Penultimate, next to the last, the one before, nearly.
I have built this up in my head to be a big one, a long hard day in the saddle not so much because of the distance but because of the elevation to climb. Rosporden to Landernau is 89 miles and over 6500 feet climbing. That is like climbing 10 Carn Breas without a pasty. Landernau to Roscoff is only 39 miles. Piece of cake. As it turned out 89 miles is no problem. We are hard.
We arrive finally in Roscoff having completed about 1600 kms of cycling. No one died.
The hotel is a four star spa hotel and well worth it. We have been upgraded to a ‘suite’, complete with sauna, massage and other stuff. The staff are very helpful, as have the majority of the people we have met here. Today has been relaxing with wine, food and more wine. In fact it is probably fair to say that we have enjoyed the hospitality that France has to offer to the maximum. We are now being comforted with what we call a ‘nightcap’ but the French call a ‘derniere pour les autres’ which means the ‘last before others’. This difference seems to really differentiate the Anglo Saxon from the Gallic. ‘Night cap’ has a finality about it, a sort of puritanical end point which says ‘this far and no further’, whereas the gallic ‘derniere pour les autres’ invokes the feeling that , yes this is tonights last one, but by jimminy there will be more’. Vive La France!
Dear reader, I would very much like to entertain you with tales of derring do, but the sea air of Roscoff do overcome me with with ‘ennui’ and other abstract french concepts. Not only that, there are weird sounds that resemble dogs being interfered with.
Tonights dinner involved Moules, a fish I’ve no idea were it came from, and four fromages. It was necessary to drink two demi bottles of Pouilly Fouisse and then some. I think it it best if I finish now for fear of incoherence, bonhomie or immanent arrest.
Thank you all for bothering to read such drivel.
Some people like numbers. Take the number 10 for example, very useful indeed for common arithmetic especially in the decimal system for which it is a necessity. 0 and 1 of course are the foundations of current developed societies across the globe. Human life is now probably unlivable without the 0 and 1 binary system. Some like to live their lives in binary with simple yes/no alternatives to questions being suffice. These people are usually men. It would be rude to call number lovers geeks, but that has never held me back. So, for all the geeks out there today’s numbers:
68 miles, 106 kms, 5 hours 8 mins in the saddle time, 0 punctures or broken spokes, average speed 12 mph, 2 ham and cheese baguettes, 4 coffees, 2 crepes, about 6-7 litres of water, 1 ice tea, 1 lemonade, 8 Breton biscuits, 2 bananas, 1 2CV, 25 degrees, and now 2 cold beers.
For the geographers: towns ridden through: Aurey, Hennebont, Quimperle and now Rosporden.
Quimperle seems especially pretty as it sits in the valley of the confluence of two rivers. Today is the Fete De l’Eau in which bunting and flowers decorate the riverside walks, market stalls abound, the cafes are thronged and an air of jollity and nonsense infuses everyone with…of course, ‘bonhomie’, a word we english have to borrow because our basic misanthropy prevents us from developing it. There is a tug of war, with canoes, on the water and music from the 1970’s. The two are not necessarily related. All of this of course in glorious sunshine. Women are wearing straw hats and smiles, the men are in the bars looking at the women in straw hats and smiling. Children are amusing themselves with ice cream and crepes. We’ve stopped at a bar to watch the riverside scene while stuffing our faces, one could sit here all day and let nothing happen. The French seem quite good at letting nothing happen, bar eating and drinking in the sunshine. They are bit like the Cornish in this regard who have let nothing happen for a few decades now. I encourage you to let nothing happen for a while, you might quite like it. Achievement is over rated and best left to Londoners, the insane and Germans.
The hotel is right beside the railway station which for me is heaven. I think it might be the TGV lline from Paris-Nantes-Brest. I could spend the evening just watching out for trains, but this might be anti social, a bit like picking your nose as you say “I Do” at the alter. As today is Sunday the hotel restaurant is closed. This happens here quite a lot. Sunday that is, about once a week and results in hotels closing their restaurants. So we will have to walk into ‘town’, a word I use loosely to describe this particular collection of houses. I’m not sure yet if this is the wild west of Brittany where they shoot your hat and eat your horse.
I might have alluded to, or made reference, to the relationship between Brittany, or Briezh, and the rest of France being like that between Cornwall and England. Many of you will know of Breton culture and language and its celtic fringe nature. Both Cornwall and Briezh have a black and white flag, a language, a ‘Lands End/Finisterre’, stick out into the Atlantic, cider, colonised by the neighbouring country, a crushed rebellion, sea food, and ‘attitude’. Their road sign are in two languages and they have a rivalry with a neighboring county. And cows. Lots of them. Differences include a very very fast train from the far west, Brest, to the capital and a motorway going both east and south. Perhaps the Cornish should try and burn down Paddington to make a point? The sunshine here can be very liquid as well but is currently of the ‘hot variety’. They of course do not have decent ale or pasties. I think there is a an opportunity to sell the French both of these items. I know these would be as well received by the French as a free brothel on Sundays.
Tomorrow is the last long day of 88 miles to Landernau. It will be warm, it will be hilly. There will be beer at the end of it.
Nothing happened in Rennes.
Well, if it did we were not there to see, hear or touch it. This was because we decided to stay at the hotel rather than tramp into town, pretty though it is.
A lovely warm evening calls for a lovely cold beer, served by the lovely hotel receptionist/barstaff/problem solver/breakfast preparer. Lets call her ‘fifi trixie-belle’ which is as good a name as any save ‘Bert’. Fifi looks about 17 and I wonder what she is doing working here. She should still be in school. Many of the hotels seem to run on just one or two staff who do everything (apart from Thai massage and kitten fluffing). Fifi is no exception. Her english is pretty non existent and so my french had to suffice, and it is good enough now not to need hand signals, a book or an emergency call to the British Consulate to get me released from jail. She is a size 10, wearing a burgundy blouse, a figure hugging black skirt and has the eyes of Catherine Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She also has the teeth of a dog eating breakfast in a dumpster. I did not notice, but Sean did. I think he may have overstated the case.
That was as good as Rennes got for us, except of course for dinner.
We set off the next morning for Vannes, another 72 miles away on the south coast of Brittany. Another blue sky greeted us, with temperatures set to ‘very comfortable’ rather than ‘mad dogs and englishmen’ of the past days. There is a boulangerie (isn’t there always) beside the hotel so we stock up and go.
Lunchtime finds a bar/restaurant rather than just a bar/tabac open. So, and for just 11 euros, we have salade nicoise/assiete of meat for starters then a steak frites. We passed on the desserts but it was all inclusive. Great value, good food. We sit outside on the terrace in warm shade. Food is of course very important as it is easy to get ‘bonking’ on a bicycle. Its that sinking, weak low energy feeling that results in cycling through treacle. We have found the heat to be especially sapping of energy. Lunch is thus very welcome, in addition to packing our daily baguette, bananas and sweets.
As this is Brittany, the country resembles Devon and Cornwall. This means hills rather than beaches, moorland and questionable locals. As we are inland there are no short sharp steep bastards like Portreath or Porthtowan. There are however long ascents that creep up on you like a paedo in a darkened cinema, if you know what I mean, kind of unexpected. The last 20-30 miles today began those hills in earnest, and despite lunch we were very near to bonking before we got to Vannes. I might have said some rude words at some hills and slopes given the energy required and energy available ratio getting really low. Sean was quiet which is always a sign of trouble up Mill.
Fortunately, Vannes has a rest day planned for tomorrow to enable us to take stock, let chalfonts settle and prepare for the last push to the north coast. We have 61 miles to Rosporden, 88 to Landernau and 31 to Roscoff, For now, there is a cold beer waiting for me at the bar.
Cockerels crowing at daybreak. About 3 at least. Daybreak is of course about 5:30.
The hotel window is open, the shutters drawn halfway up, the town sleeps. The view from the third floor bedroom window looks over red pantile roofs, making this scene more like Spain than France. I can see house martins below us darting under eaves to their nests, I can’t see any chickens. This is before bedtime. We have dinner and stroll to take in the panoramic view of the Loire. There are swifts, swallows and martins, we have seen bats, but no chickens. A nightcap of a Talisker and a Balvenie see us off to bed. All is quiet. The town clock chimes its bell in the stillness. No rowdy drunks, no sirens and no chickens.
Until about 5:30.
Neither of us can be arsed to get out of bed and close the window. So we both are half awake listening to cockerels. Nothing else, just a few Colonel Sanders volunteers if I had my way. They sound the same in England as they do in France; evoking the countryside like clean air, tractors and dung. Knowing the behavior pattern of the male chicken in the vicinity of a female chicken, each crow actually means “whose next for a damn good seeing to?”. Well this is France, and I guess if a French Cock can’t give french cock there is no justice in the world.
Sleep, however, would be nice.
Undaunted we are up for breakfast at 8 and leave the Loire for Rennes, 70 miles away.
At this stage we are both feeling the weight of the demands made upon us. We are both carrying ‘minor’ ailments onto the road. Both bikes are fine. No more spoke or chain issues.
There is often a time during any long challenge, be it hill walking, cycling or pasty eating, when for a fleeting moment the thought occurs that the endeavour is a bit much. Day after day of the same routine while at the same time any bodily niggles get amplified because there is no rest, no time for the body to repair or recover, no recuperation or respite. Scott at the south pole probably thought “bollocks to this” but a bit late in the day, Nelson may have thought “cant be arsed” the day before Trafalgar and David Beckham, thinking he’d shagged Ginger Spice before waking up with Posh, thought “is this really worth it?” But we are all British and we just get on with it. No fannying about, JFDI.
We stopped halfway at Chateaubriant for food, lots of it, and a chilled coke. Chalfonts had cooled down from ‘fiery’ to merely ‘spicy’ while Sean’s old shoulder injury required some medication. As is often noted (by old farts) that youth is wasted on the young. Well, it is. The bastards. when was the last time you heard a teenager complaining of chalfonts or sore joints? Yes they moan about having no money, freedom or “justice in the world” but they don’t go on about bits of the body not working. I would trade worries about spots, haircuts and being caught wanking for bodily malfunctions any day.
We hit some super fine tarmac after a town called Janve. It is as smooth and as black as a snooker ball or the charred testicles of an Isis suicide bomber. On surfaces like this the bike goes quiet, just the gentle roll of tyre on road and swish of chain on cog. It becomes Zen* like. Even the road kill looks glad to be there.
We reach Rennes in good time to shower, cold beer and a dinner including oysters and foie gras, accompanied by a Muscadet sur Lie. Life is hard.
Vivre La France. So why are those at Calais trying to get across the channel? Have they not seen Dover on a cold grey January morning? If the Daily Mail is to be believed, all they will get upon setting foot in the UK is a hefty dose of racism served up alongside deportation.
Another 70 miles tomorrow to the seaside town of Vannes on the south coast of Brittany before a rest day. There is then an 89 miler up to Rosporden and then the last day to Roscoff of 46 miles.
We are still following the Loire as it slowly flows towards the Atlantic. It is a wide shallow river flowing over many gravel banks of yellow and white chalk or sandstone. We joined it at Orleans 3 days and 270 miles away. Sunshine all the way, in our faces, as has been the wind. It has been a steady headwind of about 20 miles an hour. French weather forecasts put it at 50 kph. Try pointing a hairdryer at your face for three days, while also getting the ambient air temperature up to between 30 and 43 degrees. We have forgotten what a tail wind feels like. The good news is that in this wind a cyclist’s fart reaches Paris way to the east long before the sound of it reaches the cyclist’s ears.
From Saumur there are small roads that hug the riverbank which we follow for about 10 miles. The river flows almost exactly from East to West and is flanked on its southern bank by rocky escarpments all the way. Vantage points allow a view across the the flat north bank while the rock on the south provide for many caves for storing wine. This is of course wine country, the many vineyards sitting on the southern hill and slopes. At one point we pass a cave called La Herpiniere selling sauvignon blanc. I know this because Ann and I visited here a few years ago. We still have the wine glasses. The wine itself is long gone. Whites predominate but we also pass through Anjou where a half decent rose can be found.
We make steady progress towards lunchtime exchanging the occasional bonjour with passing cyclists. The day is getting hotter, we are drinking plenty of fluids but need to stop for food. The small towns seem uninterested in playing any role as a victualing station as time after time we find whole streets closed. With blood sugars getting low we reach a road that starts winding up a hill more than usual. The D751 from Saumur uses the southern bank and thus hits the escarpment from east to west. The result is a series of undulations and mini hills through the villages and towns. Very scenic, quite tiring. At a panoramic viewpoint we decide the stop and eat what remains of this morning’s baguette. It is hot, we sit in the open air under a baking sun. The view across the northern bank extends for miles as we are high above the river. Time came to move on to try and find some food. The road continues to climb and bend. We’d got no further than a few meters when we saw a restaurant with an ‘open’ sign. So, all the while when we’d been eating a bit of bread and cheese in the heat, just above us on the road was a terrace restaurant complete with sunshade. On seeing the sign we both burst out laughing, if only we had kept going just a few more meters.The sting however was that chef had just stopped cooking and so no more food orders were being taken. Instead of a decent meal, we sipped ice cold coke in the shade while the staff had their freshly cooked lunch.
We cycle for another 16 kms until we reach a town that is open, sort of. Bar Tabacs might not serve food but they will allow you to eat what you bring. We find a boulangerie, buy the necessaries and sit in the shade at the Bar Tabac on the main street in Challones sur Loire. There are a few french loiterers, but otherwise any noises people might make are drowned by the tumble weed blowing down the street. Rural France is never open it seems, it is peace, heaven, unless you want something to eat apart from a baguette from a boulangerie.
We’ve been on the road for 10 days and covered at least 1000 kms. It is a challenge, make no mistake and personally the biggest problem is chalfonts. It is a constant battle to prevent a full blown crisis down there. Yesterday’s taxi was result of losing the battle temporarily. If you ever think of long distance cycling and even think about chalfonts being a problem then just get them sorted. Creams, a blow torch, pliers, it does not matter what you apply, just make it affective.
The last 30 miles was through the heat of the day, sapping energy and judgement. The views continue to be stunning. We finally reach our destination but at mile 70 the road decides to go into a series of uphill hairpins. We discover why later at the hotel. The town is an ancient fortress and thus is built at the top of a big hill overlooking the river and surrounding environs. There is a viewpoint just a few meters from the hotel. The Loire is silver in the evening sun which is setting while casting pinks, reds and oranges up to the clouds above. the viewpoint is atop a rocky escarpment probably 400 feet up. Way down in the valley on the northern bank runs the TGV to Nantes. words fail. we’ve just had dinner and a half bottle of Muscadet sur Lie and a nightcap of proper malt whisky. It could only get better if Ann were here.
Tomorrow is another 70 miles north to Rennes.
You just have to love France.
Another number for you.
This refers to the price of a rental, in euros, from Amboise to Saumur (a distance of about 50 miles) by Europcar. Or as it should be called “Euroshaftyourarse”.
The day started well in warm sunny Blois as we found a fantastic bike shop. We really went to town on this one. Sean bought a new chain and a pair of Ortlieb Panniers and eyewear. I got my back brakes fixed and bought a new front wheel, two new drinking bottles and cycling shorts.
The two chaps in the shop were brilliant, all was ‘avec plaisir’, they just got on with doing the necessary work without an appointment. Watching the mechanic fix the brakes was a wonder and demonstrated why we could not have possibly done it at the roadside. It required zen and the art of bicycle maintenance, coffee strong enough to stop your heart, and a certain ‘je ne sais qoi’. the shop is called ‘Detours de Loire’ and is another fine example of a true service business that really adds value to us all, unlike the c*nts that work in finance. By 1200 we were ready to roll and faced a 92 mile stage to Saumur. It was going to be a long day. In preparation we stuffed our faces with jambon et Emmental baguette and packed a chorizo quiche, there being no pasties in France.
The route again follows La Loire, which is one of the finest rivers in Europe, so a bit like the Tamar but without Devon. The Loire is a wide but shallow river flowing over chalk and clay beds, and as we crossed many bridges we could easily look down upon large fish swimming lazily upstream among the weed beds. The water is crystal clear and shimmers in the daytime sun. This is still very flat land and so the cycling is a dream. The river is home to shallow draft sailing boats used for fishing and generally mucking about. The sky again is blue but without the blast furnace heat of yesterday.
The day is generally uneventful until we get to Amboise. This is a delightfully pretty riverside town complete with medieval street plan, eglise and chateau. There really is nothing wrong with Amboise. We indeed have a good lunch there. It is not until we have to leave that things turn. I refer the dear reader to ‘Chalfonts’, the scourge of every free born cornishman. Without going into graphic detail, just imagine having to perform what is, for some, a daily ritual. For me, this is turning into a thrice daily ritual that includes the pain of lucifer’s three pronged fork being poked wickedly, and with vicious targeted skill, into an area of the body that only proctologists are normally interested in. Think of the baby eating Bishop of Bath and Wells and his sword and Blackadder’s failure to repay his loan, think of red hot chilli peppers the morning after, think about white hot pokers and the damage they can do to orifices. Such was half the discomfort I felt after completing daily ritual number three at Amboise. I was not looking forward to getting back on the bike equipped as it is with a saddle as narrow as a Puritan’s mind and as sharp as a newly forged razor.
After about 2 kms of standing in the pedals and with over 70 miles to go, we decide that this is just not going to be feasible. We turn back to Amboise with the express intention of hiring a vehicle. A very nice lady called Emilie in the Renault garage referred us to Europcar rentals. We decide that sean should go ahead on his own while I rent a car. Plan A is to meet at Villandry, a very small village to the west of Tours. As sean heads off with a map, we realise that I have his wallet, passport, food and the name and address of the Hotel we are staying in tonight. If we do not meet in Villandry we are f*cked. neither of us has a working mobile phone. Do not underestimate the value of a working mobile phone. Ever.
I have to cycle another 3 kms standing in the pedals to find the europcar rental office, only to be greeted with bemused ignorance as they do not have have a car available. The ‘ring of fire’ meanwhile is doing its best Vesuvius impersonation at Pompeii. This is when I find out that 650 euros will be the cost of getting my sorry arse to Saumur. So instead we call a taxi and 100 euros later I’m at the rendezvous at Villandry but without being able to call sean who is still without money, food and water. I fire up the ipad, connect to wifi and put out a call to those who might have his number. I know that he will connect to wifi at some point and will be at Villandry. I’m only there for about 10 minutes when Sean appears having helped someone with a puncture and having negotiating Tours. My chalfonts at this stage have relented and so I decide to cycle the 45 miles to Saumur. All is well.
It would be boring to yet again describe the valley of the Loire, its chateaux, willow trees, the bridges over the rivers Indre and Char, its sweeping empty roads and the setting orange light of the sun, but its all true. We make good progress into Saumur, a riverside town dominated by its chateaux in cream coloured sandstone and finally end up meeting two french rugby players called Francois (an English teacher) and Fabian (who makes wine) at a bar. We eat and drink too much thanks to their hospitality.
It is now very late and I need sleep.