The Observer: Pedal Pushers
By Kathryn Holliday
That was the best two hours of my life, said my friend Robert as he threw himself onto the beach, leaving me to drag the canoe out of the river. We had just spent two hours messing about on the Dordogne, the only people on the 12km stretch from Meyronnes to Souillac, enjoying the silence and watching kingfishers and herons dive-bombing into the water.
Six days earlier, when we arrived in Les Eyzies to join The Chain Gang Cycling Tour of the Dordogne, even a nice time had seemed unlikely. You have chosen, you must remind yourself, to spend a week on a bicycle, travelling up to 70km a day in the company of complete strangers. It is this last self-inflicted punishment that strikes you most clearly on arrival, and then later over supper, a strained affair where everyone is terribly polite (and busily sizing each other up). Drinking a lot of the local wine seems the best idea to get you through it.
The following morning , I put as much as I could into the panniers, then unpacked and packed them rather more sensibly - spare T-shirt, towel, swimsuit, wash kit, one set of clean clothes, warm jumper. Then I was fitted for my bike. These are touring bikes with mountain-bike gears (so those who don't cycle regularly can make it up the hills). They are a dream, smooth and responsive.
By the time we set off for Le Bugue, to the south of Les Eyzies, it was 11.15 and the weather was glorious, sunny but not too warm - perfect for cycling. The pace was very gentle, the road mercifully quiet (so much so that we could cycle three abreast) and the scenery already spectacular.
The Chain Gang Tour joins the Dordogne at Limeuil, at about lunchtime on the first day, which makes it the perfect place to stop and idle, or eat in a riverside - and very French - restaurant. Robert and I took a picnic - fresh bread, hunks of local Cantal cheese, delicious sun-ripened tomatoes - and sat on the river bank. Well, I did. Robert cycled up the (very steep) hill to the village centre to look at the buildings: he is a town planner, so perhaps that explains it.
Later, we set off on our own with a map and an X marking the spot where we would be staying that evening. This set the pattern for the week. We would catch up with the rest of the group at lunch (there were six of us including the guide), and again at the hotel in the evening, but otherwise we cycled by ourselves, sometimes taking Robert's so-called short-cuts.
This was a mistake, and led to heart - and leg - ache. One time, when we'd reached a dead end after cycling for several tens of kilometres and had set off down another gravel path, we came across an elderly French couple walking their dog.
'Courage!' they yelled after us. They knew about the 1 in 2 ahead, which even Robert, who cycles 80km before Sunday breakfast - for fun - couldn't manage. (It was only on Eurostar, going home, that he conceded that the routes planned by The Chain Gang were the wisest, and most peaceful.)
On the first day, we arrived in Beynac, the evening resting place, in smug advance of the others, so cycled up to the castle and found a bar. The day had been surprisingly fun: no punctures, no crashes, nobody walking up the formidable hills (keep your head down and imagine the road is flat, whatever the gradient), and lots of sunshine. But we knew there was another supper to endure. Yet weirdly, extraordinarily, one day in the saddle had broken the ice. We had a common interest, a sense of superiority over these other British visitors who tour the Dordogne by car, a desire to pat each other on the back. And so we spent this (and almost every other) evening talking about the day: the cycling, the sights, the beauty of the river. Cynics might mock, but these were topics we never tired of.
And we discussed the menu. Ris d'Agneau used up more or less a whole evening. (It was finally decided it was saliva glands.) Then there are the variations on the theme of goose; ditto duck; the cost of truffles and whether a sliver with scrambled eggs as a starter really justifies an enormous number of francs; and how much food a day's cycling allows you in the calorie stakes: Bernard, our guide, assured us we had earned only one cream cake each day.
The tour is circular, staring and finishing in Les Eyzies and travelling east along the Dordogne as far as Sarlat-la-Caneda, the finest medieval town in France. It takes in many celebrated Périgord spots: Domme, one of the best preserved Bastide towns; Rocamadour, which hangs on the edge of the cliff over the Alzou gorge, defying gravity; the many prehistoric sites, including the spectacular caves in Les Eyzies; and St Céré, where, according to Robert, we lunched in 'the most perfect place in the world'.
It is an almost perfect route, and the only time I had any doubts was on the Thursday, when we cycled from Meyronnes to Sarlat. I would have preferred to spend an extra night in the hotel in Meyronnes, which had a pool and from where we did the canoeing. We could have swum, canoed some more, read, maybe even cycled without panniers. Instead we found ourselves on a busy dual carriageway into Sarlat which, even out of season, was packed with tourists - and a crew making a film of Cinderella. Everybody we met had something to do with it - the Fairy Godmother even served us breakfast.
By this stage of the week, I had no desire to see people, or look at buildings, or go to shops, I was content just to be on my bike; to praise the landscape, to have the space to do what Stéphane, our second guide, charmingly called 'big thinking'.