As we cycled out one Autumnal morning

All the advice told us to take it easy the first day. So we decided to cycle 76km (47m) with 800m of hill climbing, riding with heavy panniers for the first time!

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step (pedal turn). 
Lao Tzu

We were late leaving of course. The planned time was 10am, allowing for a relaxed coffee stop in Frome. The actual time was 12.30, which meant a quick sandwich stop instead. Packing, clearing up, faffing, locking up, checking, faffing, hovering, arguing, rechecking. It will be a familiar pre-holiday ritual to our children.

But the sense of freedom as we cycled down the familiar country lanes on a misty early Autumn afternoon was worth it. A rare moment much dreamed of that lived up to it’s promise.

We were able to stay on the pathways and quiet country roads of the Sustrans National Cycle Route 24 all day and for the most part it was well signposted and well maintained. First, it took us to Radstock and down the Colliers Way to Frome. This follows the path of the old Somersetshire Coal Canal, then railway, now a gentle, leafy track.

After lunch in Frome, the route took us through the centre of Longleat Safari Park where we enjoyed the solitude and unusual deep roars of lions mixed with the more familiar sound of sheep. For the final 25km we cruised down the Wylye Valley, gently descending with the river to the welcome sight of our inn on the edge of Salisbury, arriving just before dark.

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Longleat House

3 things we learnt today:

  1. Chamois cream is surprisingly tingly.
  2. It’s difficult to take a picture while balancing a fully loaded bike.
  3. Cycle at dusk near a river with your mouth open and you swallow a lot of flies.

 

Finally, we have a question…

Clare is carrying 14kg, Andy 15kg. But Andy weighs 95kg and Clare only weighs 55kg. Should Andy take more weight?

 

Rough Route

Here’s our rough route:

Stage 1: Bath to Portsmouth

route-1

Stage 2: St. Malo to Angers on the Loire river

Stage3: Up the Loire to Amboise (or whenever we get bored of Chateaus)

Stage 4: Amboise to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast

Stage 5: Down the coast to Bordeaux

Stage 6: Through the wine country to Toulouse

Stage 7: Down to Carcassonne, then over the Pyrenees to Barcelona

route-2

Simples!

 

Getting Ready

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realise fishing is stupid and boring.”
Desmond Tutu

We are not real cyclists. We’ve managed just two weekend cycling trips in the last two years to get ready for this trip. Both were memorable, around the Isle of Wight (75m/120km) and a return trip to Cheddar (70m/112km) which included a spectacular ride up the Cheddar Gorge. We packed lightly both times. So lightly in fact that Andy forgot to include any trousers on the Cheddar trip and had to sneak into the restaurant in his new padded cycling shorts. From both weekend trips we returned utterly exhausted.

We’ve managed just one cycling ‘Sportive’ (63m/101km). These are excellent and increasingly popular mass riding events, full of impressively fit looking MAMILs (middle-aged-men-in-lycra). But we decided they weren’t for us as we trudged in well behind the pack in the evening gloom.  And we’re not that keen on lycra anyway!

We’ve not yet tried cycling with full panniers. We’ve not yet had to fix a puncture by the roadside. We’ve not yet cycled out of reach of a coffee shop.

We have been on lots of 20-30 mile bike rides over the last two years and feel very fortunate to live in Bath where there are many beautiful cycle tracks in the surrounding countryside. It’s also quite hilly so we are used to going up modest gradients. Feeling we should get better prepared last weekend, we packed some heavy books (A Complete Guide to Family Health, Art of the 20th Century, The Gardeners Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers etc.) into our panniers and set off. The hills felt a lot harder.

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Practising with heavy books instead of luggage

We have also got used to much of our gear. The trickiest things to get used to were the cleated shoes. For a cyclist there is nothing more alarming than the split second of realisation that with cleats firmly stuck in the pedals, there is now nothing you can do to avoid toppling over sideways. Apart from swear loudly! Andy learnt this lesson within 500m of our house, when he first tried cleating in. Coming to a busy junction he forgot all about his feet being stuck to the pedals and toppled over taking Clare down with him. As we untangled arms, wheels, legs and handlebars the window of the nearest 4×4 slid down and a female voice shouted to Clare that “you’ve got a right one there, haven’t you love!”

We learnt a similar lesson when climbing steeper hills – never change gear on the front derailleur or you instantly grind to a halt with painful consequences. After kissing the tarmac several times Clare now only clips on one side on any hill. This causes our real cycling friends to cry out in horror at the waste of uphill climbing power.

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Tuning the gears on the back of the car

We attended an excellent bike maintenance course at Bristol Bike Project, a local charity that provide bikes to people who can’t otherwise afford them. We learnt to replace tyres, inner tubes, chain links, cables and to tune our gears and set our brakes correctly. It was brilliant!

This recently came to good use when we took our bikes into the local bike shop for a service. On a ride that same evening they purred like a finely tuned sports car.  We absolutely whizzed along. Until that is we got lost, took a narrow bumpy path and had to haul the bikes over a barbed wire fence. We all survived but the gears were completely out of sync again.

Rather than offload another 50 quid we decided to give it a go ourselves and spent two hours working on the gears the next day. After the first hour  we were ready to give up and head back to the shop as the chains crunched and jumped around. Then something clicked and the bikes started to purr and hum again. All the more satisfying for doing it ourselves – we’ll see whether our maintenance skills are up to scratch all the way to Barcelona?

Shopping for some nice new gear, here are some of the things we’ve bought or been given:

  • Some padded lycra cycling gear – yes we’ve succumbed
  • Lightweight travel towels made of polyester and nylon
  • Bright yellow helmets – so car drivers can see us
  • Chamois cream – to protect our groin and buttock areas
  • Lube – for the bikes
  • Spare spokes, brakepads and inner tubes
  • Super strong Gorilla tape – the guy in the bike shop assured us this will sort any problem

 

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No danger of missing Eastenders

Andy’s friend, Digital Dave, is responsible for many of the better bits of kit. Dave is a font of all knowledge – bikes, apps, outdoor stuff etc. etc. We have a Quad Lock fitting system to put our phones right where we want them on our handlebars, View Ranger mapping software and Andy has a (rather expensive) special moisture wicking cycling shirt.

That just leaves the one luxury item we’re each allowing ourselves. Clare’s taking a hairdryer to get rid of the dreaded ‘helmet hair’ look. Andy’s contemplating a pillow, having had bad nights with the hard cylindrical rolls favoured by cheaper French hotels.

We’ll let you know if it makes the cut.

Clare and Andy