Cycling the French Cévennes: IKALP in France

Normally I ride a kilometer or more ahead of my partner while touring. She’s not obsessed with the physical exertion of riding the way I am, typically being far more invested in taking her time to enjoy the sights along the way. So as we blew through Marvejols, a sleepy little town in central France, I naturally pulled ahead and lost sight of her. But about 15 minutes outside of town an overwhelming sense of dread, pure anxiety overcame me and I pulled my mid-80’s Fuji and Burley trailer rig over to the side of the road and looked back. It was totally illogical, I had no reason to feel so horrible, but I did. My eyesight only went as far as the previous corner and she was nowhere to be seen. Deep in my being I knew I needed to turn around and find her. I was right.

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About 2 kilometers back, and with a heart that felt like it was going to jump out of my chest, I found her lying on the side of the road looking fearfully desperate. Her ankle was swelling up badly. Turns out she had stopped to answer nature’s call in the bushes off the side of the road. Lifting the bike with front racks and panniers chock full, she had dropped the front chain ring on her ankle and the teeth of the ring cut deeply into the tendons of her ankle. I quickly wrapped the ankle to keep the swelling down and we road like hell to the nearest hotel a few kilometers back. By the time we arrived she was in agony and I literally had to carry her and our bikes, trailer, and panniers up to the room to rest up and hopefully heal.

The plan, to tour through France’s gorgeous Cévennes mountains, was dashed for the moment, and as days dragged by and the hotel bills piled up, we were growing a little desperate. Thankfully, I was able to find Couchsurfers in town who offered to host us. It was one of those stroked of fortunate brilliance that flash periodically in our lives when we need them the most. Julie and Laura took us into their home, made us food, gave us a beautiful room to sleep in, and supported us in every way possible until my partner’s ankle was fully healed. We rehabbed the ankle in their swimming pool and nursed it back to health in 3 or 4 days.

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But the most beautiful part of staying with Julie and Laura was their overwhelming hospitality. They were genuinely interested in sharing France with us, and given that they lived just on the edge of the Cévennes, we were able to tap into the local knowledge of this wild place. My partner was going a little stir crazy while still healing, so we all went on drives through the mountains. The south-central mountain range is spectacular. They cut across France from Montagne Noire to Monts du Vivarais. At 1700 meters, Mont Lozere is the highest peak. Both the Loire and Allier are major rivers that flow through the mountains. Julie and Laura took us through the largest canyons, the Gorges de la Jonte and the Gorges du Tarn. Seeing the major geographical features by car before riding our bikes through them was incredible helpful. I was able to take details notes of the routes and plot coordinates of major features in our Bryton 50T GPS device we picked up from BikesnBits while visiting a friend in London before flying to Paris. A high quality GPS system is a must for traveling through difficult terrain like the Cévennes.

When our party was more fully healed we were taken to the local swimming hole on the Ardeche river. It was filled with locals on a brutally hot late July day and we spent the whole afternoon lounging, swimming, diving into deep pools or crystal clear mountain water. After the anxiety of my partner’s injury, it was a welcome point of rejuvenation. Even better, our hosts’ friends came to meet us at the river, and when we finished swimming, hot and tired and hungry, they took us to a local town for burgers and beer.

It was an interesting group of folks. Some were students, a few farmers, hippies, and one guy who is literally a French rap artist of international acclaim. After dinner we strolled back to a local farm owned by one of the guys, and settled in for a relaxing evening drinking beer and chatting around a fire. The farmer thought it was the perfect opportunity to invite more friends over, and literally the entire farming community came out to say hello to the foreign bicycle travelers who had stumbled deep into the Cévennes unawares. They were so friendly and so relaxed. The evening was a blissful highlight we will never forget.

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Finally all healed up we tearfully bade our hosts goodbye and cycled off into the Gorges du Tarn. We climbed mountains that took the whole day to cycle up and 15 breezy minutes to cycle down. We stopped to survey the majesty of deep canyons, towering mountains and rolling hills that plowed through the landscape for days. We passed ancient monasteries, churches, breweries, and farmland tucked so neatly away you could swear it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the Cévennes are so gorgeous – the terrain is so brutal that outsiders have been kept at bay and the population has been able to isolate themselves. As we exited the canyons and the mountains faded behind us, and the Mediterranean rose before us, we cycled on to Montpellier and Marseilles where more adventures were to be had. But the Cévennes will always hold a place in our traveling hearts for the beauty of the land and even more so, the people.

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