Autumn Tour – 2010
By our roving and rambling European correspondent Patrick Coleman
This late tour covered 495-miles, 35-hours of cycling, to the South Coast and then across Normandy between St. Malo and Calais.
Phil, Pete, Martin and Pat were the only riders in CC Luton who opted for this one, probably because it was going to be in late September when there was likely to be an excess of wind and rain. As it worked out, they were blessed with long summer days throughout, until they descended into Calais on the final day.
Within the first couple of hours of the ride out from Streatley, our four were destined to be joined throughout their tour by another; an oversized personality which was a constant annoyance to Phil and definitely not a good travelling companion for him, although, it was entertaining for other three.
Sunday 19th September – Cycle from the Streatley round-about to take an overnight ferry from Portsmouth
- Monday 20th September – Dock in St. Malo and cycle to the Hotel De France in Vire
- Tuesday 21st September – Cycle from Vire to La Terrasse Hotel in LisieuxWednesday 22nd September – Cycle from Lisieux to Les Airelles Hotel in Neufchatel
- Thursday 23rd September – Cycle from in Neufchatel to Augreduvent Hotel in Berck-sur-mer
- Friday 24th September – Cycle from Berck-sur-mer to take the ferry to Calais, for the drive home from Dover.
Streatley to Portsmouth
The four met at Streatley round-about, at 8.30am on a cool and cloudy Sunday morning, all carrying minimum panniers and set off West towards Dunstable and the Chilterns.
We descended from Ashridge Park turned right onto Berkhamsted High Street and took the next left, which was the first test of our gearing for carrying panniers and where Phil found that he couldn’t engage his big ring, luckily, because of the terrain, his ‘39’ was all he needed.
The lanes were quiet and all was going well as we stopped in old Amersham for brunch at a ritzy little café charging £6 for coffee and cake or beans on toast, before moving back into The Chilterns towards Loudwater. Stopping at a cross roads at Winchmore Hill, Phil had more big ring trouble as he felt the presence of something close behind him, when Martin stopped to check the map and said to Pat, “It looks like something Lady Gaga would wear”. We all looked at each other and as we then cycled on, it was clear that we would not be travelling alone. The four had been joined by Fischer, somewhat of an annoying manifestation for Phil, riding right up his tail.
We cycled on towards Bray and then crossed under the M4 on our way to Binfield, as we passed through Dorney, Martin realized we’d missed a junction and that we were heading into Eton, we stopped and decided that instead of doubling back on ourselves, that we’d carry on towards Windsor instead. We cycled through Eton, got onto a cycle path to avoid busy traffic around Windsor and found ourselves retracing our route from Eton Wick to Dorney! This loop added over an hour and about 20-miles to our journey, but by taking it, at least it gave us the opportunity to see a Mink as it entered a weir which was taking river water through to the canal. Pete recognized the mink from its black-red colour. It was the size of a thin cat, as it zipped across the road, straight in front of us.
Before our mink-spotting detour, we’d already expended too much time to sit for lunch, so we’d eaten sandwiches outside a newspaper shop! We went on to Binfield, rounded Wokingham and cycled the lanes to Fleet, which added yet more time than planned, causing us to worry that we’d miss our ferry, so we opted to take a more direct and busy route through Farnham.
This leg was the most un-enjoyable part of our tour, as we cycled along the A325 towards Greatham in the mid-afternoon, due to the weight of traffic, oversized 4×4’s and people carriers. We gritted our teeth and cycled on, concentrating so as not to become another traffic statistic. Getting depleted, we stopped at a petrol station for more food and drink and had to wait a couple of minutes for a big enough gap to turn right through the traffic and continue South. No sooner had we joined the traffic than Phil put on his shades and a lens dropped out, Traffic streamed by yet somehow the lens survived.
We then got back onto minor roads towards Petersfield and found several picturesque towns like Steep. By the time we rounded Havant, we stopped to put on our lights as the sky darkened. On each occasion we halted and re-started, Fischer would cause Phil to grumble and sigh.
Cycling through the South Downs was good, although some of the villages to the North of Portsmouth would have given Marsh Farm a good name. We finally descended straight into the ferry port and straight onto the boat, where we appeared to be the last passengers. By the time we’d tied up our bikes, removed panniers changed shoes and walked up to our cabin, the boat had cast off.
Day One was a long day in the saddle but we couldn’t have timed the ferry any better, after 11-hrs on route, covering 140-miles. “How far”? Asked Phil, “D’y know, I don’t think I’ve ever ridden that far before”.
Our boat took the 12-hr crossing. The Britannia, a French operated ferry served us with an excellent meal for £10. We had a 4-berth cabin, which felt like a prison cell. The boat also provided entertainment; the first act was a couple of Geordies on keyboard and guitar, playing pop songs from the 70’s, followed by a gay magician who was levitating orbs without much panache, although the French in the audience seemed not to understand the dialogue and appeared to enjoy both acts.
After a couple of well earned beers, we all slept like troopers in our bunks, within the steel hull of the boat, before docking at 7.00am.
St. Malo to Vire
The morning was cool and bright as we cycled the coast road to Concale. Concale had a feel of Jersey about it, it was clearly well maintained and well frequented. We cycled onto the pier to look down the coastline, where there was a tiny market of 2-tents selling freshly caught oysters.
We bought bananas and water before moving on to le Mont St.Michel and Pat clearly misunderstood the women running the little shop by throwing his banana skin into a basket which was for sale! Along the shore line to St. Michel we cycled along what appeared to be a flood plain, which was put to good use to grow many varieties of crop. As we passed through this area, we could smell the onions and garlic, being manually harvested.
We crossed the Selune near Pontaubault, and cycled into Normandy to lunch in the sunshine outside of a restaurant, which was on the side of a commuter road and although haulage traffic sped by us, because of the wide open space of France, the aura of our lunch was relaxing and tranquil. We sat and enjoyed omelette and fries with a couple of beers. Because of the wealth and diversity of our experiences over the last 30-hours, it really felt like we’d already been touring for at least 3-days.
After finishing our meal with an espresso, we cycled on towards Vire, through the cider orchards of Calvados. It was our 1st experience of this crop, where because the cider apples are so small size they looked more like flowers than fruit. We passed through a series of villages without seeing either a car or a local and the 3 all agreed with Martin when he said “I never get tired of cycling through French villages”.
Vire is a large town by French standards and we arrived at our hotel at 5.30ish, as Hotel De France didn’t have a bar we relaxed in a café on an opposite round, for a pre-aperitif. The food in the Hotel was well cooked, comprising of small portions of a wide range of accompanying vegetables, all served over-elaborately. The wine was strikingly expensive and although we would have ordered a Burgundy, the 70 Euros price tag was too much and so we enjoyed a Beaujolais at 25 Euros, which turned out to be a good choice, if it hadn’t been the cheapest, we wouldn’t have ordered it. After dinner we walked into the town centre at about 9.00pm and found every shop, cafe and bar to be closed, but the walk helped us realise how tired we were and so without further refreshment, we when to bed.
Vire to Lisieux
After breakfast, we settled our bill at 80 Euros each and at 9.00am we cycled into a cool sunny morning. By 10.30am we shed our arm and legwarmers, stopping to look down into the morning mist which filled the Orne valley. Cycling up and down the hills of Normandy, Phil continued to complain about both Fischer and his big ring.
We ate lunch in the centre of Thury-Harcourt, a pleasant tourist town, where we sat in the town square, ordered Faux Fillet, assuming it would be a burger and was served with a steak when we ordered it with frites.
As we passed through several villages on-route, we were aware that the locals were locking their cars and drive gates, and we wished this had continued when we stopped for lunch because a woman stopped to buy cigarettes from the cafe we were dining at, left her engine running and we had to dine on her exhaust fumes.
At our afternoon beer stop, Martin checked out why Phil couldn’t get into his ‘50’ and noticed that it wasn’t because of a missing screw, as Phil had thought, but it was because his gear cable was too slack! Which Martin tightened for him.
As we cycled into the afternoon Phil became aware of a 3rd problem, a metallic rubbing noise when he changed sprockets, so in the peak of the afternoon sun, Martin stopped to check-out his rear mech and saw that the chain was threaded outside of its retaining lugs! Whilst Phil held his bike, Martin and Peter grovelled on their knees to unbolt the guard of his rear mech and run his chain properly around both jockey wheels. Luckily Phil was carrying shower gel and Martin was able to degrease his hands before setting on.
As they entered the road leading to the centre of Lisieux, Pat’s chain snapped, but luckily the four were only a couple of hundred yards from their hotel for the night.
With Martin’s chain tool, Pat shortened his chain in the garden of the hotel, chained-up their bikes out of sight for the night, washed his kit, himself and was drying off and applying Sudacrem to his undercarriage when Phil walked into the room, saw Pat and backed-out of the room “Wooh, too much information” He said. Phil had visited to use some Sudacrem himself but thought again after he’d seen Pat applying it. “When you two are ready” said Phil, “We’ll walk into the centre and find a Pharmacy (to deal with Fischer)”. Pete and Pat didn’t want to miss this!
In town, they found a flashing green cross, Pete went in with Phil, while Martin and Pat peer-in through the window, a young female assistant came over to Phil, “Antiseptic, s’il vous plait, for a very sore derrière” She looked at Phil, then at the others and Phil informed her “I’m a cyclist”, “Ah” she said “my father is a cyclist, I know what you will need” and came back with a tube of cream.
Their hotel was the most expensive and most dilapidated of their tour, probably because Lisieux is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics. Holy paintings and statues littered any spare space, outside nuns walked to and from the basilica and inside the heating was on, presumably to comfort the older pilgrims, which also assisted in drying the 4’s cycling kit.
God certainly does work in mysterious ways.
Lisieux to Neufchatel
We packed and went down for breakfast at 8.00am to find the dining room was locked; the only member of staff had only just arrived and was unpacking the deliveries for us guests. We set off at 9.00am and on another sunny morning Martin steered us through the work traffic and through a deciduous forest on route to cross the Seine.
As we progressed North, that morning, we passed through a large forestry area on yet another Roman road as we cycled between shade and full sunlight in the forest, the temperature varied between 3 and 23°C. In the forest we saw truffle seekers and deer, on our way to cross the Seine. Because the road bridges were not replaced after WW II, Martin steered us to a ferry (all of which provide a crossing at no charge). On the Northern bank of the Seine was a restaurant, but because brunch was so substantial, no one really wanted lunch, but to ensure against the ‘bonk’ and not knowing when the next opportunity would be, they decided to eat. The waiters offered a table inside, but because it was such a sunny day, the four wanted to sit outside, which was not the best plan because as the sat sipping water and eating a dish of skate, the sun was at full tilt on their heads and with no breeze the temperature approached 30°C.
Phil was smiling at that afternoon stop, after criticising Pat for wearing his helmet at a jaunty angle within a patisserie, but later on that day we were to ride on a cycle path where tree roots had lifted the tarmac, which gave the feel of irregular angled corrugated iron, yes, ouch!
As we approached Neufchatel the strain on Pete was visible, due to the work undertaken in hauling his heavy bike though our hilly route, Martin drew back to give Phil a chance to sprint for the sign and they were off, Phil and Pat accepted defeat, but from somewhere deep, Pete found his legs and took the sign, unlucky for Martin, who was expecting an uphill finish.
The Les Airelles Hotel was their most modern stay and where our bikes were secured in the manager’s personal garage.
We were early for dinner and so tried out a couple of bars to pass the time.
At dinner to ordered local cider, wine, cheese and where Pat was talked into trying the signature desert of the region, which was unfortunately too sickly a chocolate taste for him.
Neufchatel to Berck-sur-mer
To our surprise, when we mentioned Berck-sur-mer, we didn’t get any response from the French, who appeared not to have heard of it! When we arrived, we knew why, it was as dreary as the common English resort. We arrived at about 5.00pm and as the hotel didn’t open until 6.00am, we sampled the sea front and just as we were finished our first cider the waitress closed the sun shade because they knew that rain was to follow, which it did, very heavily, so we stayed on and ordered Belgian beer and waited for the rain to stop.
Although Berck-sur-mer was a very uninspiring place, our hotel as the best we’d stayed at, it was run by a charming young couple and seemed to be frequented by the local French. In checking out the menu, Pete saw that they served a traditional French aperitif, named something like ‘Sisne’ which I know I’ve got wrong, but more importantly it was a very, very acquired taste which I couldn’t liken to any other spirit.
Berck-sur-mer to Calais
That morning it was raining, but by the time we’d had breakfast it had stopped and the sun started to shine, this point of the tour was fairly flat and we saw more traffic as we headed for Montreuil, so the French provided more cycle paths, where again the tarmac was too thin and projecting tree roots made for more discomfort than we’d wanted, especially Phil and Fischer.9
This was our coolest morning, but it had stayed dry all the way until we approached the red & white water tower as the highest point before descending to the coast. 15sec after Phil said “You know, we’ve been very lucky with the weather”, we hit a rain front coming off the coast and as we descended, slit eyed, the coldness of the rain stung our cheeks.
At the foot of the hillside, as we cycled in pouring rain, Martin picked up a second puncture.
We got to the ferry terminal at 3.00pm, went to Sea France, who offered us a crossing for 17 Euros but who didn’t think we’d get on the 3.40pm ferry because of queues at the passport point, the next ferry would be 18.50, so we shot over to the competition, who could get us on the 4.40 crossing for 39 Euros. Back we went to Sea France, bought tickets for the 3.40, rode to the front of the queue where Martin asked a driver “Would you let a few tired, wet and cold cyclists get in front of you please”?
We luckily got onboard as one of the last passengers.
Being cold wet and tired, we were allowed to use the trucker’s showers, where there was plenty of biological life, in the soap and on the walls. As the 3 waited for Phil to finish drying-off, we sat in the trucker’s restaurant and when Phil came through we ate there at no charge because the staff were chlorinating the showers. Although Phil had made his feelings plain about his deep contempt for the fifth personality in the group, it became apparent that Fischer was determined to follow him all the way home.