six: SpeedIT'S OVERCAST and there's a rain so light it seems merely that the air is moistened. The air is in any case fresh and cool -- but not, as yesterday, cold. Shorts and T-shirt.
The farmer is tilling the next field: Stu and Ian say he often has tobacco there. His tractor is -- no, you cannot say that here. To call the tractor ancient would be an affront to Mme. Moulinier's farmhouse, stone-walled, rough-beamed. And to call that ancient would leave no word for the caves up and down this valley, that the signs call the Vallée de l'Homme: habitations of men for two thousand generations. And the Vézère valley, rugged, granitey, is older than that and, with its weathering, shows it.
All agree it's good cycling weather. We emerge from Madame Moulinier's and go down a little slope, up a little slope, and down a another little slope to The Bridge at Tursac. Total distance, as they say in TdF circles, about 100 yards; total ascent, about 6 yards. At the end of it, at The Bridge, I'm hoping that this is the hill-climb stage over with and that the rest will be flatter -- but suspecting this won't happen.
There's a long freewheel down to the base of the Roque St. Christophe, and then a dreadful climb up to a small viewpoint. "That's where we're going," said Stu, pointing, "round behind there."
Stu laughs politely. "We're not even halfway up this side of the valley," he says. "Look where the river is. We're more or less at the bottom." My chest is still fair heaving: I'm clearly more unfit even than I'd thought.
"How far have we come?" I ask. Stu and Jen have tiny cycle computers on their handlebars. "Five miles", says Stu.
"Oh, that's not bad!", I say. "Five miles over all that up-and-downy stuff!"
Thus encouraged, we set out from St. Leon and the road soon becomes a long gradual climb, which Jen and I both aver to be the worst sort. After each turn we hope to see the top. Eventually we think we can: there is sky ahead, not more hill. The gradient here has shallowed, but at the top of such a hill our tiredness is increasing faster than the gradient is decreasing. By the last fifty yards, this has happened so acutely that, even though under normal circumstances we'd be pressed to say for sure which way uphill lay, I'm counting the remaining breaths I need to take to be finished.
The top is a T-junction onto the ridge road: it's surrounded by fields. I don't have the energy to get into a field to lie down, let alone to say coherently that I wanted to die.
Much squirting of water bottles later, we set off along the ridge road to a picnic area Ian and Stu know. Iron men, they've dragged not just themselves but a picnic in panniers up that hill, and we are all very glad of it. St Nectaire cheese, edammy but with a pleasant wonkiness; rillettes de canard, a bottle of red. It rains briefly but heavily, and we take refuge, bodily dragging the picnic table-and-chairs under the nearest tree.
|Down the hill
is amazing. No pedalling for miles and miles. We pass a Buddhist
monastery, and I slow, not wanting to be at one with anyone walking
dreamily the other way. Ian is ahead of me, and when he takes a corner
I can know there's no traffic on the other side.
At the bottom, the road injects us, still hurtling, into the village of Le Moustier. We get some beers in at the village bar: feeling victorious, but looking (the waiter wordlessly makes this quite clear) like mad overexerted Brits. Stu says that his cycle computer clocked him at 31mph down the hill, and Ian and I were going faster than he and Jen.
That evening, back at Madame Moulinier's, we cooked and ate what was probably the only chicken Madras anywhere in Périgord. And probably the only one in the world being served with a bottle of 1992 Crozes-Hermitage.