Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Summing it all up?


It's an odd feeling of elation and let down when you finish a cycle tour and reach the destination you've been dreaming of for the past year. We opted to hit the Med at beyond Narbonne instead of Perpignan for a number of reasons, but felt that the 30 mile saving at the med end was more than ofset by the 100 extra miles we'd somehow accumulated over the whole trip. I think it was a harder test than we'd expected, hillier in the north - with roman roads that seemed to go on and up forever, as well as days of getting completely soaked on the Canal du Midi and others when we couldn't physically ride between 1 and 5 as temperatures hit 38c. Some days we flew, and our average of 75 was fine. I'd have to say that touring unsupported - with camping gear - places a hell of a lot more strain on you and the bikes. James and I suffered mechanical problems, which could have been avoided with a bike MOT before the ride. We were lucky to find help from strangers but we could've lost days or come unstuck on a back road at one of the hottest points of the day and that would have been distinctly unfunny.

We got tetchy with each other at times, and sometimes over trivial things but always made up and moved on. It's important to know before the ride that you can be honest with each other. We laughed a lot, and morale wise that's important. Bidon soakings were common and we all enjoyed victories in the 'make rules up as you go along' 'king of the mountains' and 'sprint (or 'burn') competitions. We were all strong and weaker on different days, but remembered the rule that the pace is determined by what everyone is capable of.

Jeff did a brilliant job of mapping our route and offering alternatives along the way. James's pragmatic contributions in this (avoiding detours to Jeffs beloved waterways) were important too. Penny's bursts of 'Men of Harlech' (even though he doesn't actually know the real words) on theCanal du Midi and in the hills spurred us on no end.

Both James and Jeff were mindful of the back problems I've had and (with the exception of the day they shoved lager into my bags en route to Lezay) did more than their share in terms of carrying provisions. James did the lions share of the tent packing for me, showing that it is possible to be both Welsh and a decent person.... We faced and overcame - or just cycled very rapidly away from - some terrible enemies. In James's case, he is possibly the only builder alive who doesn't enjoy the sun, and even on our arrival at Grisain, he was confronted with the deadliest of all molluscs, the oyster, when Jeff and Jane treated us to a plate of 'fruits de la mer'.
He just doesn't want to try them OK?

It was incredible to see the landscape changing every day as well as finding new wildlife and vegetation. Giant musk rats weighing up to 10 kilos and water snakes in the canal, flamingos in the marshes of Narbonne and wild deer on the run into Cognac. The vineyards, peach and kiwi groves, palm trees, fig and aloe vera as we got further south all told us we were a long way from Stoke on Trent. Crickets were everywhere and cacaphonous as we rounded the last hills leading to Narbonne, although we never actually saw one.

At the time of writing we've raised contributions of over £650 towards Douglas Macmillan Hospices, which we hope will eventally reach our target of £1500. Thanks to everyone who's sponsored us.

Toulouse - to-home.

Up at 7.00 for petit dejeneur on our own at the HDM, and it's a treat to have cereal, a croissant and milky coffee before we set off. It's five minutes to the station and the process of dismantling and packing the bikes goes smoothly enough.

A small, sunburnt chap pulls his ancient steel framed bike and bodged together trailer next to us. He's a dead ringer for Bilbo Baggins, but is in fact Simon, a teacher from Paris. Simon, who's English, tells us to check the platform display against our tickets to see exactly where our carriage will pull in. This seems ingenious and high tech to us, but doesn't quite work out that way when the train pulls in and our carriage stops 100 metres or so from the spot predicted.

On the train, we find a good space for the bikes, and settle in. The 'Corail Teoz' coastal train runs up the Spanish coast from Barcelona and past Perpignan to Narbonne, before heading west to Toulouse and ultimately north east to Paris. It's spacious compared to a UK intercity train, with loads of spare seating and wide aisles. A lady we'd spoken to earlier invites us to take on her 7 year old at Chess and James, taking her seat obliges. It's a tight affair and the champion of Pays de Galles has to work hard to beat the French prodigy. Mike struggles even more and is glad to take a draw when the train pulls in to Toulouse. The kid and his sister take it well, even though they were desperate to pummel les Anglais. We're both touched to be invited briefly into the lives of strangers in a way you wouldn't often see in England.

After a long day wandering around the cafe's of Toulouse, looking for presents for our girls and franglaising the locals, we nip into the Gaumont on Wilson Square to kill a few hours before catching the 'corail lunea' night train to Paris. After yawning our way through most of 'Inception' we sneak out and leg it down to Gare Martibeau in time to get our stinky gear out of luggage locker and re-tape up our bikes, left standing outside the station.

After 10 minutes on the Lunea, we're called to the back where an angry train manager and smiling conductor tell us we can't leave our bikes where the platform guard had told us to 15 minutes previously, and harangue us into paying a 20 euro 'bike reservation fee'. We protest that bagged bikes are 'baggage' according to their own website but no good. We pay up, move our tarp covered bikes down the train at the next stop, Montaubon and settle down to 8 hours of semi- comfortable travel in our reclining seats. Our contraband lagers help.

Out into an overcast day in Paris at 6.45 and we're careful to hide our pen-knife from the French military patrolling the platform with sub-machine guns as we take the tape off the bikes and get ready for the day. A whistle stop cycle tour of the sights entertains us as we try to get our photo's taken in various mugging poses at, in order of visit: Notre Dame, The Louvre, Cleo's needle, the Arche, the metropolitan metro sign, the Eiffel tower and Hotel des Invalides. Mikes cracked back wheel copes well and our main target is to get to Gard du Nord in time to ensure we pack the bikes even smaller and avoid any more hassle. Mike replaces his 2 day old T shirt with a cheap Kenvelo job outside the GDN and James fails in his final attempt to order 2 large coffees, "Der Cafe Grand oo lord, sil vous plait?" On the station before boarding, Mike spots an ingenious old tramp, fondling and jiggling a plastic waste bag from underneath, before going elbow deep into the yoghurt pots and god knows what before emerging with a damp 2 euro coin. His success rate looks to be higher than the teams of girls purporting to be Bosnian refugees showing pleas in written english to tourists. The GDN area is heavily populated with addicts and beggars of all description.

Eurostar check in is straightforward, even after Mike loses his ticket on the platform, and the journey to St Pancras fast and enjoyable. Looking at the flat open plains of NE france, we're glad we opted for the variety/hills of the west. In contrast to the Eurostar, the Pendolino to Stoke feels like it's going to break up when it hits 100mph.

We're back in the world of women, clean clothes, beds and reliable access to toilet paper as we step off the train and into the arms of my wife, and in James case, his daughter Lauren.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Getting off the beach? Grisain back to Narbonne

First proper lie in of the trip and the two remaining med men wake up dreading the trip back in predicted 26mph south easterly wind. Flat out pushing north over the lagoon roads, we managed 7 mph. Arriving in Narbonne, we buy tarps to bag bikes up with on sunday and gorge on doughnuts and french fruit tart in the supermarket car-park, before getting a good deal from the office de Tourisme on a 2 star spot called the Hotel Du Midi.

Narbonne is a small but elegant city, full of decayed but grand buildings, adorned with bas-relief sculpture, incredible wrought iron railings and balconies. After dropping out bags off, we set off for a rare cultural trip around the hotel de ville buildings, including a great show of Algerian influenced French painting. For the first time we feel like tourists, with no pressure to complete mileage.

Worried about making fools of ourselves dismantling our bikes at the station tomorrow, we practice in the garage of the hotel, alarming the desk clerk by whacking James's pedal with a length of 3 by 3 he finds in a corner. Our front rear mudguards go in the trash, as do our front pannier racks and in Mikes case, bags. James later bins a whole packed bin bag of detritus from his bags, including his sleeping bag (£4.99 at Halfords ) and sleeping mat. Perversely, he keeps his rancid gloves.

later in the evening, after pizza in the square opposite the remains of the original Roman highway - the Via Domitia - we drop into the cathedral square to take in a bizarre open air art-jazz performance by a Belgian/Spanish/French combo called 'Basic Borg'. Entertaining and exciting at times, but super-twee, meandering and just plain irritating in others. When the Bjork-esque lead vocalist strated twittering sweetly about the beautiful bird which had just flown down to her table, Mike owned up that he couldnt take any more. Beaten by James Winston Penny in the coveted but rare 'King of the pretentious avante garde jazz appreciation' category. Jeff, you did well to escape this one.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The medmen have arrived!

So this is it, our last day of our challenge, to cycle from the English Channel to the Med in 10 days, unaided, unsupported on cycles that only go forward by human force, i.e no use of motor. Imposibel the French cry, but for the med men a challenge to be taken on.

For the last 9 mornings Dr Jeff has been washed, fed, tent down, packed and ready to go before kelly and myself have even managed to rise sleepy eyed from our two man tent that has been home for us, our cycling shorts our fellow friend the french red ant and his friend the left overs from the 3 wild boars that foraged there! But today the sleepy eyed Geordie and the pais de Gale(Welsh) set the alarm 15 min earlier than the DrJjeff and were all oiled up and sat on their steeds waiting for the lazy Med man who was feeling a little head sore after a night of drinking the magic juice from the white grape.
We left the campsite to climb around the beautiful castle of Carcassonne and into the hills where the Mediterranean beckoned with its vineyards, olive trees, kiwi vines, and dry and parched soils. The Canal de Midi took us on our way through the plane trees and then onto the old roads through the villages of France. We're soon in Trebes, where bullfighting still takes place. Almond croissants and lunch rations are purchased and then we're off for another go at the Canal du Midiheading towards Homps.
After a few miles, we're fed up with the unneven road surface and squeeze over the lock at and onto roads which take us through Lezignan and the Corbieres region. It's a parched landscape and we even see a cactus growing outside a farm gate. Jeff is in fine form and contests a couple of King of the Mountains races with James. Mike is taking it easier, just glad to get over the last few hills to Narbonne.

The villages remained quiet as they had done throughout the trip, the only sound was that of the deafening sound of the crickets beating out their warning song, that the med men were coming!

In Narbonne, we chill for a while and indulge in some celebratory pre-prepared baguettes! We decide to follow the canal out to Grisain and after passing through an area of shallow lagoons populated by flamingoes, we see the Med. James alarms some holidaymakers by leaping under one of the beach side shower hoses fully dressed. We drink three celebratory beers in a bar on the front before wading in for an end of the road waterfight. Jeff wins the King of the Med title after ducking and nearly drowning poor James.

Jeffs wife Jane and daughter Jasmine arrive to take him back to their holiday gite near Montpellier. We enjoy 'fruits de la mer' at a favourite seafood cafe (James doesn't), before we take some last photos and Jeff dismantles his trusty Panorama to fit in the car. He looks a bit crestfallen as he's driven off. This isn't surprising. We've been together for 10 days and 750 miles. Longer than some marriages.

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The medmen have made it to Narbonne.

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Day 10: Carcasonne to Narbonne, medmen get ugly

The medmen were overcome with the beauty of Carcasonne and had a great feast of food and wine, including: ducks gizzards, goats cheese and duck pate. James of course had the vegetarian option of cheesy pasta and a plate of salad. The French really know how to look after the veggies!!

They are now heading to the sea on their last day of cycling. The sky is blue, the wind is behind us and the crickets are rattling.

James is taking pictures of people, snakes, frogs, horses, houses, cafes, cactus, graves, Cyprus tree, kiwi fruit, the place where Van Gogh put up his easel.

We also met Alex, a young french velocetist who was traveling from Bezier to the north coast of Spain and for the first time on our journey he was the only other cyclist except for James who wasn't wearing Lycra. There he was, top off, wearing a fluorescent builders bib.Pretty cool. Not.

He looked pretty fit, but had taken two days to travel around 40 miles from the coast due to the headwind. Good news for us, until we have to come back anyway!

Later in the day things got a bit hot with my fellow med men tempers frayed, it was all going to end in tears!!

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Friday, 23 July 2010

Day 9: Toulouse to Carcasonne

On a bright and cloudy morning the medmen are working our merry way to Carcasonne. Jeff got lost in Toulouse following the sat nav. The ciccerone guide advises not to cycle under the bridges in and around Toulouse and we can see why. Lots of homeless people have set up what almost look like homes under many, complete with chests of drawers, beds and personal effects. Mike celebrated us finding the canal again with pain raisin and peche for breakfast.

The cafe in Laval, 20 miles out from Toulouse, is a typically austere affair, with a pool table and ancient space invaders machine in the corner. James determines that the owner is a former Toulouse scrum half from the photo's on the walls, and, being a keen union man, has his photo taken with the highly undemonstrative patron. Mike locates a Pharmacy and stocks up on some huge back warming pads to help with a spasm engendered by a an eight foot drop and sudden rise on the towpath out of Toulouse. Mike is also having trouble map reading, but has found a solution.

James was now in charge of the midi guide book and the map, meanwhile Mike quoted from the guide about the steeped history of the area - did you know that our cafe we are having our morning coffee was visited by Wellingtons men in 1807? Great entertainment is had when Jeff, reaching for a pan au chocolat from his back pannier manages to slide from the steeply banked towpath into the undergrowth. he disappeared so rapidly from view that Mike and James thought he'd been snagged by the sauvage cochon (wild boar) of the midi.

Not long after, we cycled past this car that had also been savaged by the boar, these are dangerous times for the Med men! As the rain settles in again, we entertain ourselves with some
singing. James is certainly the King of the Balladeers, with his robust welsh anthems. Mike chips in with a fairly depressing 'My dreams have withered and died' and Jeff is eventualy moved to contribute a line or two from 'Tambourine man'. To keep our spirits up/stop thinking about the rain, we devise a game whereby we have to elicit the best reponse fromthe numerous french boating holiday makers via the medium of song. It's hard to describe why you'd find this kind of thing entertaining, but when your underpants are wetter than they'd be in a washing machine, and your feet have taken on the texture - and colour - of tripe, you do. Even two to one, James is the hands down favourite with the natives.

After the canal gets slow, narrow and bumpy beyond Castelnaudary, we hit the main D33 road and make brilliant time into Carcassonne. With the wind behind us on flat ground we maintain speeds of up to 28 mph. A quick trip to the office de tourisme in the new town and we we're on our way to the 'Camping de la Cite' site on the south of the Aude, less than a mile from the imposing walled Cite Medievale, which Jeff explains was built by Walt Disney in 1647. It certainly looks that way.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Day 8 - Agen to Toulouse

Had a bad nights sleep with the wild boar grunting in the tent after tasting a unmarked bottle of red from the camp site owner, video to follow! woke up to the sound of heavy rain which stayed with us till lunch time. Met this bloke in picture from the local police who asked Mike for his papers!

Mike was in good form today, but thinking about his cousin Mark, who died suddenly in Liverpool last week and whose funeral takes place today. He took over the map reading duties and didn't get lost once, mind you we were on the canal all day. Did the usual med men racing on the canal, first to the bridge, lock, deer, etc. We all have our own strategies. Mike favours the longer sustained burn, James the quick sprint and Jeff getting a sneaky head start before declaring a race! Rules have been introduced to make sure the contest is legal only when called from behind and agreed by at least one of the others. We all received winning cake as prizes - provided by Mike after his failure to secure bread or a pain au raisin in Valance.

Three grand cafe au laits for three wet medmen at our morning stop in Valance. We are going to Toulouse today.

Good, if wet days riding today, which we weren't really expecting this far down. We entertain ourselves with songs, a bit of racing and banter. James takes the chance to act the innkeeper in a cafe section of a huge canalside street mock up, to be used in the towns carnival festivities next week. Video clip to follow....

We encountered this plastic wrapped lady on the Canal du Garonne aquaduct near Moissac.
James enjoyed throwing his last piece of fruitcake into the water at this point.. as an offering to
the ancient water gods. It must have worked as it stopped raining about two hours later.

James is pictured above, arriving on the outskirts of sunny Toulouse, where we fetched up at a budget hotel, desperate to dry some of our clothes, which were by now on the 'high' side. After we'd used up every available door top and rail in the tiny room, we left for dinner. The aroma which met our return was manly, damp and dire. James's gloves alone- which he'd not worn once, but had slowly festered in his pannier bag - were enough to make you gag.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


Finally made it to canal du midi, after long 75 mile day, starting and ending in rain.

James now has a new chain, sprocket and crank and intends to regain his crown as king of mountains - except there are no hills on the canal. So let's see ...

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Day 7: St Foy to Agen

The med boys got rained on this morning and now have wet feet, wet t-shirts and wet shorts. It was so wet that Mike's sun tan cream was being washed out of his helmet lining and into his eyes on the steep climb out of St Foy.

We always knew this would be a hard day, with climbing at both ends. in the event, we followed master navigator Jeff's advise and headed further west and onto the canal du midi earlier. It meant a 79 mile day but avoided hills.

After 18 miles of sodden climbing, chef Kelly insisted we stopped at a nettle and bramble infested rural bus stop and impressed the locals with noodle san thistle and over saw Penny horlicks and Parker cous-cous en tomate. We then got back on our fine steeds into the pouring rain and plodded on to Tonneins, where we joined the Canal du Midi. After 10 miles or so, with Jeff out in front by 200 metres and James way behind, he calls to Mike to stop and come back. Mike in turn calls Jeff and they pedal back to help with the presumed first pucture of the trip....but No!
james has spotted a wild snake in the undergrowth near the canals edge and starts to uncover it with his water-bottle. Mike is just about to yell stop, knowing that a snake can strike from feet away when James reveals the creature as the packet of Jeff's beanfeast we've been carrying since St Malo. It's revenge for the non nudist lake ruse. Mike is disappointed at not seeing a creature to add to his nature notes. Jeff is fed up with the extra half a miles cycling incurred and grumbles "I don't even want to see a bloody snake..."

Kelly also wishes to claim king of the mountains at Puymiclan - and the first man to spot limons, figs, vanilla, peach, nectarin, walnuts and pepper. James ran over a toad and spotted a preying mantis. Later on, close to Agen, we pass some strange and huge vines. James clambers down eight feet to our left to discover kiwi fruit. Another exotic first, so we have to all join him for a photo opp. Minutes later we're collared by the weathered fellow below. After a bit of pointing at our pannier bags, he seems to accept that we're 'bon hommes' and tells us the fruit won't be ready till September, which is odd as they already seem twice as big as the ones in the supermarkets back home.

This was Jeffs hardest day. He didn't enjoy the canal to much and felt tired towards Agen, while Mike felt flat out exhausted when we got there. Both rested up and re-fuelled while James got his back block, chain and dodgy crank replaced in the city centre bike shop. The campsite, 3 miles or so outside town was full but the French owners generously allowed us in and gave great advice on the next days riding. A sweet couple who'd jacked in their former careers to run what was one of the friendliest and nicest sites we visited.

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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Day 6: Barbezieux to St Foy

Another long day finds us near St Foy in the Bergerac region. At lunch, after a steep forest climb, Mike claims to be king of the mountains, which led to feverish mechanical adjustments by James to sort out his slipping gears and chain. Mike and Jeff went swimming in a lake, popular with locals as an alternative beach resort. Poor James swims out to the other side of the lake after reports from Mike and Jeff that there is a nudist section beyond the pedalo's. On returning, James, who doesn't even like swimming, uses a word very similar to 'Bustards'. Jeff claims a disputed King of the Mountains climb after Mike gets off to walk with James whose chain is still slipping. Jeff rubs it in by attempting to record the uphill trudge of the old comrades on his blackberry, but the blogability of the clip is ruined by a tirade of highly personal/offensive/funny language from Mike and James.

On the way to the campsite we were finally attacked by a rabid dog, which Jeff dodged, left James to hit with his pump and Mike to stare down and kick. jeff has been traumatised by a dog attack in his youth, which every dog in France brings back by charging at us along the length of their gardens and chains. At one point we're climbing uphill and see a rhodesian ridgeback going nuts inside its fence and as we approach the's wide open. We all try a Mark Cavendish sprint uphill but the dog has a tag which gives it an electric shock if it tries to get past the entrance. Big relief all round.

We also visited a cave where we bought, after much debate, a bottle of fine wine for £3.

We finally arrived at the campsite at seven pm, and being unable to face Jeff's beanfeast, tried out campsite frites, fish, steak, apple pie and of course water.

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Monday, 19 July 2010

Lezay to Barbezieux

Really early start today - 6.30 - to avoid late afternoon heat. Great ride through sunflower fields and vineyards, flattening out towards the beautiful old town of Cognac. Lunched and rested up during max. Daytime temperature of 37 c. Decided to push on after an eccentric Italian widower called Melody accosted us for an hour by the river, offering dinner and music in return for unspecified favours - probably from Jeff, as she thought Mike looked like an elephant in his flappy eared hat, and James looked like ET.

On a descent following a steepish climb out of Cognac Mike sees Jeff wobble wildly as a lorry passes too close. A few minutes he turns around to notice that James has disappeared. After a few minutes waiting, James appears over the top of a hill to explain that he'd actually been clipped on the panniers by the lorry and sent off the road into a wall. Unhurt but a bit p.....ed off that the driver hadn't stopped. Drivers are generally far more couteous and allow more space when overtaking in France, but not this time. James has more lives than a bagful of cats, which is just as well. Twenty odd miles later, we pitched up in Barbezieux, at a bizarre campsite peopled by us, a bunch of French construction workers and a sweet Portugese couple. Poor Jeff is robbed of 42 euros by the ancient patron who runs the place, seemingly on his own. We later speculate that he'd charged us for camping at around 12 euros and then topped up the bill with three small beers, electricity supply and god know what else.

74 miles and 75 swipes of greasy factor 50 between us. Half way and all feeling pretty frazzled but positive.

Day 5: Lezay, Matha, Cognac, Barbezieux StHilarie

Early morning start across the sun flower fields and fine sunshine finds us in Matha. About 20 km to Cognac now for coffee.

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