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Touring in Provence

based on a posting to the touring@cyclery.com e-mail list.


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by Edward W.J. Lipman
edited it and converted to HTML by Sheldon Brown
Spoke Divider

Back from Provence

Hi folks. I just returned from a superb month touring in the Drome and Vaucluse regions of Provence, unloaded touring from a base in Merindol les Oliviers (near Vaison La Romaine and several miles North of Mont Ventoux).

The scenery was superb, the biking great. Firstly, I quickly gave up on mountain biking. The trails were abominably marked (true even of their national long-distance footpaths, the Grande Randonnées.. They were always hard to pick up and stay on, and even when one did fine one, they were always million of forks and turnings not even marked on the otherwise excellent 1:25,000 maps. Then one found them, and they were always either wide, gravelled access roads for fruit picking: boring, and dangerous due to the presumption of those who used the roads for their farming that there would never be anyone there; everybody was friendly, though. (I got quite sick of being offered fruit by every farmer!) Or they were rocky, very rocky (read large rocks) and barely rideble up the ascent -- usually not.

So I turned to Bike 2, a Bob Jackson audax machine built just for this sort of thing.

The scenery was ubelievable; flat and lush East toward Orange, mountainous in all other directions. Superb small, quiet mountain passes with scary descents. Too many cols to count.

Routes

All of my routes were based, with appropriate deletions/additions, on routes taken from the 'Drome à Vélo'; a map covering the Drome region of Provence and costing c. 57 ff. It has no descriptions but is merely a 1:100 map with routes highlighted. Better & Best is the 'La France à Vélo' series of guides, of which I used the 'Provence Côte D'Azur' guide (ISBN 2-86868-106-9)-- though they have them for the whole country. In a looseleaf binder, and costing 118 ff, one gets about 90 routes on 5 x 8 cards. You really need a seeparate map to trace the route on, but then you unclip the route card and put it in the handy plastic wallet which I then stuck in my map case on the other side. You get on the cards: approximate time (accurate for no-stopping, reasonably fit people), distance in km, total altitude gain over whole route, and grid references to both the Michelin 1:200 and IGN 1:100 maps; then a somewhat purplish prose decription of the route, written directions to supplement a sketch map, locations of refreshments/ repair shops along the route, and suggestions/warnings about items of interest/danger along the route. I didn't find a bad one in doing over 26; and the nicest thing was perhaps the altitiude/time estimates, as judging the difficulty of rides in mountainous areas even with 1:25 maps is almost impossible.

Maps

You can get: Michelin 1:200. Useless, I think, for cycling; doesn't have the really minor roads and passes that are perfect for cycling, and when it does have them, the scale makes it difficult to follow/pick them up -- eg, it appears the secondary route continues across a major road but on the 1:25 you see it continues 200m to the right, not acually straight on. Then IGN 1:100s. Better, and fine for most. I prefer the 1:50,000 IGN, which are not available for all regions. The IGN 1:25s are superb; they cover 3-4 times as much as UK pathfinders, being full size sheets, so are quite good even for general touring if you are doing it from a single-center. My suggestion: with the Michelin 1:200 (or better, the Michelin 1:200 Atlas which has an index of towns) plus the relevant 'La France à Vélo' guide, you can easily plan your trip vaguely then pick up the more detailed maps when you get there (about 45 ff each).

For ATB: a similar series to the 'La France a Vélo' is the 'Circuits Pédestres' which includes ATB routes (ISBN 2-86868-031-3); 'VTT entre Ventoux et Monts de Vaucluse' by C. Chivas and R. Lombardi (ISBN 2-85744-771-X); 'Les Guides VTT: Provence 21'by T. Pijourlet (ISBN 2-7038-0108-4). But as I wrote in my original post, I wasn't all that thrilled with the mountain biking in my area -- easier to just rent a bike (eg in Vaison at 'Mag 2 Roue' (the best bicycle shop, BTW -- no english spoken, but they carry basics and are friendly enough -- but be prepared for cheapo tubes costing $9)).

Where to Stay

If, like me, you choose a single-center tour, be wary. Finding a nice place is easy (Karen Brown's French country Bed & Breakfasts is great or et sim); but be careful where it is situated. Where I stayed, though absolutely wonderful and charming, involved a 500m climb no matter which direction I ended up arriving from. It got rather dull and boring after a while, though it did put strength in my legs. You might want to have three or four single-centers to avoid this. Around Vaison la Romaine is a great location for a combined ATB/road tour....

Favourite Places

My favourite places: The ATB ascent of Ventoux on the north face,the two roads from Mollans sur Ouveze to Brantes with their various Cols, the Col d'Aulan with its castle, really any of the routes in the France a Velo book are superb. The Col de Fontaube has a convenient apricot orchard only steps from the col marker...

Water

Just as every town in England has a pub, so too every one in France has a water pump: most, not all, offer delicious cold drinkable water. Some say 'Eau non potable' -- water not drinkable; best advice I could find was that topping up once the bottles at a fountain so marked was no problem, as the problem was usually heavy metals rather than viri/bacteria. But at your own risk... You soon catch the knack of finding the fountain; when in doubt ask. In the summer, fill up every time you see one. I carried a 90oz Camelback and two 27oz bottles, the bottles containing electrolyte replacement solution. I recommend the electrolyte stuff highly; I bought boxes of packets from the pharmacy designed for use w/ vomiting/the runs, but it worked just fine with the addition of some fruit syrup, of which there are many delicious ones available. If you are riding longer than an hour in the heat, drink plenty -- water alone is not enough. Dried fruit is good as well, with its salt.

Sun

Sun: hot. Wear nuber 15, 30 on nose etc. until you get a good tan, then taper down. By the end I didn't need to wear anything at all. REALLY GOOD sunglasses are a must; I stuffed a folded washcloth under the front of my helmet covering my forehead down to y eyebrows. Looked funny, but kept sweat from pouring down my face into my eyes and kept me cool.

8. Weather: July and August are generally hot and sunny, though rainy spells happen. I brought a rain suit made out of that new Gore 'Windstopper' fabric, and as it weighs nothing I carried it everywhere stuffed into a small sack. Good for chilly descents too. I recommend bib-shorts to prevent a sunburn on your back when the jersey rides up. I became a devoted fan of Coolmax and Pearl Izumi's 'Fieldsensor' on this trip. Don't even think about plain cotton.

Equipment

The Bob Jackson has beautiful fancy lugs, Hetchins curly stays, but up-to-date Campy Record and Racing Triple componentry. Shod with Mavic SUP CD rims and 28 mm Panaracer Paselas, I took to the road, laden only with a Camelback Narrow Gauge (with two 90oz bladders) and a Carradice saddlebag with bits n' bobs. I added a set of Spinnaci aero bars along the way.

Originally, my bottom gear of 30 (front) x 28 (back) [2.14 gain ratio, 29", 2.31 meters] seemed barely enought to even hope to get up the ranges near the Dentelles and the Hautes Alps, not to mention Ventoux at 1,910! on my daily averegae 70mi. rides. Well, a month and several thousand miles later, it was a gear rarely if ever needed!

A few words of advice: even on unloaded touring (and I am a mid-sized 166lb [75 kg] rider), I wouldn't go with anything less than a 28c tire, though several people suggested 22s or 23s would be sufficient: that is, if you want to try the fun roads.

Lastly, Pack a range of spares at Home with a friend. Shops are so expensive and have such limited selction, that if like me you had the luxury of two bikes, just have them pop the stuff in the mail Post Office Express (from US) or Parcelfore (UK)

If anyone wants any details, don't hesitate to be in touch. Most beautiful cycling holiday I've ever had.

Spoke Divider

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Copyright © 1996, Edward W.J. Lipman

Research Fellow in History,
Peterhouse, Cambridge. CB2 1RD. England
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