My earliest memory of the sport of cycling is watching Tour de France highlights with my Dad in the late 1980s. That was my initial insight into the professional cycling world and it was a catalyst. To begin with I was less interested in the grand tours and more into the one day races. I was drawn to the brutality of it I think, the length of time they spent in the saddle, the adverse weather conditions and then as my love of cycling grew, it was the high mountain terrain that captivated my attention and imagination. I wanted to replicate my heroes. So I would go out on my bike and it immediately gave me this amazing sense of freedom. I went everywhere on my bike, and luckily where I grew up in Wales I was surrounded by endless scenery and plenty of hills. I loved climbing. I have no idea how many miles I rode but it was a lot.
“Anywhere I wanted to go I went on my bike. It was all I needed.”
As I became older my mind became cluttered with the stresses of life and my bike gave me freedom from that. And that’s what it is to me today, even if it is my job essentially. I’m honest enough to say I’ve suffered from bouts of depression since my early twenties and cycling has been an enormous help. For me, the physical benefits of cycling have been well documented, but it is the mental benefits that have had the greatest impact on me. The bike has helped to keep that black dog off my shoulders, something I struggled with for many years.
Cycling became absolutely central to my well being, but I didn’t realise it at the time. As I have said, I rode a lot when I was younger and when I look back now not only did it keep me fit and healthy, it was helping to keep me happy. I never thought cycling would become such a big part of my life but I’m delighted that it has. When you’re on a bike, you’re always moving forwards, and the simple process of turning the pedals always brightens dark days. The word escapism can be overused, but that’s the word that comes to mind when I’m on my bike. It lets you escape the daily grind and that is the foundation for much of what we now do.
“Eventually cycling provided me with a way out. Well more than that – a new life.”
I worked in the recruitment industry for over 20 years and whilst it wasn’t something I had planned to do, it served me and my family well. However, the environment in which I worked prior to moving to France became incredibly stressful. The knock on effect was very destructive for me and subsequently my family.
Cycling provided me with a way out. Well more than that – a new life. My wife and I decided to start our cycling retreat and trade our whole existence for a new life for our family. It was quite simply the most transformational thing I could do. Whilst close friends and family supported us, I’m sure many others were thinking mid-life crisis but I didn’t care, my mind was made up.
We had talked of moving to France for a long time. My wife is half French and spent many of her childhood holidays in France, she also has close family here so there was a huge draw for her. We holidayed here every year and over a glass of wine often imagined what life could be like. We knew the western Pyrenees well but it was friends who introduced us to the eastern side of the range and the Ariège region. As my stress reached destructive levels, we came for a short break and fell in love with the area; it’s beautiful scenery, laid back atmosphere, quiet roads and unbelievably varied cycling terrain. It was the antithesis of life as we knew it and when we got home, we started to plan the great escape.
We got back from that break in April, found our new home in May, sold up and had moved here by the August. It was that quick because we knew something had to change and the timing just felt right. That was in 2014. I thought at that point I was going to stick with recruitment for another four or five years but we made the decision to invest all of our energy into building our cycling retreat. It’s beautiful here and we want people to come and relax and enjoy it for themselves. The riding part is something I’m passionate about and I love showing people the amazing riding here, but more than anything else, it’s about relaxing. For me that is always done on the bike and it’s something that is very dear to me because I’ve benefited so much from cycling. We’ve made that central to our lives as it’s now our work. We love watching our guests unwind whilst they are here. It really is a unique place to forget about the day-to-day and I now provide the escape for people that actually saved me - that really gives me a buzz in the morning. I know I have found my calling.
My parents are here at the moment and they say how nice it is to see me so relaxed. They say I used to walk around with a frown on my face which I never knew I even had. That’s gone now.
What does a weekend with us look like? We offer a variety of trips and whilst some are pre-planned others are much more bespoke. We don’t dictate arrival times but we suggest that people fly over on a Thursday to get the most from the weekend. We’ll collect you from the airport and drive you to the lodge. If you’re on a mid morning flight we’ll sit down and have a light lunch and a couple of drinks. It’s all very relaxed and informal; we like to get to know our guests and understand what each person is looking to get from the weekend. We then take you out on the bikes for an hour or two to ensure the set-up is right on the rental bikes and to loosen the legs; we’re lucky that we have great loops from the doorstep. Then it’s time for a swim, drinks and dinner.
I tend to suggest a three hour coffee ride on the Friday – nothing too strenuous. You can then use the pool, get a massage or kick back and do nothing. We’ll have decided the next day’s route profile in advance and everyone is different but Saturday would be the day we take people into the mountains on a supported ride. Then Sunday is open to whatever you want, we’re happy to take people out but some want to ride, others don’t so we try not to be too prescriptive.
We also organise a number of dedicated weekends that showcase the region’s fabulous climbs, gastronomic weekends with local chefs, and randonnee weekends that link mountains, sea and city but every trip shares the same philosophy; relax, ride, whatever.
“I now provide the escape for people that actually saved me.”
That black dog still lurks but the bike keeps him at bay. It was bold, brave, stupid, whatever you want to call it but it has been an amazing adventure and it has been very special to share the experience with my wonderful wife and our two boys who are now both fluent in French and loving life in France. For us, it was about being honest about what you want from life and being prepared to take risks. I suppose when I think about it, that’s the Métier behind it all.