After storms on the south coast and a rough crossing we rumble down the ferry ramp into France in calm, dry weather. It’s really early, a bit after 4am local time, body clocks on 3am and barely a handful of hours of sleep. Rather than heading straight onto the road we nip into the port waiting room for a (pre)breakfast of vending machine coffee (fairly awful) and madelaines (far better).
Sheltered by the cliffs and town we had been fooled into thinking it hadn’t been too windy, but up on the plateau away from Dieppe we feel the strong wind that had been forecast. However away from the lights of the port and towns along the cliffs our eyes adjusted to the dark and hundreds of stars come into focus.
Venus hangs low over the forest on the hill between Grandcourt and the Bresle valley. Through silhouettes of trees we climb in the dawn light, our lights picking out yellow leaves stuck to the road like soggy confetti. Over the hill in the town of Blangy-sur-Bresle light shines from the bakers and butchers already open early on Sunday. The market is being set up on the streets around the church. Fifty kilometres done and the sun about to rise it’s time for a proper breakfast. A couple of chocolate pastries are bought from one of the two patisseries on the town square before looking for an open café for coffee.
Exiting the café I’m hit by an amazing smell. Initially I think it’s the rotisserie van parked opposite but then notice behind me a massive bubbling vat of chicken in a tomato sauce. Next to it are huge tins of haricot beans. We guess it must be a variation on cassoulet on the go for lunchtime. Oh heck, it smells good. Maybe we could just hang around here all day? (I make a mental note that it is market day on a Sunday here and therefore need to plan a daytrip that passes through here at lunchtime.)
Out of town and out of the valley we’re back up on a plateau. Our direction has changed to slighty northeast for a while so the wind gives us a pleasant nudge along as we watch the sun break the horizon and the landscape come alive into vibrant colour. By the time we drop down into the Somme valley it’s grey and the air damp and cool. It’s no surprise, this is what was forecast. We’ve also turned south again, straight into the wind. The clear skies and sun up to now have been a bonus. As we join the gravel path along the Somme a few kilometres north of Amiens the predicted rain starts, lightly at first but much harder by the time we arrive at the war memorial in Amiens. We watch proceedings for a few minutes before finding a café near the cathedral to hide from the rain. Unfortunately we’re too early for lunch but I remember there is a spare pastry in my framebag. That keeps us going until we find the small supermarket on the way out of the city. Like the good audaxers we are we stand eating supermarket sandwiches in the drizzle.
We retrace our steps and raindrops back along the river to the edge of the city and start to climb out of the valley. The next 40km are on the D211 and I know it well having ridden it three or four times previously. It’s a main road but quiet, and undulates back to the Bresle valley. I’ve always managed to ride it fairly fast even on bikes loaded with panniers so think we’ll get back to Dieppe in plenty of time for a warm meal and a bottle of wine before zonking out on the ferry home.
I forgot to factor in the wind.
As soon as we hit the D211 we are also hit in the face by the wind. We have to pedal down the hills, and my favourite section of road which is flat and passes through those lovely little avenues of trees you get on French roads is an absolute teeth grinding slog into the wind. Our average speed is dismal. Simon mentions that at least the audax time limit is generous. I point out that the DFDS ferry schedule isn’t. On the plus side the rain stops and the sun almost comes out again.
All the village and town war memorials we pass on the way back have fresh wreaths and tricolours flying, and it seems every village has a memorial. In one town posters line the road with photos of the dead, the same family name repeated. Even the smallest villages have monuments to the lost.
The shop and the bar in the village in the valley aren’t open so our bags are emptied of remaining food before we embark on the final quarter of the ride. Not only will the wind still be against us but so will the terrain. I know this next section is much hillier than anything we’ve encountered today. Not large hills but a constant up and down, and with 160km in the legs, the last forty into the wind. Some quick sums and we’re good to catch the ferry but time for a meal is off the table.
In fact we tumble down the rough back street into Dieppe with only ten minutes to spare. Time enough to grab a baguette, some cheese, and some ham, from a corner shop. Straight through check-in and passport control and onto the ferry. Pints are purchased and we tuck into dinner.