As we cruised towards Toulouse at the end of Stage 6, our odometer neatly clicked past 1000 miles. It felt like a moment. 1000 miles of largely enjoyable pedalling, 1000 miles of avoiding potholes.
But just as we were high fiving this achievement and accelerating towards the city, a huge pothole suddenly appeared out of the shadows of a large tree. There was no avoiding it. Pulling up hard on his handlebars, Andy cleared it with his front wheel but the back one still smashed straight into it, sending both panniers flying, buckling the rim and breaking a spoke. Behind him, Clare just managed to skid to a halt. Pride before a fall once again!
It doesn’t look much, but this is the biggest pothole we’ve seen in France!
This meant we rather ingloriously limped into Toulouse. To our relief, the brilliant team at Decathlon (a massive chain of sports warehouses) were able to straighten out the wheel and fix the spoke immediately. 30 minutes repair work at no charge! Wish we had more of these stores in the UK.
Reaching Toulouse was important as we had a deadline to get there by Tuesday 18th October (Day 29).
After leaving Bordeaux on Friday (Day 25) we’ve spent most of our time on the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas). This combines the Canal de Garonne (that we cycled down) with the older Canal du Midi as a fast, safe trading route connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, dreamt of since Roman times.
Whilst the Canal du Midi was operational from 1681, the Canal de Garonne was only completed in 1856 just one year before the railway that takes the same route – so it was quickly overtaken by a newer, faster technology.
Bath has a beautiful canal but this is on an altogether grander scale. It runs for 437km (270 miles) and needs 118 locks to cope with the altitude change of over 360m. Each of these has traffic lights and a bell to summon the lock keepers who still live in the pretty, immaculate cottages beside each one.
Over five days cycling we saw very little canal traffic so it’s hard to imagine what the lock keepers do all day behind their shutters. The paper? Lunch? An afternoon snooze?
At times it was spectacularly beautiful, especially in the Autumn sunlight.
But pedalling beside a canal for so long can also become boring. From time to time we had to resort to cycling games – sprints, catch and especially drafting.
This means taking turns at the front and powering along as fast as possible, with the other person cruising just behind in the slipstream. For the full benefit you must tuck in as close as possible and this was the first time we’d felt brave enough to give it a go. It’s an extraordinary sensation to feel sucked along by the cyclist in front of you and it’s also fun to watch them huffing and puffing with the effort. Taking turns, we ate up the miles at record speeds (for us) of about 28kph.
This turned our thoughts to which cyclists we each might resemble. For those of you who are familiar with professional cycling, we decided Andy is an Ian Stannard – large, a bit ungainly, stoically setting the pace as a super domestique then running out of steam. Clare is an Adam Yeats – small and neat, tucked in behind, then effortlessly cruising past to take up the running near the end.
Why was reaching Toulouse by Tuesday so important? Before we left Bath, many of Andy’s mates were impressed (and surprised) to learn that he planned to sneak away for a boys only tennis trip in the middle of our journey. In Mallorca. For 4 days. And the only suitable flight was from Toulouse on Tuesday evening.
You’ll be pleased to hear that Clare has not been abandoned. Her good friend Sue is joining her for a few days of rest and relaxation with no bicycle in sight but lots of chat and wine.
So as we pause for a few days how would we sum up the last 4 weeks?
We both agree it’s been better than we ever imagined and we would now recommend a cycling tour to anyone.
Our overall impression is that it’s like seeing a French promotional film at an iMax cinema. Part of the view is the same – the handlebars, the barbag, our hands, each other. But there’s also an ever changing scene rolling by in front of us – fields, rivers, villages, vineyards, marshes, canals, forests, cities, chateaux, the sea. It all flows into one long moving image.
We’ve loved being in France, have visited some incredible places and eaten delicious food. The roads and cycle paths are usually nice and smooth and the towns are cycle friendly. Passers-by often call out a warm bonjour or bon courage and we’ve been surprised by some small acts of kindness, like an extra tarte aux pommes from a patisserie owner “pour le velo“.
We’ve really enjoyed cycling together and haven’t found it too hard. We’re fitter than we were but we’re not fit. We’ve learnt that 60-70km and a maximum of 5 hours in the saddle means we’ll have a good day.
Here are 3 reasons why Clare likes cycling with Andy:
- I have a (novice) bike mechanic on hand.
- He let’s me have a shower first.
- He can get us out of tricky situations – usually by smiling, bad French and a lot of arm waving.
And 3 reasons why Andy likes cycling with Clare:
- She always has great snacks.
- She’s (usually) up for any dreadful detour.
- She’s a much stronger cyclist than she admits. As I pant and sweat my way up a hill, a voice behind sings out near the top … “I’m he-ere” …
We’re now looking forward to the ride from Toulouse to Barcelona with renewed enthusiasm. Over or round the Pyrenees? Hmmmm?
Clare and Andy
Stats at the end of Stage 6:
1,656km cycled (1,029 miles)
106 hours, 11 minutes of pedalling
Route so far: