“Will this work with your bike, madame?”
Fortunately it wasn’t a complicated piece of machinery I was being asked about, but a glass of fine French white, produced in the Loire Valley, ready to be tasted.
And despite a kind vineyard owner’s concern, it turns out the beauty of a cycling holiday means that the odd glass of vin blanc or rouge does indeed “work”.
Thanks to Sir Bradley and his compatriots’ stunning success at the London Olympics, cycling has seen a huge resurgence. More and more people are finding the idea of getting in the saddle appealing, and some tour operators are reporting a whopping 300% boost in the sale of holidays by bike.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and, in August, 20,000 amateur cyclists will take part in a 100-mile race along the 2012 London Olympic route as part of the world’s largest cycling festival, RideLondon.
With so much buzz around a sport based on something pretty much all of us did as a child, my husband and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. But rather than racing up mountains, we chose a gentle jaunt around the Loire Valley in central France.
Armed with some well-equipped bikes - loaded with panniers, trip monitors to calculate speed and repair kits - and just a map and set of directions, it was up to us to negotiate the 25-35 mile route each day.
Easy, you might think, but it certainly proved to be a challenge in some parts. The odd wrong turn led to a few extra miles and a quick reassessment of our location.
The Loire Valley has a reputation for fine wine and great food - along with great art, architecture and 300 chateaux to discover.Every town we pedalled through had its own grand ‘residence’ - ranging from a majestic construction that overlooks bourgeois Saumur to more intimate buildings that have been converted into hotels - many of which we stayed in.
The advantage of cycling is having plenty of time to admire these historic buildings from the outside, or to stop off and explore their grounds.
Straddling the Cher River, Chenonceau was once at the centre of a dispute between Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II of France, and her husband’s long-time lover Diane de Poitiers.
Even more striking are the three-tiered gardens at the chateau at Villandry, as well as the horticultural work of art at the Chateau de Valmer.
The picturesque towns and villages of the Loire are rich in history. Amboise, with its towering castle, is home to the Manoir du Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci lived the final three years of his life.
Despite being bombed during the Second World War, Tours still has a wonderful old town with wooden-beamed buildings and cobbled streets.
The tiny towns of Montrichard (made of sedimentary rock featuring compressed fossils and sand) and Fontevraud (famous for its abbey) were perfect places to stop off for simple refreshments.
The pace of cycling is a great way to enjoy the scenery of the Loire valley.
of vineyards in Vouvray looked even more beautiful because I’d reached the vantage point by my own steam, while the thrill of zooming downhill through the same vineyards into tiny French towns was pretty exhilarating, to say the least.
We bumped over dirt tracks, negotiated busy towns, wheezed up impossible-seeming climbs to chateaux perched on the tops of hills, and each time came out smiling. There was even a smile after the copious amounts of tumbles from this particularly amateur Victoria Pendleton.
Best of all was stopping off for a well-earned treat. As someone who’s virtually always on a diet, I welcomed the opportunity to eat guilt-free thanks to so much exercise. Starting the day with a buttery, melt-in-the-mouth pastry can put a grin on anyone’s face.
We supped on traditional French cider along the way, stopped for galettes - savoury buckwheat pancakes stuffed with all manner of good things - and crepes. Evenings were feasts of meat, cheese and red wine - all the perfect tonic for tired and weary muscles.
During the day, we sampled fine wines in many of the “caves” (underground cellars). It’s perfectly acceptable to arrive on your bike, take a small tour, then try the vineyard’s produce before buying a bottle or two and going on your merry way.
A cycling holiday in the Loire is a wonderful way of taking in stunning scenery, sampling fine cuisine, and challenging yourself to something you probably weren’t quite sure you could do.
“Does this work with your bike, madame?” Oh yes it does.