Tandemholidays in France

Our first camping trip with the Quetzal tandem bike.

For many years a cycling-holiday in a sunny country has been the ultimate way of spending a holiday for both of us:  tent and sleeping bag on the luggage rack and off we go. The speed at which one cycles through the countryside proves to be just right for us. There’s always something happening so you’re able to observe everything around you and you meet many people this way. A cycling holiday can also become quite heavy because you need to cross the hills and mountains with all your baggage and one way or the other, one hundred kilometres in a day suddenly doesn’t seem that obvious anymore...
Like most couples, there is also a difference between the two of us in physical strength, apart from Monique’s knee injury. Particularly on climbs this becomes noticeable. Too many vertical metres or kilometres in one day quickly becomes annoying (for the weakest among us). On a tandem bike we think we’re able to combine our strengths better and possibly enjoy our cycling holiday even more.. (Photo Philippe Lasnier)

In spring 2012 we already tested our Quetzal prototype. This included a short cycling holiday in Germany.  The tandem, which we are taking to France for these holidays, is the first of a series production with lots of small improvements compared to the first draft. Due to the normal stress just before the holidays, the bike was ready just in time on the last day before the holidays so we haven’t got much time to prepare.  The night prior to our departure we just did a quick test run at the Kerkweg in Nijeveen, with the newly mounted freewheel. Then we put the bike into the car heading off for the south of France.

The plan was a round tour: Créon to Hauteville, Hauteville to Sète and then back to Créon. Or according to the books of the European Cyclists: “Central France route”, “Green route to the Mediterranean” and “Along the Canal du Midi”.

At a campsite close to Créon (near Bordeaux), we parked the car during our bike tour. Here we started packing our bags and loading up the bike. After having completed a thorough selection, all our luggage fit in a set Large Radical panniers with extra side pockets and a Backbone. For the tent and lightweight inflatable mattresses we made a convenient cover which can be attached underneath the tandem frame with Velcro. In total we took 36 kilos of luggage with us. The bike weighs 34 kilogrammes. Together with our own body weight we weighed just over 200 kilos when we started our new bike adventure from Créon on the 10th of  July 2012.

We had almost 3 weeks ahead of us and were looking forward to it! (Photo Fred Koops)

During the first few days the area was quite flat so that we got on fairly easily. We had to get used to handling the heavily loaded bike but soon this will be without problems.
We would ride on quiet roads through the hilly French landscape with prolonged lunch breaks while consuming a ménu du jour, occasionally stopping at a nice view point or in a picturesque village. At the end of the day we would stop over at a simple French campsite enjoying bread, cheese and wine in the evening sun.

Because we normally don’t start very early in the morning, we don’t make many kilometres a day. These are what our holidays are like! However, due to the stress just before the holidays, preparations were minimized. Once we started counting the total distance of the scheduled trip, we ended up at approximately 1900 kms: too much for the 19 days that we had ahead of us. We decided to adjust the planned route.

In Conques we bought a good Michelin map of the Aveyron and Tarn and calculated a route to Sète ourselves because we did want to see the Mediterranean Sea!

Even if one makes a route in France himself, one passes beautiful villages and roads, but the disadvantage is that the Michelin map does not always tell you how steep a road is. Without a route description we didn’t want to ride through the city of Albi. We chose a nice flat road around it. At least that’s what we thought... Unfortunately, it changed direction every two kilometres, vertically, that is. Normally, we can just climb riding our bikes on 12% elevation roads but 19% is a bit too steep for us!

Just below Albi started a green road (Le chemin des droits de l'homme of 44 kms), a bicycle lane on an old railway line that ends in Castres. After a short but crowded break it proceeded through the Montagne Noire (voie verte du Haute Languedoc of 59 kms). Quiet, beautiful and almost flat.

It’s just a small detour from the route for one of the cutest diners in France under the sycamore trees of Riols and Olargues’ surroundings.

Meanwhile we were getting used to cycling connected: switching with the Rohloff hub, stopping and starting at a busy crossing. It all got better day by day. Track standing still in city traffic and almost 70 kilometres an hour downhill on a new but winding road went easily. The bike with luggage felt very stable and highly manageable.

The mounted freewheel was not very much appreciated by us. We found it more comfortable, especially when climbing, to ride synchronous. With a sturdy hose clamp we fasten the moving part of the crank to the chain wheel. In Germany, during the May holidays, we rode our short trip with rigid, fixed cranks. It was a wrong decision to change this into a freewheel just before the summer holidays but with a hose clamp, it worked fine.
On the French cycle paths you encounter double gates at every crossing point. In itself it was very safe but it took out the speed quite often. Fortunately, we managed to manoeuvre between most gates, in spite of the length of the tandem.

On the 12th day, after 776 km, we reached the Mediterranean. The golden beach was almost deserted, the sea and the sky overhead radiant blue. This is why we make these trips!
After paddling for a while and eating fish in Sète, we continue our journey along the Canal du Midi, in the direction of Bordeaux.

The canal system, that was designed 400 years ago to lead ships from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, is devised pretty ingeniously. For approximately 500 km (Vélo Route des deux mers) we pass several (multiple) locks, aqueducts and bridges, along with many other cyclists and recreational craft. Soon it becomes clear what is the difference between cyclists and boat people: their waists! It is easy to guess who have the largest waist size...
There is a lot to see. The choice of diners and camp sites is great and the weather is beautiful. What more would we like for our holidays?

The surface of this cycle path was not equally as smooth (sometimes very bumpy with deep dried mud tracks) so we didn’t do a lot of miles per day. The tandem rides went very well despite the tracks but after 60 kilometres we were rocked to dizziness just like our fellow cyclists on trekking bikes. But the environment compensated for it.

Near Toulouse we enter beautiful smooth tarmac, making cycling a lot more enjoyable. The route takes us through Toulouse, crowded and hot, but easy to follow (if you punctually follow the directions in the road book). A single hash is a problem by tandem bike but that one, together with another gate, is the only place along the route, where we are not able to pass with the tandem.
The Canal and cycle path around Toulouse are remarkably quiet with tourists: the landscape is temporarily less exciting. After Moissac, a pilgrimage town on the route to Santiago de Compostella, again there are a lot of beautiful old waterworks to be seen in the rolling countryside with vineyards and pretty villages.

After 18 days of cycling and about 1400 kilometres and 7,500 metres of altitude we got back to our van in Créon.  Another day of highway driving and we would be back home, able to enjoy a wonderful cycling holiday! The average distance per day was 75 kilometres, the steepest slope 12%, the top speed: 68 km per hour, the longest daily distance: 119 km and the most altitude metres in one day: 1021 metres (at 35 degrees Celsius!). Moreover, we had many encounters with other holiday cyclists, including 3 on a recumbent bike.

All in all we very much enjoyed our tandem holidays. But, as it is for many people, we very much had to learn how to ride a tandem. Communication is very important and you should fully trust each other. The stoker has to have the confidence that the captain will ride in a responsible way. The captain must have the confidence that the stoker will push the pedals as good as his or her power allows them to. The strongest has to share his or her power with the weakest. He or she has to be willing to work for the other. This all sounds very logical but it took us a while to get used to.
The big advantage is, that when you’re travelling by tandem bike, you’re always both equally as fast and equally as tired when arriving at that nice terrace with ice cold beer and Orangina.

Cycling together, enjoying good food and camping in the sun. For us it is the perfect combination with our Quetzal!
(Photo Marc Radelet)

The tandem is for rent for one or more days at Nazca Ligfietsen in Nijeveen (NL), Laidback Ligfiets in Edinburgh (GB), Atoocycles in La Chaux de Gilley (FR).

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