Berliners René and Hilde have been travelling together for about six years. Bicycles are their daily choice for commuting through and exploring the rural landscapes surrounding the city. And so, naturally, they have come to spend a large percentage of their holidays perched on a saddle too.
For them, there are plenty of sophisticated reasons to travel by bike but, more than anything and put simply, it is just a lot of fun. The both of them are the first to accept that they are not hardcore expedition bike traveller types seeking out the worst possible gravel roads in the most remote areas of the middle of nowhere. Quite the opposite – they really try to find an appropriate tempo to their surrounding landscapes, stopping at interesting places, avoiding bigger cities; content whenever they discover a nice bakery or coffee bar for a generous pause. The cycle touring way…
This trip took them on a 1900km circular journey from Geneva, to the picturesque Camargue region on the South Coast of France, and back.
It was around 2010 when we began riding off on longer bike trips. We had some old school mountain bikes with racks attached, somehow, that we loaded with pairs of panniers. Our first trip was a small tour from Berlin to the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, and we are happy to put our hands up and say that Rene and I took waaay too much stuff. Still, it was a great trip and importantly long enough to get to know each others riding strengths, our needs and capabilities on the road. Once we were back home we focused on finding some proper touring bikes, eventually finding two old but beautiful randonneur style machines from the 1990ies – slick machines, built to last – and in the years after we spent more and more time touring on our new old bikes in Poland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and, of course, throughout Germany.
One March, we booked night train tickets from Berlin to Geneva – a great start point for exploring France, and the furthest south we could get on trains without too many inconvenient changes. We left Berlin at the beginning of June with three-and-a-half weeks of freedom ahead of us. No exact route planned out, just some landmarks we wanted to travel to. Nothing booked, apart from our train back home from Geneva.
Our idea was to follow the Rhone river all the way down to the south coast, which we did, only really deviating around Grenoble to explore the astonishingly beautiful and calm Vercors region. From there, Rene and I joined back with the Rhone to ride through Provence, and climb the infamous Mt.Ventoux in the worst possible weather conditions – no view, just fog and cold – finally reaching the seaside in the overwhelming Camargue region, which forms the delta of the Rhone river beyond Avignon. Then from Arles, the main town of the Camargue region, we headed all the way back to Geneva northwards through the Cevennes and Ardeche Mountains …
"The Cevennes mountain roads we chose to ride were narrow and steep … the rain made the vivid green landscape look and felt like a greenhouse. Clouds embraced the mountains like old friends, shrouding us too as we rode north…"
Our day riding in the Cevennes Mountains was a real highlight for us, out of all the experiences on this trip. The smaller roads we chose to ride were narrow and steep; much steeper than any before, even Mt. Ventoux felt more gracious. It had been raining a lot so the vivid green landscape look and felt like a greenhouse. Clouds embraced the mountains like good old friends, shrouding us too as we rode north between Anduze and Saint-Jean-du-Gard where we encountered a sort of farmers market – the perfect location for our obligatory ‘we’ve ridden the first 20km of the day, let’s have a coffee and pastry’ break. The already drunk French pensioners sitting besides us pointed towards the dark thunderclouds over our heads and then at us. We didn’t feel like getting drunk with them quite so early in the day, so we kindly refused the drinks they offered and left the place for a ride in the rain.
It was too warm to wear rain jackets at first, but the temperature cooled every metre we climbed up into the valley; the road winding up the Saint-Croix-Vallee, where we turned towards a much smaller road heading into direction of the Corniche de Cevennes. This section was really special; a relatively short road crossing plenty of contour lines meant we should have noticed it before. It was a real-life lesson in interpreting a road map correctly as there was no going back. We climbed slowly, workers gazing at us skeptically as we passed their construction site. It was raining. No. Actually it was pouring so, with it being summer, the humid conditions
and big inclines meant we really felt the weight of our bikes. Packed with all our cycle touring essentials (and the odd nick nack, of course) each bike easily weighed up to 24kg. Maybe more. We honestly never wanted to know for good reasons; naivety is best. We struggled on.
I saluted the Col de Faisses with a handstand while Hilde stood captivated by her super-wrinkled hands and toes; we had a good laugh looking at each other. From then on, it was time to speed downhill – a 15km descent to Florac sounded like a great finish for the day but descending is a cold business, and I think given how wet we were, we would have taken a few kms of flat / uphill riding instead. As silly as that sounds. We flew into Florac and did some quick food shopping before, luckily, finding a pleasant simple campsite besides the gorgeous Tarnon River to recoup for the night. Staring at the climbing rocks towering the opposite waterfront, we enjoyed our well-deserved pot full of pasta and heartwarming sips of red wine. As we went to sleep after a shower, even the stars showed up for us.
The following few days to Geneva from Florac were super hot and sunny, the sky was a comfortable and rather boring solid blue. Rene and I were more than happy to have experienced that day in the Cevennes as it was – wet, exhausting and incomparably intense. It is those times on the bike that we appreciate and remember the most…