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Road to Rouen

I was invited by the nice people over at Victor and Liberty to write something for their blog. They asked a couple of weeks before I had a day trip to France planned so that became the story. Click any of the images below to read the full post.

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As usual I go the wrong way leaving Dieppe. This is somewhat of a tradition. I put it down to an inability to sleep on the ferry and then being kicked off it into France at 4:30am local time (e.g., 3.30am UK time). I’m definitely not on my planned route, due to some diversion signs and not finding my way back onto my planned route out of town in the dark, but the last signpost said ROUEN so I followed it. Somewhere along the way I’ll work my way back onto my planned route. At the next roundabout Rouen isn’t mentioned on any signpost but the road directly ahead goes to Amiens and that is definitely the wrong way. I turn right. The road disappears into the darkness down a long hill.

I’m drawn towards a left turning, sensing it may go in the right direction. The emergency map gets called into action under a lamp post…yes, that way. The map gets tucked under the flap of the saddlebag holster for easy access, as I know it will be needed again. More than once I expect.

I’m onto tiny lanes now, no cars or other sign of human life. The sound of tyres humming on tarmac, the whirr of the drive-chain, just me and the darkness, a small patch of tarmac lit in the beam of my front-light. There is enough moonlight to make fuzzy sense of the surrounding landscape. Hang on, moonlight? Thought today was supposed to be overcast, but it’s not yet dawn and the day is yet to unfold. Once through wooded climbs I’m on straight roads across the Normandy plains, heading for an indistinct horizon as light trickles into the sky to my left. There is a strong headwind and I suspect it brings a weather front with it.

Darkness fades from the sky and I can see a bank of cloud curving across the distance. A rainbow halo appears around the sinking moon, and then it disappears as I roll under the cloud-bank. I can no longer see the day drifting into focus over my shoulder, but the sound of a cockerel carried my way on the wind tells me dawn is getting close.

The dawn chorus gets louder and louder, I realise I can see without the need for lights. It must be day, it’s grey as forecast, but it’s dry. The day sharpens into clarity as I drop into the pretty village of Cleres, and I’m instantly hit by the smell of fresh bread. I turn a corner and, through an open window framed by shutters, see a baker in front of an open bread oven.

A series of long climbs and swooping descents through the Foret Verte pull me closer to the suburbs of Rouen, until without realising I find myself in the middle of the city unannounced. Through empty narrow cobbled streets I follow glimpses of a spire over rooftops to the cathedral. It’s still relatively early, before 9am, and the city is not yet properly awake. However I’ve ridden 45 miles into a brisk headwind and breakfast is much desired. I spot an open café within the shadows of the cathedral, where a breakfast of pastries and hot chocolate is most welcome.

After the refuel and a rest it’s time to head out of the city back to the coast. I’ve got hours to get back, this evening’s ferry isn’t until 6pm, so can meander about as much as I like. I have two routes scribbled on my route-sheet but manage to follow neither, as a plan of Rouen is far easier to navigate than the reality. Once out of the historic centre it’s very, erm, “urban” with big roads. It’s not a particularly nice place to ride so I decide to route one out the quickest way I can find, which turns out not to be so easy as I soon lose myself in a no man’s land between industrial and housing estates. I spot a name on a signpost I recognise from my route notes and follow the arrow up a long climb. The next few miles are fairly non-descript until I sweep down into the Austreberthe valley. I’m back on the route-sheet and turn up the valley to the north.

Clambering over another long drag of a climb the landscape returns to the flat open farmland of this morning. The grey skies, strong wind, and straight roads complete with sharply angled corners around fields puts me in mind of the Belgian classics (which is apt as yesterday was the E3 Harelbeke and tomorrow I shall rest my legs watching Gent-Wevelgem). However, this morning’s headwind is now a very welcome tailwind so I effortlessly spin across the plateau and down into the Saane valley, for the gentle undulation towards the coast.

I’m feeling the lack of sleep and 90 odd miles ridden thus far as I run out of land, a silver grey sea ahead of me, England over the horizon beyond. There’s only about 12 miles left and I still have 4 hours before the ferry home. I sit on a wall and watch the sea for a bit, munching a Nutella crepe washed down with a can of Orangina. Far better than any energy gel.

Clipping back in I know I have two headlands to get over until I can freewheel back into Dieppe. I also have plenty of time, so I drop into a low gear and dawdle back along the coast, zigzagging around the headland hairpins through seaside villages.

Back in Dieppe the sun is shining as I prop the bike against a café and go inside for a late lunch of Moules et Frites and half a bottle of plonk. This is also becoming something of a tradition. After this I wander into town, extract a small rucksack from the saddlebag, and load up on cheese, saucisse, and wine. Not too much mind, I’ve got another 10 miles of cliffs and headwind to deal with in a few hours once back across the channel…

2 replies »

  1. Enjoyed the post, especially the line: I realise I can see without the need for lights. It must be day.

    That’s an odd feeling, when eyes conditioned to the low night light and mind slow with sleep, you’re hit with the realisation, hey, who turned the lights on?

    How was the bag you tested? I’ve been looking at something like this instead of panniers.

  2. thanks. i love riding at dawn, the changing light is a beautiful thing to watch.

    the bag was fantastic, really impressed. i’m riding to Bristol for Bespoked next week, and then off to Spain for a week at the end of April, so this ride was a bit of a test run for that. along with a framebag and small cockpit bag it’s the ideal set up for light touring. i’ve also got Carradice saddlebag, bar bag and front panniers, so i should have options for all eventualities now 🙂 i have to say that the stability with this style of saddlebag is better than with a large traditional one. also the fact this was a holster system so i could whip out the drybag when i stopped and on ferry made it very versatile. even though it’s a max capacity of 13 litres it seems to hold a lot of stuff.

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