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.

Yesterday’s ride
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.

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.

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.


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.


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!



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.

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





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.


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.

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


First climb of the day
Du soleil

Tomorrow is a schlep to Poitiers.


Day 6: Agen to Périgueux

I left late, as you do when you’ve got further to go than normal. In its own way this was good, it meant I reconciled myself to the rhythm of the tour and the insignificance of external temporal reality. Or more succinctly, you get there when you get there.

I hatched a plan to stop after 20 miles to get provisions for a roadside lunch. I found an Aldi and the security guard got testy but then agreed to watch my bike for five minutes. I didn’t buy anything. He got really suspicious then and checked my bag. I told him I was vegetarian and he let me go. I tried LeClerc instead. It was one of those massive ones with a shopping concourse. I wheeled the bike through and got accosted by two really burly French securité men. They were very helpful. Firstly, they tried to put my bike into a trolley locker. It wouldn’t fit. Then one of them disappeared and came back with a plastic chain and suggested I lock it outside next to some bored-looking, culturally and ethnically disenfranchised youths. I politely declined but thanked him for his help, wished him and the youths un bon journée and went across the road to a bio place and bought plastic fake meat and grated carrot and bread. Truly, the lunch of champions.

I stuck to the route and duly discovered beautiful things I didn’t expect to see, in this case a string of fortified hill top towns. They’re called “bastide”. They’re really old and have lovely names like Monpazier, Monflanquin and Villereal. I stopped at Villereal for coffee and it was a market day. Apparently the market had happened on every Saturday since 1288. Some of the inhabitants have been to every single one. The central Halles is an incredible building of oak and wattle and the town was vibrant. The charming scene was improved by the addition of an English group drinking pints of Guinness and shouting at the waiter for a “cup wiv a handul mate”. I don’t know why they wanted a cup wiv a handul or why they were there, apart from to support the case for brexit to sceptical frenchies. They were doing an exceptionally good job.


The countryside was undulating and heavily agricultural. It made for good riding, gentle climbs with lovely and fast descents. It was also full of birds of prey. I saw several more Black Kites and two Hen Harriers, a visually arresting sight, white with black wingtips. At first glance it looks like a gull, but is shaped like a raptor. I also saw a field full of egrets.


My legs felt ok, I had good sensations. Generally, I’ve felt better on the bike than off it, fingers crossed it will continue.

The second half of the ride consisted of rain. I stopped in a bus shelter to eat my haute cuisine lunch. It all got very audax and I felt a bit dirty. I crossed the Dordogne, a huge and sultry brown mass of movement, and rolled through a tributary valley alongside troglodiste houses, some of them enormous bunkers hewn from the rock. Dordogne has lots of stuff to see before you even get to the cave art. One day I’d like to return for a more measured visit rather than pass through.


For about an hour I resisted getting the rain jacket out, it was really warm, about 20 degrees, and it was only when it threw it down on the run in to Périgueux (perrygoo not perryshoo) that I stopped. I made one last visit to a supermarket, walked straight in accompanied by a trailing River of filth, besmirched the floor with black wet wheelgunk and responded to the stares with “il pleut un peu” and just brazened it out. Success: 89 miles and 5000 feet ticked off, supermarket strategy mapped out, wet shoes ready for tomorrow.


Day 5: Toulouse to Agen

I changed my mind on the proposed route. It was a choice of either 4,000 feet or 236 feet of climbing. I opted for the latter. I’m coming to realise that a degree of self preservation makes the adventure more enjoyable.

It involved the Canal du Garonne. I had a feeling it went all the way to Bordeaux, via Agen, but found this hard to believe. In fact, it runs from Atlantic to Med.

I left my budget accommodation and bl crossed the road, joining the path straightaway. It ran out of Toulouse alongside a huge motorway, with industrial and commercial zones on the other side. It was a corridor of noise on both sides, one the steady zoom and murmur of traffic, the other the syncopated sounds of work. In the middle, the crunch of asphalt was barely discernible.

Gradually the noise diminished, the road veered away and the warehouses became gaps, and then countryside. There was a glorious tailwind and the surface was glassy, none of this compacted gravel mullarkey, a shiny sheen of dark matter and a zip in the tyres. It meant quick ridings. I felt elated, not a car in sight, barely another person, just tiered rows of plane trees.


I stopped at Dieupentale for a coffee, averaging around 16mph. It was a constant effort, big ring, steady pace, on and on and on. And it went on. More tarmac, more canal, more plane trees, the occasional train in the near or not so near distance.


I stopped at Moissac to buy lunch. I had been there in a past life, 18 years ago on my first ever trip to France (I was a late developer). They have repaved the square and there are more men lurking about with nothing to do than I remember. I bought some quiche and high tailed it out of there, onwards for a canalside picnic. After a couple of days of really stringing it out I was suddenly way ahead of schedule.

I find it hard to comprehend that I rode from city centre to city centre for seventy miles on a bike path with no contact with cars. It’s quite an experience. It’s also really quite dull after a while, and I guess in the absence of anything different to alleviate the monotony i felt for the first time the absence of a touring partner. I mentioned to Belle that it would make an ideal family tour. She wholeheartedly agreed that I should take both of the rotters away for a full tour on the canal and she would stay at home and mind the fort.

There were moments of utter joy. I saw several Black Kites, but also a kingfisher. It was a super fast flash of luminescent blue, a dart of lightning. It was only the second one I’ve ever seen, the last one was a glimpse a lifetime ago, this was a prolonged and awe inspiring sighting.

I got to Agen early with time to wait. I found a salon de thé. I had one of those hot chocolates like they give old people when they’re dying and refuse to eat. A full three course meal in a jug, dense and layered. It set me up nicely for a multi layered evening meal and wine, all good prep for tomorrow and the longest day, 84 miles with a job lot of climbing through the Dordogne.



Day 4: Carcassonne to Toulouse

There was an easier way. There invariably always is. It would have involved the Canal du Midi, a leisurely stroll through the flatlands. I opted for the hills and Cathar country, whatever that is. Something medieval I suspect. It looked hilly, but only the first 35 miles. And so it proved.


It was a bit chilly for the départ fictif, but emboldened by the change in wind direction I felt that it was going to be a good day. This lasted around 30 minutes, at which point the roads did did that “gradual degradation” thing as I started climbing for the départ actuel. It’s almost imperceptible at first, like a smell of gas, it’s there then gone, a narrowing, a few extra potholes, a crumbly bit, some chausée deformée. It provokes a minor existential crisis, an alertness and paranoia… Is the road getting better or worse? It sneaks up on you. The road got worse, in tiny increments of disrepair. I headed into the forest and the tarmac was still there, but patchier, until suddenly it wasn’t there. But it was ok because it was a compacted scree and wouldn’t be very long. A small section. It then got worse, especially where the bedrock rose up and the scree became sharp stones and rocks.


It lasted for around 6 miles. It was amazing, in the simplest sense of the word, but also incredibly quiet and slightly unnerving. Solo touring is beset by minor anxieties, and being alone in the silent expanse of a French forest amplifies the sound of these minor worries. Sometimes the signage is resolutely unhelpful.


I reached the end of the road, literally, in a desolate farmyard with the sound of chainsaws mingling with dogs barking. I snuck through the yard and a kindly lady pointed me towards the main road. I stopped to take a picture of the Pyrenees, shimmering above the horizon in surreal celestial beauty.


At which point a big, snarling shithead of a dog ran out and barked with hackles up. He was all fangs and hot wet breath, and he went for the handlebars, stripping a bar end as a souvenir. He chewed it like a finger, with crunching and cracking noises. A man came running out and shouted “Bonaparte! BONAPARTE ARRET! Tais-toi! N’oublie pas le dernier cyclist et le sang! Monsieur allez-y! Je tiens le bete sauvage!” I went.

At 30 miles I had crammed in 3000ft. It was undulating and a gradual hoick upwards to around 2,500ft.  It’s the stuff of heavy training rides. I was eclipsed on one climb by a couple of sharp frenchies on their Look velos. I came across them later at the side of the road, one of the cranks had snapped clean off. Too much French power. I offered to help but could only say “c’est vachement caissé Monsieur”, which did nothing to further pre-Brexit relations.

I stopped at Revel, an edenic french market town basking indolently in the spring sunshine. I played the “is it not meat if it’s homeopathic in nature due to the lardon quotient” game and bought an onion tart and a donut for later. l forgot to fill my bottle. I knew it was fairly straightforward to Toulouse so didn’t panic. After a roadside picnic I rolled on and at one point took my armwarmers off. It must have been warm.

At the beginning i had only one bidon. This is because I carry tools on the bike in a chopped bottle thing, and I don’t drink that much. However, it’s been hard to drink enough and it isn’t easy to get your bottle filled up. I bought another bottle to have on the bike and make sure I’m drinking enough. It’s one of the lessons I’ve learnt. I also got some chain oil.

Toulouse is very nice. It’s chic, relaxed and a great city. For all that, a corner of this southern Metropole is forever England in the 1980s.


Tomorrow: Agen (azhen, not azhon).


Day 3: Perpignan to Carcassonne

The wind doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you’re essentially benign and charitable and do wonderful things for other people. It doesn’t care how tired you are or what direction you are going in. The wind just is, and when it just is and it’s heading your way, you’d be best advised to make alternative travel arrangements.

My eve of stage peek at the weather forecast made for uncomfortable reading: 30mph gusts and a steady blow all the way, but especially when tracking west. Sometimes, when it rains, I feel a sense of joy. When it’s really windy and I’m on the bike I feel savagely depressed and angry. The relentless fury and the futility of forwards motion wipes out very quickly any bonhomie I had saved up for the occasion.

I opted for a different route, heading to Narbonne instead, at which point I could review and decide to make up the difference on the train to Carcassonne, or ride directly into the mad lens of the mistral like a crazed idiot, full of sound and fury.

The opening bits were a combination of amazing Voie Verte and utterly filthy, sandy lanes. I’m all for the off road car free option, except when I have to find a twig with just enough bend and structural integrity in order to scrape the plasticene out from under the mudguard and avoid the swelling corpse of a wild boar.

It was scenic riding, with the majestic Pyrenees looking over my shoulder.


I ran along the coast. The nearer and straighter I got, the more violent the headwind. It was really horrible stuff. I turned a corner onto a strange spit of land existing between a canal and a lagoon, and was reduced to 4mph. It became a battle of wills, although it’s not like there was any other option.

I saw flamingos, lots of them, and egrets and eagles and herons. I saw a great egret lift off, slowly and with immense effort. Once it emerged above the bank it hurtled backwards into and away on the  wind as though yanked backwards on an invisible leash, woomph. The wind didn’t care. Even the flamingos copped a load of abuse.


Things became harder the closer I got to Narbonne. I stopped at fifty miles, it’s not a competition to see if I can ride every millimetre of the way. I ate my first omelette of the trip and it was a good one. It only took one abortive cafe visit, and the first round of the great “what is meat?” existential game I like to play in France:”sans viande SVP”, no that doesn’t mean “seulement un petit peu de jambon” makes it ok.  I then pegged it to get the train. I was reassured that two other cyclo-tourists had the same idea, they were Americans called Doug and Gen and they had battered themselves into submission fighting against the claws of the invisible beast. They also had their cat with them (very much a visible best), which is possibly the most exciting and unreal thing I’ve seen for a while. I can’t retell it, there is a link.


France doesn’t do lifts at stations. No good for cats in trailers or disabled people.

Carcassonne is beautiful. It’s also very touristy, which is a bit frustrating when you also happen to be a tourist. There is no way to not be a tourist when you are one. It’s like being a dad. You dance funny. Children laugh at you. There’s no escape. I walked round like a tourist then got really really hungry so went back to the new town and ate all the food in the departement, including the flamingos.