Introduction


Instead of my usual solo effort, this ride was planned with two good friends, Vin and Stu who each had challenges of their own to meet. Stuart had returned to cycling this year after a long break and was eager to test himself with a number of century rides, whilst Vin was to use the ride as a practice run for a solo global circumnavigation he plans to start in February 2010. His ultimate goal is to make the 18,000 mile trip at an average of 100 miles per day a feat which, if this pace could be maintained, will set a new world record. We'll be able to keep up with him here: www.greatbikeride.com










France
84 miles, 14 mph average23 June 09Day 1
Biarritz and the Cote D'Argent


For more than 100 miles the Atlantic waves pound the one continuous beach of sifting silver sands that makes up the coast of Aquitaine. To stabilise the dunes and marshes, the forests of Les Landes were planted with pine, cork oak and broom and in more recent years a bike path has been laid along the whole coast. And what a bike path it is! Once we'd found it that it is, as it's poorly signposted and most of the locals didn't even seem to know of its existence.

With our backs to the Pyrenees we pushed into a persistent headwind as the track varied between smooth tarmac, concrete, grit, sand and gravel, but we were heading due north and making up for time lost earlier in the day. The miles flew by as we soaked up the scenery and savoured the sea views - this was cycling at its very best; flat, beauti-ful and traffic free. The trip wasn't to be a race but an endurance cha-llenge as we'd need to average 100 miles per day if we were to make the Sunday night ferry home, so as the evening approached we started looking for places to stay.

Another 20 hot and sweaty miles had passed before we finally found somewhere with available rooms, so it was a hurried shower and back on the bikes in search of food and to catch a glimpse of the sun slipping into the Atlantic.






France
141 miles, 13 mph average24 June 09Day 2
The Gironde


To get as many miles as possible in before the heat of the day we resolved to get moving at 5am. Stu and I were travelling light but Vin had to make two trips from his room with his luggage as he was loaded up with the same gear as he'd be taking around the world. But the smallest of items mislaid can often spell disaster and in this case it was his room key, accidentally locked inside his room with his panniers. The landlady couldn't be roused before six so he decided to stay on and catch us up later in the day. He is by far the fastest rider but an hour or so head start could take all day to recoup, but he knew the route, so we said our goodbyes in the dark. Three hours later he'd caught us! Riding 50% faster requires 100% more effort and he was loaded with four times the luggage - Stuart and I looked at each other with incredulity as we'd hardly been slacking. If Vin could cruise at this speed, you wouldn't bet against him holding the round the world record in his hands next year.

The Dune du Pilat is the highest in Europe, so to give our aching legs something else to complain about we set about scaling it. I was probably the most vociferous in my protests but Stu reminded me it wasn't all about the bike ride and that we did have some time in hand. The pain in the calves was worth it, as the views back over the pine forests and ocean were simply stunning.

South west of Bordeaux lies the Bassin d'Arcachon famed for its oyster beds and seafood restaurants, so to avoid riding all the way round it we strapped our bikes somewhat precariously to the top of a passenger ferry to cross to the millionaire's playground of Cap Ferret, and (poor peasant cyclists that we are) caught up on some cake eating duties that would have made Marie-Antoinette proud.

We were too far west to visit the great vineyards of Bordeaux but just touched on the fringes of Pauillac - the most famous of the Medoc region on the southern banks of the Gironde (the estuary of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers). I thought the boys would appreciate a tour of the region but my map reading errors were spotted after we'd taken a full 10 mile circle out of our way, and it didn't help that the bike path had deteriorated into forest single track that would have been a hoot on a full-suspension mountain bike but slowed our fragile road bikes right down.

The occasional fox crossed our path and more jays than I had ever seen before flitted through the brush. Along one deserted stretch of trail we came across an elderly lady in an electric wheelchair. She was miles from anywhere and it was baking hot, so we thought that she had perhaps broken down and was in dire need of help. In fact she had just parked up to enjoy the silence of the forest broken only by the bird song, and didn't really need three grotty looking bikers breaking up the peace and quiet. It was great to see that her advanced years and immobility were not stopping her from enjoying this wonderful nature sanctuary just as much as we were.

Just before Hourtin-Plage we made the 100-mile mark and Vin and I tried to persuade Stuart that on achieving his first century it was customary to partake in a ceremony that involved riding the next mile naked. The track was completely empty so he was lucky to have made the milestone out here instead of a town centre. He was having none of it though so we settled for a picnic of sardines and olives to lighten Vin's load instead.

There's a car ferry that crosses the Gironde but reports from locals about the last crossing of the day were conflicting so there was nothing for it but to ride to the port to find out. Stuart had found a charming restaurant on the seafront and wanted to stay put, but I was anxious to find out about the ferry as a delayed start in the morning might put us irretrievably behind schedule. It was a fabulous ten-miler out over the dunes in the cool of the evening but only to find no ferry and worse still no lodgings for the night - we were going to have to ride all the way back to the place Stuart had suggested in the first place and I was going to be eating humble pie for supper.



France
108 miles, 13 mph average25 June 09Day 3
Poitou-Charentes


The first ferry didn't dock in Royan until well after 8am so we settled into a rhythm, and let Vin do the majority of the work at the head of our mini peloton. Well, it only seemed fair as he needed the training. We enjoyed the privilege of last of our car-free route for a while skirting the edge of the wooded Coubre peninsula, past the lighthouse south of the Isle D'Oleron and took the bridge into Marennes. We had all grown fed up with pastries for breakfast so something more substantial was required and I'd been telling Vin about a marvellous roadside place I knew of called 'Les Arcs D'Or' where the service is rapid and they sell the most delicious meat patties served with salad and the lightest bread gently toasted. Stuart saw through the ruse straightaway but it took Vin a few moments to realise why we were heading to the golden arches of McDonald's for a ride-through burger! We were about to get underway, when a giant baby tried to steal my bike.

The calorie-fest hit the spot and we ploughed on over flat land threaded with canals, and through the fortress town of Brouage that was built in the 15th century as a sea front defence to protect the valuable salt marshes. The land has claimed back the shore now and today it stands some three miles inland.

We needed to cross the Charente south of Rochefort, so instead of taking the motorway bridge we scored a real treat by taking the 109 year old transporter bridge, that still runs as smoothly and silently as it did when it was new.

The headwind that blasted across the flat marshes of the Marias Poitevin hit us full in the face and our speed dropped to a crawl as we tried to navigate our way to La Rochelle on the back lanes that wound by the canals. It was baking hot but all of the seaside resorts had handy showers that we dived into in various states of undress.

La Rochelle is the biggest yachting centre on the Atlantic coast, and we had timed our visit to coincide with the film festival so the place was jam-packed with luvvies. After so many miles in our own company on empty lanes passing sleepy villages, we all found the heaving mass of humanity a little oppressive and were glad to be heading out of town even in the rush hour traffic. Leaving large towns by bike is always tricky as signposts are naturally geared at motorists and aimed at funnelling the traffic out onto the highways. We'd been spoiled by the cycle routes further south and now had to do battle with the cars and lorries as well as fatigue and the ever rising temperature. Finally we spotted a cycle path that might lead us out of town and two young girls gave us the most accurate directions we'd had all week. They also pointed out to Vin that the cherry tree he was climbing was in the garden of a man who owned a large and ferocious dog. He came down smartish with just a handful of juiciest, deep red cherries to give to the girls for their help.

We hit our second century but it was so hot and windy and my limbs ached so much I felt like I'd spent the day in a tumble dryer when we struggled into Luçon eight miles further on. At least we were finishing in time for a decent meal and a couple of litres of panache (French shandy) to cool, rehydrate and numb the pain.



France
132 miles, 13 mph average26 June 09Day 4
The Vendee


The Vendee is a wooded backwater and one of the least explored areas of France, but great for cycling with gently rolling hills, ruined chateaux, rivers and reservoirs.

Clisson was razed to the ground in the 1793 Vendee Uprising, and the town rebuilt in an Italian style so that its neo-classical villas give the impression of actually being in Italy. It was market day and we needed something other than the ubiquitous croque monsieur and other versions of cheese-on-toast that had become our staple diet. A couple of Vietnamese guys were stirring a wok full of fried rice and caramelised pork, so they dished up a massive carton for us and we took it for a picnic outside the old castle.

We didn't want to ride into any cities if it could be helped so we headed through the rolling Muscadet vineyards near Vallet and crossed the Loire on the mile long steel truss bridge at Mauves and made our way north to find the start of the Nantes-Brest canal tow path, having bypassed Nantes to the east.

Nantes was once the capital of Brittany, and birthplace of Jules Verne who of course predicted that a man would be able to circumnavigate the surface of the globe in 80 days, but I don't suppose he thought it could be done in 180 on a push bike, which is what Vin will be aiming to do to break Mark Beaumont's current 194 day record

After the road it was blissful to be back on a dedicated cycleway - no noise, no traffic, no pollution. The surface was a bit rough and we were all feeling saddle-sore with our hat-trick of centuries under our behinds so we occasionally rode back onto the smoother country lanes near the canal but found ourselves repeatedly lost and even though the canal meandered in all directions adding miles to journey it was easier to navigate and we could chat as we breezed along, past playful otters and graceful herons all out for their Friday evening fun.

With our high mileage target in mind, and to leave about 150 miles for the last two days, we decided to push on to Redon for the night where we knew there would be plenty of accommodation. And push we did. The final 10 miles were pounded out on the main road with our heads down and legs spinning at over 20 mph as we each took turns at the front. Stu hadn't eaten much since lunchtime and his blood sugar was exhausted with a mile to go. It's called hitting the wall in marathon running and bonking in cycling. Your legs no longer work, you can't stand up or talk lucidly and your emotions run riot. We sat him on the hotel steps; Vin forcing the bowl of sweets from the receptionist's counter into his mouth whilst I tried to explain that he wasn't actually drunk just a bit puffed out.



France
105 miles, 13 mph average27 June 09Day 5
Morbihan & Cote d'Amor


We all started very slowly, turning the pedals through a misty landscape that gave no clue as to the road ahead. My legs felt like lead and we soon agreed that we had an energy deficit from the day before so we were first into the supermarket at Malestroit when it opened at 07.30 for sandwiches and crisps in the medieval town square.

We rejoined the Nantes-Brest canal and outside the Chateau in Josselin met a retired couple who had been touring France on bikes for 5 weeks. They too were surprised at how few people seemed to use the canal-side bike path and we concluded that as it runs through several departments, the local bureaucrats probably couldn't agree on a plan so it is left as one of Britany's undiscovered treasures.

We rode past the better known treasures of Rohan and Pontivy before leaving the canal and heading North West up a five mile climb into the Monts d'Arree and clocking up yet another century west of Rostrenen.




One of my saddle sores had now started to swell and as I was feeling feverish too, I went to the pharmacy for some help. It was infected and had become so painful that at the end of the day in Carhaix I went to the local A&E with what was now looking like a third testicle! Even though it was Saturday night, there was no queue and the doctor gave me a very thorough examination including a prostate check that I wasn't quite ready for! But he wasn't going to operate and I'd have to suffer the last 50 miles by riding out of the saddle and pumping myself full of painkillers.

Stuart was suffering too, with sore knees, ankles, wrists…everything really. How he'd kept going so far was a mystery to me as it takes a full year of training for the body to adopt itself physiologically into that of an endurance cyclist, so he must have ridden most of the journey on sheer willpower alone.

Vin meanwhile was in his element. He'd found out what types of kit are invaluable, which items may be superfluous, tested himself physically at differing paces and discovered the value of proper planning and navigation. He'll face many more challenges around the world but his confidence is high and the next six months of preparation will be on a firm foundation.



France
54 miles, 14 mph average28 June 09Day 6
Finistere


Most of the ride had criss-crossed one of the many pilgrimage routes of St James to Santiago - the course being way-marked by the symbolic cockleshell, and we had met a few pilgrims on their way to north-west Spain. The legend itself is bizarre to say the least with one version citing that after St James' death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James' ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ghostly ship approaching, his horse got spooked, plunging itself and the rider into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, they emerged from the water alive, covered in cockleshells. In the early 9th century the bishop of the area claimed that God had told him where to find the body of St James. He built a church on the site and by the 11th century Santiago de Compostela was a major pilgrimage destination.

We'd put in all the hard work so the last day was always going to be a breeze, an early climb to 300m over the regional park of the Armorique - Britany's version of Dartmoor (but not so good!), a 12 mile downhill to Morlaix, followed by a cruise along the estuary and into Roscoff via St Pol De Leon in time for tea and medals.



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