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Pyrenean Perspectives

As we have different perspectives about going over the Pyrenees, we thought you might like to hear from both of us:

Andy
Cycling south from Toulouse in pouring rain, I was praying that the weather forecast I’d used to persuade Clare to go over the mountains would turn out to be true.

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This is the forecast that I’d shown her for the week ahead together with words of encouragement like … “Perfect conditions for a mountain adventure. How hard can it be? We’ll always regret it if we don’t.”

To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea how hard it might be.

Clare
Secretly I was hoping that bad weather would mean we had to take the coast road around the Pyrenees and along the Spanish coast to Barcelona. However, as this window of opportunity opened up and I realised the sense of achievement we’d get by going over the top, I began to prepare myself for a mountain crossing.

Andy
I googled potential routes and found one on the website of a cycling holiday company that we could join at Bagneres-de-Luchon. OK, it meant riding further away from Barcelona through the middle of the Pyrenees and it included four mountain climbs (rather than one) but they didn’t appear to be quite as steep. Plus we would cycle on quiet roads through lovely countryside – perfect!

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I carefully plotted the routes and did all the calcs declaring these climbs not as steep as Prior Park (one of our local hills in Bath) but just a bit longer! They averaged ‘only’ 6-7% gradients with the first one being the steepest.

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Thursday – Luchon to Arties over Col du Portillon

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Friday – Arties to Sort over Port de la Bonaigua

Clare
By this time I’d convinced myself that it was the right decision to follow Andy’s new route but only had the first mountain climb in mind (as he had said the others were easier). Despite his detailed analysis of elevation, incline and stats, I prefer to not look too far ahead and just tackle what’s in front of me. One day at a time! I did, however, point out that this first climb was going to be six times longer than Prior Park Hill!

As we pedalled up the valley towards Luchon on our last day in France, the mountains grew bigger and the river flowed stronger. The sun was shining, my legs felt good and we were on cycle paths for most of the way.

Andy
The closer we got to the mountains, the higher they looked and the more nervous I became. I had a sleepless night wondering if we’d done the right thing.

By Thursday morning (Day 38) we were heading up the Col du Portillon on that first climb. This pass has featured in the Tour de France several times and winds it’s way 700m up through 10km of pine forests to a height of 1292m. I must admit it was a bit steep at times (13.9%) but it was incredibly beautiful.

As we whooped with delight at the top, Clare confessed that she’d enjoyed it more than she’d expected to. Phew!

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Clare
The moment I had anxiously waited for had arrived. It was freezing cold as we set off from Luchon and the incline graph Andy had showed me the previous evening kept racing through my mind. Had I reached the red, orange, blue or green phase? Not knowing what these really meant was probably a blessing in disguise as I arrived at alpine pastures and the sound of cow bells more quickly than expected. A long climb punctuated with steeper ascents then took us to the top.

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Much to my surprise I had made it with some energy to spare. A moment to savour. As we cruised down the winding road into Spain, the Aran valley opened up and we were soon enjoying our first Spanish tapas.

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Andy
After lunch we faced a long slow climb back up to 1100m which I found a lot harder than Clare. As she ate the miles up I rather limped into the delightful village of Arties.

On Friday morning (Day 39) the mountain road led us up through Baquiera ski resort to the mountain pass of Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m. This is a climb of 1000m over 16km and was part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour.

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Not quite as steep as they day before but it did go on and on and on. The last 5km were dominated by switchbacks which I rode up as fast as I could to the summit. It was only when I looked down at Clare emerging from the tree line that I realised just how high we were.

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Clare
Have you ever felt delirious with exhaustion? Well I did today. Throughout the climb I could hear my daughters voice repeating in my head “Jeez, why put yourself through this?” As I looked up, all I could see were yet more hairpin bends above.

Two hours of leg throbbing and brittle determination got me to the top – I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the moment and the beautiful scenery around. No whooping this time!

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Andy
Predictably Strava recorded us as amongst the slowest cyclists on these climbs. Was it the stops to admire the view? Or to munch a banana and recover? Or was it the extra weight we were carrying including such essential kit as a new beard trimmer, a keyboard, 2 iPads, a sketchbook and pencils along with the hairdryer, the pillow and the Pilates balls.

Nurdishly, I worked out on bikecalculator.com that the panniers equate to an extra 1% apparent gradient. This climb was an average 6% gradient, with our panniers it felt like 7%.

Clare
Who cares about Strava? We’re touring cyclists.

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Snaking down hairpin bends on our descent was incredible. A sense of freedom to both legs and mind. It was surprisingly cold as the alpine air whipped past. Cruising at a speed of up to 50km/hour we descended into the magnificent Aran valley, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking view.

Andy
On the steeper sections we practised descending techniques we’d been told about – inside leg up and braking alternately front and back to stop the brakes heating up too much. Occasionally I had to pull both of them hard at the same time. The sudden smell of burning rubber and the realisation that it can only be coming from your own brakes is not a great feeling!

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Once again, Clare was stronger in the afternoon. Perhaps I pedalled too hard at the top of the mountain and burnt myself out? Perhaps I’m just not as strong as she is?

We now have two choices. Go over the mountains for the next two days or head down the valley towards Portugal. No choice really – I’ll just have to pace the climb better to keep up with my wife in the afternoon. Here’s the profile for the next two days:

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Sunday Plan – Sort to Coll de Nargo

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Monday Plan – Coll de Nargo to Solsona

Clare
Now feeling re-energised after a rest and three huge meals yesterday, the thought of another 1000m of mountain climbing doesn’t fill me with quite such dread. I’m so amazed how much I’m eating!

But I have come to a realisation:

Some people are made for cycling in the mountains, others are made for pedalling along canal paths.

I like canal paths!

Andy
I think she secretly likes cycling in mountains …

Clare
No I don’t …

Andy
At least the weather forecast came true!

Onwards and Upwards

There are some big decisions being made across the world at the moment. The American presidential election, creating an effective government in Spain, whether to use French or English for Brexit discussions – to name just a few.

Our decision is much smaller – do we go over or around the Pyrenees? Unlike most global political leaders we’ve been able to quickly and unanimously reached a consensus.

We’re going over.

The weather is set fair for the week ahead and as Mark F said (in his comment on our last post) – if we don’t do it now we might regret it for ever.

We’ve even decided to take a longer, prettier route – pedalling south east to start with (away from Barcelona), then challenging ourselves with four substantial climbs before cruising down to the Spanish coast. The last few days rest must have worked some magic for part time cyclists like us to even consider this!

I had a great time in Mallorca with my mates despite four days of unusually wet and windy weather. It didn’t stop us playing tennis for several hours each day, mostly at the brand new Rafa Nadal tennis academy which only opened the day we landed. We found it by chance as the courts we’d booked were either flooded out or fully occupied by a German tournament.

Rafa was kind enough to pop by for a hit with the boys…

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(Actually he only wanted a photo.)

We did our best to show the top spinning, hard hitting, double handed backhand academy kids the different qualities of English Senior Gentlemen’s Doubles. Flat forehands, loopy backhands and our special secret weapon – the surprise drop shot service. But they did not appear to be that impressed. Kids today eh?!

Rafas entire trophy cabinet was on display at the centre. Here are his two Wimbledon trophies plus grand slam winning racquets from the ‘Big 4’.

Racquets from left to right: Murray, Djokovic, Ferderer, Nadal.

It was a great four days of rest and recuperation with a lot of laughs and many stories that I can’t repeat here. As the saying goes ‘what happens on tour, stays on tour.’

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David, Andy, Rich, John, Ricardo and Bob

Clare had an equally good time in Toulouse with her friend Sue. They explored the city on foot, indulged in the cafe culture, enjoyed an evening of contemporary ballet and a walk around the Japanese gardens. Much more civilised!

Toulouse is a vibrant city full of young people. It has a lived in, slightly bohemian feel with lively bars, street markets and affordable restaurants. Known as La Ville Rose (the pink city) it features terracotta buildings decorated with wonderful wrought iron balconies in a pallette of blues and greens.

On my return, I was surprised and delighted to be guided around ‘Clare’s’ city. After just four days she feels at home here and fits in well with her new pink trainers.

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The (very light) pink trainers replace a (heavy) pair of sandals for the climb up the Pyrenees. In another attempt to reduce weight we’ve also left behind:

Andy

  • A pair of sandals
  • A baseball cap
  • My spare glasses (possibly not wise)

Clare

  • The sandals (replaced by the trainers)
  • A summer dress
  • A travel towel (she’s now sharing mine)
  • A travel pillow
  • Surplus body cream and moisturiser

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  • A 2nd tube of toothpaste

Clare’s hairdryer and my pillow are both coming with us over the mountains. They’re essential kit, just like the safety pins!

Andy

Canal of the Two Seas

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.

imageBut 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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. I have a (novice) bike mechanic on hand.
  2. He let’s me have a shower first.
  3. 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:

  1. She always has great snacks.
  2. She’s (usually) up for any dreadful detour.
  3. 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

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Stats at the end of Stage 6:

1,656km cycled (1,029 miles)
7,522m climbed
106 hours, 11 minutes of pedalling

Route so far:

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Pride before a fall

As we cycled towards Bordeaux, I was getting more than a little smug about the sturdiness of my bike compared with Clare’s back wheel and its multiple punctures. Diligent daily checks, a squirt of lube here, a top up of air there had kept ‘him’ in tip-top working order. But as we all know, pride comes before a fall and sure enough that smugness nearly led to a disaster.

For several hours, I’d noticed the back of my bike swinging about a bit as we bumped across the relatively rough paths of the Charente. The panniers looked normal and well secured but they just didn’t feel right. Another alarming wobble and it was time for a closer inspection.

I didn’t think it was possible for pannier rack bolts to work loose. There are four of them – two were gone for ever, one was just about to fall out and the last one was just about clinging on. One more pothole and the whole lot could have come crashing down, panniers and all, leaving us with a very long walk to the next town.

The same bolts on Clare’s bike were as tight as a new jam jar so I guess I’ve been riding my bike too hard! Fortunately Gorilla tape saved the day and the next morning I persuaded a reluctant bike shop owner to part with some new bolts. They’ll now be checked every day!

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Are bikes female like cars or boats? We’ve come to think of them as having distinct personalities. Clare’s can be feisty and frisky, mine steady and solid. So perhaps Clare’s is female, mine is male. Those words are more often associated with horses and indeed, that’s how the bikes can sometimes feel – mounting them in the mornings, giving them rein when the road is smooth and flat, leading them to a shelter at night.

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Made by British firm Ridgeback, they are ‘Panorama World’ touring bikes with strong steel cylindrical frames that look like the traditional racing bikes of our youth. We have made just two modifications: padded gel handlebar tape and two new saddles.

Clare has a classic ‘Brooks’ leather saddle which needed many hours of breaking in but now nicely moulds to the shape of her backside. At the last minute, I switched from a big gel filled saddle to a ‘Selle Anatomica’, also leather. It may look like an instrument of torture but is actually extremely comfortable, a bit like a hammock.

The bikes have given us some special experiences over the last few days. Watching herons, egrets and buzzards swoop across the silent salt marches; cruising the corniche into the seaside town of Royan; gazing across endless Medoc vineyards, each vine dripping with grapes ready for harvesting, either by huge machines or cut by hand.

We also enjoyed another special Chambres d’Hotes experience staying at Chateau Real in Saint Seurin. In wine regions a ‘Chateau’ refers to the vineyard and indeed generations of family winemakers gazed down from the walls as Patrick and Violaine welcomed us with delicious cake, seven varieties of homemade jam and tales of life in the Medoc.

As we’re slightly ahead of schedule we’ve been able to spend two days in Bordeaux, enjoying the delights of an Airbnb kitchen and washing machine. It was great to share a fun evening over dinner with Helen, Ian and their friends who were in town to support Bath Rugby for their match against Pau on Saturday.

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Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d’Eau

Bordeaux was a pleasant surprise to us and is a great city for a mini-break. Beautiful buildings, many from the 18th century including the famous Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau (which has water that is only 1 inch deep) and the Grand Theatre. We particularly enjoyed the new, high tech, multi sensory wine museum (Citi d’Vin) where amongst other things we learnt that Champagne only got going through English consumption. In the early days, the English imported still wine from the Champagne region and then added sugar to produce bubbles.  The French poo-pooed the idea until they realised how lucrative it could be!

We’re now on our way to Toulouse and the promise of sunshine. Sometimes this journey feels like the travel of our forefathers. Forty to fifty miles a day on empty tracks, the next hilltop church spire rising in the distance, a welcoming inn with a secure space for our steeds at the end of the day.

Ancient travel? Bikes as horses? Perhaps with so much time to think, I’m going a little mad? True or not, I promise to look after ‘him’ better in future. No more loose bolts.

Andy

Rest and Recuperation

What would you think about if you were pedalling along the country roads of rural France – food, wine, weather, family, friends or really not much at all?

Apart from looking at Andy’s bottom, the potholes and surrounding countryside, I find myself thinking about where we might stay each night.

Travel and change of place impact a new vigour to the mind.
Anon

Since being the only guests in our chateaux on the Loire, Chambres d’Hotes have been our best friend. These are B&Bs or guesthouses which have their own character and charm and are often in people’s own homes. In France, Chambres d’Hotes are only allowed a maximum of 5 rooms. We’ve stayed in some which are chic with risqué artwork on the wall, an epicerie with a tiny loft room, a rural family home where we shared their evening meal and a small country chateau amongst the vineyards.

When do we book? It’s usually better to book a day in advance but since last week when we had to pedal on for over 100km just to reach our destination, we now prefer to book on the day. On arriving somewhere for a picnic lunch (which can be as late as 3pm) we generally decide how much further we want to go and look for a suitably large village or town where me might stay. This may be risky but we’ve not been homeless yet. Thank goodness for the Internet!

Surprised that so few people speak English, my French has been put to good use and is improving. Luckily I’m saying the same phrases regularly – Do you have a room for tonight? Can you store bicycles safely? Is breakfast included?

I’ve also learned lots of new words. For example, did you know that handlebar stoppers are called bouchons de guidon and cleats for cycle shoes are taquets de chats surges de cycle? I haven’t always got it correct as instead of toilet paper (papier toilette) I ended up buying kitchen roll (rouleau de cuisine) which turned out to have a secondary use for drying clothes!

I’m glad to say that after a couple of days of arduous cycling between the Loire and La Rochelle, I did get back on my bike and my legs (which now feel like tree trunks!) have recovered. The rest and recuperation in La Rochelle was great.  It’s an old French port with a bustling waterfront, covered markets, quirky shops and interesting historic buildings. There are lots of restaurants to choose from and the ones we found were fabulous. We then cycled round the Ile-de-Re which is beautiful and rightly famous for oysters although I preferred the prawns and mussels!

The weather has been sunny but unseasonably cold (12 degrees) so a fleece, long trousers and woolly socks have been more useful than expected. imageOther surprisingly useful items are a penknife, tupperware box (for containing smelly cheese) and a light travel rucksack. Suntan lotion, swimming costumes, a sundress and travel towels are still at the bottom of our panniers. I now have to admit that my hairdryer and the Pilates balls are getting less use than expected – should they stay or should they go?

Talking about whether things should stay or go, what do you think about Andy’s beard? It’s the first time in his 55 years that he’s tried to grow one and has now convinced himself it’s turning heads with French ladies of a certain age. I’m not so sure – stay or go?

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Perhaps the main reason he was turning heads yesterday was his new solution to the safety pin and shorts problem.

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He wore tennis shorts over his warm weather cycling undershorts. As the shorts flew up in the breeze, the locals seemed to think he was riding in fishnet tights! Oops…

Clare

Chapeau!

It’s not really correct cycling etiquette to award yourself a Chapeau! but nobody else in France has given us one yet. In French cycling culture, a Chapeau! literally means ‘hats off’ and is the compliment reserved for a truly exceptional achievement – a big climb, a long distance, a fast time.

When we tell people we’re cycling to Barcelona (yes all the way from Angleterre) we’ve had some encouraging responses. One bravo, one felicitations, a couple of allez, several bon courage, even a bon velo – but not a hint of that elusive Chapeau! Clare thinks it’s because we’re not mixing with French cycling aficionados and that your average guesthouse owner doesn’t know the word, but I believe it’s more likely our efforts don’t really merit one yet. Chapeaus! are not given away lightly in these parts.

On our first day in France we cycled 97.7km and it nearly killed us. We said then that we’d only deserve a Chapeau! if we beat 100km in one day. Well now we have – two days in a row, in fact.

So motivated were we by the prospect of a rest day in La Rochelle that on Tuesday (Day 15) we sped through the open countryside of Touraine clocking up 111km (68 miles). Then followed that up with another 110km on Wednesday (Day 16), through wooded valleys, across the coastal plain and into La Rochelle itself. Over 6 hours in the saddle on both days and another puncture (Clare’s back wheel again) thrown in for good measure. Aching legs, lots of lactic acid and very sore bums.

Life can be made up of lots of small, private challenges and cycling 100km in a day on this trip was one of ours.

So Chapeau! to us. Hat’s off!

This means that at the end of Stage 4 (out of 7) we have the following stats:

972 km (608 miles) cycled
5461m climbed (higher than Mont Blanc)
61 hours of pedalling

Here’s our slightly strange looking track through France so far (yes, we agree that it’s not really the most direct route to Barcelona):

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We’ve been using Open Cycle Maps on ViewRanger to help us decide where to go. These show cycle routes the same way that major roads are drawn on a normal roadmap. I really like this comparison of cycle routes for three different countries in Europe. Here are the cycle routes of the UK and France (red lines are national, purple are regional):

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Lots of them!

But this is Holland, using the same scale:

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It seems the Dutch reputation as a cycling nation is very well deserved!  (Look at the difference between Holland and Belgium just across the border.)

Over the last two weeks we haven’t always followed these specific routes but have made up our own, riding along quiet country roads in the general direction we want to go. It’s easy to do this in France as the quality of most small roads are so good. We rarely see a pothole so have decided this blog really should be called ‘Finding Potholes’ instead. I never thought I’d be sharing pictures of tarmac but here are some examples of the surfaces we’ve been pedalling on:

Though sometimes they can turn suddenly into a bumpy farm track without any apparent reason:

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It can also be incredibly quiet in central France. On Wednesday we counted just 2 open cafes, 1 open Boulangerie, 1 petrol station, 15 tractors and 27 cars during 80km (50m) of pedalling. Luckily we had a picnic lunch in our panniers.

Did we enjoy our rest day in La Rochelle? Yes, despite being unseasonably cold it’s a wonderful old town and delightful to walk around. However we were a bit too tired to take it all in.

Will we do 100km a day again? I don’t think so, certainly not two in a row. Six hours in the saddle is too much for us and spoils the enjoyment of the places we’re passing through. Four hours and 60-70km is much better.

Clare is more emphatic. Dismounting on Wednesday, she declared that she will “never, ever, EVER get on a bicycle again!” Thankfully after a day off she is happily riding with me out to the Ile-de-Re today.

Whether or not we deserve a Chapeau! we are starting to feel a bit more like real cyclists…

  • We’re going up hills in higher gears
  • We go down hills faster and try to use the speed for the next incline
  • We worry about the strange squeaks coming from our bikes

But…

  • We haven’t been up a big mountain yet
  • We like long coffee stops
  • We don’t have a clue how to fix the strange squeaks

So we can’t call ourselves real cyclists just yet. At least the roadside fans appreciate that we’re trying our best…

Andy

ps. For those of you who are worried about my cycling shorts, I’m happy to report that two French safety pins are holding them up very well. Thank you for your concern.

Chateaux and Champignons

One thing I love about Andy is that he always offers to carry my bags when we stay in a Chateau.

So far our choice of places to stay has been determined by what is actually open at this time of year. As we pedalled into Saumur on a misty Friday morning (Day 10) we didn’t know what to expect. Over a hearty English breakfast (a welcome change from croissants) we were surprised to find a nearby chateau at a knock down bargain price.

It turned out we were the only guests, so here is our own private chateau:

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It was 19th century with an air of faded grandeur enhanced by the managers passion for antiques.  Creaking floorboards, huge mirrors in dimly lit hallway, large family portraits, an aviary, a waterwheel and a conservatory with a ten metre high palm tree.

Are you allowed to use safety pins when dining in a chateau?
Janet B

Wine tasting and mushrooms are a happy combination in this part of the Loire.
Saumur sparkling wines are arguably better than Champagne so tasting them was a pleasure! Food has become so much better and Champignons appear in dishes in a variety of ways. This is not surprising as the 800km of tunnels in the area don’t only store wine, they are also used to grow some strange looking mushrooms.

We really enjoyed our two day stay in our own chateau but it was now time to discover what the Loire is famous for – much bigger, proper chateaus!

When Andy was 11 he went on a French exchange. It was a disaster – with only one year of French at school, he could barely say anything to anybody. The family made a huge effort by taking him on a grand tour of France in their tiny caravan and to make him feel more at home they occasionally tuned to Radio 2 on the long car journeys. As a result ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ can still bring back memories of that summer.

His tour included 15 Chateaus of the Loire in 6 days, all with French guides. It scarred him for life and he has never visited since.

Until now. Over the past few days we have seen 7, each one very different and much more interesting now we are older and wiser. Cycling upstream (Angers to Amboise) the chateaux have got more impressive each day.

Here’s our five words to describe each one:

Chateau Angers – medieval castle, not a ruin
Chateau Saumer – small, quaint, forgettable, great views
Abbaye de Fontevraud – complete, simple, religious, beautifully restored
Chateau Usee – tacky, commercial, disneyesque sleeping beauty
Chateau Villandry – classy, understated, incredible vegetable gardens
Chateau Amboise – royal, surpringly small, Leonardo-de-Vinci entombed
Chateau Chenonceau – colourful female history, awe inspiring

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Gardens at Villandry

“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
Henry Miller

It’s been a real pleasure to visit these from the ‘Loire en Velo’ – a cycle track that meanders along the river. Beautifully signposted, on dedicated tracks and small roads it is rightly one of the most popular in the country.

Things can be incredibly organised in France. Here’s one example – an amusing but very useful vending machine found outside a local pharmacy. Have you ever seen anything like this before? Everything a girl could want in an emergency!

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In a restaurant nearby, we came across a dessert made by French grandmothers across the country for their grandchildren. The recipe for Pain Perdue (Lost Bread) is simple but delicious – like French Toast but much, much better:

Soak bread in milk mixed with eggs and sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Lightly fry in butter. Sautée thinly sliced apples or pears and place on top. Embellish with anything you like – in our case vanilla ice cream drizzled with salted caramel sauce.

It’s now Tuesday (Day 15) and two weeks since we left Bath.  Time for a long cycle ride southwest to La Rochelle – at least it’s now roughly in the right direction and getting warmer!

Clare