, and b) partly recompensed for losses. At the café, France’s golden-goal victory prompted insane scenes of youths revving up little motards still on their stands, and then rocking backwards and forwards so that the rear tyre burned rubber. If a tyre had really got traction, it would have been someone else in the river. These sounds of rejoicing went on till late. An unusually exciting evening! Monday we set off to see the tour leave Loudon, the week’s one puncture giving me a chance to try my ‘new’ pump. We entered Loudon via a side street where the publicity caravan was assembling. I sat in one of the buggies, collected some freebies, and got us all a Maison de Café caffeine boost, gratuit.
Roy test-drives his new “euro-motor”
Meanwhile, Russell had foundund the double object of his most overt fantasies: one of the motor bike girls tending her four stroke. The left file of this squad of sizzling crumpet had had to swerve round his tongue (which was lying half way across the road) on the day before. As usual, I set him up with the requisite idiom in which to address himself to mademoiselle: ‘Pouvez-vous enlever votre soutien-gorge pour mon photograph, s’il vous-plait?’ But he seemed to lack confidence in his pronunciation, which was a pity, missing him a great chance to score (or be scored).
After this, we ran into Gerry and Shirley Bryant, John Simpson and his wife, and we swapped gossip and watched the riders sign on, with David Millar in yellow. The morning was only spoiled by falling in with some ghastly old blazer who claimed to run Audax UK, and his indefatigable spouse. She gave us a recital of how many kilometres she had done this year: being caught in her civvies by English cyclists triggering this attempt to impress upon us that we were not fit to be considered cyclists at all. Our way back from Loudon involved a blazingly hot ride to Fontrevaud Abbey, and our first big cultural visit: Richard, Coeur de Lion was buried here, and Henry II. We deferred on the cultural stuff, and went for a good (late) lunch, Jon opting for the ‘Ram Ham’ baguette offered by the menu. Hope it worked, Jon.
On this visit, I managed to escape the guided tour, and was able to lead the other trio to all the best bits, inexplicably left out by the guide. The ride back was pleasant, and featured one of my rare sprint victories at the Chinon town sign. This night, it rained.
On Tuesday, then, with rain still a threat, the two R’s left town by bike, finding an amazingly steep hill to do so, while Jon and Laura opted for their car. After a grand crème at Usse, Russell and I got drenched in about 50 metres, and were fortunate to take time out in a leaky but opportune bus shelter. After this, we cycled along the levee of the Loire as far as the chateau of Villandry, famous for its formal gardens. The weather varied wildly: I looked out of one window at rain lashing the gardens, went round a corner to the next to see the sun shining. Jon and Laura had joined us; and our next meeting with them was at Azay-le-Rideau, another marvellous chateau, surrounded by water. A café in the town square gave us chance to take in the TTT, though four teenage French girls subjected us to a lung-tickling fug of Gauloises as we watched. Russell and I then had 19 kilometres of dead straight road, up-and-down, and direct into a strong wind, to round off the day in manly fashion.
Wednesday was our ride to Saumur, with a halt on route to take in (it is true) a troglodytic wind mill which I imagined to have been built by a medieval absurdist. On the run in to Saumur, as the chaps dithered, Laura attacked and left us all for dead at the town sign: Jon took most sprints by a nose from Russell, having advantages that way; Laura and I one each. A grand crème to celebrate this excellent arrival in town gave me chance to read the English version of the town guide (this is a verbatim quote): “Really friendly this Place St Pierre! … tourists and Saumurois alike enjoy getting together in the oldest district of the city. It’s a bastion of good living where lovers of fresh local products lounge about on sunny terraces…”
I was on the look out for the fresh local products, and keenly anticipating getting together, and lounging about afterwards, but the others made me visit Saumur Chateau, with one of those guided visits where they lock you in the room until they have made you admire every objet d’art. Escaping this, we went to the most peculiar café you can imagine, in the suburb of Bagneux: the back garden of the café being taken over by a huge megalithic chambered passage-grave, which just happened to have been there first. A strange place to have a beer.
Back at camp, Russell and I hogged on a vast chilli. I have in the past catered for 7 or 8 people on these trips, and didn’t always seem to have adjusted to the lower number. Russell and I were taking on five course meals, groaning comically – plus wine by the mug full. Life at camp featured an excellent view of the castle across the river, but conversation often sounded like one of those aerial warfare movies: ‘Mossies high at 12 o’ clock … coming in … scramble … ride-leader, he’s on your tail! … got him! … Aaargh, I’m hit!'(etc)
Thursday was a longer ride into Tours, riding the Loire levee into the city. We lowered a welcome beer in the famous Place Plumereau, and walked round the old town. I was riding all week in my old SPD shoes, which I usually find too flexible, but they were proving fine for our flat terrain, easy pace and high proportion of cultural tourism. The others acquired, day by day, flip-flops at 19 francs – each day set off with a visit to the shoe shop. Approaching Tours Cathedral Russell flip-flopped his way through a multiple pile of pooh… Besides this misfortune, the sun was so oppressively hot, that we opted to leave the town centre, and go back out to a riverside village, Savonnieres, to wait for the Tour. Russell, as usual, took out his flip-flops from his fanny-pack: he had carefully stuck them together with earlier residues, sole to sole; he now unpeeled them like someone checking the contents of a dodgy sandwich. (Sorry, Russell, it is no good protesting: I watched you do this!) Savonnieres proved to be a good call: we sat in a PMU bar, watching the Tour until it was a couple of kilometres away, saw the breakaway go past, and then the laggardly peloton, led by Mercatore Uno (why them?) at eight minutes.
Friday reduced the party to Russell and myself. We had a longer ride planned, heading east to intercept the Tour near Esvres, south east of Tours. The tour was just an inducement to riding: we could hardly expect to see any action, with the peloton only ten miles down the road from le depart. We made the rendezvous, and took pictures. Meanwhile, the sky turned pitchy black. We re-mounted to head for cover as thunder rolled: it ended with a sprint to a café in Esvres. If we had been ten seconds later making the shelter of the awning, we’d have been drenched: it was a terrific downpour, watched from comfort. Two ginis later, we were en route again: I started adding in extra miles. We had to repeat the sheltering act again at St Maure de Touraine: this time we were soaked while arriving, exited the café saying ‘A bientot’, and returned further soaked within ten minutes. We finally made a definitive departure, and Russell did tremendous riding all the way back to Chinon, powering into a headwind as I sat on his wheel. At camp, rain started after our first course of eating, so we finished in the car, at least not picque par les moustiques for once. Jon and Laura had left us a couple of bottles of the local appellation controle, so spirits were not damped.
Having looked at Chinon castle all week, Saturday we visited it: really rather good, with underground passageways, and a barbecued spare rib of Jeanne D’Arque in the museum: well, reputedly. After lunch, we remembered that we had bikes, and did a little trip, culminating in a rather disappointing visit to Usse Chateau, which looks like a fairy-tale from outside, but is banal within. We pounded back to Chinon to watch Eric Dekker win one of his stages, and paid our campsite fees ready for early departure: nineteen pounds apiece for the week: on a site with fine facilities and a wonderful view.
The area is easy to reach, and full of interest historically. The rivers are broad and lazy, dotted with gravel banks and spits. Many of the villages feature houses with troglodytic rooms or work areas, dug into the soft local tufa. Everywhere swifts and swallows are nesting or swooping through the skies. The terrain goes up to 80-90 metres, but curiously you sometimes get the impression of being on quite elevated terrain. The river valleys are sometimes kilometres across, with poplar plantations. The curious loop north then south taken by the Tour gave us plenty of real cycling to look at: no real dramas, of course, but the full size first week peloton. We got blasé about it – Caravan publicitaire? Seen it, done that, we’ll go out to see the riders when we hear them coming down the street.
Maybe next year it will be back to the mountains, and maybe next year I will let Laura have her tyre levers back…