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

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