Introduction


The anticipation of the ride had kept me awake on and off during the night and by 05:30 I was bouncing with enthusiasm, waking Blakey up with a shout and a kick. He’d been looking forward to the ride too; in fact it was his idea having been working at a ski resort all winter in the Alps. The season was coming to a close and he’d been offered a job back in Cornwall so cycling 1000km home was the logical choice compared to a £24.85 two hour flight. Naturally.



Geneva - Roscoff
139 miles, 14 mph average4 April 06Day 1
The Jura


By 7am we were climbing steadily out of Geneva, facing the mountainous Haut Jura with its snowy peaks glinting pink and amber in the rising sun. Within 10 miles we had unknowingly slipped out of Switzerland, into France, and were running parallel to the mountains on largely empty roads. The Jura are babies to the Alps with just a few peaks over 1500m, but the area is seldom visited by tourists and retains its rustic charm.

With fresh legs and spirits bolstered by ever changing views, we climbed with ease then flew down into the gorge of the Rhone where the river was shrouded in mist. A further 5km descent took us into Bellegarde where we crossed the river that would continue south to empty into Med near Marseilles. All that loss of altitude could only mean one thing, but the climb back up was gentle and picturesque. The road ran alongside the autoroute, which had swept away the bulk of the traffic, and monsieur Michelin had designated the next 50km as an ‘itinéraire vert’ being of outstanding natural beauty. Every breath seemed supercharged with oxygen as we powered our way along, chatting and bantering amicably. At various points the flat autoroute would either be deep in a valley below us or towering over our heads, suspended by miraculous engineering. Just before Nantua the autoroute disappeared altogether for several miles into a tunnel through les Monts d’Ain.

At Nantua we followed the still lake and prepared ourselves for the biggest climb of the trip. The Col du Berthiand stands at only 780m but the road scales it with the aid of just two hairpins – straight up at a relentless gradient that had me constantly looking for more gears and standing out of the saddle for 10km. So severe is the climb that it was included in the 18th stage of the 2002 Tour de France and as a special treat for the riders it will feature again in 2006. It’s a category 1 climb (the toughest) and for the riders in 2002 it came at the end of a day of gruelling climbs. Lance Armstrong had this to say about it, “Everyone has been talking about all the Alpine stages, but I think Friday’s stage is going to one of the trickiest”. Thor Hushovd won the stage with Lance 24th. Seeing his name painted across the road obviously didn’t help Jalabert any more than it helped me, as he limped in 124th. Blakey was crowned King of the Mountains even though he was obviously helped by riding a heavier bike than mine and carrying a 10-kilo backpack!

All that sweating and heaving had its rewards and shortly after the peak we took sight of the Gorges de l’Ain and hurtled down into the valley, at first the gradient indicated on the map as a double chevron then accelerating into a demon-death-drop triple chevie. I tucked down over the bars, pinned my knees to the crossbar and tried not to look up as the speedo flicked past 50mph. That’s over 80kph to the Frenchies. The road swept down to a bridge over the river and even though I had enough momentum to carry me halfway back up again I couldn’t resist the photo ... opportunities. Before I’d even pulled up to a stop Blakey sailed past me with a demonic grin on his face. The rot had set in. He wasn’t stopping.


The road rolled on. Gentle climbs now felt like mountains. I started finding excuses to stop. More photo opportunities. By Bourge en Bresse we were past the 100k mark and it was well past the time for a proper meal. There were no blue-footed chickens (for which the town is famous) on the menu so we settled for pasta to boost the carbo levels.

The next 30k were pretty unremarkable and we rode along unappreciative of the lack of gradient, taking turns to do the work at the front, into a slight but niggling headwind.

Crossing the Saone over the St Laurent bridge into Macon, we didn’t need to think too hard about another coffee break, and Blake simply lay down exhausted on the pavement, oblivious to the stares of passers by. There has been a bridge here since the 11th century, although with volume of traffic filtering over it now, I’m not sure how much longer it will stay.

The Saone (like the Ain, a tributary of the Rhone) was in full flood having wound its way down from the Ardennes near the source of the Mosel. In fact you could take a boat from the Med up the Rhone, into the Saone, cross a tiny spit of land into the Mosel and float downstream until it meets the Rhine to end up in the North Sea.

In Macon I took a quick diversion to see the cathedral. Ecclesiastical buildings are relatively rare in these parts as fourteen were destroyed in fervent anti-clericalism during the Revolution. In the town centre another form of revolution was underway. A mass demonstration against new labour laws had closed the thoroughfare to vehicular traffic…except bikes of course.

Here we were in the heart of the Maconnais Burgundy wine region. To our south Beaujolais and north the exceptional producers of the Cote d’Or; Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune. The vines were still cropped back for winter, but I guessed the majority would be pinot noir for the reds and maybe some chardonnay for the Chablis.

The road climbed away from the Bourgogne region into the granite hills north of the Massif Central. At the Col des Vaux we crossed the watershed from where any rain falling to the west would run into the Atlantic, leaving behind that to the south and east to flow to the Mediterranean. On the ascent I bonked. Hit the wall. Call it what you like, it’s not a pretty sight. You’ve used up all available calories, can’t see straight and will argue that black is white until your legs give way and you start to cry. I wobbled my way to the chateau at the bottom of the hill where Blake was waiting patiently. “Food”, I think was all I said. Two baguettes, a small cheese and a couple of tranches de jambon du pays, later and I was on my way again; bidons recharged with Lipton’s Iced Tea.

At Charolles we were deep in charolais beef country. We had met our 200km target and were longing for hot showers and to tuck into some of that meat and vin rouge. However a good tail wind had picked up and I wanted to press on another 10 miles. Blakey had already started eyeing up menu cards. There was nothing for it but to toss a coin. I won the toss, but it was a hollow victory. Up to here the main road – the only arterial link between Macon and Nevers – had been traced by cyclepaths and empty back lanes. Now there was nowhere to hide. The road was barely wide enough for two juggernauts to pass and when they did they paid scant regard to two cyclists struggling along in their paths. There seemed to be at least three of these pantechnicons to every car. Neither of us had ever ridden such an awful road, regularly being driven onto the gravel or grass verge.



Geneva - Roscoff
99 miles, 14 mph average5 April 06Day 2
The Borgogne


Paray-le-Monial is a very pleasant town, and a site of pilgrimage for those following St James’ Way to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. It lies just west of Cluny – once home to the most powerful monastic foundation in Europe. No one messed with William The Pious in the 10th Century.

Blake had done a splendid job of locating Le Grand Hotel de la Basilique overlooking the said Romanesque Basilica du Sacre-Coeur, where for 50 Euro one can book a most acceptable chambre aux deux lits. Local fare was gulped down with gusto, but I knew that the rot had moved from ankle deep up to the knees when Blake refused to partake in the delicious carafe of house red I’d ordered.

The rain beat down on the cobbled streets and ochre tiled rooftops all night. By 5.30 there seemed to be a lull, and as the forecast was for more rain later, I was insistent that we got going early. An immediate navigational error on my part took us down the dual carriageway in the dark. I knew that inside Blakey was cursing me, but he gallantly offered up the recompense that D-C’s were good for getting the miles in. Indeed the first ten had positively flown by as we braced ourselves against the icy buffeting each lorry gave us as it passed. We turned into Digion to gain our first sight of the Loire. Even this far inland it was a great swathe of broad water surging northwards. We were to follow it on the old main road now deserted in favour of the new N79 - flat straights at last. Immediately the heavens opened, so we stopped for some breakfast. Once the downpour eased we moved on into a biting headwind. We started counting out 5km marker posts each taking a turn in front, but this soon fell to 3k, each of us ever reluctant to take the lead. The rain stamped down, slamming the coarse tarmac, crushing our spirits. I could hear it crack against my gritted teeth like popcorn in a pan. We agreed on the next stop, but Diou yielded no bar-tabac. Three hairdressers but no café. The D15 punished us further until we crossed the archetypically French village square of Beaulion. The landlady had chocolat chaud aplenty but not a morsel to eat. The square was roughly triangular with the boulangerie adjacent to us; the charcouterie opposite. I dashed out, feeling like a messenger from the trenches dodging raindrops instead of bullets. Cleated cycling shoes sending my limbs splaying out in all directions like Bambi in lycra. I burst back into the café laden with quiche, croissant, bread and ham. Our impromptu picnic caused great amusement amongst the regulars, who shook our hands and introduced themselves with tremendous Gallic etiquette. They sipped their Kir and Cassis whilst we swigged our coffees and stuffed our faces. A curious scene but an entente cordiale nonetheless.


We pressed on. The wind and rain pressed in. At Decize we stuck to the river’s left bank past the F1 racetrack at Magny-Cours, occasionally parting company wordlessly. By the time we left the Loire at the somewhat froggie village of Grenouille we were ready for another break. The usual heated debate about stopping for the night ensued, but as the next two towns had nowhere to stay we had to settle on the military town of Avord 15km outside Bourges.

Bourges is known as the centre of France’s armaments industry – founded by Jaques Coeur in the middle ages. He was Charles VII’s foreign minister and quite the entrepreneur apparently. Imagine Richard Branson meets Jack Straw…or maybe not. Jaques’ family motto is “A vaillan coeur, rien impossible” (to the valiant heart nothing is impossible). Yeah, right.

The city’s St Etienne cathedral is the widest in France and bears a similarity to Paris’ Notre Dame. Famed for its 13th century stained glass depicting Joan of Arc (we were only 50 or so km south of Orleans), and more of St James’ ubiquitous cockle-shells.



Geneva - Roscoff
159 miles, 15 mph average6 April 06Day 3
The Loire Valley


The day started ominously. A tricky 1:1 descent left me with a bruised derriere. The cleaning lady hadn’t been expecting to see anyone up before 6 and had decided to mop the lino on the stairs. To add insult to injury the handlebars had become entangled in the balustrades pinning me to the ground helplessly flailing and having to be pulled from the wreckage by the ancient roly-poly woman. With no more than pride damaged we set off in the dark. My headlight illuminating a barn owl transfixed by its prey. Surely it could hear us coming? Perhaps not? We came closer and closer and just as I was about to swerve out into the road it took flight, its wing tips just brushing my front wheel. It felt like such a bad omen. Is there some terrible curse applied to those that mow down innocent owls?

This was the coldest morning yet – at least minus three – and by the time we passed through the town gates of Mehun sur Cher we both needed a hot drink and a chance to thaw out. Blake was not happy. He had a massive pack stuffed full of gear including essentials like soap and some poncey stuff called hair-gel – whatever that may be - but no proper winter riding gear. His hands and feet were frozen and he’d taken to riding with his hands tucked up in his armpits at any given opportunity. This was fine when he was behind me, but a little disconcerting whilst he was in the lead!

It took a full hour for our extremities to return to anything like comfort and even on leaving the town, past the ruined castle, it was still very cold. We were soon on the N76 running due west; it’s a main road but kept empty by the nearby autoroute. For the next 40 miles we worked as a team. Each taking the lead to fight the gentle headwind without too much dispute. Blake had picked up a baguette the night before and as we took turns to rest behind the leader, we could chew away on the dry crusts to keep the energy levels sated. The land rose and fell gently beside the equally gentle, dear even, river Cher rolling on to St Aignan . I say worked as a team but the element of competition was never far away. As each of us took to the lead to take our 10km stint, the pace seemed to quicken. I had a definite advantage over Blake in that my narrow hoops rolled far quicker than his on the flatter ground and I was carrying much less gear. He’d put slicks on his MTB wheels but they were still no substitute for the 100 psi Kevlar Continental GP 3000s with which I was shod. They could never be described as a touring tyre but what they lack in comfort they certainly make up for in speed.

We pulled over in St Aignan to take a full four course 9 Euro lunch by the river. A typical bargain that had to be cheaper than picking up bags of snacks in the supermarket. Blake was keen to go it alone after lunch and I sensed that he just wasn’t happy with my company. Well, actually he told it to me straight. Everybody loves me because I’m a wonderful person, so it must have been fatigue talking!

I decided to sit it out for half an hour to give my digestive system time to break down the feast. We agreed to rendezvous at Villandry where the Cher gently glugs its contents into the mighty Loire about 40 miles down the road.

Right, I thought, I’ll make the bugger wait! I cruised gently along taking both the quiet back roads and time for photos of chateaux Montrichard (which is now a hotel) and the famous Chenonceaux spanning the Cher. Spared in the Revolution by Madame Dupin, bombed by the Allies in WW2, it is now owned by the chocolatier Antoine Menier owner of the first mechanised chocolate factory – a latter day Willy Wonka if you please.

I forewent the opportunity to visit Tours’ centre even though it was once the French capital, and took the route through the urban decay and itinerant workers’ campsites of the southern suburbs instead. I dodged broken glass, psycho-taxis and local kids on mopeds, finally exiting onto the finger of land to the west of the city between the Cher and Loire. It was like riding through a curtain, suddenly emerging into a magical land – the sun twinkling on the water, and running along its banks - a cycle path that was destined to last for the next three hours of riding. It was warm too, and for the first time I was down to one layer. A feeling of smug guilt washed over me – look what Blakey had missed by taking the D7!


Outside the chateau at Villandry – the last of the great Renaissance chateaux to be built – there was no Blakey. I sent him a text assuming he’d got bored waiting and suggested we meet at the next chateau at Usse. The great chateaux of the Loire have gradually evolved from defensive roles with their towers, battlements, moats and gatehouses largely retained, but as firearms were introduced their role changed and they were decorated with dormer windows and galleries to show off the wealth of their owners.

We had now moved back into wine country, this time through the Touraine and approaching Anjou-Saumur. Along the limestone banks of the river, dark damp caves had been excavated, to be filled with the white wines of the muscadet, sauvignon and chenin blanc, whilst the gammay and cabernet grapes yielded their reds.

So the day was drawing on and still no word from Blake. Either his phone had broken, he had broken, or he was being just a bit recalcitrant. I decided (with great magnanimity and after a good deal of thought of course) to keep going. After all I was feeling fine, it was a lovely day, what could the problem be? He wanted to go it alone and that was fine by me. I paused in the sun next to the riverbank to send another message.

I skirted round the E.D.F nuclear power plant, crossed the Vienne and took in the view of the beautifully preserved, film set towns of Candes St Martin and Montsoreau. Bing-bong … a message from Blakey. He was still at Usse having been feeling ill and was going to stop at Montsoreau. I couldn’t believe it; I must have passed him whilst I meandered along the back roads. I’d been going slowly but steadily without any real stops since lunch and it was now gone six. A real case of hare and tortoise.

The expensive looking Hotel Bussy loomed into view on the cliff above the chateau and as there was little else in town I scaled the hill and secured a huge room with bath, shower, two massive beds, antique furniture and a separate lock up for the bikes. 60 Euro. Blake will be glad of the bath I thought. I gave myself a good soaking first, washed my clothes had a snack and a drink and felt quite human strolling round the town. Blake heaved-to at eight looking positively sub-human. We all have bad days and this one had been his nemesis. The last thing he wanted was to see me wandering round looking like a tourist. It was going to get worse. Much worse.

Only one restaurant was open. There were four in town but they had all closed in support of the demonstrations against the new labour laws. That left only the Michelin starred gourmet paradise. By now we were getting used to French prices for eating out so the most basic 30 Euro menu seemed exorbitant. There were a few locals in, dressed up to the nines, so we showed them how the Brits dine - unshaven, dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Oh dear!

The food was sublime. Langoustine tails, sushi, lamb cutlets in a divine sauce. Local goat’s cheese called chevres, mousse au chocolat. Mmm-mm. After our fourth basket of bread the maitre’d got over his snootiness and asked why we were so hungry. I gave him the full explication franglais of how far we’d ridden, how heroic we were and so on. He didn’t waive the bill as expected but the mood softened a little and we left all smiles.

Blake wasn’t looking too good. He’d developed a cough and was blowing his nose at 3-minute intervals. He’d had it. He’s a far fitter rider than me and I’ve seen him breeze 100-milers many a time. But three months off the bike, a rucksack the size of a caravan and now this cold were all too much. He was going back from here by train.



Geneva - Roscoff
112 miles, 13 mph average7 April 06Day 4
Pays De Loire


I mumbled and grumbled my way over the cobbles in the dark and headed north towards Saumur. It was still too dark for another fairytale chateau snapshot, so I caught the bridge at dawn. It was only 30 miles from Saumur to Angers, but it felt like 300. Everything hurt. I tried to find somewhere that didn’t hurt but there was nothing. My eyeballs were sore, my neck was stiff, my lips were split. Hands, feet, legs, backside – all agony of course. Now why were the backs of my arms aching? Why was it still so mind numbingly cold? Even though I’d barely done 15 miles it was no good. I needed a rest. I topped up with food, took an aspirin, found a sunny spot on the pavement and fell asleep for quarter of an hour. Quelle difference! I moved on into Angers over les Ponts de Ce, a sequence of five bridges linking islets across the Loire (a mile wide here) for the last time and headed towards Cande.

There were a few quiet moments off the main route but the rest of the stretch was arrow straight Roman road. Now this may be fine for your average boy chariot racer but it holds no joy for the cyclist. Part of the thrill is seeing what’s around the next bend, but when the road climbs up in front of you for miles and miles its just boring. Rolling hills fell away to either side, reminding me of Devon as I was on top of granite once more. Given time to think I started to notice a nasty grating noise coming from my rear hub. It was a carbon copy of the problem I’d had in Ireland and I knew that if I didn’t find a decent repair shop soon it could seize up altogether.

Cande was closed for lunch – yes the obligatory 2-hour session – but Chateaubriant was dazzling in the sunshine and had a bike shop that could replace the errant bearing whilst I took a break for half a loaf of bread.

Having diverted off course, I was now way behind schedule and was faced with a choice. I could stay on plan heading west to pick up the Nante-Brest canal cycle-path. Flat, traffic-free and gorgeous, but very time consuming. Or I could take my chances by hopping the train 40 miles to Rennes and feeling my way, without a map, back to Morlaix by memory, but at least be reasonably sure of making the Saturday afternoon ferry. I opted for the latter.

Without maps or guides, the road was dull as dishwater and I just plodded on mile after mile. St Brieuc offered some interest as I found the cycle-lane on the flyover by fluke and caught my first glimpse of the English Channel. As easily as I’d found the cycle-route, I lost it again and after half an hour’s fruitless circling I gave up and headed for a back road running roughly parallel to the autoroute. Sure enough that too started to deviate into nowhere but it did lead me to a roadside hotel. I knew it was a hotel as it had ‘Hotel’ painted in 6-foot high letters down the side. Not ideal I thought but it was getting late and anywhere would suffice. My request for une chambre pour ce soir was met with great amusement from both staff and drinkers at the bar alike. Must be the shorts I thought, or maybe in my pigeon French I had implied that I only wanted it for the evening and not all night? Nope it wasn’t that. It was no longer a hotel. Since the autoroute went in there had been no call from passing travellers so they were just serving drinks nowadays. I enquired about the nearest hotel and they all agreed I should go back to St Brieuc. They obviously don’t understand cyclists. You NEVER go back.


There was no way of knowing where this road led and I didn’t fancy taking my chances on the dual carriageway at night, although I did know there was a small town about ten miles away. I struck upon a brainwave. I could ride up the hard shoulder into the face of the on-coming traffic. Brilliant! The motorway would flatten out the hills and I’d be tucked up in bed in no time. Or not.

I found the town alright, cruised another mile downhill into the centre but no hotel. It didn’t make sense, Chatelaudren was a fair size; it had banks, cafes, shops. Everything except a hotel it seemed. I asked a few passers by, but they knew of nothing, so I dragged myself back up the hill not knowing quite what to do. At the top I passed what appeared to be a huge car park full of trucks. In the centre of the vehicles, flashing like a beacon to guide me home was a large green neon ‘H’. The truck stop was a Godsend. I staggered in and asked if they had rooms – they did - 30 Euro including dinner, but I’d have to be quick. The receptionist beat me back to my room and explained that by quick she meant now, so I stashed the bike and entered the lion’s den. Tables were set for thirty or so but just eight men sat eyeing me as I made my entrance. This was a real man’s world and they weren’t about to have some skinny nancy-boy in leggings spoil their dinner. I hit the starter buffet and loaded up my plate with the untouched salads, but I could see this was a mistake. The drivers sneered down their big French nez’s at me, talking to each other in tones so gruff and deep, that each became a caricature of themselves. Some wore vests, some berets. The ring-leaders wore both. But all was not lost. I made my order for dinner and in a slightly louder than necessary voice asked for une grande portion, avec pommes frites aussi. A few grunts rang out. The meal arrived; plate like a tray overflowing with lasagne; chips spilling onto the table. I polished off the gargantuan repast in no time and as the waitress passed I played my trump card – encore une portion s’il vous plait. They weren’t ready for that one, but I was. I had easily burnt three times the calories a lesser mortal would use in a day! As I waited for the extra helping I read the notice board. It appeared that during the meal you were invited to help yourself to wine, cider, pop or water and you could indulge yourself as you pleased. The thought of a drinking contest flashed across my mind, but I’d be doing battle with these guys on the roads in the morning so maybe not. Not that I was afraid myself of course...

The next plateful came and went with consummate ease, as did the cheese board and the desert and the rest of the breadbasket. I looked about to see nods of approval. I was in. A fully paid-up member of one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in the world. I bade bonne nuit to my new friends and retired to Stalag No. 11, wedged neatly between two metal silos. Grrr...see how tough I am!



Geneva - Roscoff
76 miles, 9 mph average8 April 06Day 5
Bretagne


No need to get up early I thought. Have a lie-in old chum. Wait until first light. At least it won’t be so cold. This should have been an easy day. I had a good idea of where I was; Morlaix was only 66 kliks west now, and then a gentle run down by the estuary to the ferry. Whoomph, it hit me as soon as I was in the saddle. A merciless headwind had struck up overnight and it was only going to get worse as I climbed up into the Mont’s d’Arree; a wild, barren moorland area.

My average speed plummeted to little more than a slow jog, but if I was going to make the mid afternoon ferry I’d have to keep moving. A brief respite came as I cruised down into the valley of Belle Isle en Terre and even the climb up was a relief as it was out of the maddening gale. The powerful tones of Carmina Burana wailed through the headphones and I cranked it up to full volume to drown out the whistling wind in my ears. I gave it the full Orff on the pedals too, as the last 10k to Morlaix would be downhill and then I could relax knowing it wouldn’t take more than 2 hours sedate riding to Roscoff. The D712 was another Roman road. Devoid of traffic not devoid of scenery, but so tedious as you feel you’re just not making any progress. Well I wasn’t, not below 10 mph anyway.


By midday I’d made it to Morlaix and relaxed over a coffee and a sandwich. I hadn’t intended to save the best ‘til last, but it truly came as a real treat. The road follows the estuary with great views, few cars but a bike lane just in case. I bowled along past the millionaire’s mansions, watching the herons fishing. The final miles span out with ease, so during a rain shower, I dodged into a bus shelter to eat the remains of some Swiss chocolate I’d carried all this way, proving you can get too much of a good thing. The hostel in Geneva had been selling it by the kilo and even though we had the true cyclist’s weight saving obsession, we fell for it. I woke up with a start, it had stopped raining but how long had I been asleep? I’d no idea. I leapt on the bike rummaging in my pockets for my phone as I pedalled. Pushing pedals and buttons with equal vigour. I’d turned it off to save the last wisp of battery life for an emergency. Now this was it. I was almost at the top of the next hill by the time I’d dialled the right PIN, ripping my thick gloves off and holding them in my teeth to get to grips with the tiny keys. It was 2pm, I was saved and turning into St Pol De Leon the whole Bay of Morlaix swept out in front of me with the channel ferry standing tall in her docks.

Blakey was there in the dock too. A happier, healthier Blakey he was as well, having made the sensible decision to get out whilst the going was good. I’m still cursing myself for missing the best part of Brittany, and the Nantes-Brest canal path will have to wait to be included in a south – north traverse of France one summer.



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