BEN HAGGAR: BIKE TOURING THROUGH PROVENCE
Adventure photographer and Antarctic guide, Ben Haggar, takes us on a two wheeled adventure through the Provence region of France – hiking and riding through majestic hills and old villages, experiencing the delights of French culture along the way.
Biking through Provence has a certain sophisticated, elegant ring to it. Contrasted against figures like the brutality of our day 1: 63km, +4207m, -4370m – it transforms into an entirely incomprehensible beast of a ride. From Briancon to Nice over 7 days with as little road riding as possible. That was our mission.
We had come to this unlikely slice of France in search of a grand adventure as well as a physical and mental challenge. The area also had a special association to Chris – the founder of this seemingly insurmountable task. From childhood, Chris would accompany his father who guided road cycling trips in the summer months.
The chosen route took us over dizzying mountain passes, down to the valleys far below along ancient rocky paths, then back up the other side of yet another mountain. We pedalled through fairytale alpine meadows seemingly plucked from the pages of a children’s story book, past quintessential French hamlets, and more often than not, ended up in a fortified town clinging above raging rivers.
Our days were incomprehensibly large in both kilometres and elevation gain and loss. Figures which on paper seem large, but how do you translate 4000m meters of climbing into actual physical output.
I hit my low point on day 4, half way up a 2000m climb spread over 24 km of gravel road never slackening beyond 3%. I was drained and could never imagine a climb this long and sustained. The worst part was that it was all doable, so there was no choice in the matter. All I could do was slowly push the pedals and grind my way forward.
I knew it was a crime as heinous as breaking pasta in front of a traditional Italian grandmother, but my baguette sandwich just would not fit in my riding pack. Day after long day we made our way through the back alleys of obscure mountain passes and long forgotten trails.
Delicious European beers – more for medication than celebration awaited us along with a hearty homestead meal at each country side bed and breakfast we visited.
The smells of Provence in Spring are so thick, you can literally taste the air. Like riding through a chef’s pantry, I slowly came to appreciate perspective gained from a long distance traverse. Wild oregano, lavender, and thyme mingled with yellow gorse, larch, and limestone gave a wholesome feeling to this aromatic landscape. Traveling overland at a pace more in line with natural human movement, allows time to fully appreciate your surroundings and take in this tactile environment in a visceral way.
The theme of untouched wilderness doesn’t naturally come to mind when thinking of Europe. Although we did reach the top of some climbs and happily enjoy a hot bowl of soup or a latte, we did however find some of the wilder areas of remote mountain areas forgotten by the rest of France.
Eventually the smell of sea air blew into our faces off the Mediterranean creating a stiff headwind for the final 20km into Nice. It was a supreme shock to be in the middle of busy city streets surrounded by people and a frenetic energy compared with the solitude of the sparsely populated mountains. But as I took the long anticipated plunge into the Med, all fell silent as I floated suspended in the warm soothing water – glad that there was not another mountain pass in my near future.