The lazy cyclist's Tour de France

Professional riders set off on the gruelling 3,497km route today, but Adam Ruck preferred a more leisurely way to explore

Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France, defined his ideal race as one that finished with a single cyclist surviving. When a friend and I embarked on a series of long bike rides through France with a book in mind, we did so in a spirit we imagined to be as far removed as possible from that ideal. A perfect stage of our anti-Tour would involve a picnic and a snooze on the river bank, some wine tasting or other non-intensive sightseeing interludes; and a comfortable bed in a small hotel after a good supper. Our rides were long, but we hoped they would not be too gruelling. We would avoid steep hills wherever possible, and where not possible we wouldn't be too proud to dismount and walk.

So we pedalled happily down the Loire last July paying no attention to the evolving drama of the world's toughest sporting event, until a text message from Brittany Ferries alerted us to the fact that the Tour would be crossing Normandy on the day of our return sailing from Caen, with a rolling programme of road closures that we should beware. After deciding not to attempt the Pont St Nazaire on our bicycles in a crosswind, we caught a train back to our car and drove north to intercept the Tour near Falaise.

Joining a few spectators beside the road, we watched police motorbikes go past, lights flashing self-importantly, until eventually the word went round: "La caravane arrivée!" It was a carnival procession of sponsor vehicles and floats, with music and dancing girls hurling sweets and junk mail at us. How long before the cyclists arrive? "The caravan lasts for more than an hour," someone said, so we fled the hailstorm of Haribos and missed our chance to fail to spot Cavendish and Wiggins.

The chance would come up again two weeks later, when the start of our ride from Paris to Avignon coincided with the final stage of the Tour, whose brave survivors ride laps of the Champs-Elysées before the podium moment beneath the Arc de Triomphe. We had chosen a Sunday for an easier journey from St Pancras by train and out of Paris on the suburban RER (no bicycles allowed on weekdays during rush hour), and because on Sundays the expressways along the banks of the Seine are reserved for non-motorised traffic.

We could have caught the RER from the Gare du Nord but the chance to ride through central Paris was too good to miss. Turning left at Opéra, we passed the armour-plated shop windows of the Rue de la Paix and rattled over the cobbles of the Place Vendôme to find the Rue de Rivoli guarded by banks of spectators. Turning left again, we rode past the bottiers of the Rue St-Honoré as far as the Comédie-Française where we were finally allowed to turn right, through an opening in the Louvre palace and between I M Pei's glass pyramid and Napoleon's dainty little Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuileries gardens. Another opening in the Louvre brought us to the Seine, where we looked down on the riverside expressway: a heaving throng of slow-moving humanity, quite hopeless as a cycle track.

So we stayed on the Quai François Mitterrand (as no one calls the Quai du Louvre) and followed it along the river. We reached the Gare de Lyon, carried our bikes down to the underworld and caught our RER train (line D, for Melun via St-Fargeau) out through the suburbs to a point beside the Seine where we could set off for Fontainebleau, Burgundy and the south. Once again, the Tour had eluded us. Too bad. Ours was a much more civilised cycling homage to the delights of rural France.

This happy state of mind prevailed until I came across a remote country chapel in the Armagnac region of south-western France. Notre-Dame des Cyclistes is a popular halt for cycling pilgrims on their way to Compostela: 1,000km to go, in 12 easy stages of 85km a day, according to the present chaplain who has made the journey six times.

The chapel was discovered, overgrown, by a cycling churchman in 1958 and the following year Pope John authorised its re-dedication to la petite reine. It marked the start of a Tour de France stage in July 1989. Many Tour heroes attended and laid down their jerseys and trophies, as did the race leader Greg LeMond who went on to win the Tour by eight seconds and spoke of his win as a miracle.

The Tour riders may not pause to taste wine, swim in rivers or light candles in Romanesque churches, but their journey is also a celebration and a pilgrimage, and arguably a more complete homage than our self-indulgent meanderings. "To love cycling inevitably means to love geography and, additionally, the different regions," writes Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour in his website editorial.

According to Mr Prudhomme, this year's tour is dedicated to "medium mountains" such as the Jura, the Vosges and the Massif Central. Their passes may not be as high as those in the Alps and Pyrenees, but the climbs are as steep and can stretch the peloton. On 7 July the Tour will be in the Vosges, tackling the ascent to La Planche des Belles Filles, the only ski resort in the department of Haute-Saône. I had never heard of it until I read Mr Prudhomme's description. Apparently the place takes its name from "a hopeless flight of the women of the valley, who wanted to escape from a massacre declared by the Vikings during the 15th century".

Two days later the riders start a time trial at Arc et Senans in the Jura, where the visionary architect Ledoux built a royal salt works for Louis XIV in 1771. For a combination of sightseeing and Tour spectating this summer, Arc et Senans would be a good choice.

By coincidence, while the Tour is speeding through the Vosges my cycling buddy and I will be in the same area, inching along the Route des Crêtes on a tour of Alsace; soon to be followed, we hope, by an easier ride along the prettiest wine road in France.

A friend whose hotel in Strasbourg is popular with holiday cyclists tells me we are mad. "Less than 1 per cent" of his clients go anywhere near the mountains, and none weighed down, as I fear we will be, by luggage. Why not stick to the gentle plain? Well, the mountains are an essential component of the beauty of Alsace, and we feel we ought to have a go. Yes, we did once consider ourselves too grown up for the self-improvement kick and the macho masochism of hill cycling. But it sucks you in, does the Tour.

'France on Two Wheels' (Short Books) by Adam Ruck is out now, priced £8.99. For more information, see france2wheels.com.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone