Bike to Bordeaux – diary
Please note this is a typed copy of my original diary and some may only make limited sense as it was between 10 and 11pm so the writer was a little tired!
Sunday 4th April STAGE 1 Reading – Portsmouth
At last the day to get going, after months of preparation and organisation the departure day had finally arrived. A few final checks on the bike, loaded up the van and off I rode for a quick ‘warm-up’ trundle down to the Hanover International Hotel who had very kindly agreed to host a send off reception for the bike2bordeaux challenge. At 10 am Martin Salter MP joined the few of us who had arrived on time for a few snaps outside the hotel when we heard the faint rumble of an approaching aircraft – it was the reason for the ride itself – the spectacular arrival and touchdown of the bright yellow Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance.
To no-ones surprise the press were nowhere to be seen, even the promise of a bacon roll couldn’t bring them out this early on a bright spring morning. Between 10 and 11 we were joined by friends, families and well-wishers as well as a few representatives from my generous sponsors, plus the half-dozen brave souls who had decided to join me for the first stage down to Portsmouth and my rendezvous with the ferry.
After some fun and games with 107fm’s Warren Lee who was recording the départ for broadcast later in the week, a countdown and much bell-ringing we were off. Basingstoke was the destination for some, Portsmouth the goal for others, for me Just the small matter of 7 days cycling ahead of me, Bordeaux some 450+ miles away.
As we cycled over the M4 the Air Ambulance flew overhead, all eyes focused on it as it zoomed across the sky, again the realisation of why I was doing this sank in. Spirits were high on the 23 mile ride down to Basingstoke, fuelled by the hotel’s coffee, bacon rolls and pastries, plus the bright early April sunshine all seven of us were joking and chatting as we wound down the country lanes along the National Cycle Route 23 down to Basingstoke. On arrival in Basingstoke at 1245 we said bye to Arnie – and would have said bye to Frazer but we had by now lost him as his road bike could not use some of the route’s muddy tracks and we had lost him!
Now a peloton of five set off on the cross-country route over the South Downs to Portsmouth via Alresford. As we pedalled on through villages and fields the weather was beginning to take a turn for the worse. The wind has blown up and was now strong in our faces – just what I didn’t want. At Alresford we stopped for lunch and refreshment before the final push on to the south coast. Swanny bade us farewell here and the final four began the gradual climb up onto the downs. After the gruelling climbs of Beacon Hill and Portland Down (and the best hot chocolate we have ever tasted!) we plunged down into Portsmouth and arrived at the ferry terminal with my bike computer showing 99km covered.
Aiden, Ben and Ian said farewell and set off to get a beer and catch the train back to Reading. I met up with Dad and the van, put the bike in and waited to board the 2030 overnight ferry to Saint Malo. After boarding and eating a pleasant enough meal I settled down in a cramped cabin for a slightly undulating nights sleep.
Day 99km Total 99km
PS; Big thanks to the those who came along to see me off : Patsy Lyford, Martin & Wendy plus Wendy’s dad, Jean and Mick Kersey, Kevin Rennell and family, Sue and Derrick, Mike Maule, Chris Widdows, Julian Allder from Earley Locks, Martin Salter MP, Warren Lee from Reading 107, Stevie Horton from TVAA and from Direct Wines Louise Acreman, Claire Grinham and Jack, Becki Mortimer & India, John Kemp with Jack, Matty and Freddie. Plus a big thank you to Lisa for all her support. And of course the Air Ambulance and it’s crew for making the morning such a memorable one for all the kids, and me!
Monday 5th April STAGE 2 Saint Malo – Rennes
Being woken by dodgy french lift music is not the ideal way to prepare mentally for up to 6 hours on a bicycle in the countryside of north-western France, but that is what Brittany Ferries seem to think there clients wish to get out of bed to. Some Pearl Jam, Linkin Park or The Jam would have got my blood pumping a bit better! Anyway after disembarking and getting the bike out of the van, checking it was all ok, applying a bit of chain oil we set off for the first important part of the journey – a croissant and coffee – a ritual that was to become a feature of the trip! Then I set off towards Rennes. The first hour was spent riding east along the channel coast towards Mont St Michel, which could just be made out through the distant haze, past countless oyster and mussel stalls selling their freshly landed wares.
With the thought of five days hard cycling ahead I resisted the urge to sample! After about 20km I turned inland and head south towards central Brittany. My initial fears that this part of northern France may not be as flat as they appear on a map were confirmed as the roads began to take on a lumpy character! The common sight of monoliths and dolmens on top of hills to either side of the road kept me happy knowing it could be steeper! The best news was that the wind which had blown in our faces yesterday afternoon had swung round and was coming from a very helpful, if slightly cold, northerly direction. Sun on my face, wind on my back – a happy cyclist indeed.
Alas the forecast for today and the rest of the week was for frequent blustery showers. The wind helped me make good time and by lunchtime the showers had not arrived and I continued to make good progress south. I had organised it so that this first day on French soil was a relatively short one as a sort of acclimatisation so the arrival in Rennes shortly before 4pm meant we had plenty of time to explore this large city before dinner and bed! A good wander around its wide streets and impressive buildings drew the conclusion that this was another city almost certainly ignored by most British tourists on their mad rush to or from the channel ports. Grand buildings from the last century nestle alongside the remnants of a medieval quarter which had survived a greet fire many years ago. I can also speak very highly of the restaurant we ate at this evening. P’tit Ferme in the ancient quartier – very good indeed and well worth seeking out if ever in Rennes. By about 10 I was shattered, all that cycling and fresh air. Really tires you out.
Day 89km Total 178 km
Tuesday 6th April STAGE 3 Rennes – Angers
Another heavy night’s sleep rudely awakened by the shrill electronic blast of my phone’s alarm, shortly followed by a repeat dose from the one on my watch just to make sure. And then it was on to what became my morning routine, breakfast of a bowl of cereal, OJ, a cup of hot chocolate and a couple of croissants then a 20 minute walk around the town to get the slumber out of the legs! I stood for a few minutes watching the bustle of Rennes station as commuters boarded the very impressive TGV bound for Nantes or Paris. I contemplated what was the longest stage of the entire week that lay ahead today – according to my routing Angers was 131.5 km away. A long day in the saddle beckoned. It sure didn’t disappoint … long, undulating roads south-east to the Loire Valley and another of northern France’s big industrial cities. All was going fine and countless small towns and villages passed me by – the yellow t-shirt I was wearing enamoured me to the locals, both stood at the road side and in the occasional cars that passed me, le maillot jaune so revered by all Frenchmen usually got me a cheer, wave, hoot or shout of “Chapeau!”
Then we had our first navigational problem, Dad had gone on ahead and had waited for me on a wrong road, I misread a sign at a crossroads and turned right rather than going straight on and rode 8km along what I thought was the road to Marizé – alas after 10 km I realised it was the wrong road, found a helpful local to ask the whereabouts of the aforementioned town and returned from whence I had come, into a very strong headwind. Message to self : Remember SIGN on the LEFT of a crossroads pointing right means straight on! Eventually we met up and had lunch at the PMU bar in Marizé, about an hour behind schedule and 20km further then I had wanted to ride. The ride south to Angers was uneventful from here on in – although the sight of barriers, advertising hoardings and kilometre signs being erected as we approached the city made me think that there were other cyclists expected shortly, I doubted it was for me! First really impressive chateau was passed at le Sautret complete with lord of the manor stood at the gate surveying all before him.
Angers, perched on the northern bank of the River Loire is a big, bustling industrial city, no place for a cyclist who had become accustomed to seeing other vehicles at the rate of not many more than a dozen per hour. After fighting a hectic rush hour that made reading’s look like a country fete I finally located the Holiday Inn that would be my bed for the night. Following a long deep bath we set out to try and find a bar that would be showing the Chelsea v Arsenal game – to no avail, never mind at least we won!!! I cannot over-emphasise the benefits of a long soak, big bowl of pasta and about 2 litres of water after this much biking! By about 11 I was dead to the world, but feeling good, no aches no pains, no punctures, just a little detour but nothing too disastrous as yet.
DAY 159 km TOTAL 347 km
NB – I later discovered that the signs and banners being put up were for the following day’s stage of the Circuit de la Sarthe – a professional cycle race involving many of the chief protagonists in this summer’s Tour de France. I was lucky that I rode here today and not on Wednesday as the roads would have been closed and the hotel we stayed in was fully booked by two pro cycling teams, T-Mobile and Illes Baleares.
Wednesday 7th April STAGE 4 Angers – Parthenay
This morning after breakfast and my daily walk I saddled up and rode out of Angers to meet with Dad and the van a few km along the Loire. However I began to feel a sharp pain in my right knee, a piercing point of pain on the kneecap. Not good at all as we were not even at half distance. So I took a couple of Ibuprofen and rubbed some pain killer cream in it and set off down the Loire in the direction of Saumur. The scenery was certainly impressive and very different from the previous days. To my left was the fast flowing Loire, swollen from the heavy rains of the week before. To the right was the sharp chalk escarpment that as I approached Saumur became the cliffs in whose cellars the regions wines quietly age. The view of the town of Saumur is dominated by its impressive eponymous chateau perched atop a hill overlooking the valley below. A brief lunch then off south towards Parthenay. After quite a long steady climb up away from the Loire I rode through rolling fields of grazing cattle and sheep – the whole area reminded me of Devon or Cornwall. The whole afternoon was spent, in cycling parlance, a rouleur, riding a big gear on gently rolling roads over a vast plateau. About mid-afternoon I passed another great chateau, the mighty-spectacular Chateau Oiron – I am sure Bond film has been filmed here., if it hasn’t the next one should be! Finally we ended up running alongside a narrow railway for the last 10 km into Parthenay – then just like the last two days the stage had a sting in it’s tail – a real steep climb up to the walled medieval town itself, which was a little annoying to say the least, and reminded me of my sore knee.
After another long soak we set about discovering what lay inside Parthenay’s ancient walls. Well some advice for anyone ever visiting this particular part of central-western France ? give Parthenay a miss. Its medieval walls are indeed impressive and no doubt kept out various invaders throughout history, but the appear to have more recently kept out any renovators and development – this is a town in need of some serious work. It reminded my of a very run down seaside resort back in England. We did however find a restaurant that broke the mould and had been recently renovated. The food was good and I had the biggest bowl of pasta, ham and green beans. Then after walking the dilapidated streets for another 20 minutes I crashed out and that was that for Wednesday. The hotel, although not part of big chain or modern, was more than adequate for a tired cyclist. Big, hard bed and a big deep bath. Just before I retired for the night I checked the right knee that had been bothering me all day and put an ice pack on it for half an hour and just hope it was better, or at least no worse, in the morning.
DAY 144 km TOTAL 491 km
Thursday 8th April STAGE 5 Parthenay – Rochefort
This morning I woke with a very, very sore right knee, so I went for a brisk 20 minute walk along the ramparts to se if I could make it loosen up but no joy. It was in a bad way, I have a problem here. I can best describe the pain as a hot needle being poked right through my kneecap. So I rubbed in some Nurofen gel, took a couple of painkillers and put on a knee brace and set off deciding to grin and bear it. Bit worried but no turning back or stopping now! Parthenay to Rochefort was a stage I expected to be quite hilly for the first half and then flattening out on the ride into the Charentais town. This is exactly how it panned out, indeed the first hour was very lumpy, in need of a good iron. For anyone who has ridden a bike each pedal stoke made uphill out of the saddle puts a great deal of stress and pressure on the knee joints – and this particular cyclist’s right knee was now very tender. So in order to ensure that no further damage was done I climbed the hills with my bum firmly placed on the saddle to which it had by now become very well acquainted. Fortunately the knee did not get any worse and the support began to aid the injury. The fact I was now over half way to Bordeaux was probably the best medicine for my bad knee.
I pressed on through the garrison town of Maixent l’Ecole and Niort with it’s beautiful tree-lined square, towards Rochefort and the Charentais. I knew I would sleep well tonight with over 600km behind me and knowing there would be just one long day left. On the roads on a bike alone you tend to notice things and on this stage a couple of observations – I would suggest that 90% of the drivers of la Poste vans are women – secondly and I found this quite surprising the majority of cyclists I saw did not wear helmets! Trivial but it is what you notice whilst pedalling along for 6 hours on your lonesome! My other big observation on cycling in France, and this is true of my experiences in Spain as well, is that the roads are infinitely better than ours and the drivers are much nicer to us cyclists – drivers treat a cyclist as another vehicle and pass with care and caution, unlike most hear who see a bike as an annoyance, a mobile obstruction.
Enough of the sermon. I ploughed on through the pleasant green fields of the Charentais, grazed peacefully by herds of young cows and sheep, all blissfully unaware of their ultimate fate. Another lovely day with bright sunshine and a aiding wind. Slightly chilly but all in all it was a good day as the kms seemed to pass by quickly and I reached Rochefort without further injury or mishap. Rochefort is not a big town and it was very easy to find the hotel.
DAY 134 km TOTAL 625 km
PS Tonight we met an nice old lady from Oxford who it transpired was a good friend and neighbour of my grandparents when they lived there over 20 years ago. She knew more about them that my dad did! Small world isn’t it ? I left them reminiscing and once again visited the land of nod.
Friday 9th April STAGE 6 Rochefort – Pauillac
I got up at the request of my dual alarms and had breakfast as usual and want for a walk around the town and down along the river Charente which flows through the town and on to La Rochelle. During my painstaking research into the route I discovered that Rochefort has a unique and very old Transporter bridge across the above mentioned river. it’s the little things like this that keep you going tired, hate the alarm, the bike, the map etc. Basically it was a platform suspended above the water and winched across the span of the river. In times gone by cars and lorries used it, now painstakingly renovated back to full working order it is solely for the use of pedestrians and cyclists – the ticket man told me 500 people a day use it in the summer! Well just before 10am I was the only passenger on the first journey of the day, they even let me take one of the test crossings to keep me from getting cold as I wait! A very odd experience but a very cool one – as I crossed on a piece of technology from the industrial revolution Dad and the van whizzed across the equally spectacular but ultra-21st century Viaduct de Charente about half a mile downstream.
From south towards the Gironde across great swathes of flat marshlands, irrigation channels and oyster farms. The area teemed with wildlife, storks, herons, all manner of birds, ducks and waders, eagles, ospreys, rabbits, hares – according to the roadside hoardings the rivulets were inhabited by might sturgeon!!! After the transporter bridge this stage threw up another oddity – a fortified village, Brouage, in the middle of these marshes, miles from anywhere yet with a full compliment of turrets, walls, battlements, the full monty! We had a coffee here but other than a street called rue d’Arsenal we were unable to find out anything about the place (note to self – look up on web) – a prison? fortress? folly? Was it not actually very old? Who knows anyway for me it was awful as the entire mile either side and the village itself were cobbled ? bloody things!
On I pressed towards the Gironde which finally came into view at Palmyre, all murky and brown as always, across in the distance I could make out the silhouette of the Médoc. The last 10km into Royan, the port from which the Médoc ferry departs, were very tough indeed, a series of coastal bays with steep climbs in between each one, plus worst of all it was in to the teeth of a cold, strong headwind. Finally I arrived at Royan’s ferry terminal at 2pm followed shortly by Dad and van. We got on the ferry for the short crossing to Verdon at the northern tip of the Médoc.
Little more than 30 minutes later I was riding away from the boat and on towards Pauillac. However I knew the next hour or so would be amongst the toughest mentally of the whole ride. As anyone who has been to the northern Médoc will know there a few more desolate expanses of land in France, few people, not a lot to look at all. To the left the Gironde (brown and dreary) to the right the great forests that guard from the Atlantic buffeting. The river acted as a funnel for the wind, so again in was a niggling headwind. Nice. After about an hour and a half I finally passed Château Tour de By, the most northerly of the Bordeaux’s top estates, and I knew that things would now get more interesting and I would shortly be surrounded by vines as far as eye could see. Unfortunately my understanding of the french concept of terroir meant I also knew it would not be flat much longer. I was spurred on at the thought of reaching St Estephe and then Pauillac, the thought of having a picture taken outside the extravagant façade at Cos d’Estournel and the elegant lake, fountains and château at Lafite. I duly arrived at about 5pm, the vines out side Cos looked truly spectacular in the early evening light. The fading golden sunlight on the rows of vines and their infant buds. Regimented rows of dormant vines just waiting to burst into life in the next few weeks. A trundle down the hill past Lafite-Rothschild – far less painful than my previous arrival at the end of the Marathon du Médoc in 2000. I ate and slept well this evening knowing the finish line was under 3 hours away. Bordeaux under 60km from where I was sleeping.
Day 136 km Total 761 km
Saturday 10th April STAGE 7 Pauillac – Bordeaux
After breakfast at Hotel France et Angleterre we drove up to Mouton-Rothschild for a quick look at the visitor centre, chai and a taste of the spectacular 2003 vintage.Well here I was, after thinking I would never get there, I was actually going to arrive in Bordeaux in less than 3 hours. Riding out of St Malo seemed a long time ago now. So off I set towards the city in good spirits. Stopping at some of the great châteaux for photos of me and the bike outside their fantastic facades, Pichon Baron, Latour, Leoville Las Cases Leoville Barton, Palmer and Margaux. Then on for the final push along the banks of the Gironde, still brown and foreboding to my left, a constant amongst the changes in scenery. Then beneath the mighty span of the Pont d’Aquitaine along the great quais to the ultimate finish point Place de la Bourse. As I arrived I felt both and overwhelming sense of achievement and satisfaction, a brief clenched fist as I pulled into the square. Mission Accomplished.
DAY 51 km
GRAND TOTAL 812 km
Big thanks to the following who helped make this possible and raise so much for the Air Ambulance.
- Rabbits Vehicle Hire – for the loan of the van.
- AW Cycles – for making sure my bike was in top shape.
- Hanover International Hotel – for the marvellous send off
- Kev and all at Volaire for making everythink look good!
- Diane @ Mapac for the shirts.
- ELC London Street
- Wood Floors Direct
- Norwegian Log
- Earley Locks
- Direct Wines
- Abbey Windows
- Post Haste
- Reading 107fm
- Reading Chronicle
- BBC Radio Berkshire
- Evening Post
- Martin Salter MP
Thanks also to all the individuals who sponsored me.
Finally to my Dad for his company, support, drving the van and getting me home on the Sunday!
20 April 2004