Top Ride: South of France
The South of France’s Languedoc region is a beautiful place to visit with its spectacular scenery, history, food and wine but it’s also one of the best places in the world to ride a bike. Small roads through tiny, historic villages, vineyards, forests and a good collection of medium mountains, make it as amazing as the tourist guides promised as PEZ’s Chris Selden recently found out.
Note: This is the third in a series of Top Ride articles from our man in France, Chris who already showed us the Alps and Paris in previous weeks. This time he checks out roads a little closer to his home base of the Herault Valley in the South of France
Ok, I’ll admit it – I’m spoiled. I’m lucky enough to live in one of the best regions in the world for bike riding – hands down, no questions about it, the South of France is just a great place to ride a bike. I’ve previously written a little about my spot of paradise in the Herault Valley but upon meeting our latest PEZ contributor, Steve ‘Veloroo’ Prokop I’ve been encouraged to leave my little corner of the world and see some more spectacular roads just a bit further south but still in the gorgeous Languedoc region.
I first met Steve on the startline at a cyclosportif race not far from my place in Lodeve in 2013. I was there to support my occasional training partner and PEZ columnist, road pro Clément Koretzky who was the headline name for the event so I entered the ride when on the startline I spotted an unusual sight at a French event – a guy in a bright kit with Kangaroos on it.
As an Aussie myself I was thinking there was a fair chance this guy was Australian and after a quick ‘bonjour’ with which he replied in the most Crocodile Dundee-esque accented French ‘bonjour’ back – my Aussie theory was proved correct. We only had a minute or two to chat before the race kicked off but his smile and obvious enthusiasm for riding was clearly embedded on me and we promised to catch up later that year for some rides together.
I unfortunately never made it down to his beautiful village of Saint-Genies-de-Fontedit in 2013 but this year was to be a different story. Once Steve got back from Australia chasing the TDU around for PEZ we organised a catch up straight away.
My best mate Tim was coming over from Australia himself for a whirlwind trip and after amazing him with some spectacular riding in the Alps last year he obviously wanted to get some more riding in again this time back in France. Only problem was my lack of spare bike this year for him so a quick phone call to VeloRoo had me sorted with one brand new – and I mean brand new Focus Carbon bike with Ultegra 11spd and some lightweight wheels. Tim – you can ride my bike!
In VeloRoo’s stable of Focus machines there’s everything from touring bikes, city bikes to women’s racers and top flight road machines and this is what I was lucky enough to hire for this short time, a 2014 Focus Cayo Evo 2.0 upgraded with some light weight wheels. Steve looks after every single one of his machines like they’re his kids and when I remarked on this he responded – ‘Well they are, and they all have names you know!’
Yes, this is a man who truly loves his bikes and I was given the honor of naming this latest red sparkling newbie he was renting me as with zero miles on the clock she was yet to be christened. The pressure was on me as each of his bikes are named for various reasons, there’s French ones & Australian ones but being that all his bikes are German Focus machines I was surprised that there were no German named machines which got me thinking…
I had to ride the machine before naming it though to get a feel for its personality and style and Steve had the perfect getting to know you circuit planned for Tim and I and my new bike. Despite the fact that I was only an hours drive south of my place I’d never actually ridden around the area before so Steve gave us some instructions and assured me that I’d be blown away by the circuit.
Blown away Steve? No. I live in cycling paradise remember and sure I was impressed with the little to no traffic, smooth roads, rolling hills, vineyards and all but then came the historic towns, spectacular gorges and just plain fun, twisty roads – ok Steve – you’ve officially blown me away now!
As I was crossing through these beautiful little towns with each seemingly prettier than the last I was at one with my rental machine which is surprising because I’m very picky with my bikes and normally have to change something on them before I’m happy. It was responsive, lightweight, a little bit aggressive, a little bit sexy with its Ferrari red paint job, German, it was definitely a female if I’m going to get this up close and personal with it for hours on end…..I’ve got it, I’ll call her Steffi! Yep, after the German tennis player Steffi Graf, fast, a little bit aggressive, sporty – the perfect name for her. Steve would be pleased…I think!
Now that Steffi was named and I’d been highly impressed by Steve’s little 70km circuit around the Vallée de l’Orb it was time to head back and continue our adventures the next day around Gignac an hour North of Steve in my part of the Herault Valley. I still had a lot to show Tim and I wanted to put in more kilometres on young Steffi.
As it happened I had one of my favorite circuits of all time planned out for Tim, Steffi and I – 105km around the Lac du Salagou area that took in a number of the local climbs without any crazy big ones and with scenery to keep Tim amazed as he rounded each corner. Despite avoiding any of the big climbs this circuit still comes in at just over 1600m of elevation gain so it’s far from flat but is worth every ounce of effort for the roads covered. Once again like Steve’s circuit the day before it was all about the small, almost abandoned roads in the middle of spectacular countryside, challenging hills with ever changing scenery and beautiful, historic villages.
One of the towns crossed on this circuit was the historic town of Pezenes-les-Mines with its ancient castle, Roman ruins and history that dates back to even the Neolithic period some 8-10,000 BC. Yep, people have lived in these parts for a long time but what they should be doing is riding bikes in these parts!
Next up on the agenda after a few more hills were negotiated was a ride by the famous Lac du Salagou which is a large man made lake popular for boating, windsurfing, fishing etc and also for swimming in the summer. If you do choose to swim down there in summer though don’t wear a white swimming costume as it won’t be white when you leave – it will be a reddish-brown. The water is clean for swimming but it’s the red dirt of the region that turns everything the same color and with its canyons and weather chiselled rock formations the entire place reminds me of old westerns from TV or even Outback Australia.
The view down to the Lac du Salagou and the ghost town of Celles. It was abandoned back in the ’50s when the lake was made with the dam but the water never actually got that high to claim the village.
Steffi and I at the top of the Col de la Roquette. A very popular local climb with a great road surface and a not too difficult gradient of just 4% for its 3.7km.
After the circuit was finished and the usual, ‘You’re a lucky guy’, ‘I can’t believe this is where you go riding every week’ statements died down from Tim, he then asked an excellent question, “With such great roads, climbs and scenery why doesn’t the Tour de France pass through here all the time?”.
Money I believe is the answer Tim! The race often goes through Montpellier the capital of the region but to be honest the stages there are normally boring sprint stages where the race has avoided all the best roads and hills on the way but that is how the Tour works – the big towns pay the start or finish fees to ASO or the ski stations for the mountain stages. With no ski stations in the region there is no money to hold a medium mountain stage in the Languedoc despite the fact that it would be just as good if not better than any medium mountain stages that the Vosges mountain for example could provide (a region where I’ve also lived and another great place to ride).
With Tim reluctantly back on the plane it was now time for me to even more reluctantly give Steffi back to Steve. Before that though he promised to take me out for one more ride and after the first ride’s beauty was still burned on my brain a chance to do another of Steve’s favorite rides was something that I was certainly not going to pass up.
“There’s a little climb involved though Chris – hope you’re not too tired….”
The ‘little climb’ was actually one of the biggest in the region, the Col de Fontfroide – 11.5km in length at an average of 6.7% that leads up to an altitude of 972m.
There was some other climbing to be done before the summit of the Fontfroide was reached but the beauty of the region and Steve’s enthusiasm had me entertained and kept my mind off my tired legs from the last few days of solid kilometres that I’d already covered with Tim.
The circuit on this day was actually an out and back effort so after our photo session at the summit was over it was time to hit the descent and those 12km of painful climbing that I’d just done flew by very quickly on one of the most fun descents that I’ve done in a long time.
Back in the valley it was then off to the historic town of Olargues which is ranked as one of the most beautiful villages of France. Yes, that is a serious title and in fact there are 156 villages throughout France who have made it into this exclusive club thanks to meeting an extremely strict set of criteria based on history, beauty and cleanliness.
Olargues like the whole region is well worth a visit and I can highly recommend it for a tourist day. If you didn’t go riding when you were here visiting though it would be a travesty and I don’t think you’d forgive yourself either after seeing the roads. Do it the easy way and leave the bike at home and simply hire a top end machine from Veloroo or bring your own bike and follow one of his Tours. For more info on the region and on Steve and Julia’s Tour options at Veloroo check out their website, veloroo.com and tell them I sent you – you may even be lucky enough to take Steffi out!
Endless summers doing bike tours in France and Australia, a great wife who runs the business with him and is as passionate about it as Steve is and a simply amazing region to live – I dont think Steve’s going to stop smiling anytime soon.