ABOUT lunchtime on the first day, I remember thinking that the balance seemed right. We had pedalled through the immense game park of the Chateau de Chambord, blinking hard at clumps of browning bracken disguised as herds of deer. Unlike the tourist hordes who had come by car or coach, we could cycle along by the moat and eventually collapse in a solitary spot.

There, the 440-room weekend pad of Francois I could be enjoyed in peace, as could the contents of the panniers: cheese, bread, duck pate and a bottle of Saumur-Champigny. The only mistake had been to imagine that cyclists' hunger could be quelled with a half baguette.

After a few years of experimentation, I am becoming a bicycle holiday junkie, hooked on fresh-air exploration. Compared with Burgundy (killingly hilly), Connemara (windy) and the Dutch province of Limburg (more hairdressers than hostelries), this six-day tour of the quiet end of the Loire valley sounded perfect. Not only was baggage transported between hotels and the roads reputedly as flat as a crepe, but also the whole itinerary revolved around food. 'Sologne Gastronomique', it was billed in the Belle France brochure. We would cycle all day, we said, feast every night and arrive at the perfect point of equilibrium between virtuous exercise and gluttonous excess.

We did cycle all day, even though we need not have. With six nights apportioned between just three hotels in a triangle of land south of the river between Blois and Orleans, there were days when we could have left the supplied 10-speed tourers in the shed and others when we could have gone a mere 20 miles to the next lodging point. But half the fun was to sit over breakfast, chopping up the large-scale map into manageable day-sized portions and plotting a loopy route.

Would it be worth taking a look at the pretty little Chateau de Beauregard - the only country house in France with more than 300 paintings in the only portrait gallery with 17th-century, hand-painted Delft wall tiles on the floor? (Yes, and none of those ghastly guided tours provided in the bigger places.)

Should we stop in Clery St Andre to see the massive Eglise Notre Dame, created so that pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella could pray to the exquisite carved oak statue of the Virgin that was ploughed up by a farmer in 1280? (Yes, and a trap door in the floor leads to the skull of Louis XI, who had the church rebuilt in the 15th century after Lord Salisbury razed it on his march to Orleans.)

Over the morning croissants, we would read about these places and many more. Copious notes had been supplied. The Belle France people - Kent schoolteachers, it seems - had done their homework.

Then off we would pedal into the pearly mist of a late September morning, without a care in the world. (That is a lie. There was always agitation over where, before midday closing, we should procure the elements of a gourmet picnic. And a sweet little snack for the blood-sugar low of the afternoon: a peach, maybe followed by pain aux raisins. The road was measured out in restorative treats before we passed the first signpost.)

Sologne suited us. Its gently undulating contours matched our low-level cycling skills, yet there was variety in the landscape. One day we would find ourselves freewheeling through riverside orchards with a dozen kinds of ripening apple; the next would bring us into woods where pheasants and squirrels were the only signs of life, and the carpet of heather and ferns between the trees had the muted colours of a tapestried footstool.

'If you're ever wondering what present to give me,' said the beloved one day, in expansive post-picnic mood, 'buy me a wood.'

Sometimes luck was with us. We cycled into the lovely old town of Beaugency by the Loire on a sunny Sunday morning, not realising that it was the day for the annual foire aux vins. In the square, wine merchants from all over France were holding tastings that it would have been churlish to bypass. Hazily I remember luscious oysters from the Oleron at 22 francs a dozen; Chablis, Vouvray and Saumur out of plastic beakers; and a deep discussion about the wobble factor in accommodating a case of wine in four back panniers.

Occasionally the opposite was true: luck seemed to be against us. One morning I had three punctures in a row: one sustained in Romorantin, the biggest town on the tour, while the bike was parked against a wall. That deflected some suspicion from all the dead hedgehogs we had ridden over on country roads. It was something on which to reflect in this pond-studded part of Loir-et-Cher known as 'le miroir de la France'. There were other mysteries, too. Why, when there were so many chickens running around farmyards, were there never any on the dinner menu? And why, when there was invariably marvellous goat's cheese on the menu, did we never spy a single goat?

The dinner menu: we have reached the high ground at last. There is not a sliver of doubt that all three hotels on this tour were chosen for the star quality of their dining rooms. We were sometimes condemned to bed chambers even more lugubrious than the small, dark room that Louis XIV occupied at the Chateau de Cheverny. Unlike Louis, we had to contend with candlewick bedspreads and flecky carpets . . . but we ate like kings.

I can still taste the citric freshness of the carpaccio du thon, served on crisp lemon tablecloths at the Auberge du Centre in Chitenay, starting and finishing point of this six-day eating exercise. At Ferte St Cyr, the second stopping point, there were gorgeous crepes parmentier de saumon fume - fat little blinis hiding chunks of smoked salmon - and a rich cassoulet of mushrooms and snails.

But it was in Romorantin, a town famous for its October culinary championships and its Grand Hotel du Lion D'Or with 570-franc menu, that we embarked on the road to ruin. When directions were asked to the modest-looking Hotel Le Colombier, the question was met with a long, gallic purr. 'Ahhh] Vous allez manger beaucoup]' Not just beaucoup, but brilliantly, from a stylish menu that ended in a flourish of millefeuilles layered with paper-thin sheets of bitter chocolate.

In two evenings of five courses - six if you count the little pre-dinner delicacies - we began to feel as overstuffed as Raymond Briggs's Santa in the French bit of Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. After six days of gastronomic Sologne, tenderness in the nether regions was far outstripped by another sort of pain: weight gain. I must be the only person in the history of holiday cycling to have pedalled 150 miles and put on seven pounds.

Mary Dowey made her own way to and from Blois. She bought a Belle France six-day package that included transport to the starting point of the tour, bicycle, information pack, transfer of luggage between hotels, bed, breakfast and dinner. A similar holiday this year costs pounds 359-pounds 369. Self-drive and air/rail-inclusive packages are also available. Belle France, Bayham Abbey, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8BG (0892 890885). This year Belle France has toned down the gastronomic element slightly in what it now calls simply its 'Sologne Cycling Tour'. The same hotels are used, but cheaper menus are included in the package holiday price. Guests can pay extra for more elaborate eating.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments