Wednesday, 28 May 2014


I've just got back from a great break away in Normandy. France has everything I need and expect from a holiday - the excitement and ever so slight anxiety of travelling abroad, the prospect of a linguistic battle, the chance to explore and appreciate new and unseen places, eat the best bread and cheese, sample the local beverages and the chance to cycle on unfamiliar terroir, on the wrong side of the road, - what's not to like?

Our 'gite' was everything you would expect from deep within rural Normandy - a single level, stone built affair with bright blue shutters. Diamond laid slate tiles matched with ancient corrugated iron presented a roof with equal amounts of patina and provenance and the flinty track from the road provided just the right level of 'get away from it all' isolation. A feather hitting the floor would have caused heads to turn. It was, shall we say, quiet.

Then of course there are the markets - the great places of pilgrimage for masterly inactivity, they entrance, astonish and comfort the rest of the world with a way of life that is peculiarly French. No one outside France has quite managed to explain cogently what this unique French existence consists of - so we have a French phrase to sum it all up: je ne sais quoi - France's abiding gift to the world. And there is more je ne sais quoi for your euro to be found in a French market than anywhere else. Aisles of trestles and stalls filled with a marvellous array of produce; bright peaches fresh from the tree, ripe and golden. Green and black figs, bursting with sweet, ancient, darkly lascivious simile. The waft of fresh lemon, bunches of thyme and lavender and verbena; oils and olives, pale green and pungent and the honey from orange blossom from heath and orchard. The charcuterie displays dozens of dextrous things to do with a dead pig, in all the hues of pink and pale fatty cream. The strings of saucisson, the pate and rillettes. The boulanger with loaves so crisp and hard, plaited and rounded with dark bitter crusts and soft sour centres - the pastries, the asparagus, the artichokes, the cheeses - all winding their way around a rabbled square with pollarded plane trees and ironwork benches. And at its corners, the most holy of holies in the 'je ne sais quoi' market, The cafe - with cream and pink woven chairs and little metal tables and a waiter with a long apron and the look of a man who is beaten by his wife. A place to sit and just .... look. Sipping a strong cafe with perhaps a small glass of calvados or a tasse of the rough but immensely agreeable local wine - just to smell it is to understand the superiority of terroir over mere talent. And then you can examine the rewards of your forage. 'I just got this artichoke, I liked the colour' - 'Oh well, I got this marvellous chèvre. The man said it was made with his grandmothers goats - or perhaps that his grandmother was a goat'

Back at the gite and looking through our comprehensive 'welcome pack' I read that the windows leak. What we need to do is close the shutters at the first sign of any rain. I decide to give this a practise run just in case. On close examination it looks like the shutters have never been closed, the iron clasps are rusty and fastened to the wall by a ball of ivy tendriles - I battle through and manage to release the first one, it moves stiffly and creaks alarmingly - at that moment a bat flies out from somewhere behind, startled by the sunlight it darts around before grabbing hold on the adjacent carriage lamp and hangs there. I've never been this close to a live bat - I've seen many flying around of course but can't recall being this close. It's a little, furry mouse-like creature - I'm not clued up on bat recognition at all - is it a pippistrelle? - It makes no attempt to attach itself to my neck, so for the time being I'm ruling out the possibility that it might be a vampire.

All this waffle - but did you do any cycling I hear you ask? - Well yes - as a matter of fact I did. Every day.

The thing about riding a bike in this part of France is that there are no flat roads - no chance to get settled into a speedy rhythm - it's all up and down - mostly up it seemed to me. I set off for a long ride, accompanied by my IGN D50 map of 'Manche' From Ste Cecile I headed to the next village of La Chapelle Cecelin and from there followed the D33 to Coulouvray Boisbenatre and then on to St Pois - the roads are smooth and even - nothing in the way of potholes at all - and no traffic. Everywhere is quiet as I pass through each village there is no sign of any living soul whatsoever - where is everyone? I work my way up some long, hard climbs to Le Gast and through a beautiful forest area towards St Sever-Calvados - this is a bigger village - not quite a town but at least there are a few people milling around. I pause for a moment checking the map and just looking around before heading off again towards Courson, back to narrow quiet lanes now - no sign of life - no cyclists - haven't seen one cyclist at all. Even with the map I manage to lose myself in the maze of lanes and tracks - I figure I'll hit a main road at some point and sure enough I arrive at the D524 which takes me through to Villedieu les Poeles - from here it is another 6k climb back to the gite - I take it steadily and manage it okay. 35 miles done in beautiful, empty countryside.

After the ride??

Friday, 2 May 2014

Hard core.....

Last weekend's jaunt involved meeting up with Gary and Paul from over the road and a 60 mile blast through the lanes. And what a blast it was. We didn’t hang around, speeding through Shackerstone up to Congerstone before heading up to Twycross and from there via Orton on the Hill through to Thorpe Constantine and on to Clifton Campville. I can’t remember ever travelling so quickly on the bike. I touched speeds of 28mph with regular long stints around 24mph. The wind was strong but thankfully behind at the key moments. There was no chance of a pause to admire the greening grass, the trees unfurling their finery, the apple blossom, the thick carpet of bright yellow dandelions…. It was about concentration, looking out for potholes and trying to breath.
At Barton under Needwood we finally stopped – 36 miles done is record time. I left the others to pay a visit to my Mum who dully plied me with tea and cake. Two hours later I set off home , bloated and aching from the earlier effort. The journey back was a much more sedate affair – the wind was in my face the whole way – getting back to Netherseal was a drag, legs burning and an overwhelming feeling that I needed to be asleep.
Arriving home was a relief and after a warm shower I felt okay but tired. And then at around midnight a severe leg cramp woke me from slumber. All day on Sunday I could feel the effort in my legs – plus a niggling backache to add to my woes. Nevertheless it was a good, hard workout – we’ll attempt the route again next week, weather (and backache) permitting.

I've just finished an excellent cycling related read - ROULE BRITANNIA - celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a Briton first completing the Tour de France, the half-century of cultural exchange, and British cycling's fight for recognition that followed. During those fifty years only two Tours would take place without at least one Briton on the start line, and more than fifty British cyclists have taken part. Through exclusive interviews with and profiles of all those who have competed, William Fotheringham gives us the definitive record of their achievement, from those first stumbling efforts and the death of Tom Simpson, to the golden era of Sean Yates and Robert Millar, right up to Chris Boardman, David Millar and the present day glory of Wiggo and Froome.