Last September I went on an oil painting holiday in France with my husband Chris. Why I hear my cycling friends ask. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f54cWas there a sportive they’d not heard about or was I thinking ahead for the time when I’m too old to swing a leg over my bike?

No – I took a chance accompanying him when he did the same course two years ago and fell in love with cycling in the area …. and staying in a catered Gite with fabulous host and hostess Giles and Louise.  Our destination was the Ariege – a quiet part of France many people have never even heard of. It’s not a hugely developed tourist destination and it’s one of the poorest and lowest populated departments in France. With a chunk of the department in Parc Naturel des Pyrenees Ariegeoises, undulating countryside in the north and the foothills of Pyrenees in the south it’s a fabulous destination for cycling. The roads are good, unbelievably quiet and the drivers you do see are considerate.

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Stopping to enjoy the view

If you’re a cyclist you’ve probably heard of, or ridden, the Ariegeoise – a challenging cyclosportive that takes place around June each year starting in Tarascon sur Ariege, a town on the eastern edge of the Parc Naturel des Pyrenees Ariegeoises.

You may also remember the very wet Bastille Day in 2017 when the Tour de France Stage 13 was in the Ariege. The stage started in St Girons took the riders over 3 climbs – Col de Latrape, Col d’Agnes and Mur de Peguere – then finished in Foix. A finished etched on the hearts of the French with one of their own – Warren Barguil – winning the stage. Ironic as we had perfect weather for a week in September apart from the day I rode up Col d’Agnes when it was cold and wet with nothing to see save wet tarmac! Yto7CpIZRWmyJCQXYAWSPw_thumb_1f5b2The upside was that the supermarket at the base of the climb in Aulus-les-Bains did something very un-French. It stayed open at lunchtime plus it had a coffee machine.

 

The evening we arrived I only had an hour to ride before I needed to change for supper I’d been out 10 minutes before I saw my first car so I started the silly game I played on my last visit – count the number of cars I see. It’s more difficult than you think, when there are so few, but 14 in the rush hour make it pretty quiet. Because much of the farming is arable, and there are only small numbers of livestock in any one place, another massive plus for me is the absence of horsefly-type biting insects.

The undulating countryside is perfect for interval training and the foothills have some excellent climbs. Close to where I stayed the straight, flat road from Daumazan to Sabarat was great for time trial practice then taking by a left turn in Sabarat takes you up a Cat 4, 1.7 mile climb to Carla Bayle with an average gradient of 6%.  A short climb by many standards but a challenge nevertheless as it goes without saying that it’s a Strava segment.

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Sabarat

Going to the well known climbs in Europe has it’s place, and I do love doing them, but for me there’s more to cycling than bragging rights about how quickly, or in my case, slowly, I rode the Alpes d’Huez hairpins, Mont Ventoux etc. It really winds me up when the first thing a fellow cyclist can think to ask about a trip to the Alps was how long it took you do do X climb! Looking at a map, memorising the names of some villages and just heading out using the sun as a guide to the direction direction your heading is the freedom most of us can’t enjoy in day to day life. It’s so refreshing and invigorating.  If you’re female and you’ve accidentally worn the bib and brace without the bio-zip you’re not riding for hours looking for a secluded convenience stop!  Having said that a number of reasonable sized villages do have public conveniences.

The only down side is that you won’t find is lots of coffee stops with delicious cakes … but for me part of being on holiday is not doing what we do at home.

Practical stuff

  • You can drive or fly to Toulouse-Blagnac airport. I’d recommend a hire car if you fly.
  • We stayed at www.manzac.com – which hosts catered courses in May, June, September and October or during July and August the gites can be rented for self catering. I’m contemplating running a group week there. Watch this space.
  • Although its not a top tourist destination there are a good number of Gites to rent.
  • Arm yourself with the map 1:100 000 No 173 St-Gaudens Andorra.
  • If you don’t fancy just exploring look at Strava for routes.
  • If you forget anything there’s a Decathlon in Foix.
  • Google translates App on your phone and a phrase book unless you speak a few words of French.
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