Cycling in France doesn’t have to be an extreme sport. Carolyn Boyd heads to Burgundy for some gentle pedalling
No one has ever called me Susi before. Probably because it isn’t my name. However, that doesn’t stop hoteliers, restaurateurs and cycling guides all over France calling a certain type of visitor Susi’. The name actually refers to Susi Madron, the founder of the holiday company Cycling for Softies. And those participating in the trips are fondly referred to en masse as Susis’.
Though there are now dozens of similar holiday companies, it was Madron’s that pioneered the kind of cycling holiday that did not involve packing one’s entire holiday wardrobe into two small panniers and walking like John Wayne for two weeks afterwards. Instead, the trips involve comfortable hotels, gorgeous gastronomy, local assistance in every region and a suitcase filled with both cycling gear and suitable attire for quality restaurants. It sounded like the ideal holiday for a 30- something softie and her 60-something mother (who is not really called Susi either). The question was: who would be keeping up with whom?
We plumped for Burgundy, safe in the knowledge that we would be well rewarded for our cycling efforts with excellent food and wine, and we weren’t wrong. Basing ourselves at the Ch�teau de Fleurville near M�con, we had three days exploring the M�connais vineyards and surrounding villages ahead of us, all complemented by rewarding three-course evening meals of delicious Burgundian fare.
Our local rep Frank went through the all-important instructions for mending a puncture, should we be so unfortunate as to get one, before talking us through the various rides we could do from the hotel. M�con seemed a place worth exploring on our first day, but the 34-kilometre round trip made us wonder if we were softer than we thought. Thankfully, the voie bleue route along the River Sa�ne is tarmaced and, as such, was a good way of easing ourselves into our cycling strides. After a quick scoot over the N6 highway, we were off – the warm sun above and the wide green Sa�ne gliding gently alongside us. The path was so flat and smooth that we could take in our surroundings without worrying about the terrain; we passed Charolais cows basking in the sunshine, fields of sunflowers, golden hay bales and six-foot maize plants. The path was wide and empty but for a few other cyclists who greeted us with a chirpy Bonjour’ as we passed.
In no time at all, we came closer to M�con and the countryside disappeared into suburbia. As we passed the marina, school children were gearing up for a sailing lesson on the river while locals were carrying shopping bags back from the town. The voie bleue takes cyclists almost to the centre, avoiding most roads, making it ideal for those who get nervous sharing their route with French motorists. M�con is a charming little town of 36,000 inhabitants, and a lovely place to explore for a few hours. The cycle route takes you all the way to the Saint-Laurent bridge, which elegantly spans the Sa�ne, and just beyond it is a newly developed Quai Lamartine, with caf�s, a children’s park, and a plethora of gorgeous flowers. As we cruised past one of the caf�s, the smell of freshly brewed coffee enticed us to stop and we dismounted and sat for a while in the sun. After wandering around M�con it was time to make the return journey to Fleurville and so it was back on the bikes and along the voie bleue. We decided to take a short detour back to the hotel. Coming off the voie bleue at La Salle, we weaved our way through tiny villages such as Saint-Albain and V�rizet and looked down upon the river over yellow harvested fields; the green expanse of the Sa�ne glistening in the distance.
Riders’ rewards The villages were quiet, not a person in sight, and we pedalled through their empty streets seeing only a tractor or two en route. By the time we reached the Ch�teau de Fleurville, we were exhausted and so it was straight to the pool to cool off. As we lay on the sun-loungers in the late afternoon sun, we were content that we had truly earned the three-course dinner we would soon be enjoying.
With stiff muscles, we mounted our bikes the next day ready for what Frank called the big ride’; the 50-kilometre round-trip to Brancion, a medieval walled village perched high on a hill overlooking the Beaujolais landscape. The route would take us through villages, vineyards and farms and we would be rewarded with a typical lunch at the Auberge de Brancion. We set off in the opposite direction to the previous day and the roads were just as empty as we made our way gently uphill towards the neighbouring village of Montbellet and then on to Uchizy. The sky was blue, and the countryside a mix of bright green and yellow – with maize growing high and hay bales scattered artfully across the landscape.
Our next stop was Chardonnay, a village that shares its name, and is thought to have been the origin of, the world-famous grape variety. With such a reputation, we expected to be assaulted by establishments cashing in on Chardonnay’s popularity. But of course, this is France and, had we somehow missed the village’s name, we would never have known its fame. As we entered the village we spied the local winery, and mentally booked ourselves in for a tasting on our return trip. After a quick photo stop at the charming little church, we pedalled out the other side of the village and were confronted by the steepest hill yet. On either side of the road were luscious vineyards, there was no mistaking where we were. In front of us a huge lorry carrying hay bales was inching up the hill. With more than half the route still ahead of us, we gulped. “I think I’ll be walking up this one,” said the 60-year-old softie.
It felt like a long way up, but where there are ups, there are also downs and, after enjoying the view from the top of the hill, we cruised downhill into the sleepy village of Gratay. Cows in the fields stopped chewing the cud momentarily to lift their heads and see who was passing through. With the neighbouring village Martailly-l�s-Brancion now on the signposts, we knew we couldn’t be far from our destination and we were re-inspired to get pedalling. As we passed through the more lively Martailly and up the hill towards Brancion itself, several other cyclists passed us in the other direction. On seeing our red faces, they called out “Ce n’est pas loin!” as they zipped past. The final stretch was tough, but after nearly three hours we finally arrived at the end of the long gravel path that leads into Brancion. We ambled slowly into the village and locked up our bikes before climbing the steps into the auberge. As we entered, a room full of well-dressed retirees – fresh from their air-conditioned cars – turned to see the exhausted softies take the one vacant table. The menu was simple; crudit�s or terrine followed by omelette and ice-cream or fromage blanc to finish off, for just €16. But the wait was long, with just Monsieur cooking and Madame serving, our reward’ took more than half an hour to arrive, and slightly more than five minutes to devour.
Brancion dates from the 11th century and was the ancestral property of Jocerand de Brancion, a 13th century lord who joined Saint Louis in the 7th crusade to the Holy Land, and was subsequently killed at the battle of Mansourah. The top of the tower offers the best views in the village and, with so little industrial development in the area, it’s easy to imagine how the landscape would have looked all those centuries ago. Forests and vineyards spread out to the west beyond the tiny village below. Not far from the castle, via a narrow, cobbled street, the view from the front of the village church is just as spectacular. We had to vie for a spot to enjoy it among the other visitors, such is the popularity of this place. The church itself has been immaculately restored and as we wandered inside, out of the afternoon sun, we were treated to a special event. A harpist was giving a lunchtime concert, lending a wonderful atmosphere to the tiny, arched interior.
It would have been easy to pass a whole afternoon soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely village, but with such a long ride back to Fleurville we decided to get back on the road. Aware that we had cycled long and hard to reach Brancion, we hadn’t realised that the flat’ parts of the outward route were actually gently inclined upwards. This meant that the route back was mostly downhill, so we sped along – with the late-afternoon breeze falling gently on our faces.
In no time at all we had reached Chardonnay and the winery beckoned. Staff were happy to serve up two glasses of their best cr�mant de Bourgogne before showing us into the modern winery. We resisted the temptation to buy a bottle or two – we couldn’t stand having more weight in our panniers – and continued on the route home. Just an hour and half after leaving Brancion we cruised through the gates of Ch�teau de Fleurville ready for a dip in the pool followed by a huge glass of chilled white wine.
Over the border At dinner that evening, we easily found room for all three courses, plus amusebouches, coffee and petit-fours. On the first night, the same three courses had been a struggle, but with two days of cycling behind us we easily had room. The following day, our last, we had just the morning for cycling. With saddles sore from the previous days’ exploits we made the short ride across the river (and the border with Rh�ne-Alpes) to the little market town of Pont-de-Vaux.
The route over is an easy one – the tree-lined cycle path follows the canal, past the marina and right into the town centre. After a quick scoot around the town we happened upon a gorgeous little park set back from the marina. It offered the perfect place to picnic next to a charming pond. And as we rested our weary legs from cycling nearly 100 kilometres over the three days, we couldn’t help contemplating: Can we really be considered Softies’? Certainly not. But feel free to call us Susis’ anytime.