Second edition: A Corinthian Endeavour

The initial print run of my hill climb book, A Corinthian Endeavour, sold out. I’ve updated the text with two more chapters and some minor amendments, mainly typographical, but also a couple of very subtle changes where things weren’t perhaps right or simply didn’t reflect something in a way I expected. By and large though, I left it as was in this sense because it reflects the my writing and views at that point in time, you can’t update things for ever, you lose the sense of a point in time, whatever that is called. There’s probably a German word for it.

Anyway, you can now get the book again. I have a limited stock so if you want a signed or randomly defaced copy for the princely sum of £12 posted, let me know. Buying directly from the author is much better for everyone involved, but especially me because the margin is much much higher. I’ll write about this in due course.

Alf book due in 5-6 weeks.

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Recovery and readjustment

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:

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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:

Bike Kit: 

  • 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)

Tech kit: 

  • Chain oil – essential
  • 3 inner tubes
  • Patch kit
  • Pump
  • Tyre levers
  • Chain quick links
  • Multitool
  • 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
  • Washkit
  • 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.

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Day 11: Vitré to St Malo

I feel like I’ve missed a day somewhere and it should be eleven days. I’ll cross check the details. (Edit: Belle spotted there were two day 8s) It’s indicative of how time and space has slipped by and merged into a flow of movement with no discernible parameters, bar time on or time off the bike. I felt a vague sense of melancholy yesterday, that underlying feeling of slight indefinable sadness that the adventure was finite. Today I felt excited and keen to smash through the last few miles, get sight of the sea and mark the completion.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

Rather than hitting up the road by 8am I had to dilly dally for a while in Vitré. There are worst things to do. It was all to avoid one possible outcome; standing around at the ferry port trying to avoid the slightly scary and sinister lorry drivers. Sometimes when standing around in Lycra I feel like a pervert magnet. It’s not grounded in reality, just self consciousness, stood there in skin tight Lycra with a massive sweaty gusset. Some people like that sort of thing. I’ve heard. It didn’t help that the metal chair in the terminal have me a grid pattern on my ass, all it needed was a bingo board corresponding to the grid and a set of darts and they could have raffled it off like a cowpat funday. Or not.

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I headed out at 11am after slowly and deliberately packing all my stuff. I had a few extra things to squeak in, some treats for the rotters, that sort of thing. It absolutely threw it down moments before leaving and I had a bad feeling about it. The weather forecast gave it to rain, it gave it a lot to rain. I had to suck it up, it was the last day of the tour, and a few encouraging words from belle on the watzap were enough to get me rolling. I paid a final solemn visit to La Mie en Caline and was off.

Today was somewhat fortuitously the biggest tailwind of the day. I fought a few battles with my Garmin and then with the Google lady over what constituted an acceptable road surface.

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Not a road
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Not a road. Maybe once for les paysans sales cXII siècle
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Don’t know if this is a road or not. Best avoided. Might be something to do with Rue Ornery de Ball-Sack.

I went back to manual and rolled along the main road, thoroughly enjoying the hefty tailwind. Brittany was sombre and a bit grey, square buildings of grey stone, with lots of dilapidated ruins. Away from the coast it is heavily agricultural and isn’t awash with money. It reminded me of growing up in North Devon, where the idyllic beaches and full occupancy in summer disguise a bleak and desolate winter.

I stopped for lunch in Combourg. It was a strategic decision, I had some bread and cheese and there was a dry porch providing shelter ahead of the encroaching clouds and spots of rain.

 

 

It left around 25 miles to go. The rain abated, on cue. I was moving quickly, too quickly in one sense, but arriving early was preferable to being caught in the rain. I figured I could find somewhere quiet at St Malo and nurse a café crême for a while, which is exactly what happened. There was a road side sign which I had intended to photograph, but it was really dirty and by the side of a big trunk route so I left it.

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I ate what I think is my tenth eclair of the trip. I’m proud of this fact. I’ve really got a liking for the tasty choux buns and chocolate ganache. Today’s was one of the best ones.

The riding is done, just the vagaries of transport to go. I’ve ridden 741 miles since Monday, averaging 75 miles per day, with a longest ride of 89 miles and one outlier at 36 miles when I felt awful and it was cold and wet. It rained once in that respect, which is incredible really and hard to believe. As Dion Smith said to me on the very first evening; “you make your own luck”.

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Day 10: Angers to Vitré

I don’t even know if it’s been 9 days or not. It has been a journey into the depths of France and out the other side. It’s hard to remember where I was, where I’ve been and what day of the week it is. La Vajol and Girona seem like a very different universe entirely and as a pinpoint on the map it seems scarcely believable that I’m in Brittany and a day from the northern coast.

Yesterday’s long ride went fairly well. I use several strategies, like a gimlet-eyed fly-half with his funny sideways moonwalk, all a part of eating the chimp or whatever they do. In my case, I break the longer rides down into manageable chunks, like four 25 mile rides. Or, I remember a terrible joke from school about leaping out of a plane without a parachute. There’s a lengthy exposition with questionable science then the punchline involves getting to six feet off the ground then everything being ok because you can jump from there. That’s sort of just what it’s like. Get to 82 miles and and it’s a 5 mile commute.

I had planned on going to Rennes, but all accommodation, even the budget stuff, was hideously expensive or simply unavailable, which was strange. I thought maybe there was a Breton hoedown occurring so did a quick Google. It was some kind of global accountancy happening. Either way, something didn’t add up. So I opted for Vitré instead, slightly further east, and I’m glad I did.

Touring cyclists are conspicuous by their absence at this time of year. It’s unsurprising. Generally the weather has been really good, but I forget it’s early March, which is on the early side for proper touring, certainly camping stuff, outside of the hardcore. It’s cold in the mornings even if it does seem to warm up, and the weather can be really fickle. I have seen quite a few French roadies though. They have a certain ageless uniform difference, all in lurid club kit with local sponsors, lots of fade going on. It’s great. There doesn’t seem to be any of the johnny-come-lately bollocks, characterised by a thousand interlocking dodecahedrons pulsing in a wave across a jersey with just-so sleeve length and some complicated socks, aligned to some sense of entitlement that whilst they didn’t invent cycling they were damn well gonna make it better and monetise it and put those old guys in a hole marked “prelapsarian fogeys”. Like I said, ageless uniformity, great fades.

I had a tailwind all the way today. It was perfect. I faffed around trying to escape the flooded river out of Angers. I now know the factual accuracy of “inondation” signs.

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Hmm. Can’t be that bad.
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Hmm. Actually it can be.

I then fell into a trap of trusting Google maps cycling directives once too often before going full Luke Skywalker and turning all the tech off. I stuck to the long straight quiet roads and fast tarmac, following the road signs.

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This is not a road
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This is neither road not track
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I don’t even know what this is. Shithole Alley de Ball-Sack for all the use it is.

The scenery was less pronounced, somehow less surprising. The architecture and geography through the Mayenne seemed more austere, lacking in the ages old stuff that littered the Dordogne, or the bourgeois houses sulking ominously on the banks of the Loire. It was relatively flat. I tried and failed to find a sandwich without meat or fish and managed to walk into a door despite being told not to by a kindly boulanger lady. I realised afterwards that she was telling me to use the other door. It was a complicated new build boulangerie with over engineered doors. I was saved again by a quiche and La Mie en Caline, my new favourite French chain. They also do takeaway coffee which seems really modern for France, but doesn’t stop you feeling like a complete philistine when doing any street drinking or eating.

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Nice welcome to Vitré
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Lots of these. None have tyres like this though.

Vitré is very pretty. It’s also got a very medieval bit in the middle, including one free standing house called “the island”. I enjoyed the additional time afforded by a slightly shorter route by walking around the ramparts and drinking a pression.

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Tomorrow is the last day. I’m sad about it. You get into a strange rhythm of the road that’s really hard to articulate. It’s about being everywhere and nowhere, having all the time to roll along, and yet have no sense of time as it moves past as one more element of the flow of things. I’ll write more about this and why I did this (not that I need a reason, or that it’s complicated, but there is always a reason, otherwise we’d do nothing) in the forthcoming days and weeks. I’ll also include a kit list and some tips and tricks for super c touring, because the internet is really lacking in this sort of detail. (It isn’t).

 

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Day 9: Poitiers to Angers

Yesterday was really hard. It rained and rained but I also felt rubbish, tired and was all aches. I was nervous about today, it was a long day according to the ASO road book, with nearly 90 miles ahead. After a good night’s sleep (the eternal panacea) and lots of food, I felt vaguely ok. The emerging sunshine was the definitive factor though. That’s all you need, anything that isn’t a block headwind (preferably a block tailwind) and copious amounts of sun. Everything is better.

Poitiers is nice. I wasn’t sad to leave, but like everywhere I’ve visited, my time has been brief and my experience of the city or town a superficial scratch at best, a photo taken of something old, a trip to Mie En Caline and a desperate search for acceptable food. It’s luck rather than judgement when I stumble across something unusual. At the same time, I’m immersed in the entirety of France (well, a 2 metre wide strip running across it like a surgical incision) feeling the cultural, demographic and topographic change around me as I move through in a liminal way. Like I said, living the dream.

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Yesterday’s ride
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Utterly gratuitous French touring baguette strap action

Pre-loading maps as a breadcrumb trail has been useful, but it’s also not always necessary. You don’t do anything different with or without a Garmin. I’ve frequently opted for place to place navigation, working out where I need to go and the towns en route then going there. It’s worked out more reliable in terms of keeping me on a metalled road, rather than a French track with a hooning great dog and old Leatherface and his Stihl. There are still dogs everywhere.

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The dogs that live here respect the cyclists they have eaten by adding their leftover and inedible bike bits to this elaborate sculpture. I took immense risks to take this photo.

I went for the main road out of Poitiers. It was the straightest road I’ve ever been on. It was straight as an arrow pointing toward to horizon like a very precise and photorealist version of a child’s first perspective drawing in CDT. After yesterday’s tribulations it was perfect, it meant steady progress, tap tap tap. It was what I needed. I made a brief pause at Leudon for coffee then headed straight for the Loire at Saumur. There was a minor detour.

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I like adventure but not those involving tir de guerre. Maybe that makes me old fashioned. I dunno.

I had a brief pause for lunch. It was inventive. An Emmental and chips baguette by the sunny, tapering banks of the McDonald’s car park.

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The Loire is way bigger than any of our rivers. Well, the ones I’ve seen, and I mean inland, away from the sea. It’s a huge swirling brown mass with islands in the middle. I found it hard to work out where the water comes from. I mean, I know the answer, but it still seemed like a ridiculous volume. I rode along the levée from Saumur to Angers, some 32 miles. There was an alleged cycle path but it was a mess of gravel and dog shit so I left the loose gravel and the decomposing dog shit to their strange relationship and went back to the road.

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Exciting animal spot of the day… I saw what looked like a slimy brown bag in a field. I assumed it was dead sanglier, until it moved and unfurled a cricket bat tail. It was a beaver. It slipped into the murky pond and disappeared. I saw another one a while back, this time he hurtled into his beaver house. My mum said they might be Coypu. She always has to piss on the strawberries. It’s because she once saw a coypu somewhere in France. Anyway, I soon put her right, “No mum, it was 100% beaver. It was massive, glistening and wet.” There was an awkward silence. I wished her a happy birthday. Her present is some free advice on cleat position.

By the time I got to Angers I was all but 90 miles up and ready for a rest. Two shorter days to go and the weather looks ok. On y va!

 

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Day 8: Angôuleme to Ruffec (grim grim grim)

IMG_20180312_164036282.jpgIt was raining when I woke up. It eased slightly on the way out of town. It then threw it down violently, on and off, for the morning and I got very cold and wet. I sheltered in a strange series of hovels and hermitages in order to escape the worst, with varying degrees of success. I went for the bail-out option, ride to Ruffec then get the train to Poitiers. I was so wet I got changed in the station toilet, otherwise I’d have frozen to death. I had the right kit, just about, although my gore path is no longer as weatherproof as it once was. Even the daffodils were reduced to cowering in a ditch. I had several arguments with Google after I started mapping on my phone. I left it in my pocket and it told me where to turn, which was mostly really helpful because it meant not taking gloves off to check or breaking the phone, but occasionally it gave me duff gen. It became a one-sided conversion:

Google: Turn right in 200 metres

Me: Yes I will, provided it’s a real road and not two medieval French cart tracks…. Oh quel surprise, it’s a quagmire with duckboards. I’ll pass.

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Daffodils arguing with each other about the absence of spring: “Ta geul Gustave, c’est PAS printemps, idiot”.
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Google roads, not rooted in fundamental reality of what roads are when not digitised
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My “j’en ai marre” face
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Everyone in France has an umbrella.
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Early signs were good though.

Poitiers is very civilised and I’ve been ambling round the chic boulevards and eating eclairs. I helped a blind man in monoprix with his shopping. I’m fairly sure I gave him the wrong fromage blanc yoghurts. I think he was quite disappointed that his helper was someone with minimal knowledge of the meaning of highly specific French culinary words, including variations of chicken. He wanted a type of chicken I’d never heard of so instead he said ‘small chicken’, I took him to the tiny chickens or ortolans or whatever chasse-meat was tiny and chickeny. He actually wanted a packet of the French equivalent to fridge raiders. The goat’s cheese search got a bit stressful. I think hindrance rather than help is probably more accurate. I’m worried when he gets home all excited he’ll find a bag full of weird approximations.

The weather is set fair for tomorrow. Or as they say in Cheltenham (home to an additional two readers, or so I’ve heard) “it gives it to sun”.

 

 

 

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Day 7: Périgueux to Angôuleme

There was one thing I forgot about yesterday. Occasionally I’m led down a strange road which looks suspect and I start to fret. I’ve begun to recognise when my Garmin thinks I’m on a mountain bike, and therefore do a bit of studious cross checking on the phone. Thus far it’s an approach that has served me well.

Somewhere in the Dordogne, two roads diverged in a yellow wood. One was resolutely mainstream, whereas the other was more rebellious. It had tarmac, but it was pitted and battle scarred. It had been a good day so I opted for the lane. It rose up slowly and a far off dim and stuttered humming noise gradually separated into two constituent parts: the thrum and grrr of a chainsaw and the addled bark of a big dog. Suffice to say, the combination of the two sounds, aligned with a distinctly low-budget woodland post-brexitcore mise-en-scene, had me on edge. I carried on, believing that both these things must be far from the road. I rode up around a corner and sure enough there stood a man with a chainsaw and his massive dog. They had been waiting all this time. He stopped chainsawing, looked up and uttered one word in the time it takes most people to utter a complex sentence.

“Oui?”

Not knowing the French for lost, or at least whether my idea for the French for lost (je suis perdu) was correct, I said simply:

“Rien Monsieur. Je vais retourner à la route principale.”

The man and the dog stared at me. I think he said “bon”.

I did this steadily. Once out of sight I stamped on the pedals. I avoided the road less travelled after that.

Today’s ride was a short 50 mile hop to Angôuleme. The sun accompanied the first half and it was joyous, lots of gentle climbs through woodland then endless undulations over an expanse of farmland, punctuated by very old castles. I was super organised and bought both my lunch and dinner in Périgueux before leaving. This is on account of France being closed on a Sunday. However, I found a PMU open and had a coffee surrounded by local French men drinking beer and pastis and watching the lottery numbers. Angôuleme is very nice. It’s another fortified medieval city with both old and new. France is full of them.

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Cathedral at Angôuleme
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Ceci n’est pas une grenouille
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Lunch views
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I don’t know what this is for other than it was full of sweet corn

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First climb of the day
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Du soleil

Tomorrow is a schlep to Poitiers.

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