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.

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
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

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes