Friday, 31 July 2015

Cycling in the Tarn

Ginals, France, July 2015 - 48.5 miles   
Sometimes, despite best efforts, some things just don't go to plan. The French with their love of art, two-hour lunches and wine, also love to push pointless pieces of paper around.....very slowly, so we wouldn't getting our keys when we expected. However, this meant I had more time for cycling in this beautiful part of south-west France  - and that made all of this tardiness bearable!
We were based in Ginals, just outside the incredible market town of Saint Antonin Noble Val and nestled between some impressive gorges,  providing the gift of hills, many hills.... I thought I'd ease myself in with an early start whilst the temperature was bearable (22 degrees at 7AM) and head out to see what these hills would be like on a bike. Luckily for me I'd insisted on bringing the Kuota KOM Air and, with a route plotted on the Garmin, I set out whilst everyone else was still sleeping off the copious amounts of amazing Gaillac wine from the night before.

Right from the off I was into a fairly significant climb (for a man used to cycling in the Midlands) and I'd barely had chance to turn the pedals before I found myself considering moving off the big ring! I'd have liked at least a bit of a warm up but the sun was just coming up, I was the coolest I'd felt for 48 hours and the roads were silky smooth and empty - so little grounds to complain by all accounts.

From Ginals, up into Lardialle and immediately out again I stopped to look back to catch my breath and take a photo. I was already sweating and could have thought I was being chased until I realised the panting noise was coming from me!

Looking back to Lardialle
 The sun was coming up quickly now and the warmth was immediately noticeable on my uncovered skin. It's a strange feeling that's amazing but all the while you're aware it'll make things uncomfortable later. I didn't have chance to worry about it as I was trying to take in everything along the way, scouting for new roads and computing potential additions for next time. With little to no wind, a massive novelty for me of late, pushing on along the long straights of the plateau was a pure pleasure. I wasn't in a rush this morning so could really take my time and lap it all up.

The road to Castanet
 This road was going on into Castanet but I was heading east at the cross roads and down to what was the most incredible descent which would take me to the very base of the Bastide town of Najac. The road down is one of those that is long and sweeping and helps to build your confidence in descending at speed - rather than throwing you in at the deep end with death defying gradients or impossible switchbacks. It starts just before Mazzeroles, which I knew from a previous recce whilst house hunting, so I was prepared for the distractingly stunning view of Najac across the valley. It's a view that shouldn't be passed without stopping irrelevant of how much you're enjoying the descent!

Najac towering in the distance
 The road sweeps down through the forest on good tarmac and the cooler air in the valley was welcomed as I got more cocky with throwing the bike around the bends and risking the racing line into the longer corners. As with all good descents though it's over too quickly and I was surprised to find myself crossing the bridge over the Aveyron with Najac castle dominating the skyline.

On the bridge below Najac
The Aveyron at Najac
 I treated the climb up to Najac fairly seriously but, remembering I was carrying on along to St Andre de Najac further on, I eased off the gas once I felt pushed. This turned out to be wise as it was a longer climb than I remembered and certainly steeper than it looked from the car all those months ago! Despite its length and fairly consistent gradient, I was soon turning off with just a short stop for the obligatory photo of the castle. This would have been impressive if I'd have had chance to capture the small bi-plane that suddenly appeared in the early morning sunlight and began swooping into the valley below - bummer.

The castle at Najac
 The road starts to feel a bit more serious here since it continues to climb out of Najac and onto the road to little St Andre at a fairly constant rate of around 6%. Once through the town, which comes and goes, there's another rewarding and well-earned descent into the valley beyond and this time across the river Viaur. Again the road here was traffic free and I carried my confidence from the previous descent to really feel comfortable coming down at speed. This might sound odd to most but when you live in Coventry, fast and steep descents like this just don't exist and so practice is minimal to say the least.

The temperature down here at the bridge was positively cold given its aspect and the sheer height and steepness of the wooded hills. The chill was welcome again but soon forgotten as the road began to head upwards as soon as I'd passed the pool and the campsite. The road continued to be devoid of cars and I only saw one other cyclist heading in the opposite direction and going up the way I'd just come to Saint Andre - a climb I vowed to return to soon. Rather than head east to Montirat and Mirandol Bourgagnac, I'd opted to head back south-west to Laguepie and along the stunning road that tracks above the river Viaur until it meets the Aveyron and the photo shoot!

Saint Martin Laguepie  
Chateau Roc at Laguepie     
Kuota KOM Air Vs Laguepie
Pondering whether or not the KOM was more appealing than Laguepie, which of course it is, my route continued along the south bank and below Chateau Roc which is another must see in the area. It's a hotel and visitor site as far as I know and everyone tells me it's worth a visit. Not today though, as now I was feeling on the home straight and already tasting fresh coffee and warm croissants....a few too many miles too soon.

I knew the route well from here which heads into Le Riols below Varen, switching sides along the train tracks. Here the land is mostly agricultural and it was corn, hay and sun flowers on all sides as the road indicates its part in one of the marked "LeTarn a Velo" routes - one of a large network in the local area. This particular route runs from Montauban to Laguepie and would definitely make an amazing and eventful 85kms.

Varen from Le Riols
 The route back from here heads to the wonderful and picture postcard town of Saint Antonin Noble Val but taking the indirect approach via Milhars and Feneyrols - keeping off the D115 almost entirely. The trip from here is stunning and brings you into the town on the northern bank with the white gorge towering above as an imposing backdrop.

Whilst enjoying the view and waving to a couple who looked to be bicycle touring, I was pondering what lay in wait for me in the long, tough climb back up to Espinas which I knew would be punishing in this heat and especially since I was already out of fluid. I told myself it meant less weight to drag up the climb and got on with business of hitting the climb like I meant it. It was a long drag in the heat and made longer by the false flat that passes along the plateau for what seemed like ages. Its around 6.5 miles from the base of the climb to the hamlet of Espinas and one which isn't a particularly easy one after 40 miles of rolling hills!

Luckily, just as I could feel my head pounding inside my helmet, there's a brief flat followed by a short descent before levelling out again. It is now all downhill back to Ginals and in the heat that was, I have to admit, a very welcome sight. The sun was now high enough to really make things an effort and as I pulled up to the gates I was feeling quite spent. The ride though had been amazing. Great roads, better views and more to explore - I just couldn't wait to get out there again! Maybe less wine and beer before the next one though....

Strava details for this ride is here:

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