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TOURS DE FRANCE : Pedaling through Provence, two neophytes learn the truth--a biking trip is incredibly hard work . . . but worth it

August 13, 1995|REBECCA ROBINSON | Robinson is an Atherton, Calif.-based free-lance writer. and

CASSIS, France — I stood astride my rented bicycle atop a five-mile-long hill in the heart of Provence. Soaked through, shivering like a belly dancer in Nome, stomach in turmoil, I glared at my empty water bottle and hissed at my husband, Mark, "This was your bright idea."

It wasn't his idea. I agreed to go on a vacation with his family, and he agreed to go on our first bicycle tour. I bought a book on bicycling through France that said that organized tours were for weenies with more dollars than sense. After trying to decode some of the maps, and noting the frequent occurrence of the words "challenging route," I started looking through magazines for a good tour. Weenies we might be, but at least we wouldn't be lost weenies, alone and broken down on a backcountry road.

I discounted immediately all the ads that had such phrases as "camping and chuck wagon" and "mountainous terrain" and "you will experience hardship together." Out of the remaining high-end operations, we picked Chateaux Bike Tours, a Denver-based company, pretty much at random. We would spend nine days with them, bicycling from chateau to chateau and gourmet dinner to gourmet dinner, while they carried our luggage (and any tired bicyclists) behind in a van. We would fly into Paris and bring bicycling clothes, and they would bring bicycles, helmets and water bottles. They promised splendid accommodations and gourmet Provencal cuisine, with olives and lamb and aioli and muscular red French wine. They didn't promise good weather.

The first day of the bike trip wasn't so bad. A gray morning in mid-May found us meeting up with the group in Montelimar, a small town three hours south of Paris by the TGV bullet train. Mark and I were the youngest; next were Mike and Jessica, pilots celebrating their anniversary. Darren and Allison turned out to work on "Melrose Place," and were later cornered by a small delegation who begged for hints on upcoming plot twists. Jason and Cheryl were from Nova Scotia, and Charles and Carol had previously bicycled across Iowa.

Ben and Dave, the trip leaders, were pleasant and efficient and got the 14 of us outfitted and ready to ride in under an hour. We were bound for Rochegude, about 31 miles south along winding country roads. Ben took the lead and we headed out of Montelimar.

*

We flocked together like baby ducks all day, following the Rho^ne River south. Viviers was the first stop, where we examined a Gothic church and adjusted our bicycles. Lunch was a picnic on stone benches in Pierrelatte's tiny town square. The day slipped away quickly as we crossed and recrossed the Rho^ne and spun past the long rows of grapevines.

At day's end we discovered something disheartening: Every town in that part of Provence was on a hill, and every chateau we were staying in was at the highest point in the town. When we got to Rochegude, I stood on my pedals and panted my way up the zigzag cobblestone street, grateful for the sturdy mountain bike's fat tires and low gears.

The Cha^teau de Rochegude's encircling wall was pierced by an aristocratic iron gate, and the wheat-colored stone walls were embroidered with ivy and painted with warm afternoon light. Grimy with road dirt and sweat, Mark and I found our way up a marble staircase into a high-ceilinged room that dwarfed the king-size bed.

Two hours later, post-bath and post-nap, I realized two things. First, I had been bicycling all day on a pretty sparse lunch--in other words, I could have eaten the flowered chintz bedspread without a second thought. Second, it was only six o'clock, and dinner wasn't until the fashionable continental hour of eight. I groaned and laid back down, trying to pretend I was on a reducing diet at a spa.

At 7:30 we rejoined the group for cocktails on the flagstone patio outside the dining room. My prayers were answered; with champagne came canapes: little toasts with pa^te, cheese puffs, and tiny pastry boats with caviar. Mark stepped on my foot as I started toward the table for fourths. Ben gave a nice little speech that I couldn't hear over the growling of my stomach. As Mark and Jason chatted about antique British cars, I stared glumly across the garden, champagne glass in one fist, and wondered if I really wouldn't have preferred a burger at five to a rack of lamb at eight.

When it finally arrived, dinner was mouthwateringly good. The tomato consomme was a clear, delicately red soup, tart but subtle. The veal melted in the mouth, and the hazelnut meringue was brittle on the outside, then a cloud of sweetness within. Mark and I toddled off to bed, stomachs rounded and full, brains slightly foggy from a sufficiency of strong red Cotes du Rho^ne, and no sense of foreboding for what was to befall us on the morrow.

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