Mountain Biking in France: Pedal Power

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By Ethan Gilsdorf
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 2004

By Day 5, I am well acquainted with my gravitational demons.

They hover in my ear, taunting me: "Weakling!" They mooch free rides in my backpack and weigh me down. "You shouldn't have had that fifth glass of wine last night," they scold. "We're going to make you pay."

It is 9:45 on a sharp blue morning. I am bicycling up a grueling switchback road, pummeled by a strong wind. Only 21/2 miles up to the castle.

My legs are crying. My lungs are exploding. The price the demons make me pay nearly drains my account.

Stupid Cathars, building a fortress in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 100 miles from nowhere.

I'm not saying the material world was created by Satan and inherently evil, as believed by the heretical Cathars, who fled to these mountains in southwest France during their 13th-century persecution. But gravity certainly is a drag.

Yet, our trip leaders' promise of dinner at a country B&B at the end of the day -- hearty meatballs, wine and company -- is the fuel that may deliver me from this torment. By evening, my tortured body will be rewarded.

At least I'm not the last to reach the top. Gasping, our group of eight dismounts from our mountain bikes to suck water bottles and recover. The castle is a spectacular crumble of gray rock perched on an impossible crag. Where chateau begins and mountaintop ends is hard to discern. My spirits resurging, I bound up the trail on foot to poke among the ruins.

The demons vanish.

Dozens of companies run biking adventures in France, from four-star chateau-to-chateau tours of the Loire Valley to Alpine stage replicas of the Tour de France. I wanted a medium-hard experience, off the beaten path but not without basic comforts. I also wanted that sense of journeying from village to village through a genuine landscape. No Holiday Inn room off the bypass each night, no nursing my saddle sores in front of CNN.

Rough Tracks fit the bill. The British company's Cathar Trail trip promised eight days of rigorous but not impossible mountain biking through the rural department of Aude Languedoc-Roussillon, in southwest France, close to the Spanish border and the Mediterranean.

Modest, bunk-style accommodations in gîtes d'étape (dorm-B&B hybrids) and a communal, small-group atmosphere meant I wouldn't be waited on hand and foot. I wanted to participate, whether washing dishes after breakfast or learning to patch an inner tube. Plus, the trip was described as "suitable for fit beginners."


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