Without wanting to seem over dramatic it seems like summer is over. I can hear the sound of the rain tapping against the window and autumn seems to be settling in. Its hard to believe it was just two days ago I was spinning through France in short sleeves on what seems like it will be the last warm ride of 2018. A farewell to the summer.
The germ for this trip was planted many months ago. I feel lucky to have a good friend like Bez (not that Bez, a different one, although he may well be a great guy too). This Bez has the perfect combination of slightly crazy ideas and military precision when it comes to planning. So when an email from him pops into my inbox I am always curious to see what he has planned.
Having previously ridden from the Tower of London to the Eiffel tower in 24hrs, and ridden from Pertersfield to its French twin town and back in 24hrs (via two different ferry ports) I knew it would be something fun.
This time around the idea was simple, like the best things in life. We catch the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo on a Thursday night. We arrive on French soil on Friday morning and then ride 200 or so kilometres to Caen where we then get the overnight ferry back to Portsmouth. The beauty to this voyage would be that all being well I’d be back in London for mid-morning and ready to spend the weekend at home with my family.
And so on Thursday afternoon (20th September) I am sitting with trepidation on a train heading towards the south coast. Staring out of the window, watching the trees bending under the weight of the wind, I can feel the panic begin to rise. Just a couple of months ago I’d caught a ferry in similarly bad conditions. The three hours it lasted were spent filling sick bag after sick bag. This time around I’d been checking the forecast every day hoping somehow the predictions would change. They hadn’t and for once the forecasters seemed to have got it right, dammit. Now I could only hope that a bigger, slower ferry would be less prone to bouncing around in the water. Nothing puts a downer on a ride more than bringing up all your food before you’ve even had chance to spin a crank.
The early omen didn’t look good either. As the four of us who would be riding together meet up Gavin finds he had somehow broken his saddle without noticing (I still cant work out how this is possible). Thankfully we are meeting at Bez’s house where a spare can quickly be found and fitted. We then discover our planned dinner location has already closed as we arrive. It looks like the metaphorical clouds are gathering for a stormy ride, but its too late to change the plans. So we get the train to Portsmouth, spin through the old town to the ferry port and secure our bikes as quickly as possible.
Despite my fears we drop our cycling kit into our cabin and head to the bar. It is time to neck some seasickness tablets and wash them down with a pint. We were now moving. Forwards, side to side, up and down. Time to ignore the motion and settle down to the evenings entertainment. It’s been so long since I’ve been on an overnight ferry that I’d forgotten they still have singers, magicians and the like. Flashes of Phoenix Nights distract me as we sit through the massacre of numerous 80’s and 90’s classics before turning in.
The boat keeps rolling gently but I began to realise I probably wouldn’t be sick this time, but I also know we won’t really get a good nights sleep. Lying in the cabin I only know I must have fallen asleep because I keep waking up each time the ferry lurches. But its soon time to get up, scoff some early breakfast and get ready to ride.
Rolling onto terra-firma feels good and the early kilometres soon confirm our hopes, that the wind which had battered our boat all night is also going to be right behind us for pretty much the whole route. Its not often you’re riding an A-B ride of 200+ km’s with a tailwind the whole way, but it seems like this was what we could be in for. Maybe our luck has turned after all? It certainly feels like it as we spin along the coastal roads, leaving St Malo. Its hardly a sprawling metropolis but its always good to get out of the towns and escape to the countryside.
A few showers keep us covered up in waterproofs but as soon as these stop you can see the weather behind us is just going to get better and better as the cloud cover begins to break up and the blue skies chase us along the coast. And whenever the route takes us off a direct NE direction we can soon feel the punishing side or head wind.
As mid morning approaches we stop for our first taste of French food. Time to top up the reserves with some pastry treats from a local boulangerie. James and I choose well as the home baked almond croissants are amazing.
The first proper landmark is Mont Saint Michel. We’d first spotted it in the distance as we left St Malo and the Abbeys spire had slowly been drawing closer as we followed the coastal road. Its one of those places that I’d always wanted to visit, but as our route only takes us to about a kilometre from the causeway I realise it will have to remain somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.
We don’t have time for sightseeing, we still had three quarters of the route to ride. And this is the point where things switch up a gear. We soon leave the quiet roads and join the even quieter Voie Verte. These paths used to be railways or disused roads and the gravel is pretty compact. It may be noticeably slower than the smooth French tarmac but I’m happy with the trade off as we dive into stunning avenues of trees which are showing the first hints that autumn is on its way.
Spiky green chestnut shells begin to litter the paths. With my 42mm G-ones nothing knocks me off track but its fun trying to swerve through the patches of shells without bouncing over any. The kilometres are ticked off in this fashion, we swap our order in the group, chatting and catching up as we roll towards our lunch stop in Mortain.
As we get closer we begin the first rolling climbs of the day. None of the climbing is difficult on this route but the slow dragging rises began to take their toll on one rider (who as it was Bez will remain nameless). An empty fuel tank combined with the extra effort needed on the gravel surface and the group was accidentally starting to fragment. This doesn’t bode well with about 100km still to ride. We climb the steepest hill we’ve faced so far to arrive in Mortain and stand outside a perfectly decent looking restaurant discussing where we should eat. It was the sort of scene that can only take place on rides like this. After realising the obvious we venture inside and order pizza and a couple of beers. I imagine this is what team Sky do when they are out training. This repast combined with a coffee has us twitching (almost literally) to get on with things, or risk falling asleep for the afternoon.
We leave the voie verte for now and are back on quiet roads. Once again I’m was struck by how beautiful rural France is. Even the non-mountainous parts. Just a quiet rider rolling through quiet countryside in the late summer sunshine. It feels good to be alive and riding. The general feeling of bonhomie is greatly helped by the route. At almost every junction we seem to be taking the direction I would chose. The little road between broken down farm buildings, the quite avenue of trees that lead off invitingly up another small hill. Always the road less travelled.
By mid afternoon we’ve finished with all the lumpier bits and after a cracking long decent we roll into Thury-Harcourt where we ride past an abandoned train station to join the final, superbly made, 28km’s of voie verte. Ok so its not the most technically exciting trail I’ve ridden, its pretty much straight (it was once a working railway as we are constantly reminded from the tracks which are now filled with grass and wildflowers). However having ridden the distance we have so far its a very pleasant section. The only things to look out for are the very occasional other riders and the little gates marking road crossings. Entering the last proper stretch I am happy to spin along on sublimely smooth tarmac as the sun began to dip below the trees. This section begins to take us effortlessly from the countryside back to the built up town. Slowly signs of urban sprawl appear around us, larger buildings can be seen between trees, graffiti appears on abandoned buildings, bridges occur with greater frequency as we are guided into Caen. As with most French cycle routes it takes us right into the centre without forcing us through loads of broken glass filled, poorly designed and then neglected cycle lanes. This is uninterrupted, well maintained and by the time we are near Caen well populated with other cyclists. Its is Friday evening after all and look at the Garmin shows that its also what passes for rush hour in this town. As a Londoner it seems nice and tame even if my commuter head switches on automatically as soon as I get near a junction and set of traffic lights. No real need to filter through the traffic while we look around for somewhere to eat. Suddenly I realise I am pretty hungry again.
After a brief worry when the owner of a restaurant wouldn’t let us eat outside (she thought it was getting too cold, but promised to look out for our bikes) we are soon seated and staring at menus. All pretty easy to chose. When near the coast, eat mussels and when its on the menu order a pint of Grimbergen, why make life harder? I imagine this food will have some very scientific recovery ingredients. And then its time for desert, just to try and make this a calorie neutral day.
As soon as we step out and get ready for our last 15km to the ferry port I realise that the profiteroles may have been an order too far. In the total darkness of the bike path I can feel them rising higher and higher as we get back up to rolling speed. To take my mind off of the rampant indigestion I wonder if I would have the reflexes to avoid the little rabbits that are appearing in the periphery of my vision if they chose to run out in front of me. Thankfully the four of our headlights seem to confuse them and they stay where they are. Its just us, quietly rolling along, in the pitch black, staring at the little patch of path thats lit up by our lights. Slowly the horizon begins to brighten as street lights pop out of the darkness, buildings can be seen and so can the outline of a large ferry. The end of the line for this ride. With passports checked James and I burn our last matches with a sprint through the final car park and up the slope onto the ferry.
Within minutes our cabin looks like its been broken into as lycra is swapped out for something a bit more comfortable to relax in. As ever it seems like a long time ago that we were leaving Portsmouth. It may have been just 24 hours but it seems so much longer. Thanks to some clever planning a whole lot of good times have been fitted into just one days riding.
Fatigue begins to creep in and all I can manage to drink is a pretty poor mojito before deciding that I need to sleep. I’ve no idea what the crossing was like this second time, I imagine it was nice and calm, but I was out like a light. And Im still feeling like I could do with a couple of hours more sleep when we disembark at Portsmouth and all go our separate ways. For me, I’m able to get a fast train back to London and by 9:30am I’m back home saying hello to my wife and daughter. Hey look, the weekends only just started.
More pictures from the trip can be found here – Flickr
Words and pictures – Philip Diprose