Glancing up from my Kindle I see it is raining heavily outside. This wasn’t on the forecast I looked at late last night as we left Newhaven so I’m glad that I was off the boat quickly and the first through passport control. Also for the first time in all the years I’ve done daytrips and long weekends in northern France I don’t hit the road straight off the ferry. I’m here for a few days and I’ve ridden the roads around Dieppe many times so have decided to get a train to a suburban town four stops south of Rouen. It quickly and easily gets me to a less familiar region of Normandy. So I am reading a couple of chapters of a book in the port waiting room with a cup of coffee and packet of chocolate madeleines from the vending machine whilst I wait the two hours until the half six train.
The rain clears by the time I spin through the harbour to the station and from the dark empty platform wheel my bike onto the train. The clouds disperse and dissolve as the sky lightens as we travel southwards. By the time I disembark at Saint-Aubin-les-Elbeuf there is even a hint of sunshine. A rumble of cobbles and a bridge spanning the Seine and I’m into the countryside climbing into woodland. Smatterings of snow lie on the ground amongst curled bracken vivid amber as the light of the climbing sun splinters into shafts between trees. A deer scarpers across the road.
An infinite sky wraps around low flat horizons. Expansive fields stretch between lines of lolly pop trees and church spires and water towers. Approaching junctions cars perpendicular to me drive on top of straight lines like children’s drawings. Sunlight flicker as I ride past rows of trees edging meadows. Falling and rising through birdsong and vibrant spring woodland, new leaves intense greens, a world refreshing. Angular stone churches and medieval timber houses. A cat in a window next to a set of traffic lights. Past an abbey and a lake and then start a steady climb through a forest to high Normandy hills. A rabbit hops across the road and along the verge oblivious to me and the giant buzzard that just swept out of that tree. A squadron of kites practice manoeuvres over a striped field.
A joyous swooning descent turning over the biggest gear, lean into the roundabout and onto one of those very long, very straight, very undulating French roads. In my right ear a podcast with two ex pro cyclists chatting about racing. I pretend it’s team radio and click down a cog, into the drops, push slighter harder on the pedals, TV helicopter tracking me on the left side. Solo breakaway. Slight rise to a left kink, the road straightens again, tilting down a degree again. Click down once more and tired legs keep turning. Try and tuck a little tighter and lower, all day the wind has not been as friendly as I’d hoped and is starting to sap energy.
Three departments in a day; Seine-Maritime, Eure, Orne. A cold beer in the sunshine in the centre of Alencon before retreating to my hotel on the outskirts of town surrounded by car dealerships. A light aircraft wobbles through the wind low over the flat roofs to the regional airport on the opposite side of the road.
Frost smothers cars and the grass edges of the carpark as I walk to breakfast, my breath a small cloud rising into the bright empty sky overhead. After eating I watch cartoons with a cup of tea and let the sun get higher and allow the day to warm a little more. No rush to leave, I’ve got all day to cover the 120km to Evreux.
Out of Normandy and into the department of Sarthe in Pays de la Loire. The flowing gently curving roads across a barely rippling landscape of a transition stage in le Tour. The alchemy of sleep has regenerated the legs. Another solo attack and the same imaginary helicopter. I can picture the images in the rest day montage. This is bold move so early and most likely doomed, hopefully the DS will call me back. I stumble across a museum of cycling in the next village. Not expecting it to be open on an out of season Sunday I’m surprised to find it’ll be open in less than 30 mins. I’ve not ridden far and it’s a bit early to stop but decide if there’s a café in the village I’ll grab a coffee and wait. There’s a PMU bar on the next corner. It is a wise decision – the museum is fantastic. A collection of bikes, jerseys, maps, paraphernalia and memorabilia covering the entire history of the Tour de France and further back to the earliest days of racing.
Sunday club runs out on the roads, an older guy in full FDJ kit. Nods and waves and friendly Bonjours. A rural landscape, farms and barns, ploughed fields. Not much in the way of climbing today, following various rivers back north. A morning of false flats, marshes and flooded fields. Across the border into Normandy again but continuing to trace the Sarthe north. The old blue metal signposts in Orne really are lovely. Those arrows and the superscript Ks above the decimal in the numbers of kilometres, lovely typography. Crucifixes on every other junction. A cold can of Iced Tea and snacks tucked in a musette slung over my shoulder. Nothing will be open this afternoon.
A pair of gates set in a tall wall, faded peeling paint, rusted chain and padlock. An avenue of uniform trees beyond line an overgrown driveway. Somewhere beyond a grand house out of view hidden amongst . I wish I had a medium format camera with me, there’s a portrait project in this. I’ve lost track of how many gateways like this I’ve seen over the last two days, more often than not fallen out of use. Le domaine perdu of Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, “some forsaken old manor”. I can see the slim faded 70’s Penguin Classic paperback on the shelf at home, picked up in a second hand shop near the art school in Farnham three decades ago. Then I remember I have an audiobook version on my phone. It needs to be the soundtrack to one of these rides soon. There again I should really listen to it in the original language.
Canary yellow colour fields of rape. A sweet floral smell hangs in the air. Telephone cables skip alongside the road. Yet more lolly pop trees and water towers and church spires. Plastic wrapped hay bales stacked in pink and green Tetris patterns. Pollock-esque dribbles of tar on the roads through towns. Traffic increases and roads get wider the closer I get to Evreux. I think I must have lost concentration and not paid as much attention to this part of the route. I’m sure there are quieter roads just over there somewhere. On the plus side the tarmac is smooth and progress is quick. Another beer in town in the sunshine before finding the hotel.
Second coffee stop of the day and only forty five kilometres covered. It’s only another twenty to Rouen and the train to Dieppe isn’t for another four hours. I’ve been here before I think, definitely that last ten kilometres that traced the curve of the Seine, and I’ve certainly been through the town along the main road a few times before. I take a look at the map, there’s plenty of time for a detour and still make it to Rouen for lunch before the train.
Turning left at the lights under the giant bicycle sculpture I’m on the Cote Jacques Anquetil, an almost four kilometre climb to Chateau Anquetil, the large manor house he retired to after racing. I’ve descended this a few times in the past, it’s a fantastic alpine-esque road through woodland with a couple of hairpins mixed into the fast bends. There’s a great view across the flood plain of the Seine to the distinct curve of the hills carved by the river over millennia. Those hills almost look as though designed on a architects drawing board. There’s not much height gain over the length of the climb so the gradient is friendly and I’m not sure the last k and a half counts as climbing at all. Past the monument in Anquetil’s honour and two long straight roads to Rouen. A tailwind gives me a massive push so even with a detour from the planned route there’s time for lunch and a glass of rose outside a creperie in the shadow of the cathedral.
Before the ferry leaves Dieppe there’s time for one last coffee and another glass of wine at the Café des Tribuneaux in the middle of town, a haunt of Oscar Wilde, Walter Sickert and James McNeill Whistler when the town was a fashionable coastal resort amongst British poets and artists at the turn of the century before last. It’s been nice to be able to hop on the ferry again just for the sake of going for a ride on empty French roads, pastries from village bakeries with coffee on the terrace outside a PMU bar. No forms or tests complicating things, just the post-Brexit stamping of passport in and out of the EU. Three days of my current allowance of ninety used up so time to start thinking of another trip over…
*you have to pronouce Sarthe appallingly incorrectly with an English accent for that title to work. The correct pronunciation is ‘Sart’ with a hard T.