As cyclists pedal their way across France during the 100th Tour de France, Ellen Branagh embarked on a more leisurely cycle tour prior to the event in the Loire Valley.
Thanks to Sir Bradley Wiggins and his compatriots’ stunning success at the London Olympics, cycling has seen a huge resurgence.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and, in August, 20,000 amateur cyclists will take part in a 100-mile race along the 2012 London Olympic route as part of the world’s largest cycling festival, RideLondon.
With so much buzz around a sport based on something pretty much all of us did as a child, my husband and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
But rather than racing up mountains and through valleys, we chose a gentle jaunt around the Loire Valley in central France.
Armed with some well-equipped bikes - loaded with panniers, trip monitors to calculate speed and repair kits - and just a map and set of directions, it was up to us to negotiate the 25-35 mile route each day.
Some people might choose to move their own luggage, but we travelled in style, with our cases transported for us. In fact, the only real hardship was the occasional grey, drizzly day.
But isn’t that the fun of adventure? The thrill of successfully navigating an unknown route, getting up hills you didn’t think you could, while taking in beautiful sights, interesting history and a bucket-load of culture.
The advantage of cycling is having plenty of time to admire these historic buildings from the outside, or to stop off and explore their impressive grounds.
Straddling the Cher River, Chenonceau, was once at the centre of a dispute between Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II of France, and her husband’s long-time lover Diane de Poitiers.
Even more striking are the three-tiered gardens at the chateau at Villandry, as well as the horticultural work of art created by the Countess of Venant at the Chateau de Valmer.
The picturesque towns and villages of the Loire are rich in history.
Amboise, with its own towering castle, is home to the Manoir du Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci lived the final three years of his life.
Despite being bombed during the Second World War, tours still has a wonderful old town with leaning wooden-beamed buildings and cobbled streets.
The tiny towns of Montrichard, made of “tuffeau” sedimentary rock featuring compressed fossils and sand, and Fontevraud, famous for its abbey which once housed both a nunnery and a monastery, were both perfect places to stop off for simple refreshments.
The panorama across acres of vineyards in Vouvray looked even more beautiful because I’d reached the vantage point by my own steam.
We supped on traditional French cider along the way, stopped for galettes - savoury buckwheat pancakes stuffed with all manner of good things - and crepes.
A cycling holiday in the Loire is a wonderful way of taking in stunning scenery, sampling fine cuisine, and challenging yourself.