Monday, 12 June 2006

Postscript - Thursday, June 8th - Mont Ventoux (26 miles)

Having just cycled nearly a 1,000 miles from Birmingham down to the South of France, and enjoyed a few days off in St-Remy-de-Provence, I decided to get back onto the bike to tackle another challenge - riding up Mont Ventoux. It's one of the most feared mountains on the Tour de France and where where Tommy Simpson died in 1967...

Actually it took no time at all to recover from the journey, and I was starting to feel that cycling 100 miles a day was what I did for a living. But it is very hot down here and I was rather nervous about cycling up Ventoux, which has a reputation for being high (2000 metres/6000 feet), long (15 miles, all up) and hot.

You can see Ventoux (often known as the Windy Mountain, although the original meaning is apparently 'Snow Top') from across Provence to the South. It's very striking, with the top few hundred metres covered in snow in the winter and look like they are in summer, although it's actually a scree of bare rocks above the treeline.

Ventoux's summit looms in the the final miles

Starting in Bédoin (the 'proper' route from the South, not the slightly ‘easier’ one from Sault to the East), the first part of the ride is very pretty through villages and on a lower gradient.

Then the route goes into the woods - the shade is very welcome in the sun and heat, but the gradient increases to 10% and it feels relentless. The second half just keeps going and eventually emerges from the trees towards the barren top.

Along the route today are hundreds of people, eating lunch by their cars and waiting to cheer on friends and family. And there are a lot of people cycling up, most of whom are hard-core cyclists - - it turns out that there's actually a race going on today.

Tommy Simpson's Memorial, just 2km from the summit

But I make it, going past Simpson's lonely monument which is pitifully close to the top. Going up takes 2 hours 20 minutes (Tour de France riders would do it in half that time, the record is under 56 mins), coming down is a rather easier 35 minutes. That really is it for cycling in France!

Bike route 322251 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 9, Final Day! - Saturday, June 3rd - Marvejols to Montpellier (120 miles)

A fittingly tough final day, and the weather finally feels Mediterranean – sunny and hot. Leaving Marvejols, I follow the river downhill for 15 miles before having another climb to get back to the level of the Massif.

But ahead of schedule I crest over the peak down to Sévérac-le-Château. Sadly there’s no time to stop as I have to carry on for lunch at Millau, where Norman Foster's spectacular viaduct spans the valley.

Millau in the distance down in the valley

As the bridge comes into view it really is a stunning sight and the ride down into the town feels worth the inevitable slog up the other side. I stop for lunch in the shade before braving the sun and heat.

The road up the other side is long and hot, but thankfully the gradient isn't too horrible - and it gives me a chance to get a decent photo taken. An English honeymoon couple very kindly take my picture and promise to email it to me on their return home (as you can see, they lived up to there promise).

Nearly there - Millau in the background

Up here the plateau is barren and alien, more like the American badlands than my image of southern France and I travel through Templar settlements and more hills. Finally there's a long descent towards Gignac and the final hard 20 miles to Montpellier.

Unfortunately I'm late and I can't find any water, so I arrive (in a pretty grizzled state) just in time to meet my wife Clare, collect the hire car and drive to the gîte we're staying in for a week in St-Rémy-de-Provence.

In total, I cycled 962.22 miles in 9 days, drank plenty of wine, ate a lot of nice meals and, while it hurt a bit, that was more than outweighed by beautiful countryside and wonderful people.

And I've reached my donations target for the Alzheimer's Society. So thanks for everyone's support. Already planning next year's trip from Copenhagen to Zurich...

Day 8 - St Germain Lembron to Marvejols (90 miles)

It's not a long day today, but I've got to go back over the mountains again as I'm in the Massif Central, the great bulk of higher ground in the south of France. But hopefully if I take it easy I should be OK.

I start off thinking my leg's better, but quickly it's back to how I ended up yesterday, ie painful and pretty useless.

It's a beautiful morning ride nonetheless, through the Vallée L'Allagnon to Massiac, it's a beautiful, peaceful and winding route. At Massiac I spot another traveller with a well-loaded donkey!

Donkey in Massiac

After having late morning coffee the Massif Central proper starts and I have to cycle uphill for 10 miles. I'm genuinely starting to worry that I won't be able to finish at this rate.

Get to lunch an hour late at Saint Fleur, but it was a lovely long hill down at nearly 40 mph (breaking the speed limit on the way).

Saint Fleur - A lovely spot for lunch

Obviously after lunch I have to cycle up and down to the plateau twice, each time it's about a few hundred metres up and down! I meet a local cyclist who looks like he's in his 70s and explain that I'm going to Marvejols, 'Tres dur' (very hard) he says which is a bit off-putting.

After that it is almost constantly uphill, past Alpine-like meadows. But just as I think I won't be able to manage the last 10 miles uphill to Marvejols, I reach the sign for the peak and it's all downhill – for 15 minutes.

Stopping into the town I treat myself to a beer and, boy, does it taste good after today!

I arrive late at the hotel, but just manage to get food. A kindly chap on the next table even gives me half a bottle of red wine, presumably sensing my greater need...

Today's route:

Bike route 306192 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 7 - Thursday, June 1st - Moulins to St Germain Lembron (100 miles)

The first really lovely sunny weather of the trip, but still cool (which I will later realise is much preferable to heat and sun).

I've been having problems with my brakes, which I have to get sorted before the mountains, if I want to avoid any mishaps.

My French stretched to having a discussion with a man in a bike shop about what was wrong with them - which isn't bad considering they are hydraulic disk brakes. He eventually sorts them out, although it means not getting started until 11.30.

The morning was pretty straightforward and I got to Vichy for a latish lunch. It's a pretty place, a sort of Spa, I guess. Funnily enough they don't make much mention of the town's history as the seat of the puppet French government in World War 2...

Vichy Opera House

The afternoon is tougher as the hills start on the way to Clermont Ferrand in the Auvergne. But it's going really well all the same.

Sadly, with about 20 miles to go, I take a wrong turn and I'm then sent in completely the wrong direction by someone, which means I drop down several hundred meters to the valley floor only to have to climb all the way back up again.

When I finally do find my way, after a 10-mile detour, I'm absolutely knackered and I seem to have strained a muscle in my left leg, making it painful to put any pressure on. Still I limp into the house I'm staying tonight at St Germain Lembron.

St Germain Lembron

I'm staying in a gorgeous house with an anglophile woman and her family. I usually like to go out alone on these trips, but they insist I have dinner with them and they cook me a local one-pot special, with lamb cooked with vegetables - you get the broth as a soup to start.

We chat away about the differences between our countries, which makes me realise how much my French has improved during the trip - it was worth doing months of lessons before I set off. I've noticed along the way that, outside of Calais and Paris, very few people speak English.

Today's route:

Bike route 306186 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 6 - Wednesday, May 31st - Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire to Moulins (85 miles)

After some of the long days recently, today is due to be relatively short at 80 miles.

And it turns out to be probably the nicest of the whole trip so far. I'm cycling through lovely countryside, which really reminds me of home in Warwickshire.

I follow a cycle route alongside the Loire for several miles - it's a lovely path alongside the river and past ivy-clad churches.

Loire Cycle Route

Stop for a coffee at La-Charité-sur-Loire, which is full of book shops, and where I meet my first fellow touring cyclist of the journey. He's following one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and started in Belgium. He's taking it far more easily than me (sensible man), 40 miles a days, visiting churches along the way. He can't understand why I'd want to do 100 mile days "Surely there's no time to enjoy it and look around you?". He's absolutely right, I can't explain it...

La-Charité-sur-Loire - Pilgrim route

The afternoon is delightful, cycling through bucolic back routes all I see are fields and cows.

Approaching Moulins, where I'm staying for the night, I spot another memorial to a crashed airship, this one La Republique, which came down in 1909 with the loss of four crew - the memorial is a rather grizzly statue of their bodies laid out on stretchers.

Arriving in Moulins I find my hotel, very much like a British pub and otherwise full of builders. Wander into the town to find an internet cafe - the place I eventually discover is in the mysterious backroom of a bar, through a hidden door. It all feels rather sinister...

Back to the pub for dinner, which is a brilliant three-course set menu, which is €10, including half a litre of wine - fresh bread and pate, chicken with veg, and cheese to finish. Amusing to see the builders sipping red wine, unlike their British counterparts, who would be necking pints of lager.

Glad I enjoyed today - the mountains start tomorrow...

Here's today's route:

Bike route 306178 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 5 - Tuesday, May 30th - Paris to Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire (120 miles)

It was a huge relief to get out of Paris and away from its mad drivers. I was to discover later that Paris is the only place in France where the drivers don't treat cyclists with respect.

The route South took me past Paris Orly airport, along a old Route Nationale. It's a good long distance today, but not at all hilly. I stop for lunch at Fontainebleu, which was one of the royal courts and sits in the centre of what must have been a huge forest.

Chateau Fontainebleu

The afternoon is a long, but enjoyable, ride through the French countryside to join the Loire - starting with Nemours. I heard my first cicada and saw my first vineyards of the trip and also, very much out of place, my first French nuclear power station next to a lovely village on the Loire. They're really into their nuclear power, the French.

The 16th Century church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Nemours

Despite being a long day I made it to the small town of Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire feeling pretty good. Staying in a very sweet old coaching inn and had a fantastic five-course set meal, with a bottle of red wine and a lovely selection of local cheeses that I was talked through. Ah the French, they really know how to live!

I'm starting to think that I might be getting the hang of this - although I'm bound to regret saying that when I get to the mountains!

Here's the route:

Bike route 306170 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 4 - Monday, May 29th - Amiens to Paris (95 miles)

Woke up to discover that I was still alive, but that it was absolutely chucking down outside, so the start was postponed until 11.00am.

But the route turned out to be very pleasant - cycling across lovely flat countryside to Paris with the wind behind me.

Stop for lunch at Beauvais, which has an amazing unfinished cathedral - I think parts fell down and then they ran out of money. Had a couple of pronunciation probems, but eventually managed to order my food.

After lunch on the way out of Beauvais, I discovered the rather poignant, and sadly neglected, monument to the 1930 crash of the airship R101 next to a dual carriageway. It was on its way to India, but didn't get very far...

R101 Crash Memorial outside Beauvais

It's hard to find nice roads to cycle on as I approach Paris, so I'm stuck on increasingly busy dual carriageway. As I enter the city proper the traffic becomes almost unbearable - I cycled in Central London every day for 4 years, so I'm not soft about these things, but blimey cycling in Paris is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING!

I do find my way through in one piece in time to cycle down the Champs Elysees to have my picture taken by a bemused Japanese tourist by the Place de la Concorde:

Made it to Paris in one piece - Eiffel Tower in the background

Then just a couple of easy miles along the Seine to get to a friend’s apartment where I'm staying tonight.

Here's the route:

Bike route 306166 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 3 - Sunday, May 28th - Calais to Amiens (143 miles)

I'd imagined cycling in France would be a far more enjoyable experience than in England, with courteous motorists waving to me as I passed. And that's exactly how it seems to be.

It's a blue-skied, but fresh Sunday morning and I head down to the sea front by the lighthouse to scoff my croissant and pain au chocolat (what the hell!):

Starting off in Calais

And it's lovely to see the Sunday cyclists out on their shiny road bikes, all wearing pristine team replica kit. But there's a bracing wind blowing right into my face that is going to take the edge off the enjoyment today.

Out of Calais I pass through Sangatte, site of the infamous camp where refugees/illegal immigrants try to leap onto lorries to get to Britain. Can't imagine why!

This is the Pas de Calais, the narrowest stretch of the Channel and the one the Germans assumed the Allies would attack across - so it's littered with reminders of WW2, including this old emplacement, which has now become a museum:

WW2 Museum on the Pas de Calais

Stop by the harbour in Boulogne for a massive chunk of bread and some smelly sausage. The route is pretty flat and hugs the coast, which looks delightful. But this countryside was also the scene of horrible carnage 90 years ago - it's the famous Somme.

After passing through holiday resorts and past beaches I came to the cemetery at Etaples (which the English-speaking troops, predictably, called 'Eat-Apples'). It was some way behind the front line and where the troops arrived and the wounded were treated - over 11,000 are buried here in a cemetery designed by Edward Lutyens. As usual it is beautifully kept and peaceful - hard to imagine the battles that led to so many dead...

Etaples Cemetery -Tranquil

Having had an early lunch the afternoon seemed to stretch on forever and I stopped in a Tabac full of rowdy locals in a tiny village to use the loo and grab something to eat and drink.

I eventually arrived in Pois-de-Picardie, a small town in the middle of nowhere, at 9.00pm to find that not only was the little brasserie where I thought I had a room booked shut, but so was the rest of the town (Sundays in France being something we haven’t had in England since the 1970s). The owner of the brasseries that was shutting up shrugged his shoulders in the classic French 'Bof' ('like I care') manner. I've got nowhere to stay, and nothing to eat or drink!

Thankfully my wife is able to track down a hotel in the nearest town of Amiens. It's another 15 miles, and I manage to get water from an elderly frenchman by knocking on his door.

But once I know where I'm going it's not too bad, and I have the rather lovely treat of having owls fly in the fields alongside me as I ride through the pitch black countryside. Good job I brought my lights!

Arrived in only a mild state of total exhaustion at 11.00pm to find, again, that the only food available is a disgusting kebab. But the hotel room does have a bath, which is a life-saver after a long day in the saddle!

So ends what I hope will be the hardest day's riding of my cycling career...

Here's the route:

Bike route 306162 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 2 - Saturday, May 27th - London to Calais (90 miles)

Start very late, thanks to fuggy head and tiredness. But shouldn't be a problem as I have a shorter day today and the ferry is mid-afternoon. Sadly, when I get to the Embankment I realise I've forgotten to pick up the key for my mate Dave's flat in Paris where I'm staying tomorrow night. So Toby kindly drops it down and I waste nearly an hour gazing over the Thames...

The Thames - but I want to be by the Channel...

When I do get going I start to think I might be getting the hang of this. And with the wind behind you it's actually rather pleasant cycling down the old Roman road of Watling Street (as featured in the Canterbury Tales) to Dover, despite a couple of sharp hills, including Shooters Hill after Blackheath.

But the English countryside really is very lovely from a bike, even in a hurry. Although, sadly, I have to get on the near-motorway that is the A2 for quite a few miles - I'm late and it's the only way to get to Dover in time for the ferry.

But then I find out that there's been a major accident and so eveything was delayed, so I arrive in plenty of time - although it means arriving late.

So rather than my first meal in France being steak frites and a demi-litre of rouge at a wonderful little bistrot, I arrive in a wet and unappealing Calais in time for a beer and a horrible kebab (sadly it was all that was available at 10.00pm)...

Here's today's route:

Bike route 306134 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 1 - Friday, May 26th - Birmingham to London (120 miles)

As promised, the rain finally stops just in time and I’m away at 9.30am. It’s not quite as bad cycling with the panniers as I feared, but still rather like pedaling a tractor. Perhaps I should have at least tried a test run!

Leaving home for the Med - On y va!

The first 50 miles of the day are familiar, as I ride through Leamington and Southam in Warwickshire and Daventry in Northants, en route to Milton Keynes, but then it's all new.

It's also the first of many days when I underestimated the distance and am late, mainly thanks to a puncture on a dual carriageway near Milton Keynes that took half an hour to fix.

Following the A5 down to London takes me through some surprisingly pretty towns, like St Albans...

Medieval Clock Tower, St Albans

However I arrive in London in surprisingly good shape and go out for a desperately-needed meal with friend Toby and his better half Anya who are kindly letting me sleep on their floor in Primrose Hill. In return I take them out for a meal at their local Greek restaurant. No worries about the calories...

Here's today' route:

Bike route 306117 - powered by Bikemap 

Sunday, 21 May 2006

Birmingham to The Med - Preparations

Growing up in a small village in Warwickshire I, like most of my friends, spent a lot of time on my bicycle – well you had to when there were only two buses a day and you wanted to go into the local town (Leamington Spa).

We cycled the 20-mile round trip to town without thinking, and did longer rides at the weekend for pleasure. But while the others got mopeds or cars, I carried on cycling: at college in York, in Birmingham where I now live with my wife, and in London where I worked until recently.

And then for some reason in 2003 I decided to cycle the 1,000 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats, which turned out to be a wonderful experience and raised £1,500 for Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

John O'Groats 2003

Three years later, but apparently no wiser, it was about time to see if I was still up to the challenge of crossing a country - but this time it would be France. And as it was only 650 miles north to south, I chose to start from Birmingham.

After six months of training I felt as ready as I ever would be and, as an added bonus, had lost nearly 3 stones in weight. But having never riden a bike with heavy panniers, and with the weather atrociously wet in the 3 weeks before the ride, things were starting to look a bit dicey.

Here's the route and some excerpts from the journal I kept of the journey…

Bike route 306223 - powered by Bikemap