Starting a cycle hire business in the Gorges du Tarn
Cycling enthusiasts Tessa Meijer and Geoff Moss tell Stephanie Sheldrake how they found their dream job when they started a cycle hire business in a part of France they had loved for many years – the Gorges du Tarn
It was during a camping holiday back in 1997 that Tessa and Geoff first fell in love with the Gorges du Tarn. As part of the couple’s first summer holiday together, and they set off to France, with Tessa’s Citroën AX full of borrowed camping equipment and no fixed itinerary. They ended up in this spectacular part of the country after Tessa remembered that the area had been recommended to her by her aunt and uncle. “The gorge itself is a very deep limestone canyon about 50 kilometres long. It’s very beautiful,” she explains.
Tessa’s love affair with the south of France began when she was a child. “My aunt and uncle bought a house in the Dordogne about 46 years ago so we spent all our family holidays there. We used to rent a house close to their place every August. More than my two siblings, I was the one who soaked it up and fell completely head over heels in love with the south of France at nine years old,” she recalls.
“After we’d discovered the Gorges du Tarn, we spent all our holidays here, and eventually bought a small ramshackle house to use as a holiday base,” continues Tessa. Both Tessa and Geoff loved cycling and would spend their holidays discovering the area by bike. It soon became clear to them that they wanted to live there and began trying to work out how to make it possible.
At the time, the couple were living in Brighton and spent long days commuting to their office-based jobs at the Tate Gallery in London. “A visit to Mont Ventoux in Provence to do some cycling one summer persuaded us that a cycling business would be good in the Gorges du Tarn, but we didn’t know how to start,” says Tessa.
“Because we’d wanted to move here for some time, we spent quite a lot of time trying to work out what we could do to make a living. The first thing we thought of was some sort of bicycle business – either renting or selling, or possibly a shop because it’s crying out for it here,” she adds.
Circumstances outside their control enabled the couple to make their dream a reality. “In the early spring of 2011 Geoff’s father died suddenly, followed soon after by my mother who had been ill for some time,” explains Tessa. “This left us both bereft, shell-shocked and parent-less, but also in a position to claim our inheritances.”
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That summer, while on holiday in the area, the couple visited some local estate agents. “We were lucky enough to see an amazing house in a fantastic location by the river. Our souvenir that summer was a potential new home in Lozère,” says Tessa.
On returning to work after the holiday, Geoff was summoned to a meeting and offered redundancy. “This was a shock and emotionally very hard, but eventually it was another opportunity,” says Tessa.
With the money from their inheritances, Tessa and Geoff decided to buy the old stone house they had seen when on holiday. Situated high the verdant hills in the small village of Prades, the characterful house is five kilometres from Sainte-Enimie, often referred to as the capital of the Gorges du Tarn. “We knew we wanted to live here one day so we snapped it up,” explains Tessa. The sale went through and they were able to take the keys to their new French home in November 2011.
The final piece in the jigsaw was an article in Living France’s sister title French Property News, given to Tessa by a friend who knew how much the couple wanted to live and work with bicycles in France. In the same week that Geoff was offered redundancy, Tessa read an article about a British couple running a cycle hire business for holidaymakers – something they had considered doing themselves. “The final sentence of the article announced that the company was looking for franchisees in the south of France, and as I read this, the whole world froze for a second. All the pieces were falling into place,” reminisces Tessa.
Tessa and Geoff were finally able to move to France permanently in October 2012, with a licence to operate as ‘Mellow Vélos, Gorges du Tarn’. As cycling enthusiasts, the couple had found the perfect business – they hire bicycles to holidaymakers in the area, provide route maps and repair the bikes.
Tessa explains that the Gorges du Tarn mostly offers canoeing, climbing and potholing, but there was niche in the market for cycling. “I think we’ve come along at the right time,” she says. Geoff adds: “And we knew the business had a good chance of success in this area because we knew it very well.”
The couple didn’t know they would end up running a cycle hire business when they bought the house, but the property lends itself well to their new venture. “Attached to the main house is a 200-year-old barn that had been converted into a massive stone vaulted room,” says Tessa. “We use the bottom part as a living room, and the top part, which is only accessible from outside, is used as a bicycle workshop.”
Additionally, at the side of the property is a small building that the couple rent out as a one-bedroom gîte. “We often have couples who rent bikes from us who need accommodation, so it’s perfect,” says Tessa.
The house also benefits from a back garden where Tessa grows vegetables and keeps chickens. “In this area, you’re lucky if you’ve got any sort of garden space,” she says.
“The house is in very good condition – we’ve done some minor stuff but we’re not DIY people so we weren’t looking for a project. We wanted to be able to focus on the business,” adds Tessa.
The pace of life in this unspoilt part of France changes greatly during the year, as Tessa explains. “In the summer, it’s bursting at the seams with tourists. The business starts in the spring and by the summer we’re very busy – we work 12-hour days non-stop.” By contrast, in winter it’s very quiet, but Tessa and Geoff have adapted well to the seasonal changes. “It works well for us; we have the right personalities for it. We love meeting our clients, but we’re quite content with our own company, and we’ve got our animals,” adds Tessa. The couple have four cats, a dog and five chickens to keep them company. “We like the contrast. We’re super busy in the summer and in the winter we can de-stress and calm down,” says Tessa, adding: “The season comes to an end in September. Last autumn, the weather was gorgeous so we were out on the bikes all the time – it was bliss!”
The quiet winter months are far from boring. “If it’s sunny and not too cold we’ll go out on the bikes,” says Tessa. “We provide printed routes with photos and things to see and do for our clients, so over the winter we get the bikes out and research the routes – it’s a nice life.”
Despite its natural beauty, the Gorges du Tarn is something of a hidden gem, as Geoff explains: “More than 50% of the tourists in this area are French – they quite often come here for a second holiday. There are also lots of Dutch and German visitors. Nearly everyone who lives here all year round is French.” Tessa adds: “It’s really undiscovered by the British.”
Tessa has been a cycling aficionado from young age: “As soon as I could balance, I was on a bike. When I was a kid, I used to go off on my bike at weekends in the mornings by myself while my parents were still asleep. I love it and always have,” she says. Geoff, on the other hand, became interested in cycling later in life: “I’m a stereotypical mid-life crisis cyclist,” he laughs. “I used to cycle when I was a kid and stopped when I became a teenager and didn’t think about it much until about 10-12 years ago when I thought ‘now I’m in my 40s I need to get fit!’ And I found I really liked it. I love cycling in this area because there are lots of quiet roads, and farm trails for mountain biking. You get a big sense of freedom out on the bike.”
When it came to setting up the franchise, the couple found it to be a straightforward process. “We had so much help from the original Mellow Vélos and also from the accountant, which was incredibly useful,” says Tessa. But the couple did encounter some hurdles: “We struggled with the famous French red tape. First of all, you have to understand business French which is hard enough, but also there are the various hoops that you have to jump through,” says Tessa. The couple also had problems getting their social security organised, but Tessa explains that being able to speak French to a good standard has helped them greatly.
Running a business didn’t come naturally to the couple, who had both worked in the public sector before moving to France. “I expected to find it difficult, especially the admin side of it, and I do still find it hard, but we’re learning. It’s not been as hard as we thought,” says Geoff. Tessa adds: “It’s very different from how we used to be, but we enjoy it. Even if it’s difficult, we enjoy it so much that you get over that.”
The couple’s advice for people thinking of starting a business in France is to not rush into the decision. “We first saw the article about owning a cycle hire franchise in 2011, but we knew we wouldn’t be ready to move until the end of 2012. Because we had so much time to think about it, it made a big difference. It meant we could be very organised,” says Tessa. “My advice is to not rush into things, take lots of time and make sure everything is in place before you go ahead.”
Despite their remote location, Tessa and Geoff feel far from isolated, and have found it easy to fit into the local community. “We’ve not had any problems integrating. It’s helped partly by the fact that we’ve been visiting this area for years, so we’d made friends already. Everybody has been incredibly friendly,” says Tessa.
As for the future, the couple plan to continue developing the business. “One of the things we’re hoping to be involved with in the future is helping new franchisees set themselves up,” says Tessa.
Life seems to have worked out entirely as planned for Tessa and Geoff. “The business is going well, we have made friends and feel very settled,” says Tessa. So, it comes as no surprise that they plan to stay here forever, and with all of the pieces of the jigsaw finally in place, why would they want to be anywhere else? LF