The dates were picked, the location decided and the train tickets booked. It was all running as smoothly as Froome in the Ventoux. And then.
And then Corona Virus hit and we almost had to cancel the whole thing. But this would be forgetting the riders’ unfailing enthusiasm and our hosts’ relentless perseverance. After two months of lockdown, as soon as the restrictions were lifted, we boarded the train in Paris with mounting excitement. Two hours and 600 km south, we got off at Valence TGV Station.
Our destination: Ardeche. This region, to the west of the Rhone, offers everything a cyclist could ever dream of: roads without cars and lots and lots of hills. Put simply, there are no flat roads in Ardeche. If ever there was one, they covered it with a hill. In addition to this, the favourable climate and warm welcome from the locals make a very promising recipe for success. Emile Mercier, co-founder of Mercier Manufacturers, who's father and uncles founded Mercier Cycles in 1919, came to pick us up at the station. It was another hour by car before we arrived at the eagle's nest which would be our base camp for the next three days. The house that friends were lending us was incredible: suspended at the end of a valley, on the side of a cliff, it looked out over a river. Emile explained its history to us. It had been in his friend's family for 400 years and used to be an old textile factory, using the water from the river to make the fabric. Of course, nothing ever goes exactly to plan, and one of the two houses in which we were meant to be staying, was under construction. Due to the demands of the Covid pandemic, the work had not been finished on time, meaning we were not able to stay there. There was no need to worry, this would instead turn into a 'summer camp' style trip, with two people bunking per bed in the one house. We spent our first dinner together, thrilled to finally be reunited, after all these weeks of lockdown. We savoured how lucky we were to be together. Even Julien, who had fallen off his bike two days earlier in the south of France and had broken his collarbone, was able to join us. This meant laughing was extremely painful for him. Needless to say we all tried our best to make him laugh.Day 1
Rain threatened. We didn't skimp on breakfast whilst we identified the route. We were headed for Fayolle Hill. We took our time getting dressed as it was still early. We gathered the bikes that the brand Girs had lent us to test. After one more coffee for the road we began to pedal. The group were keen to get going and we kept up the rhythm from the first ascent. We'd be feeling it by the end of the day.The atmosphere was quite surreal. We did not pass a single car for miles. The lockdown had just ended in France and nature had reclaimed control. We continued without a sound along the road. It was only when passing through several villages that we were reminded that civilisation is never far. However we were in Ardeche, a wild region and it was easy to imagine that local life must not have been easy only a few decades ago. After a few hours, we reached the summit. We didn't stop for long as the wind, which we had been protected from whilst hidden deep in the valleys, reminded us of its presence and encouraged us to make our way back quickly. The heavy, black clouds it blew our way also encouraged our swift return. The descent. We rode carefully as a recent storm had left the road strewn with branches. We enjoyed the view that spread before us. Endless hills and isolated hamlets seemed suspended in greenery. We returned to Saint-Sauveur-de-Montagut just as the first drops of rain began to fall. We cleaned the bikes and tucked into the aperitif. The rain got heavier, and threatening our next day's cycling, slightly dampened our good mood. However, it also provided a very good excuse to make the most of the evening's meal.
It was raining. Heavily. We waited until it calmed down before getting our second day started. Emile had chosen a restaurant he knew well for lunch. So with our destination set for midday, we were off to a good start. Emile seemed very amused by his choice of restaurant and we would find out why later. Back on the roads, which were damp this time. We follow ascents with swift descents. As natural as a turning chain, it seemed like a never-ending cycle of thirty minutes climbing followed by five minutes of descent. Thank you Ardeche. We arrive in la Remise, in Antraigues. We had barely dismounted our bikes before we were welcomed by Yves, the manager, and Yvette, his sister. You can't make up stuff like this. Yves and Yvette. It was an incredible place. More than a restaurant, it was also a museum dedicated to rally racing. Photos, jerseys and helmets filled the place, a carefully constructed collection, built up over a lifetime. On the walls: signed photos of racers, sports cars, Porsche, Alpine€¦ all the legendary vehicles of the sport. La Remise is the regional racing capital and many Presidents dined here. Only the Obama's and the Trump's seemed to be missing from the list, although given the energy Yves spent telling us all the details of his address book, it could only be a matter of time. Martin, with his charming good looks, caught Yvette's eye and as a consequence, her serving spoon, with which she did not stop serving him. He needs fattening up a bit, this young man. We didn't tell her that Martin is €¦ a vegetarian. The dishes followed one another and were a great source of comfort: truffled eggs, fresh trout from the local river, steak, regional cheese, dessert (homemade, of course), coffee. We were replete. Replete but not exhausted. The rain had finally eased up and invited us to continue on our way. The kilometres we travelled increased, we continued climbing and new, ever-changing landscapes flew by us. Finally, we seemed to reach what must be the end of the valley. Only horses rose their heads to greet us and enquire as to our presence in such a remote place. In the distance, the clouds opened up enough to let through a few rays of sunshine. We could make out the rain falling on the neighbouring valley. Thank you Ardeche. We started to head back. Back at base camp. We cleaned the bikes and gears and made any necessary repairs. Followed by an aperitif of course, the perfect opportunity to discover the local Ardeche delicacy: la caillette. This is the real deal. A mix of minced meat and herbs cooked in the oven and then eaten warm for the aperitif. There's not much space left for dinner. Thank you Ardeche. Day 3
We had been waiting for it. And it arrived. With an early start at 5.45am to ensure we made the most of it. The sun. It started off temperate but soon heated up the still-sleeping Ardeche roads and steam rose from the forests surrounding us. The tarmac was steaming too. The moisture soon evaporated, leaving the roads as if they were removing a layer of protective clothing. At the halfway point, after three hours of cycling, we took a much needed coffee break. It was only 10 o'clock in the morning. Choosing a village sitting on the edge of a cliff, we unclipped our pedals. It was market day in the village square, the perfect spot for a sweet treat. We sat, or rather invaded, a cafe's terrace and enjoyed the moment. Of course, we spoke mostly about cycling gear. We continued on our way and through one of the most beautiful valleys of the weekend. It was the perfect spot for taking photos. Alexis, the other co-founder and organiser of the shoot, joined us by car with the photographer and a surprise: a Mercier racing bike. The very same one that rode in the Tour de France 50 years ago, accompanied by the outfit that went with it. Franck was picked to ride this vintage bike, with its different gear shifts on the frame. He got a taste of the sensations and it was strange to see this figure from another era of cycling, that was not really so long ago, appearing around the corner. We all felt a certain emotion seeing the Mercier brand reborn in such a way. From bicycles to cycling clothes, linked by the common thread of French design. We all understood that in this moment we were part of a rich history and happy to be able to make our contribution. Eleven o'clock. Our train home was not until mid-afternoon and we intended to celebrate the cycling weekend with another, well-deserved aperitif. We made the most of the last kilometres of descent through the sunny valleys to press down on the pedals and make up the pace. The counters were flying, the watts were out of control. And we felt that pervasive feeling that time spent in the saddle is richer than normal time. Base camp, midday.
Caillette, cheese, rosé. Emile, who had been cycling with his friend, joined us. He had also worked up a few hours in the saddle on the counter. We shared our tales from the road for the day. As well as some good jokes for the pleasure of seeing Julien, who had stayed at home with his broken collarbone, writhe with laughter despite the pain.
Thank you Ardeche. I'll see you soon.