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Cycle - The Magazine of The Cycle Touring Club: The Loire with The Chain Gang

By: Tim Hughes, Editor, CTC Magazine

It was near the end of the first day's ride that we looked at each other and thought: This might well be dangerous: this is Decadence - and we could quite get to like it. We were sitting in the late afternoon, late September, sun outside a bar in Vendôme - and outside a recent Kronenbourg apiece. We were just passing a pleasant half hour relaxing with a new set of friends before setting off the few hundred metres to our overnight hotel.
You see, our usual holidays are on bikes - of course! - but normally the weeks before each one would have seen us poring over maps, sorting out bookings, checking the bikes. This time we'd merely got on Eurostar at Waterloo in the morning, switched to a TGV at Lille and streaked down to Tours to be picked up in early afternoon for the last few km to Amboise, the starting point our week's tour of the Loire valley with tour company The Chain Gang.

After introductions over a drink it took perhaps half an hour for us all to choose the bikes that were to carry us for the week - Graham Weigh touring bikes (oddly, to us, without mudguards) or Trek hybrids according to taste - and have them set up to our dimensions. This left us an hour or two to wander round the town and its castle before what was to become the nightly highlight: dinner, with a chance to further our practical research into the region's wines. Chain Gang pick mostly family-run two-star hotels, generally small enough to be intimate, with a local reputation for good food.

Dinner also gave us the chance to find out something about our party. Chain Gang do not expect their participants to be hardened cyclists, rather people who would like to explore an area (and, it has to be said, its wines) relatively gently by bike.

They also advertise the tours in magazines well outside the cycling world. So our mixed bag had three doctors, a planner, a solicitor, a human resources manager, an accountant, a site services manager, a graphic designer, and a couple of journalists - plus our leader, Nic, who had spent the summer researching and leading these trips: This mix of talent meant that there wasn't much talk about sprocket sizes and groupsets: as one of the doctors pointed out, apart from lacking a camera crew, we had all you would need to produce a TV medical soap.

Our group, at a dozen, was about average in size; what wasn't at all average but very encouraging in a pastime that sadly often seems to like to project a wholly misleading macho image was that eight of them were women - including three who'd been on these trips before.

A dally pattern soon developed. First the morning ritual of sorting out our baggage into a small pile to take with us on the bike each day (bags provided) and a much larger 'not wanted on the voyage' pile which the organisers were to have carried on to the next night's stop.

This was followed by breakfast and the ceremonial marking of the day's route on the IGN 1:100 000 maps provided - at around 35-40 miles, daily mileages were relatively long for a Chain Gang tour. The riding pattern was informal, with people free to make their own way, on the 'official' route or off it. As it happened, our group ended up riding pretty well together nearly all the time, making the most of Nick's skillfully devised route, largely on delightful and very minor roads. So that's why he'd been poring over those blue-covered 1:25 000 maps!

Lunch, too, was very informal, even democratic, with a vote for picnics on fine days and little restaurants on others, or often a mix of the two. The one thing nobody had any control over was the weather, and ours turned out pretty mixed - including the day it dramatically fell below minimum picnic standard on a bleak open stretch and we crowded into a little bar in Champigny-en-Beauce.

No problem, as we've always found in rural France: bring your food in, buy a drink, take a break from the rain. That afternoon was redeemed by sunshine in Blois and a dramatic sunset rainbow at our overnight stop, facing the rather over-the-top château at Chambord in pretty well the only big hotel of the trip.

Although the trip is billed as the Loire valley, several other of France's great rivers contributed their bit: Loir (without the 'e', at Vendôme), Cher (straddled by the château at Chenonceaux). Indre (which has the captivating little château of Azay-le-Rideau set in one arm of it) and Vienne, which runs close under the town of Chinon. The Loire Itself was at its late summer low. In many places little more than a fan of small streams between ochre sandbanks, each with its resident heron. In the other river valleys, poplars with just a hint of the start of autumn paraded the French love affair with alignments of trees.

Crossing between these valleys on grey days did not, it must be conceded, rank as the supreme highlight of a lifetime's cycling experiences. You didn't need much imagination to see how the rolling plains, golden with wheat and blazing with sunflowers, must have looked before the harvest. Now, however, fallow fields and blackened sunflower seed heads awaiting their oily fate did little to cheer the lowering skies. But then, you can't win them all and there was a certain grim grandeur in the tall sky with tts sombre scurrying clouds.

(Maybe this weather thing is in any case all our fault: we do seem to have this effect on places. There was the Easter when we flooded Montbrun-les-Banns in Provence, and the two separate February Lake District trips when we inundated the Eden valley on one and made Ullswater rise six feet on the other. To say nothing of the times we brought unseasonal sleet to midsummer Norway and the monsoon to Cheshire. Now I wonder if we could approach tourist offices to pay us to stay away...).

But that's a digression, for above all the Loire valley means châteaux. Blois, Chambord, Cheverny, Fougères, Chenonceau, Villandry, Ussé, Azay, Chinon: what a roll-call of magnificent piles! By the time three or four days had gone by we'd have been flat on our backs with château-fatigue if we'd done the lot. We visited some of them, of course, but often we were content to let the gentle river-valley scenery roll by and just appreciate the magnificent settings of these opulent architectural treasures. It made quite a change on the very damp rest-day near Chenonceau to drop into the Château de Nitray to see the first stages in the vinification of the autumn's vendange - and to sample and take away some of the year before's. I'm not sure that those tall thermostatically-controlled stainless steel tanks are altogether authentically eighteenth-century, though.

Is it just me, or do holidays always seem to accelerate? After a couple of packed days you think: 'Surely it wasn't only the day before yesterday that we set out'. Then the rest of the week speeds by faster and faster in what seems half the time. So it felt all too soon that we were facing the last long climb up from the last leisurely lunch in Chinon to the last memorable dinner and evening at Montreuil-Bellay. The rather shaky and out-of-focus snaps in the wine-cellar as midnight struck - and on an auto-everything camera at that - prove it was memorable, even if memory itself is a bit hazy on the topic.

Then on the final morning we said goodbye to our borrowed bikes for the last time to be whisked back to the wonders of near-21st century travel and the workaday world. Even a dozen years ago would we ever have thought it might one day be possible to catch a train at Tours at 10.23 and be back at Waterloo for the final farewells by 2.43 in the afternoon? And, despite our misgivings, it really was a pleasure to have everything done for you for a change!

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