Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 5: St Loup Lamaire to Poitiers

I looked at the map this morning before breakfast. Already we seem to have made a sizeable dent into the journey - the little graphic on the left gives you an idea. When planning this adventure I was hoping for a slow meander through France. There's something immensely attractive about slowness. Something that borders langour and tranquility maybe? Think of those lunches that slip into tea and cocktails, of switching off the computer and taking an hour on the couch, of slow-ripened tomatos or peaches, of a slow stroll to the pub or the occasional loll in a hammock, a slowly handwritten note or a hand-picked posy of wild flowers, slowly sitting down to read a book maybe... So the idea of slowly picking our way through to the south of France, taking time to see things, to smell the terroir, to taste the air... it all sounds just right doesn't it? Now I wonder if we're actually moving too fast? - already things are becoming a bit of a blur.

Breakfast today was okay - but okay over here is like disappointing at home. The bread was faintly stale - probably a day old and tough like bread is when there's no preservatives or additives to keep it soft - still tasty though! The usual spread of cheeses and meats was somewhat miniscule by comparison and we were left wondering if we might find a shop open in the village to stock up for todays ride. We left the hotel at around 9.00am - We rode the bikes to the town hall and the car park there - Gary needed to do some maintenance to his bike - he's been having trouble with the disc brakes on his Dawes Galaxy and some slight adjustments were needed. After that we rode around the village for some exploring - we found a shop - but, being a Monday, it was closed. By 10.00am we were heading out onto the road to Poitiers - immediately upwards from the river - a 100 metre climb so steep and long I felt sick.

We were climbing pretty much constantly for the first hour this morning - then we were back on the dreaded unpaved roads. Not quite as bad as those encountered yesterday - but bad enough to shake us, the bikes and our luggage.... rough, rutted tracks strewn with rocks and debris. After a couple of hours we decided to find a proper road and plot a new route using good old fashioned paper maps! The weather wasn't particularly good either - the full english - rain, wind, rain, a bit of sun, more wind and a final splattering of rain.

Poitiers - main square
Poitiers is provincial French city, capital of the Poitou area of western France and county town of the Vienne department. It is a historic city that has conserved much of its old-world charm - and has catered for passing travellers since Roman times. It is home to one of the oldest churches in Europe - the fourth-century 'Baptistry' as well as the Notre Dame La Grande from medieval times. The town is also a major university and bustles with many students. As we approached the city I switched back to the GPS to get us through the busy traffic - we found ourselves on a long descent, probably a mile or two, taking us down to river level - then an immediate climb of 40 metres back up to the old town sitting on a plateau above the rivers which surround it on three sides. We found our hotel without incident, tucked away in one of the back streets a short walk from the main square. 

More off-loading and unpacking of panniers - a ritual that takes up half an hour at the start and end of each day - then showers and out into the town. Just around the corner from our hotel we're in the thick of it, wide traffic free streets lined with bars and restaurants and then the main square, again with a mass of bars with outside tables. It's sunny now and we sit outside to enjoy a couple of petit beers - there's the comfortable background noise of early evening enjoyment; laughter, conversation, the clinking of glasses, then we find a restaurant for food. Le 16 Carnot is refined, spacious and comfortable - we start with a delicious plate of eggs benedict followed by a simple burger - not perticularly adventurous but very tasty - we both agree, the best burger ever! - the bottle of Merlot was excellent too!

Another early night - we're tucked up by 9.00pm

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 4: Beaupreau to St Loup Lamaire

With handshakes, the exchange of emails, and promises to stay in touch, we departed the Chateau. It had certainly been a memorable experience.

Our target today is St Loup Lamaire. The morning is dry, not particularly warm, but okay for cycling. Once again we're plummeted into a hilly world - not the short steep gradients that we're used to at home - more long, drawn out rises that sap energy and strength - each corner suggesting a summit that then transpires to be, just another corner on an endless road upwards.

We amuse ourselves by halting on bridges over motorways - looking down at the passing stream of traffic it seems like every third or fourth car gives us a wave. Some even toot there horns - we spend ten minutes waving at cars - something that we will continue to do at every motorway bridge for the rest of the trip.

Unpaved road
The Garmin GPS unit I have fixed to the handlebars of my bike has done strirling work in getting us where we need to be so far. Today was to be different. It seems that in France there is a network of 'unpaved roads' that Garmin and Google Maps both recognise as normal, navigable route options. This is an oversight. Some of these 'roads' are in fact farm tracks - the sort of thing you might find in the UK behind a farm gate on a minor road. In France the farm gates are missing and the 'roads' are an apparently acceptable route for crossing the landscape. Today would see us cast out across a rural landscape that would best be navigated in a Land Rover - and even then it would be a struggle. Combined with these roads is the Voie Verte - a more acceptable route option criss-crossing across the whole of France, utilising old railway lines, canal paths and such - most of these have been resurfaced with compacted gravel or, in some cases tarmac. We followed the route down endless rough tracks, through barren flat fields that stretched out on all sides as far as the eye could see.

The road to nowhere?

We saw no sign of any other living person all morning. We passed wheelbarrows at the side of the track, loaded with bits and pieces and with tools lying around - but no people. We saw a van with its back doors flung open - but no sign of anyone. There was a machine being used to harvest crops, part loaded, but nobody operating it? - the whole thing seemed strange and eerie - like a science fiction movie where everything had simply been frozen and all the people abducted to an alien spaceship hidden in the clouds.

When we finally happened upon any villages, all the cafes and shops were shut - it was Sunday. Still no sign of any people anywhere. Passing through one larger village we felt sure there'd be somewhere for a lunch stop - we came off our planned route to explore, riding around the village from end to end and the myriad side streets.... nothing.

We got back onto the Voie Verte - a smooth section, probably an old railway line - the sort of place that in England on a Sunday would be teeming with walkers, cyclists, families out for the day - we saw not a soul. We heard some strange bird calls from the mass of trees lining the route - "Pterodactyl", I said to Gary. Not long after there was the sound of distant cattle lowing "Brontosaurus"

By now we were hungry - we stopped along the Voie Verte and rummaged in our panniers - lunch was to be a platter of Kendal Mint Cake (thanks Jane!), Wine gums and the remnants of a bag of crisps purchased back in Rennes.

Gary I presume?
The final track that we had to navigate proved impossible - absolutely no surface or discernable road at all, just a forest floor punctuated by trees, fallen trees, tree roots, ferns, foliage, brambles... we should have packed machetes. We struggled, pushing and pulling the bikes through this jungle for about a mile. Finally we made it to a normal road - thankfully this would take us most of the way to St Loup. We saw a small group of deer gathered in the road just ahead - they scattered as we almost got to them, diving and disappearing into the dense undergrowth.

As we got close to St Loup Lamaire the instruction was once again to take the 'unpaved road' Gary was reluctant - he'd had enough of negotiating rocks and ruts and decided he'd follow his GPS via the main road - my GPS was telling me our destination was five minutes away - just down this track! - We split up for the last few miles. I followed the track, bumping my way gently downhill until arriving at the main road, just across a couple of river bridges and I was there. I found the hotel - no sign of Gary. I booked in, got the bike inside, removed my luggage and got the key to the room. I managed to work out with the receptionist that the restaurant was closed tonight - it being Sunday, and there was no other restaurants in town. However there was a small pizza parlour - open for an hour between 7 and 8.00pm - she said she would call and book us a table - after some conversation that I didn't understand it seems there was no space in the pizza place - but they would do us a take-out pizza and we could bring it back to the hotel. Still no sign of Gary.

I went into the street to see if there was any sign of him - no. A few minutes later he called - he was close but just outside town - I told him to come across the bridges and take the first left - a couple of minutes late I saw him at the end of the road. He'd come down a hill so steep that he had to get off and walk down! - First time I've heard of walking DOWN a hill? - I wondered if our route tomorrow meant having to climb that same hill? - We were in a valley, riverside, so a climb was inevitable.

Soon enough we were showered, changed and ready to explore. St Loup Lamaire is a quaint sleepy village in the Southern Loire region situated on the River Thouet. The main street has a few shops with the town hall at one end but is dominated by the formidable Chateau St Loup at the other. The Chateau takes in guests and is also an established wedding venue - we met a few English people wandering round, they were here for a wedding, the English bride having seen the Chateau in a book as a teenager decided that would be her dream wedding venue - it is properly impressive with a moat around and 50 acres of garden and grounds.

The bar at St Loup Lamaire
Despite our concerns we did manage to find a small cafe/bar that was open - but only until 9.00 - we settled at a table for a couple of beers - then a couple more, followed by two more. Some wedding guests wandered in - carrying pizza boxes - it seems the patroness, a stern looking women sitting behind her bar working on a crossword - didn't mind. I did my best to ask if it would be okay for us to fetch pizza into her bar - the answer was short and sweet "Qui"

Ten minutes later I'm back in the bar - carrying three pizza boxes - we're hungry! Pizza is immensely simple - essentially a peasant food, the only real secret is the temperature of the oven - which has to be of glass-blowing intensity. Our supper tonight was the best pizza either of us had ever tasted. A wodge of the thinnest, crispiest unleavened base with chewy, sticky napalm stuff on top. It's hot, it's tasty and it's filling - what more do you want? If you have one of those 'nothing but pizza will do' cravings - this would be the place to have it.

With the bar now closing and the pizza nicely tucked up in our tummies there's nothing left but bed. And we have no complaints - we're tired - it's been a hard day all-in-all and more to come tomorrow.
Outside the Chateau at St Loup

St Loup Lamaire

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 3: Chateaubriant to Beaupreau

Breakfast at Chateaubriant was a mixed affair - some home-made yoghurt, a local cake with additional rum as a preservative, slices of brioche and some croissants. Cheese was limited to small plastic tubs of St Morentz (I think?) and no ham. It felt as though something was missing and generally we thought it not as good as the buffet from yesterday. Still, we eat as much as possible - difficult to say what we would we would find on the road later.

We set off at around 9.00am through the town, quiet and somnambulent, free from the cloned monopolies of chain stores and charity shops that we are familiar with in the UK. Immediately we were climbing, labouriously up a long hill, the first of many that lay ahead. The sun was blissfully blazing in a clear blue sky and would remain so all day. More corn crops to look at and also some fields of sunflowers that are clearly past their vibrant yellow best. There are hedges of hawthorn and blackberry with great oak trees that throw balloons of long shadows across our path.

Later we pass through the small town of Varades and spot a cafe/restaurant that is open. We take up a table outside sitting in the sun, which is far too hot for any lengthy dwelling and results in us scrabbling amongst our panniers for suncream and hats. We order a bottle of local cidre to quench our thirst, this is the stuff, common in France, that comes in a champagne style bottle and is around 2.5% - ideal for a sunny lunchtime stop. We enjoy another cheese salad lunch and order a second bottle of cidre - we were sitting there for almost two hours and it seemed perfect.

Bridge over the River Loire
Back on the bikes and the next two hours were all up, down, up, down - physically tired and depleted, todays route felt like 100 miles but was only around 50 - the heat combined with the weight of our bikes and luggage leaving us somewhat perplexed with the effort required. Body and mind are in some kind of shock, almost in awe, limbs are lifeless, food and sleep are on our minds. We are in the Loire region now and we crossed the river for the first time. Finally we arrived in the town of Beaupreau but our accommodation for this evening was a further five miles or so on the otherside. Some more vertiginous challenges were made on our tired legs as we slowly climbed up to the Chateau de la Moriniere - at last, our overnight stop.

Built in the mid 19th century, the chateau is small, at least for a chateau - but it's all there, very French and fairytale in style. The owners a chef/businessman and his wife live here, this is their home. They have businesses scattered across France but they rent out rooms and provide gastronomy evenings for their guests that help with the upkeep of the building and grounds.

The Chateau
We park at the front entrance, no sign of anyone. There's a bench overlooking the valley beyond to a distant church spire - we sit there, in the shadow cast from the Chateau, in silence, heads bowed, glad of the rest. Then Madam comes out to greet us, she looks like the figurehead of a mighty galleon, cleavage pushing up from a tight dress. She has better English than we have French and explains that our accommodation is in one of the annexes in the grounds. We walk with the stiff limbs of a put-out cat to find our beds for the night. The room is large with an excellent bathroom/wetroom - after a fierce shower we are ready for some food.

The evening that followed developed into one of the most memorable of the trip. It was theatrical, cinematic, operatic, and all the other platitudes... It was as if we had been handed a script and were part of a play - we were walking onto a stage and taking part in some sort of drama - a set piece focussed on food and drink. Act 1 was sitting around a large table under an iron gazebo festooned with green ivy and climbing roses, the Chateau in front of us, the valley and distant views behind - it was difficult to approach this table without a frission of indulgent anxiety - here we were, two blokes on bikes, dressed in dishevelled shorts and shirts, sitting in the garden of a chateau with all its rusticity carefully and knowingly preserved, but folded in with a sense of genteel sophistication, all aesthetically framed through bottles of champagne, home made crudities, preserved tomatoes, petit crackers, garlic bread and various other offerings.

Our hosts, along with some of the other guests, did their level best to include us in their small talk. Whilst the conversation inevitably meandered in French, a gentleman next to Gary acted as translator. There was also a young couple, she a film maker making a documentary about the Chateau and its owners, and her boyfriend, both spoke excellent English and made sure we weren't left out of the conversation.

Act 2: We were taken into the Chateau and through to the conservatory where we would all sit around a single candlelit table, we would all eat the same menu and drink the same wine - no choices tonight!

Dinner at The Chateau
There was an excellent local Vin Blanc to accompany a peerless butternut squash soup with truffle and crispy ham - a bowl of silky sensual summer brilliance, the ham luking in the hidden depths whilst the truffle oil added a tongue-tingling earthiness. The main course was chicken, possibly from their own flock which we had seen scratching around the grounds, simply roasted with herbs and served with new potatoes and to finish a dessert of apple tarte tatin. A constant flow of interesting local wines accompanied the food throughout.

Around the table were all the players from central casting. Us with a smattering of French trying to keep up with the conversation. The French businessman with his sweater neatly splayed over his shoulders, the stocky french hooker who worked as an arms dealer, the film maker and her boyfriend and another couple who, we were informed, were mysteriously leaving before dawn. You could look round the table from face to face and judge exactly which script each was reading; who though they were in a Felini film, a Dumas novel, an olive-oil commercial or an episode of 'I'm a cyclist get me out of here'

In the kitchen
Our host and patron was kind enough to let me visit his kitchen - a totally professional set up with restaurant standard stove - although he did tell me he likes Aga's. He bought out a bottle of fine claret - his friend owns the vineyard - it was silky smooth, rich and warming. We asked if he'd fetch another bottle and we'd pay for it - he said he would but wouldn't hear of us paying.

Breakfast at The Chateau
Next morning we wandered down to breakfast - possibly the best breakfast room and spread of the whole trip - endless baskets of croissants and bread, ham of various types, cheese, fruit, juice, antique plates and cutlery - it was all there along with coffee of a strength to make your eyes pop. All served up in a room straight from a film-set.

We had no doubt - this had been a special place to visit - Ok everyone, cut, that's a wrap...


Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Manch to the Med - Day 2: Rennes to Chateaubriant

I woke at 6.00am and decided I needed to stretch my legs. In the street outside the hotel was a cacophony from the tree lined street. It was getting light and I stood on the corner as most people were hoarding the last blissful minutes with Morpheus in that sleepy, syrupy, dream-clotted, thick-limbed plaiting of consciousness. Gazing up there began a mass exodus of thousands, possibly millions, of small birds from their overnight perches. It was a French city dawn chorus that was more like a morning oratorio. The sky was black with the swirling flocks as they wended their way through the streets, soaring and swooping through corners and avoiding obstacles. The sound cleaved through the morning air like a squadron of Stuka's on an early morning mission.

Our hotel breakfast was a satisfying buffet: cereals, fresh crunchy bread and flaky croissants, juice, coffee, ham and cheese. We made multiple visits to the counter to fuel the morning ahead.

After breakfast and the ritual of packing our bags we were dismayed to see that rain had begun to hammer down outside. 'Rain reigns in Rennnes' said Gary. We can't wait though - we have a schedule to keep and we donned raincoats and set off into the busy morning traffic. Within a few minutes we were back on the canal path which would take us to the outskirts of the city and quieter roads. The weather drifted out of the sky like paint dripping into a glass of water, opaque filigree swathes and fretted blots, whitening out the landscape. All details vanished into the mist.

After an hour or so the rain moves on and the surrounding hills and vales dance in a slim slab of sunlight  - somewhat reservedly, as the the sun peeps out at us from behind still threatening grey clouds. By now we were in hilly terrain - long drawn out climbs that seemed to go on and on.... The Breton countryside is green and lush, no gorges or mountains but there's a comforting familiarity. The landscape supports many farms, clearly agriculture is a major industry here - we are surprised at how much corn is being grown - field after field, acre after acre, as high as an elephants eye.

Lunch stop
The maze of tiny lanes are ideal for cycling - not so good for finding a cafe or restaurant - and by now we're feeling hungry. Some miles later we happen across a roadside restaurant, way out in the middle of nowhere - we pull in. We park our bikes and camp at one of the tables conveniently situated in the pleasant early afternoon sun. This is a traditional french, family run establishment. It's simple, honest, fresh home cooking, well presented, thoughtful, considered and reasonably priced. We go for a 'Plat de Jour' of warm goat's cheese salad with lardons and honey and balsamic dressing - this was extremely satisfying - so fresh and tasty - the honey and goats cheese with the crispy lardons complementing each other perfectly. Pudding was an apple gateaux with cream - again, delicious. The interesting thing here was how the whole family was involved - there was grandma at the counter inside, mom and dad doing the cooking and waiting-on, then there was the little 8 year old daughter/grandaughter who came out to us to practise a few English words and take our order for pudding. We gave her a €5 tip.

After the perfect refuel stop we were on our way again. The afternoon weather stayed kind to us and we arrived in Chateaubriant without any further need of waterproofs. The GPS locks on to our accommodation for the night, a B&B hidden away in the sprawling backstreets of this small town. We're here earlier than planned and wonder if we'll get access - we decide a cheeky knock on the door will provide the answer. We are greeted by a tall, skinny man who we think looks Scandanavian - he is in charge of the B&B while his wife works as an architect - demonstrated in the tasteful extension that will provide our accommodation tonight.

Chateaubriant is a quiet town, an interesting mix of old and new buildings with the ubiquitous church and market square at it's centre. We find a bar for a couple of beers, nowhere is open for food until 7.00pm. We have a wander around the centre of town deciding where to spend our Euros. We settle on a small restaurant specialising on meat cooked on a barbeque - there is an English family in there, they've been travelling through France but their camper van had broken down and they were stranded here until it could be repaired - probably a couple of days (they hoped?). Our evening meal was steak with baked potato and chips - a strange combination we thought - but accompanied by a bottle of local wine it hit the spot nicely. The patron had a photograph of himself standing with Jimmy Sommerville (The Communards/Bronski Beat - remember them?) proudly mounted on the wall near to the till. We were done and in bed by 9.40pm

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Manche to The Med - Day1: St Malo to Rennes

Weather wise it was about the same as home - maybe a couple of degrees warmer as we follwed the route saved on my Garmin Edge. Although the events of last evening had resulted in a last minute panic and we were clearly jaded, somehow the adrenalin rush had compensated - we were okay - gradually weaving our way through St Malo and heading for Rennes.

Our first French Coffee!
We knew we needed to eat something and after 10 miles we spotted a roadside cafe that was open in a small village. We parked the bikes and sat outside - The French App i've been messing around with should have held us in good stead - we ordered a Grand Cafe au lait and a Croque Monsieur each. We got a cup of coffee and a hot dog. Whatever! - we were hungry.

Gradually the roads became quieter and in places it seemed we were the only ones on the road. We both noticed how good the road surface is in France - smooth tarmac with very few potholes and even less litter. We arrived at the Canal Ille de Midi - and proceeded along a wide towpath, probably twice the width of a typical canal path at home with a fairly even compacted surface - not too bad for cycling and again, traffic free, no sign of anyone, no other cyclists, no walkers, nothing?

Lunch stop on the canal
At a junction we spotted a canalside bistro - ideal for lunch. By now the sun was shining and it seemed the perfect stop off point. This time we did get a Croque Monsier each! After that it was a steady ride into the centre Rennes, the capital city of Brittany. The Garmin did a great job of navigating through the myriad of busy streets and alleys to our hotel for the night.

Our room was good, we showered and changed but were both suffering from dehydration; the combined effects of the excesses on the boat and the day's ride. We walked into the town for a quick look around - there are some fine half-timbered buildings and Grand Cathedral and the Museum of Arts houses works by Botticelli, Rubens and Picasso. Later we retired to a restaurant in the same street as the hotel. This was not a night for any gastonomic experiments - Gary had a burger, I had Pasta. We were in bed by 7.30pm!
The canalside path


Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Manche to The Med - The Crossing

Setting off day was a nervous affair; have I got everything I need in those pannier bags?. What if something breaks on the bike, have I got enough spare parts? I'd packed, unpacked and packed again - The bags were full anyway - no room for anything else, even if I needed it.

We picked Gary up and loaded his bike onto the rack. The car's interior was packed with bags, helmets and bottles and we set off for Portsmouth with nervous apprehension. The journey was uneventful and conversation was limited. I felt like a trooper on the eve of D-Day. What would happen to us once we crossed the cold waters of the English Channel?

We arrived at the docks at around 3.00pm - there was a queue for our ferry already - even though it didn't depart until 8.15pm. We loaded up our bikes, more checking that nothing was left in the car and then we were on our own. Wondering what to do for the next 5 hours. There was a large departure lounge and we decided we'd have a look in there. We locked up our bikes in the racks just outside and entered. There was nothing much inside - no cafe, just a Brittany Ferries help desk - we asked them what we needed to do and were told to go to check in at around 6.30pm. We went back to the bikes. There was a man in a hi-vis vest and a lady from Bilbao. The man told us that loads of bikes had been stolen from here - great. We asked if there was a pub nearby - he pointed to some flags 200 yards away. We set off.

Our first stop!

The Ship and Castle is a traditional waterside pub - offering hearty ales and fare - perfect. We sampled a pint of London pride. Then another. After the third we decided it might be an idea to get something to eat - probably better than the food offered on the ferry. After that we had another pint. Then we could see that the queue of traffic was beginning to move.

We scrambled to action and cycled the 200 yards back. Getting through the check-in was quicker than expected and we were ushered past the lines of vehicles to the very front. There were a few other cyclists and a group of motorcyclists. We got chatting to the nearest cyclist who was travelling on his own. He said he'd cycled about 30 miles to get here, what about you he asked. Gary told him we'd cycled 400 yards and had four pints in the pub. The lady on the motorbike next to us overheard and burst out laughing.

In the queue - meeting new Paul
Soon we were boarding the ship - first on! We had to walk our bikes up the ramp and were directed to a small hold at the front end. We were told to lash our bikes to the rails that were provided, once that was done we made our way up to our cabin - the crossing is overnight and we had comfortable accommodation for the first part of our adventure.

We changed into shorts and shirts and inevitably found ourselves in the bar area - it was busy already - we grabbed a table and ordered a couple of glasses of wine. Tasted good, so we had a couple more. Then we decided it was cheaper to buy the small bottles they had on offer - same price as a glass but more wine - couldn't argue with that. Soon after the cyclist we had met in the queue turned up - we called him over and asked him to join us - he was another Paul. Pretty soon we found out he was a retired engineer living in Christchurch who had worked on the Airbus project. Like us he was heading to the Mediterranean to meet up with some friends in their camper van, spend a few days in the sun and then fly back. He was a seasoned cycle tourist who had taken up cycling after a drink-driving ban. It transpired that his fondness for the odd tipple has stayed with him.

Our downfall!!
Pretty soon we were ordering our second (full-sized) bottle of Cotes de Rhone. We were amazed that despite his cycling prowess he had no fixed plan. He wasn't sure what route he was taking, no fixed plan of where he was going, where he would stay or when he'd get there. He pulled out a crumpled map and said he'd have a look?

By the time we'd finished the fourth bottle things were getting silly and slightly surreal. There was some sort of caberet performing songs from Sleeping Beauty - at least that's what we though they were doing. It was a close thing but we managed to agree that instead of another bottle it would be best to get to bed and meet for breakfast before disembarking - anyway the bar had closed.

I don't remember much else until being woken by the sound of a tannoy announcement in French. Breakfast was over and the ship was coming into St Malo. I threw on some clothes and staggered up to the breakfast lounge, legs plaitted as if the boat was in a storm. I could see no sign of new Paul - i assumed he too had been waylaid by last night's over indulgence. I decided to head back to the cabin and get packed. Gary was awake by then - pale, mumbling and bleary eyed. At any other time we might have thought this funny - not today. The ship was in port - we needed to get off. We hastily scrambled our belongings together, all ideas of items being neatly stowed were forgotten - everything was rammed into bags as if loading a cannon at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Three idiots abroad!

Somehow we weaved and wobbled our way down to the lower deck where the bikes were. Still no sign of new Paul - The ramps were lowered we were told to push our bikes into France - we were here. First day on the road was about to start - and we were too hungover to worry about it - I laughed as we took our first pedal strokes on French soil and headed into the centre of St Malo.


Monday, 28 August 2017

France - here we come!!!

Can't believe our next adventure/challenge/mad idea is suddenly upon us. It has crept up like a crack ninja in the night - and, despite months of planning and fettling with bikes and equipment, there's a feeling of edgy nervousness, apprehension, fear and trepidation!

I've plotted our route for each day - spending hours in front of the computer dragging waypoints around on maps to find the best possible options for our rides. I've changed all of them many times - and still I'm not sure? On past expeditions Gary has been the elected custodian of all things navigationally inclined. Leaving me to simply stand, arms folded, and huff and puff when we inevitably get lost. This time he's passed the baton firmly into my domain - and it's an onerous task that I now realise demands more appreciation and patience than I had previously been prepared to admit. So, assuming we don't get too lost, we will be cycling from St Malo to Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast. We've planned the trip with plenty of time to take in some sights, sample the local wines and recover in time for the next stage. At least that's the theory.

The final few days before our departure are to be spent packing, unpacking and re-packing our panniers - trying (in vain) to limit the luggage and save weight on the bikes. We went for a 'test' ride yesterday - 25 miles fully laden and taking in a few hills to get the measure of what it will be like pedalling what feels like an articulated lorry.

I have to say my bike is impressive in its loaded state, the measure of which is my inability to lift the rear end from the ground. Roadside checks confirmed that whilst my bike is worryingly glued to the floor, Gary's retains a lightness that ensues vertical elevation is still possible - although some muscle strains could inevitably result.

On the whole our test ride proved positive - as long as we get into the mindset of travelling slowly and accept that every slight incline will be a toil, all should be fine.

We won't be blogging at all until we return - so you'll all have to wait to find out how we managed!

Au revoir mon amis!

My kit - all this has to be carried!

Last minute training session

Our bikes - fully loaded and awaiting the crane

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Tour de France - Now and then.....

Here we are then - a couple of days from 'The Grand Depart' of this year's edition of The Tour de France. According to the experts this years race could be interesting, the organisers have tinkered with the route to hopefully provide something finely balanced and that offers possibilities for everyone - they're hoping for the excitement witnessed in this years Giro d'Italia which saw the leaders fighting for victory right up to the final day. That would be good.

Realistically there are probably a handful of riders in with a chance of overall victory - favourite is Chris Froome who will be looking for a fourth win and three on the trot. However, his form so far this year has been below par, is he still the strongest rider?

Lately I've been reading an interesting book - 'The Unknown Tour de France' by Les Woodland. Mr Woodland is a long-term cycling journalist and Tour devotee and he has put together a succinct history of the Tour. Originally published in 2000, this book has been around for a while although because much of its content is historical that doesn't really matter. I'm always interested in the history side of cycling - so this is a book that was always going to resonate well  - the style is engaging and humourous - combining well researched historical facts with the many Tour legends and myths.

The first section was the best for me - looking at how Henri Degrange started the Tour, the early races and the 'star' riders of the time. It's a real eye opener in terms of what the actual race was like back in the early 1900s. We all know that the TdF is tough - probably the hardest event in the sporting calendar - but reading through this book will open your eyes as to how hard it was - todays race is a breeze by comparison!

The book is replete with amusing stories - such as the story of Londoner J.T. Johnson who rode in the first Tour of 1903 -

He wore a jockey's silk shirt and coloured cap and carried a whip 'to keep off the dogs'. He was in second place after 60 miles but paid for his enthusiastic start when he ground to a halt at Vaudreil. Local cyclists managing the control station ran up to him...
'What's the matter Johnson?'
'I'm shattered'
'Get off your bike"
'I can't'
They carried him, literally, to the home of Monsieur Duval, the head of the train station, where he was laid down, undressed, massaged and given warm wine. Johnson told them he'd ignored the Doctor's advice and eaten just two sandwiches before the start. Duval fed him and left him to sleep. When word spread a local moneybags insisted on taking Johnson home for dinner. The Londoner, no worse than many a cyclist who has ridden too far and eaten too little, was happy to oblige. An hour later, fed, washed and content he told his host - 'Well thanks a ot, I'd better be going'
He scampered up the road passing one competitor after another - regained the hour he'd lost and finished seventh.

Riders in those early Tours often completed stages approaching 500km - starting at 2.30am and riding through the night, on bicycles with no gears on roads with no real surface - the book really gets into describing the hardship in some detail.

'We chatted for a while and he said he'd ridden the Tour de France 40 years earlier, in the 1920s, - I said the roads must have been very different - he said 'Qui monsieur, they were very rough surfaces then' I pointed at the way the riders would be coming and said I'd seen the climb in the days of Bobet and Coppi, when there were holes in the surface and stones and rocks on the road. Now of course they're in a very good state, more or less smooth like any other road. And he looke very surprised - Non monsieur, you don't understand. We didn't come up there. And he turned and pointed to a tiny goat track behind us, all rocks and tufys of grass and no more than two yards wide - 'We came up there'

Of course, for the testimonies of those like that forgotten cyclist to be given due weight, the investigating journalist must attempt to convey their experiences as completely as possible. Woodland doesn't disappoint, devoting six whole pages to the cycling technology of the day. Three of them go to a French bike, reputedly a veteran of the first Tour of 1903, which he turned up in the Midlands.

It was fun to read the many tales of the early years of The Tour, and I recommend his book wholeheartedly, it doesn't boil each year's race down to an anecdote and then sprint on to the next year. Instead the book is structured along thematic lines which gracefully move forward in time. So you get a chapter about the beginning of road racing and a chapter about the beginning of the Tour. You get a chapter about the mountains. A chapter about the yellow jersey. Chapters about doping and cheating. There's a chapter for the Brits and a chapter for the Americans and the Australians. You also get the (inevitable) chapters about Coppi and Anquetil and Merckx.

‘He gets a phial from his bag. “That, that’s cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums…” “That,” says Ville, emptying his shoulder-bag, “that’s horse ointment to warm my knees. And pills? You want to see the pills?” They get out three boxes apiece. “In short,” says Francis [Pelissier], “we run on dynamite.”’

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Eroica Britannia 2017 - done!

Ready for action!
We're back from a suberb weekend at the Eroica Britannia festival, held at Frinden Grange in Derbyshire's Peak District.

And what a weekend it was - the weather was unbelievable - someone said hotter than Thailand? - whatever, it was uncommonly hot. Gary and I had decided it was fitting for such an event to cycle there, on our old bikes, and dressed accordingly. This seemed a reasonable idea - around 45 miles in good weather with no rush to get there and the promise of a country pub stop (or two) along the way. We set off from Gary's heading to Burton on Trent, after eight miles or so Gary's bike developed a mechanical problem which clearly could not be resolved roadside. International rescue were called - Thunderbird 2 with the bike pod was duly despatched to make the pick-up (thanks Kate).

Fortunately Mike Spratt who built our bikes was attending Eroica too - he would be able to fix the problem once we got the bike to him. So with Gary travelling with his bike via Thunderbird 2 - I decided to stick to the plan and continued on my own - this would be a good test for the Garmin Edge Touring device that I'm hoping will help us navigate through France later in the year.

Around Ashbourne
I rode steadily through Burton centre and then out to Rolleston on Dove, from there I turned onto a quiet lane which was more or less traffic free until just south of Ashbourne. The route was good although there were plenty of sharp climbs to test the legs. At Ashbourne I met with a gradient that was impossible on the old bike - I had to walk for a hundred yards or so. Then I hooked up with the Tissington Trail to take me within 5 miles of the final destination. The Garmin did a great job - except the last two miles I'd put into the route were along a track that was totally unsuitable for cycling - pretty much a hikers footpath across fields - I pushed the bike until I reached the next road.

Chris Boardman
Oooh Arrrr - my next bike maybe?
By the time I got there Gary had managed to get his bike into hospital and repairs were being carried out (Thanks Mike! We decided to spend the evening at the Eroica site - there was sunshine, music, food, pop-up pubs and gin and cocktail bars - all with an authentic vintage/retro atmosphere. Then there's the 150 or so 'shops' - offering everything from Maserati sports cars to vintage clothing and bike parts and handmade arts and crafts. There really was something for everyone.

On Saturday, I took my bike out for a short spin round the lanes before breakfast - just to keep my 'every day is a bike day' new year resolution going. Afterwards we all got changed into our daytime costumes! - If you're going to attend an event like this, it's better to go the whole hog - get dressed up! - Gary and I had opted for fairly simple 'farm-worker' type outfits - I had a bowler hat, waistcoat, grandad shirt, puttees and boots. He had similar but with a flat cap and no puttees! The ladies were dressed up too, polka dots and floral patterns.

We had a laugh with these costumes - but noone gives you a second glance on site - everyone else (or most) have done something similar. The problem was the weather was so hot - dressed in thick waistcoats and heavy cotton workshirts we were soon soaked in sweat - we were thankful for the beer tent and a shady spot! We wandered round the shops, made a few purchases, saw Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting and then went back to the shady spot!

We had a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon - and then got changed into our evening wear - Gary in a dinner suit, Union Jack dicky-bow with two-tone shoes and spats - me in a straw boater and striped blazer. We spent the evening watching 1980s popsters ABC - they had more hit tunes than I remembered!

On Sunday we all met back on site for the Eroica ride - 4500 cyclists on all manner of machines setting off for either 25, 55 or 100 miles along the tracks, trails and roads of the Peak District. There were people dressed in early twentieth century bathing costumes, there was a man riding a 'stop me and buy one' ice cream bike - there were tandems with midwives, there were onion sellers, 1950s policemen, a man on a penny farthing, someone on a Chopper, a man dressed as chimney sweep riding a Raleigh bike from 1916 - whatever you could think of it was there! - the mood was fun and laughter all the way.

A couple of old scrubbers!
As we queued for the start ex-professional racer David Millar came skidding past on his old bike - Gary chased after him and managed to get a selfie. Finally we were off, in a huddle of bikes and clouds of dust from the bone-dry tracks. The route was well marshalled and there was never a danger of getting lost - it was easier riding than I'd anticipated, just the heat being the main obstacle - some of the hills were a little testing but nothing as steep as the one I'd got stuck on around Ashbourne. Some of the off-road trails were tricky and very rocky - easier to walk on those stretches. Soon we were stopping for lunch - a quintessentially English village with a lovely pub and a field at the side offering free local beer and a lunchbox for all riders. No sign of any energy gels here - Cheese and Pickle cobs, Sausage Rolls and Bakewell pudding!! - perfect! - The whole thing had the feel of a village fete from 1954.

Lunchstop - the village of Moneyash
The last section before arriving back was fairly flat and we picked up some speed in places - soon we were back at the site with the commentator announcing our arrival and a Hurricane fighter plane flying overhead. We picked up a free beer for finishing and settled down to watch other riders arriving back - while desparately trying to find a spot out of the blazing sun.

And that's Eroica in a nutshell. It’s a far cry from your average sportive - completing the course in a record time is not an option: enjoying the sensation of having cycled into a time machine alongside like-minded riders is the name of the game. So often cycling events seem to ostracise children and spouses, but not here, everyones welcome and all can enjoy the fun.

Essential refuelling

Every rider gets a lunchbox

Mike Spratt - Vintage Bike Builder extrordinaire!
Phil looking retro!

About to embark on the ride

Gary with David Millar

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Eroica is looming - which bike to ride?...

At last a break from the turbulence of late - I'm in my office; it's 7.45am, the sun is shining. The trees display none of the violent animation of late - it looks like a good riding day.

I'm on the Colnago today - I have to make a final decision on which 'old' bike to use for Eroica - Yesterday I went out on the Bianchi and that went well. However, I'm pretty sure it will be the Collie - but a long ride today will help the decision ...maybe.

The outward part of the trip is great - the bike is riding well, smooth, quiet and remarkably quick. I cover the first ten miles easily, the sun is behind me, it's warm and no wind to delay progress.

At some point I will need to pause, catch my breath, give the legs a rest, but the clear sweet summer air is somehow exciting with the feintest tingle of freedom. The sky is clear and bright blue, a few white clouds unfurl vapour trails marking the journey of aeroplanes overhead, but here on the ground it seems that all of England is laid out before me, shaken out across to the horizon like a proverbial summer quilt. Each blade of grass seems to catch the sun and toss it back to the sky and meadow flowers are weaving a tapestry of subtle colour through the fine grasses. Islands of Ox-eye daisies reach upwards, their spindly, delicate stems swaying gently in the lightest of breezes.

I stop with 18 miles covered - I decide a lie in the grass would be a good thing. I stare up at the empty sky. There's nothing to do, nothing is moving, nothing is happening. the June grass is long and cool to lie on, entagled with wild flowers and spears of wild wheat, coiled with clambering vines and the whole humming with bees and the flicker of scarlet butterflys. I lie there, chewing on a piece of grass.

The sun is high in the sky as I set off for the return journey. It's hot now. Bees and butterflys fly back and forth amongst the vegetation, the hedgerows are alive with buzzing. The hardest part of today's ride is the return journey, taking in a number of stiff climbs, all challenging, especially on the Colnago with it's racing gear configuration. The first climb: up past the forgotten apple tree, in abundant leaf now with green fruit forming, past the climbing rose with its dizzy scent displaying bright mauve and pink blooms, past the ash and hawthorn hedges with glimpses through the gaps of the rolling countryside beyond. The climb drags on - I'm feeling tired, but I finally make it to the top - a gentle roll now for a few hundred yards as I catch my breath. The next few miles are okay, although I notice a distinct headwind - no wonder the pace is slower.

Anything even slightly uphill feels like a chore now - legs are aching slightly but feet are worse - not helped by being squashed into my old pair of Patrick Poulidor cycling shoes - these were fine 35 years ago - they're tight now, I'm sure my feet have swollen with the heat? I try to focus on the landscape - it's a beautiful day - the swelling slopes of meadow, the sunlight lying like transparent gold among the gently curving stems of feathered grasses summer has arrived and we must make the most of it.

I'm 8 miles from home when i'm suddenly awoken from my idle thoughts - a front wheel puncture that went off with a distinct bang - I'd recently filled my tubes with anti-puncture sealant - this white latex concotion spurts from the tyre as it revolves - it's like sitting on a catherine wheel - within seconds both me and the bike are covered in sticky white goblets. I pull over and access the situation - will the tyre seal or do I need to change it - I get the wheel out anyway and sit for a moment on a convenient bench. A cyclist passes and calls out - I tell him I'm okay - he turns and comes back anyway just to check - 'Just a puncture" i tell him - and he's soon on his way - 'Nice bike' he nods towards the upturned Colnago on the grass next to me.

I try pumping up the tyre - still more white stuff oozes from the hole. I decide to change the tyre. Not as simple as with a 'normal' bike though. These tyres are glued onto the rim - first thing is to release the bond and prise the tyre off - then spread new adhesive onto the rim (I'm carrying a convenient tube of glue!) Then get the new tyre onto the rim in the right position - it all goes well until it comes to trying to pop the last part of the new tyre onto the rim - it's tight - I have to really stretch the tyre to get it on - it slips and pops off the rim - the rim spins as well landing on my lap and depositing the newly applied adhesive all over my shorts. This glue is mighty sticky - fine strands stretch from the wheel rim to my clothing like a spiders web. More from hands back to the rim, it's getting messy!

Second time I get the tyre on - I try to wip the spilt glue from my clothing but it's a hopeless task - I pump up the tyre and carry on. The final few miles are hard work and I arrive back feeling drained. One good thing though - a tube of 'sticky stuff remover' makes short work of the glue on my shorts - and when I pump up the punctured tyre it seems to have sealed - looks like I should have waited longer for the sealant to act?

Will I ride the Colnago at Eroica? - still not sure!