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. Hed 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 hed
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
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
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
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
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. Its 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 Fridays stage is going to one of the trickiest.
Thor Hushovd won the stage with Lance 24th. Seeing his name painted
across the road obviously didnt 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 lAin 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. Thats 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 couldnt
resist the photo
Before Id even pulled up to a stop Blakey sailed past me with
a demonic grin on his face. The rot had set in. He wasnt 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 didnt 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, Im 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 dOr; 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, its not a pretty sight. Youve
used up all available calories, cant 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 Liptons 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
|Geneva - Roscoff
99 miles, 14 mph average5
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 Id 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-Cs 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
We pressed on. The wind and rain pressed in. At Decize we stuck
to the rivers 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 Frances armaments industry
founded by Jaques Coeur in the middle ages. He was Charles
VIIs 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 citys 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
The Loire Valley
The day started ominously. A tricky 1:1 descent left me with a bruised
derriere. The cleaning lady hadnt 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 hed 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;
its 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. Hed 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 wasnt happy with my
company. Well, actually he told it to me straight. Everybody loves
me because Im a wonderful person, so it must have been fatigue
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, Ill make the bugger wait! I cruised gently
along taking both the quiet back roads and time for photos of chateaux
(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
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 hed 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
St Martin and Montsoreau.
a message from Blakey. He was still at Usse having
been feeling ill and was going to stop at Montsoreau. I couldnt
believe it; I must have passed him whilst I meandered along the
back roads. Id been going slowly but steadily without any
real stops since lunch and it was now gone six. A real case of hare
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 goats cheese called chevres, mousse
au chocolat. Mmm-mm. After our fourth basket of bread the maitred
got over his snootiness and asked why we were so hungry. I gave
him the full explication franglais of how far wed ridden,
how heroic we were and so on. He didnt waive the bill as expected
but the mood softened a little and we left all smiles.
Blake wasnt looking too good. Hed developed a cough
and was blowing his nose at 3-minute intervals. Hed had it.
Hes a far fitter rider than me and Ive 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
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 didnt 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 Id 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
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 whats 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 Id had in
Ireland and I knew that if I didnt find a decent repair shop
soon it could seize up altogether.
Cande was closed for lunch yes the obligatory 2-hour session
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 Id found the cycle-route,
I lost it again and after half an hours 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
wasnt 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
dont understand cyclists. You NEVER go back.
There was no way of knowing where this road led and I didnt
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 Id 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 didnt 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 Id 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 lions
den. Tables were set for thirty or so but just eight men sat eyeing
me as I made my entrance. This was a real mans world and they
werent 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 nezs 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
sil vous plait. They werent 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 Id be doing battle with these guys on
the roads in the morning so maybe not. Not that I was afraid myself
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 gentlemens 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
No need to get up early I thought. Have a lie-in old chum. Wait
until first light. At least it wont 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 Monts dArree;
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 Id have to keep
moving. A brief respite came as I cruised down into the valley of
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 wouldnt 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 youre just not making any progress. Well I wasnt,
not below 10 mph anyway.
By midday Id made it to Morlaix and relaxed over a coffee
and a sandwich. I hadnt 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 millionaires 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 Id 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 cyclists weight
saving obsession, we fell for it. I woke up with a start, it had
stopped raining but how long had I been asleep? Id no idea.
I leapt on the bike rummaging in my pockets for my phone as I pedalled.
Pushing pedals and buttons with equal vigour. Id 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
Id 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. Im 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