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

Searching for Safety Pins

“Ah oui, it’s very difficult to find epinglenourrice in France!” said the helpful owner of the launderette where we were gratefully washing our smelly cycling clothes. You’re not kidding! We’d already been to four shops (2 chemists, a haberdashery and a small supermarket) all with no luck. The elusive item we were seeking? Nothing more than safety pins.

So it became a quest.

He directed us first to another haberdashery (too arty) then to Galeries Lafayette (too posh) before we traipsed to the edge of town and found them in a much bigger supermarket. Seven shops, over an hour later but we had eventually triumphed!

Everything is difficult to find in rural France on Sundays and Mondays. Shops (except for fresh bread of course), restaurants, hotels – tout est ferme. It transpires that the 35 hour working week is to blame. Restaurants keep their doors firmly shut instead of paying overtime rates or hiring extra workers. As Monday is the quietest day, all the restaurants in town are closed on Monday.

It was a little eerie. The villages we cycled through were picture perfect and beautifully cared for. Lovely old churches and squares, flowers adding colour and freshness to public spaces but usually empty and silent. In some places we didn’t see a single soul, in others just a lone dog walker.

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Bill (or Ben), one of the few occupants of a rural French village

We arrived in Angers on Tuesday (Day 8) gaping at busy streets, open shops and restaurants filled with young people. Like two country bumpkins overwhelmed by a first visit to the big city.

It was hard to find a hotel in Angers.

This is not because there are a lot of tourists. On the contrary, many businesses have seen visitor numbers decline by 30% since the Paris attacks (in Paris itself some hotels are 70% down). In Angers, there’s also a local impact as recent tourist developments up river mean less people are coming this far west.

It’s shame as Angers has much to offer, including a wonderful 13th century castle that has not been sacked in some ancient war so still retains its internal buildings. One of these houses the 100m long Apocalypse Tapestry, completed in 1382, showing scenes from the Book of Revelation. We were most struck by the seven headed beast of the sea meeting with the seven headed dragon.

Angers is a young city full of the next generation of French doctors, business leaders and administrators. As well as some of the best universities in the West of France, there is also a large fonctionnaire (civil servant) teaching centre filling hotel rooms from Monday to Thursday. We were lucky to get a cancellation – visit at the weekend or in July/August when there’s plenty of space.

We thought we had made it to the end of Stage 2 and the Loire but our celebrations were cut short when we realised this river in Angers is only a tributary, the Maine. The Loire was slow to reveal itself on Wednesday (Day 9), emerging as a wide lazy river, meandering gently through open countryside and nature reserves. We did the same, dawdling along in the late afternoon heat until we realised the only hotel we could find was another 20km up river.

Knowing that the chef would clock off promptly at 9pm, we sped up for a sustained burst of pace (25km/hour) that almost made us feel like real cyclists. It was glorious, only marginally spoiled by a bigger river tempting out a lot more flies for their early evening swarm. It was a bit like cycling through a hail storm.

So why did we need the epingle a nourrice? Well, Andy has yet to find some cycling shorts that meet his exacting standards so he is still wearing his old favourites with a broken zip, held up by gorilla tape and safety pins. They are essential spare parts!

We are now in Saumur where there are reputed to be more than 200km of tunnels stocked with wine. What will be doing for the next few days?

Clare and Andy

Provisions and Pedalling

I’ve been asked for a female perspective on our cycling adventure so here are some of my feelings and reflections after Week 1!

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Take half the clothes and twice the money.” 
Susan Heller

The biggest problem for a woman is what to take. Having deliberated for several months I eventually narrowed it down to the bare minimum plus some last minute can’t-go-withouts. As well as my luxury item, a hairdryer (weighing only 0.33kg!) other essentials included my favourite face and body moisturiser, facewipes, travel size shampoo and conditioner (Andy’s not allowed to use the conditioner) and perfume, which I managed to decant into a super light diffuser.

Shoes were the biggest problem. Knowing I could only take 3 pairs including cycling shoes I dreamt about this choice often. Which ones to leave out? I ended up with one pair of walking sandals (not attractive) and a pair of my favourite Desiguals.

A travel handbag got ditched on day 3 together with a few extra items that I’d squeezed in without Andy noticing. I’ve now pretty much worn or used everything with the exception of a travel pillow and towel. It’s quite liberating wearing the same few clothes everyday until you need to wash them. Thanks to Nicola H, we’ve used the towel wringing method several times to dry clothes quickly – and it works.

Yesterday’s food is today’s fuel! 
Ian S

Provisions are a big part of my daily thoughts.  After two days surviving on Wiggle bars and odd snacks I hit the bong and I realised that we must eat properly. This means that I have to make Andy stop to buy lunch provisions before midday. In France all shops close between 12 and 2 daily and on Sunday’s and Monday’s NO shops are open at all, except for boulangeries. At this time of year the towns and villages of rural France don’t even have a cafe open. For the last two evenings we’ve cycled out to find our supper, only to find everything closed. All we could find was a takeaway pizza place on both occasions.  Can’t wait to eat a decent salad!

Breakfast is usually excellent – croissants taste so much better in France and the coffee is delicious too. We experienced a true farmhouse breakfast yesterday in Britany –  milk from the cows, apples from the orchard, homemade bread, jams and honey. Drinking coffee out of bowls reminded me of staying with old French families.

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As for the cycling – my legs have felt the burn and my buttocks the ache at the end of each day. My 2 pilates balls have been a great relief on the glutes. Andy thinks these are a second luxury item but I’ve now convinced him they are a necessity.

Most of the time I’m really enjoying the cycling, keeping apace with Andy, but 50 miles is definitely my limit for one day. While he’s perfecting the use of ViewRanger (our digital mapping app) I’m still trying to get to grips with it. I’m not yet convinced by it, as it doesn’t show road numbers or place names that well, which I find very confusing. I still wish I had paper maps.

Some of my highlights have been cycling past Longleat House, Montisfort Abbey, Le Mont St Michel and of course, cycling off the ferry for our first coffee & croissants in St Malo. The views along the coast from St Malo to Cancale, arriving exhausted in St Brice en Cogles after a 60 mile cycling day, seeing sunflowers for the first time, staying in lovely simple guesthouses, French churches in every village and the feeling of freedom on the open road.

Lowlights have been hitting the bong twice, mending three punctures, falling off while clipped in on a gravel path, breaking my cycling shoes, repacking every day, eating takeaway pizza two nights running and Andy’s dreadful detours!

A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. 
John Steinbeck

Suffice to say, we are still happily married and looking forward to pedalling on.

Clare

 

Downhill all the way

“At least it’s mainly downhill!” was the most common reaction from our friends when they heard of our plans to cycle from Bath to Barcelona. And today it felt like it as we cruised through the rolling countryside of southern Brittany. Of course it doesn’t quite work like that, what goes down has to go up but the ascents were so gentle we barely noticed them.

Sunday (Day 6) was meant to be dull – a connection towards the Loire river – but for 61km (38 miles) it was so much more than that. A day of simple pleasures, blue sky with puffy white clouds, peaceful villages, a simple lakeside lunch. To misquote Wild Thing as made famous by the Troggs …

It made our hearts sing. It made everything … groovy!

imageToday we tried a new and better way of navigating. We stuck an “as the crow flies” line into ViewRanger in the rough direction we wanted to go (the straight blue one) and then cycled down a maze of country roads never deviating too far from the planned course. The black line shows where we actually went.

It worked!  Just as well as yesterday (Day 5) we nearly broke both the 100km barrier and ourselves cycling from St Malo to St Brice-en-Cogles. Many thanks to Digital Dave (who is following us on Strava) for sending us a ‘Chapeau!’ – the hard-earned traditional French congratulations for an exceptional ride. We don’t actually think we deserve it until we ride over that magical 100km mark. This was a mere 97.7km day (60 miles)!

Day 5 wasn’t meant to be so long but included what are known in our family as ‘Dad’s Dreadful Detours’. First, coming out of St. Malo, we missed the cycle track and found ourselves heading North East, thereby increasing the distance to Barcelona. Even though the beach views were spectacular, this felt slightly mad.

Second we took a significant detour into strong headwinds to gaze across at Le Mont St Michel but more importantly to ride across the same bit of sainted earth that saw the 2016 Tour de France Grand Depart.

Third, right at the end of the day, a wrong turn took us down a narrowing and rutted track through a woodland glade then up a steep hill to nowhere. At this point Clare had a mini ‘bong’, a cycling term for running out of steam, hitting the wall. I will leave you to imagine what she said. Suffice to say it included a surprisingly wide range of Anglo Saxon that would take too many *****’s to describe.

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The Tour de Clare and Andy is now properly underway in France after our prologue in England. Unlike the real tour we needed a rest day to recover from the prologue and an excuse to stop in St Malo on Friday (Day 4). It’s a wonderful walled town but it was slightly marred for us by yet another flat tyre.  Clare’s back wheel flat again! This time we sprang into action as a team and took a mere 16 minutes, 37 seconds to mend it.

Clare and Andy 1, Bike Shops Boys 0

In the 18th century, the mayor of St Malo kept 24 dogs that were starved during the day then let out at night to chase after cavorters and drunkards. We’re pleased to report that they have not survived to chase after errant cyclists.

We’ll end this post with some other favourite reactions to being told about our proposed cycling trip:

“I’d rather go on a Lambretta!” – Andy’s dad, Garry

“You must be getting the ferry to Santander?” – surprised young man in a Bristol bike shop

But best of all from our son, Chris:

“Number 1, please come back alive.  Number 2, please come back married!”

After Saturday’s detours, we’re not sure we can guarantee the latter?

Clare and Andy

A Tale of Three Ferries (and two punctures)

This was the moment Clare had been dreaming of – coffee and croissants in Saint-Malo as a reward for completing Stage 1, Bath to Portsmouth – and I’m very relieved to say that it didn’t disappoint.

He who would travel happily must travel light. 
Antonine de St Exupery

We had an inauspicious start on Wednesday (Day 2) with our first puncture. Not from a sharp stone or nail as we raced along the byways but from some over vigorous pumping in the hotel car park. No matter. As it was on the tricky back wheel of Clare’s bike, it gave Andy a chance to impress her with his manly bike maintenance skills. Takes ten seconds on the Tour de France. An hour and a half later we were ready to go.

Unfortunately he then destroyed all the brownie points he’d built up by getting us lost before we left Salisbury. Apparently dotted lines on the ViewRanger map do not mean cycling short cuts but indicate narrow footpaths only suitable for walkers and small dogs. In this case it disappeared into nothingness and left us well and truly on the wrong side of the river.

As you can see from our Strava trail we ended up back in Salisbury an hour later, which meant another missed coffee stop. NOT good.

Once we did get going, we bowled along through the Wiltshire countryside and into Hampshire at record speed (about 22kph). This meant we got to our good friend Mandy’s house on time and enjoyed a lovely evening with her, Ian and Nicola who had recently cycled up Mont Ventoux (BIG respect!!).

Thursday (Day 3) was relatively easy although we did get caught in our first sharp downpour and discovered that things do not work as well on bikes when they’re wet – bells lose their ding, people (the same) but most importantly brakes.

The coastal route involved three ferries. First (and best) was the pink Hamble-Warsash ferry, a route that has been operated for 364 days a year for over 800 years. The Bishop of Winchester originally owned it just to transport his horse up the coast. Now it’s for walkers and cyclists, with Boxing Day one of the most popular days of the year. Then we took the very efficient Gosport-Portsmouth commuter ferry and finally our P&O Portsmouth to Saint-Malo night crossing.

Unfortunately Clare’s bike developed a slow puncture on the way. Having already proved his manhood (or perhaps not, as it was the same wheel), Andy thought it best to let the bikeshop boys handle it this time. Ok, so it only took them 20 minutes but did they properly check the brake alignment? Here’s some pictures of the two contrasting experiences:

Thanks for all your helpful comments about the weight distribution. We’ve reduced and redistributed so Andy now has 16kg and Clare 12kg. It feels about right though we haven’t tested it on a really big hill yet. Here’s what we took out:

Joint

  • 2 bungees
  • 2 knives & 2 forks
  • 1 Tupperware box

Andy

  • 1 cycling shirt
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair socks
  • 2nd pair of sunglasses, no Raybans 😦

Clare

  • 1 cycling shirt
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 vest
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 2nd electrical adaptor
  • 1 toothbrush holder
  • 1 travel handbag
  • The nozzle to the hairdryer
  • A paper roadmap of France (yes, really!)

We’re pleased to report that both designated luxury items, Clare’s hairdryer and Andy’s pillow, have survived the cull.

Clare and Andy