Cognac and champagne are two of the most recognizable names when it comes to alcohol. I already did a cycling trip to Cognac this summer so why not to swing by the Champagne region! Certainly, it is three times further but I couldn’t find any reason not to cycle there. Julie’s Brompton proved to be a viable option in the absence of my own. Alors allons-y!
Day 1 – From Prudhomat to Marcillac-la-Croisille 62 km
It was an active day: I packed for my trip in the morning, then I went to see the Tour de France time trials at a village nearby (initially I wanted to cycle there but upon further consideration I scraped the idea: I didn’t want to add more kilometers to a day of hilly ride), came back home and started to pedal towards Champagne only by mid-afternoon.
Half of the route followed the Dordogne. I passed by Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and then stopped at the pretty village of Argentât but just for a quick bite – I already visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. I cycled some more and stopped to camp lakeside with a nice view of the sunset. Apart from a steep and relatively long climb along the way, the ride was uneventful; I would say it’s a good thing.
Today in numbers:
62 km — distance cycled
483 km — length of the Dordogne
47m 59s — time of the winner of today’s Tour de France time trial, exactly one hour faster than me on my Brompton two weeks ago on the same route
Day 2 – From Marcillac-la-Croisille to Saint-Setiers 59 km
Today’s ride was on the shorter side, so I took my time packing and left close to 10am. When I looked at Google’s directions it gave me almost four hours to cycle the short distance. That made me think there might be lots of ups and downs along the way. My intuition didn’t deceive me – basically the whole road was a string of ascents and descents. As usual, the descents were short and ascents were long, or at least it felt that way.
When I arrived at the campsite, it was closed and under construction. I found water and even electricity, so I decided to wild camp, my first.
Today in numbers:
59 km — distance cycled
19 — index number of the Correze department where I cycled for the last two days
940 — max elevation
Day 3 – From Saint-Setiers to Boussac 86 km
Today’s start was earlier (I couldn’t sleep much) and the ride was easier (there were many downhills, some of them long). It was supposed be another short ride. The ride was so easy, I arrived at my campsite way before noon. The camping was located in a small village without anything to do. After a very short deliberation I opted for cycling to the next closest camping, slightly over 20km away. When I arrived in Boussac I had two choices: go to a nudist campsite or a regular one. I went for the regular because it was less out of the way. When I got there they gave me a cyclist’s discount: free electricity, dry rack, garden chairs and table. They also had a pool and a restaurant. Pas mal for €10.
Aside of the first few kilometers the route was going through the Department de la Creuse, the second least populated department in France. It is situated in the so-called Empty Diagonal, area of low-density population stretching from northeast to southwest. Although it is scarcely populated, there were many cars on the roads, including big trucks but it didn’t bother me much.
People often ask “did you enjoy the ride?”. As much as I like cycling, more often than not it’s challenging rather than enjoyable. If one cycles for a couple of hours on a flat road or on an electric bike, then yes one can enjoy the ride. When you have to push pedals hard for 5-6 hours because there’s a lot of steep climbs or the distance to your next accommodation is far longer than you like it to be, then it’s a challenge but I get a kick out of overcoming it even though I am exhausted. But today was actually an enjoyable ride – not very difficult, nor very long.
Today in numbers:
86 km — distance cycled
12 000 — population of the largest town in the department
Day 4 – From Boussac to Dun-sur-Auron 73 km
Since yesterday I cycled further than originally planned, it had a domino effect on my intermediate destinations: some distances became longer, others shorter. Today the ride got longer but the road was flat, although not without a few mild climbs. There was a couple of hiccups along the way. Strava sent me to an unpaved road and it was easier to walk the bike than cycle, which I did for about 4 kilometers. Then there was collapsed bridge and I had to make a detour, not very long. So, I may say it was another pleasant ride.
Part of the route lays in the Department du Cher which made me think about different phrases containing word “cher”. Here are a few that came to my mind: mon cher ami, c’est trop cher, of course the one and only Cher, and derivatives like cher-chez la femme, cher-ub.
Today in numbers:
73 km — distance cycled
76 — Cher’s age, and she is still singing and dancing
Day 5 – From Dun-sur-Auron to Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire 72 km
According to the road profile it should have been a leisurely ride but it wasn’t. I was rested: after three mostly sleepless nights I finally spent large chunks of last night sleeping, yet I couldn’t muster much speed on a mostly flat road. At the outset, I thought it was due to wind but soon I realized it was the coarse road surface – when I hit a few patches of smooth asphalt I noticed my speed picked up. About 80% of the road was like that. Everything on the bike that could rattle – did. Given that the vibration was strong and prolonged I was worried some bolts or nuts would loosen up and fall off. For all I know it could be a gravel road, it felt like that.
Cher, the name of the Department I cycled through today, translates as “expensive”. Even so, the pavement that the department puts on its roads is on the cheap side.
When I arrived at the campsite I technically crossed into another department – Nièvre – just for a few hundred meters so it’s hard to judge how the roads are in this department. Tomorrow I will cycle in yet another department, Loiret, where I’ll spend the whole day cycling. Then I will be able to compare.
Anyways, the road was flat which is usually good for the legs but boring for the eyes – landscapes were quite monotonous abundant with crop fields. When it is pleasing to the eyes with hills and forest and vistas it’s hard on the legs. How to reconcile these two realities?
By the way, today I am halfway through my trip. Woohoo!
Today in numbers:
72 km — distance cycled
10% — by that much smoother pavements can reduce fuel consumption
Day 6 – From Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire to Saint-Hilaire-les-Andrésis 86 km
When I plotted my route I used Strava, cycle.travel and Google, to have options. Strava gave me shortest route but at times the bee line could be steep. Cycle.travel on the other hand sent me on small and scenic roads but it was by far the longest option, two extra days of cycling. And then there’s Google that could very well send me on a busy road or off-road all together. I felt like the hero from a Russian fairytale, when he sees a engraved stone that says: “if you turn right you’ll lose your horse, if you turn left you’ll die, and if you go straight both you and your horse die”.
Today I chose no specific route – or I rather mixed as I saw it fit. I started following the Strava road, then switched to the cycle.travel one and ended on the Google road. Both myself and my Brompton were just fine, moreover we went further then planned once again.
While cycling I have to read road signs. Here in France it’s a bit complicated – there are plenty of letters that are written but not pronounced. Inevitably, I mangled some town names. I was thinking, maybe the French should do what Americans did: drop the letters that are not pronounced. Like favor instead of favour.
When I arrived at my campsite I was greeted by free-ranching chickens and sheep. At the beginning I thought they would be my only neighbors but when the evening drew closer a few caravans showed up, then a group of motorcyclists. I won’t feel lonely tonight.
The closest village with a grocery shop to refill my supplies was 5km away, so I had to pedal more after an already long ride but one has to eat.
Today in numbers:
99 km — distance cycled
3 — USD increase when buying a dozen eggs from free range chicken, opposed to caged
Day 7 – From Saint-Hilaire-les-Andrésis to Pont-sur-Seine 83 km
This morning I was woken up by couple of free range roosters at my campsite that began their morning call very early. My earplugs didn’t help much, so the day started sooner than I wished.
After a couple of hours of cycling I suddenly found myself in the Champagne region. The landscape wasn’t what I imagined Champagne would look like – hills with vineyards. Instead it was the same crop fields, some wind turbines, and a nuclear power plant. Or as George W. Bush would say, “nucular”. I surmise it is just the beginning and tomorrow will be a different scenery.
When I arrived at the campsite it looked more like trailer park than a camping: it seemed many occupants were there long term. Plus, that “nucular” power plant was seemingly at a walking distance.
When the Chernobyl disaster happened I was in Kiev, just 120km away. I was there on tour with the Moscow Circus and we weren’t allowed to leave for a couple of months. I think I had enough radiation for a lifetime, so I didn’t want more atomic energy that close to me. I turned around and cycled another 10km to a different campsite. It was right on the Seine upstream from that plant, so I allowed myself to dip in the water to cool off after a long ride.
Curious fact: on September 8, 1961 there was an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle in the town I am staying in.
Today in numbers:
83 km — distance cycled
1986 — year Chernobyl plant blew up
70% — of French electricity comes from nuclear power
Day 8 – From Pont-sur-Seine to Épernay 81 km
For the last few days I was overachieving, cycling 10-15km further than planned. As a result today there was only about 80km left to the capital of champagne – Épernay. One more push.
Yesterday I was sort of complaining about the boring flat landscape of Champagne. What I didn’t know was the word “champagne” comes from French “champaign”, meaning an expanse of flat open country. Make sense now. Today, however, I got what I wished for with a healthy dose of hills to climb. Nothing dramatic but there was a couple I had to push my Brompton up, not for very long though.
I got to Épernay at noon. Quickly pitched my tent, offloaded the bags, and went to explore the hood. I first went to the village of Hautvillers, where a monk named Dom Perignon, the spiritual father of champagne, lived, produced champagne, and now lays in his tomb at the abbey’s church. The village sits on the hill overlooking Épernay, that’s where I had to push my bike to. Hautvillers belongs to the Grand Cru classification, the top notch of champagne. Today the Dom Perignon brand belongs to Moët & Chandon, which belongs to LVHM.
After that I cycled a dozen kilometers to the village of Cramant to visit the champagne bar La Champagnotheque. There are plenty of bars in Épernay to taste champagne but I chose this one because it is a bit out of the way and didn’t seem like a tourist trap. I tasted five different champagnes: different brands and from different vignes. In the end I bought one made from Pinot Noir. It was a little harder to pedal back to town after this tasting.
I did a quick run through Épernay to see its attractions, then dinner with more champagne. Tomorrow I will visit Mercier Champagne to see their cellars and… taste more champagne! I didn’t pedal for 600km just to look at it.
Today in numbers:
113 km — distance cycled
1668 — year Dom Pierre Pérignon took up his role as cellarer at the Abbey of Hautvillers
47 — number of years Don Pérignon spent making champagne
13 °C — the ideal temperature for cellaring Dom Pérignon vintages
$84 700 — price of the most expensive bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne – Rose 1959
Day 9 – From Épernay to Reims 27 km
This morning I “slept in”, as much as I could in a tent. I got up at 7:30am, packed up, and decided to add air to the tires. In the process one of the valves started to leak the air, so I had to replace the tube. Luckily it was the front wheel, replacing a tube on Brompton’s rear wheel is a pain. At the end it was a minor inconvenience. One of my camping neighbors had an electric pump and in no time I was ready to roll on well pumped tires.
Before visiting Mercier Champagne I stopped at Champagne de Castellane to pick up another bottle to bring home. Why this champagne in particular? Simple – I liked the name. After my champagne tasting at Mercier I still needed to get to Reims to catch my train back home. It’s not far but I wanted to see a few things there so I pushed my pedals vigorously. Straight off Épernay there’s longish and steepish climb, so I sweated out the champagne I drank at Mercier. I got to Reims sooner than expected with more time to spare for sightseeing and even lunch.
I had to do a transfer in Paris, not the worst place to do so. Risking being late for my connecting train I sprinted from Gare de L’Est to Tour Eiffel and then from there to Gare Austerlitz; couldn’t miss photo-op with my Brompton.
On this trip I crossed half of France traversing several departments. I find names of French departments quite boring. Many of them bear names of rivers flowing through them. I much prefer the old names, the names I learned reading Dumas, Hugo. They were more original: Berry, Anjou, Gascogne, Picardie and many more. Apart from that pet peeve I thoroughly enjoyed this trip. France is a great country to discover! I just need to learn how to do “slow travel” without striving to go a bit further everyday.
In my heydays my friends and I drank a lot of champagne, admittedly it was of the Soviet variety. However, at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900 a Russian-made champagne claimed the internationally coveted Grand Prix de Champagne in blind tasting. There were innovations in the 1940s and 50s made by Soviets such as continuous-flow fermentation process allowing cheaper and faster production of champagne. Nowadays, there’s a new law in Russia requiring French champagne makers to add a “sparkling wine” reference to the back of their bottles sold in Russia. Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Russian style.
Champagne in numbers:
685 km — distance cycled, including side trips
260 — champagne houses representing over 70% of production and 90% of exports
300 — million bottles of champagne produced each year
11 — French departments traversed
€66 — cost of all my campings, less than the two bottles of champagne I bought