A gentle potter around a hidden corner of France.
When choosing a destination for a cycling holiday then France will always figure highly. Arguably, France is seen as the spiritual home of cycling. Whether it’s because of the legendary Tour De France, not only the world’s toughest bike race but one of the world’s hardest sporting endurance events, or the simple fact that France has some of the most culturally and geographically diverse scenery in the world. Add in the mostly favourable weather, great roads and world renowned cuisine it then becomes clear as to why France is one of the most visited countries in the world.
Many cyclists will head straight to the Alps or the Pyrenees for their obvious mountain challenges. Who amongst us doesn’t want to put our tyres on the same tarmac as our heroes of” Le Tour”. Many too will head for the southern regions of Provence or the Alpes- Maritime. It is hard to argue against a cycle ride in the morning and then lounging with the glitterati on a Cote D’Azur beach in the afternoon.
However those searching for a different side of France, those that long for a quieter and more quintessential French experience may seek out La France Profonde.
La France Profonde is a term that really means profoundly French or “deep” France though it is an expression open to interpretation. It conjures up images of an almost bygone era, a way of life unhindered by the everyday stress of the modern world. Visions of an agricultural landscape of hidden farmsteads, small market towns and a culture well preserved and strongly defended.
There must be hundreds of French towns, dozens of French departments and several regions that could claim to represent La France profonde.
Well for me there is one department of France that would sit comfortably and proudly with this title and that is the Aveyron. Located at the north of the Midi Pyrenees and sandwiched between the mountains of the Aubrac/Auvergne and the Mediterranean coastline. It’s a landscape of deep gorges, torrentous rivers, lush forests and limestone plateaus. A rich land of soaring vultures, untouched pastures and woodland boasting wild boar and deer. Alongside the natural beauty, there are some of France’s loveliest villages and towns.
Given all these amazing attributes there can be no better way of discovering it than by bike. Obviously it would be near impossible to cover what is one of largest departments of France in a week or even a month. Plus any attempt to even try would in fact defeat the object of cycling here in the first place.
The Aveyron demands that time is taken. Time taken to discover small areas at a time. Time taken to soak in the tranquillity and unrushed way of life.
One of the Aveyrons hidden gems is the village of Peyrusse le Roc. Peyrusse is perched at an altitude of 450m. It is situated above a deep ravine and rock face at which stands one of Frances most remarkable sights. Aloft a vertiginous piece of rock are two towers overlooking what was once a silver rich village of several thousand habitants. Nestled below are the ruins of the “old” Peyrusse. Here lay the buildings, church, hospital, synagogue, bell tower and barbican that gave Peyrusse the economic influence it once had. Gradually this site is being opened up and reclaimed back from the forest and greenery that had engulfed the village for centuries. This is a truly awe inspiring place of spirit, almost Tolkienesque. It takes very little imagination to see how prosperous and influential this village used to be many centuries ago.
The “new” village is only a donkey tracked 100 metres above the ruins. Comprising of a great restaurant serving excellent homemade cuisine, owned by the local Marie and his wife you can always expect a warm welcome. This is as Aveyronnais or “profonde” as you will find anywhere in France. Visit the local pottery or have a drink at the villages other bar with its lovely views of the valley below. For those using Peyrusse as they’re base there is the free camping car facility plus several good options on gite rental.
The valley road below is one of the main approaches to Peyrusse. It is a 5km climb starting from the wheat fields of the Diege valley climbing up through the trees to the village itself. For those Strava addicts it is a well-used and well respected climb. Its opening gradient starts out at 9 percent but settles in at an average of 5 percent. Don’t be surprised if you are passed on your way up by one of the local racers who commonly frequent this climb nor even the NZ triathlon team who have chosen Peyrusse as its training base over the years.
For those seeking a more leisurely approach to the village then the plateau road from Montbazens is the other choice. This road across gives no hint to what delights await the tourists here. It’s a gentle ride through green fields and quiet lanes that drop down to the village.
Another beguiling old village is that of Belcastel. Officially a “Plus Beaux village” it sits on the banks of the Aveyron river. Belcastel too had fallen into ruin but was rejuvenated by famous French architect who purchased the chateau in 1974.This was the catalyst for the restoration of the rest of the village by himself and the locals. What we have now is a magnificent medieval village. It is much busier than Peyrusse but that’s not to its detriment. It too has a fine restaurant but also a hotel and charming campsite by the riverside. If cycling down to Belcastel, make sure the descent is savoured because all ways out of the village are up. They are short and steep up or they are long and steepish up, but they are all up and they are all hard.
For those needing a little pampering, or simply a break from the cycling then visit the newly refurbished spa facility at Cransac, just 10 miles east of Peyrusse and 15 miles north of Belcastel. Cransac is a juxtaposition of old provincial and former mining town. The spa complex itself is super modern offering all type of thermal treatment. Just over the hillside are the remnants of one of Europe’s biggest open cast coal mines. Now it has all been replanted with bike trails and footpaths added. So typical of France, its parks and municipal buildings are immaculately kept. It’s only the number of for sale signs on the houses that betray the economic issues facing this corner of France. The population of this valley must not exceed ten thousand yet still there are 4 well supported cycling clubs involved in all events from rod racing to sportive to charity rides.
Thirty rather lumpy miles south from Cransac is the splendid bastide town of Villefranche de Rouergue. Villefranche is one of the best preserved bastides of which there are many in the southwest of France. With its riverside setting, newly refurbished town square and fountain, majestic church towering above the town and myriad of small streets with many good shops, Villefranche is delightful. The town also boasts two very good bike shops should you need any spares or repair. It is also home to Team 12, one of the strongest cycling and running clubs in the Midi Pyrenees.
Because of its size and wealth of sights and attractions I have only briefly touched upon the Aveyron and why it ticks so many boxes from a cycling point of view. It is because of it’s other attractions that the Aveyron is ideal. For those wanted a super hard, mile eating and hilly training camp then look no further. The vast amount of 5km to 10 km long hills will test the fittest of rider where any vertical height climbed in the Alps can be matched here over the same distance. Also for those of us with partners or children who don’t fancy donning lycra and pounding the roads but instead prefer a more leisurely holiday won’t be feel short changed. A holiday experience here could change your perception of France completely and send you on another search for La France Profonde!
Vanelli Cycling has its French in base in Peyrusse Le Roc . Vanelli are suppliers of quality cycle clothing to teams and individuals at unbeatable prices. Visit us on www.vanellicycling.com
Nearest airports are Rodez and Brive. www.ryanair.com
Eating in Peyrusse Le Roc. Restaurant Savignac -0033 5 65804391.
Peyrusse Pottery. www.potterie2peyrusse.weebly.com/0033 5 65431995
Eating and Hotels in Belcastel. Restaurant du Vieux Pont 0033 5 65645229.
Camping and caravanning Le Bourg. 0033 5 65639561.
Cransac Thermal Spa. 0033 5 65630680. www. cransac-les-thermes.fr
Bike shops in Villefranche De Rouergue. Chronocycles. www.chronocycles.fr
Bousquie Cycles. www.bousguiecycles.fr