Family Rides around Lac de Montbel (Part 1)

With the end of the grandes vacances rapidly approaching, I realised I had utterly failed in all of my cycling missions, namely to tick off a few sections (at least) of the Mirepoix-Lavelanet voie verte and also to ride around Lac de Montbel. Both routes are pretty local to me so with a few not-so-hot weather days showing on the forecast I decided to go for it, with Montbel top of my tick-list.

The VTT Pyrenees website lists two main routes around the lake that I figured could be tweaked then reccied for their trailer-friendliness.

  • Route 14, from Chalabre, following the voie verte north then taking a track down to the lake via the village of Montbel – 17km in total, classed as Circuit Familial, graded blue.
  • Route 16, which could also be started from Chalabre, which more or less follows the shore of the lake – 32km in total and classed as Circuit Sportif, graded red.

Since I wasn’t in the mood for tackling a major trailer ride on my own (James was having back trouble and didn’t want to ride and I hadn’t had chance to arrange anything with anyone else) we hatched a plan whereby he would drop me off on the eastern shore of the lake, by the village of Montbel, then drive over to the western shore to wait for us. We would picnic together once we arrived and, in the meantime, I’d get my ride and James would get some peace and quiet. James liked the idea, so that’s what we did. I also decided to strap DD’s balance bike to the back of the trailer as I thought it would be nice for her to have the option of riding too, if she felt like it.


I didn’t bother plotting anything beforehand, no GPS tracks or anything, as it was going to pretty simple, at least that’s how it looked from various maps, so I just set off with the plan to keep the lake on my right and ask for help/directions along the way whenever I wasn’t sure! One of the things I had no idea about was whether the route would be trailer friendly. There was no indication of such online so I was going to have to ride it to find out.

I started to have my first doubts about this within a few minutes of James pulling off in the car when confronted with a steep and sandy bank with a gap only just large enough to fit the trailer. Thanks to the timely arrival of some helpful (and somewhat skeptical) walkers we made it up and over and were on our way. Only a few minutes in and I was already starting to wonder whether this route would be good with the trailer. The path the other side was narrow, not something I’d have worried about usually but given I’d only managed to get a few hundred metres from the start thanks to assistance I was really hoping it would get better. The narrow path was nice for me to ride on but it meant the trailer wheels were dragging a bit on the grass either side and my two passengers were getting bumped around a fair bit. I wasn’t sure they’d tolerate that over 7 miles. Luckily, the first of four dams quickly came into view and the path opened out. So far so good.

The next section of the route was pretty nice to ride, wider for a short while and then into some woods, following the bank of the water. Lovely!


I was just starting to relax when a bloke came hurtling out of the woods and, after a quick exchange of bonjours, started gesturing and saying, “attention!” (which the French say in the same way we would say, “be careful!” Hmm… I flagged him down and asked him what the problem was and he said to be careful because there was a difficult section coming up. Difficult how, I wondered. Then I spotted it. It was one of those fabulous dirt drop ins, a bit like a half-pipe, great fun to ride but not so great with a trailer in tow! I stopped, took a picture (which really doesn’t do the depth of it justice) then backtracked to look for a path that would take me round it. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to pass that way and not like the look of that drop, so there was a path, which I duly pushed the trailer round until I was back on the trail. First hurdle overcome. Yay, onwards!


After that it was pretty easy going again. The track was nice and it was generally wide enough for the trailer to pass easily with the odd tree root to avoid, so it was a case of picking the most suitable line for the trailer so that the littles didn’t get bumped around too much. It was good fun!

About half way to our destination a wrong turn delivered us to a section of the lake where the water was so low I ended up riding beyond the end of a track onto the hard-baked clay, which was interesting! The littlies weren’t too happy about it as it was very bumpy. I was keen to get off it in case there were any soft patches and I ended up stuck and dragging bike and trailer out of the mud. As soon as I was closer to where the shore would usually be I made for the obvious path.

At this point, on a nice flat, wide track, it seemed a good point for DD to have a go on her balance bike. She had a short scoot then assured me that she was worn out and needed a rest – convenient because there also appeared to be some dinosaur-like tree stumps sticking out of the mud that were calling out for exploration. I’m fairly sure she’d have stayed on her bike for longer if curiosity hadn’t got the better of her.


She really wanted to go down and take a closer look so we parked up, liberated DS, and wandered down to check them out. DD was playing with her new dinosaur friends while DS was more interested in the white cranes that we’d disturbed when we rode across the clay and were now coming back down to land near the water’s edge. With the water well out of easy reach to either of them it was a nice place to relax and take a break.


After both passengers had had a reasonable run around and we were all topped up around for a few minutes, I bundled them both in the trailer so we could get on. We’d been gone about an hour and I didn’t want to be out all day in case the sun defied the forecast and came out in full force. Plus, James was waiting for us and I wasn’t sure how easy or hard the rest of the ride would be. I rode back towards where I thought the start of the trail was, had a moment of indecision, turned back the way I’d come, which turned out to be the wrong way (had there been more water it would have been an island), so turned tail again. At this point a small group on mountain bikes were heading my way, making me doubt my indecision! Had I’d missed a part of the trail? Was I in fact going the wrong way again? I stopped to ask if they knew the way, which they didn’t, told them I thought that was the wrong way, then showed them the map on my phone. They seemed quite convinced that I was going the right way, which I was relieved about. After a quick chat with them – about the trailer, the kids, the cycling, the low level of the water, and why I was in France – they set off again, back the way they’d just come, and I followed along. “Have we got some new friends now, Mummy?” DD asked. That’s my girl.

The next section, which I’d been dubious about taking when I first saw it, looked like it was single-track going into the woods. I knew from the map it had been made into a Strava segment so art of me was definitely a bit worried that it might not be good with the trailer. When I ride solo with the trailer I’m pretty good about asking for advice – generally I want to avoid getting lost or running into problems and, as a crowd was forming around the junction of this latest section of trail, I asked a few people whether it would be okay with the trailer. A few said, sure. One woman said that it was narrow in places and maybe the trailer wouldn’t fit. I didn’t understand everything she said but look on her face suggested she really didn’t think it was a good idea. Another was keen to convey that it was bumpy and not flat. Obviously, I’m the wrong person to tell that too! One of the men in the group  I’d just met asked whether I was going to ride it. I shrugged and said I’d try – and we both laughed.

With that my new group of friends set off and I followed. It didn’t take long for them to leave me behind but I found it reassuring that they were in front somewhere and also knowing that there were quite a few people out. The trail was nice to ride, having opened out a bit again, and tt was all going well. Then I reached a point where the trail split into two levels, running side by side, too narrow for the trailer meaning I had to keep one wheel on the higher track and another on the lower one. With the trailer at 45 degrees it was something of a challenge and it was at that point that almost resigned myself to ending my ride. I say almost. After checking the map, I decided to continue on until the next bend, pushing the bike, pulling the trailer (while also putting my weight on it to stop it tipping down the bank). If it had been hard beyond there I think I would probably have turned round but it turned out to be only a short section and we made it. DD was a little upset by it (she was on the side facing down the bank when it nearly tipped over) and DS, the trooper, slept through the whole thing!

After that I was starting to wonder whether the next section would be too much but really didn’t want to have to turn back so asked a few people I came across what was up ahead and no-one pulled any faces or expressed any concern so I carried on. The trail opened up again. Nice. Time to relax and just ride.

A fallen tree later, with help from another couple of cyclists, I was asking another walker for advice. How was the trail up ahead? “Fine”, said the woman (a mother who was with her young son who was riding his bike alongside). “Just watch out for the steep part.” Her husband was there wearing a black t-shirt and he would help, she said.

Onwards, over some roots, riding through the woods, wondering when this next obstacle would present itself, I suddenly found myself grinding to a halt on a steep bank that seemed to come out of nowhere! Thanks to my mountain bike shoes and cleats I had enough grip to drag myself and the trailer up there in one go. Just. Once at the top, I found the couple that had helped me over the tree. We all exchanged “phews!” over the steepness of the trail then I looked in dismay at the descent – a steep, lovely, rideable drop on the mountain bike that was completely inappropriate for a trailer carrying my two most precious possessions. Luckily the guy, who must have seen the look on my face, pointed round to the left where there was another path, which although still quite definitely down was not anywhere near vertical. I thanked him then set off that way  – on foot. It was a bit rocky but the rocks were wide and smooth and it was easy enough to get the trailer over. Once the other side the trail continued as it had before. If the woman I’d spoken to before was right, that was the only bit to watch out for. Good – and according to the map, nearly at our destination.


By now we’d been out for getting on for two hours including stops. As with all activities involving small people there’s a limit to how much can be done, so now I was keen to get back to base and have lunch before anyone started getting stressed or upset. A few more bends later and the final dam came into site. We made it – phew!! I called James, who was having a coffee at the restaurant, and headed down to meet him. He’d had a coffee and went off to get me one, then I suggested take out pizza. The restaurant on the Leran side of the lake does excellent pizza and I felt we’d earned it.

After a very fine picnic – complete with fresh, hot, homemade pizza – we walked down to the water’s edge with our swimming gear. Sadly though it was not to be. The water level is very low this year – hence my being able to ride on what should have been the bottom of the lake rather than the shore – which meant anyone wanting to swim would be standing on clay and rock with the bottom dropping away very fast. It wouldn’t be nice underfoot and isn’t safe for the little ones. We decided we’d had a good enough day out already and headed home.

Thinking about the route afterwards, would I do it again? Would I recommend it as a trailer ride? Well, yes, I definitely plan to do it again. But only if there’s another adult with me. I needed quite alot of help, compared to other rides I’ve done with the trailer, and might have had to turn round or run into trouble if there hadn’t been so many people around. I was fine because it was a busy Sunday in August. On a quiet Wednesday afternoon at another time of year, I might not have been so lucky. Lucky for me I have some other bike-mad parent friends with a trailer and I’m pretty sure they’ll like the sound of it. I’ll recommend it to them, definitely and suggests they come with me next time! But that’s them. Anyone who isn’t excited by the idea of rooty paths and isn’t up for an offroad adventure would be better off sticking to flat or more sanitized routes, like the voie verte or one of the road-based easy routes around Puivert. That’s one of the things I love about the cycling here: there really is something for everyone!

Read all about my second ride to Lac de Montbel in Part 2 (coming soon).

 

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Discovering the Voie Verte

The weather started off a little cooler than it had been for a while so I suggested we all make the most of it and head out for a walk. I love the warm, sunny weather but also like to be able to get out and about without having to worry about anyone getting too hot or sunburnt, which at 30 degrees or more is easily done. Walk-wise, we decided to head down the road to Rivel to join one of France’s long-distance shared-use paths, Le chemin des Filatiers, a 38km traffic-free route from Lavelanet to Mirepoix, which passes through there, not far at all from where we’re living. It’s on my to-do list of routes to ride in future, hopefully as a multi-day family trip, so I thought it would be nice to take a look at a section of it and that it would also make a nice easy walk for DS (he’s been on his feet for 6 weeks now and is loving his new-found freedom). We also need to try and make sure DD gets a good runaround every day as she’s much happier for spending time outdoors (as well as more likely to go to bed at a decent time!)

Of course, by the time we got ourselves organised the sun was out at full strength again, but we slathered on the Factor 50 and went anyway. We didn’t want to go far – it was really a chance for me to have a nosey at the nearest access point to our house, thinking of short rides with the kiddies, and to just get out of the house for some fresh air. We drove down to Rivel and on to the old station, which is just off the Rivel-Chalabre road. Immediately after turning off you’re on the voie verte and see the signs off to the left, where the route heads towards Lavelanet. We drove along the tarmaced road until we got to the bollards signalling the start of the next traffic-free section. We parked, lifted DD into the sling (she was fast asleep), filled up our water bottles, then set off. DS was on foot and making light work of it! He loves to walk, just like his big sister.

James and DD in a wooded section at the start of the route to Chalabre from Rivel

The first section was shaded by high hedgerows, reminiscent of the Trans-Pennine Trail that was local to our old house, then it opened up into a long straight stretch, with Chalabre in the distance.

Because by now the sun had come out and was in full force again, we turned off the route at this point and went down a track towards the river, hoping to find a shady spot for a snack stop and maybe also a quick paddle, but it was not to be. There was a spot where we could have scrambled down to the bank with slightly older children in tow, but not practical with two small ones in slings, so we turned back and headed to the beginning again. I think we walked about 5km in total, there any back. It’s only a short stretch – 5km – from Rivel to Chalabre so we made it half way. With better planning it would be easily do-able as a family walk – good for buggies – and also a very easy cycle ride, so definitely one to do again, perhaps with a picnic stop by the river and playground before making the return journey? If I get my act together, it might be possible to cycle to the creche once DS starts doing longer hours. I love living here.

Walking the Sentier des Plâtriers

We did this walk ages ago but the pics I took were with my camera so it took me a while to get round to downloading them. Now that’s done, here’s the write up I said I would do in my Exploring on Foot post.

The Walk

The walk starts in the small village of Rouvenac, which is nestled in the Faby valley between Puivert and Esperaza. Leaving the place in Rouvenac, we crossed over the bridge, take a left, then headed straight ahead, following the road towards Galie. This climbs steadily until you reach the ruined moulin, which is a nice place for a quick explore – there’s an information board, in French – and a snack stop, if needed.

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The moulin – worth a look

Just past here the road forks, going left towards Galie and the short way to Fa, or right – which is the direction this walk takes.

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A well-signed route! Lots of options from here too.

The road then follows round the hill, climbing all the time (but once you’re at the top, you’re done) into a really quiet out-of-the-way valley. It’s quite an unusual landscape. Look out for the donkeys!

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James (with DS fast asleep) admiring the view

The track wiggles a little bit back and forth then turns off sharply to the right. We weren’t sure about this and um’d and ah’d before heading that way. Perhaps one of the signs is missing? Either way, after passing a couple of houses in very idyllic spots, the route takes the track to the right and heads a little higher before starting to descend, back in the direction of Rouvenac.

The next turning was little difficult to spot. It is signed but not that noticeably. First you pass the sign, by the V shaped tree, then you see, on the right side of the track a wooden “gate” – just wide enough to fit one relatively slender human through.

After squeezing through the stile, the walk follows a lovely winding path through the trees, through some fields with cattle (I know not what breed).

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A quiet path winding through the trees

It was at this point that DD decided she wanted to walk and she really enjoyed hopping over the rocks and picking her way along the path – until we came to the field of cattle! I had a few run-ins with cows while mountain biking in the Peaks back in the UK so am always wary of them now, so we bundled her up onto my shoulders for that stretch! I’m sure they were friendly but they are big animals so I prefer just to get past them asap so I can get on with enjoying my walk. By this time we were ready for a quick refreshment stop – snack time, and DD took some pictures with my camera.

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A quick refreshment stop for DS. It’s thirsty work being carried.

Shortly after here an electric fence blocked the path. As this was one of our very first walks we weren’t really sure what that meant but now know that it’s fairly common for tracks to be “blocked” by fencing, put there purely to keep the livestock where they want them. That’s what the plastic handles are for, so you can open the fence and pass through – no need to take your chances hopping over the top.

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An electric fence and some cabanes hidden in the woods

According to the sign there are some cabanes up there somewhere, but they weren’t visible from the track and we didn’t go looking for them. There’s no mention of them on the Internet either (I Googled on my return) so have no idea what’s there and will just have to take a closer look the next time we do this walk.

From this point the walk meanders down a very obvious path all the way back to the village. You come out at the back of the village and, on arriving at the first houses, can follow the road to the right (which takes you past the park and also the water fountain) or wander through the narrow streets and eventually back to the bridge.

The Verdict

On the Rando Pyrenees Audioses website it’s listed as an easy walk and estimates it to take about 2 hours. That was about right for us – and that was with DD pottering along and a snack stop. Anyone with a good march on could get round in much less time. It’s a nice length for a family, only 3 miles, and although it is hilly, once you’re at the top you’re done and it’s downhill all the way from there. Our three-year-old was carried all the way top but enjoyed walking all the way down.

We always like a walk with “features” – meaning a bit of variety – and enjoyed that aspect of this walk: the open valley, the woods, the cows, the meandering nature of the descent. It’s a nice walk for a family outing, never to far from civilization, fairly well signed, with lots of opportunities for snack stops and wildlife spotting. And also a nice route for any trail runners wanting to sneak a quick 5k in!

Getting There

Although we were living only a short distance away, we drove down and parked in the square by the bridge. The only way to get there, unless you’re already in the village, is by car. There may be buses but they are few and far between. The nearest railway station is Esperaza.

If, like us, you are doing the walk with small children, I recommend crossing over the bridge then taking left and then a right to park closer to or directly alongside the park, as we ended up there on our return then struggled to get a very tired DD back to the car. A three-year-old who won’t walk or be carried is a force to be reckoned with!

Refreshment Stops

As far as refreshments go, there isn’t anywhere nearby to recommend. At the time of writing the restaurant in Rouvenac is closed and for sale, so unlikely to reopen anytime soon. There’s the Cafe de Fa, a few miles down the road serving both food and drinks or, if you fancy a speciality beer, there’s the Brasserie de Quercorb, a microbrewery in Puivert, which is well worth a visit. Opening times may change so check their Facebook pages before setting off. In summer months there are other places in Puivert and also in Esperaza. Whether they’ll be open or not is another matter!

DOWNLOAD THE GPX FILE FROM GPSIES

Have you visited Rouvenac and done this walk? If so, what did you think?

 

A Tale of Two Trailer Rides

Since riding Circuit 20 on my own the other day and deciding it would be too much with the trailer – too much uphill for my current fitness levels and also a bit too bumpy for the little ones – I’ve been trying, with mixed success, to get round Circuit 11, which is graded green (easy). It’s a nice route as it passes close by the aerodrome where the small plane and gliders take off and land, so lots of opportunities for plane spotting.

I’ve made two attempts so far. The first time I went the wrong way round, according to the official route map, and also underestimated the sun. I cut the ride short after a slow, steady climb on a grassy track that required me to get off and push, leading from complaints from the trailer about how slow I was going, and because I was worried about not having their sun hats or any suncream; it’s taking a while to get used to living somewhere with good weather whereas dressing them up to keep warm or dry is second nature! DD was keen to get the playground anyway so I missed off that last loop and came back via the most direct route.

On my second attempt, there were complaints from my passengers about it being too bumpy last time, so I headed up the track anyway but took care to ride slowly and avoid any big bumps. I was at least going the right way round and my main aim for this attempt was to at least complete the leap I missed the first time around. I had to bail on that again though, as it when it came to the bottom of the track, DD took one look at it and decided it would be too bumpy. Abort, abort! I turned tail and headed back to the playground figuring I’d rather have a short ride with two happy passengers than a long ride accompanied by screaming and whinging – and I really don’t want to put them off.

 

The upshot is I need to out again and the only way I stand a chance of checking out the full loop is to do it on my own. Oh, the hardship 🙂 The weekend is coming, so guess what I have lined up…

 

Yes, out on my own on my lovely bike. Whoopee!!

Trailer ride!

The sun was shining, we were all stuck indoors, bouncing of the walls a little, so there was only one thing for it. Yes, TRAILER RIDE!!!

My bike was up for it, still functional after spending winter under a tarp on the balcony, and the trailer was all set up ready. DD was excited and had agreed that it would be okay to share her trailer with DS. Phew. I dragged bike and trailer up to the square, prepared some supplies, and set about buckling up the smalls. DS didn’t have the faintest idea what was happening and didn’t seem keen at first, not helped by a small amount of faffing while I changed the straps so they were set up for two passengers side-by-side instead of one in the middle. Luckily he settled and stopped trying to break free once DD was seated beside him. We were off!

The route to the park (our destination) is all downhill – whoopee! We sped down, squeals and giggles coming from the trailer, and DD announced, “I’m happy, Mummy.” Yup, I was pretty happy too!

We got to the park, made a little camp in the play house, and had our snacks. Then, after a good run around and some trading of sticks for daisies from our little “shop”, it was time to head back. Uphill. All the way.

Eventually I made it. Approaching the steepest part of the return journey, which also happens to be the very last part of the journey, I’d saved myself one gear. Phew. I couldn’t go faster or talk much – my legs were burning! – and the littles weren’t asleep when I got back, which was a key part of the master plan. Who cares though. I rode my bike, DS had his first ride in the trailer, and DD had fun riding with him. We’re moving in 10 days and DD’s new maternelle is a short, rideable distance away. It’s sunny and it’s only March. Awesome!

Exploring on Foot

Wow, it’s been a while since I posted here! All my focus lately is on looking after the two littlies and searching for a house so even the idea of getting out on my bike has fallen by the wayside. Cycling is firmly off the table until the weather improves – icy roads are not for me and I need my MTB buddy back before I can go and explore the trails – and rarely have 10 minutes free even for a quick twirl of the hoop, let alone a short yoga or kettlebell session.

What I am managing to do more of though is walk. With DD wanting – no, needing – to get out and burn off some of her never-ending supply of energy and us otherwise cooped up in the teeny-tiny little gite we’re renting (see my other blog for the low down on all that) I am often on my feet, even if its just chaperoning her down the road in the hameau for a short ride on her bike or to watch while she whizzes round and round in the square. This is good because it means I’m regularly hitting or nearly hitting my 7,500 daily step target, to the extent that I’ve considered upping it to 10,000. Maybe I’ll do that once the weather improves.

We’ve also been making more of an effort to get out and go on something resembling a proper walk. Nothing too strenuous as having two small children in tow makes the chances of getting around a longer walk less likely – just exploring some small circuits on local trails.

Part of the appeal of this area is that every village seems to have it’s own network of waymarked walks. On arrival in the village there’s usually a board with map showing the available routes and giving information on their gradings (following the green, blue, red, black gradings common to ski runs and bike trails) and navigation information. The navigation system is new to us as we have no such system in place in the UK, but it’s very intuitive and makes following a route fairly simple and relatively safe (with map and compass packed alongside, of course.)

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There are also extensive trails, usually marked on maps, which I’m told are effective rights of way unless a landowner states otherwise. French neighbours have informed me that you can pretty much follow any track or trail unless it has been fenced off and marked as private. Cool! I’m still not totally relaxed about this approach as I’m so used to the very prescriptive attitude to rights of way in the UK but we have started to venture onto some local paths, making up our own walks, and I’m sure we’ll do more of that as time goes on.

So where have we been? Well, we’ve done a number of short walks worthy of mention, all between two or three miles, over easy terrain, so nice to do as a family.

First we walked from Rouvenac where we followed the Sentier de Plâtriers route, which sounds very romantic but actually translates as the Path of Plasterers! This took us up from the village towards the ruined moulin (mill) and into a quiet, open valley before bringing us back round the hill and down through fields and woodland towards the village. Beautiful. It had plenty of “features” to keep us interested.One of family “catchphrases” is that We Like a Feature Walk, and this one ticked our boxes.

More recently we went off to Nebias to walk the Sentier du Labyrinthe Vert. Strava conked out on me just two minutes into it so I don’t have a track for that one, unfortunately. It was a great walk though, really laden with features and in a quite extraordinary landscape, so we’ll definitely go back to do it again.

Next, I’ll write up each of the walks and share my GPS tracks. Until then, a bien tôt!

The distractions continue

My kettle bells are in a box. The bikes I have with me are locked up on the balcony. Lately, the fitness journey has taken a detour as we’ve been busy not just moving house but relocating from England to France (more about that on my other blog.) Although I’ve not been doing anything organised or sticking to my programme, it has been an exceptionally busy and physical time, packing and moving boxes, hoovering and cleaning while carrying a whiny and clingy baby and occasionally a toddler too. Now we’ve moved I’m enjoying a bit of a rest, trying to unwind a little, getting some naps in the afternoons alongside my babies, and getting acclimatised to this wonderful weather. As always, I’m planning rides; long, lovely rides on quiet roads in good weather. As luck would have it there are other bike mad people in the place we’re staying, which is great as it means I may have some company when I’m ready to venture out onto the local trails, of which there are many.

It’s an exciting time but, with my baby only 6 months old and his big sister going through some crazy developmental stuff while also adjusting to a complete change in her reality thanks to the move, it’s still early days when it comes to planning days out in the saddle. That time will come. I know it will and I am doing my best to be patient. Still, An (one of my new bike mad friends) and I are going to try and escape, to leave our little ones with their daddies, for a short ride later in the week. There are some fantastic trails around here and the marked routes are generally good for both walking and cycling, not restricted or designated for a specific purpose, in the same way that UK rights of way are. In addition, there are some other routes that are not public but accessible on permission of the landowner. Since our current home is a tiny hameau where everyone knows everyone that means that it’s okay to walk on the many tracks and trails in the vicinity, so we all went out for a short walk the other day – just one mile but with 150m of elevation! – in search of a nearby waterfall with a pool for swimming. It’s a magical place and I’m so excited about being able to raise my children here, where enjoying the outdoors is the norm and there is so much to do, with so many new places to explore.