Struggling through the switchbacks of Les Alpes Maritimes I felt thoroughly under-dressed without the seemingly mandatory tight spandex and fluorescent clothing worn by members of the Cyclo Club de Vence. Thanks to the Internet, I’d connected with a French club whose members were introducing me to these hills — along with a whole new appreciation of clingy couture.
Savvy cyclists increasingly tap local knowledge, from guides to groups. Simply Tweet a key city and type in the words “connect with cyclists.” No matter where you travel, the rewards speak for themselves. As Hemingway said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
Climbing from Vence to the Château Gourdon remains my most humbling 28-kilometre ride. Labeled as “rural, scenic, and moderately difficult,” the route left me feeling like a goat digging my hoofs into the craggy rock. But if I, a middle-aged woman of average build and fitness level, achieved this goal, others can too — with a little help from local friends.
Homeward bound, I savored the rush of a sweeping descent. Just below Tourrettes-sur-Loup, a family-run pizzeria overlooking the azure Mediterranean provided a needed carb stop amid the green hills and ochre rocks of the land of Matisse.
France offers other delicious day outings. In the Dordogne’s rolling hills, you can sample a gourmet cuisine built around foie gras, black truffles, fresh strawberries and Perigord wine.
The country roads link stone villages, feudal castles and Renaissance architecture. Check out Les Eyzies, Capital of Prehistory; Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, high in the cliffs overlooking the town; the haunting display of early art and poly-chromatic cave paintings at the grottos of Lascaux II; and a 12th-century Romanesque church while lunching at a bistro in Trémolat.
In Italy, I recommend a Tuscan ride with Cicloposse bike tours. Giuliana Mulas co-owner of Cicloposse recommends cycling in springtime, “when poppies and wildflowers perfume the air.” Even beginners can enjoy the easy 22 km from Montepulciano to Pienza. Glide through the scenic Val d’Orcia against a backdrop of vineyards, grazing sheep, and the iconic cypress trees.
Enter the cobbled main street of Pienza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and experience a living Renaissance town. The cathedral remains one of Italy’s earliest examples of a Renaissance façade. Coast downhill to reach the minuscule village of Bagnoni Vignoni. Enjoy hot springs made famous by the Medicis, or a Brunello at one of many econtas, or wine bars. For a tasty lunch, enjoy a homemade pasta with a pungent salumi, or pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Cambodia’s farmlands exchange narrow wooden church spires for pyramidal-shaped sandstone towers; typical of classical Khmer religious architecture. I started cycling at Bayon Temple, an example of Hindu architecture from the height of the Khmer civilization. My guide Chen says I’m lucky to have paved roads.
Riding provided a rare opportunity to meet people struggling to re-enter the world following years of civil war that ended only a generation ago. Wooden stilted shacks dotted rural roads. I pulled over, fascinated by a woman cleaning rice, tossing grains in the air with an elegant rhythmic circular motion while chickens pecked at the chaff.
After Cambodia, I headed for the bustling life of the Mekong Delta. January to March remain the coolest months in South Vietnam, with temperatures hovering between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius. Motor and pedal-powered bikes compete for road space on narrow levees where cars can’t fit. Van support helped with crowd and traffic control and eliminated the need for bulky saddlebags. I rode past orchards, rice paddies, farmers bringing their fruit to market, and women huddled in their triangular hats peeling lychee for canning. A covered fishing boat took me upriver. I sipped tea while cruising past a floating market.
Amid the luxury of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Saigon my tired body melted under the hands of a massage expert. In traditional Vietnamese style, they slathered on medicinal oils made from extracts of cedar, rosewood, and fruit juices.
Thanks to clubs and travel companies that specialize in group, private, or self-guided custom itineraries, long-distance day trips are no longer the sole domain of super-athletes and extreme adventurers. Enthusiasts of any level can cycle until their aching muscles beg them to stop moving. A sound sleep is guaranteed.