Taking A Break From The Tour De France To Explore The French Countryside

Rob Annis

After tackling some of the most celebrated roads and climbs of the Tour de France over the previous few days, a few of the group decided to gear down for an afternoon and discover some of the French countryside.

Starting from the town of Foix, we would travel south to Ax-les-Thermes, where we would later catch the finishing climb of that day’s stage. I’d hoped to make it to the town early enough to tackle the Cat 1 climb myself, but 15 minutes into the ride, our Sports Tours International guide Ed informed me that was likely not going to happen. “Leisurely” would be the pace of the day.

Up to this point in the Tour, I’d been riding with a faster group of riders. On the first day, we were the de facto breakaway, speeding up the first col and away from the other riders. With our group established, we’d spent the last few days sniffing each other out on the roads, determining a pecking order – Who was the fastest? Who was the strongest on the climbs? Who went out like a rocket, but fizzled by the end? Who was a bit squirrely in the pack?

But today would be different. The group I would be riding with had nothing to prove; they just wanted to ride bikes, take in the sights and enjoy a spectacular race. Every few kilometers I would stop, pull out my camera and snap a few photographs of the beautiful mountains and meadows, something I never could have done with the other group, unless I wanted to make my way back solo.

Climbing the first unnamed col of the day, we arrived at the upper lip of the Ariège valley where we would wind our way through old-world villages with narrow, cobblestoned streets. Although we didn’t believe the Tour de France had ever traveled up this particular climb, painted names, faded with time, were scrawled across the road, remnants of past amateur races.

It was obvious the area wasn’t a popular spot for the cyclotourists, as the bemused residents would stop and watch us pedal up the col, giving us the same look they would give a goat with its head stuck in the fence. Three days before we were riding in front of thousands of cheering cycling fans, but on this day, the only sounds we heard were the birds and the occasional stream passing underneath a bridge.

For lightly traveled rural roads, they were exceptionally well maintained, better than many of the streets I ride on a daily basis back home. Since being in France, I’ve been amazed at the similarities between the French and American countryside. The farms and farmhouses look as if they were torn from my Hoosier heartland, except instead of gas stations and strip malls, you’re riding past 500-year-old castles with the massive Pyrenees mountains as a backdrop.

Rolling into a small village about halfway through our ride, we spied the remains of one of those castles perhaps on a hilltop overlooking the town. We didn’t spy many people and assumed many of them had made the trek down into the valley to watch day’s stage. We pedaled down a side street to a tiny café that appeared closed. Luckily the proprietress was outside, hanging her wash out to dry. She agreed to open for us, serving us coffee and tasty frozen ice cream treats.

The break was short-lived, and after taking a few moments to refill our water bottles at the town fountain, we were off again. Another short climb, and we were at the crossroads for Ax-les-Thermes.

Looking at our watches, we realized we had time before the race caravan would reach the village. At the crossroads, another sign pointed in the opposite direction for the summit of the minor Col du Marmare, a minor mountain rising only a little over 1,360 meters from the ground. After a bit of discussion and cajoling, my two Aussie teammates Di and Gillian pedaled toward the col, while the rest of the riders headed to the resort town.

The 6-kilometer trip to the top of Col du Marmare was remarkably easy, with no grade above 4 percent the entire ride. Thousands of pine and chestnut trees shaded the road, keeping us cool on such a hot day. The summit celebration was a bit muted just a few days after topping Mont Ventoux, so after a few quick photos at the top, we began our descent.

After briefly regrouping at the crossroads, we continued down the mountain, this time on a narrow road that felt more like a goat path. Although not as long or steep as Ventoux, the tight switchbacks and unexpected patches of gravel made it even more treacherous at times.

About 15 minutes later, we were deposited onto the main road leading into Ax-les-Thermes. By sheer luck, we managed to find several of our teammates in a café, enjoying salads and beer.

As we talked about the day’s ride, we didn’t compare speed or power data, but rather our favorite sights, describing the photos we took. The day’s ride wasn’t one I had planned in the weeks leading up to the trip, but it was one I was glad I experienced.