Portajohn Goes to Europe: Part III, The tour begins, almost

Today I write about part III of our adventure in Europe, as the bike tour officially (sorta kinda) begins. If you missed the first two parts, they are here:

Part I, The warm-up

Part II, Is this heaven?

If life were like a movie (and it isn’t, but bear with me), then this would be the part where the character development is done, the challenge/confrontation has come to a head, and the hero kicks into action with some serious montage action and an inspiring musical interlude (see, Rocky and “Eye of the Tiger”, Top Gun and “Highway to the Danger Zone”, Breaking Away and Italian classical music).

Unfortunately, we had no such soundtrack to our adventure other than the hum of the chain and the clicks of the freewheel as we coast – but perhaps those were better!

Bike Touring Logistics

Let’s back up here for a moment and talk about how our tour shaped up the way it did. If there is one thing I’ve learned from a very limited amount of bike touring – you can never pack properly, plan your route completely, or assume a stress free vacation. There are simply too many variables to consider, particularly when you are going to an area you’ve never been to before – sometimes you really can only control the starting and ending points of the trip! To help control some of those variables, we decided to use a tour company to help with the logistics to develop our itinerary for the trip and avoid flying our bikes overseas. Picking the right tour company was a function of scheduling and cost – they all go to the same places, but some only run at certain times of the year or days of the week. Accommodations can vary between the latest carbon fiber bikes, four star hotels and daily massages, to a dirty tent and a link to a google map. Routes vary from hors categorie climbs to completely level, and from circuit (start and end in different places) to large loops, to hub and spoke configurations.

We figured that we wanted something on the affordable range, with plenty of flexibility and Diverse DIrections provided just that.  After much thought we decided that a circuit tour fit our desires to see lots of varied terrain, and that a canal route (specifically the Canal du Midi) would keep things flat enough that the multiple days of riding wouldn’t wear us down too much. The Canal du Midi was picked over the canals along the Loire valley as it would allow us to spend some time at the beach on the Mediterranean. We picked from  a list of hotels/B&Bs and hostels that allowed us to vary our accomodations based on the location and duration in specific towns, and keep things affordable.  Steve at Diverse Directions led us through the process, sent plenty of helpful informational packages, and a set of cue sheets custom built to our hotel choices.

Our bikes for the adventure were supplied by a friendly Brit and his Scottish wife who together make up the Mellow Velo team in Paraza, France. The same folks would coordinate pick-up and drop-off of our luggage from day to day, which meant we only had to carry what we wanted/needed for each days adventure.

All we had to do was show up at the right place and time – and we did!

Day 1: Arrival in Carcassonne

Our tour kicked off pretty quickly – within about 2 hours we had arrived in Carsassonne via the regional railway, stopped and used our best french to order glasses of wine and beer (it worked!), found our lovely B&B, and were fitted with our newly delivered bikes!  My steed for the trip would be a Dawes Karakum, outfitted nicely with a touring/trekking drivetrain, nice beefy tires and butterfly handlebars. Kates bike though had flat bars and front shocks – which surprised me at first, but later we found out why it was supplied as such. Our bikes were very upright, and the geometry did not lend itself to speedy riding, but the comfort was spot on.

After a walk through the town to discover the ancient walled Cité de Carcassonne (originally settled by the Romans, later the Visigoths, and later hordes of others) and the Pont Vieux (literally – old bridge) we settled into a delightful dinner with the local specialty – cassoulet – a hearty dish of white beans, duck confit and sausage, and some amazing wine. Throughout the trip we often drank rosé, which paired well with the varied dishes we often had and was an excellent showcase of the local grape varieties.  Never too sweet or dry – it was a heck of a lot nicer than the “pink wine” you can find in the States. After finishing off the bottle we were off to bed for the real, real kick off of the tour.

Day 2: Shakedown in Carcassonne

Well, of course – the real beginning of the tour couldn’t happen without a shakedown ride to make sure our bikes were adequately adjusted and tuned, but nonetheless I consider this the first day of the tour.  After breakfast we went back to the cité to see the sights in daylight – and let me say it felt like we were in a fairy tale as the “castle” rose from the top of the hill towards cloudy grey sky. Ancient stonework was everywhere – juxtaposed by a Disney-like tourism industry. It was quite a sight to take in, and hard to describe in words.

After taking in our fill of the sights, we headed back to the square in the center of the basse ville for some people watching and lunches of crusty bread, cheeses and cured meats. We felt so damn French… until we had to get the check and I had to use my barely present French to communicate. After lunch we retrieved our bikes and headed out for the first 20km. Immediately things felt different than riding in the states. Roads are much narrower – which means the hierarchy of the road is not skewed in any particular favor. On low volume roads I felt like we received the utmost of respect from passing motorists, and on higher volume roads the infrastructure was “right sized”, allowing vehicles to travel at reasonable, not insane, speeds.

As we climbed out of the city we were greeted with spectacular views of the countryside – truly we were in a very rural region – and grape vines stretched as far as the eye could see.  While pedaling up a steep hill we noticed an unmistakable scent, yeasty and slightly sour – and found our very first winery. As opposed to individual farmers fermenting and bottling their grapes on their own, we found that many belong to cooperatives where the processing, fermenting and aging were handled in a cave coopérative. Besides the obvious economic benefits for the farmers, this also helped us greatly when understanding where exactly the wine we were drinking came from. We had to enter and sample some, and despite very broken French and English, we managed to try a half dozen reds and rose varieties before settling on a wonderful rose to take with us. The bottle was very reasonably priced, under $10 US, but what was even more amazing was the bulk wine sales that these places were set up for. With the outward appearance of a gas pump, one can purchase volumes of 1 to 10 liters of wine (typically slightly lower quality table wine) for only $2-4 US per liter. A steal!

20 km came and went so quickly – but we had our first taste of French cycling – and I was so ready for more!

After we arrived back at the hotel we eagerly planned our first day on the canal sipping on wine provided by our hosts (who just happened to have the vintner stop by as we were enjoying a glass of his wine) . Day turned into night, we ate and drank and did the tourist thing, getting nice and ready for our first day on the road.

Picture 1

Shakedown Route

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Our first glimpse of the Canal du Midi immediately after arriving in Carsassonne

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The cite, it is like stepping back in time.

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Can you imagine living here?

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Of course, defending the cite would be necessary for any resident.

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The Pont Vieux, over 700 years old!

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grapes grapes grapes!

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A view from the saddle

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My bike, a noble steed

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Langeudoc wine country

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6 thoughts on “Portajohn Goes to Europe: Part III, The tour begins, almost

  1. Castles and wineries and bike touring, oh my! That’s living the good life. I’m excited to follow along with your reflections on the trip since it’ll be awhile before we can chat in person again.

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