Roscoff-Toulouse, July 2015.
The plan was this; this writer (Rod Tinson), Steve Hills (not a club member) and Dave Bennett take the ferry to Roscoff, catch a couple of stages of the Tour de France around Rohan, proceed ad lib to a point where Rod stages a breakaway and heads for Toulouse while the other two return to Roscoff. That was the plan. But in Plymouth, outside a very good bike café in the Barbican called Rockets and Rascals, a seagull stole Steve’s cake while Rod stripped the thread of a grub screw and put his front brake out of action. A sprint to R’n’R’s workshop underneath the arches near Mayflower Steps caught a very helpful mechanic seconds before he shut up shop and he bodged a repair. A thousand miles later, the bodge-up is still holding.
Coffee in Roscoff the next morning, then on to Carhaix and the campsite by the river, avoiding the very boring cycleway from Morlaix. In the morning, Steve virtuously cooks porridge while Dave and I load up on pastries. Then we head for Rostrenen. Dave and Steve stop six or seven times to discuss the route while I lean on my bike and gaze into the distance. This lack of interest in route-finding on my part will have consequences.
Rostrenen is very pretty. The town square, including the church, looks as if it has been pressure-washed. The square is empty but the bars are full. The one we choose has a cast of eccentric locals; a large hairy extravert with a booming voice and expansive hair; one loner, totally withdrawn; one old man in the corner knitting a sock and eating a choc ice; and a young woman in a hat who makes a big entrance, lifting the hat and executing a few dance steps. Dave orders turkey and chips! There is no limit to that man’s capacity.
Then we do a long, hot ride to Cléguérac and a campsite where a young man in charge of a bunch of little kids openly mocks my attempts to speak French. The mayor, or his acolyte, turns up and tells us to pitch our tents close together, because a whole army of campers is about to arrive. He doesn’t know what he’s demanding- obviously, he has never camped anywhere near Dave and his raucous snoring. In the event, one camper van and a cyclist from Rotherham arrive and that’s it.
We are the Riders of Rohan. We begin to see signs of the Tour. Increasing numbers of spectators, at first couples in deckchairs, then the camper vans, then groups of ten or twenty, all set up for the day with wine and picnics and flags, and then an entire agricultural show in a field with a display of antique tractors. Steve is tempted to stop and look. We don’t let him. Old bikes painted in primary colours are hung from trees, propped up in hedges and suspended from telegraph poles. There are dozens of them, each one now only the idea of a bike, so layered with paint, including tyres and sprockets, if it still has any, that any idea of ever riding one again is utterly misplaced.
In Rohan, crowds on crowds, lachrymose Breton singing, drunk exhibitionist men on corners, gendarmes and a long wait in the hot sun until the mad plastic cacophonous cavalcade of the caravane blasts through the streets and grown men thrust little children aside to grab flung packets of Haribo sweets. Fridge magnets and key-rings whizz through the air, hurled by shrieking maniacs from the blaring platforms of giant wheeled doughnuts, monstrous plastic cows, gigantic tyres and and a massive tube of Evo-Stik. It is the stuff of nightmare. I bail out and go for a walk along the river, where I have a beer in a quiet bar near a bridge, over which, in a matter of seconds, the racers eventually pass, cheered wildly by a crowd which has waited hours to hear the hiss of skinny tyres and see the expensively-sponsored and possibly doped-up riders of the peloton whizz by within touching distance. Which perhaps is part of the attraction.
Re-united, we leave for a short ride to a quiet campsite in Naizin.
Choruses of drunken singing come from inside a bar as we sit outside enjoying our coffee. ‘They’ve been there all night,’ observes Dave. Eventually two young men stagger into the daylight, one in an Eric Cantona shirt being ceaselessly harangued by the girl-friend who has come to fetch him out of there, the other leaning against the wall with his girlfriend, both smiling benevolently. Cantona boy escapes and goes to cling passionately to his mate, kissing him about the neck and ears, while both girl-friends look on, helpless. Then all four lurch across the road, climb into a car and vanish, while we set off towards Ploumelec. The road is nicely smooth and undulating but traffic is building as we approach the route of the time-trial.
Ploumelec is heaving. I tell the others that I want to get as far away from the Tour de France as possible. There’s nowhere to camp in Ploumelec anyway, so we descend a hill and head for Trédion. The descent seems never-ending, plunging down past the parked convoy of the Tour’s support trucks and into gloomy arboreal depths so deep that my ears pop. Dave remarks that he’s never camped at the bottom of a coal mine before. Eventually we come to a very grand chateau with a picturesque lake covered in water-lilies. Steve claims it’s most likely Monet’s lake. We climb gently up to Trédion and the municipal campsite, where the others leave me to rest while they go off to watch the team time-trial.
The restaurant is complèt, thanks to the cursed Tour, so we eat take-away pizza at a picnic table and in the morning set off for Redon. We soon get lost (in my opinion we only get lost because Dave and Steve spend too much time looking at maps) but eventually end up in the lovely old town of Malestroit, where we have a good lunch in the medieval square, overlooked by the ancient church, whose massive facade is decorated with sculptures illustrating various vices. For example, there is one of a very supple acrobat, a warning of the perils of getting above your humble station in life. I resolve never to do this. We chat to a couple of cyclists from Alaska (Alaska!) and then hammer along the Nantes-Brest canal to Redon, whose port suddenly opens before us with a breath of the sea and flotillas of moored yachts. Through a slight drizzle, we hammer along the canal towards Blain. It’s flat, it’s tree-lined and, according to Dave, boring. I think that, after Cornwall and Brittany, being flat trumps everything. However, I will allow that the surface of soggy yellow gravel makes for hard cycling.
Blain is an anonymous sprawl of a town, but there is a magnificent chateau and a pretty quay on the canal. We camp at a pleasant site on the banks of the river and at midnight a fusillade of fireworks somewhere nearby marks the start of Bastille Day.
At Le Pellerin we cross the Loire on a giant version of the King Harry Ferry and pick up le formule déjeuner from a boulangerie and eat it sitting on benches in a civilised fashion on the bank of the great river. And now we’re in Loire-Atlantique and an immediate change in the atmosphere and the landscape. Rooftops are red instead of slate-grey and there are vineyards on either side of the (fairly) flat road and every now and then a church spire appears on the skyline beyond the trees. It’s hot now and the going hard.
Olonne-sur-mer. Not that I’ve seen the sea yet. Dave and Steve go on a recce while I wash my clothes. We’ve ridden down lovely long, straight, tree-lined avenues and along a few busy roads where the traffic, though never menacing in the way it sometimes is in England, is nevertheless oppressive. Very hot. We find a swimming lake with an artificial lake at Apremont. Steve and I plunge in while Dave snoozes under a tree. We carry on after much discussion about the route, from which I remain aloof. Steve, as a matter of principal, will not use any campsite which has flags. This limits us rather, as most of the campsites round here display whole United Nations-worth of flags. I’m usually so exhausted at the end of a day, I’d camp anywhere, especially if I could find somebody else to put up my tent. Anyway, we end up at a slightly depressing 2-star site where I witness, on the dusty, leaf-strewn ground outside my tent, a very small bee either eating, or mating with, a very large one.
Dave and Steve have not let me do any leading today, because tomorrow I shall be on my own, and, as Dave says, I’ll need all my strength. And if that’s not comradeship, I don’t know what is.
In the evening, we find a Brazilian restaurant where a statuesque lady serves us a very tasty dinner of fish (possibly coley?) with a very hot sauce in a tiny pot. The tinier the pot, the hotter the sauce.
The parting of the ways. Shake hands. Good luck mate, and thanks for all the fish. Dave and Steve lead me onto the Vélodyssée, point me in the right direction, and turn and go. I immediately take a wrong turning and plunge into a giant sand-dune. I’m on a beach. At least I get a sight of the sea for the first time on this trip. I hope Dave and Steve aren’t watching from behind a tree. I back-track and soon I’m crossing part of the Marais and a soft, bright, salty atmosphere enfolds me and I traverse vast empty spaces under a big sky. There’s water everywhere. The route is a sandy track through coarse grasses beside canal, pools and and inlets. I make a lunch-stop on a rough bench by a salt-dry, where little pyramids of slightly dingy salt crystals are heaped up to dry beside shallow tennis-court-sized salt-pans. I’m eating a baguette when an old man comes by, wishes me bon appetit and tells me the salt-drying industry used to be much bigger, and the work very hard. I don’t know anyone who’s ever worked in the salt-drying industry, but I’m sure he’s right.
I carry on across the salt-marshes and stop to buy supplies at a Casino supermarché, where I meet three English lads who are also riding the Vélodyssée. One of them is about 6’8” and rides an old Carlton with the biggest frame I’ve ever seen. At La Tranche-sur-mer I find a pleasant site, with flags, and a pitch surfaced with wood-shavings. There is a small café where I eat moules, because this area is the moules capital of the universe.
In the morning it rains while I’m showering, so my tent gathers a coating of wet wood-shavings as I roll it up. The ride across the vast flat landscape of the Marais is fabulous. I’m a dot on wheels under a huge sky. Every now and then, water does something interesting. It forms series of narrow channels, spreads into small lakes, becomes a canal. Then, soberingly, I cross a barrage where hundreds of dead fish are floating, their quicksilver motion halted under the hot sun reflected off the still water.
In Dompierre-sur-mer, I find a lovely campsite, an ‘Aire Naturelle de Camping’ in an old orchard. Pitch where you like, says the proprietor. So I do- under a fig tree whose fruit is ripe to bursting. I eat three straight off.
Sunday in La Rochelle, and I have coffee in the harbour. Tourists wander round the massive fortifications. I lose, then find, the Vélodyssée, and ride on to Rochefort, where, following the advice of the Dompierre campsite proprietor, I leave the Vélodyssée and head for the old transporter bridge. It’s the kind of Sunday we no longer have in the UK, with shops closed and empty sunlit streets and the population snoozing behind closed shutters. M. Proprietor had eulogised the transporter bridge. It had been built the same year as the Eiffel Tower and M. Proprietor has many happy childhood memories of it and as I meander through Rochefort on this Sunday afternoon looking for it, I begin to wonder if it exists at all outside M. Proprietor’s childhood. But I remember seeing two tall pylons in the hazy distance as I approached Rochefort earlier, so I journey hopefully through the deserted streets until the prospect opens up into a broad avenue leading to the river and there before me is a sort of gigantic fairground attraction- a tall pylon, a ticket booth, and an ornate gondola slung from cables connected to another pylon across the river. I pay two euros, wheel my bike onto the gondola and am swung high across the Charente, swaying slightly in the breeze. Delightful.
Then a long, hot ride across flatlands, through Brouage, a fortified harbour town long left high and dry by the retreating sea. In the ancient square I drink iced tea as four portly actors in medieval costume and sunglasses dance a stately quadrille. The heritage industry is alive and well. On to Marennes, where I find an enormous campsite, with flags. Exhausted, I wobble up to the accueil, pay 15 euros and am directed to a small, wooded enclave at the far end of the site where the other cycle-campers are kept apart from the mobile Euro-city of satellite-tv-wi-fi-enabled camper vans.
Woke to a mild refreshing drizzle, but by midday the sun was high and the tarmac soft. In La Tremblade I cooled myself by walking through the fountains of the water-feature in the square. On past some grand, slightly-faded sea-side houses, their names in big letters under their eaves like the names of old railway stations-‘La Rosarie’, ‘La Chaumière’. There are little striped pavilions on pristine beaches and fishing huts on stilts with wide nets suspended over sand, waiting for the tide to come in.
Royan is a strange place. The Americans flattened it in a bombing raid ‘by mistake’ in the last weeks of WW2 and it was rebuilt in a 1950’s modernist style inspired by Brasilia. I see none of this as I hug the coast and then take the ferry across the Gironde. I reach a campsite at Soulac-sur-mer where I am thoroughly ripped off. €18 for a patch of sand! €5 for a demi of beer! I discover I’ve lost my journal. Another demi to drown my sorrows! A kind soul has found it and handed it it. Another demi to celebrate!
I pick up a smooth, flat route through kilometre after kilometre of aromatic pines. Choruses of cicadas accompany the hum of my tyres and I accomplish a day of (for me) record-breaking mileage. Near Lacanau-Océan, the Circus Maximus is established in a vast sandy car-park near the beach, its massive trucks hooked up to trailers big as houses. Some of the trailers have barred windows and according to the fearsome murals on the sides, contain lions and tigers. All the vehicles are painted a deep majestic red and all are embellished with generous helpings of chrome: hubs; fenders; wing-mirrors. And all are pristine and gleaming, unlike the dusty cyclist who stops to take a photo.
On to Lacanau itself, and a massive campsite (with flags) beside a lake. I negotiate a discount as a reward for arriving on a bike, but it still costs me €20. I pitch my tent under tall pines and have a dip in the limpid lake. At night, there’s an unearthly sighing from the wind in the pines. It’s a lot more soothing than the racket of the Atlantic bashing against the base of the big sand-dune where I was perched the previous night.
I’m clever enough to find my way out of the campsite, but not clever enough to avoid riding half-an-hour in the wrong direction, so I have to slog the (in Dave Bennett’s memorable phrase) ‘bollock-shagging miles’ back to where I started. So by mid-morning, I’m still circling the lake and have to treat myself to a blissful coffee- break on a battered sofa in a lake-side café. I’d put sofas up there among facilities that should be provided for cyclists. It’s amazing how comforting a sofa can be when your nights have been spent sleeping on the ground and your days sitting on a Brooks saddle. Especially after a few bollock-shagging miles.
While wallowing in the sofa, I think about the two weird encounters with the slightly sinister cyclist who seemed to know too much about me. He was French, and spoke good English in a low voice, and wore dark clothing. He knew where I’d come from and where I was going, and generally seemed altogether too knowing, as if there were other things he could disclose if he wanted to. I encountered him among the dark pines yesterday evening and again this morning. I am not easily freaked out, but he disturbed me.
So I stop wallowing and get on.
And on and on, along the course of the old railway track between Lacanau and Bordeaux, my tyres making such a rhythmic shushing on the tarmac that after a while I think I’m a railway engine. So I halt at a bistro built on the platform of a disused station. A rusty old loco stands immobile on a short length of track. I have a long and indulgent lunch, a sure sign of exhaustion. Then on into Bordeaux and a confusion of roadworks, where I immediately lose the cycleway, or it loses me, and I begin a war of attrition with the traffic. The route should pick up at the Gare St. Jean, but I can’t find it. I know the route follows the river, but I can’t find the river, either. Hours pass. I come across a little pension called ‘Le Tout Va Bien’. Sounds appropriate, so I check in. It’s the French equivalent of Smokey Joe’s, with beds. And a bed is just what I need, even if it is hard, lumpy and sheathed in scratchy nylon. I sleep well, having dined with a noisy bunch of working men, while at another table three very fat chaps consume enough calories to keep the Tour de France going for another week or two. One of them had been wearing a baseball cap which had left a suntanned oval on the back of his shaven head.
Petit déjeuner among the debris left after the ouvriers have had theirs and gone off to leurs travaux, then into the rush-hour traffic of Bordeaux. No scares. Immediately see a sign to the station, but I’m no longer looking for the Vélodyssée. Reluctantly, I’ve decided to catch a train to Agen, because I’m supposed to be in Toulouse on the 25th to collect keys to an apartment where Angie and Ruby, partner and daughter, will join me. And I’m obviously not going to make it. I will never be able to claim I cycled from Roscoff to Toulouse. Does this matter? Well, if you’re a cyclist, yes, it does.
However, the rail journey is very entertaining from the very beginning. First, there’s a fight on the concourse. A young man is bleeding all over the place. It’s all dealt with very efficiently. A first-aider goes to work, then six or seven cops arrive, followed by a big machine which swabs up the blood and an ambulance. I lug the loaded bike onto platform 4. There’s a bit of confusion between bikes and passengers, until an attendant in a smart uniform comes along and tells four people to fold their seats up and get out the way so the cyclists can hang their bikes on the rack. A young man with a guitar hangs mine up- he obviously thinks I’m too old and feeble to do it myself. I probably am. All this is done quickly, calmly and with great co-operation from all concerned. Then the smooth journey through hectares of vines to Agen, where I find at last the Canal de Garonne and ride under the shade of the plane trees to Moissac.
Moissac’s a lovely old place with a medieval abbey plonked in the middle. I stare at its massive, phantasmagorical porch for a while. Then I find a campsite by the river (no flags), pitch my tent and head back to the station to wait for my son Luke, who arrives by train from Toulouse. While waiting, I think of all the stations where I’ve seen him off, or met him, and soon his familiar, loping figure comes along the platform pushing a borrowed bike, an ancient Louison Bobet which has seen better days. We ride into town and immediately, even in the full knowledge that it is happening, I am drawn into what his friends and family call ‘Luke time’. It’s like a re-ordering of reality and bears little resemblance to normal time. We find a table, chat, eat, drink and have a lovely, companionable evening and by the time we’re on the campsite he has to pitch his tent in the dark.
We begin a long, dream-like ride down the véloroute along the canal. Over an aqueduct, under bridges, through the shadows of plane trees and past big, mechanized locks. The canal is wide, making British canals seem little more than ditches, its construction, begun in 1838, a feat of visionary engineering which no-one would think of attempting today. The Canal du Midi, with which the Canal de Gironde meets in Toulouse to complete the link to the Mediterranean, was, incredibly, built 1667-1681.
The thing to bear in mind when cycling the canal is that there is nowhere en route to buy supplies. So at midday we drop off the véloroute and cycle 2k to a village, Bessen, in search of food. All the houses are shuttered and sleepy in the noonday sun, and there are no shops anyway. A stocky little man carrying a jerrycan engages Luke in conversation. He says he guesses we don’t need petrol. No, said Luke, we need food. So the man goes into his vegetable plot behind the disused old well and comes back with a melon and four giant tomatoes and we find a seat in the shade under the church wall. Such delicious tomatoes! Such a sweet melon!
Then on along the canal, until the outskirts of Toulouse are upon us with a splattering of graffitied industrialisation and a couple of shanty villages on the wasteland of the opposite bank. We are sucked into the maelstrom of Toulouse’s traffic problem, then I find myself seated at a café table while Luke chats to an old friend. I am hot, dusty and on the edge of exhaustion, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it, except maybe getting lost in Bordeaux.
Next year? Maybe complete the journey from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.
Facts and figures
Bike: Cinelli BootlegHobo, Ortlieb panniers front and rear
Tent: Zephyros 2, with Thermarest bedroll. Sleeping bag.
Punctures/breakdowns: None, except for the stripped thread before we’d even started.
Glad I took: Dave and Steve some of the way.
Wish I hadn’t taken: So much stuff.
Rod Tinson, September 2015