I first visited the Anjou Vélo vintage cycle festival in 2014 and instantly fell in love with the atmosphere, sights, sounds and sheer fun of the event. To the sound of swing music, I had wondered around the festival site on the banks of the River Loire in the beautiful town of Saumur, visiting the vintage bike jumble, where author Tim Moore had bought his 1914 stead for his amazing adventure following the route of the 1914 Giro. I had admired cyclists dressed in period clothing to match the era of their vintage bikes, visited purveyors of all sorts of bike related merchandise, danced (poorly) to the addictive jazz and swing music provided by live bands and drank a glass or two of sparkling wine of which Saumur is famous for.
Those taking part in the rides had gone to great efforts. One could be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of retro fashion show. An eclectic mix of authentic woollen racing outfits, flowing dresses, trousers suits, three piece suits and working clothes. Not a piece of lycrrca in sight.
So when I had the opportunity to visit the two – day festival again and to participate in one of the three bike rides, I jumped at the chance.
I was relieved to find the ambience and spectacle of the festival had not changed, and my memories of 2014 had not been affected by looking back through nostalgic rose tinted glasses.
I had arrived a little late and in my hurry to pick up my vintage steel hire bike, complete with gear shifters on the down – tube and toe clips, I hadn’t had time to study the ‘passport’ that detailed the 35 km Abby Cyclette route or other information contained in the musette given to all riders. I had noted the other goodies; such as snacks, blue chocolate from the region (Le Quernon d’ardoise), and strangely, a plastic wine glass. Surely a bidon would be more suitable?
I set off amongst a myriad of other cyclists and to the sounds of swing music and cheers from the large crowd. The pace was slow but then it often is with a large number of cyclists. I didn’t know it, but I had a lot to learn about riding in the Anjou Vélo vintage!
Had I taken the trouble to look at the literature or even tried that little bit harder to understand the helpful Anjou staff, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to find that the first refreshment stop was just 9 km from the start. Neither would I have been surprised to find out there would be another four refreshment stops, all of which involved the consumption of wine (hence the reusable wine glass) and food.
The second stop came just 3 km from the first and turned out to be one of my favourites. We were directed through a winery yard and into the vineyard cellar. Its cool and dark passages giving a welcome respite from the clear blue hot sky. Emerging from this unique subterranean cycle way, the sound of a Beatles tribute band rocked the air. The enjoyment of having a little jig and singing along to the familiar lyrics was further enhanced by the consumption of Rosé wine from the estate. (Not to mention the goat cheese sandwich).
Indeed, at each food stop there was live music, each of a different genre to which many cyclists old and young danced to. I admit I was somewhat jealous of the way they naturally knew the dance moves, whether it was dancing the Lindy HLop to swing music or waltzing to traditional French music or even line dancing. I wished I could have joined them!
Cycling just another 5 km I reached the half way point and lunch! A complete field kitchen that any army would have been proud of, had been set up in the centre of a vineyard. Lunch was a full blown affair consisting of pasta, rice, chicken, veg, half a baton, apple tart, cheese and of course more wine. I have eaten less on 160 km sportives!
As I continued my boozy bimble through the beautiful UNESCO World Hertitage landscape, I cycled through vineyards on a mixture of lanes, white roads, and field tracks. Each vineyard visit ending with what appeared to be the compulsory intake of the wine it produced.
I sluggishly pressed on and passed a Priest and a Nun, a gentleman pulling a trailer with suitcases on the back that turned out to hold boxes of red wine, with the tell tale taps sticking out of the side. At one point I cycled alongside a gent towing a trailer containing French sticks and to the sounds of traditional French music bellowing out from somewhere in the depths of the trailer.
It all added to the fun of the event.
The final stop was in the grounds of Château de Saumur, and naturally involved the consumption of sparkling wine from the region that is produced in the exactly the same traditional way as champagne. I was thankful this was the last stop as I was in danger of contravening the advice given in the little passport book – ‘L’abus d’alcool est dangereux pour la santé, à consommer avec moderation’ – Alcohol abuse is dangerous to your health, consume with moderation. Well it was a bit late now!
The run into the Festival site from the Chateaux was mostly downhill and I returned at 16:30 hrs exactly 6 hours from when I left.
It had been one of the slowest rides I have ever done but one of the most enjoyable, discovering beautiful vineyards, quiet lanes and back – roads, and of course the wine and food of the region.
I can’t remember when I had enjoyed an event so much. It had pressed the ‘cycling reset – button’ within me; reminding me of how riding a bike just for the sheer pleasure of it, is so much fun. And of a time when you just got on your bike, not worrying about the make or specification, or recording every mile. Not worrying about segment times or how many metres of altitude you have climbed. Not having to download the ride onto a computer and to think of a witty name for it. But just enjoying the simple act of getting on the bike, meeting up with friends and discovering places.
And the Loire Valley is no better place to discover than by bike. You don’t even have to use your own. The tourist offices rent out bikes perfect for a day uncovering the treasures of the area. Such as the Apocalypse Tapestry in France’s greenest city of Angers and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Royal Abbey at near by Fontevraud.
The previous day I had the pleasure of both a guided tour of the extraordinary Apocalypse Tapestry and of the Royal Abbey.
The tapestry is held in the impressive 13th century Angers fortress, complete with it’s 17 towers. Although it may be less well known as the Bayeux Tapestry, it is no less important. Created in the 14th century it depicts the battle between good and bad from the story of the Apocalypse, taken from the Book of Revelation by St John the Divine. The individual hand stitched scenes were commissioned by the Duke of Anjou, Louis I in 1377 and took approximately five years to complete. Unfortunately, during the 18th century, sections were cut from it’s 144m length and although efforts were made to recover the pieces, some remain missing. However, the tapestry is still an impressive 100 m in length and is 6 m high.
Interestingly, although the tapestry was designed to portray the power of God, the return of Christ and overcoming evil, it was woven during the Hundred Years War between the English and the French, and there are several scenes that make a political statement with the ‘bad guys’ portrayed as English.
Angers is well worth a visit and is typical of what the region has to offer, from chateaus, dedicated cycle ways including the Loire à Vélo cycle route voted the best new tourism attraction in 2012 by the British Guild of Travel Writers, churches, and even a cycle dedicated café.
The Royal Abbey at Fontevraud is also very accessible by bike with a cycle link to the Loire à Vélo and also close to the Vélo Francette cycle route.
The Abbey is the largest surviving monastic complex from the Middle Ages and was founded by a preacher called Robert of Arbrissel in 1101. The community consisted of both men and women and was controlled by an Abbess.
Later it had close links with the Plantagenet kings. (Interestingly their name comes from the yellow flower, planta gesista, that the Counts of Anjouy wore as an emblem). The effigies of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitanine and their son, Richard the Lionheart still lie in the Abbey Church.
During the French revolution the Abbey was confiscated and both the nuns and monks expelled.
In 1804 Napoleon gave the order for the Abbey to become a prison. Of which it remained until 1963.
In 2014 the Fontevraud L’Hotel and the gourmet restaurant run by Thilbaut Ruggeri, a Bocuse d’Or chef (world chef competition), with a star in the Michelin guide opened, adding to the vision of Robert of Arbrissel to create an ‘ideal city’.
Today, both visitors, artists and conference delegates visit and use the 30 acre site, where a programme of different cultural events are regularly held.
And as my vintage bike ride had highlighted, cycling is also perfect for sampling the wine produced in the area. An opportunity I took full advantage of at Maison du vin de L’Anjou, in Angers.
The wine growing area is divided into two areas; vines grown in the soils from the region where the dark slate type stone known as schist is mined, and vines grown on the chalky soils from the limestone area.
The difference in flavour and bouquets from these two different areas were quite distinctive.
I also learnt Cointreau was created in Angers about 150 years ago. The distillery is open to visitors where the secret blend using the peel from sweet and bitter oranges is made.
The final day of the two day Anjou Vélo Vintage festival that attracted over 30,000 visitors, coincided with La féte du velo en Anjou. Each year between the hours of 08:30 and 18:00 hrs, a 120 km circuit is created along the banks of the River Loire especially for cyclists. Roads are closed to all other traffic.
The route takes in the main towns of Saumur, St Mathurin sur Loire, and Bouchemaine, and is supported by over 300 volunteers ranging from marshals, mechanics and Police.
A cyclists dream.
I was fortunate to experience part of the route, not by bike, but being chauffeured in a restored vintage VW camper van by Karine and Lionel Gautier from Loire Vintage Discovery.
The very affable married couple offer four routes for small groups or private parties to discover unusual and little known places around Saumur in one of their lovely vintage camper vans.
Along the route we stopped at historic churches, sleepy villages and passed several troglodyte dwellings.
I learnt that the pale limestone that nearly all the chateaus are made from, called Tuffeau, has been mined over the centuries and the resultant caves have been utilised to either create dwellings or used as cellars. The troglodyte caves remain at a constant 12 degrees Celsius, perfect for keeping wine or growing mushrooms.
It was a great way to round off my visit to this beautiful and cycle friendly area of France.
Before I left I made a promise that I when I return I will be able to dance the Lindy Hop. Anybody know where I can get lessons?