Monthly Archives: July 2020

Days 15 & 16 – Antwerp to Europoort, Rotterdam – 80 miles & Hull to York – 53 miles

If the truth was told I’d had enough of riding my bike. Two weeks without a day off was sufficient. I was going well: no complaints with the butt, back or legs but I was tired. My fitness was impressive and I must say that eating more and more regularly was a big contributor as obvious as it sounds. My Australian warm up in March had provided a base of fitness. I checked out of the Ibis into a deserted Antwerp. I started to think that it must be another day off for the natives in Belgium. This is the second largest city in the country with half a million residents. At around 8am they must have been in bed. The streets and buses were empty. Maybe the Belgians have a leisurely start to the day?

I took a few snaps of the city. Note the crowds.

Electric scooters are popular in all urban settings in France and Belgium

I was heading north east again to Europoort. This is a conurbation with a number of large chemical plants and warehouse facilities. Hidden somewhere in there are some jetties for ferries; one of them was for Hull. The literature says it’s Rotterdam but that’s like calling Stansted and Gatwick London airports. The route necessitated crossing a number of ‘fingers’ of land by bridges.

The first chore of the day was finding some breakfast. The Ibis hotel was unable to serve anything due to the resurgence of Covid-19 meaning they had to desist. As I trundled through the side streets I eventually spied a bakery and bought some pastries. Much to my surprise about Belgium again, was that they did a passable sausage roll.

Soon I was out of Belgium into Holland. The usual clue in continental Europe that you’ve crossed a border is the change in the preponderance of number plates of a certain nationality into another. This is how I worked out I was in The Netherlands. The other signal is that you often get a sign advising drivers that the speed limits are different.

(I hope they are employing a couple of hundred people in Brussels and Strasbourg, as I write, on an initiative to harmonise car registration plates and speed limits).

The terrain didn’t change between the two countries and the road layouts and cycle paths didn’t change. However I was now moving into the coastal countryside and it became increasingly windy as the sea breezes picked up. The infrastructure still remained immaculate for cyclists who like dedicated facilities. There really wasn’t a lot to see and whilst I was well ahead of any embarkation time I wanted to be there in good time.

Here’s a tell tale signal that it was getting windy: wind turbine farms.

Holland is a busy country and there is never an escape for too long from the traffic and housing but I did pass many fields full of cereals, probably in fields below sea level. For all the bustling settlements I ended up failing to find some lunch. As a consequence I ate all my remaining biscuits (Hobnobs), energy bars, crisps and sweets that I had lurking in my panniers.

Another sign that it was coastal were the working boats.

No I didn’t stop for the fish and chips! I seldom think they’re edible outside of Yorkshire and by this stage I was closing in on Europoort.

The Dutch and Belgians do like a brick. Are they really cost effective solutions for a road?

The final few miles were slightly worrying because the route to Europoort meant crossing stretches of water from peninsula to peninsula. I found the following sign and started to be encouraged that I was going in the right direction.

This may seem that I had the direction sorted, I didn’t. The signs at the bottom of the hill pointed in the wrong direction for the port! I stopped to ask a cycling couple and he was not only uninformed but made me anxious by suggesting I’d need to get a boat to cross banks. He was wrong; such stupid talk can be quite perplexing.

Eventually I found the relevant bridge and closed in on the giant chemistry set of Europoort.

The total mileage from Carcassonne was now just over 1,000 miles. I could see the P&O ferry and even found a sign. However it took a long time with the road system to pull up to the desk at the embarkation point.

With Anna’s forwarded email I was quickly ushered through. The sailing was still about four hours away but I could board immediately. I was so pleased as I was ready for a shower and a sit down with a pint of Guinness.

The ferry was not remotely half full. A chat with a P&O employee suggested that the Zeebrugge ferry won’t run again this year. I’d be surprised if it ran again ever as it was never busy during pre-Coronavirus times. With the ferry so empty you notice the staff more. The Filipinos were like little birds – happy and chatting in Tagalog to each other. However, they weren’t all very attentive and some management or demanding workload might have helped them concentrate on the passengers. There is nothing sadder than an empty ship and staff with little to do standing around.

I did my usual unplanned trick of dining and then going back to the cabin to find it impossible to keep my eyes open past 9pm. I slept 10 hours.

Entry in the UK requires completion of a Declaration about your health and where you’d been. I was queuing at Reception to use their iPad to complete the form. (I’d run out of data on my own mobile). This task made me late to to disembark but eventually I rolled off and made it to Passport Control.

The ride back home was starting with Hull rush hour traffic at 7.30 in the morning; none of this Belgium hanging about. In fact the traffic stayed with me all the way until I got past Market Weighton. One of my usual observations on returning to the UK is that I live on a very busy and populated island.

Before Escrick I met up with Anna who’d cycled out to meet me and we cycled home together. That was the end of the latest adventure and I knew I wouldn’t be sat on a bike for a week at least.

Lastly, thank you for your comments and for simply reading my blog. It is a joy to write this stuff up and think that someone somewhere is checking out my journey.

Day 14 – Givet, France to Antwerp, Belgium – 109 miles

Today was going to be a day of a big push, as if the other days had been a doddle. Antwerp was in a straight line to Europoort, Rotterdam and I knew that if I reached it I’d have a good chance of reaching the ferry for the Tuesday night sailing.

I was up early and away before 8am, I left the campsite quietly. I like the thought of all the other sleepy campers waking up to peer at my space noting I was long gone. It wasn’t long before I reached the border and said goodbye to France. The plan was to continue along the Meuse river to Namur. From here I’d head in a north easterly direction through Belgium. It was a cool and overcast morning: no complaints as flat and cool is a winning combination for making progress.

Lots of layers to hopefully peel off as the day warmed. At one urban traffic junction I was asked by other cyclists if I was Croation? I proudly declared I was English and as for football I supported Leeds United…”Marching On Together” into the Premiership

The river seemed to be widening and the altitude fell to 80 metres. There were still plenty of weirs and locks for barges to negotiate. I say barges because a few commercial boats were now to be found as we getting into Belgium.

The first large town to come into view was Dinant. It looked a resort kind of place all nicely perched alongside the river. I looked around for a bike shop or even some breakfast but I had come up against the dreaded ‘Monday closing’ situation with Belgium. It wouldn’t be a distortion to suggest that whenever I’ve been in Belgium I cannot remember, apart from Bruges and Brussels, all the shops ever being open. If they’re not shut they all open late at about 9.30am. Hopeless.

The home of the saxophone – lots of models painted in national colours (including those EU stalwarts… Malta)

A popular Ives household pastime is naming famous Belgians. No, Hercules Poirot is a fictional one, it’s not an easy game although Eddie Merckx quickly comes to mind. I can only think of one popular music artist. However, born in 1814 in Dinant is Adolpho Sax. He invented the saxophone in 1840 and the rest, as they say, is rock n’ roll. Needless to say Adolpho didn’t create this masterpiece on a Monday.

The cycle path had been asphalt all the way from Sedan but now I hit some loose gravel and some ‘pavé’ for sections. The pavé can be translated as cobbles or ‘f@*king cobbles’ as I was heard to opine to another couple of tourers coming toward me on the bone jangling surface. They laughed at my observation. I was also worried that the vibration would make my rear wheel worse.

It was still an attractive ride and flat as a pancake. Because the settlements were closer it was more interesting. Soon I was in Namur and at the end of the path (for me). I found a bike shop that Google suggested was open but it wasn’t and now after a sandwich and a coffee in the centre headed across country to Belgium.

Belgium and Holland have a developed infrastructure for cycling and there are lots of routes. All these routes are denoted by numbers signs. I don’t think I got a lot wrong but having a map of the routes and directions would have helped. Trying to work all this out on a small mobile phone screen is not ideal.

One thing that surprises me is the number of serious lycra clad road cyclists, that is, not kids, commuters or elderly shoppers, who use these paths. The routes are bedvilled with tight corners and junctions. To add to this is the height of the kerbs you regularly have to ride up over. I ride a 28mm wide tyre and it was just enough in most instances to achieve the task, but on a road bike with something thinner it is a crashing affair. It may also explain why 28mm wide tyres are becoming increasing popular on road bikes.

An easy route to follow, wherever it goes!

I was using the routes and my Sat Nav programmed with the large towns ahead. When I got within a mile or so I’d re-programme to another town. By doing it at this point I’d not be taken into the centre of the town. As you can see there was bright blue skies by the time of the afternoon and I was going well.

Fragrant dung to my right

It was still on my mind to get the rear wheel fixed. I’d been lucky so far but for how much longer? About 40 miles from Antwerp I cycled through a small settlement called Bierbeek and found an open bike store. I say ‘store’ because it was a splendid retail outlet with all types of bikes. The owner/mechanic was much in demand as mainly pensioners looked pensively at their steeds and he advised on various solutions. Queuing outside the store was the order of the day and eventually my turn came up. I was now in a Flemish speaking part of Belgium and felt explaining things in English would be better understood. This is because if you don’t speak a language other than Flemish then you’re limited outside of the region.

He tipped the bike with all the luggage attached upside down and took off the wheel to fix it. He was helping me as regards the job of unpacking the bike but in doing so he trapped my phone/camera in my handle bar bag and so no piccies! In the time he took to fix the wheel, sell inner tubes, bike locks and deal with queue hopping pensioners I looked at his selection of bikes for sale. It seems clear that the Belgians will spend proper money on a bike. The electric bikes were expensive but all robustly made and brands I respected. It also brought to mind all the teenagers I saw riding bikes. In the UK it would be on an old mountain bike or a sleek lightweight carbon road bike. Here they rode ‘sit up and begs’ with no loss of credibility. They were forms of regular unsexy transport and had to be fit for purpose, reliable and suitable to cope with the terrain.

It seems the cycle routes liberated teenage girls. They bowled along zooming past me in their glad rags on these classic bikes. Not only was the route traffic free but they obviously felt safe even as the evening wore on.

Anyway I smarted a little at €30 for a new spoke and the wheel being true’d. It must have taken him 10 minutes actual time doing the job. Next door there was a supermarket and I bought some pastries to help me get through to Antwerp. Now I needed to get going.

More canals to follow

The route was laid out beside canals or rail tracks as I started to close in on the city. It was getting on. I’d actually ride for over 10 hours today and get to the hotel at some time past 8pm. These routes get more demanding from a navigation point of view and more interesting as you enter residential areas. The outskirts of Antwerp eventually gave way to a busy built up area. The type of cyclists changed, not least the large number of ultra-orthodox jews. These were youngish bearded men in black morning coats and hats who pedalled as fast as the other travellers. A quick bit of research shows this community lives in the centre of the town, which was where I was headed.

Eventually I got to the Ibis Budget and asked for a room (€51). There was a little surprise that I hadn’t booked in advance. However, I felt confident that there would be rooms at the time of the pandemic, I was correct. So a quick shower and then out into the centre for some food. There must have been some further lockdown in Belgium as there was no inside dining as well as the obligatory masks inside premises. It was too cold to sit outside: I bought some fast food and ambled back to the hotel and spoke to Anna. She needed to book a ferry and I had one more very long ride to Europoort.

Day 13 – Douzy to Givet – 80 miles

Encouraged by finding a new way north I left the campsite and went to find the Meuse river. I didn’t find a path until I got to Sedan. Being Sunday I wondered if that would increase or decrease the folk I found using the path: I knew it would make finding food more tricky.

Some cyclists to follow and keep their pace

It was nice to stay in the same gear for a period of time and look around as I kept up a decent pace (12.7mph). There was quite a selection of wildlife beside the river (including a Yorkshireman).

A portrait of an artist beneath a bridge
You’re kidding?
They were very tame and came up to the fence
They often left large ‘presents’ on the path to steer around

The weather was kind and the going easy. I saw a variety of people on bikes: elderly couples, families with trailers pulling their smallest family member, sleek lycra warriors on top of the range road bikes and a lot of electric bikes.

Purpose built infrastructure. It was common to have to switch to the other bank.
The river remained consistent, to me, at an altitude of 140m but it must have fallen due to regular locks

I saw few boats on the water, maybe a few cabin cruisers but like most European waterways they are now given over to tourism with few barges. The sad reality is that the consumption of fossil fuels by barges and the slow speed of transportation has left this solution obsolete as cost effective. I think the only chance it has of being competitive is the movement of aggregates or other exceptionally bulky material.

By the middle of the day I was famished but after drawing a blank in most places I found some sustenance in Bogny-sur-Meuse. It was now very hot and I managed to find a corner of a table out of the sun!

Just along from here I heard another crack. Another spoke broke on the back wheel. From never having had this problem before to now have two in short succession was troubling. Fortunately the wheel didn’t bow as badly this time and would roll. As I’m inspecting my problem a man above me worked out what had befallen me and wanted to help.

He was above me because he was sat in his garden looking out onto the river. He went to fetch some pliers to cut off the flapping broken spoke. After doing the task he was joined by another neighbour who started chatting about whatever. They fell into a conversation and so without any profuse thanks or swapping home addresses I just threw my leg over the top tube and pedalled off. This type of no fuss (or interest) about the French is an admirable quality.

I took out one of the rear brake blocks to aid the rotation. I now just hoped it could see me until the next bike shop. As always there were campsites dotted along the length of the river and I had one in mind near Givet, on the Belgian border. After 80 miles this small site, that appeared to be like someone’s front garden, came into view. It’d do at €7.50 for the night. I cleaned up and then cycled a mile into the centre of Givet for some lamb shoulder and couscous.

The route was windy and despite the 80 miles ridden I hadn’t gone that far north. Despite that situation then if you’re thinking about cycling in Europe for the first time and heading from Belgium or Holland to France this route will take a lot of beating.

Day 12 – Bar-le-Duc to Douzy – 79 miles

It seemed an idyllic day for being lazy in an interesting town but the road beckoned and I turned left out of the campsite and started to climb on the ‘Voie Sacrée’. Verdun, at the other end of this road, is etched into the French psyche as a place where in WW1 the efforts and soul of the nation were poured to fight the Germans as they advanced south west. The price in terms of lives was immense as both armies fought over a small front and in one or another way shelled the terrain to be as desolate and crater like as a lunar landscape. It looks that way even today. The official estimate is that both armies lost 300,000 dead during this two year conflict. This road was the route over which the French despatched resources toward the front. I thought about the young inexperienced soldiers going toward Verdun anxious about the war ahead and the tired, mutilated or dead who were coming back in the same trucks. In reality a desperate ribbon through which to pour life.

Road markers

In lovely sunshine I got to Verdun for lunch. I have been here before a couple of times before and visited the main battlefields including a superb museum. The Meuse river flows through the centre of this now tourist town. After a bite I continued along the Meuse. The river formed a natural front between the WW1 armies including the Americans who latterly helped the French hold the Germans and their allies.

A day like this can be a little dull. The towns are spread far apart and whilst the open, mainly arable countryside is attractive then it does start to become less engrossing during a seven hour bike ride.

As usual I was listening to music or a podcast. I had made my mind up to get home now. I was strong but tired but feared the ride back through Belgium. One of my later discoveries in life is that the land of Hercules Poirot is not flat: in fact it’s bloody hilly. I was not looking forward to severe climbing again.

My routine was to get a hot lunch and then stop at a boulangerie or supermarket to get a baguette, something to spread on it and a tomato. When I visit these stores I’m still tickled by the fact that the French break up the multipacks.

Monuments continued to be placed along the road.

This one is for the Austro-Hungarian troops supporting the Germans
This one from WW2

I started to close in on Douzy, a town close to a larger town called Sedan. It had been a long day and by the end of this day I would have clocked up a total of 736 miles without a day off. There was a campsite that looked very much like a resort park. It was beside a lake and lots of teenagers were leaping into it and having a noisy yet terrific time. I went into Reception and thought I’d be a novelty as a cyclist. Not so. After my usual willing butchery of French the millennial behind the counter said “we can speak English if you like?” It transpired that there was a popular cycling route beside the Meuse and many cycle tourers stayed here overnight. On this route you followed the river where there was a path but otherwise you ambled along on smaller roads near it. I had taken the main road, which was quite reasonable apart from one memorably long steep climb out of Moulins-Saint-Hubert. My route did have the benefit of occasional sights such as this mural in Mouzon.

So I was camping with other cyclists and there were some great facilities including a marquee and benches and a charging point for devices.

Board with sockets against the windows

I saw some Dutch cyclists and interrupted their dinner! Did they have any suggestions on how to get to Rotterdam with least climbing? A map/book was produced that simply advised following the Meuse river. In our discussion they kept saying it went to Maastricht. Who knew the Maas and the Meuse were the same river? Not me! This did have a profound affect on my progress to the ferry. The river cut straight through the Ardennes, albeit very windy, but flat.

So the campsite was a great experience but as we all settled down after 10pm there continued to be the sound of a diesel engine grumbling along, in the distance, under great strain. Why was it working so late on a Saturday night? My weariness and ear plugs won over. The next morning I noted there was a nearby chipboard plant (Unilin). I calculated that a shovel loader was moving logs into the hogger to make the chips (for the chipboard) in this 24/7 continuously running plant.

Day 11 – Chaumont to Bar-le-Duc – 63 miles

It did rain over night and I awoke to find a family of Brits had arrived. They were from Lincoln and were heading south in their camper van without much of a plan. They had come via Calais and had the demanding job of entertaining two small children for the duration.My plan was to continue north. The weather was bleak as I set off but there was no rain as I continued on a major highway.

A tell tale clue it rained overnight

There’s something dispiriting about camping or riding in the damp. Also I was missing that rest day that enabled some sorting out of kit as well as putting your feet up. Certainly this wasn’t a place to stay.

The bollard was for the workmen strimming the verge. Nice to ride slowly up a hill without cars close by. Inevitably the workmen encouraged me up the hill

Eventually the sun started to come out and normal service was resumed weather-wise. This meant a change in tops and splashing on Factor 50. I took the opportunity to drag out a towel and a pair of shorts to hopefully dry them out. Sadly this also applied to the road that still went up and down!

I found a bench to get out a map to study it

I look at the map to assess the type of road, the distances between towns and to confirm I’m heading in the right direction. I’m never certain how far I’ll get but ordinarily the constraint of where the campsite is determines the destination.

Some fellow road users

I was following a road to Saint-Dizier but by this time had decided that Bar-le-Duc was my overnight stopping place. I try and eat every hour. Sometimes it can be a treat (see the photo). This is my favourite French confectionary.

Something fishy going on here

I left the main road to run parallel on a B road. Some of the properties are delightful.It’s the coordinated paint scheme that elevates it. Also what French colours.

I had stayed in Bar-le-Duc before and whilst liking the camp site I was kept awake then by a couple of inconsiderate French lads who decided to have a Saturday night all nighter with music (here’s my 2018 blog). I parked my tent on a different part of the site.

This time there were no similar issues. I hadn’t cycled through the town last time and this time I discovered a sunny and busy high street with cafes and bars. A little too far to pop into from the site but worth noting for another visit. This is my plot below. On arrival the Reception was closed. I asked a Dutch couple what the arrangement was? They said the owner was cleaning the shower block. I found her and she said ‘put up your tent’ and see me later when I open up Reception. I did and the €6.20 was reasonable I thought.

However, it’s here that that Leeds United won promotion. Huddersfield Town beat West Bromwich Albion and ensured that we were up! I had a small bottle of wine to go with my baguette and fromage and I sat there texting excitedly and being delighted by the messages I received from old friends who knew my delight. A bit of an anti-climax really and I felt I should have been touring York, in the Morgan trailing my scarf with ‘Marching On Together’ blaring at Volume 11. The video was something I put onto Facebook as the deed was being done by our Yorkshire neighbours.

Laundry and animal abuse…

Day 10 – Dijon to Chaumont – 68 miles

The original plan pre Coronavirus had been for Anna and myself to spend a week around Carcassonne and then she’d fly home and I’d cycle back. For various reasons Anna decided not to come and so in effect I arrived in Carcassonne and started cycling back. I point this out because a lot of the route, latterly, is known to me and hence the ‘passing through’ commentary. For example I well remember visiting Beaune with my brother in law, Bill, and his (and my pal), Peter. It was a memorable visit to Burgundy in 2006 with two blokes who knew and liked their wine and how to have a jolly time. Likewise Dijon was on my first long solo bike ride in 2011. It was baking and I stayed in a hotel to escape the heat: no such problems this time!

Inside the tent. ‘Intimate’ is the word you’re searching for.

This time as I started the process of packing up my wet tent I fell into a conversation with a cycling Swiss lady who’d camped just along from me. She had a bivouac tent but pulled a small trailer. This trailer solution usually indicated you’re hauling a lot of things. She was, a dog. She also had loads of luggage hung from her bike and the pouch was caged in a box on the trailer. She was a similar age to me – young (cough). She was pedalling from Berne to Normandy to see her mother. However she was using an electric bike, clever girl (oops, sorry Katrina (FED), ‘woman’). It looked a very expensive bike and she had a range of 100 kilometres on one of the batteries.

Despite all this chatting I washed some kit. It would have to be packed wet. I hoped the weather would pick up or I’d find a tumble dryer.

The destination today was Chaumont. The weather was damp and grey. The terrain was slow rolling, that is you’d have a long swoop down 30 metres over a length of several hundred metres before the road rose again. You couldn’t get sufficient speed up to climb the coming hill and ended up twiddling the granny gears to breast the peak before it all started again.

Angry sky over farm fields

Around lunchtime I pulled into a small town at the bottom of one of these rolling hills and found a ‘plat du jour’.

Yes they do quinoa in France

Inside was Nicholas. He was a Dutch psychologist who, after introductions, started a gentle investigation of the specimen in front of him. His story was more interesting. Thirty five years old and heading south with no plan. He had a business and team back in Utrecht but liked to wander and had some interesting stories about Iran, South America, Europe and, nearer, to home – Cornwall. I urged him to write them up. He had great insights.

In some ways he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders or maybe he was a serious guy. I doubt I helped. I asked if I may take his picture for my blog and with a grumpy face he accepted. By way of reciprocity he invited me to take another photograph of him but with his 35mm film camera. The camera weighed a lot, a troubling issue for any touring cyclist! He expected me to know how to focus it (as I was older than the camera). I struggled peering through the viewfinder with him remaining out of focus. After a few minutes I worked out the problem: I wasn’t wearing my spectacles and so it wouldn’t be in focus would it! This was hilarious and I caught a photo of him laughing! We said goodbye.

Yes, that is a guitar. I once did tour with someone who carried a ukelele but this is a commitment

Heading north I found Langres was a walled city and I caught this one image of a bus trying to escape with difficulty.

The road was a major highway and the traffic was fast and regular. There was nothing to slow it down. With towns far apart then drivers always pick up their speed.

Chaumont eventually arrived and I found a laundromat. Another ‘Angel’ came to my help and I was helped on how to programme the tumble dryer. With dry clothes I was happy and my morale was restored.

The centre of Chaumont looked promising with a number of bars and restaurants. I have to say the French have a fatal addiction to pizza. Anywhere and in every size of town it seems they love their cheesy treats. It was no different here. Unfortunately after pitching my tent the bike ride back into town would have necessitated a murderous climb. I could live without a pizza.

The campsite was a municipal one. Basic, cheap and well placed. The woman on Reception managed to wind me up. The site had 60 pitches but with only four occupied. Instead of saying “pitch where you like” she allocated a pitch. I ended up some way from the shower block. When I remonstrated she feigned not to speak English and suggested my favoured pitch was too big for a little tent. True but as no one was there then why worry?

Quiz question. Which is the hot tap/faucet?

After the football euphoria of Leeds United beating Swansea then tonight was the ‘banana skin’ game, at home, against the bottom of the table team, Barnsley. Anna sent a text informing me that we were leading 1-0. I hadn’t realised they’d kicked off! Tim in York added ‘colour’ to the information I got from Twitter and with a lot of luck we held on. This virtually confirmed our promotion. I had no booze and no one to celebrate this with and it was still drizzling. Time for bed.

Day 9 – Montceau-les-Mines to Dijon – 69 miles

A familiar but unwelcome sound greeted me as I came to from my slumbers: rain hitting the window. It stood to reason that I’d hit rain eventually but it was a stark contrast to 44°C only days ago.

So gathering my rain gear I ventured out and went first to Le Clerc the large supermarket. I enquired of one employee “ou sont les cartes?” The young woman adopted the face someone would if you’d asked them to add 16.7431 to 324. 219567. Then all of a sudden the ‘darkness’ lifted, she smiled and she said “carrtzzz”? The mystery word had been deciphered and with this correct pronunciation she covered me in a light film of phlegm. This correction came along with a barrage of instructions that I vaguely interpreted to mean I should cross the road to another shop. Wiping my spectacles of this spittle I ventured across the road for the maps. Said map and new adaptor and cabled were acquired.

Eventually I was on my way and proceeding along a canal path. Funnily enough after not having seen any cycle tourers I quickly saw other burdened cyclists rolling toward me. Maybe this is the way normal people cycle tour?

I must mention that in addition to WW1 monuments to the fallen there are many WW2 monuments to fallen Resistance fighters.

So in overcast and drizzly weather I spent the morning on the canal. I soon saw the other tourers: grizzly bearded old men pulling trailers, energetic younger blokes racing behind each other, couples with the man usually carrying the bulk of their possessions etc. Clearly my use of the road and predilection for mountains was an exception amongst the breed.

I enjoyed the easy ride at pace and soon racked up 30 miles. At Chagny the canals split and I stopped for lunch and decided to leave the waterways behind and head to Beaune by road. Here is more ‘plat du jour’ for your scrutiny.

Duck (always with bread)

The drizzle and greyness gave way to torrential rain as I ate. The following picture was taken from under the canopy at the restaurant. I eventually had to venture out and fortunately it soon stopped as I entered the wines of Burgundy.

Il pleut…
Vines as far as the eye could see

I passed through the capital of the region, Beaune, and everything seemed classy and manicured.

I’d decided to stay at a campsite in Dijon. Despite the size of the town there was little choice and as I was running late I got my head down. As I’m pedalling through a flat and traffic free area of farm land I heard a crack. I’d broken a spoke.

For the technically minded then… I carry spare spokes but I have never had a broken spoke, on all my trips, before. I was surprised and worried. The rear wheel was now bowed and would only rotate by rubbing the mudguard and frame. I also removed a break block but still it impeded rotation. I was 3 miles from the above famous town and I limped there terribly slowly. I could have been in a much worse location. I neither carried a socket to remove the rear cassette or spanner to get leverage and I didn’t carry a spoke tightener. I’ll have to think through future tools. With difficulty I found a bike shop and for €8 a mechanic replaced the spoke. He ‘trued’ the wheel as best he could but it wasn’t as accurate as I’d have liked.

Along a busy road I found a supermarket for some bits for dinner and then closed in on the campsite in the outskirts of Dijon. At this point the full contents of the Heavens tipped onto me. Oh, I have seldom been wetter. I was also chilled by the deluge.

‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’

I got to the campsite and on very wet ground put up the tent. Sadly a number of pieces of clothing in the panniers were sodden: I hadn’t secured the top well enough. I couldn’t dry anything and included were some items I’d wear to keep warm. Anyway I ate my dinner in my tent and checked the weather forecast for the next day before going to sleep.

Day 8 – Vichy to Montceau-les-Mines -102 miles

So with 353 miles under my (reducing) belt I had breakfast, at the hotel, and was out into a very quiet Vichy. The reason for this comes later.

After the dilapidation of Thiers then the outskirts of Vichy were neat, tidy and cared for. I’m not enthusiastic about cycle paths but if this was to lead to Rotterdam then I might not complain. Rotterdam was to be my ultimate Continental destination. After badgering P&O (the ferry operator) on Twitter it appears that they will not be opening the Zeebrugge, Belgium route to tourists any time soon. I always suspected it didn’t make money as the ferry only ever seemed sparsely occupied on my many crossings. The pandemic has turned ‘bad’ into ‘disaster’ no doubt. As you can see below the suburbs were attractive and again spookily empty.

Before long I was away from the city and into the countryside. The brutal hills of the Massif Central were behind me but I was regularly climbing and accumulating impressive height gains (today was a bonkers 1,525m). You may think the following sign is a ‘red letter’ day. I think you’ll find most cycle tourers expect that ‘what goes down goes up’ and so it’s hard to enjoy this brief plummet. Even though I had been on the bike every day I think yesterday’s minimal riding had been restorative.

From terrible average speeds here I was nicely into double figures. Below is a canal path I cycled over. I would eventually have my time on them.

The eating plan is to have one hot meal a day and to eat whilst cycling as well. At night, on the campsite I’m always pressed for time and so maybe a whole baguette, a tomato and a large chunk of cheese might suffice (plus a cake if the boulangerie obliges). A French staple lunch time is ‘Plat Du Jour’. Many bars or restaurants do them. It’s reasonably priced, has little or no choice but is served quickly. The latter service is to accommodate the busy person who wants to be back behind his desk or shovel loader steering wheel. Here are three course and the bill I found at a restaurant:

Main course, some pork is beneath the sauce. All this comes with a basket of bread
Pear tart

The damage was reasonable, n’est pas?

Gone were the gorges or mountains but rolling hills. All were given over to cereal production. Now the day and lunch had made things idyllic and a good mileage was being achieved. However I identified Le Creusot as a place to stop over. I got there and there was no camping, a hostel or hotels that I could find. I was looking for smaller places. The reason for the latter lack of open hotels was because today was Bastille Day. It’s a bank holiday and a lot of things are shut. It is France’s National Day and it’s origins go back to storming this Paris fortress/prison in 1789 and was, in effect, the people rising up against the monarchy.

So using my Apps I’m all over town trying to find a roof over my head and time is elapsing. I ring Anna and ask her to book an Ibis hotel a further 14 miles south. This meant going backwards, not a happy activity but needs must.

A giant steel press at a roundabout. Love it.

Just before getting to the hotel I found some food. After this distance and being late I could have eaten a horse. Actually I have seen this meat on the menu. However, not at McDonalds.

Checking in to the Ibis was a trial. It had been paid for on line, by my bride, but they made me pay again. I had further meetings with other staff who spoke English, but I expect I’ll have to resolve something between Ibis, Amex and when I get home.

Day 7 – Thiers to Vichy (27 miles) – Rest Day

I was happy to check out from Fawlty Towers and descend to Vichy. This would truly get me clear of the Massif Central (yippee). Before I left Thiers I saw one of many monuments, as seen all over France, to the fallen soldiers of WW1.

It’s still staggering to think despite the enormous human cost of this war to Western Europe (and the British Empire) that by 1939 another greater conflagration would take place. So breaking a golden rule of not cycling on a rest day I I pedalled into the spa town of Vichy and headed for Decathlon. The town is sat on the Allier river.

Allier river

I had time to kill prior to check in at my new hotel and did some shopping at this sports retailer. At the checkout there was an automated till and frankly I couldn’t follow the signage and abandoned that option. The lady behind me in the queue saw me moving away from this machine and said something in French I didn’t understand. I was happy to queue elsewhere and said. “Merci, je suis Anglais”. She then just said “Aww mayte, I can help you”. Who knew that Australians could speak languages other than English? Anyway she helped me complete the transaction and I told her of my being in Australia in March and where I’d been. When I mentioned Melbourne she was gripped with horror and referred to the current lockdown there. I let it pass but Australia has only had 116 reported deaths but France has had over 30,000. I know which is safer.

So another rest day job is washing (properly) my kit. I would have liked to have included the kit I was wearing but a night in the cells was too high a price to pay, not least because Anna had already paid for a room. However I couldn’t easily fathom out how you got soap powder from one machine and paid in another and what you paid with – card, notes, coins… At this point a helpful lady grabbed my notes and gave me back some coins. Err, well she didn’t as she’d worked out I was a dork and so she bought the soap powder, put it in the machine and then programmed the machine and started it. Merci beaucoup! She could have been Ann Widdicombe’s sister…

Laundrette Angel

This done and a sandwich consumed it was a time that I could check in. I loved the hotel although getting the bike into the lift was memorable.

So how did I get the bike in?

(In fact I liked the hotel so much I donated, on my departure, a USB adaptor and iPhone charging cable). Later I drifted around the centre of the town and it was very much a relaxed spa resort.

A jazz quintet playing on the stand

However, the town has a dark history. It was the seat of the collaborationist French regime during WW2. When Germany occupied France in 1940 the north was occupied but the south or ‘Vichy France’ was allowed to run itself under German instruction until 1944 albeit with diminishing authority. The seat of government was placed in Vichy, not least because it had sufficient space to host this ‘government’. I imagine the options were limited for the French given the German victory but this government collected more Jews than was strictly necessary to satisfy the Nazis (only 3% survived the death camps) and was otherwise ultra conservative: divorce wasn’t legal! It also controlled the French fleet, which probably explains why Churchill sank it. To add to its troubled past then amongst the several towns they’re twinned with it includes Dunfermline.

However that is history. Today it is an attractive place and I hope to visit again.

Day 6 – St-Flour to Thiers – 78 miles

Interestingly the weather was a lot cooler and I was quite chilly in the tent overnight. I’ve a lot of clothing solutions and if I know it’s coming then I can prepare. I didn’t (!) and kept waking up…doh.

There you go here’s a ‘bedroom scene’ with me first thing (without make up)

The start was an unremarkable 270m climb. I just know it’s coming now and so do my legs. Lord knows what I did wrong in a previous life to deserve these climbs.

Looking back down the hill
My climb even had it’s own ‘Col’ named after it.

However despite this I was chipper because this was the last day before a ‘rest day’. The Central Massif was ending and whilst it was up and down the brutality diminished. I didn’t start with any breakfast but found a boulangerie en route for croissants and a very tasty quiche lorraine. You can see some customers disregarding wearing masks or keeping the required 1.5 metres let alone there only being two allowed in the shop. I’d say in bigger towns there is more interest in the masks. In the countryside it seems very optional.

I even found myself poodling along in a delightful gorge for the river Alagnon.

After following the river I had to leave it to go north east to reach Thiers. The change in direction meant a little more climbing and certainly less settlements. As I ground up through one small village I noted that there was a large flat area with many trees giving it shade. Beneath the trees were maybe 60 people at three large tables having a Sunday lunch. I think wine may have flowed because as I cycled past I drew a great response of cheering and clapping. I gave them the ‘Royal’ wave back.

A very typical French back road with trees giving shade

I was otherwise some what on edge as Leeds United we’re away at Swansea City. I kept stopping every 10 minutes to check the score. At 80 minutes at 0-0 I lost a sufficiently good mobile signal to get updates. This coincided with my descent for 2 miles. As I’m in this delicious free fall I heard my phone go ‘plinky plinky plink plonk’. This is a WhatsApp message being received. I knew it must be Anna telling me Leeds had scored at the death. Coming to rest I had a sufficient signal to look at the App. Very thrilled!

So why Thiers? Well it looked a big town on the map and had some medieval buildings that maybe indicated it was an interesting day to spend a day off the bike at. The reality was a virtually abandoned hill side town with a thriving commercial life flourishing below. The hill side ‘centre ville’ must have been abandoned after the war and it really appeared quite derelict.

I expect that after WW2 people wanted better housing and the centre of time was antiquated. To add to this I imagine jobs migrated from the centre as well.

My hotel was expensive due to the lack of choice! Even more galling was that if I’d called in rather than book it on line I could have got my room at two thirds of the price.

The manager (and chef) was pleased to see me and ultimately hard to shake off! I was in need of a shower and he kept badgering me about all sorts in torrents of French. My retort of ‘la plume de ma tante‘ to everything he said confirmed, in his mind my complete mastery of French and so he rabbited on. The upshot was my agreement to dine in the hotel. In fact the wisest thing I did in Thiers. I went for a stroll had a quick beer and returned to a delightful treat:

Just a remarkable piece of beef.

I’m starting to think hotels now do stuff that’s not needed. A small provincial hotel has few staff and so who would answer, let alone, use the phone?

It was obvious that my ‘rest day’ in Thiers would be a waste. So tomorrow I’d pedal down the hill to Vichy.