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A bike spin through France's Loire Valley

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A network of bike paths and relatively flat terrain make the Loire Valley perfect for cycling
Mild weather and fewer tourists make late spring a wonderful time to visit France

"Follow me," I said to my fiancé, Carlos, as we hopped on our rental bikes in Orléans, just one hour south of Paris on the high-speed Train à Grande Vitesse.

"Anywhere!" he replied.

Once a playground for the French noblesse, the beautiful surroundings of the middle stretch of the Loire River are full of castles, symmetrical gardens and bottled romance (readily available in red, white or rosé).

A network of 500 miles of bike paths and relatively flat terrain makes the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the more bicycle-friendly destinations in Europe.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Loire bike tour: An Aug. 3 Travel section article on a bike tour in France referred to TGV high-speed train service from Gare d'Austerlitz to Orleans. There is no TGV service between those two places. The Gare d'Austerlitz-to-Orleans trip was via a conventional Intercity rail line.
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Jacques Ozanam, the 17th century mathematician who first described the precursor to the modern bicycle (the "mechanical horse"), was born less than 60 miles from the Loire.

The theoretical advantages of this "self-moving" vehicle, he said more than three centuries ago, include being able to roam freely without having to tend to a horse.

It would also run on the most abundant of resources: willpower.

Ozanam was dead-on. I love bicycles and ride on most happy days. It has been my hobby and primary mode of transportation since my 19th birthday, when I got my first adult bicycle as a gift (although I expected a car).

I had fantasized about riding in the Loire Valley for at least a decade, from the moment I came across a photo essay in a magazine. Six, seven, eight hours of cycling a day interspersed with visits to medieval castles and fine dining would be the ideal introduction to "adventure travel."

"Let's go now," I told Carlos, "before we get old."

We booked our flights six months in advance for Memorial Day week. Late spring, we learned, is a wonderful time to experience the gardens of France; temperatures are mild and the region is still immune from the herds of visitors who storm castles, hotels and brasseries every summer.

"Bonjour!" we called out to the occasional cyclist (many of whom were senior citizens, proving my bias wrong).

For hourlong stretches of riding, we had majestic fields of wheat — a common sight along the Loire — all to ourselves.

Like the Loire River, the wheat seemed to dance beneath ominous skies and gleam when the sun came out. Trails were dotted with red poppies and tiny bugs that splattered against our sunglasses — and the back of our throats, if we talked too much.

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A five-day bike-powered zigzag around France's Loire Valley

After much research, we chose a freestyle, five-day, 150-mile expedition from Orléans to Saumur.

We reserved the bikes, two 21-speed commuters, from Detours de Loire, whose shops can be found throughout the region. It rents standard, mountain and even tandem bikes. For a small fee, you can pick up and return at different locations.

Because the TGV station at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport has only one daily train to Orléans — and the timing would have left us wandering around the airport for hours — we took a bus to the Gare d'Austerlitz Station in southeastern Paris and were soon aboard a high-speed train to our destination.

In an afternoon, we checked off Orléans' main sights: Gothic cathedral, medieval pedestrian streets and countless references to local warrior-saint Joan of Arc.

From there, we zigzagged through the region, following green-and-white signs across bridges and through forests, fields and quaint villages to several châteaux: Meung-sur-Loire, Chambord, Cheverny, Beauregard, Blois, Chenonceau, Tours, Villandry, Chinon and Saumur.

The bike paths vary as much as the architectural styles. An hour's worth of riding could have you rolling over concrete, stone, dirt and grass. The gravel courtyards that the French love are particularly hard to ride on.

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Highlights of a bicycling tour of the Loire Valley

• For most of its existence, the French monarchy was itinerant. The king had no permanent home and traveled from castle to castle with an entourage of 1,500 — and his furniture. His lavish pied-à-terre were concentrated along an arc formed by the Loire River.

The mile-long linear path that leads to Château de Chambord, outside Blois, is flanked by tall, rhythmic trees. Built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I, the estate sits in the largest enclosed forest park in Europe.

The elaborate roof-scape becomes more discernible as you approach. On a bicycle, at an average speed of 14 mph, the view is similar to what the king's visitors would have experienced on horseback. Those on a sightseeing bus, except for maybe the driver, will miss the unparalleled sense of arrival.

Up close, Chambord looks like something out of "Game of Thrones." In contrast, the interior is surprisingly sparse. It was Carlos' favorite castle.

• I, on the other hand, preferred Chenonceau, as did several royal women. This stunning piece of architecture spanning the River Cher (a tributary of the Loire), 10 miles south of Amboise, was bequeathed by King Henry II to his favorite mistress. When he died, his widow, Catherine de Medici, gave her the boot and moved in herself.

• Château de Villandry, an hour downstream from Tours, we decided, would make a nice weekend estate. In true French fashion, the gardens are best seen from above. They are part Op art, part magical checkerboard, and their scale, detail and visual impact are astonishing. The hedges look as if they're trimmed with the aid of a ruler.

• Let's not forget that this is also wine country. Delicious Touraine varieties — Gamay, Grolleau, Sauvignon Blanc — one of the region's main exports, can cost less than water. Both small and large bottles fit snugly into our bikes' cup holders.

A crowded bicycle rack in Tours confirmed that other bikers had the same idea — probably one of the reasons people say the French know how to live.

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Pannier bike bags, bike paths and missed directions

Transporting our bicycle bags when they were not strapped to the bikes was a bit of a nightmare. Although we packed lightly, favoring outfits appropriate for extended periods of riding that didn't look too technical, the double pannier bike bag was hard to carry because of its awkward shape.

The pannier was also a source of global confusion: "Your bag broken?" asked a Transportation Security Administration official.

We could have booked a luggage transfer service to transport standard suitcases to our hotels, but that would have cost us $520. It also would have required prearranged hotel reservations, which we had but didn't keep twice due to fatigue, underestimated distances and torrential rain.

 

Stick to the bike paths. Somewhere between Cheverny and Blois, we challenged the bicycle signage and ended up lost for hours in a forest.

"Follow me," I later said to my fiancé at a split near Château de Coulaine.

"No way. I'm checking the map."

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