An alternative Tour de France. By Duff Hart-Davis
They had warned us the first day's ride was "hilly" - but we had not bargained for such a struggle. Leaving our first base in Figeac, we ground up a long slope for kilometre after kilometre. Soon we were overtaken by professional bikers in Lycra shorts and fancy hats, going like the wind in shoals of six or eight. Most saluted us with a cheery "Bonjour!" or "Allez! Allez!" as they sped past; but some, spotting our amateur, English garb, cried out, "The top is coming soon! Goodbye!" and other pleasantries.

A party of four, all middle-aged, we were nervous about our ability to cover the 30 or 40 miles set out on our daily schedule - especially as we had done no training, except for the occasional ride along the Thames towpath at Richmond. Before long I began to suffer mechanical problems. Our machines were solid mountain bikes with 18 gears, panniers and useful pouches on top of the handlebars for holding maps. But the gears were un-oiled and maladjusted and, worse, my back wheel was slightly buckled.

For the first hour I was constantly getting off to adjust the wheel so that the tyre did not rub against the frame. Then, with a twang, another spoke parted and wheel-wobble became so pronounced that the tyre was grating against both sides. "Ca touche!" cried the professionals derisively as they poured past.

Yet it was their sweeper, bringing up the back of the cavalcade in a white van, who came to my rescue: without being asked, he offered to drive me and the bike ahead to the town of Maurs, which was on our route and boasted a bike shop. Driving like a fiend, he told me he was shepherding 70 riders, who were doing 200 kilometres that day and climbing to a height of 4,000 feet.

Our own ambitions were more modest. Our first day's run into the hills above the Lot was only 50 kilometres - and by the time we had all met up again outside a cafe in Maurs, washing down our picnic lunch with beer and local red wine, that distance seemed well within our grasp. As usual in rural France, all shops had closed for two hours at midday, but at 2pm they came back to life and, of necessity, my dormant French revived. A spoke, I realised, was un rayon; that indispensable adjunct, an Allen key, un clef Allen.

With my back wheel spoked and trued, we were off again. The last five kilometres - up and up and up - were a struggle. But as the shadows lengthened, we were rewarded by finding that the Auberge de Concasty, our destination, was a skilfully converted old farmhouse standing among its own fields and woods, 1,500 feet up in stunning countryside.

The next five days followed much the same pattern: leisurely breakfast, pack picnics into panniers, away by 10.30am pedalling off into ever-more glorious country. Lunch outside a cafe or beside the road, a siesta among the wild strawberries, and on again towards evening, knowing that our luggage would be waiting. Our sole duty was to propel ourselves towards the next large meal.

By British standards we were high up - at one point we reached 2,500 feet - yet the landscape remained one of lush, rolling farmland snuggling among immense forests of chestnut and oak. The farmhouses, heavy and remote, had roofs of grey stone tiles: the bottom of every tile was cut in a semicircle, and because mica glittered out of the stone the effect was one of fish-scales, like the side of a salmon.

Almost all the way we were on D (for departmental) roads - country lanes so deserted that we felt aggrieved if we saw more than one car in half an hour. We became spoilt by the lack of traffic and people although eventually we did see some tourists, de-bussing in the medieval shrine of Conques.

Route-cards gave accurate descriptions of each day's ride: the basic distance varied from 50 to 65 kilometres, but somebody exceptionally energetic could double that by adding on diversions. The routes had been expertly chosen so that the climbs, though long, were never particularly steep. On the other hand, we had some thrilling descents, one of which carried us continuously downhill for more than 10 kilometres.

Curious encounters occasionally took our minds off the road. At one mid- morning break we met a waiter who had worked in a hotel at Chalfont St Giles, where he greatly fancied a young lady called Barker. Also, he told us, he had run the Paris marathon in two hours 52 minutes, and he had shown well in an eight-kilometre waiters' race, carrying a tray laden with six glasses and a full bottle - a performance which had left him with cramp in the biceps.

Only on our last two days did we come down to the River Lot and ride along a handsome stream which reminded us of the Wye. By outrageous luck, we had five and a half days of continuous sun. Then, on our final afternoon, the heavens opened: we steamed back to Figeac in a downpour - but by then our spirits were so high that nothing could dampen them.

Several companies offer fly-ride holidays in France, including Breton Bikes (00 33 96 24 86 72), Inntravel (01653 628811) and Susi Madron's Cycling for Softies (0161-248 9292). They arrange flights and rail tickets, hotel or campsite bookings, bike hire and often transportation ofluggage from one hotel to the next. Duff Hart-Davis booked through Inntravel and paid pounds 618.50 for seven nights.