Thursday, 12 July 2012

Jun 2012: Club cycling holiday in Tarascon sur Ariège

Rupert writes: Eleven members spent an enjoyable week cycling in the Pyrenees in preparation for The Tour (watching that is!). This was a centre based holiday, staying in the delightful Hostellerie de la Poste in Tarascon sur Ariège. The hotel specialises in cyclists - this was immediately apparent on arrival as we found the large cycle store (Logis Velo) already full of french bicycles with the owners inside taking supper and making even more noise than us!

Local map

Logis Velo

The following morning the scene was set with those keen french cyclists taking an early breakfast and setting off before 8am to take advantage of the cooler mornings. This was great for us, leaving the Logis Velos empty so that we could reassemble our bikes. By lunchtime we were off on our first test ride. “Just an easy route” I was assured, but easy here means climbing the 947 metre Col de la Lauze followed by a fast descent back to the valley and then another 300 metre climb up the other side. All those pristine unused lower gears immediately started to earn their keep. I’m already wishing I had a smaller chainring.

Col de la Lauze

Over the next few days we explored a series of routes, mixing up harder days with easier days, giving a good variety. We started with a classic loop called the “Circuit des Trois Seigneurs”. This turned out to be one of the weeks highlights. The route climbs gently from Tarascon to Vicdessos but then turns right in the village (after stopping for the mandatory café au lait) and climbs steeply up to the col called “Port de Lers”. [Nerd Note: This section of our route features in Stage 14 of this years’ Tour]. Then there is a very long fast descent to Massat for lunch in a small café, before we climb again to Col de Port before a final descent back to Tarascon.

Port de Lers

Descent from Port de Lers

Next day we took a more leisurely ride, first heading north to Foix and making a circuit out to the east into rolling countryside. Classic countryside here: a bit similar to parts of Suffolk (well, there are lots of barley fields) but with very little traffic and that unmistakable french flavour to the villages and farms. Then another easier day climbing the blind valley south from Vicdessos, allowing us to enjoy an easier climb with the added delights of little traffic and a beautiful green valley with a tumbling stream beside the road most of the way. By now, a few rest days had started to creep in to the schedule: three of us took a day trip to Toulouse, I did some mountain climbing to conquer the Pic des Trois Seigneurs (in the middle of that classic circuit); a few others took a day shopping in Foix.

Blind valley day

Then it was back to the harder cycling with another classic route: a ride up the valley to the ski resort and thermal spa of Ax-Les-Thermes. Our route followed the corniche road which contours through a string of small villages along the side of the valley. It’s a hard climb up to the corniche but after that it is mostly level going. Half way along, there is the option to divert down to the valley and attempt a classic Tour climb to the “Plateau de Beille” [Nerd Note: this climb was the finish for Stage 14 last year] but only one rider was brave enough to have a go (1200 metres of climb in 16 km). The rest of us continued along the corniche to Ax, some taking the harder option to go via the Col de Marmare (1360 metres) followed by a long steep descent to Ax les Thermes. After recharging our legs over lunch we all decided to forgo the easy option of a return by train and instead opted to cycle back along on the same route. This option turned out to have an even harder start: the road climbs steeply back to the corniche but we now also had the extra weight of lunch and a very hot afternoon in the valley (44 degrees) to contend with. But once back on the corniche it was again a delightful ride and (as so often the case) it feels completely different going in the opposite direction.

Start of the Corniche

Col de Mamare

Our last day was another easier circular route from Foix. By now we had optimised the route from Tarascon to Foix – our preferred route involving a spectacular river crossing at “Pont du Diable” to avoid the worst of the hills. From Foix we followed another gently rolling route out to the west to our lunch stop in La Bastide de Sérou. The route back produced one of the highlights of the week – a delightful new cyclepath built along a disused railway line. Shady riding was most welcome as temperatures again topped 30 degrees, but the railway meant no hills. But the best surprise came at the end as the cycle path continued well beyond the route shown on the map, crossing a disused viaduct and emerging just north of Foix with a stunning view out over the Ariege river.

Railway cyclepath

Pont du Diable

All too soon it was back in the bus to return to the airport and give the baggage handlers another chance to mistreat our bicycles. All too soon we were back to the grey sky of Angleterre.

Many thanks to Jim for organising our holiday and to all rest of the group for the combination of good company and good rides. Good food and free wine from the hotel playing no small part in making this a memorable holiday. Thanks also to Adrian Lee for the use of his photos. Rupert Goodings

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