Recently a friend of mine, Mike Pattenden, spent a week in the Loire Valley. Anybody who’s cycled with us this year will have a water bottle designed by Mike’s wife – so too our brochure. He took the chance to do a bit of cycling, and was good enough to write about his experience. He makes a sly dig at me, because that’s the kind of guy he is, and of course there’s plenty I could say about him – but I won’t. I’m better than that.
Here’s what Mike has to say about Saumur and the Loire Valley.
Saumur might just be the bike capital of the world.
It certainly felt like it in early August when I rode into town to be confronted by several hundred cyclists being waved through the traffic by marshals. Turns out I had stumbled across the 70th Semaine Federale Internationale de Cyclotourisme.
Festival of two wheels aside, there cannot surely be a more bike-friendly place in the world, or anywhere with more Lycra consistently on display, than Saumur. In summer it is buzzing with ‘cyclotouristes’ meandering through its back streets and along the banks of the Loire.
To say it is cycle-friendly is an understatement. There are miles of cycle lanes and when these run out, road signs simply direct you on to the pavement. There are even discounts in shops and a ‘menu cyclotouriste’ on offer in some restaurants. On closer inspection an entrée of carbo gel followed by a protein bar and a pichet of Isotonic drink were misplaced – they just like to make you feel at home.
And just to underline their love affair with the bike, the locals have erected ‘bikumonts’ everywhere, quirky two-wheel tributes using old machines painted in bright colours or decorated with flowers. They’re everywhere, especially on roundabouts, but also in shop windows, on buildings and even hanging above the entrance of the huge sparkling wine producer Gratien & Mayer on the hill above the south river bank.
I know all this because I spent a week touring the area with my family. Actually, if I’m accurate, without them. Let me explain.
It can be quite wearying maintaining a friendship with Chain Gang owner Bernard Dugdale – he’s such a know-all for a start. And he’s also more logical than Spock. In fact, if I’m brutally honest, our friendship has one solitary perk – access to his sleek Trek road bikes. Last year I helped myself to one in the Dordogne and enjoyed some stunning rides through the countryside. This year I managed to work the trick again when my wife foolishly expressed an interest in the Loire – where Bernard just happens to run another of his marvellous tours.
The way it works is I liberate a bike from his lock-up, sneak it back to my campsite, then stumble out of bed at about 6am every day for the rest of the week and freewheel through the countryside. Best of all no family time is lost. In fact they are invariably still in their pyjamas when I rematerialise covered in sweat and grime and bearing fresh croissants, so it dovetails perfectly.
This year I was so excited on my first day in the saddle I got carried away and took off west towards Langeais, crossed the Loire towards the stunning gardens of Villandry and back through the forest of Chinon on a Roman road which was so slick and black I shot home like an express train. My odometer read 98km by the time I returned but no damage was done – they were all still in bed.
I scaled back on Day Two with a 67k jaunt that took me from north to south bank past the chateau of Montsoreau, over the Vienne and on back roads into charming Chinon and, lastly, back through Saumur itself. The return leg along the south bank is a treat, dotted with local wine producers including one, Domaine Filliatreau, cut impressively into the hillside.
The third ride took me west out of Saumur along the Loire’s quieter banks past a priory and out as far as pretty Gennes then inland to Doué-La-Fontaine past two troglodyte villages and a cêpe depot with the most alluring aroma I have ever smelt coming from a factory. Doué-La-Fontaine, by the way, has a fine zoo built in a disused Seventeenth Century quarry. If you can time your visit with the vulture feeding in the afternoon you’ll enjoy a treat – they are cartoonishly evil.
The road back into Saumur was featureless and busy even at 9am but it was downhill all the way and I tore along gleefully at 40kph for large stretches. In total it was about 70km, not that much of a stretch – however I’d foolishly made an agreement with the kids that we could hire canoes that afternoon. A 15k journey into a stiff headwind along the Vienne from L’Ile Bouchard to Chinon turned into an endurance test that left me feeling like Bogart struggling down the Congo in The African Queen. And to think the journey might have been avoided had Scarlett (9) not been reassured there were no sharks in the river after becoming convinced she had spotted a fin the previous day.
I have to hold my hand up and say I wussed out of the Day Four’s ride for which I’d planned to head on a loop west and north. I missed my alarm call. OK, that’s a lie – I ignored it. So my last job was to return the bike to its rightful place. I took the long way round to the hotel, over a narrow pontoon so I could tour into Saumur from the east once again and photograph some of those bikumonts with which I had developed a worrying obsession.
As I made my way along the road the door of an old cottage opened and a small elderly man dressed in cycle shorts and jersey wheeled out a vintage Peugeot. His wife gave him a wave as he climbed aboard and disappeared towards the setting sun feeling like he was sixteen not sixty. One day that will be me – I hope it happens somewhere as beautiful as Saumur.