Wednesday 23 March 2011

Lost Boys Tour of Europe 2010: The Road to Minerve

Jen attacks the climb!

June 21, 2010

With the rain gone, it looked like the remainder of our stay in the Laure-Minervois area would be under sunshine. Several members of the group elected to go on a local wine tour with an English-speaking guide with a van while seven others decided to go with me on the route I had worked out some months before. The ride was meant to be without any extreme climbing but, of course, when sitting at my desk in Ottawa I had not considered the effects of the fierce wind!

The Thin Man sets the pace for Jen

The Lost Boys group has been fairly consistent over the years but we have added new members. On this ride we were joined by Jennifer, an American opera singer based in Leipzig, who is engaged to a regular Lost Boy, the Thin Man. As an engagement gift, they had gotten each other custom-built bicycles made by Sam Whittingham in British Columbia. The steel bicycles are beautifully constructed and his “Naked” brand’s fans include Lance Armstrong, who bought a fixed gear Naked show bicycle straight off the floor a few years ago at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Jennifer’s bicycle was a lovely blue and ivory and is designed for touring. It is a bit daunting to ride with a group of strangers who have put in many years together already but she did extremely well–although there were moments in the wind when I thought I was about to cry myself.

Taking the back roads, we quickly reached the village of Peyriac-Minervois, which is located on the busy D11 regional road, but we crossed over it and continued on some very quiet roads, passing through what seems like miles of vineyards. The road, the D52, through Pépieux and on towards Olonzac, was fairly flat but we had a good view of the mountains to the north. There was some irrational exuberance demonstrated by the sprinters and time triallists in the group as they joyfully raced down the road. The wind was not very evident and I was worried that we would feel it on the way back. I usually try to plan rides so that you have a headwind out and a tailwind back but you cannot always choose.

Heading north towards Azillanet (population 370), we took a energy bar break and looked around at the impressive old church, pausing for the requisite group photo, which took on a somewhat irreligious aspect, and then headed out on the D10, where we discovered where the wind had been hiding as it hammered straight down the road. It was very hard and we took turns pacing but not everyone could keep up. It was 6 difficult kilometres but suddenly we had a dramatic view of a river twisting through a canyon, surrounded by yet more vineyards, and we had reached our objective for the day: Minerve.

Located about 30 kms from our gite, Minerve, which gives its name to the whole Minervois wine region, is a tiny village of 111 inhabitants that is one of the three villages in Languedoc-Roussillon judged to be among the most beautiful villages in France. It sits on the Cesse River, which appears innocent but can seriously flood, and its narrow streets are very charming. Looks are deceiving since Minerve was the site of a massacre during the Albigensian Crusades. So goes the story:

In 1210 a group of Cathars sought refuge in the village after the massacre of Beziers during the Crusade. The village was besieged by Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester. The attacking army besieged the village for six weeks before it capitulated. They set up four catapults around the fortification: three to attack the village, and the largest, Malevoisine, to attack the town's water supply. Eventually the commander of the 200-strong garrison, Viscount Guilhem of Minerve, gave in and negotiated a surrender which saved the villagers and himself after the destruction of the town's main well. However, 140 Cathars refused to give up their faith and were burned to death at the stake on 22 July.

Only one tower remains of the original fortifications, but it still is a beautiful place, and we enthusiastically crossed over one of the high bridges and began to look for a suitable place for lunch. The village is dug into the sides of the canyon and the pizzeria we found required us to leave our bikes on the street and climb up a set of steep stairs. It was a pretty place and the pizzas were the big, thin, generous European ones.

Sandra digs into the recovery ice cream

While we were eating, we were joined by our wine tourists, who were stopping on their route to look at Minerve and they saw our bicycles. A good meal and an excellent coffee or two later and we were back on the road.

The road took us westwards along the Canyon de la Cesse and we had a dramatic view on our right-hand side as we rode along a flat stretch. The canyon is deep and twists and turns constantly. Riding on the ridge, however, we caught the full force of the north-east wind, which must have been blowing at a steady 40 km/h, making progress slow. It was a long 11.5 kms of patient riding that brought us to our next turn, south onto the D12 at St-Julien-de-Molières. Now we had both a tailwind and a descent so this made up for the pain of the previous hour. Zipping through Saussenac and Félines-Minervois, we stopped briefly to look at a pretty restored windmill and then found ourselves in our market town, Caunes-Minervois. Dr. Chef and I split off from the group to look around the old town a bit and admire the big church and monastery before heading back to the gite.

Brett grilling zucchini

One of the advantages of staying at a gite is that you can do your own cooking if you so choose. With a group of dozen, there are always enthusiastic cooks (and cleaner-uppers) to count on and we were not disappointed. Wrong-Way Brett and Dr. Chef worked their magic and we took over the big patio at the gite for an excellent dinner, lubricated with a great deal of local wine.

68.85 km | round trip
Altitude range: 392 Meter (50 Meter to 442 Meter)
Total climb: 863 Meter Total descent: 863 Meter

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