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The Dordogne River winds past farmland, as seen from the 13th century Chateau de Beynac in Beynac-et-Cazenac, France Sept. 23, 2002. (Ben de Groot/Associated Press)
The Dordogne River winds past farmland, as seen from the 13th century Chateau de Beynac in Beynac-et-Cazenac, France Sept. 23, 2002. (Ben de Groot/Associated Press)

Why I dumped the bike tour and explored southern France by car instead Add to ...

Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures – those times when, far from what’s familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can’t wait to tell when you get home.

When my daughter offers me a birthday present of a bicycle trip in the Dordogne region of France, I envision prehistoric cave paintings, medieval castles and black truffles, but I think, “I’m turning 70. My knees are a mess. Can I do this?”

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I’m reassured when we meet our travel group in the riverside garden of an inn in Les Eyzies. Pete the guide is hydrating with a couple of bottles of wine. Sarah from Alabama is in full makeup, bejewelled. “I love bling,” she drawls, “even with my cycling outfit.” Her husband tells me that he’s had back surgery and is on cholesterol drugs. Betty from New Zealand is plump.

The next morning, I have a rude awakening. I discover that plump Betty and her husband race bicycles on weekends. Sarah confesses that she’s a marathon runner. A Canadian family is sporting “camels,” water packs that feed directly into the mouth. A spandexed couple describe their next trip: cycling the entire coast of Great Britain. Roberto reveals that he’s a gym teacher.

While Pete fits everyone with a bike, the hot, sunny weather suddenly cools, the sky blackens and drops of rain begin to fall. We don rain jackets and take off. Within seconds I’m at the end of the pack. The rain is hitting me in the face and the mud is splashing all over me.

Sarah covers each leg of the route three times: She continually races ahead, goes back to check on her husband and races ahead again.

As I fall farther behind, New Zealand Fred rides back and pulls alongside me. His bike wheels are enormous, seeming to do one revolution to my three. “Use all the gears,” he encourages. While concentrating on potholes and puddles I’ve forgotten about gears. I take his advice, but I’m not sure I’ve geared in the right direction. I look down to check, and start veering off the road. Fred pulls ahead and shouts through the wind and rain, “Do you know how to draft?”

I’m sure that whatever it is, I don’t know how to do it. “No!” I yell.

“Stay a foot behind me. I’ll shield you from the wind.” I try it, but now I’m terrified of crashing into his rear wheel.

“I’m fine now,” I lie. “Don’t let me slow you down.”

“Don’t worry,” Fred shouts, “this isn’t a race. I’m on holiday,” but soon he’s out of sight. I desperately want a drink of water, but can’t spare the time. I’m freezing and wet, but sweat is running down my torso.

Ten kilometres later, I see the group resting at an intersection. Unfortunately, they’re not resting; they’re waiting for me. “Sorry to have kept you,” I say brightly.

“We go at the speed of the slowest rider,” Pete reassures me. His words have the opposite effect. Now I feel compelled to keep up with these speed demons.

For the next four days, I glimpse pink hydrangeas cozying up to stone cottages, green hills falling away to distant streams and Richard the Lionheart’s castle on a cliff, but I only have eyes for the endless road and the red rear lights of the cyclists far in the distance. Occasionally, my daughter takes pity on me and rides back with a few words of encouragement. We rush through country markets and past cliffside fortresses and 11th-century churches.

I dream of throwing my bike in the luggage van and jumping in beside the driver, but I hate to admit defeat. Then on the fifth day, my daughter, says, “Enough of this torture! I’m sick of never stopping to see anything! These people only want to make sure they’re at a bar by sunset.” I pretend neutrality as she announces, “We’re doing the rest by car.”

Indolence has its rewards. We have time to explore medieval towns and a crusader fortress, paddle a canoe down the Dordogne River through limestone cliffs dotted with prehistoric cave dwellings and marvel at paleolithic artifacts at the National Museum of Prehistory. “The pop philosophers are wrong.” I muse over a leisurely lunch in a walled garden. “It’s not about the journey. It’s about the destination.”

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