France calmly rolls around the horizon…
It’s good to be riding on the wrong side of the road again, a smile on my face as I spin through the streets of Dieppe for the first time in over a year. I’ve missed the sight of the illuminated red diamond tabac and green cross pharmacy signs. Past the castle ruin and up through the woods which I usually ride before sunrise to the sounds of owls. Legs feel the gentle rise and fall of the limestone plateau and a stubborn headwind. I know these roads so well but don’t remember a bar in that village. Consider stopping for an Orangina or cheeky beer but choose to crack on, it may be sunny and warm now but rain is possible early evening. Got four more days of café stops to look forward to. Last time I rode these roads was between midnight and 6am during Normandicat in 2019, with a 2 hour bivvy kip in that church porch along the way. No tired clipping of speed bumps this time. Pylons and striped fields. Sweep through downward curves from the Pays de Caux then climb again, through forest over to the Seine valley. Residential streets steeply drop into Rouen.
After checking into a hotel on the banks of the river I stroll to a supermarket via the cathedral. Lazy evening with a hotel room picnic of the best Carrefour City has to offer and second division French footie on the telly (SC Bastia v SM Caen, Nancy v Havre AC, Nimes v Amiens SC for the aficionados). Early night as tomorrow is going to be the furthest I’ve ridden in a day since last year. And then repeat for the three days after that.
Yesterday’s forecast of heavy rain has changed to “scattered rainfall” and “few showers”. Damp roads when I look down from balcony, rained overnight. Snaffle madeleines, biscuits, Nutella and cheese from the breakfast buffet (always take a musette down to breakfast).
Empty roads out of the city, still early for a Sunday. Sharp up from the off, clamber away from the Seine through switchbacks and the pungent scent of damp woodland. A D road with 4 numbers, know what to expect, dead straight for as far as I can see, gentle swell like a calmed sea. Supermarkets, car dealerships, Macdonald’s, regional airport, and the golden glow so many open patisseries. Catch red light after red light after red light for six kilometres. The edge of city urbanity ebbs horizon and sky open wide. Click down a sprocket or two, settle into a rhythm.
Chateau Anquetil. Been this way before, the next descent is awesome! Three kilometres of twists and hairpins back down towards the Seine. A giant’s bike at the lights. Tables and chairs being unstacked outside a bar I stopped at a few years ago. Not enough kilometres done yet to justify a stop, next town maybe. Switchbacks again, up this time, another plateau and find the rhythm again. More hairpins and a view back down to the Seine. Limestone outcrops tower above the road and river. Spot a PMU bar next to a church in a village on the banks of the river. “Un café crème s’il vous plait” – it’s good to be back!
Keep to the left bank as far as Vernon where I leave the Seine and start towards a different river valley. I know from here until Chartres will be fairly empty of opportunities to find food so stop for a sarnie and cold drink. I start to eat but then suddenly remember the climb from this town from a previous ride. I tuck the remainder of the sandwich in my musette to eat once I’ve climbed out of town onto a new plateau. Once back up on the limestone it’s sixty kilometres of flat-ish that tip gently up and down. Flick back and forth between a couple of cogs on the rear. Nothing but fields and ever widening horizons interrupted only by church spires and lolly pop trees and water towers. An extensive sky is animated by sunshine and almost out of focus clouds but is definitely not leaking any rain like the forecast threatened. Acres and acres of farmland, drying corn and drooped sunflowers, varied cereals, white butterflies jerkily waft along wild flower verges. The only traffic I see is the occasional tractor. Start to feel the distance and lack of food. Bus stop snack of biscuits and madeleines pinched from the hotel this morning.
Just as the tedium of the ever so slightly undulating farmland starts to drag the road slants downwards into lush bright green woodland tracing the Eure towards Chartres. The double spires of the cathedral appear on the horizon as I crest a small incline. Pass a bakery still open at 4 on a Sunday so grab two baguette sarnies for dinner. Twenty odd kilometres to go, the wind picks up and sky darkens. More church spires and water towers. A kestrel hovers of the edge of woodland. Couple of k’s to go and I get a bit eager into a gravelly corner that’s tighter than anticipated. Hold it and ease up. A lorry silently glides along a motorway in the distance.
As I check into my B&B today’s promised rain promptly arrives. Shove my bike into a barn. Seeing a lack of luggage and hearing how far I’ve come my host asks if I’m a pilgrim heading to the Compostela. Maybe I just look tired and grubby.
Farm B&B breakfast with homemade apple juice, jams and honey (carrot and onion plants if I understand correctly). Setting off under leaden sky the views are blurred in every direction. I suspect I could get wet today. Telegraph poles crisscross shaved fields. Flat never-ending horizons broken by occasional trees and houses clumped around church steeples. Stacked bales, huge grain silos, yet more drying corn and darkened dropped heads of sunflowers. An audiobook in my right ear to half distract me, this landscape won’t change much until I get near the Loire and that’s still a hundred kilometres away.
A brief break from vast agriculture to dip through woodland to a town by a river. Coffee and quick
Di2 charge as I’ve only had the small ring for the last ten kilomatres and it’s too flat a day for that. I realise I’ve been here before when prior to TCRno5 attempted to ride to my parents non-stop until my freehub imploded. The next chunk of distance will be the way I rode that night, it’ll be nice to see what it all actually looks like.
Endless flat. I remember that the top half of France goes on and on for quite some time but forgot quite how dull it gets, expecially by the second day. Probably best I rode this in the dark the last time. The drab sky pressing down on everything isn’t helping. Gradually the straight roads start to bend and dip, fields edged by trees more frequently. A field of vines, must be getting close to the Loire.
A long bridge and the château that was all lit up last time. A glance behind and see dark clouds chasing me. Forty kilometres to go, I might outrun them. Twenty kilometres later I exit a supermarket to the definite smell of rain. Moments later crossing le Cher I’m soaked. By the time I find a bus stop to shelter in it has stopped. I knew I should have just stopped for a coffee in Montrichard.
Zip through a village bouncing over speedbumps… oh hang on that’s the bench I napped on by the mairie. I prefer this pace and hotel rooms. Route barrée. Only six kilometres to go and the detour looks fiddly. You can usually ride around or climb over whatever it is. Keep riding, nothing, keep riding, lovely smooth tarmac, keep riding, this is lovely! Oh, trucks and resurfacing machine and heavy rollers block the road. Hmm, no one is shouting at me to turn around, hop off and walk along the grass verge past it all, men in hi-viz look at me strangely but no one stops me. Keep walking, don’t catch their eyes, pull straw out of my cassette, hop back on, sprint. Hang everything up to dry when I reach my B&B.
Wake up to church bells and cockerels. And rain but it stops whilst I eat breakfast. Definite change to the landscape, gentle ripples, gradually gaining height all day. The first hundred kilometres roughly follow the route I rode 5 years ago through the night and morning until the heat and busted freehub got to me. Every 10km or so I get a flashback, the field I eventually bivvied in when I fell asleep on the aero bars, the cemetery with ornamental trees where I found water at 6am, that undulating road that made my legs grumble.
La Brenne, ‘the land of the thousand lakes’ and long long very very straight roads. Smooth tarmac and barely any traffic, settle into aerobars. Into Limousin, and the roads start to angle up. Rise and fall, rise and fall increments, like lock gates on a canal. A coffee and Orangina in Lussac-les-Églises in memory of a missed friend. Supermarket picnic in the next town. Fifty to go and the climbing kicks in big time. Ripples become waves. Layer upon layer of hills. Dark green lumps. Dense cool slightly damp forest; orange and purple heather, bracken, pine and oak. Stick to the medium sized roads, quiet enough without corkscrewing through the in-between bits where the steep roads and chasey dogs tend to live. These follow the ridges, big ring, cross chaining. Huge buzzards. Pine and oak, fern and heather. Keep pushing a big gear along false flats.
Dicking about on the outer edge of Limoges as I didn’t check that short section of the route near the end that turns out not to be a road. It looks like a green way cycle route but overgrown, doesn’t look like it’s ridden much. I’m within 5km of a shower and I can’t be arsed with possible punctures or mud. Twenty minutes later than expected and more than one dead end I check into cheap motel near the motorway.
Final day. A day of blue and green, sky and rivers, valleys and hills. Today is the officially hilly day, proper climbs, ones that go on for kilometres. Left achilles niggles. Long descents where I fold into the aero bars and let out audible whoops. Using a mix of big smooth roads and twisting little ones. Empty main roads as they run parallel to the motorway and all the traffic is just over there. These big roads that run straighter and iron out the worst of the hills mean I make up some of the time I’m losing on the rollercoaster corkscrews between them. To the east I can see the Millevaches, dark forested hills standing taller than the high lands I’m already on. I rode through those last time I did this, big old lumps. I’ll be over that way on the way home in a week’s time. After a few days of clouds today the sun cast sharp shadows, it feels like summer rather than autumn, the temperature tilting upwards. A quiche in a bus stop in the shade. Past deserted hotels and petrol stations now that traffic is diverted onto the motorway.
Away from the big roads lizards skitter across tarmac under shadow buzzards, screeching echoing in the empty blue sky. Cows munch in fields, a heron stands sentry. Stone walls slowly being eaten by moss line sun dappled chestnut strewn lanes. Colours turning to autumn. The smell of apples fills the air, orchards to my right. Familiar place names start to appear on road signs. Another closed road, a fallen tree and a crane on a bridge across the Correze, and a much further than I’d like it to be detour. Some hand gestures and broken French and the guy in the hi-viz diverting traffic lets me walk past on the narrow pavement. According to my gpx file there are two climbs left to do but the first is a long steady valley climb followed by a long fast valley descent, an feel of alpine foothills.
T-junction. Oh, know where I am now, flick on autopilot. Climb, under the bridge, descent to the junction, turn tight, long straight road. Follow the Dordogne, cross the Dordogne, past the supermarket, slight kink in the road, avenue of plane trees, Occitanie sign, past the jam factory, over the railway lines, over the Cère. Destination reached.
The plan was to ride home almost parallel to the route down but it will be big days and I’m not sure that I can either be bothered or that my achilles will hold out all the way back. The first day would be scenic but I’m not sure I really need to ride for two days across northern France again. A bit of investigating and I discover that I can book the bike onto a TGV from Bordeaux to Paris. This way I can ride across the Dordogne to Bordeaux which I’ve never done before and then catch a very fast train all the way across the boring bit. The train will cover in two hours what will take me two days or more. Trains booked, hotels booked, new route plotted…
The first 45km are half of a favourite local loop. I climb through cloud up onto the limestone causse. Sheep with cow bells and silent cows. Two deer bound along a fence line. Gnarly old oak trees and moss covered crumbling walls. Water droplets hang on intricate spiderwebs in the verges and across fields, each sparkling web like a tiny galaxy making up a map of the universe. Rounding a bend a recently harvested field is full of them as if a farmer is growing candyfloss. By the time I reach the memorial for US Air Force arms drop to the resistance I’ve breached the cloud and shadows stripe the road. They stay for the rest of the day.
Around the ridge above Rocamadour and the alpine-esque descent and climb again through the gorges. Rather than the usual right turn take a left in the village at the top. Now the roads are new as I continue west towards the department of the Dordogne. Fuzzy felt hills stretch away in every direction. Chestnuts and lizards litter the back roads, I swerve chickens and ducks, and a proper grumpy dog. A medieval village on top of a hill with speedy hairpins to the edge of the Dordogne. Climb again, drop to river again, then repeat.
I track the river to Bergerac for two hours, first on the left side, then the right side. A beautiful canal and riverside ‘voie verte’ for the final twenty kilometres, well for fifteen and then the usual indirect going all the way round the back of there to end up back here and then over there again before eventually getting spat out into city traffic. A glass of wine by the river before finding the cheap hotel on the edge of town, the very edge of town by a big roundabout and out of town shopping centre.
Up early, still dark. Might as well hit the road early, only a hundred k’s to Bordeaux and would be good to get there and have time to look around. A slice of pizza from the bakery next to the hotel for breakfast. Tuck a pain aux raisin into musette. The sun hasn’t yet made it over the trees and the air is cool. Busy rush hour road away from the city, dog leg over the river and barely a bend in the road for thirty kilmotres. Shouldn’t have taken the aero bars off.
Cross the Dordogne onto smaller roads and stop at a patisserie for coffee and second breakfast at earliest opportunity. I continue along the river on the flood plains before a turn onto a road that abruptly climbs through vineyards. My achilles is really not enjoying the steepness so I swing my leg over the top tube and walk to the top. At the top vines stretch to the horizon on all sides, vanishing points left, right and centre. For the next couple of hours I see nothing but vineyards, the landscape reminding me of Tuscany in that it rolls relentlessly, not necessarily sharp climbs but up or down constantly, slowly draining the energy.
Somewhere along the way the line on the Garmin does a sharp right but I can’t see any road, just a dirt track. Ah shit, I’ve not done it again, I thought I checked this way was all tarmac. When I get to the turn I realise it’s another ‘voie verte’ and this one follows an old railway line all the way to Bordeaux, still forty kilometres away. I usually try to avoid these paths for this kind of distance as they tend to get a bit dull, false flat tarmac with no opportunites to freewheel, through tunnels of trees with no views, but it does mean a relatively easy run into Bordeaux and no traffic. It is what I expect so plug into some podcasts and pedal on.
Nearing Bordeaux I find myself on the banks of the Garonne, a huge industrial river, and follow Eurovelo 3 signposts into the city (and I note to myself also to Barcelona). Check-in at my apartment isn’t for another half hour so I find a small bar around the corner for a coffee and beer. And then another beer. After all that’s all the riding done and I’m on holiday.
Bike dumped in hotels, strolls around cities, museums, restaurants, trains. I should break bike rides up like this more often.