Nov 2004
The Pyrénées and, Oh Yes,
the Tour de France too
by Sheridan Bentson
photos by John Bentson

My guilty confession is that watching Lance earn his first 2004 TDF stage win on the Plateau de Beille was not the high point of the day. The high point was riding the wild and gorgeous Route des Corniches to Les Cabannes, the village at the base of the road to Plateau de Beille. That crazy route was so narrow and closed that we couldn't even get a reasonable picture until we were descending into Les Cabannes.

We had settled into Tarascon-sur-Ariège a few days before, after flying to Paris and taking the train south, bikes in hand. For four days, we stayed in a gîte (a French B&B), a few kilometers outside of the charming little village of Tarascon, which is a French vacation town. As many rural gîtes, this one was a gigantic ancient manor/farm house, with original huge wooden beams and tiled floors. Our enormous room was very slightly below ground level, and the cat rather liked to jump in the window in the morning. A few of the evenings, we joined the other gîte guests for dinner in the gracious old dining room, eating classic country fare made from fresh local produce. The dishes are sometimes items you might not order, but Table d'Hôte is always interesting and surprisingly delicious. And social! The people were only politely interested in the TDF - they were more excited about politics, soccer, the state of the local economy, and local history.

The bicycle riding in the Ariège area is spectacular, and used a great deal by aspiring racers. One of our best rides was up Col du Port – beautiful, wide-open mountains, inhabited mostly by free-range cows, but loaded with riders. It's a training route! The full cycle over the Col and around back to Tarascon is about 100 kilometers, with maybe 2000 meters climb.

We were there for Bastille Day, and the celebrations were great fun. Starting about 10:00 PM, the town lit up. There were fireworks from the Tour du Castella – all that's left of the 14th century castle looming on a hill over the town - and then a succession of bands and singers, with dancing in the public square on into the night. We left a bit after midnight, and the party was rolling on.

And then there was the TDF. Plateau de Beille is gentler and easier to ride than l'Alpe d'Huez, but it's still quite a climb. The road does not have much roadside space, so we eventually climbed up on a wall and settled there – although we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what those near-by Basques were saying to us. We had been worried that les Basques would be out of control, but they had lost all their champions and were uncommonly quiet, politely cheering every rider of every nationality. A good year to be in the Pyrénées!

After the TDF, we took a train to Cahors, in the Dordogne region. We biked to and from Figeac along the Lot and Célé rivers, pausing to see underground caverns and ancient cave paintings, and ate a good deal of fois gras. Less biking and more eating, with lots of art and history– this has its charms too.

Route des Corniches

Tarascon gîte

Col du Port

Church in the Col







Just the Facts:
We arrange our own self-contained trips, rather than taking a tour. We fly to a major city (often Paris ) and take a train (with wagon à vélo) to a starting point. Then we bike our own route, usually about 1000 kilometers in about 10 days of riding, and train back to Paris. I carry less than 10 pounds, John carries about 15 pounds. We stay in gîtes ( and eat in the local restaurant our hostess suggests, which is usually terrific. Sometimes the gîte offers Table d'Hôte, which is always quite inexpensive. The gîtes average about $50/night, and we like to eat well, so our total costs for accommodations, food, trains, and attraction-entries is about $100 per day per person.

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