Landscape With Bike And Rider

No one was forcing me to bike up Mont Ventoux. The 6,000-foot ascent wasn't part of the day's program. In fact, some cyclists in our group had elected to skip riding altogether and go shopping instead on our last day in Provence. But I, along with a half-dozen other hardheads, decided to head for the summit. Two sweaty hours into the climb, however, I found myself wondering why.

Was it penance for the industrial quantities of goat cheese and duck confit I'd been eating? Was it to sharpen my taste buds for the well-cellared Hermitage I'd promised myself for that night? Or was it simply a lark?

INDULGENCE. While bicycling through Europe, at least if you travel with a high-end outfit such as Butterfield & Robinson (800 678-1147) or Travent International (800 325-3009), you develop a taste for sleeping in castles. You grow accustomed to three-hour dinners with wines and dessert spreads that border on the pornographic. You get spoiled by hopping onto a perfectly maintained bike while carrying nothing but a fanny pack, serene in the knowledge that your luggage will appear magically at the next chateau. And best of all, you wallow in all this luxury while feeling downright virtuous. After all, there's lots of exercise. And culture: You see churches, ruins, and markets. You speak French.

It is this happy combination of wholesomeness and indulgence that makes European bike-touring one of the fastest-growing travel trends of the past decade. Eight-day bike trips with b&r and Travent cost roughly $2,500 a person and include hotels and most meals but not airfare.

The favorite destination for pedal-pushing Americans remains France. The reasons are simple: France has a great network of well-paved country roads, a tradition of gracious provincial hotels, beautiful scenery, oodles of history, marvelous architecture, and food and wine to die for. It is also a felicitous fact that France has a lot of flat stretches.

Not that I seemed to find many of them in my rambles through the Dordogne (with Travent) and Provence (with B&R). No, I kept running into what serious bikers refer to as "rolling country" but which the rest of us might call hills. Not mountains, mind you, but inclines pronounced enough to put you in touch with the deep truth of gravity. High enough to give you a panorama from the summit and a prodigious appetite for the next gavage. (Literally, gavage is the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras. But it might also be applied to the eating habits of people who've been pedaling for hours.)

In any case, French hills come in many varieties, and the more of them you pedal up, the more vivid become the distinctions. There are the gradual, south-facing slopes beloved of vintners--bejeweled with purple grapes peeking out from under blue-green leaves. There are the hills like upturned bowls favored by shepherds, with their lamb-nibbled carpets as neat as golf greens. There are the more rugged hills of Languedoc--seemingly haphazard piles of dry white rock with herbs and wildflowers poking out of every crevice. Then, there are hills you want no part of, majestic but daunting promontories you contemplate from afar.

In the Dordogne, the impetus for climbing hills is often a desire to see the region's extraordinary prehistoric sites. The painted caves of Lascaux (actually Lascaux II, a meticulous reproduction, built because air and tourists were causing irreversible damage to the original) demonstrate that Cro-Magnon man was not only a sophisticated artist but also someone with the sense--and the stamina--to seize the protected high ground for his shrines.

While little is known of the eating habits of prehistoric Frenchmen, hearthstones found at sites such as Roc St. Christophe strongly suggest that food preparation was a Dordogne priority from the start. What's certain, however, is that in today's Dordogne, cuisine is a magnificent obsession at the very heart of regional identity and pride.

JUST DUCKY. In contrast to the butter-based cuisine to the north and the olive-oil-based cooking to the south, the food of Prigord is built around the headily unctuous fat of ducks and geese. From leeks to lentils to lettuce, nearly every food is prepared with some essence of well-insulated bird. If you think that sounds rich, you're right--especially when you factor in the almost hallucinatory truffles, the musky cpes (wild mushrooms), and the habit-forming little goat-cheese disks known as cabecous.

In Provence, the hilltop attractions have more to do with the Romans--both the ancient ones, who made southeast France their own, and the medieval ones, who established a papacy in Avignon, thereby assuring the region of prosperity, assassinations, and religious wars. On the ascent to Les Baux, a macabre ghost town perched on a solitary stub of mountain, there is ample time to reflect on how quick the trip down must have been for the heretics pitched over the sheer edge by Raymond de Turenne, nephew of Pope Gregory IX.

If Les Baux inspires fretfulness, Chateauneuf-du-Pape inspires mostly thirst. The insinuating aroma--part grape juice, part dirt, part woody exudation reminiscent of root beer--fosters an urge to drink the output of the local vineyards. And there is no better place to do this than the Pope's patio--the stone courtyard that fronts the remains of the papal summer cottage from which the village draws its name.

ROOM AT THE TOP. The final ascent of most days carries a different motivation--since it's usually the climb to the hotel: Many of Europe's oldest and most beautiful villages sit on hilltops. And many of life's pleasantest hotels are in those villages. It takes legwork to reach them, yet people soar up the steep approaches on wings of expectation--of a hot bath, a basket of fruit, a split of champagne from the mini-bar.

There's one more motivation that carries bicycling bodies heavenward: It is motivation-for-the-hell-of-it. Which brings us back to Mont Ventoux. At the beginning of that ascent, I told myself I was doing it for the view of the fertile valley that stretched away in purple and gold. But the wind came up, the clouds descended, and the view disappeared. I had 10 kilometers to go and could no longer kid myself that I had a reason for going.

But it was perfect. Innocent of the hope of gain, the climb was pure...well, pure climb. Pointless? Sure. But I would submit that anyone who has lost sight of the pleasure of that kind of gratuitous challenge is badly in need of a bicycle trip in rolling country.

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