It’s over. My ride is complete . Thanks to all those who helped make it possible. My mind is full of memories and situations, people and places. So how was it? In a nutshell I would say it was the best ride I’ve ever done. France is a huge country, full of contrasts, as anybody who has been there knows. But it’s more than that. It’s a place where cycles and cyclists are encouraged and not merely tolerated.
The humble cycle and the French heroes of races like the Tour de France have endeared themselves to almost everybody. I attended markets where most people had arrived by bicycle, not car. With cycles parked all along the approaches to these markets it brought a warm feeling inside as I watched their owners shopping before loading their baskets and panniers and heading home with the obligatory baguette sticking out proudly from the top or side of their chosen container.
The trail I followed (La Velodyssee) all the way to the Spanish border eclipsed everything I have seen before. Utilising farm tracks, canal tow-paths, specifically built cycle ways, and the occasional road it was simply blissful. The signage left a little to be desired but that in itself added to the sense of adventure that the northern route encouraged you to feel. To achieve an 80% traffic free route is immensely impressive.
The ribbon of mud and tarmac wound its way through rural France at its most open, popping into towns when you didn’t expect it, and leaving you pleasantly surprised that there was life close by, even though you hardly saw it. Leaving these towns had the opposite effect. You were soon immersed once more in the surrounding countryside in a way that meant that I felt more relaxed than ever before whilst feeling miles away from anything that might cause me distress or grief.
Before you all rush off and buy ferry tickets please understand that this veneer of French polish conjured up by our own romantic minds didn’t touch everything. I raised nothing in France for my chosen charity Sustrans. The state appears to take care of everything and charity is a difficult concept to try to get across to a nation that appears to have none.
Similarly, and despite having a French translation of my reasons for travelling by bicycle, nobody who read it asked any questions or mentioned anybody having mental health problems. Two campsite owners copied the piece or took pictures for their websites, but nobody spoke about anybody suffering mental distress of any kind. Two young french men suggested that France hides away anybody with mental health problems and I saw no reason to disbelieve this. At this realisation I began to feel uncomfortable about even mentioning my own story. When I did it got no reply, comment, or even feint stirring of emotions. People either read my story and walked away or they would tap their heads as they spoke in the time-honoured “he’s a nutter” fashion.
Even Trevor failed to pull a crowd. Initially hurt, he didn’t really mind. The quiet life as a mere trailer was something he excelled at. This may have been because many others also used trailers, most of which had enough gear on them to appear as though the owners were moving house. Trevor’s tiny box accompanied by small front panniers on the rear of my bike looked elegant by comparison. One overloaded trailer had a broken rim to show for its effort on the bumpy tow path and the owners sat scratching their heads as to what to do. There aren’t many bike shops on the Nantes-Brest canal!
In fact the only comments poor Trevor got were derogatory as most European cyclist have decided that two wheels is one too many for the serious cycle tourist. One cyclist suggested that Trevor wouldn’t make it across a few kilometres of deeply rutted track. Oh how we laughed as he caught a front panniers on one such dip and flew over the bars. He was okay and Trevor had nothing to do with it. Needless to say Trevor just trundled across unhampered following Fly like a faithful dog. Even the single track trail we used in places didn’t fluster him and all those Pyrenean hairpin bends just flowed like a river (literally sometimes!).
What about the weather then. Initially freezing cold with icy winds in the north I wore every stitch of clothing I had during the first few days riding and camping.The sun came out at a nice 32 degrees C once I got down towards La Rochelle in the Vendee region. The Vendee is flatlands riding at its best The wind tore into us at times, as it always does here. There’s nothing to slow it down and it peaked as we crossed a causeway of some 4 km in length across the sea to the Ile de Moutier.
It was so nice in La Rochelle that we all took a two-day rest to visit the old town and laze around. After the initial week I found I could sit outside in warm sunshine almost every evening. It’s been a long time since that happened on a trip. I sometimes cooked and sometimes just ate cold stuff. It was blissful to not wear even a light fleece and for my Buff to protect my head from heat instead of helping prevent hypothermia, its normal Devonshire role.
Just as I was getting used to this it started to storm and the next days rain gave 150mm of water. Can you imagine six inches of rain in thirty-six hours? I rode in it and Trevor learned to swim. Roads were shut and the cycle route was both flooded and barred. We swam our way to safety feeling superior to the mountain bikers who didn’t want to get their expensive hubs wet. I figured that was the reason I bought the Rohloff and to date it’s still working despite this abuse, as is the Son dynamo. That’s a testament to their quality and design and I had no qualms that they would survive this treatment.
South of Royan and the trail was gleaming new tarmac all the way to the Spanish border. I stayed on sites that had been flooded and experienced the joy of wearing wet clothes in order to dry them. Once dry the sun came out for a few more days and I readied myself in order to cross the Pyrenees, something my body/mind was unsure about. I was drawn to these soaring peaks by years of watching Le Tour. I hadn’t ridden any hills at all until I got to within a hundred kilometres of the border where the scenery started to roll, so this would be a bit special.
If you intend riding through the Gironde you had better like trees. Arid forest that have grown on sandy soils feel like a tinder box just waiting to burn. The trail hugs the coast for the most part, feeling much more remote than it is in reality. I played games like “I wonder what’s around the corner.” It was always more trees with occasional snatched sightings of the sea.
The Dune de Pyla looked impressive, but rain stopped play and I merely cycled on by. There’s a solitude here that belies where it is in relation to places like Bordeaux. Cycleways leave the trail like spokes on a wheel allowing you to continue riding easily across Southern France using the Midi Canal or ride right into the centre of Bordeaux. Some of us are drawn to mountains though and these routes appeared to me as escapes with no pull to ride them as a bypass to the main event. Although I saw few tourists, I saw nobody else dragging a trailer over the high passes.
Everybody talked of flash floods and snow as I moved in to take on the mountains. The Col de Tourmalet was closed as were the Cols D’Aubisque and Soulor. Webcams showed the extent of the late snow that had proven impossible to shift at that point. No road was visible at all where it should have been. A detour was called for.
By now you probably know the next chapter. Hot sunshine caused melting and monstrous thunderstorms. Heavy rain following searing heat caused flash flooding and left me stranded in Bagneres Du Luchon. Three mountain Cols had been bypassed by riding north to Lourdes. Two more cols were completed (Col D’Aspin and Col de Peyrsoude) before I got evacuated from a campsite in Bagneres de Luchon to a hotel in the hills.
I lost a couple of days there and for only the second time in the whole trip I came close to the edge mentally. I felt close enough to stare over the precipice before thinking “I need to listen to this” and stopping for another double rest, good food, and some reparation after a frightening experience. Mother nature at her most angry is not a force to argue with. I had headed to Luchon because the weather threatened to lock me in a small town with little chance of getting out. The epic ride to Luchon (as its known) over the Col de Peyrsoude in appalling conditions will live with me forever.
I had experienced some similar mental distress earlier in the week as circumstances had forced me to make difficult decisions. I had begun to feel trapped and the reaction had seen me sat on a pavement in tears before I took control, found a campsite, and spoilt myself for a couple of days. In Luchon I was at least trapped in a bigger town and this had been my reason for riding there. With no way out I just had to sit and wait, wondering what was becoming of my tent, belongings, Fly and Trevor, all of which had to be left behind. I could at least be pleased with my decision-making, even though it felt like mere survival at the time.
It was most odd but I kept feeling I was being given a message that the mountains weren’t a safe place to be at the time I was there. My detour routes were also getting flooded once I passed through as though I was being chased away, chastened and fearful. Two people lost their lives in Lourdes just two days after I cycled through there with almost two metres of water in the town centre.
Initially I tried to put my fears down to not knowing how I would perform on these monster mountain ascents but it was actually a primitive, intuitive type feeling, and one I knew all too well from experience. Last time I had felt like that I had turned from a mountain and literally fled, only to read that the area was obliterated with heavy snow and storms a few hours later.
Escaping from Bagneres de luchon once the roads reopened, access to the hills proved impossible and it would have been irresponsible to try to find another route into what had become a disaster zone. The little town of St Beat was a scene of broken bridges, roads swept away and streets awash with debris. Trees had been broken away like match wood, cars submerged in mud, and houses all but destroyed. All of this lined my chosen escape route as I headed north, east, and south, in order to regain the mountains whilst dodging emergency services that had been employed to clear up the mess.
Luckily the weather began to improve and I’d saved the steepest and hardest col until last. Up toward the Col de Port I rode, Trevor following behind, before breaking out to the Col de Peyroude up the steepest hill I’d climbed by far. The French cartographers averaged it at a mind-boggling 18% and it all but killed my legs, lungs, and will to succeed. Only the spontaneous standing ovation from a contingent of Italian riders at the col gave me the courage to smile as I reached the top. Once up though I recovered quickly, a testament to my increasing fitness and climbing ability. The twenty-five kilometre descent was simply awesome and a fixed grin appeared as we sped down the opposite side that I’d crawled up earlier on.
I would have loved to have climbed more passes, but it wasn’t to be. I felt as though I was serving an apprenticeship, earning my colours and the right to roam amongst giants.
It was just one month of riding but it felt much more. The variety I experienced, the cultural differences, and the people I met, made this another special moment in my life. I questioned whether I want to ride alone for long periods and I learned that I can cope with more than I credited myself as being able to, at least in the short-term.
Sitting in my friend’s house, immediately after finishing, I began to relax. By the end of the week, once the tiredness abated, I felt as though I wanted to carry on, exploring and learning, riding and discovering. It defines me as a person in a way that nothing else, with perhaps the exception of writing, does.
This ride was only possibly because of the generosity of other people. I would like to thank all of you who contributed to enable me to experience an incredible journey that just three years ago seemed like an impossible dream.