Cycling in Corsica: Climb aboard for the magical mystery tour

 

The bike was quite old, Jean said, but in its day it was top quality, and it was still in good working order. My curiosity was piqued. I was all ready to go and hire a bike for our fortnight's stay in northern Corsica, but Jean – the gruff but genial owner of the apartment we were renting – was having none of it.

He reached down and pulled open his garage door, and there it was, leaning against a wall, under a light coating of dust – a beautiful but neglected steel-blue racer with 'Motobecane' stamped on the frame. Ah, Motobecane – one of the hallowed names of French bike manufacturing, redolent of the era of Eddy Merckx, Brigitte Bardot, Sacha Distel.

Jean told me he'd bought the bike new in 1973 but he hadn't used it much. I wondered why. Later his wife told me he'd been in a car crash and lost some of his sense of balance. Poor Jean. He must have really loved the Motobecane to keep it all these years, and now he seemed glad to find someone to ride it.

That someone was a bit apprehensive. Would the bike fall apart under me? I fetched my pump, put some air in the tyres, and wheeled it out on to the road. I climbed aboard and pedalled off. Wow.

All that holiday, I rode the Motobecane. I've ridden it on half a dozen summer holidays since. Every year I go back, the Motobecane is waiting. And in that time I've realised that it doesn't get any better than cycling in Corsica, with its remote mountain roads, stunning views, spectacular landscapes, and slightly brooding tranquillity.

Cycling in Corsica has always had a low profile. On all the rides I've done, I've seen very few other cyclists. A solitary bike shop – in the coastal town of Ile Rousse – has served all my needs. Majorca, by contrast, is an established cycling destination.

One of the reasons is that Corsica has never hosted a major professional race – including any stages of the Tour de France. That tells you a lot about the strength of Corsica's independence from the culture and politics of mainland France. In 110 years since it began in 1903, the Tour hasn't dared go there. Until now.

Trepidation might be in the air when the riders line up in Porto Vecchio for the opening stage on 30 June. Will the separatist movement make its presence felt? There'll be three days of racing on the island, and for me the big moment will come when the Tour passes through Corsica's ancient capital – the mysterious hill-town of Corte, which is always my favoured destination when I set off on the Motobecane.

The ride to Corte is about 40 kilometres. It starts wonderfully, with a precipitous, hairpin-bend descent to the main road that links Bastia and Ile Rousse. The next 10km is a steady slog, not free of traffic, to the small town of Ponte Leccia. But for the rest of the journey the ride turns seriously magical. With a right turn over the railway line, a hush descends broken only by birdsong and the rustle of grasshoppers. The narrow, twisting road climbs steadily through the maquis and extraordinary vistas start opening up. In the far distance lies the Mediterranean.

Corte, when you get there, is one of those places where one can imagine disappearing and starting life under a new identity. Its setting is almost Himalayan. It has an air of secrecy. But it has a busy main street, and a citadel. It is powerfully Corsican, not French. Glance up and the mountains are right there, rising up all around.

I've had some curious looks when I've propped the Motobecane up against the railings next to my favourite Corte café. That's hardly surprising. But how will Corte react to the Tour? Will it be impressed? Maybe, like the Motobecane, it's been around too long for that.

More cycling holidays

* Take a family cycling tour around a little-travelled area of northern France where Normandy, Brittany and the Loire meet. Bike along the Mayenne and soak up the towpaths and country lanes. inntravel.co.uk

* Wine and wheels is a new 10-day self-guided cycle tour of northern California taking in the vineyards of Napa, Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, exploring the mighty redwood forests and offers plenty of stops to sample the state’s culinary landmarks. headwater.com

*Cycle from Saigon to Angkor Wat on a new group tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. Spend 15 days exploring rice paddies, pagodas and floating Mekong villages. Cycling averages 25-50 miles a day. skedaddle.co.uk

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