I got back on Friday after the overnight ferry from St Malo. It was a very civilized way to travel and miles away from the summer holiday express, which is typically carnage of the highest order, consisting of over-excited and vomiting children and adults. This was much more like one of those cruises for old people advertised in the back of the Guardian magazine. Therefore, I assume I am the target demographic.
This is where I went:
It was the fulfilment of an ambition, or series of ambitions, I’ve held for many years. In my early teens I used to get books out of the library about cycle touring. It seemed really exciting, but also a bit esoteric. I didn’t have a way into the sport, none of my friends were passionate cyclists and it didn’t run in the family or extended family. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who loved cycling. The closest I got to anything was a series of slightly longer days on the bike. I used to ride along the Tarka Trail in North Devon, from Barnstaple to Bideford, or to Fremington where we lived. I rode to Croyde and back. I didn’t think much of it, it was the only way to get around. But I really wanted to do more. In the event, nothing happened, my cycling lapsed until my early 20s, and when I started riding again it became suddenly much more race orientated.
With the decline of my racing fitness I’ve turned my attention to touring. Thus far, it has consisted of a couple of saddlebag tours for a few days each. I did the whole of Devon including one ill-conceived 127 mile day. I rode around the Brecon Beacons for a few days. I rode back from Hull. But a longer, place-to-place adventure was still the stuff of dreams. It’s certainly hard to find the time to tour when you work long hours, and it’s even harder when you have other commitments which are more important, namely a family. However, around the end of last year I made a fundamental decision to work to live, and no longer live to work. This provided an unexpected period of relative quiet, and with Belle’s blessing, I booked the cross-France trip.
I love cycling in France. It’s always an incredible experience. Cycling is a part of the fabric of continental life. I’ve ridden in Burgundy, Brittany, the Alps, Provence, Nord-Pas de Calais and other places, but I had never toured in France. It was fantastic to be immersed within the landscape and culture for an extended period of time, to feel the countryside and the city, the physical elements of place, unfold with the air rushing past my cheek. To see the countryside and how different and similar it is to where we live. It was a profound and joyful experience. It also gave me a huge amount of time to think and reflect, although the very nature of flow activities means that these thoughts and reflections were benign and rhythmic, somehow becoming a series of gently circulating expressions which mirrored the movement of the wheel.
I took a Super-C saddlebag and a Nelson Bar Bag. I used a bagman QR on the back and a kwik clip thing on the front which made life inconceivably better. Kit list was as follows:
- Three pairs of cycling shorts (one too many)
- Two cycling jerseys
- One short sleeve, one long sleeve base layer (didn’t need the long sleeve, already had the combinations for all weather)
- Arm warmers, knee warmers, leg warmers (needed all this, but if it was a bit warmer would have ditched the leg warmers)
- Shoes and overshoes (ditto the overshoes)
- 3 pairs of socks (only two pairs needed)
- One rain jacket (I’d take a waterproof gilet only if it was a teeny bit warmer)
- One gilet
- Two caps (why two? Should have chosen one that matched all outfits)
- One helmet
- One pair defeet dura gloves (these are brilliant)
- Chain oil – essential
- 3 inner tubes
- Patch kit
- Tyre levers
- Chain quick links
- Leatherman thing with pliers and sharp knife
- Bungee chord
Off the bike kit:
- Super light Nike trainers. These were a big concession but worth it. It meant avoiding clumping round the streets in shoes that look a little bit special.
- One pair of dark blue trousers
- Merino baselayer
- T shirt
- Warm fleecy type thing
- 3 pairs of pants (really only needed two, honestly, but I won’t go into detail)
- 2 pairs of socks
- One pair of merino long johns for sleeping in (so toasty)
- One vest for sleeping in
- One long sleeved shirt. (have no idea why i took this. It’s not like I was going anywhere formal.)
I think that’s it. Unquestionably I could have reduced this down, asindicated in parenthesis, and I will do in future. It’s unnecessary to take more than one change of anything.
The bike was a Mercian King of Mercia Audax special. It’s from 1982 or thereabouts, and is a frame I picked up quite cheaply (£185) and then had renamelled. It is a beauty. Wheels were a DT Swiss equivalent of an open pro, I’d rather take the Open Pro but you go with what you have. Tyre choice was the Vittoria Rubino Pro Endurance. These are amazing tyres, they are super grippy and roll well. I used 23mm which seemed anathema to everyone and anyone, and to be fair, i would take 25mm next time, but it didn’t make a lot of odds. I recommend these tyres for all non-racing applications, they are amazing. I had no punctures despite huge amounts of gravel and filth.
I used a Brooks Cambium saddle; it’s the perfect touring saddle. Super comfy, with loops. The C15 is the right width too. Bars were nitto randonneur I think, with an old school Cinelli quill stem. Gearing was quite controversial, I went with what I had – a 52:39 on the front and 12:27 on the back. I found it perfectly adequate. I don’t think there were any points where I felt overgeared. This isn’t me being a hardman, it’s simply a case of the times when you genuinely need a super light gear are very few and far between, particularly with a relatively light touring set-up. It’s not like I went over the Pyrenees or up the Angliru.
Ultimately, it’s about the balance between convenience and time. I’d love to go full metal touring. Actually, I wouldn’t. I want to have a shower and keep clean. I want a bed to sleep in. With a saddlebag set-up you can do the miles and the days don’t creep on and on. I averaged 75 miles a day without too much bother, mostly done by 3pm or so. If you want to do more sightseeing or have more time, then it probably makes sense to cut it to 50 miles. Any less than that and you’re going to be spending more time off the bike than on it, which seems strange. However, the longest days I did were nearly 90 miles. These are very long days. I found it fine, but I would consider whether they were perhaps too long. Stringing together big days, day after day, is quite hard. I might self-impse a cap at 75 miles. It takes the pressure off.
Ultimately it worked for me. I enjoyed it, it was a profound and perception-altering experience. If you can, then do it. Take a day, go overnight, take two days, a long weekend, a week, a month, just get out and hit the road.