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

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.


  • At 9:55 am, Blogger Roger said…

    ...and arrived to a round of applause and re-hydrated on several cans of Fosters...


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