‘We’re going on a cycling trip,” Ruby Wax enthused, thrusting some hideous padded cycling pants at me. “Through the Loire.”
The look on my face must have registered more surprise than the congregation at Oscar Wilde’s wedding. Ruby? Cycling? I immediately pictured myself pedalling frantically on a tandem bicycle, drenched in sweat, while my best pal lounged back in our communal bike basket, nibbling a croissant.
While Ruby conjured up images of us in berets, nonchalantly humming Edith Piaf songs as we meandered through sun-drenched vineyards, I suspected the reality would involve me doing all the leg work, hauling our luggage in my pannier, getting hopelessly lost and being forced to bivouac in some nettle-infested field. Yep, the thought of Ruby and me enduring a self-guided cycling trip seemed as plausible a proposition as Madonna in a nunnery or a Mormon with a bar tab.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong, because Ruby had booked with operator Cycling For Softies. This meant that every morning our luggage was collected from one quaint little boutique hotel and deposited at the next. We didn’t even have to lug around any emotional baggage because all decisions had been made for us, including the best restaurant bookings.
All we had to do was mooch through picturesque, riverside villages and explore formidable fortresses at our leisure, pausing only to devour a gateau in every château. Because, of course, cycling means guilt-free gormandising. There’s no need to regret a baguette or not to nosh that brioche, as you simply pedal off the pounds afterwards.
The only real danger of cycling through the Loire with Ruby was running into lamp posts from laughing too hard. This was mainly due to our cycling pants. These padded shorts are designed to prevent chronic bum-numbing and also painful bike friction on those parts of your body primarily reserved for giving birth. But it also meant that our rear ends were arriving about five minutes after we did. Hell, they had their own postcodes.
Ruby was convinced she now looked like a Kardashian and took to twerking at pedestrians as we whizzed by. And of course, I couldn’t resist glancing over my shoulder to catch their incredulous expressions. Which is why I kept colliding with inanimate objects such as cars, carts and cows which stubbornly refused to take evasive action.
Besides multiple bruises from lamp post pile-ups, the only other obstacle in our way was a dodgy sat nav. When it died on day one, we quickly realised the inadequacy of our French vocabulary, which was limited to “rendezvous, champagne, liaison, lingerie and croissant” – words that can lead a girl to one place only: off the path of virtue.
Cycling from Chinon to the sleepy little town of Montsoreau we tried asking a few French people for street directions but rue-d the day when we found ourselves inhaled into a forest of disdainful nostril hair. Still, it was a glorious morning, with fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky – who cared if we got lost?
Thirteen miles later, we fluked it to our first destination – the luxurious spa hotel La Marine. With the restraint of an Exocet missile we were out of our sweaty clothes and into a bottle of local white wine, feeling an exhilarated sense of accomplishment. Believe me, nothing whets the appetite more than cycling through what you’re going to be drinking that evening.
Having exercised so strenuously also meant we could devour all four courses at the charming Le Montsorelli restaurant, with no calorific qualms whatsoever. Ruby even managed not to flambé her eyebrows when she got somewhat overexcited by the waitress lighting the brandy on her baked Alaska – a dessert I hadn’t seen since the 1970s. I suppose you would have to call it “dining with an old flame”.
Day two began in a wash of syrupy sunlight. We had 23 miles to cover along the river to the medieval village of Azay-le-Rideau. The path took us past legendary Le Château d’Ussé. This jewel of renaissance architecture is so magical it inspired Charles Perrault’s tale of Sleeping Beauty. I found myself surprisingly swept up in the romance. Exploring these Rapunzel-like turrets made me fantasise about being rescued by a French knight in shining Armani.
Thoughts of a one-knight-stand at our age only brought out Ruby’s black humour. I tried to go along with her Loire Noir, until we cycled past another elegant, architectural masterpiece – Château L’Islette.
By standing in front of the sign and obscuring the first few letters, it looked as though I’d stumbled upon my French ancestral home, Château Lette. “Lette them eat cake,” I decried, going full Marie Antoinette.
“Madame Defarge is my role model,” Ruby said crisply, edging me dangerously closer to the moat. Luckily she was distracted by the perfect mirror reflections of her padded Rear of the Year in the pond which surrounds the sumptuous château.
A gourmet binge at Le Côté Cour and a little pampering at the bijou Hôtel de Biencourt, and we were ready for our final day – an 18-mile, uphill ride back to Chinon, through ancient royal hunting forests.
Gazing up at the steep, wooded hills, Ruby and I both made a noise like a bike tyre going flat. Should we perhaps just call the paramedics in advance? But the organisers simply swapped our bikes for electric cycles. Dubious about their abilities, we reluctantly saddled up and then… vrooooom! It felt as though our bicycles had drunk an espresso. We whooshed up those inclines as though sharing a tandem with Chris Froome.
With the wind whistling through our hair, we felt sure we would soon catch up with the Tour de France – or the de-Tour de France, as we couldn’t resist veering off course to a paintball centre in the woods.
At the conclusion of the cycling trip, sitting on our balcony at the Hotel de France – sipping wine, listening to music wafting up from the square below, and with the 12th-century Plantagenet fortress home of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and Joan of Arc standing sentry above – Ruby and I toasted our pedalling prowess. Not bad for two gals in our sixties. We would carpe-the-hell-out-of-diem in calf-shaping style.
The Loire is known as the Garden of France. Cycling through its tapestry of strawberry fields, forests and vineyards was like falling into an Impressionist canvas of glistening Cézanne poplars, soft Corot-esque woods and shimmering Monet waterways – quite literally picturesque. Casually strewn with medieval citadels, crumbling abbeys and enchanting renaissance châteaux, the whole area haemorrhages history, offering a host of ghosts in every nook and cranny.
And exploring by bike gives you time to drink it all in – while drinking. Best of all, in France, it is always wine-o’clock, and the wine is of such good quality that we never once felt the wrath of grapes. We headed home feeling fitter, half a stone lighter, closer friends than ever – and so, so sorry to say “au revoir, Loire”.
Now that lockdown has finally eased, we have booked ourselves another cycling trip – a little something to do with the fact that when I stood on my talking bathroom scales, they said: “Please maintain social distancing. One person at a time.”
Even after we have pedalled off those unwanted Covid kilos, however, I don’t think I will ever get Ruby out of her cherished padded cycling pants – at least not without an oxyacetylene cutting torch to help me.
A four-night Cycling for Softies tour of the Loire costs from £1,175pp (April to September). The price includes flights, transfers and a stay at La Marine de Loire (020 3944 5834; ).