The Tour de France – a gentler option

Karen Tait takes to two wheels along the Canal du Midi

As the Tour de France leaves our shores heading for its homeland, culminating with its finale in Paris on 27 July, my thoughts turn to a rather gentler cycling experience I recently enjoyed on the Canal du Midi.

Each year the Tour leads lapsed cyclists to brush the cobwebs off their neglected two-wheelers and take to the roads again. It doesn’t all have to be punishing uphill climbs and terrifyingly fast descents though. France has many thousands of kilometres of cycle paths, to suit every level of fitness. As an exercise-phobe, I come out in a cold sweat just thinking about a steep hill. Luckily, the nature of canals mean their towpaths are gently undulating if not downright flat, with the only threat to my thighs being the occasional upwards push past a lock.

We headed out to Carcassonne at the end of May, a perfect time for a cycle trip, and were rewarded with blue skies and gentle breezes. There were four of us on this two-wheeled adventure, and we hired our bikes from Mellow Vélos, based in the canalside village of Paraza. Our steeds were delivered to us, along with panniers and basic maps of the canal. Not that we were worried about getting lost on our easy two-day journey from Carcassonne to Narbonne (just over 80km), surely we just needed to follow the canal?

It’s not quite as simple as that, as at some points it’s advisable to abandon the towpath and take to the road for a short section. Also, after Le Someil you leave the Canal du Midi and turn right onto the Canal de Jonction/Canal de la Robine for the last few kilometres down to Narbonne. The towpath varies from wider gravelled sections where you can ride two abreast and chat, to narrow tyre-width tracks where you have to concentrate if you don’t want to end up in the drink (I prefer the drink to end up in me). Highlights included crossing the Orbiel aqueduct and a disused railway bridge close to Narbonne.

I have to say that at times it was painfully bumpy, over tree roots and hard corrugated earth. Those who know more about cycling and the canal than me have suggested this might be due to plans to remove diseased trees leading to less maintenance of the path until the tree-felling has been carried out. I can’t say I enjoyed those sections but I loved the rest – waving to boaters as we ‘sped’ past, the sunshine filtering through the trees dappling the slowly flowing water, admiring the pretty villages along the way, watching the boats pass through the locks (with vastly different skippering skills levels), stopping for a refreshing ‘pression’ at a canalside bar and enjoying fine fare at charming restaurants. We stopped overnight at Olonzac, staying at a delightfully eclectic B&B (la Vigne Bleue).

At Narbonne, Phil from Mellow Vélos picked up the bikes and after a few hours exploring this beautiful city, we headed back to equally beautiful Carcassonne on the train, a little tired and achy but with smiles on our faces.

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The Tour de France will actually pass through Carcassonne on 21/22 July, I wish I could be there to cheer them on but will have to satisfy myself with shouting at the TV!

http://www.mellowvelos.com/