|Cycling the Gorges de Haute Dordogne|
We’ve managed our first getaway of 2021, and I can’t tell you how fantastic it was. We were only just over a three-hour drive from home, staying in a cosy self-catering apartment, in the quiet and rural Corrèze, but for cycling nutcases like us, it couldn’t have been any more perfect.
|Our accommodation in Neuvic|
I lazily leave all the holiday and cycle route planning to Adrian and he certainly excelled himself this time. His start point is always the accommodation. Does it fit our budget? If yes, are there any good cycle routes nearby? The converted basement of a family house in a quiet residential street, with its own little terrace and access to the garden, near the lake in Neuvic, ticked all the boxes. With a large double bedroom and a living room with kitchen area, that led on to the shower room, there was plenty of space for the two of us and all the bike bits, all for only 41€ per night.
|The lake at Neuvic|
The weather, which has been pretty rubbish all year, was on our side too and by the time we stopped for our picnic lunch on the way there, I had to begin stripping off some of the many layers that have encased me all winter. I’m pleased to say, it remained warm and sunny every day, until the evening we returned home. This meant we were able to get out on the bikes every day, including a quick early evening spin around the Neuvic lake the day we arrived.
Adrian’s cycle route planning was also spot on. In the four full days available to us he had routes that took us up and down the gorges of the Haute Dordogne, through the volcanic landscape of the Corrèze and Cantal departments, up the Puy Mary (a summit finish on the Tour de France) and a hilly circuit that took as around the Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central, and the location of the source of the Dordogne river. We managed a pretty impressive three hundred kilometres of cycling in terrain much more challenging than the flat lands of home. He is also very clever in that he plans the routes to ease me in gently.
|The abandoned old Transcorrézian tramway|
The first day was a 64km ride through the gorges that began with the excitement of a coffee and croissant, on the sunny terrace of a bar, our first bar coffee since October last year. The route took us through undulating forest roads that often followed the route of the Transcorrézien, a steam tramway that ran from Ussel to Tulle from 1912 until it closed in 1959. Coming across odd remains of track, abandoned engines and carriages, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, gave us plenty of opportunity to take train photos.
|The Resistance Dam|
From Soursac, things got a bit more exciting with a climb up to a rocky gorge road which gave us tunnels and views over the Dordogne valley, followed by an easy descent to the impressive L'Aigle hydroelectric dam, also known as the Resistance dam. Work started on it in 1939 and was expected to be finished in 1942, however Resistance workers ensured enough delays to the project, that the occupying German troops never benefited from the electricity generated.
|The washed away road|
After lunch we played our favourite game of Route Barrée Call My Bluff, as so often road closures mean no vehicle access, but bikes can pass. The barriers had been pushed to the side of the road, so we decided to continue, even though the single-track, tarmacked road looked rather abandoned. The foliage at the sides was overhanging and slowly creeping in and along with the leaf and tree debris under wheel, nature was reclaiming this long-forgotten road. It was equally exhilarating and frightening to be so far off the beaten track, with no idea how far we could go before possibly being forced to turn back. It was peaceful, beautiful and with just the sounds of the river far below us, the birds above and the odd scurrying of unidentified things into the undergrowth as we approached. Three times we lost the track and had to walk the bikes through mud, stones and trickling water running down the gorge. It gave a real sense of achievement, along with relief when we found civilisation once more, although I was also a little sad to leave it behind.
|The viewpoint over the Dordogne Gorges|
The final fifteen kilometres were probably the hardest with a steady climb up the gorge, in the sun. Luckily, we stumbled on a shady table, by a cooling waterfall, that gave us the perfect flapjack rest point, before continuing on to a stunning viewpoint high above the Dordogne river valley. Our legs were certainly nicely warmed up for the rest of the holiday.
|Eating a Mother-in-law's tongue in Salers|
Day two was a much shorter day, but with a Tour de France mountain top finish, my legs felt every one of the 46km (or at least the 23 uphill ones). Our start point was the Plus Beau Village of Salers, where we had a wander of the quaint cobbled streets and although we didn’t find a croissant, we did get a delicious, chewy almond biscuit, big enough to share, with our morning coffee and hilariously called mother-in-law’s tongue. As we left for the twenty-kilometre climb up the Puy Mary, the village church bells were in competition with the deep-toned cow bells gently ringing in the fields all around us. It was so pretty, with rolling green hills and volcanic peaks in the distance, and white snow caps still visible in places. Even the cows here are beautiful, with their deep orange colour, slender, wide horns and huge lashed eyes.
|Climbing towards the Puy Mary|
To begin with the climb is gentle and almost too easy, especially when it descends into the pine forest. The weather was perfect, warm but not hot, and then cool and shady in the forest, but not cold. With the snow on the Puy Mary looming large above us, I knew the easy ride couldn’t last much longer.
|Approaching the top at Puy Mary|
With four kilometres to go, things began to get tough, and the final two kilometres were at an average gradient of 12% but significantly steeper in places. With my heart hammering and lungs burning, my legs kept their slow and steady turning of the pedals, until I reached the top, where the views were spectacular and worth all the effort.
|At the top of Puy Mary|
This route was a defining day on the 2020 Tour de France route, and rewatching the footage, even the pro-cyclists struggled towards the end. I had a happy smile on my face at the end of the day and was ready for whatever Adrian had planned for the following two days.
|Bort les Orgues|
Having warmed my legs sufficiently, the third day was 75km, back in the Haute Dordogne gorges, with the volcanic rock formations resembling giant organ pipes at Bort les Orgues, our lunch destination. It was a meandering and undulating route, that was slow going in places, but with dramatic views that eased the suffering. The viewpoint above the town of Bort les Orgues provided an eye-level view of the pipes, a bench for lunch and a panorama which gave us a clear view of the Puy Mary to the right and the Massif du Sancy, our final cycling destination, to the left.
|The old station Bort les Orgues|
On the sweeping descent to the enormous hydroelectric dam in the town of Bort les Orgues, we stopped to listen to cow bells, a sound I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing. Standing at the bottom of the dam made me feel extremely small and insignificant, and I have to say, I don’t think I’d like to live underneath it. It would seem I am not the only one as poor old Bort les Orgues, despite the impressive dam and rock formations was a rather sad and forgotten town. Even the station, that is home to a number of rusty and graffitied old engines, was derelict and deserted, and where nothing seemed to have moved for years.
|Easy riding on the Voie Verte|
The first part of the afternoon was along a voie verte, on an old railway line. The sun was out, the views were good, and we found a bench for a snack. It was a gentle, easy ride and a nice break from the climbing, but I knew we had a hard slog ahead to return to the Dordogne on the way home. It was a cruel, hot climb, and more so as no sooner had we reached the top, we had a long descent back to the river, that seemed to take forever. Every glimpse I took down the valley still didn’t reveal the water at the bottom, and the knowledge that the only way back out was a long climb up the other side, was tough. The bridge and water at the bottom were blissful and calming and if I’m honest, that final climb didn’t seem as bad as I’d expected, thanks I think to the shady tree cover. A picnic bench under a tree, hairy with moss and lichen, gave us a chance to catch our breath before the final few kilometres. It was one of those surreal moments, sitting in a cool, damp forest world, tired and sweaty, discussing the merits of hydroelectricity over wind turbines, on a Sunday afternoon. Today really proved that you don’t need to be in the mountains, or even near a Tour de France mountain stage to experience real climbing. Our elevation today was 1440m, significantly higher than the Puy Mary climb.
|Above Le Mont Dore|
Our final full day was a 75km route following the C11 cycling circuit around the Puy de Sancy, starting from Tour D’Auvergne and taking us to Le Mont Dore, Besse and Lac Pavin, never losing sight of the Puy de Sancy. I always find it weird cycling into ski resort towns, past ski-hire shops and seeing chairlifts rising in the distance. The first part to Le Mont Dore was a gentle climb through forests with great views over the volcanic landscape, but from Le Mont Dore it was a steep climb up the Col de la Croix Robert and then a chilly descent in the shade of the mountain. Our plan was to lunch in Besse, but a picnic bench in the sun was too good an opportunity to miss out on, so Besse provided an early afternoon patisserie stop instead.
Besse is classified as a Petites Cités de Caractère and with its narrow, cobbled streets and dark stone houses with deep red shutters, it was very sweet. It also had an open boulangerie where we sampled the sables aux myrtilles, a blackcurrant jam filled shortbread biscuit. It was delicious and probably the only thing that got me moving again. The rest of the afternoon was tough and slow, and despite the food I’d eaten, I was feeling the kilometres and the climbing. Thankfully the view over the almost perfectly round volcanic Lac Pavin was stunning and helped keep me going.
|Look, no road, just a stand-alone bridge|
Most of the route so far had been on small, quiet roads, but the final part took us onto a busy main road, which then revealed the dreaded Road Closed ahead signs. Looking at the map, the diversion would add too many kilometres for my tired legs to cope with, so fuelled on haribos, we pushed on hoping to call its bluff once more. This one turned out to be a more serious closure, as a bridge was out, but as luck would have it, in order to get the construction vehicles in place to build the new bridge, the river had been diverted through some large pipes and a temporary gravel track laid over the top. We were able to walk the bikes right past and I was so relieved, it gave me the push I needed for the final twenty kilometres back to Tour d’Auvergne. It might have been a tough 75kms, but it was worth it for the views, the challenge and the patisserie.
|A very pretty cow|
As the sun was still shining on our last morning, we couldn’t resist a cycle into town for a coffee and croissant, then a quick 15km loop through forests and fields. It was a delightful ride with sunshine, dappled shade and cows, on sweeping single track roads up and down the valley and was a perfect post-exertion leg stretch, before the drive home.
|Perfect holiday views|
I really don’t think we could have asked for anything more for five-nights away and once again I am thankful for living in France, a country that offers so much to see, no matter where you are. The icing on the cake was returning home to some great news, but that’s for another blog post.