Day 1: Saturday 11 July
Frankfurt – Basel, 4 1/2-hour train journey
Basel – Villersexel 110 km
1000 metres of uphill climbing, 5:50 hrs in the saddle, 7:15 on the road, ave. speed 18.5 kmh
Up at 6:30 to catch the train at 8:10. A relaxing journey with only one change of train (not a minor consideration when you have to lift a fully-laden bike in and out of a train or change platforms when there is no lift!), plenty of other cyclists for company, even managed to get an hour's sleep on the intercity train during the last leg to Basel. Having got directions out of Basel from a touring cycling forum I am soon underway properly. The border crossing (in a Basel suburb) is weird considering I am entering the EU from a non-EU country – no checks at all. Once out of Basel, the roads start climbing inexorably until I arrive at Folgensbourg where the Swiss welcoming party awaits: The Folgensbourg Wall, the first steep hill of the tour. It's pretty minor – only a pimple really compared to the Alpine climbs still awaiting the real TdF riders. But then I am cycling with 38 kilos under my backside. They have only 7 kilos to contend with.
The first thing to catch my eye in this area of France – Franche-Comté – are the church roofs. They all tend to have patterns created with different coloured tiles. Very attractive. By 4 in the afternoon I've already reached my planned campsite – but the weather is just too nice to stop! So on I ride – I know I have to circumnavigate a motorway by cycling through some woods and over a field – might as well do that today. Let's hope it's not been ploughed recently! The roads are virtually empty, something that always adds to the enjoyment of cycling, but come 8 in the evening I decide to stop at Villersexel. The town itself looks nice but my immediate concern is getting the tent up, a good shower and some food in me. All done in the space of 45 minutes. So do I go and take a closer look at the town or do I head for the nearest bar and a beer? A beer and find out what has happened in the real Tour de France! Another victory for Cavendish! Then it's back to the campsite for some well-deserved sleep after a long day.
Day 2: Sunday 12 July
Villersexel – Dole 105 km
950 metres of uphill climbing, 6:15 hrs in the saddle, 7 hrs on the road, ave. speed 17 kmh
Another very rural day with lots of quiet country roads and hardly any traffic. Above all the ride along the valley to Montbozon is gorgeous. I really get a chance to relax and take everything in: The masses of wild flowers in the hedgerows, the fields of sunflowers (this must be the classic TdF cliché – cyclists against a backdrop of nodding sunflowers), the smell of wood smoke as I cycle through the villages, the (now disused) public washhouses, the absolute din the crickets produce. The asphalt is a little rough in parts though. But I had been warned about the French asphalt beforehand – so I can't really complain about that.
My route keeps passing close to the River Ognon, which is a treat for the eye as it gently meanders along. I'm glad I have plenty of water with me as it is a hot day and very few of the villages have bars or cafés. In fact they scarcely qualify as villages, tending rather to be just a collection of houses/farms. In the late afternoon I arrive at the Rhône-Rhine Canal, and cycle along the towpath into Dole. A lovely cycle path (these are a rarity in France, by the way) and the canal is pretty. Above all it's nice and flat. After just two days of hilly country roads I know I'm going to enjoy the return journey along a flat route. I find the campsite quickly, get the tent up, shower and cook up some soup in the space of an hour, and decide to give the town a once-over. Dole itself is a very pretty indeed. Lots of water with several canals and the River Doubs (pronounced “du”).
It is also the birthplace of Louis Pasteur. There are no bars though. The French seem to prefer their restaurants. All I want to do is sit outside, drink a beer and enjoy a cigarette. I have to settle for a hotel with some seats outside, but the barman is able to bring me up to date on the real TdF. Hushvod won today's stage. It's going to be a ding-dong battle between him and Cavendish for the green jersey. End of the first week for the real TdF and tomorrow the riders have a rest day – they have 2 more weeks of gruelling riding ahead of them. I have just 1 more before I arrive at the Atlantic.
All France is getting ready for the 14th of July, Bastille Day, the country’s biggest public holiday – and Dole is no exception. Next to the campsite is a whole playing field of hot-air balloons getting ready to take to take off, and very soon the sky is full of them. Pretty loud they are too when they turn the gas on. (Indeed, I didn't need an alarm clock the next morning when one was getting ready to take to the skies at 6:30!) Most of them must have landed somewhere else though. Well at least I hope so – because very few of them seemed to return.
Day 3: Monday 13 July
Dole – Luzy 155 km
950 metres of uphill climbing, 9 hrs in the saddle, 13 hrs on the road, ave. speed of 17.5 kmh
Beautiful weather again, awake early thanks to the hot-air balloonist, a solid breakfast of muesli and fruit, gear and tent packed away and and off I go into the heart of Burgundy. Getting out of Dole is not easy, however, as there are no signs in the town to point me in the right direction. Luckily I find someone who can.
The initial route today is again on quiet, shaded roads. The first (and indeed only) town of note I pass through is Seurre. Seeing that the shops are open and knowing that many shops are normally closed on a Monday, I immediately top up with fruit and sun-cream. I also take the opportunity at a café to tank up with caffeine before pressing on to Chagny, where I take a one-hour break for lunch and a chance to escape the scorching sun. I notice the weather forecast on the TV. Rain predicted for tomorrow, possible storms too. Oh well, can’t always have it good.
Now comes a charming ride on a towpath alongside the Canal du Centre from Chagny to St-Leger-sur-Dheune that will also feature in my return route in 3 weeks’ time. I then decide to diverge from my original plan and cycle into Le Creusot as opposed to taking the by-pass round the town. This turns out to be not such a good idea as the town is very hilly. I stop for an alc-free beer, and eavesdrop while the barman (as he’s got a stentorian voice it hardly counts as eavesdropping) is telling a couple of guys with racing bikes about Sylvain Chavanel's solo ride when he won the French championship and flew up the local big hill. I decide to see what this ascent is all about. It's steep. In fact it's very steep. Chavanel is said to have averaged 25 kmh going up the hill. I struggle to get into double figures. And after a while I give up the battle to stay in double figures. I make it to the top without resorting to the granny gear, however. Just past the summit I suffer a puncture – mercifully before I’m flying downhill. I am greatly tempted to pull over to the left, raise an arm and wait for a car to pull alongside, a mechanic to jump out and replace the wheel – but I know this won’t happen. No back-up crew for my TdF. I find some shade, take off the panniers, turn the bike upside down, and remove the back wheel. Tyre off the rim, punctured inner tube out, new one in, pump it up, make sure everything is OK, tyre back on the rim, wheel back in, chain back on. Wash mucky, oily hands using my drinking water and some grass. Back on bike and off. Total time: 15 mins. In the real TdF a rider loses about 15 seconds and not half as much sweat as I did.
It's now another gorgeous evening. In view of the weather forecast for the morrow I decide to make hay, or rather kilometres, while the sun shines and cover another 30 kilometres or so. This part of Burgundy really is everything it’s cracked up to be. In fact it reminds me of my native Yorkshire – lots of hills, fields and trees. But instead of stone walls and sheep, Burgundy has hedges and cows. The latter have an unnerving habit of gawping at me every time I cycle past, so much so you’d think they’d never seen a cyclist before.
After putting up the tent (another great and cheap municipal camping site – albeit with squat bogs that really torture the already aching legs!) I head into Luzy for some grub. The waitress informs me that a starter (large artichoke and mozzarella salad) and a main meal (chicken, rice and veg) is probably a bit too much food. My response – “I’m hungry, I’ve been cycling all day” – doesn’t seem to convince her. 30 minutes and two empty plates later she’s convinced. She even allows me a pudding. Luzy is also getting ready for Bastille Day: The local brass band is out in force and there is a big procession through the town with all the children carry home-made lanterns. Back at the camp-site the owner warns me that the band is also coming here at 8 the next morning to play a tune or two. Quite why I'm not sure. But what the hell. "Liberty. Egality. Fraternity." Long live the revolution, that's what I say.
Day 4: Tuesday 14 July
Luzy – Chatillon 85 km
600 metres of uphill climbing, 4:50 in the saddle, 6 hours on the road, average speed of 18 kmh
Well – the weathermen got it right. It persisted it down all night. And the thunderstorm came too. Very close – the lightning was right overhead and blew the campsite’s fuses. I have no desire to get out of my tent at 8 o’clock to admire the local marching band when they arrive at the campsite to celebrate Bastille Day. Despite the rain they do indeed play a tune. Albeit a short one. They must be fond of it because they play it again. And that's it, they're gone. And I was hoping they'd play the Marseillaise. They're probably bloody Gaullists!
Although the tent withstood the rain admirably, a lot of my gear (on the bike as no room for it in tent) is sodden wet, and I don’t manage to hit the road till the rain stops at around 13:30. The weather is still very overcast as I head out of Burgundy towards the Loire Valley. After a few small hills the riding is relatively flat and the countryside changes perceptibly, now dominated by fields of maize (that's corn to our American cousins). After an hour or so I cross the Loire. I’m tempted to stop and take a photo of a couple canoeing down river, but light drizzle soon has set in. It crosses my mind that I’ve hardly taken any photos yet on this trip. Ah well. It’s a cycling tour, not a photo-shoot. Soon I reach the Loire's “lateral canal” and stop for coffee. Here I meet a 70-year-old Swiss man who is walking from Switzerland to the Mont St. Michel (in Normandy – so that’s a mere 1000 km or so). Words fail me when I meet people like this. They are simply inspiring. Bop till you drop!
The drizzle now gets stronger and the west wind that I had feared so much before I started the trip begins to take its toll. Coupled with the fact that the surface of the road is in a terrible condition and the road itself is dead straight, the next 30 km or so to the town of Moulins are just a question of head down and pedal. The road is also lined with gigantic ferns – they must be at least 3 meters tall. All a bit spooky really.
In the early evening I reach Moulins and am greeted by a sign announcing that the city is twinned with Bad Vilbel, a small spa town on the tiny River Nidda a mere 4-5 km from where I live. As I ride though the grubby suburbs I can’t imagine why they are twinned with one another. They have nothing in common. As I cycle over the massive River Allier, the contrast with the Nidda couldn’t be greater. And then on my way out of Moulins I discover that they do have something in common: Heartbreak Hill! This is the name given to the hill between Bad Vilbel and Frankfurt that features on the cycle leg of the European Triathlon Championships traditionally held in Frankfurt. It’s a real bitch of a hill. And Moulins seems to have outdone its twin town – there are several such big, steep climbs. But I suppose this is to be expected as I’m now heading into the Auvergne region. After 20 km of never-ending hills I arrive in Chatillon and decide to take a chambre d’hote (B&B) for the night. Nice stone-built house, lovely gardens, very blue bedroom mind. A bit pricey at € 45, but with a hearty evening meal and breakfast thrown in I’m not complaining. It will also give me a chance to make sure all my gear is dry and have a good night’s kip in a bed. The family are really pleasant; their son is visiting – he lives in the Alps and is also a keen cyclist. We have a lot to talk about over dinner. It's pretty tiring speaking French all evening though, as I have to keep racking my brains for words I haven't used for years. But in the course of the evening the title for my trip is born: Traverse de France. Oh – and in case you hadn't guessed: Cavendish won today’s stage of the real TdF. He’s looking good for the green jersey in Paris. Brit power!
Day 5: Wednesday 15 July
Chatillon – Gueret 135 km
1600 metres of uphill climbing, 7:45 hrs in the saddle, 9 hrs on the road, ave. speed of 17 kmh
This was one of those days that started as it meant to go on: With a very big hill. It’s a “bride’s nightie day” – up and down all the time. After a couple of hours comes a real highlight – the long, curving descent into the city of Montlucon. And for the first time I wish I were on my road racer – I could really fly down this hill. Once I pass through Montlucon the roads are almost empty again. This is superb cycling country. One gorgeous hill after another. In Boussac I pass by a very imposing castle – it realy does look like Colditz.
I reach the campsite in Gueret – situated next to a beautiful lake – and proceed to pitch the tent before taking a shower and preparing a massive meal (salad and 500 g of pasta). The man in the plot next to me is flabbergasted at how much gear you can cram into four panniers. I’ve also blagged a chair from a nearby chalet. He asks (as a joke presumably) if I’ve also brought that with me. I sleep like a log this night. Can’t get an update on the TdF though. All I know is that the tour is passing close by. Wish I’d checked out the route before I left, but I was too busy planning my own TdF. (Cavendish wins – again – in a sprint finish I learn the next day.) This has been the hilliest day of my tour so far. By way of comparison: The hilliest day of the real TdF is yet to come – in the Alps with more metres of climbing than you can wave a shitty stick at (somewhere in the region of 4,500).
Day 6: Thursday 16 July
Gueret – Rochechouart 125 km
1000 metres of uphill climbing, 7:20 hrs in the saddle, 9 hrs on the road, ave. speed of 17 kmh
An early start on a bright and sunny day. Waved goodbye to the man on the next plot – little did I know it but I would bump into him the following week again on the Atlantic coast. A small world indeed. Another instant hilly start, and then came a big, long climb up to Benevent-l’Abbaye. The funny thing is: This bit of road is tarmaced for no apparent reason. Tarmac melts in the sun, and there’s hardly enough traffic to merit the expense. All the rest of the roads in this department (French administrative region) have been crap anyway. Puzzled, I wind my way up the hill. And then all becomes clear. Lots of famous names painted on the road upside down. The real TdF must have come down this hill. No wonder they tarmaced it – judging by all the grit, gravel and potholes on the approach road it would have been a very dangerous descent otherwise. While I’m on the topic of French roads: The quality varies enormously from department to department. And just as the Eskimos have countless words for snow, the French must have a whole A-Z of adjectives to describe road surfaces. From A for awful, B for brilliant, through P and R for Paris-Roubaix, S for smooth as a baby’s bum, to Z for “Zut alors!” Compared to German asphalt, French surfaces easily knock a couple of kilometres an hour off your average time. I soon discover that the real TdF went from Limoges via Gueret to Issoudun two days ago, and that I’ve covered a big chunk of it in the opposite direction. Some of their descents had very hairy asphalt (metaphorically speaking).
This area – Limousin and the Ambazac Hills – is truly sumptious countryside though. Don’t suppose the riders in the real TdF got to take much of it in. And they certainly didn’t get any coffee or cigarette breaks. Come mid-day, however, it’s the bit I’ve been dreading: Crossing Limoges. Getting into it is absolute hell. And it’s very hot. In the mid-30s (Celsius, so in the 90s for those of you only familiar with Fahrenheit) and the mercury is rising. Let’s hope getting through and out of this metropolis is easier. Mercifully car drivers here seem to have a lot of respect for someone pedalling a fully-laden trekking bike and all goes surprisingly smoothly. Once across the city and having reached my pre-planned route I stop at a restaurant for some ice-cream. Another quick glance at the thermometer on my bike computer reveals that it’s now 41 degrees (104 Fahrenheit). Thank God for the refreshing wind while cycling. Whilst eating my ice-cream the usual crowd of people gather to inspect the bike and ask me where I’m going etc. I tell them and encounter the usual puzzled looks that I always understand to mean “All the way across France? On a bike?”. (To my shame I can't resist a bit of self-aggrandizing and add that I’ll be cycling back across France again in a couple of weeks’ time.) As ever they all wish me “Bonne route” and “Bonne courage”. Cycling seems to touch something at the core of the French soul. That’s probably why the car drivers are so courteous, leave lots of space when overtaking and never harangue cyclists the way they do in Germany and England, and why when you walk into a café with a water bottle to get it refilled you don’t even have to ask. A silent hand reaches out from behind the bar and simply refills it. In this case I didn't even have to leave my table. The waiter brought me a carafe of fresh, cold water.
As I set off I realize I am on the wrong road – right direction, simply the busy road rather than the back road. As it takes me right alongside the River Vienne, I decide to stick with it despite the heavy traffic. Glad I did. The Vienne offers some charming views that are a pleasant distraction from the scorching heat. Within 20 minutes the cold water in my bottles is already warm. At one point I would swear that my knee-caps are actually sweating. After a very hilly hour or two I pull into a café in a village for fresh water and an orangina. I notice a television and no sooner have I uttered the words “Tour de France?” than the barman apologizes profusely and rushes to turn the TV on. He obviously feels he’s been caught red-handed. Just in time for the end of the stage. Denmark's Nicky Sorensen wins following a breakaway by a group of six riders. Sorensen always was a true “baroudeur”, as the French call such "escapees". Another hour’s riding sees me arrive at my night’s stop-over point: Rochechouart. Richard the Lionheart country. More Brit power. The municipal campsite is another dream – set right next to a lake just outside the town. The owner tells me a storm is expected again and suggests I sleep near the covered table-tennis area so I can get under cover if necessary. I don’t even bother pitching the tent: I decide to sleep on my mattress under the covered area. Having missed the shops (they close early in France) I opt to ride into town for a delicious meal in a local restaurant, all washed down with a carafe of excellent rosé. Despite having to cross Limoges and despite the heat, the most impressive day so far. It will be a long time before I forget the beautiful Ambazac Hills.
Day 7: Friday 17 July
Rochechouart – Montbron (Gorge du Chambon) 80 km
Very little data for this day (all will become clear)
Indeed it was a rainy, storm-lashed night. Although it’s not raining in the morning as I set off, I have a feeling it won’t last. And sure enough, the drizzle sets in after 10 minutes. An hour or so later comes the mother of all downpours. Bedraggled, I seek shelter. The rain stops and off I go again. The next downpour is only 30 minutes coming and is the granddaddy of them all. In fact it is raining so much that my bike computer gives up the ghost. This weather is not quite what I had planned so I take shelter as best I can again. The rain eventually lets up and I head downhill into Montbron. My hands are freezing because of the cool wind on my wet gloves. In Montbron I find a café – run by an English lady who serves me a pot of very refreshing tea. More rain is to be expected today she says: Camping is not an alternative tonight, methinks. Time to revise my plan – and the only hotel in town is full. The English lady then tells me of a campsite in an idyllic location 10 km down the road where they also have chalets. That sounds like the thing for me! As it turns out I get a motor-home for the night. Very luxurious. I hang everything out to dry, and take the opportunity to write up my diary and have a nap. And sure enough, in the course of the afternoon/early evening it really does throw it down three times. No big deal, I was well ahead of my schedule to meet up with the family and friends on Sunday anyway. Wonder what happened in the real TdF? (I find out the next day: The German/Australian Heinrich Haussler wins the stage in the Vosges Mountains by 4 minutes following what is said to have been one of the bravest rides ever in the most atrocious weather conditions. Hushvod also risks everything to take the green jersey for the best sprinter off Cavendish. These guys have got more guts and balls than I have. Probably the biggest difference to date in the TdF comparison!)
Day 8: Saturday 18 July
Montbron – Pons 110 km
1000 metres of uphill climbing, 7 hrs in the saddle, 9 hrs on the road, ave. speed of 16 kmh (yes 16!!)
A hilly start to the day, and after a while I pass through the pretty town of Magnac on the River Touvre but as I get close to Angouleme, the countryside becomes somewhat flat and, to be quite frank, unattractive. Angouleme is the last major city I have to cross. Christ, it’s ugly. I safely negotiate it, however, and stop for lunch at a Saturday market – pizza and fruit. I head to the nearby café for some caffeine doping. The bike attracts the usual stares – and as I’m standing at the bar ordering my coffee one of the locals starts the usual round of questions. This one also throws in a question a few other people have also asked me: “Don’t you find it boring being on your own cycling all that way every day?” I mentally slap my forehead but manage a diplomatic reply: “I’m cycling across France, one of the world’s most beautiful countries. How could anyone in their right mind be bored?” From the look on his face I can tell he’s not convinced. He goes back to filling out his betting slip for the next horse race on the massive TV in the corner. Need I say more?
After this I ride on towards Chateuneuf-sur-Charente. I crossed the Charente two days ago when it was no more than a metre wide. Now it’s much, much wider. As I cycle out of the town I’m suddenly hit by the mother of all head winds. I’d encountered the prevailing west wind a few times over the past week and cursed it every time. Today it’s really strong – and the countryside is quite flat now as I get close to the Atlantic coast. No woods to protect me – just vineyards on either side of the road, which is as straight as a die. The only relief comes in the shape of a switchback hill which although it is steep at least keeps the wind off. I even have to pedal downhill on the other side. If I don’t I’ll come to a standstill! For an hour I can hardly seem to get above 12 kmh. This is a hard slog. And unlike the real TdF I have no team-mates to give me some respite from it. I stop at a stall in Archiac to buy fruit and veg, and take a rest. As luck would have it the stallholder is listening to the real TdF on the radio, and it looks like George Hincapie could take the leader's jersey in the overall classification as he’s in a breakaway group with a massive lead over the peloton. I hope the group works together well and he manages to take the yellow jersey. It would be a fitting reward for the man who for many years was Lance Armstrong's faithful adjutant in various teams. Back on the road and the wind gets stronger. I, alas, do not. The wind is simply relentless. Remorseless even. Perhaps relentlessly remorseless. Definitely remorselessly relentless. After what seems like an age (actually no more than an hour and a half) I finally reach Pons and my campsite. No sooner do I get the tent up than it starts to drizzle. Talk about adding insult to injury. I quickly shower, then eat my hastily-prepared evening meal sitting on a dustbin under cover of the washhouse. I’d love to have had a photo of me sitting there exhausted, but somehow a little elated already. Tomorrow I will have reached my goal – the Atlantic – and crossed France on a bike. The rain continues so I jump on my bike, head to the nearest bar and treat myself to a beer or three while I write up my diary and read a book till the rain lets up (at midnight just as the bar decides to close – maybe there is a God after all). I then discover that Hincapie failed to take the yellow jersey by a mere 5 seconds. He must be absolutely devastated. I know I am when I hear this. I decide that there can't possibly be a God.
Day 9: Sunday 19 July
Pons – Le Gurp 75 km
Mostly flat, 3:50 hrs in the saddle, 5:30 hrs on the road, ave. speed of 19 kmh
I’m on the road early as I want to beat the family and friends to the campsite. They have spent the night on the Loire and have to drive about 600 km today. They send me a text message to say they have been on the road since 7:30. Hmm. Better not stop for coffee too often then. This last stretch of road is busy – everyone is heading to the Atlantic and specifically to Royan for the ferry across the Gironde – and it's a head wind to boot. As a consequence it’s not particularly pleasant riding. A bit of a shock after a week of quiet roads and drivers that leave you at least 2 meters of space when overtaking. Today they keep whizzing past very close (and there was even a 2CV pulling a caravan!). I need a break from this and decide that if I'm going to be killed by a maniacal holidaymaker so close to my goal, I'd like a last sticky bun, a last cup of coffee and a last cigarette. I leave the main road and head into the town of Cozes, which used to be an artists' colony. The bakery certainly has some bloody delicious sticky buns. And there are little loudspeakers on the walls all over the town – all playing the same pop music. The people, all locals seemingly, are a wild mixture of young and old. They all look very happy. And they all seem to be heading to the local bar to bet on the horses (France has a whole chain of bars – PMU – dedicated to betting). What a weirdly charming place. I wonder what they put in the water here. It's definitely not just fluoride. Reluctantly I head back to the main road to be overtaken by a steady stream of cars and caravans. After an hour or so I can suddenly smell the sea. Lovely. I immediately get off the main road and drop down into Saint-Georges-de-Didonne to cycle round the bay into Royan.
As luck would have it there’s a boat waiting when I arrive at the ferry terminal. And I’ve beaten my “rivals” to it. (OK, they did give me a week's head start). I sit up on deck for the 25-minute crossing and reflect a little on the past week. It seems to have gone so quickly. And the countryside varied so much. As I took so few photographs I vow to burn as many images as I possibly can into my mind's eye. Not much time for reflection now though as the ferry soon docks and I still have about 20-odd km to ride. After 10 km disaster strikes: I take a wrong turn. The first one all week. And the sad thing is – I know this road well from my previous holiday here. I retrace my route, stop to top up with water (the mercury has hit the 35-degree mark) and send a quick text message to my rivals. I get an instant reply: They’re on the ferry and hard on my tail. Now is the time for some serious pedalling! But inevitably, and just like many of the breakaway riders in the real TdF, I am caught just short of the finishing line: A mere 3 km before the campsite and the end of my first “Traverse de France”.
While everyone else is looking for a decent plot for the tents (it's a massive municipal campsite), one of the site wardens spots my bike and starts the usual round of questions. The burning question for me though is what's happening in the real TdF today. The riders are now heading into the Alps and I suspect Alberto Contador will take the yellow jersey today. Indeed, as I feared: He wins the stage and takes the leader's jersey. I hope his balls ache as much as mine do! Tomorrow the rider's have their second rest day. I get one too. But I know I'll spend at least part of mine just like most of the real TdF riders. On the bike, making sure the muscles stay nice and supple and relaxed. There's nothing worse than riding a lot (and riding hard into the bargain) for a week and then just stopping. And in my case I want to keep those leg muscles nice and relaxed as I'll be crossing France again in less than 2 weeks' time: "Traverse de France – The Sequel"!
After 11 relaxing days by the Atlantic in Le Gurp (I took these photos in 2005 the last time I was there) and having done quite a bit of gentle cycling through the pine forests of the Medoc, including a lovely 100 km trip along the Gironde to see the Rothschild vineyards, my legs were itching to cycle along the Loire, the last untamed river in Europe. Having been to the Loire region 4 or 5 times already in my life, my main interest was not so much the lower reaches (where all the famous chateaux are to be found), but the stretch from Orleans onwards heading upriver.
Day 1: Friday 31 July
Le Gurp – Royan Ferry 20 km, ave. speed 23 kmh
Royan – Nantes, awful 5-hour train journey
Nantes – Montjean-sur-Loire 80 km, ave. speed 21 kmh
The day starts early as I have to catch the ferry over the Gironde to Royan. The family also gets up early to wish me luck, and we arrange to meet if possible on Sunday evening in Chateauneuf-sur-Loire, where they are staying overnight as they drive back to Germany. I have a tight schedule as the ferry only runs every 30 minutes and my train leaves at 9 o’clock. As luck would have it a ferry is waiting and once in Royan I find the railway station quickly. I pass by the wacky church again – very strange architecture.
I am travelling to Nantes, changing in Saintes. This is the first time I’ve travelled with a train and a bike in France. It will also be the last time. Getting in and out of the trains is almost impossible. And once on the train you have to negotiate a narrow corridor and then manoeuvre the bike into a small compartment. A nightmare.
At least getting out of Nantes is not too bad and I am soon riding alongside the Loire. Unfortunately there are so many trees that I only catch a glimpse of the river with its islands and sandbanks every few minutes. Even in summer, when there is not so much water flowing in the Loire, it makes for a magnificent sight. After 15 kilometres comes Mauves and it is time to cross the Loire for the first time. Although I’ve been to the Loire region several times, I’d forgotten how big the bridges are. This one is nearly a kilometre long! The EuroVelo6 now leaves the river and climbs a hill, passing splendid vineyards. The effort is well worthwhile, the vista is amazing. In the space of the next 15 km I have to cross the river again twice. I then get lost as there are no signs for the official route, but using my bell’s integrated compass and the map I find an alternative route. Once again the route leaves the Loire and runs parallel to the river but several hundred metres away, so you could just be cycling through open country and not by a river. Come early evening I camp for the night in Montjean-sur-Loire, with an impressive view of the local church perched on the top of a hill.
On this first day I’ve not been entirely convinced by the route taken by the EV6 so far: It just seems to be avoiding “busy” roads wherever possible (they are not very busy at all), and criss-crosses the river for no apparent reason. And the signs take some getting used to: They are placed illogically for anyone cycling along the route. Often positioned at strange angles, anyone cycling towards them cannot actually see them. At least the maps are excellent, with route markings that give a good indication of the true state of the cycle route and the surfaces. I have already seen that the rough bits are very rough indeed, and I can sense that I will be diverging from the official route in the days to come.
Day 2: Saturday 1 August
Montjean-sur-Loire – Vouvray 180 km, ave. speed 21 kmh
I’m on the road by 8:30, the weather is a bit overcast, which should be a blessing as I fancy a long day in the saddle and can live without the scorching sun. I immediately cross onto Ile des Chalonnes, an island right in the middle of the river. This is probably the biggest of the Loire islands: 10 km long and well over 1 km wide in parts, lots of agriculture and farmhouses. About half way across the island I pass a poster with a picture of Lenin, advertising “Le Lenin Café”. What a surreal place for such a café. I just have to stop to take a photo – the poster is funny – and as I’m wearing the jersey of our local left-wing road racing collective it seems appropriate.
As I cross the bridge and leave the island I overtake a guy on a road racer. A few minutes later he’s back on my tail. He obviously wasn’t to be outdone by a “cycling tourist”. We start chatting (the usual round of questions). It soon turns out he’s 70 years old – Christ he’s fit – and we’re heading in the same direction for a while. This means I can ignore the map and just follow him. And follow I must as the he leads me up the hills through the vineyards. (I think this was a trick on his part to slow me down, but at least I get to ride in his slipstream!). We end up riding together for an hour and a half until Les Ponts-de-Cé, a very picturesque, old town built on an island in the Loire. It also has a canal and is thus blessed with not one but three impressive stone bridges. After crossing the Loire yet again, the official route keeps very close to the river for 10 kilometres or so until the town of Gennes. And then I can hardly believe my eyes. Sitting at a café across the road are two good friends of mine from our little same cycling collective. They can hardly believe their eyes either. What totally unexpected joy! And to cap it off, we’re all wearing our "team" jerseys. We had no idea we would all be in France at the same time, let alone in the same area.
Half an hour later we drag ourselves away from one another and I head off alongside the river again. The sight of large numbers of the typical Loire barges ("gabares") prompts me to make a rare photo stop. More bad signposting just outside the town of Saumur sends me on a wild goose chase – up a hill naturally enough! And to make matters worse I have a puncture (not me obviously, one of the tyres). Can't complain, only my second one with over a thousand miles under my belt in the past 3 weeks.
Once past the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire I decide to leave the official route (which makes various detours to take in the chateau at Chinon), instead following a main road back to a route right next to the river. I now pass my first atomic power station in France. It has a very ominous sign: “Beware of the fog”. The thought of atomic fog soon has me pedalling for all my little legs are worth. I pass the fairytale chateau at Ussé (I’m really not in the mood for traipsing round castles on this trip, having visited many of them in the past), opting instead (and quite wisely in my humble opinion) for alc-free beer by the river at Bréhément. The route now follows the course of the River Cher, yet another of the many rivers that feed the Loire, into Tours. As much as I hate crossing major cities, I have to say that Tours was relatively easy and around 8:30 I arrive in Vouvray and my campsite for the night. Vouvray has an excellent reputation for fine wines. But as all the bars in the town had closed by the time I’d pitched tent, showered and eaten (10 o’clock) I had no chance to sample them. You can tell we’re out in the sticks here.
Day 3: Sunday 2 August
Vouvray – Chateauneuf-sur-Loire 160 km, ave. speed 20 kmh
As I have a rendezvous with a delightful lady this evening, it’s another early start. Again I diverge from the official route, preferring instead to take the “high road” to Nazelles, passing through the little villages along the valley of the River Cisse. A wise move as I pass lots of nice stone houses – as well as some troglodyte houses. But as I can't see the Loire I decide to drop down towards Amboise, which I last visited 30 years ago. If you are ever anywhere near this town, it is a MUST, with a stunning chateau and, above all, the Leonardo da Vinci Museum (he lived here at the end of his life). I now opt to use the main road rather than the official route, there's not that much traffic and I want to see the Loire, not rejoining the EV6 until I reach the bridge at Chaumont (with a superb view across the river to the eponymous chateau). Shortly afterwards the signposting is again terrible, all compounded by a confusing plethora of minor roads. I'm not the only one having problems. Another lad on a fully-laden bike tells me he's been going round in circles for nearly a quarter of an hour. The "Loire à Vélo" is really not all it is cracked up to be in this respect! My annoyance at this minor blemish on the day is soon dispersed by an excellent bakery (the French really do know how to make gorgeous pastries) and then the glorious stone bridge at Blois, which I always find inspiring. After Blois the route sticks close to the river and is mostly along tree-shaded avenues (unfortunately not asphalted), that offer welcome respite from the sun. A stop for coffee and a water refill in the sleepy town of Beaugency precedes the day’s daunting task: Crossing Orleans. Again the signposting leaves a lot to be desired. And for some reason the route is funnelled through a park area that is a very popular recreational area. Not really the best choice for a major cycle path. And the EV6 is very popular. The number of cyclists with fully-laden bikes and trailers has been steadily on the increase ever since Tours. A stark contrast to my first Traverse de France. The route to Jargeau and then Chateauneuf is now along the aspahlted levee (dike). After a lot of rough surfaces in the course of the past 3 days, asphalt – even French asphalt – makes for a pleasant change. As will a hotel bed tonight – I haven't slept in a bed for three weeks.
Day 4: Monday 3 August
Chateauneuf-sur-Loire – Sancerre 110 km, ave. speed 18 kmh
After a good night’s sleep and after bidding adieu to the family, I set off along the Loire full of anticipation today: My destination is Sancerre, and along the way I’ll be passing Briare, both lesser known than many other places on the Loire but both vaunted as highlights of any Loire trip. I also resolve to take it easy today, having covered 440 km in the past 3 days. Just outside Chateauneuf the route again leaves the river, going across country for 5-6 km to the old port of St-Benoit-sur-Loire. The village is dominated by a mighty abbey, but for me the most impressive sight is formed by the charming cottages. The village could be something out of a Thomas Hardy novel. You’d certainly be hard pushed to believe you’re in the 21st century. The route continues across country (although the map shows a section of the EuroVelo6 due for completion by the end of 2008, there is no sign of or for it) to Sully, which boasts the last major chateau on the Loire. A mighty edifice it is too.
As of now the Loire changes character; gone are the bombastic chateaux and the countryside is much gentler. There are fewer tourists but more cyclists (quite a few recumbent bikes) with all kinds of trailers. I also notice the Koga getting some envious looks (remember the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s bike”). Shortly before Gien comes a 4-km section of “medium”, non-asphalted quality according to the legend of the official route map. It is a mixture of deep potholes and sharp stones, all held together with loose gravel. If this is “medium”, what is a “poor” section like? I also realize that I’ve had 2 punctures since leaving home, and as I only brought 2 spare inner tubes, I’ll be in deep shit if I get a puncture now. Must do some repairs tonight! Gien looks attractive, but it’s on the wrong side of the river and Briare is coming up anyway. I content myself with a few photos while eating lunch next to the river.
I’d been looking forward to Briare and its famous 600-metre-long aqueduct for weeks. I was not disappointed – it is one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen. The town is also very attractive – probably due to the fact that so many waterways come together here – and also boasts a mighty church, which I was about to take some photos of when another cyclist started badgering me with questions about the Koga, thus prompting a 20-minute chat and making me forget the church entirely.
The next 10 km section is truly idyllic: Houses relatively close to the river, with gardens coming right down to the riverside and the cycle path; children playing on the sand banks in the middle of the river. The idyll is spoilt by the nuclear power station at Belleville (second one today) and more signposting conspicuous by its absence! The next 20 km are again through woods and nice open country to the village of Bannay (with a church that thinks it’s a chateau) before using the towpath of the “Canal Latéral à la Loire” all the way to Sancerre. It’s a pity the towpath is not asphalted, however. Riding on deep gravel for 10 km is bloody hard work at the end of the day.
The nearest camp-site is just outside Sancerre, and although located right next to the Loire, it’s a devil to find with the maze of canals and locks. Once the tent is pitched and I’ve showered, I do my food shopping and then tackle the hill up to Sancerre itself. It’s a big hill, rising 140 metres over just 2 km. I must have looked a sight riding up the hill with "crocs" on my feet and a pannier full of food on the back of the bike (baguette suitably jutting out the top). The effort was well worthwhile. The view from the ramparts of the town is stunning – you can see for miles. The town itself is charming too, with lots of narrow alleyways, stone buildings, and its famous wines of course. I restrict myself to a single glass of rosé as I know I’ll be going down the hill at nearly 50 kmh – and that’s with the brakes on!
Today has been the most impressive day by the Loire for me, probably because this section was relatively new to me, rather than because my pace was a little gentler. I can highly recommend a visit to both Briare and Sancerre.
Day 5: Tuesday 4 August
Sancerre – Decize 110 km, ave. speed 17.5 kmh
Having slept well I wake around 6 and realize that the camp-site is right next to the Loire. Armed with a freshly brewed cup of coffee I go and sit by the river for nearly an hour – just watching the mist slowly disperse. At moments like this I can almost see the attraction of angling. Almost. The route once I leave the campsite follows the course of the Loire and affords an excellent view of Sancerre throned on its hill. My first port of call today is La Charité-sur-Loire. A large chunk of the town is built on an island in the centre of the river; an imposing sight with its two mighty bridges. With its massive stone-built church, cobbled streets and antiquated bookshops, the town has an almost medieval feel to it, and as I sat at a café I half expected to be pounced upon by the Inquisition at any minute. Leaving the official route I use the main road (no traffic at all!) that runs directly alongside the Loire’s lateral canal. It is a strange feeling when you pass by a pleasure boat seemingly gliding along the water so close to the road that you can easily hold a conversation with those on board. Originally constructed when the waterways were the main means of transporting goods and produce, the Loire canal is now the exclusive domain of pleasure craft and holidaymakers.
After an hour’s cycling alongside the canal I arrive at the confluence of the Loire and the Allier, and whilst crossing the road-bridge over the Allier I can see a boat seemingly floating across a similar bridge of the same height some 20 yards away – another aqueduct on the Loire canal. The official route now uses the canal towpath (freshly asphalted). The shade afforded by the trees is very welcome on yet another gloriously sunny day. With the exception of the odd boat, the only other people to be seen are anglers, each of whom seems to have at least three rods in the water. Unfortunately, work on the asphalting of the towpath right through to Decize is still ongoing (due for completion in 2010) – and as we are in Burgundy, at times this inevitably means cycling over hills to rejoin the canal. When I arrive in Decize I am instantly disoriented (no signs for the campsite) and before I know it I've crossed four different bridges (over: the Loire, an old arm of the Loire canal, the River Aron, and the Nivernais canal). Water, locks and boats everywhere, lending the town real charm. I finally locate the campsite, nicely tucked away right next to the Loire and with a superb view of the bridge spanning the old arm of the river.
Day 6: Wednesday 5 August
Decize – Palinges 110 km, ave. speed 18 kmh
Tempted as I am to follow the official route today, and thus the Nivernais canal for a while, this would later entail a lengthy detour through the Burgundy hills to Bourbon-Lancy. Because I want to stay on the flat and close to the Loire canal I decide to take the main roads via Gannay-sur-Loire and Diou to Digoin. Luckily I meet an English couple in Gannay (the Union Jack flying on their tandem’s trailer was a dead giveaway!) who are cycling the EV6 in the opposite direction and who tell me that that the official route from Bourbon-Lancy to Diou is a dream of a cycle path and that the towpath from Diou to Digoin is more or less fully asphalted at last. They were right on both counts: The cycle path is one of the best I’ve encountered anywhere, and the towpath is an excellent alternative to the official route if you want to cycle along gently (20 flat kilometres next to a shaded canal, as opposed to 40 very hilly ones).
Digoin is notable on two counts: Firstly it has a mighty aqueduct, and secondly this is where the EuroVelo6 bids farewell to the Loire, following from now on the Canal du Centre.
This evening I wanted to stay in Paray-le-Monial, a well-known place of pilgrimage, but as there was a massive young people’s convention in the town, the town and campsite were both overcrowded. So instead I followed the canal along the main road to Palinges. And I’m glad I did. Another charming – and quiet – campsite right next to a lake.
Day 7: Thursday 6 August
Palinges – Seurre 140 km, ave. speed 19 kmh
I have a choice today as I head towards the River Saône: The official route, up and down hills in a circuitous fashion, or on “busier” roads but still right next to the Canal du Centre. I go for the soft option. This canal does not have the same charm as the Loire canal, but that could have something to do with the fact that there is no towpath for first 30 km as I pass through small “working” towns and then the ugly, former mining community of Montceau-les-Mines. Once there is a towpath, however, the riding is great, and it gets even better (even when there is no towpath and I use the main road) as it is all downhill. The boats now have to negotiate large locks every kilometre or so (sometimes 2 or 3 even closer together), a cyclist does not! In the course of 10 km I lose 170 metres in height until the canal levels out at St-Leger-sur-Dheune, and from then on there is a lovely shaded towpath all the way to the city of Chalon-sur-Saône. Despite the heat I decide to leave the official route and head into downtown Chalon so I can see its impressive bridges and architecture, and sample the wares from a bakery. As this is undoubtedly the hottest weather I've encountered since the day my knee-caps started sweating 3 weeks ago I take an hour’s break at a café right opposite the city’s imposing cathedral. I finish the day by cycling along and near the Saône to Seurre via Verdun-le-Doubs, where the Doubs flows into the Saône.
Day 8: Friday 7 August
Seurre – Baume-les-Dames 140 km, ave. speed 20 kmh
On leaving Seurre (a very dilapidated town) I again deviate from the official route somewhat and head straight across the flat countryside to St-Jean-de-Losne. I can tell that I am approaching journey’s end – the town’s church has the type of patterned roof that struck me four weeks ago when I first entered France. A couple more kilometres along the Saône, and then the EuroVelo6 follows the course of the Rhône-Rhine Canal. I deftly skip a ten-km detour taken by the official route, sticking instead to the canal towpath – a number of cyclists on road racers are using it this fine morning (it’s very bumpy and this is obviously where they all train for Paris-Roubaix!). Before long I’m in Dole, where I’d camped nearly 4 weeks previously, and I must admit to a feeling of regret that my holiday and “French adventure” are inevitably coming to an end. The canal is absolutely gorgeous from Dole onwards. First lined by an avenue of trees, at Rochefort-sur-Nenon the stunning landscape of the folded Jura mountains and the River Doubs begins to dominate. In addition, the canal is not recognizable as such: For the main part it is actually nothing more than the occasional lock at the side of the river to overcome differences in height (whereas the river has small stone cascades). At Thoraise it offers a true delight for the eye. While the river traces a 180-degree loop, the canal goes right through a mountain (unfortunately with no towpath – cyclists have to climb a steep hill).
Now comes a major shock: Dark clouds and the rumble of thunder, heralding a serious storm. I can also see lightning down the valley towards Besancon. The first rain on my second Traverse de France. It soon passes, and I ride on in light drizzle, passing Besancon through the pedestrian tunnel. A mistake as it turns out. 15 km later the heavens open and I have to seek refuge in a bus shelter. After half an hour the rain lets up and I decide to take a room for the night at the next available opportunity. Despite the drizzle, cycling along the Doubs is a delight. Tucked in between the hills and mountains of the Jura, the setting is beautiful. It is obviously a paradise for herons too. I must have seen 50 of these majestic birds in the space of 10 km. There are, however, no rooms to be had in any of the villages. Indeed there is very little infrastructure along this section of the river, and I end up cycling all the way to Baume-les-Dames. It's a wet end to an otherwise stunning day, and I can't help feeling I wished I'd spent the night in Besancon.
Day 9: Saturday 8 August
Baume-les-Dames – Basel 180 km, ave. speed 19 kmh
As I sat in my hotel room the previous evening I tried to plan how I would finish my “Traverse de France”. Now nearer to my final destination, Basel, than anticipated 2 days ago, do I stick to my original plan and follow the flat EuroVelo6 all the way to Basel (about 150 km) or do I ride along the EV6 to Froidefontaine and then cut across country to Basel, retracing the route I first took 4 weeks ago (probably only 120 km)? I opt for the former – after all it’s nice weather again. A decision I was to regret.
The first 70 km along the Doubs to Montbéliard (a charmless town where the EV6 bids farewell to the gorgeous Doubs and then exclusively follows the Rhône-Rhine Canal and its side arm to Basel) were quite simply stunning. The initial section of the canal to Froidefontaine was also pleasant. Thereafter there is no infrastructure to speak of. No bars/cafés, no chance to refill my water bottles, none of the nearby villages had bars, cafés or garages that were open. None of the lockkeepers were working on the canal (the canal itself is hardly used by boats), so I couldn't get water there either. Shortly before Mulhouse is a café right next to the towpath. And that’s it. And then comes Mulhouse, where it's not possible to use the towpath as the canal passes the south of the city. Cyclists are sent off through the suburbs, and suddenly the signposting for the EV6 is non-existent! I get hopelessly lost. The area is deserted; the only people I find to ask directions don’t even seem to know there’s a canal or major European cycle path here. And to cap it all, what I see of Mulhouse is ugly. Very ugly in fact. After a frustrating hour cycling around in circles, I finally get pointed in the right general direction and manage to find the canal again. I’m still 40 or 50 km from Basel, so it's time to find a campsite or hotel for the night, preferably the latter so I can get a quick start in the morning and catch an early train from Basel back to Frankfurt. There are no campsites along this – admittedly very atrractive – section of the EV6, the few hotels are fully booked, and I end up cycling right into Basel. Mercifully – I already have 180 km on the tachometer – I find a hotel quickly, and after a well-deserved shower and eating the last of my provisions I head to a bar for some beers. The first one to wash away the frustration of the past couple of hours – the next two to celebrate what was a superb cycling holiday.
Postscript: It's now over two weeks since I completed my "Traverse de France". So what were the highlights? What were the low points? The only thing I should have done differently was to take more photographs (I only took about 60 myself, and have only used 25 of them to illustrate this "diary").
The lows: Very few and actually very minor – which comes as no surprise in view of the fact that I was on my bike. But there were some nevertheless...
1. The west wind on the penultimate day of my first crossing.
2. Getting across Mulhouse. Remember Michael Douglas in the film "Falling Down"? If you do, you get the idea.
3. Alberto Contador winning the real TdF, Jens Voigt crashing out of the TdF in the Alps and so close to Paris on what was probably his last TdF, George Hincapie failing to take the yellow jersey by 5 seconds at the end of the 2nd week of the TdF. There is no God. Trust me.
4. Travelling on a French train with a bike.
The highlights: There were far too many to mention them all! The main ones in no particular order of merit:
1. The River Doubs and canal between Montbéliard and Dole – I'm going back sometime soon.
2. The Burgundy, Limousin (Ambazac Hills), and Auvergne regions – in that order.
3. The courteous French car drivers (I cycled nearly 3000 kilometres in 4 weeks and never once waved a fist in anger, never once cursed a driver – not even under my breath) and the countless bar owners who always cheerfully refilled my water bottles.
4. Bumping into friends along the Loire, and all of us wearing our "club" jerseys – sublime serendipity.
5. The aqueducts and bridges of the Loire – simply majestic.
6. The stretch of the Loire between Chateauneuf-sur-Loire and Digoin.
||* If any of the authors of the photographs
I have used to illustrate this diary of my "Traverse de France"
object to the use of their works, please contact me and
I will remove the photos immediately.