Freewheeling through France. Bicycle touring is not incompatible with comfort, cuisine

Twenty years ago, I toured France by car. With the help of post cards, I can recall a city or two. But the countryside itself remains a blank, like the space between the dots in a child's ``connect the dots'' drawing. This past summer I connected the dots: I traveled through France by bicycle.

Buses stupefy me; I tend to drift off to sleep. In a car, conversation distracts me from the view. Seeing a country through train windows is too often a neutral experience. However, bicycling is far from neutral. Every minute can be exciting.

It is midmorning in the Dordogne region of France. We bike along back roads by a meandering river. Sun and breeze wash over us. We pass through vineyards, orchards, gaggles of geese, strips of tobacco drying in barns. Medieval towns loom over us, hugging cliffs on either side of the valley. On impulse, we pedal up a steep, castle-topped hill, snacking on the wild blackberries that border all French country roads. The air is crisp and cool. At night we sleep in a comfortable inn, enjoy a five-course gourmet meal.

In Provence, we pedal this morning up the low Le Luberon mountain range, stop at its crest for lunch, cycle across the summit among fields of sweet-smelling lavender, coast down a miles-long hill. We camp at Lourmarin, a town of tiny, convoluted streets. Provence's famous wind -- Le Mistral -- bends our tentpoles at night. Townspeople tell us Le Mistral tales the next day.

Biking over rolling hills of Brittany, we pass old stone farms enclosing courtyards, fields of artichokes, a lone menhir -- a stone monument 2,000 years old. We greet each person we pass; everyone answers back. We stop at Ploerdut, dine on Breton cr^epes served with creme fraiche and cider. When we rise to leave, everyone in the restaurant says goodbye.

Bicycling may sound grueling, Spartan, and comfortless; skeptics may imagine sleeping in crowded hostel-dormitories, pedaling nonstop, or eating from sardine tins.

Not necessarily.

Cycle-touring is not incompatible with comfort and cuisine. You can choose the pace you go -- be it leisurely or strenuous. On one trip we averaged 40 miles a day; on the other 20. We always left time for on-impulse side trips. On a trip to Brittany and Provence, we camped nightly; this past September in the Dordogne, we alternated camping with staying at inns. Camps are well equipped; some are elegant. At one, we were asked to wait so our campsite lawn could be mowed. Even in August, when all French people go on vacation, you won't be turned away, although you may be packed in, tentpeg to tentpeg.

Our Dordogne trip focused as much on gourmet dining as on cycling and sightseeing. Each morning, we called ahead for reservations at the best restaurant we could find, using Michelin's star system as our guide. After a day of bicycling, we would change into our set of wrinkle-free dress clothes and dine on exquisite dishes of wild boar, goose, truffles, c`epe, morel, or pleurotte mushrooms.

Even lunches turned out to be gourmet events. Each day we picnicked on regional p^at'e and cheese, fresh fruit, French bread, and local patisserie specialties.

In fact, combining biking with gourmet dining nicely balances the cost of dining daily on rich Perigord food with the low-cost, energy-consuming exercise of bicycling.

For us, half the fun of bicycle-touring is choosing the area to explore. We study maps, ask friends, follow inspirations. Michelin regional maps mark each major, secondary, and ``other'' road, plus the grade of every hill. ``Other'' roads are our favorites. France has more small paved roads than any other European country, according to Karen and Gary Hawkins' ``Bicycle Touring in Europe.'' The government also takes care of its infrastructure: the smallest back road is as well kept up as the highways.

We like to have a theme for our trips. This gets us off the beaten track, away from tourist towns and into areas we might not otherwise see. In southern France, for example, we mapped our trip around Romanesque churches with carved capitals; in Brittany, around Les Calvaires -- outdoor carved medieval religious scenes. In the Dordogne, we planned our trip around one-star restaurants with regional food specialties.

We avoid large cities -- big city traffic can be unnerving. French drivers can be trusted not to run into bikers, since they are used to bicycle-commuting by young and old.

It's possible to sample more than one area. France's extensive and efficient train system can get to almost any corner of France within hours. On one trip, we spent a week in Brittany, and a week in Provence. Beginners might choose to start with the flat, ch^ateaux-studded Loire, move on to Burgundy's rolling hills, graduate to the low mountains of Provence, and eventually to the steep Pyrennes and Alps.

Despite its size -- France is smaller than the state of Texas -- the landscape, culture, and cuisine of the country changes dramatically almost every 100 miles. A bicyclist needn't go far to find variety.

Admittedly, cycle-touring isn't for everyone. Souvenir collectors, for instance, may be frustrated by the small size of bike packs (12 by 12 by 6). You can't carry extra Limoges tableware or Perigord p^at'e in your packs without your muscles rebelling. Neither is cycling for people who equate vacationing with lying flat on one's back in a bed or on the beach. It takes energy. And for those intent on chalking up large numbers of tourist sights visited, bicycling may not satisfy.

For us, however, the pleasure of the going, not the accomplishment of having arrived, is what counts. We take our time.

I will not forget the rolling Breton hills, the hilltop towns of the Dordogne, the lavender-covered mountains of Provence. I also remember the exertion of bicycling through it. I need no post cards to remind me of that. Practical Information Renting 10-speed bikes: Paris Velo (2, rue du fer-a-moulin, Paris V) Cost: 240 francs ($24) for each week including packs and repair equipment. Telephone 337-59-22. Transporting your own bike: Airlines: Some airlines transport bikes free and provide boxes. Others charge $20 to $64 and don't provide boxes. Call individual airlines. On trains: Major lines charge 10 percent of your ticket price to transport your bike. Bike transport on local trains is free if you load and unload yourself. Best months: June, July, and September. In August most French people vacation in the countryside. Planning: Read ``Bicycle Touring in Europe,'' by Karen and Gary Hawkins (Pantheon, New York). Study Michelin tourist guidebooks and Michelin area maps (1/200,000 scale). More detailed topographic maps by Institut Geographique National available in French bookstores. Camping: Michelin's Camping-Caravaning guide describes and rates campgrounds. Average cost: $1 per tent. Inn-hopping: Michelin's ``Hotel and Restaurant Guide'' rates and lists prices; also names restaurants' regional specialties. For a second opinion, use Gault Millau's ``Guide France.''

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