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.