Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017
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Pedal pushers

A couple of freewheeling MDs tandem their way through France's glorious southwest

Leaning out of our hotel window in tiny Cordes-sur-Ciel, I was captivated by the misted rural valley below, still and pristine in the early morning light. The cobblestone lanes of this ancient bastide, or walled village, led to the now-deserted marketplace where our cycling group would assemble before embarking on a two-week tandem-cycling trip in the Dordogne region of southwest France.

Having both been avid cyclists for years, my husband Peter and I were often frustrated when riding together. Simply put, we frequently found ourselves in that not-uncommon scenario among cycling spouses of either him having to wait for me, or me having to pedal furiously to catch up. "Did you see that bird back there?" "What bird?" became an ongoing joke between us.

Our experience of cycling as a couple changed forever when we saw a used tandem frame for sale at our local bike shop. Anticipating that this might be a fun way to solve our recreational dilemma, we spontaneously bought it, never imagining how positively this decision would impact our hobby.

Working through the learning curve, we soon found that tandeming was an ideal way to cycle together. Not only were we physically paired despite a difference in abilities, but we could communicate easily throughout the ride.

While tandem cycling caught on more quickly in Europe, there are now several North American manufacturers and an ever-increasing number of clubs in Canada and the United States. Tandem-specific bike parts, including car racks and travel cases are now readily available.

After enjoying one- to two-day rides a short drive from our home and completing a day trip in Mississippi, we figured we were ready to tackle Europe. We opted for an organized tour, in part to obtain tandem-specific mechanical support, but also to allow us the luxury of not having to carry two weeks' worth of paraphernalia on our bike.

Four-Legged Friends

Although several of the companies offering European tours allow tandems, they aren't their main area of expertise. We settled on one of the tandem-specific trips from Erickson Cycle Tours (tel: 888-972-0140; www.cycletours.com) based in Seattle. The company has been organizing tours for tandem cyclists since 1995; they now run 12 trips in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Unlike many other companies, Erickson offers two-week tours and their mix of two- and four-star hotels allowed us to maximize the length of our trip while still paying considerably less than most other options.

The tours are flexible; daily maps and cue sheets give teams a choice of routes, sightseeing options and levels of difficulty. Short routes are available for each leg of the trip, but Erickson's longer route options are more extensive and allowed us to see much more of the region than those of other companies.

Groups are a maximum of 20 people (always including either Glenn Erickson or his business partner), which is still small enough to create a friendly atmosphere and provide access to the kind of small accommodations that we prefer. Interestingly, about a fifth of the tandem teams on the European tours are MDs -- ranging from residents to semiretired GPs and specialists. More than half are repeat customers; in fact almost everyone on our Dordogne trip was a return client.

Tandem teams can ride as a group but it's not expected, and there's plenty of opportunity for couples to be on their own. Teams eat breakfast and most dinners together but can strike out alone for lunch, which offers endless possibilities -- from the three-hour, five-course French culinary ritual, to a light picnic featuring that superb bike fuel, the pâtisserie. We certainly did not go to France to eat Power Bars and drink Gatorade!

After our first European tandem tour in Provence we had become completely enamoured with cycling in France. We decided to upgrade our old tandem (Erickson is also a well-reviewed custom single- and tandem-bike builder) and invest in a tandem travel case, which is easily wheeled along and loaded with other oversized items.

While we have never been charged for shipping our bike, it is best to check with your airline as some do apply a surcharge to oversized items. Tandems are also available as coupled bikes that disassemble into components, allowing them to fit into two smaller cases which can be checked with regular luggage.

Château To Go

And here we were about to start our fifth European tandem-bike tour and we couldn't have picked a more perfect place than Cordes-sur-Ciel. The town's name translates as Cordes-upon-Sky and, perched on the apex of a ridge, it does appear to float on clouds when the mist steals up from the valley below. Like most of the town's buildings, our hotel had been impressively restored. Its winding stone staircases, honeycombed passages and lovely open courtyard, shaded by a 200-year-old wisteria, had been occupied since the 13th century.

Cordes is considered one of the best restored bastides in France, and wandering through its cobblestone lanes afforded a glimpse of life 700 years ago. In fact, what was truly special about this region of France was not so much its world-famous wines and cuisine, but rather the unique opportunity it offers to step back in time through its well-preserved architecture and culture.

That isn't to say that we didn't indulge at every opportunity. Mid-morning and afternoon snacks of pâtisseries loaded with France's best chestnuts, raspberries and plums became rituals worth pedalling for. Refueling with salade gésier, duck confit, foie gras and omelette de cèpes made extra kilometres worthwhile. Comparing adventures over a seven-course meal each evening was the perfect way to end a day.

The fact that this region has remained agriculturally based for centuries has no doubt contributed to the preservation of its culture. Cycling along the winding Lot, Dordogne and Aveyron rivers with occasional climbs into the next valley, we toured the charming two-street villages of Najac and Belcastel with its towering castle. During our stay in the Roman village of Conques we made an unforgettable evening visit through its abbey by candlelight, accompanied by music from the original pipe organ.

Overnight stays in the gorgeous Château de Salers, whose turretted buildings are made with a distinctive dark-grey lava stone, and the spectacular 15th-century château in nearby Condat-sur-Vézère gave us a first-hand appreciation of the luxuries enjoyed by the aristocracy of the time. As did a tour of the Château de Losse: the 16th-century castle is one of the best restored in the region. We particularly enjoyed strolling through the original furnishings, tapestries and artwork accompanied by chamber music for harpsichord.

Carved in Stone

If the first week of our tour gave us some architectural insight into medieval village life, the second week took us ever farther back in time. We toured the famous caves of Lascaux and Pech Merle with their incredible prehistoric art. The Grotte de Pech Merle has a particularly well-run tour and remains one of the few caves where you can still view the original art. These caves along with the cliff-face dwellings at La Roque St-Christophe, inhabited for the past 40,000 years and the site of Les Eyzies where the first remains of Cro-Magnon man were discovered, have made the area the prehistory capital of the world.

In striking contrast to cave dwellings were the two formidable 13th-century castles involved in the 100 Years War -- the French Château de Beynac and the English Château de Castlenau. These two strongholds sit high atop their respective cliffs, glaring at each other across the Dordogne River much as they must have done during their tug of war over the region.

While touring this area, we stayed for two nights in the ninth-century market town of Sarlat. The old section is beautifully lit at night and a must for a romantic evening stroll. Erickson made certain that one of our layover days was market day -- an experience not to be missed. Where else would vendors compete by offering tastings of fine wines, cheeses, truffles, foie gras and olive tapenades, much as they've been doing for centuries?

We rode along the Céou River, meandering through charming hamlets on quiet paved roads before arriving at St-Cirq Lapopie, a jewel of a cliff-top village often called one of the most beautiful in France. Staying for two nights gave us ample time to wander its beautiful lanes and visit the area's tiny shops and galleries, putting to further use those bungee cords every tandem shopper needs.

On our final day as Peter and I were packing our bike, we came across a bag of Power Gel energy supplements we had brought from home. We both smiled as we used them to provide padding around a tiny bottle of truffle oil.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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