Paris Roubaix via the Dordogne
by Richard Byatt, posted 7 September 2017
Richard follows in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, Richard the Lionheart and Tom Boonen plus Matt Hayman at the Paris Roubaix
In 1908 a young man was touring France on a bicycle, tracing the route of Richard the Lionheart. He was researching his thesis about the influence of the crusades on European Military Architecture at the end of the 12th century. On 16th August, his 20th birthday, he was staying at the Grand Hotel du Midi in Chalus, a small town in the south-west of the Haute-Vienne department of Limousin, close to the border with Aquitaine. The man’s name was Thomas Edward Lawrence and he was to become Lawrence of Arabia.
108 years later, five young men (OK, average age 52) with slightly less noble aims were sipping coffee on the terrace of the former Grand Hotel, now Le Sax’O restaurant.
The plan for the week was simple. Each morning over breakfast – fresh bread and croissants from the local boulangerie - we’d discuss where to ride. We had some routes preloaded on Garmins but our driver, host and La Vie en Velo’s owner Angus Parker had detailed maps covering all compass points. More importantly, he had local knowledge. We’d check the weather forecast and then head off. Angus followed a little later with the van and essential supplies – we had our own directeur sportif and support vehicle!
We soon discovered that there are very few flat runs in this part of the world! It’s either up or it’s down. We rode between 30 and 50 miles each day, totalling 200 for the five days but we climbed over 10,000 ft during that time.
The roads were a joy – long rolling descents and steady climbs with good surfaces and virtually no traffic, which was just as well as “Huile Toi!” is difficult to get your tongue round.
Highlights included Saint Jean de Côle one of les plus beaux villages de France. A cobbled bridge crosses the river Cole and a square flanked by the Chateau de la Marthonie and the Romanesque church of St Jean Baptist.
The Wednesday market at Piégut-Pluviers was fun, browsing the stalls or people watching from the terrace of the Brasserie de L’Etoile. The photogenic village of Abjat-sur-Bandiat was a favourite with the group.
Chateaux and other historic buildings are dotted across the heavily wooded landscape of the Perigord Vert. We’d often stop to admire the view and take photographs – a good opportunity to grab a drink and check the map. We only had one mechanical problem during the week. As we stopped to fix a puncture, Angus appeared as if by magic to help. On another memorable occasion, as we toiled up a climb on a cold day, the van appeared like a mirage at the top of the hill. Angus jumped out and opened a box of tartes aux fraises to replenish our sugar levels.
For our last ride we set out to visit Jumilhac-le-Grand. The town features the impressive Château de Jumilhac, dating from the 15th century. Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to have a good look around, having managed to lock myself in the toilet of the local café. With a chocolate chaud getting froid downstairs, I climbed out of the first floor window, across a flimsy lean-to roof and escaped via a log store. The rest of the group, tucking into panini and frites, were oblivious to this daring escape but it is believed the commune is discussing a plaque to mark the event, Jumilhac being on the Richard the Lionheart trail.
We agreed to another early start on the Sunday so that we could catch the famous Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, otherwise known as The Hell of the North. We arrived in the middle of the Arenberg Forest in plenty of time to have a picnic lunch and then make our way to the route. We picked a spot where the paved road turned to the famous cobbles. There was a real party atmosphere as French, Belgian and Dutch cyling fans mixed with several other nationalities in the sunshine.
The riders came through in a flash, teeth gritted as they hit the pave. We watched the exciting conclusion of the race on the big screen. In the Roubaix velodrome Australian Matthew Hayman pipped local Belgian favourite Tom Boonen on the line. For a while it looked like Team Sky rider Ian Stannard could grab the win but he came in third, equalling the best-ever British result for Paris-Roubaix. It was a great way to wrap up our week in France.
Richard travelled with the guidance of La Vie on Velo. He is a former B2B magazine and website editor now working freelance but spending too much time riding bikes. Look out for more of his reports and his bike back history.