Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

France - Part Two

Day One

Sillé le Phillippe to Montoire sur le Loir

Time in saddle 3hrs 53 mins 54 secs
Average Speed 12.5
Max Speed 26.6
Distance 48.97

It was a bit strange to be on my own again, but I slipped back into ‘cycling mode’ fairly easily. I did think I might push it down to Blois, on the River Loire, but didn’t fancy such a long day as my first day back. Montoire Sur Loir looked nicer on the map than it did in reality. That’s actually quite a strange thing to say, I’ve just realised, but it’s true! I think it may be because the road I entered the town on passed through a large industrial area before reaching town. I arrived about 3pm and, naturally, everything was shut. I saw the first properly drunk French people of the trip, though. At least, the first properly acting drunk French people. One was a man who was staggering across the road in front of me, who looked like he was about to fall over, and the other an old guy who, on seeing me approaching, stopped and shook his fists at me shouting ‘allez allez allez!’ in a, presumably, encouraging manner. My natural response was to laugh at his performance, which I did, and he, thankfully, did also. I guess they don’t all spend siesta time sleeping.

The town wasn’t actually that bad and after putting the tent up, showering, applying cream etc. I cycled back into town to find something to amuse myself with. I was on the hunt for an Internet café and an English book. I had only taken one book with me and I had finished that while we were at the gite. Now I was on my own again, having something to read in the evenings was essential. I asked in l’Office de Tourisme if there was an Internet place in town and was told it was just up the street to the right, above a shop – number 21. After walking up and down the street three times I returned for more detailed directions. It turned out I was looking up the wrong street and I asked what sort of shop it was above, so as to make sure I would find it this time. ‘A dog parlour’ came the reply, at which I laughed, but the woman remained quite serious. ‘Pour les chien?’ I asked, to which she replied ‘Oui’. I set off, up the right street this time, and after a short walk came across number 21 – a dog-grooming parlour. It was a small shop, with a fenced off area to the right that contained two tables, on which were a small poodle and a large, hairy thing. They were being shampooed and trimmed by two ladies. The following conversation was conducted in French, but as my written French is worse than my spoken French, I will relay it in English.

‘Hello. The woman in the Tourist Information said that you had…errr…Internet access?’ shrug shoulders, raise eyebrows and look baffled as if to imply the Tourist Information lady was crazy.
‘Oh yes, yes. Come with me’
At which point she opened the gate to the fenced off area and lead me through the to a small staircase at the back. The poodle followed us enthusiastically.
‘Should I shut the poodle in?’
‘Yes, you better had’

At the top of the rickety staircase was an attic room with four or five PCs along the right hand wall, and lots of junk along the left hand wall.
‘Which one would you like to use?’ she asked me, as if I had a preference.
‘The fastest?’
‘Ok – here you go’ she said, turning the computer on and heading back downstairs.
‘How much is it?’ I shouted after her.
‘Oh, four Euros per hour or one Euro for 10 minutes’ she said, disappearing downstairs.

And so I was left alone in the attic. After about 30 minutes of checking email and generally catching up with things I got bored of the Internet and realised I hadn’t eaten properly yet that day, so went back downstairs into the parlour. There were two different dogs being ‘done’ now, both strapped onto the tables while they were being pampered. I quickly scampered through the dog area and shut the gate behind me.
‘How much?’ I asked.
‘How long were you on there?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Errr…no, really I don’t know.’
‘Oh. Well, it wasn’t an hour was it?’
‘I don’t know. I’ll just give you four Euros for an hour, I don’t mind.’
‘Let’s call it three.’
‘Ok, there you go. Thank you. Bye.’
‘Woof woof.’

After a bit of shopping, but no English book, I went back to camp for dinner, which I ate via two beers at the bar. Once the washing up had been done, the journal written and normality resumed it was about 8.30pm and prime ‘book reading time’. I considered hunting down the English people on the campsite and pleading with them for an English book, but my natural shyness got the better of me. Without a book and little energy for anything else I went to bed and was asleep by about 9.15pm.

Day Two

Montoire sure Loir to Mayet

Time in saddle 3hrs 17 mins 20 secs
Average Speed 11.9
Max Speed 23.5
Distance 39.21

I’d now decided to knock Blois, and the Loire, on the head. Going East to Blois, then back West and North to get up to St Malo was going to be a bit of a slog in five days and not at all in keeping with the leisurely, holiday theme I had in mind for this week. So I decided to stay in the similarly named, but considerably smaller, Loir valley and begin to head West, then North, at a leisurely pace. I had a lie in, which was amazing considering the time I went to bed, and didn’t get on the road till about 11am, heading for Chateau du Loir, only a short distance down the valley. I got there about 1pm to find l’Office de Tourisme shut until 2pm, so went to a café for some lunch. Amazingly, not only was there a café open for lunch, but I also saw an open ‘creperie’ – a first on this trip! After lunch I posted some postcards and had a bit of a ride round town, with an eye out for an internet café and a bookshop. I found both, although the bookshop didn’t look promising (and it was shut), and went back to the Tourist Information, which was now open. The very helpful woman who worked there told me that there wasn’t a campsite in Chateau du Loire, but there were municipal sites in two town close by, which happened to be about 5 miles on, in the direction I was heading. She also said my best chance of finding an English book was in the Centre Commercial, about 3 miles back in the direction I had come from. As it was early still, and the Internet café didn’t open till 3pm, I headed back up the road in search of a book. There was a large book section in the supermarket, but none at all in English. After considering a French novel, and flicking through a few Stephen Kings, I decided that my poor French was probably better suited to something a bit more basic. I ended up buying a Harry Potter book from the children’s section. Outside the supermarket a small child, about 10 or 11, approached me and offered me a postcard with a lion on it. I took it, looked at it, and handed it back to him. He said something in French that I didn’t understand, so I told him (in French) ‘I don’t understand’. He gestured that he wanted some money. Being abroad does funny things to you - well, it does to me - and I instinctively pulled about one and a half euros from my pocket and handed it to him. I would never have done that in England. He offered me the postcard in return, which I declined. It was, to be honest, a crap postcard and I had no use for it. After unlocking my bike and packing my new purchases away I looked around for a bin to put some rubbish in. Postcard boy whistled at me to get my attention, so I walked towards him. Talking in French that I didn’t understand again, he now seemed to have a bit more confidence. ‘I’m looking for a bin’ I said to him, holding up the empty plastic bottles to reinforce my point. ‘Centre Ville’ was all he would say in reply. ‘I only want to throw them away’ I said and his response was to slowly mouth ‘Centre Ville’ as if I was totally stupid and wasting his time. I strapped the bottles to my bike and rode off back to town, leaving the boy offering postcards to unsuspecting old ladies. Had my French stretched to it, I would have offered him some advice as a parting gift, something along the lines of: ‘You’re lucky I gave you any money at all you little shit, especially now you’re being rude to me. I’d be surprised if you get anything for those shitty postcards – I’d move into a more appealing line of merchandise if I were you.’ Or something like that. But it didn’t, so it doesn’t matter now..

Back in town I went to the Internet café, which was now open, and had one of the most confusing conversations of the trip. Again, this was conducted in French.

‘Are you open for the Internet?’
‘Ok. Can I use the Internet?’
‘Yes. What do you want to do?’
‘Err…check my email. Umm, maybe read some news.’
‘Ok. How long do you think you will need?’
‘About half an hour to an hour.’
‘Are you on holiday here?’
‘In France, yes. Not here, in this town. Why?’
‘You could have bought a card for two hours of Internet access and two drinks for 10 euros.’
‘Oh, ok. Well I’m going to be moving on this evening so I don’t really want two hours.’
‘We have another card for one hour and a drink for six euros’
‘How much is just an hour of Internet on its own?’
‘Umm…I’m not sure.’
‘Well I’ll just have the card with the drink then if it’s easier.’
‘You pay when you’ve finished so we know how long you’ve had.’

At which point he showed me to a computer.

An hour and ten minutes later I went to the bar to pay.

‘You have been on there for one hour ten minutes.’
‘Yes. How much is it?’
‘Well an hour would have been six Euros.’
‘I can’t just charge you for an hour because you were on there for one hour ten minutes.’
‘I know. How much is it then?’
‘Six euros 50 cents’
‘Here you go.’

It seemed that strange Internet experiences were becoming something of a theme.

Anyway, I set off for Mayet, where I knew there would be a campsite, cycling over the only Tour de France road graffiti I was to pass on the whole trip. The campsite was easy to find and situated right next to a fishing lake. Not the best quality campsite I had stayed at (no toilet paper or seats) but it was quiet and comfortable enough. After the daily rituals I set off into town in search of a shop and a beer. I got some bread from a patisserie and settled down outside a café in the main square to write my journal, have a beer and chill out. There was a shop opposite which was part of the French chain ‘8 a huit’, which I had always taken to mean, not unreasonably, that they were open between 8am and 8pm. I finished my beer at 7.30pm and walked over to the shop to get some snacks for the evening and following day, but they were shut! ‘Eight’ my butt, is what I thought. On the 2km cycle back to the campsite I tried to take a time-delayed photo of myself riding my bike. In the first one I managed to get about three quarters of me in shot. The second was all trees, so I gave up then (NB - photos will be on the website soon!). After dinner I went for a walk around the lake, which provided some nice sunset photos, as well as a nice place to sit and (try to) read my new French book. After half a chapter I decided reading in French wasn’t for me. I sort of knew what was going on, but…well, to be honest, I didn’t have a clue. Still, the lake and my late arrival at camp meant I didn’t have much time to kill, so by the time I had taken a few more photos and got back to the tent it was time for bed anyway.

Day Three

Mayet to Sablé sur Sathe

Time in saddle 3hrs 08 mins 30 secs
Average Speed 11.7
Max Speed 24.1
Distance 37.01

I felt a bit disheartened in the morning, which seemed strange as I had had such a good day the day before. Still, I had planned another easy day, so I took my time getting packed up and was on the road again about 11am. I felt a bit weak for the first hour or so, which I put down to day-three-syndrome. The riding wasn’t unpleasant, though, and I reached Sablé sur Sathe at about 2pm. This was my intended stop for the night but for some reason I didn’t get a very good vibe from the place. I don’t know if it was the size of the place – the biggest town I had been in for three days – making me feel intimidated, but I quickly started looking for the road leading out of town. When that wasn’t forthcoming I found myself following the signs to the campsite, just to see what it was like. I found it via the rough looking part of town, which didn’t endear me to the place anymore, but the site looked nice. I asked the woman at the desk how far it was to the centre of town and it turned out I had gone the very long way round and that town centre was only about 2km away. I decided to give the place a chance and booked in for the night. It turned out to be a very nice campsite – toilet seats and paper in the very recently refurbished toilet blocks. After the usual tent/shower/cream combo, I headed into town on my bike. The ride back into town was much nicer than the run-down-estate route I had taken to get to the campsite. A small road on the right as you went out of the campsite lead down to the river, which you could then ride along for about 1km right into the centre of town. I locked my bike up and went for a walk, feeling more like a tourist, with my camera slung around me, than I had done all trip. I bought a croissant and a pain au chocolat, due to the lack of anything else obvious to eat and extreme hunger, and strolled along the cobbled streets. I found an Internet café, or rather an Internet ‘facility’. It was a room with eight computers and a queue of people waiting to use them, sitting on chairs on the right as you went in. It seemed to run on a sort of first come first served basis and you just had to wait for a computer to be vacated. There was a man in the corner with a big desk, who I assumed to be the owner/hired help/technician, but no one seemed to be talking to him, or more importantly giving him money, when they came in or when they left. I waited in the seats with everyone else, scanning people’s screens for signs of their imminent departure. When it was logically my turn I walked over to the vacant computer and, to cut the story short, did what I wanted, then got up and left. I found myself walking rather briskly away from the place in case there was some sort of payment system that I hadn’t noticed, but I don’t think there was. Before I got my baguette for dinner and headed back to camp I decided, as was my routine now, to have a beer before dinner. The liveliest, and most inviting looking place in the square was a bar that, I think, was made out to look like an English pub. It wasn’t really like an English pub at all because they served nice lager and had waiter service, but at least they tried. Before I made dinner back at camp I was flicking through the brochure for the campsite and notice that in the list of facilities they mentioned a ‘TV room and library’. My hopes suddenly soared at the mention of ‘library’ and I went up to the reception block to find the TV room. There was one person in there watching The Simpsons in French and in the far left corner of the room was a bookcase, which was full. I approached it and scanned the sleeves of the books, looking for signs of English. To my great excitement there were about four or five English books and after a quick scan of each of them I picked a cheesy looking murder/crime novel by an American author. It was the best of a bad choice, I think, but it didn’t matter – I had something to read! After dinner I was going to head back to town for another look around but slight over-indulgence in food and the fact I had a book meant that I sat in camp and read until it got dark, then went to bed.

Day Four

Sablé sur Sarthe to Ernée

Time in saddle 4hrs 40 mins 47 secs
Average Speed 11.4
Max Speed 29.6
Distance 53.49

I had three days to get back to St Malo, so I decided to do a reasonable day in distance then have two easier days. The cycling for the previous few days had been ok, but marred by winds and lack of energy, meaning I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. The ride to Ernée, however, was good. I felt strong and the wind wasn’t such a problem. The small towns linked together easily and the highlight of the cycling was going through the ‘Foret de Mayenne’ on the only road that crossed it. I had the road to myself the whole way through. The only bad point of the day was an inexplicable nosebleed I suffered when entering the small village of Vautorte. Stopping at the side of the road I proceeded to bleed quite profusely for about 10 minutes. As usual, there was no one around, but I’m sure some people must have looked at me through their windows and wondered what I was doing. I found the campsite in Ernée easily, as it was on the road that lead into town. It was a three star Municipal site and the cheapest I stayed at all trip. Normally at a Municipal site they have to fill in some paper work, look at you passport and get your name and address. It was a bit different in Ernée, however, and the woman who appeared when I entered the site simply said ‘Camp where you like – three euros please. They normally cost at least four euros, and I asked if she needed my name and address or anything. ‘No It’s fine – just three euros please’. I suspect those three euros went straight into her pocket, which is fine by me. When I went for a shower, and looked in the mirror, a possible reason for the lady not wanting to linger speaking to me became apparent. The previous evening I had gotten something in my left eye and it had itched, and I had scratched it, quite a lot in the night. As a result my eye was red and quite swollen that morning, and I realised now that it had probably been like that all day. The nosebleed from earlier had also left it’s mark and I had dried blood covering the end of my nose and my top lip, as well as being splattered over my top. Ernée is a nice, simple, town. I went in, as was the norm for me, before dinner and bought some supplies and eye drops from a pharmacy. My beer that evening was in the bar that all the old folk of the town were congregated in, as opposed to the ‘pub’ across the road. Back in camp, after dinner, I looked over the maps and picked out a stop for the next evening, allowing a short ride back to St Malo the following day. I was enjoying being ‘on the road’ and wanted to make it last as long as possible.

Day Five

Time in saddle 5hrs 55 mins 14 secs
Average Speed 11.5
Max Speed 30.4
Distance 68.16

I had a lie in again and set off about 11.15am. It was overcast, so, for the first time that week, I didn’t have to put sun cream on before I set off. After an hour or so of cycling it began top rain – the first rain I had seen on the bike since the day I got off the ferry in St Malo two and a half weeks previously. I didn’t mind cycling in the rain at all and pushed on for another two hours, which took me to my intended stop for the evening. I had started to think that I might as well just go through to St Malo as it was early and I was already wet. I could find a camp in St Malo and have the following day free to have a look around town. Stopping now would have meant putting the tent up in the rain and having wet gear in the tent, which I would have to pack up and cycle with the next day. So I didn’t stop and carried on through, thinking St Malo was only a short ride West. I changed the map over, getting it very wet in the process, and realised St Malo wasn’t as close as I had thought. It didn’t matter – I still had plenty of time. St Malo wasn’t going to come easily, though, and the weather made sure that my final stretch of riding was some of the hardest I had done all trip. I commented in my journal on day one of stage one of this trip that the cycling ‘wasn’t too bad, with few hills’. I now know why I wrote that - in my first day excitement it had obviously gone unnoticed that it was all down hill! The other problem was that there was a strong North Westerly wind blowing rain into my face. Those final 20 miles were spent on a straight road battling against the wind, rain and hills. I finally got to St Malo and chose the easiest navigation option – the main road. The minor roads were quieter but provided much more opportunity for getting lost and I was prepared to deal with the traffic if it meant I got to town a bit quicker. In town I looked for a sign to the Tourist Information but couldn’t see one so ended up following signs to a campsite. The Municipal Campsite in St Malo is in a lovely position on a hill overlooking the harbour and is, thankfully, the closest campsite to the Ferry port. It is also, unfortunately, the worst campsite I stayed in. The facilities weren’t too bad (no toilet seat but some toilet paper – a strange combination) but it was the sheer number of people that ruined it. Most Municipal sites had around 20-30 pitches. The one in St Malo has over 300. I found it quite oppressive. The other thing about the site was that they were full for the following evening, so I could only stay one night, meaning that,, effectively, I didn’t have anywhere to stay for the night before my ferry crossing. I booked in for one night and considered my options – cycle over to the other two campsites the next day in the hope that they have spaces; get a hotel or bed and breakfast in town; look for a youth hostel; try and change my ferry ticket to a day earlier. I decided to try the last option and headed to town in search of the Brittany Ferries office. I found it eventually, by the ferry-docking place (surprise surprise), and changed my ticket to depart the following morning for no extra charge, or any hassle. Brittany Ferries, I salute you. I celebrated that night with a few beers (notice the theme here?), a pizza and a ‘crepe’ for dessert. To make sure I slept in the overcrowded campsite I also had two more beers after dinner.

Day Six

I packed up as usual in the morning but knew I only had about a mile to cycle to the ferry. On the way I stopped at a patisserie and bought breakfast to eat on the boat. There were five other cyclists on the ferry and our bikes were lashed together with big ropes, to stop them messing around while we were sailing. I dumped my things in the cabin and went to the back of the boat to sit in the sun and eat breakfast, while watching the rest of the cars board the ferry. I was surrounded by British families who were, to be honest, quite loud. I didn’t know what they had been doing in France but I felt an immediate distance between myself and them. My trip next year is called Avoiding Europe because I want to discover the places in all the different countries in Europe that you don’t normally hear about, or where people don’t normally go on holiday. The sort of places, I thought, sitting on that boat, where these people don’t go on holiday. As I was eating my fresh croissants, the family next to me opened a bag of pre-packed mini pain au chocolat, similar to those you would get in Tesco. After breakfast I went to my cabin to read the rest of my book, on my own.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

France - Interlude

My arrival at the gite was, as Grannyspit kindly points out, greeted with a round of applause from the assembled car/van drivers and the consumption of too much lager and barbeque food. After six days on the road with a minimal diet of cereal bars, dried fruit, pasta and bread, and approximately 10 pints of water a day, very few of which ever saw daylight again, the lager and sausage onslaught was rather too much to handle. Still, I managed to get used to it again fairly quickly and spent the next five days re-acquainting myself with life ‘out of the saddle’. Half way through that week our band managed the seemingly impossible and played at the wedding, which was, after all, the whole reason we were down there. A good time, as they say, was had by all.

After five days it was, sadly, time to leave the gite. I had a week before I had to catch the return ferry from St Malo and had two options:

1. Cycle back up the same route I had taken down,
2. Get a lift up to Le Mans and spend the week in the Loire valley and make my way up to the ferry.

I chose option two and spent 7 hours in a pink van entertaining a two-year-old boy. A different kind of tiring to cycling for 7 hours, but still not un-enjoyable. The first five hours weren’t, anyway. The main reason I chose to take the lift was because it would mean this week would be more like the ‘Avoiding Europe’ trip next year. As I would be closer to the ferry, there wasn’t as much pressure on me to do so many miles a day, so I could take it a bit easier with the cycling and stop at places I liked.

We actually camped about 10 miles out of Le Mans and stayed for two nights, meaning I had a full day to kill, so I cycled into the centre of town for a look around. Being Sunday it was dead, but I enjoyed riding on an un-laden with 6 days of cycling strength in my legs. The following morning I got up early with my friends, who were hoping to leave at 9am to catch their ferry in Calais. They left at about 10am in the end, and missed the ferry, but that’s another story. I also left at about 10am and headed towards Blois, in the Loire valley.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

France - Part One

Ok, so I’m back now. Obviously, since it’s been about two weeks or so. I wasn’t going to do a ‘full write up’ for this trip, but having started it I realised I had more to write about than I thought.

Anyway, here goes. Below is a day-by-day account of the first six days – from the ferry in St Malo to Loubatieré, South of Figeac (which is up and right from Toulouse). Each day I made a note of my computer readings, which may or may not interest you. All references to speed/distance are in miles per hour.

Day One

St Malo to Vitré

Time in saddle 5hrs 3 mins 46 secs
Average Speed 12.5
Max Speed 32.5
Distance 63.51

A good first day that saw me reach camp by about 3.30pm, mainly due to the fact that I didn’t stop for lunch. That was a bit of a mistake really as, despite snacking a lot, I felt quite weak by the end of it. But I made my daily target quite easily so it was promising, considering I had no idea how realistic my targets were. Stayed at the Camping Municipal in Vitré, which was easy to find and reasonable in price and quality. Spent the rest of the afternoon/evening sitting around reading, eating and telling the strange guy opposite numerous times that, no, I didn’t have any hashish but, yes, I did like The Cure. I don’t really, but felt it was best to say I did to avoid any confrontation or knife attacks in the night. My first experience of solo travelling had me a bit nervous and, if I’m honest, a bit lonely that first night. It’s strange how the reality of being on your own in a foreign country is different to how you imagine it would be. I knew it would be hard at times, but I also thought I would be experiencing feelings of freedom and excitement at being on my own, having an adventure. I had neither of those that first night, but put it down to first day getting used to it syndrome and went to bed. ‘We’ll see what tomorrow brings’ is what I wrote in my journal.

Day Two

Vitré to Chemillé

Time in saddle 5 hrs 43 mins 27 secs
Average Speed 13.5
Max Speed 45.9
Distance 77.35

A better day in terms of morale and distance. As I had made the first days target quite easily, I planned to push on a bit from now and try to gain distance on my daily targets as the week goes on. This would mean that I will either arrive at the destination earlier than planned or that I will have more time on my hands when the mountains start, meaning I won’t have to kill myself to get there. Up at 8am and away for 9am, the morning was spent linking small villages along minor roads. The roads are immaculate – flat tarmac stretching for miles. There was a bit of up and down, but nothing too bad, and little traffic. This is why people come to France to cycle and highlights, in my opinion, the main problem with the UK – there’s too many people. Anyway – enough of that. I tried to stop for lunch, after yesterday’s lack-of-lunch-weakness episode, but found no food places open in Segré. Admittedly, I didn’t look to hard, but there was nothing obvious. So I bought a ham and cheese baguette from a patisserie and a bottle of water and got back on the road. I made my daily target (Chalonnes-sur-Loire) by 2pm and pushed on to Chemillé, arriving about 4.30pm, via L’Office de Tourisme to locate the campsite. I stayed in a private campsite this time (as opposed to a Municipal – government run) which was nice.
I quickly realised that the quality of the campsite can easily be judged by the state of the toilets. The better ones have toilet seats (ceramic is not comfortable), toilet paper and no option of a ‘hole in the ground’ squat toilet. The slightly lesser quality campsites have the opposite in toilet comfort.

Arriving at camp a bit later made the evening more pleasant, mainly because it meant I had less time to kill. After performing the essential daily rituals (tent up, eat and drink something, shower, apply cream (don’t ask!), write journal, have dinner) there was only about an hour or so left to read, have a quick look around and take some photos. I generally felt better about ‘being on my own’ anyway. I really enjoyed the cycling and was starting to enjoy doing this on my own.

Day Three

Chemillé to Sanxay

Time in saddle 6 hrs 52 mins 22 secs
Average Speed 12.3
Max Speed 32
Distance 85.28

As I had done so well the day before in terms of distance my plan was to do the same again, meaning I would be within a normal days cycling of where my friends would be camped on the evening of my day four. If I was working to plan their campsite would fall halfway between days four and five, but as I was ahead of time it meant that reaching their campsite for the evening of day four was feasible. All I needed was another good day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get one. I set off in good spirits but then got to Bressuire. Or ‘Fucking Bressuire’ as it became known on that day. Getting to Bressuire was not a problem. It was getting out of the bloody place that caused the problem. I had a specific road I was aiming for that lead to a fairly large village. Simple, then, you might think. Follow signs to that place, or the even bigger town a bit further down the road. Which is what I did and ended up on a motorway. It didn’t look like a motorway at first, so I persisted, but as a sweeping corner opened up I saw it stretching out in front of me, heading back around town in completely the wrong direction. My map was close to useless now as I didn’t actually know where I was and I had done at least a mile on the motorway. I stopped at the side barrier where a minor road went under the motorway, swore a bit, then decided the best thing I could do was to get off the motorway. The only thing separating me and the minor road, 15 feet below, was a steep bank. So, off with the panniers and three trips later my bike and all my luggage was in a pile on the minor road. The only problem was I didn’t know which road it was, where it was in relation to the town or where it went. I decided to go in the direction I thought town was in the hope of more useful signage. About 4 miles later I was climbing a long hill up to an industrial area and realised that I had already been there about 45 minutes earlier, climbing that sane hill. Not very happy-making. This time I headed into the town centre hoping for an easier route, but it was not to be. I spent another 30 minutes or so following signs, asking people and generally getting frustrated and going round in circles. Finally, trying possibly the only road I hadn’t yet been down, I found the road I was looking for and turned, with some relief, onto it. These things are sent to test us, I thought, and promised myself I would push on to make up time, and never let it happen again. I hadn’t, however, anticipated the next sting in the days tail – Parthenay. Or ‘Fucking Parthenay’ as it became known. I did actually try and get something to eat in Parthenay but, as was becoming the theme, there was nowhere open. So I had a drink and sat down for 20 minutes to review the map. As I left the café I asked the waitreess to point me to the road I was aiming for, just to make sure there wasn’t a repeat of the Bressuire incident. ‘Up that road and left – there is a sign’ was the reply. Sounded simple, I thought. 20 minutes later I was cycling past the café swearing under my breath and becoming increasingly frustrated with French signage. I asked five different people for directions out of Parthenay. At one point I came across a supermarket and decided a walk around an air-conditioned building was a good idea, so spent 10 minutes calming down in a Super U. I finally found my way out of Partheny after asking two old ladies by the side of the road. After following what I thought was their directions for two miles I came across a roundabout for a motorway and no other convincing options. Heading back into town, cursing again, I asked another person for directions (this time a man standing at his gate). Halfway through my map pointing routine one of the two old ladies walked past, recognised me and had a good laugh with the man at the gate. My French, and my mood, wasn’t up to working out what they were saying, although I suspect it was something along the lines of ‘Shall we help him or let him stay here forever’. The lady assured the man she would sort me out and proceeded to walk me the half mile to the junction I needed to take. Old French lady, if you are reading this, I am eternally grateful.

So that was my nightmare day and just as I was beginning to hate France, particularly French road signs, I rolled into Sanxay. If ever there were a perfect French village to appear after a hard day cycling, Sanxay is surely it. At least, it was that day. A pleasant, friendly campsite (with toilet seats, but no paper) was a short walk over a river to the idyllic French.

That was my third day on the road and my body was starting to feel the effects of the cycling. My bum was a bit sore, my legs ached a bit and my energy levels were generally feeling a bit lower than normal. I think it was day three syndrome – days one and two were both kicking in and I hadn’t yet built up the extra strength/fitness. I also had some problems, mainly at night, with pins and needles in my little fingers/forearms. It’s a common ailment in cyclists, I believe. I would wake up with cramp in my forearms and a loss of sensation in my little fingers, on both hands.

The only other point of note for this day was the road kill. I saw a lot of road kill throughout the trip, but this day produced the most varied. The three of note were 1) a tortoiseshell cat, 2) a snake and 3) an owl.

Day Four

Sanxay to Montbron

Time in saddle 6 hrs 55 mins 06 secs
Average Speed 11.7
Max Speed 28.6
Distance 81.55

After the previous days fiasco I hadn’t made up as many miles as I would liked to have done, so to make it to the camp where my friends were staying meant a bit more of a slog than I had wanted. It didn’t help that the hills started around here as well. The weather was good for cycling – overcast, so cool, with no wind. Surprisingly I felt stronger than the previous day. Three days of cycling had obviously improved my fitness. This day saw my first serious bit of climbing and I encountered other cyclists for the first time, surprisingly. I had seen the odd one or two during the first three days, but I passed some other tourers today (going the other way), a ‘team’ and a few ‘old boys’ out in their full team kits (one of whom I passed on an uphill, which I’m not sure pleased him too much). I must say, I found French cyclists less friendly than their English counter parts. Back home, if you look ‘like a cyclist’ (clothing, helmet, bike), and sometimes even if you don’t, every other ‘cyclist’ will give you a nod/wave/say hello. In France I found that, particularly those who wear the full team colours, don’t so much as nod at you. Even on completely empty roads.

Anyway – it matters not. I didn’t get lost and found the campsite ok, so rolled up at my friends pitch at around 4.30pm. A longer day than I had expected, and I knew the big hills were to come, but I was still half a day ahead of schedule and feeling ok, so I had my first beer (or four) of the trip.

Day Five

Montbron to Cherveix-Cubas

Time in saddle 4 hrs 46 mins 05 secs
Average Speed 12.1
Max Speed 26.4
Distance 57.88

I had planned to have a rest day, maybe only doing 30 miles or so. I was, after all, half a day ahead of schedule and had just done three 80 mile days. I was worried what the mountains were going to do to me, though, and thought that the half day I had in hand could easily be wiped out if the hills really took it out of me. I set off later than normal, about 11am, to climb the mile or so out of the gorge my friends had, helpfully, chosen to camp in. The first friendly French cyclist I encountered passed me on the way up and, seemingly impressed that I was doing the climb ‘fully loaded’, passed me with a wave of the hand and an enthusiastic ‘bravo!’. The next couple of hours cycling were good. There were hills to climb, which were hard work, but I managed them all and as we all know ‘what goes up must come down’, so for every climb I was doing at 7 miles an hour, there was a descent at 25 miles an hour, meaning my average speed was about the same as on the ‘flat’ days. By about 4.30pm I had done the equivalent of a planned day’s cycle. I felt strong – the later start in the morning had given my legs a nice break and, being day five, my fitness was obviously improving. I was tempted to push on that evening, to start eating into the next days cycling, but forced myself to stop for camp. The sign that said ‘Camping – Bar’ also played some part in persuading me. The campsite wasn’t the best - no toilet seats, no toilet roll and a choice of ‘hole in the ground’, as well as being riddled with bugs of all sorts. Still, I had quite a nice evening. I had a couple of beers at the bar whilst writing my journal and reading a bit before dinner, then had pasta for dinner and went to bed early in preparation for day six. I had looked at the maps again after dinner and worked out that my destination (a small village called Loubatieré, about 20 miles south of Figeac) was probably about 100 miles away. I knew the hills would be big, as it is touching the Massif Central region, but I like a challenge, so I had it in my mind that I would go for it.

Day Six

Cherveix-Cubas to Loubatieré

Time in saddle 8 hrs 30 mins 07 secs
Average Speed 11.9
Max Speed 32.8
Distance 101

Despite the previous nights excitement at possibly completing the ride today, I started somewhat subdued. There was a long way to go and it looked, on the map, like there might be a few complicated parts. I might get lost in another town and lose time and energy, or I simply might not be able to make it. So I didn’t really have any expectations, which was a good thing, I think. The first part of the day went very smoothly. I had to link some main roads up to take me East, so I could connect with the road that would take me all the way down to Figeac. Despite being a busy road, it was pleasant riding and there weren’t many ups and downs. I think I was heading along a valley, as opposed to cutting across them, but I didn’t know for sure as my maps didn’t have contour lines. I was judging where hills would be by looking at where rivers were, and where they started from, and where viewpoints were on my maps. While not totally accurate, this method did prove to be quite useful. I connected with the road heading South and set off towards Gramat, still not sure whether I would be pushing for the finish or splitting the ride over two days. I re-assessed at Gramat and, as it was still early afternoon and I was feeling good, I decided to go for it. Figeac had been the main town I was heading to all along and it proved to be the sting in the tail of this whole ride. There were two long, hard climbs into and of the town that nearly defeated me, but I was too stubborn to let them. Out of Figeac and along the main road that would lead to my final destination there was yet another big hill to climb out of a valley, by which time I was expecting it.

I reached Villeneuve and stopped for a drink in the supermarket, knowing I was within about 5 kilometres of the Gite where my friends were staying. Following the directions I had kept with me all the way I set off up the road, which climbed all the way to the junction I needed to turn off at. The Gite was located at the end of this dead-end road, about a mile long, and I was still full of adrenalin as I cycled along there, my body refusing to relax until it absolutely knew it was allowed to. As I cycled along, passing some farm houses on my left, a view opened out of the hills and valleys to the West. It was truly breathtaking and it really felt like I was on the highest point for miles around. I had climbed enough hills, afterall. Admiring the view, with the sun on my face, I freewheeled down to the Gite, after my first 100 mile day on a bike, with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

From France

I thought I'd just do a quick one, seeing as I am actually in France, on 'The France Trip'.

I will post a more detailed account when I get back, but for now here's what's been happening:

I got down to the place near Figeac, where I was heading, a day ahead of when I expected to. I had judged the mileage about right, but being the stubborn little git that I am, I pushed myself and got ahead of time. The last day was the longest and hardest as I was in the Massif Central region (mountains!), but I did 101 miles in about eight and a half hours cycling. Here are my approximate daily mileages (with no rest days):


After a week of partying I decided I didn't want to do the same route in reverse, so got a lift up to Le Mans. With 5 days to get back to St Malo, this week is a bit easier. I did about 50 miles down to the river Loir yesterday, and have followed the river west for about 30 miles today. I will probably do another ten or so to find a campsite for tonight, then four days up to St Malo for the ferry home.

It's nice to have a bit more time to relax and look around, instead of cycling all the time, as I was in the first week. I just wish I had brought another book with me to read. Today I resorted to buying a book in French due to the lack of English books around. My French isn't great, but maybe this will improve it? Who knows, but it's better than no book!