Guest Blog by Forest Howard for Correze Cycling Holidays
I came to France with a seriously elevated expectation for some of the best road cycling in the world. Not many cyclists will dispute the fact that France is their Mecca. France is where serious cyclists of the world seek to pilgrimage. The diverse terrain and beautiful scenery are steeped in bike racing lore. The hype can go on and on, but I know you know. After all this is a French bike blog. Though my expectations were high, riding in a foreign land always brings about stressful unknowns. What conditions are the roads in? Are there dangerous areas? Is the traffic bad? Are drivers respectful? So many questions raced around my head as I plunged head first into my stay in France with Correze Cycling Holidays..
I planned on staying at Correze Cycling Holidays for little over a month, during which time I helped around the house with dining and food prep. The Parrys (the family behind the scenes at Correze Cycling Holidays) and I connected through the website Workaway. Workaway connects hosts with helpers from foreign countries as a cultural exchange opportunity. I almost jumped out of my jeans when I learned of an opportunity to work at a bed and breakfast specializing in bike tours through the French country side. For me, this was a literal dream come true.
After accepting Samantha’s offer to work in exchange for room and board, I realized how very little I knew about the Correze Region of France. Hopping on the computer I furiously googled the topic. In addition to the Alps and Pyrenees France has a third, lesser known mountain range, called the Massif Central, situated in the south-central portion of the country. Any cyclist not living under a rock is familiar with epic scenes of The Tour de France traversing the Alps and Pyrenees but the Massif? Although the Massif region often has exposure during the Tour it rarely gets the hyped publicity of the other two mountain ranges. Even though some of the most unique climbs in the country can be found in this region, the terrain here is often billed as transitional.
Arriving at the Brive-la-Gillarde train station I was blown away the entire drive up to Correze Cycling Holidays. Narrow, manicured roads wound up green flat-topped hills with cavernous valleys in between. Tiny villages spatter the prominences. Those familiar with the east coast of the United States might see a resemblance to Appalachia. Rolling linear hills and valleys as far as the eye can see piqued my interest. The most meaningful riding I have done at home has been exploring the deep green rolling mountains of Western North Carolina. The French terrain looked equivalent. James assured me that these were not even the “big” mountains but foothills. The rugged peaks of the High Massif were further south east.
The technical definition of “massif” means a tightly-grouped region of mountains bound by faults. The Massif Central in France is predominantly volcanic in origin and distinct from both the alps and Pyrenees. Looking at France via Google Earth it is easy identify the Massif area, nestled tightly in the south-central portion of the country. If one looks at the profile of the region from north to south the Massif is completely asymmetrical. The northern departments of the Limousin region are filled with rolling hills and plateaus divided by steep valleys and gorges. Moving south into the region of Auvergne, the profile gains elevation and culminates in a series of rugged volcanic peaks. The highest, Puy du Sancy, is 1886 meters. This terrain was captivating. The rolling green hills punctuated by ancient towns create an immersive rural environment unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
Expansive plateaus, lush hills and big mountains all sound like promising ingredients for unforgettable road riding, but did this all live up to the fantasy land my mind had constructed? My first rides out with James were surreal. We passed hilltop chateaus and medieval villages from bygone centuries. The roads surrounding Correze Cycling Holidays are complete gems, meandering around hillsides and valleys in only a way France can provide. Adding gold to those gems was the utter lack of traffic through the Correzien region. Some days we would not see a car for the first 10 km of a ride.
Cycling in Correze affords an alien experience to someone who knows only the roads of North America. The French roads are minuscule (a single lane by American standers) and are immaculately paved and maintained. Villages are interconnected by a spiderweb-like road network that presents infinite riding possibilities. One would imagine that because the Limousin is so rural, road density would suffer, this is not the case. The road layout has its roots in antiquity. Roads follow the crest of hills and the undulations of the terrain in ways that the Romans found easily defensible. The road density here is an order of magnitude greater than anything I have experienced in rural America. But again, coming from America, the most unfathomable part of riding in Correze was nearly non-existent traffic. I would finish rides thinking does anyone in France drive?
Even when encountering the occasional car the respect they provide cyclists is other-worldly coming from the US. On one occasion, I had a driver slow down in front of me on a flat section of road. My initial confusion was put to rest when he waved me into the vehicle’s slip stream. I accelerated in the draft. We sped up and he paced me down an otherwise boring length of flat road. His son in the back seat turned around and pumped his fist out of the window. Moments like this highlight the bike culture of the of Correze and all of France.
When walking into many cafes and bars around the country it is commonplace to see a green, yellow and polka-dot hats hanging on the walls. The memorabilia a telling sign the Tour was once close and the local people proud of the cycling heritage. The bike culture of the region was icing on the cake to a complete five-star riding experience.
Cycling the Massif Central mountains offers cyclists some of the most challenging terrain for their cycling holidays in France. These volcanic mountains are very different in character and structure from those in the Alps or Pyrenees. In spring and summer they are clothed in green changing to the dramatic reds and golds of autumn. The Massif Central mountains are more rolling and less severe than other mountain ranges of France. This gives the cyclist a slightly different cycling experience. We organise day trips to the mountains which are an easy drive from our base in the Corrèze.
There is something here for all abilities. Try a gentle climb up from the stunning walled mountain town of Salers to the Col De Neronne (1242m). Alternatively you can ride the challenging route up to Pas de Peyrol (1588m) whose last few kilometres average 12 to 15%. The Peyrol has featured recently in the 2011 and 2016 Tour de France and is a perfect challenge for adventurous cyclists. Salers is classified as a ‘plus beau village de France’ – a most beautiful village. So it is worth visiting just to see this stunning medieval town!
If you want a real challenge there is the little-known Col Du Perthus which is accessed from the lovely little village of Mandailles-St-Julien. The village sits at the head of the Valley De La Jordanne on the route to the Peyrol from the south. After a strong coffee in Mandailles you will be ready for the relatively short but punchy 5km climb. It never seems to go below 10% and sometimes reaches 14-15%. This climb was used in the 2016 Tour de France and seemed to provide as big a challenge to many of the riders as did some of the longer classic climbs in the Alps. The feature picture for this Blog was taken when we took a group to watch this very stage. We could see the pain on the riders faces as they passed, the climb splitting the field wide open.
One of our favourite circuits for your Bike Tour in France includes the ascent of the Peyrol known as Puy Mary. It starts in Velzic in the Jordanne valley which is about a 75-minute drive from our base. Starting at an altitude of 700m, the D17 majestically winds its way up the beautiful valley at a gentle gradient until Mandailles. This is where the true climb begins up to the Peyrol. The first half of the climb is easily the hardest with the grade reaching 7-10%. Then as you emerge from the tree line at the 5.5km point it gets a little easier and you get the spectacular views of the climb and surrounding mountains.
From the top, the 360-degree views are worth a stop and a well-deserved drink before the steep descent and gentle climb across to the Col De Neronne (1242m). There follows a gentle ride down to Salers on the D37 which clings to the side of the long U-shaped valley. After lunch and refreshments in one of Salers many lovely restaurants the route heads back south via the Col St-George and the Col De Legal (1229m). The day finishes with a breath-taking descent back to the crew bus for tea and cake. If you drive here on your own, make sure you have something tasty in the car waiting for you. The idea of cake can keep you going during the last climbs of the day! The distance of the circuit is 80km and the vertical ascent is approximately 1550m.
There are more of our favourite circuits in this part of the Cantal which we will cover in future posts, so stay tuned for more ideas of great rides in this area.
James Parry, Chef de Cyclisme, Corrèze Cycling Holidays
Well the answer to this question is really, why you wouldn’t want to come here? Fabulous breath-taking scenery and with smoothly surfaced traffic free roads it is a cyclist’s nirvana. Then when you consider that this is a cycling holiday in FRANCE with it’s fabulous food culture, markets crammed with fresh local produce and sleepy villages with old men playing petanque under shady trees, there really seems no reason not to come here.
You have already done all the classic climbs of the Alps and the Pyrenees and written your name in the road alongside the legends. You have sweated through lavender scented air to the summit of Mount Ventoux and paid tribute at Toms memorial. So, what is next? Well if you are a Tour de France hound then there remains the classic Tour climbs of Puy Mary and Super Lioran in the Massif Central mountains.
You have no intention of sweating up the long climbs of the Tour in the Alps and Pyrenees. Having cycled regularly in the UK, you are fed up of road traffic and unsympathetic drivers. You are looking for something relaxing with some technical climbs that are a little challenging but not too long. Then the Upper Dordogne Valley gorges in the Massif Central will be perfect for you.
You are a couple, with one partner a mad keen cyclist and the other less confident. What you need to find is somewhere where you can both enjoy the cycling and ideally remain together as a couple by the end of the holiday. A guided cycling holiday with someone who really knows the local area would be ideal. A long day cycling with coffee stops and lunch on the side of a beautiful medieval quay on the Dordogne river – lovely. The help of a backup bus to get one of you back up the last climb of the day would be perfect. A cycling base with beautiful facilities where the less keen cyclist could pass a day by the pool whilst the ‘Keenie’ has an epic day out with other likeminded cyclists would be Nirvana. Corrèze in the Massif central can offer you all this.
If your answer to any of the descriptions above is yes, you should certainly choose Corrèze and the Massif Central for your cycling holiday in France. We look forward to welcoming you here!