Some of my riding buddies will tell you (if they were listening) that I’ve had this trip on my mind for many years now. I really needed to get my bum on the bike and do something big and hard, and as ‘luck’ would have it, business is slow in August. So, I booked myself a slow train back from Paris, arranged a sofa for a couple of nights up there at Karsten and Sarah’s, and left home one morning to head north.
Oh, one important piece of the puzzle of riding from Nimes to Paris was actually making a route. I did this on Strava, following roads I knew well for the first day, then just choosing the small ones that seemed to go towards Paris. It worked surprisingly well and I never once ended up on a dirt track or super-highway. Instead, I got roads with views like this one…
That’s the Ardèche, at the edge of the Cévennes / Massif Central, that I would have to haul myself up on Day One.
Below was not really intended to demonstrate what I put in my big banana bag, but it serves the purpose in the end. What really happened was that I’d forgotten to apply chamois cream in the morning and of course it was in the deepest part of the pack. Pro Tip: even if you don’t normally use the stuff for riding (I don’t), slap it on hot and heavy if you are going to be in the saddle 8-10 hours a day.
Below is my view from the first night – a large lake near Langogne, on the northern edge of my favorite riding department – Lozère.
Day 1: 158 km, 2162 meters of climbing
I don’t know if you heard about the heat wave we had here a couple of weeks ago, but it disappeared in a dramatic way, just in time for me to have 6C temperatures when I left my lake hotel on Day Two. I had fog, too, which just made this ruined chateau / picnic area all that more atmospheric.
I think by now I’m in the Auvergne region, which is now actually called Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes, because French names didn’t have enough hyphens already. It was the only errant cow I saw on my whole trip. I wonder where she ended up?
When you ride the tiny roads of France you can cross ‘borders’ and not know it, so I was constantly asking people where I was. Below is a village in the Haute Loire. The peloton flew through here in Stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France.
On my very first lunch (the jambon emmental above) I forgot one of my bidons on the table. From that point on I stopped at every fountain I saw.
Each night I stayed at a reasonably-priced hotel and made sure I chose ‘demi-pension’ (half board). The decision was a good one because I never arrived at my destination before 7 pm – just enough time to have a shower, wash my kit and hussle my ass downstairs to dinner. Below is the kind of decent, no-frills hotel you can still find all over La France Profonde.
Day 2: 214 km, 3477 meters of climbing
Note: For those who create routes using Strava, you’ll know that they famously over-estimate elevation. I was a little irritated on Day 2 and 3 to find out this isn’t always the case. I ended up doing 500 meters more than my route told me I was going to do.
Day Three began cold again, but at least it was sunny. 10C and sun is perfect riding weather for me, as long as I don’t stop, which the distances of this trip ensured was the case. Things degenerated after lunch and all afternoon I was riding in driving rain in single digit temperatures. Luckily I’d brought my wool mid-layer Rapha thingy, which gets wet but stays warm, more or less. Here’s a handy tip: if your space is limited, and you aren’t climbing alpine cols, don’t bother with a rain jacket. Nothing keeps you dry on the bike when it’s really coming down.
And some point during this awfulness I was forced to stop and read the sign below. I was crossing the famous Demarcation Line that separated The Occupied Zone and Free France (the parts Germany didn’t care about in the beginning). For the life of me I can’t fathom why Hitler didn’t just beeline to the south. The weather is so much better.
I also rode on one of the many routes that lead to Santiago de Compostella, in far-western Spain. I only met one pilgrim: a quiet French woman enjoying her retirement by walking a couple of months to Spain.
Day 3: 219 km, 2317 meters of climbing
After Day Two the scenery started to get pretty ‘average’ and most of my last day was filled with flat fields, broken up a little by former royal hunting grounds (forests) and a large river or two. It was still pleasant riding on small roads, but I was begging for a hill most of the day. Thankfully, Parisien-Karsten designed the last 60 km of my ride into Paris, which took me through the Chevreuse, an area of little valleys and choppy climbs (which I took no photos of, sorry).
As I approached Paris things got more urban, but really until about 15 km from the center of the city, there was still some countryside to be had. And even when I got into Paris the streets were totally dead. If you want to visit Paris when nobody is around, August is your month. I flew down the bus lanes of Paris’ boulevards till I saw this bar and had to stop.
Then I contacted Karsten and found out they were waiting at home with fondue ready to be melted, so I got back on the bike and flew down some more boulevards…
…and crashed a party! Karsten and Sarah had friends from Hamburg visiting and they were kind enough to not make me wait at that bar till midnight before coming over.
After a night of leg-twitchy sleep I woke up a little groggy, but Karsten proposed a morning beer along the newly-renovated right bank of the Seine which perked me up a little. What used to be basically an expressway flying along the river (Voie Georges Pompidou) is now a pedestrian-only area with places to play for kids, ‘beaches’, libraries and craft beer. France is such a civilized country.
Day 4: 219 km, 1438 meters of climbing
I’m glad I did this trip after all this time thinking about it. There’s a special satisfaction you get from travelling under your own steam for distances most people do by plane or TGV. Of course it’s also a much better way to see the land you’re traveling through, but you all know that already.
To get back home from Paris I sort of re-ran my trip in reverse, taking the Intercities train from Bercy station to Clermont-Ferrand, then the famous Cevenol home to Nimes. It was one of the quickest 9 hours I’ve had lately that wasn’t on the bike.
Final Tally: 4 days, 818 km, 9394 meters of climbing