What we did last summer (in France)
I’ve probably bored you all to tears with tales of the trip that me, Robbie and Donald Smith made through France, but a couple of Burners had asked me to do a write-up with some photos for the web-site. It’s impossible to condense almost 3 weeks of riding into a couple of pages, and a day-by-day commentary would be extremely tedious, so instead I’ve listed some of the things that stood out or we learned while away.
We followed the route / itinerary laid out in France En Velo, a guide book detailing how to get from St Malo to Nice on quiet roads (without having to plan it all out yourself). It’s thoroughly recommended and the route chosen takes you through some amazing places. Hopefully it’ll be useful for anyone that does the same trip – and you really should if you’re lucky enough to get the chance.
France is very big, very rural, and full of medieval villages
That may sound like a pretty obvious statement, but it took us aback just how far from civilisation we seemed to be at many (most ?) points during the trip. Whether it was the endless cornfields, vineyards or sunflower farms, we seemed to spend much of our time riding through farmland. In the north especially, the influence of the Romans is clear to see with loads of arrow straight roads as far as the eye could see. Many of the seemingly deserted villages we passed through didn’t look as though they’d changed for hundreds of years, and some of the cars we saw weren’t much younger. Still, that’s part of the infinite charm of the place and all the better for it.
It turns out that in France they don’t speak English. As in, absolutely no-one does or if they do, they pretend they don’t (from the folk we spoke to I genuinely believe that for the vast majority it’s the former). The three of us can all speak enough French to get by so had no communication disasters, but it’s funny when you return home and can go into shops / restaurants without having to think about translating what you want. The language barrier didn’t get in the way of the way we were treated though. All the people we came across or stayed with were incredibly hospitable and friendly. That will always be one of the best memories of France.
August holidays / Lunchtime siestas / Café Stops
Our initial strategy for the average day was –
- 15 miles – coffee stop
- 15 miles – lunch
- 15 miles – coffee stop
- 15 miles – evening meal
Oh, how funny that seems looking back. Most of France goes on holiday during August and that, combined with the fact everything shuts from about 1pm until well, whenever they can be bothered re-opening, meant our plan was blown out of the water. The afternoon stops, in particular, became a bit of a lottery and on several hot days when we were totally out of water and food, finding a café and some shade became the most important thing in the world. Just like touring the Highlands in fact, apart from the shade part.
Hot weather / tropical rain
The fact it was baking hot for most of the trip didn’t surprise us, but two or three tropical downpours in the south of France really did. These tended to happen around 4pm on really hot days, when all of a sudden it was like a tap was turned on and we got a liberal hosing. Thankfully, it was so warm it all evaporated and we dried off pretty quickly. The heat was a particular worry for us, being fair skinned (or, in pre-PC terms, ginger). We’d taken P20 sun-screen and it was fantastic – it seems to be waterproof, sweat resistant and one application lasts the full day. Highly recommended (I’m not on commission, honest !!!).
No chance of Weetabix on this trip !!! Apart from a few places where we had breakfast thrown in, we frequented the local boulangeries far more than was healthy. I’ve not been able to face a pain au chocolat since we came back, while Robbie developed an un-natural fondness for chicken tikka baguettes. At breakfast !!! That’s just wrong ….. At Parthenay, we were having breakfast with the (ridiculously hospitable) family whose house we stayed in, and arrived at breakfast to find a massive bowl in front of each of us. Thoughts of a bowl of Shreddies were dispensed with when Alain, our host, appeared with a massive coffee pot and filled our bowls to the brim. We were buzzing for the next 2 days ….
Navigation / GPS
We had pre-loaded our Garmin and Wahoo with slightly different versions of the same route. These were taken from the book as previously mentioned, and we followed their route to the letter. While we had different versions, they both followed exactly the same roads, so we managed to travel the full distance without any issues, apart from occasional glitches when we’d get 50 metres past a junction and have to go back. There was one time when we came to a junction and our routes diverged, and we followed mine which quickly deteriorated into an almost unrideable gravel track. No-one fell off, it soon joined up with the main route – and was still much better than the old days with maps.
The first week or so was gently undulating and we didn’t really experience anything that would be out of place around South Ayrshire. However, the further south we went the more proper hills we saw. These became steeper and steeper, and longer and longer as the days passed. When the GPS says you’ve got 12km at an average of 7.5%, it’s only natural to equate that to 3 times up the Nic o’Balloch, but laden down with luggage in 30 degree heat with no shade. The ‘highlight’ was the Col de Goudard just before we reached Mende – it even had graffiti on the road as it’s used in a big French pro race each year. I believe a stage of the 2022 Tour de France finishes in Mende, but the pros are approaching from the east (they’re obviously not daft !!!).
Descents – Col Du Mas de l’Ayre / Greolieres / Gorge de la Loup
The upside of having to haul up massive climbs is the descent on the other side. The first of the two that really stick in the mind was the descent of the Col Du Mas de L’Ayre to Les Vans en-route to Vallon Pont d’Arc. Not only was this a fast, twisting 10 mile downhill with a bend every 30 yards, but when we reached Les Vans it really felt like we had reached the South of France, almost like a switch had been flicked. The other (not Ventoux because it was so wet we weren’t much faster than going up) was the last part of the whole ride, from Greolieres down through the Gorge de la Loup to Nice. The start of this was one of those cliff top roads you see in Bond movies, with a 2 foot high wall separating you from a massive drop to certain death. I managed that part at about 8mph on the wrong side of the road with white knuckles and brakes firmly on, while Donald and Robbie bombed away (I don’t do heights). Thankfully, that only lasted a short part of the 25 mile (yes, 25 mile !!!) descent down to the coast. What a way to finish the ride …
Accommodation / Restaurants
Staying in a different Airbnb every night inevitably meant that we’d experience a wide range of different standards of accommodation. The standout was Alain’s massive 4-storey house in Parthenay. I’m not sure how many folk were there but I reckon there was a family of five, plus two or three live-in boyfriends / girlfriends, the three of us, plus two or three other guests. That would be ok, but there only seemed to be one functioning bathroom for us all, and the place could best be described as ….. ramshackle. The folk were incredibly friendly and hospitable though – we’ll never forget that place !!! The rest were more conventional, and I’d happily go back to any of them again. I wouldn’t have any qualms about using Airbnb again either – everything was pretty much as expected.
Sourcing evening meals was similarly varied. In St Laurent-des-Arbres the only place open was the local McDonalds (one of the very few we saw). In Brissac-Quince, we had to go to the opposite end of the scale and felt decidedly out of place at Le Regisseur, half expecting to be turfed out for being too scruffy. Our favourite was the imaginatively titled Le Provencal in Sault. Sault was the only place we stayed two nights in, and we took advantage by going back there the next night – it was brill. All in all, we didn’t have a bad meal although the Italian restaurant in Mende wasn’t anywhere near as good as the posing waiters thought it was.
A good chunk of the trip involved riding along the Ardeche, Nesque and Verdon gorges (and down the Gorge de la Loup on the last day). These roads are unlike anything we see here and are an unforgettable experience. For example, our trusty guide book suggested that the Nesque was some of the best cycling in France. We didn’t believe that 25 miles uphill in the drizzle could merit such an accolade, but it certainly did. Having said that we did feel a bit jealous when we got to the viewpoint at the top to find a Sportive Breaks van with 7 or 8 Brits on lightweight bikes (with no luggage !!!) about to head for the descent. Then again, they all probably felt guilty about getting a lift to the top when they saw us 😊
Everyone will be familiar with Ventoux from the Tour, magazine articles, photos, etc. We knew what to expect and it lived up to our expectations and more. What did surprise us was how busy it was. There was a VCC (Ventoux Contre Cancer) sponsored walk from Sault (17 miles) and there were hundreds of folk doing that – all very cheerful (well, they were at the start !!!). There were also lots of cyclists and bikers but thankfully very few cars. It was a very gradual climb through the trees up to Chalet Reynard, but when we paused it was clear the gradient kicked up from there. That’s when the lunar landscape kicks in, punctuated only by photographers every few hundred yards passing you cards for their websites where you can buy photos of you suffering up the hill. After a stop at the Tom Simpson Memorial the gradient seemed to get steeper for the last section to the summit. All those miles on the hills round Ayr seemed to pay off as we probably passed 10 times more folk than passed us (not including the walkers, obviously !!). By the time we reached the top it was getting really cloudy, and started lashing it down during our coffee stop at Chalet Reynard. We then had the coldest, wettest, longest descent of all time back to Sault. It didn’t spoil one of the highlights of the trip – would love to do it again.
Bikes on TGVs
If you’re planning on taking your bike on a TGV, you must dis-assemble it, pack it in a bag and take it on as hand luggage. If you don’t, you will either not be allowed to get on board or, if you’re extremely lucky, have to make a significant contribution to the conductor’s Christmas Fund for the privilege of stowing your bike in a narrow corridor. In Nice, we only avoided the former by doing the latter. Once on board, the trains are fantastic, especially if you get a seat upstairs as you get a fine view of the French countryside speeding by at 300kph !!! Some things never change though and it was 50 minutes late getting into Paris, requiring some madcap riding across town to Montparnasse that I still have nightmares about.
Punctures / mechanicals / angry drivers
We had none of these over the whole journey. Not one. The road surfaces being really good and consistently smooth probably helped with the first two. The fact that most of the journey was on quiet roads was a factor in the lack of road rage. Having said that, we caused tailbacks as we laboured up twisty climbs on a few occasions, and the worst we experienced was friendly waves and shouts of encouragement. The attitude to cyclists over there is soooo different to what we’re used to here. Bizarrely, we did experience close passes regularly, but they always seemed much slower and safer than what we see on the coast road back to Ayr.
Even going back to my motorbike trips abroad, I’ve always travelled with the bare minimum but when all you have is a tailpack and a handlebar bag, that approach is pretty much dictated. That’s not for everyone so if you’re doing a tour you might want to take more than we did. We still had stuff we never used – sleeping bag inners, towels and arm warmers, so will pack differently next time.
There were loads of stunning places on the route, but these were some of our favourites. Tried to narrow it down to a top 10 but couldn’t. So, if you visit any of these you won’t be disappointed. In chronological order –
- St Malo
- Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil
- Vallon Pont d’Arc
If anyone is planning anything like this, the main suggestion I’d make would be to add in a couple of rest days as, although our legs were fine, the fatigue gradually built up. We stayed in Sault for 2 nights, but our rest day included going up Ventoux. It seems there’s a reason why Le Tour doesn’t do 21 days in a row. I could think of worse places to spend an extra night than Brantome, Vallon Pont d’Arc and Sault ….
- Day 1 St Malo – Fougeres (65 miles 2470 feet)
- Day 2 Fougeres – Craon (52 miles 2497 feet)
- Day 3 Craon – Brissac-Quince (70 miles 2631 feet)
- Day 4 Brissac-Quince – Parthenay (85 miles 2671 feet)
- Day 5 Parthenay – L’isle-Jourdain (65 miles 2749 feet)
- Day 6 L’isle Jourdain – Brantome (81 miles 5102 feet)
- Day 7 Brantome – Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil (71 miles 4160 feet)
- Day 8 Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil – Couzou (61 miles 3428 feet)
- Day 9 Couzou – Entraygues-sur-Truye (68 miles 3261 feet)
- Day 10 Entraygues-sur-Truye – Mende (76 miles 4844 feet)
- Day 11 Mende – Vallon Pont d’Arc (72 miles 3330 feet)
- Day 12 Vallon Pont d’Arc – St Laurent-des-Arbres (52 miles 2753 feet)
- Day 13 St Laurent-des-Arbres – Sault (51 miles 2802 feet)
- Day 14 Ventoux (34 miles 4390 feet)
- Day 15 Sault – Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (72 miles 4711 feet)
- Day 16 Moustiers-Sainte-Marie – Castellane (50 miles 4557 feet)
- Day 17 Castellane – Nice (58 miles 2597 feet)
- Day 18 Train – Nice to St Malo
If we had to sum the trip up, a picture paints a thousand words ….