• A place like no other (Rob Arnold)Source: Rob Arnold
The Tour shows off some wonderful locations and every once in a while, it’s possible to have an extended visit and enjoy a chance to take in the surrounds, writes Rob Arnold.
Rob Arnold

Cycling Central
19 Jul 2017 - 11:08 AM 

Remember the 13th stage of the 2016 Tour? It was a sombre time as it was the day after the terrible attacks in Nice. The mood was awkward and even the winner of the time trial, Tom Dumoulin, admitted it was difficult to focus on racing. It was easy to be distracted but the Tour rolled on.

On the itinerary that day was a 37.5km time trial from Bourg-Saint-Andéol to La Caverne du Pont d’Arc. Look at the route and you see the Ardèche river lacing its way alongside the road. One of the time checks happened to be at the Pont d’Arc.

The Tour de France provides a great sporting competition but it is also a showcase of places along the route. And the Pont d’Arc is one of those things that catches your attention.

It’s an imposing 55 metre high natural bridge that arches over the river and it’s impossible to ignore when you drive by on the D290.

Alas, as is often the case when travelling with the Tour, you drive by, admire the vista… and, alas, then just keep on driving. Mental notes are often taken: "I should remember to return here for a holiday one day…" But rarely are they acted on.

The rest days, however, provide that window of opportunity to take a one-day holiday and step off from Planet Tour for a moment.

The aim of the race organisers was for the entourage to spend the second Monday of the 2017 race in or around Le Puy en Velay, the site of Stage 15’s finish and the start of Stage 16. But I finally took the opportunity to return to a location I’ve seen often during my years on Tour and to do something that is rare to do during these intense three weeks: I rested.

Well, it was actually quite an active day but the Pont d’Arc provided an ideal setting to relax and enjoy the hot summer weather.

The race is captivating and there’s always something to write about but once in a while it’s important to consider some other things in July. Like swimming, eating and perhaps even tasting some local wine.

About 90 per cent of my 2017 Tour itinerary was planned using an online booking company and I’m mindful of my budget. Australians may, however, be surprised at how relatively cheap it is to travel in France. The hotels at least, don’t cost a fortune. On average, I’m spending around 80-90 euros per night (±AUD$115); for my two-night stay at Pont d’Arc, it was a little more: 125 euros (per night) – but what a place it was!

Le Silex is a four room ‘hotel’. But it’s not like anything you’ve seen before.

Built into a cliff, my apartment featured a living area on the base level, bedroom up one flight of stairs, and a bathroom on the third level atop a tight spiral staircase.

It was lovely, cool, quiet, relaxing and, most importantly, it was a short walk to the Pont d’Arc. Four times during the day, I went down to the waterhole and cooled off.

It was an indulgence rarely taken on Tour but one that I’ll remember for a long time yet. This is what’s great about the race: it exposes people to wonderful sites in places you may otherwise not have considered visiting.

The Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche department is a special place. With a river beach and cliffs all around, it’s an ideal place for the family. And the car park opposite my lodgings, while empty in the evening, filled up quickly once the sun came up. Day trippers, campers and even the occasional journalist working at the Tour, all took refuge from the heat in the beautiful water.

There’s a steady stream of kayakers, all day long, in their thousands, but the ‘traffic’ never seems hectic.

With some gentle rapids there are patches of the river with some current but it’s not strong and never frightening. The cliffs provide some ideal platforms to jump from and there are even some tight little tunnels that turn into portals from which you can launch yourself into the river.

On the day of his time trial win, it’s fair to say that Dumoulin may not have noticed the hordes of his compatriots who had made the trip to the Ardèche and the Pont d’Arc. But plenty who were watching the action that day would have noticed what was around him as he raced. I know I did – and I’m glad I returned.

There are some beautiful places in France and sometimes you just need to take a moment to explore and realise just how easy it is to get some rest.

A year after Dumoulins time trial win, while the rest day was officially elsewhere, I returned to a location of a previous Tour to become a tourist.

Next time, I’ll bring the family and a tent and we may even spend a week or two there…

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