The Tour Of France, done too!

Day 300, Valence, 18.006 km

Valence – Valence. 250 days later. Arrival by the South this time to complete the loop. Some of you might note that the north-western quarter of France was a little neglected. May the Bretons and the Normans forgive me, but COVID… If you have any complaints, please contact the Customer Service at 0800-1000-1000, they will be happy to register your request… This omission aside, I have completed my Tour de La France. All I have to do now is go back down south and then head for Italy!

The Tour

I’ve been on a rather slow pace these last few days: more nights in a bed than in a tent, more meals prepared with love by my hosts than dishes cooked on my camping-stove, more aperitifs, more beer and a little less cycling. But mostly more friends and family, so I won’t complain. But when I ride my bike, I choose the right conditions: wind, rain, cold, all the right things! But since I sleep more often in dry conditions, it’s quite bearable.

Weekend in Toulouse, I have time to see again all the people I saw during my visit in December and even to add some new faces! Good discussions, and always as much pleasure to see the pink city again. A terrace inauguration too, with a weekend with friends like in the good old days…

A crazy game of Cap’s
The inauguration team!

I set off again on Sunday afternoon, under a slightly grey sky and I follow the Canal du Midi. A short passage along the Supaéro campus, it brings back some emotional memories of endless walks after crazy parties, of little Saturday morning jogging sessions or of the walking trips to the Bikini… These student years… Then it’s the unknown. An asphalt road, plane trees, and some wind. A lot of wind. From the front of course. And the plane trees don’t really protect me from it. I’m struggling. I wanted to move forward to have a small stage the next day, but I finally pitch the tent just after Castelnaudary, not even 90 km after the start, along the canal, as the rain starts to fall. A little old man passing by tells me: « It’s hard! » Thank you sir…

Nice Campus!
Castelnaudary, all gray…

The night is rather calm in the end, and I am even dry the next morning. The hail storms must have stayed over Toulouse. I talk with some morning walkers, in particular with a retired military man, that we will call Chief Warrant Officer Fisherman for the needs of the narration, who talks to me for 20 minutes about doping in cycling. Who asks me « What the hell are you smoking? » with his nice south-western accent when I tell him I’m thinking of going for a ride in the Alps on my way to Italy, who exclaims « But you’re a top-level sportsman!  » when I reply that I have just climbed the Tourmalet, and who concludes with a magnificent « Ingculé » (the closest word in English would be M*th*rf*ck*r) when I tell him that I have planned to ride 140 km for the day. Thank you Chief Warrant Officer Fisherman, you made my morning! I ride along the canal to Carcassonne and then the road, with the wind at my back, through the vineyards, to Argeliers to meet Olivier, one of the cyclists’ Uncles!

Carcassonne and its medieval city
Vineyards, and more vineyards

Uncle and nephew continue to follow the Canal du Midi, until Béziers, even if sometimes we are more on a muddy hiking path than on a bicycle path, and I take advantage of my uncle’s encyclopedic knowledge to learn more about what is offered to us: The tunnel for the Malpas canal, the pond of Montady, the 9 locks and the canal bridge in Béziers among others. Then we follow a national road, and it starts to rain cats and dogs, which gives me less opportunity to enjoy the above-mentioned knowledge. But the hot shower at the arrival and the meal which follows are only more pleasant…

The canal tunnel
The canal bridge

The bed is so comfortable and the breakfast so full that I manage to take off only around 11 am. Towards the Cévennes now. A lot of wind but no rain. And a nice climb towards the Aigoual mountain which is coming. I’m so excited that I make a small detour to see the Pic Saint-Loup a little closer (not too much either). Then I ride along the Hérault river, which is very high and carries a lot of branches: it rained a lot these last days but for me it’s rather the sun that dominates. I find a nice bike path, which between tunnels and bridges avoids me a lot of climbing. Unfortunately, the GPS is convinced that all the tunnels are passable, even those with a « Danger, no access » sign. I go through the first one, but not the second, and I have to go over the mountain…

The Hérault

I then find the gorges of the Hérault, and start the ascent of the mount Aigoual. 26 km. Even at 4% my legs hurt. Especially since the wind doesn’t help. Well, not always. The road is winding, so I find myself rowing like a galley slave on 2% slopes or jumping like a goat when the climb is around 10%. Interesting. But the view is magnificent, especially since I can appreciate it slowly as the road rises and my eyes look further and further down the valley. And waterfalls. All along the road, on the valley walls, in front, behind, everywhere. A delight. On the other hand, I « pay » for my late departure and at about 8:50 pm, as the day (and the rain) starts to fall, as the temperature slowly goes under 4°, as the wind increases in violence, I decide to stop believing that I will arrive at the top of the ascent before the night and to find a corner in the forest to sleep.

Cold, cold night. Despite the socks I kept on, I feel like I have ice cubes instead of feet. And that I slept only 3 hours. In addition I have the visit of a field mouse which made its way to the interior of my tent with its teeth! We look at each other right in the eyes. Then it seems to decide that it’s safer to go back to where it came from… Now I’ve got an extra airing in the tent… I finish the ascent of the mount Aigoual and I tell myself that I did well to wait until daytime to reach the summit: it would have been a pity not to take advantage of the view…

I then take the road to Florac. A sign announces « Difficult and dangerous road ». Funny. A beautiful descent that winds up the side of the mountain, with the Tornon below, little moments of fear when I take my eyes off the road a little too long to look at the landscape, and the sun that instantly makes me forget the coldness of the night… I take a little break for food at the bakery in Florac, and after having gobbled up a quiche, a pain au chocolat, a slice of flan and something with almonds, I set off into the gorges of the Gardon d’Alès. I stay on the national road, I decided to stop following the misguided advice of the GPS. The road is pleasant, few cars, another good choice for Mr Lunet!

Arrival at Florac
Nice view from the N106

Then comes the moment when I have to leave the valley. After 500m on a tarred road I find myself on a hiking trail. It’s fun. Especially for the guy who decided to stop following its GPS silly directions. But well, it’s been a long time since I climbed a pass on a trail. I laugh. The road is full of stones, I slip, I skid, I find myself in the mud, I laugh less but I advance. Then comes the top of the pass and its castle. I rejoice thinking that I am back on the road and that I will never leave it. In fact no, the trail is back a few kilometers later. Then the forest. Then the path disappears. Then I am lost. I don’t laugh anymore. I try to follow the blue track on my phone but there are only trees and a 45° slope in front of me. And more trees lying across the slope. And brambles. I spend 20 minutes going in circles and wondering where to go. I spot a path on the map that seems to be downhill. I hold back Jay who wants to throw himself down the slope and into all the trees in his path. I end up taking off the bags and carrying the bike the last 500 meters. I lost a good hour but I’m back on a road… Good old GPS

The castle of Portes
The trail has disappeared

I decide not to leave the road anymore, even if it means making detours and climbing more passes than necessary (I’m already at 6 for the day!). In the end, I probably took the shortest and fastest way, the flattest too, and I arrive at Xavier and Marie’s house in time to start the aperitif, to taste the pizzas and to tell some of my silly adventures to Alice…

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, Raphaël joins me to ride to Valence. A little bit windy but on the flat, along the Rhône river, in the sun. A perfect day for a good bike ride. I even entrust him Jay for the second half of the trip, I feel like flying with his light road bike… And we arrive in Valence, where (almost) everything started…

Jay runs away…

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