FRENCH CONNECTIONS: EARLY DAYS
I’m sat at home contemplating the last five weeks. That’s how long it is since I was last here for more than a few days and the first time I’ve been able to relax properly without feeling I had to do something. It’s also the first time that I’ve been able to sit and relive the three weeks spent touring in Brittany with Michele on our superb AZUB recumbent trikes.
Contributed by Graeme Willgress
Our trip began
The reason it had been so busy was entirely down to me. I returned from Brittany on 30th June only to travel to Edinburgh on 2nd July for my daughter’s graduation the following day, something I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I returned home on 5th July knowing I had to prepare a talk for the Bristol Bike Festival the following weekend. After receiving the itinerary for the festival, this turned into two talks on consecutive days and I made the decision that they would be separate and quite different, thereby adding to my already hefty workload.
Our trip to Brittany began on the night of 9th June as we headed for the overnight ferry that runs from Plymouth to Roscoff in Finistère. As we loaded the car with trikes and trailer, I felt nervous. Trevor (the trailer) seemed to be inordinately heavy as I heaved him into the car and the prospect of touring with another person was a new one to me as I usually ride solo.
We had organised parking in a secure car park in the centre of Plymouth leaving us just a few hundred metres to ride to the ferry. As Michele jumped on her trike, all eager to make a start, she said “this doesn’t feel right.” I looked across from Kermit to see her rear tyre was completely flat. How it happened I’ve no idea as I had checked the tyres and pumped them up earlier in the week. I suspect a thorn was wedged in there somewhere but I wouldn’t know until I stripped the tyre off. An inauspicious start to our trip was my first thought.
We sat listening to
As I methodically mended the flat tyre, I relaxed. We were off on holiday for three weeks, something I hadn’t done in many years. Setting off through the multi-storey car park, we found the best way to negotiate the low exit barriers was to pull the flag pole out and hold it like a jousting stick. You could then duck underneath and carry on riding. The city centre traffic gave us plenty of space and we were soon on our way.
Arriving at the departures office we presented our passports and rode more or less straight onto the ferry while drivers of vehicles of all shapes and sizes sat in queues waiting their turn. This is one of the great joys of cycling, one of those moments when you feel like a first-class citizen and not a minority afterthought.
Rising the next morning at 0700 for breakfast before disembarking felt unnatural. It was only 0600 in the UK,. An hour had been thrown overboard somewhere during our crossing. As Roscoff loomed ever larger on the horizon, our excitement at arriving in France rose equally. Our intended destination was Morlaix where we had pre-booked a hotel. We felt this would be easier than camping on our first night. As we didn’t have too many kilometres to cover, we headed straight into Roscoff old town to find a cafe by the similarly old harbour.
Most of the traffic turned left where we turned right and we soon found ourselves on the wrong side of the road in early morning sunshine admiring the beauty that strikes you immediately after you leave the ferry port. Michele was humming a tune repeating the word “right,right,right” to herself in the hope it would help her to remember we were in France and that this was the correct road position. I looked out from my low perch at the panorama that recumbent bikes and trikes allow. It was warm and sunny as we pulled up by a cafe and ordered coffee.
We sat listening to various European languages, trying our best to catch what was said in French, to little avail. The coffee was superb, unlike that served on the French ship which would have caused a disgrace here in France. Last year when I rode the Velodysee and Pyrenees, I had set off from the ferry like a rat out of a trap. This year we chilled out before doing anything at all and this would set the pace for the whole journey. As we sat, we talked excitedly, deciding that we should take the Velodysee cycle route to Morlaix rather than the easier, quicker, and more direct route.
The approach to
Leaving Roscoff, we found ourselves lost in countryside with all manner of surfaces passing beneath our wheels. Tarmac, farm tracks, grass, shingle, this route has them all. A series of typically French lanes led us down to the estuary with views across to a town hugging a hill-top. The peace and quiet invaded our senses as we went and before many kilometres passed, we both fell in love with riding in France.
Our route twisted and turned, only returning to more major roads to pass through the pretty town of St Pol de Leon with its magnificent cathedral and pretty houses. We noticed a couple drinking coffee here, their loaded bikes leaning on the railings waiting patiently for their return. They waved and smiled as did many other people. Recumbent trikes are in the minority and I don’t think people quite know what to make of them. We couldn’t be further from the racing and straining road cyclists that fly around France. We rode slowly looking unstressed and feeling relaxed on these wonderfully comfortable machines. Trevor seemed to lose most of his weight trundling along obediently behind and following Kermit without question. It felt good to be travelling again.
The approach to Morlaix is unforgettable as the town is wedged tightly in a steep-sided valley. Having overcome a ridiculous barrier that would cause consternation to any loaded cyclist, we were soon tearing down the hill towards the harbour. It was an absolute joy and with Trevor behind, acceleration was brisk to say the least. As you turn the right-hand corner at the bottom, the huge viaduct carrying the railway comes into view and dominates everything beneath it. We ambled along, looking, absorbing and grinning as we went. At the first opportunity we pulled off the road ordering a second coffee so we could sit and take in everything around us.
Further back along the road we had met the couple who waved at us as we passed through St Pol on our way here. Stephen and Bobby were on a similar tour to us but were using B&B’s rather than camping. We caught up with them at one point and later they overtook us as we took a break. They took the time to stop and talk as all touring cyclists do before we wished them a bon voyage as they headed off once again. They were also heading for Morlaix but we didn’t see them again until the next day. Our hotel lay high up the valley side which we would have to climb to get there. A map from the tourist office showed us the way as we headed for the Rampe St Nicholas with no prizes for guessing what that was like. The clue is in the name and the French love these ramp type uphills from my experience.
It was a long hard slog to the top where the route finally levelled but I relished the challenge and was surprised how well I managed it given the load I was pulling. Michele battled along behind, raising her arms as she crested the top where I stood with my camera at the ready. Together we headed for the Cosy hotel we had booked via the internet for just £45 for both of us. Arriving is always a joy. It had been a hot ride with plenty to keep us on our toes. As we relaxed over dinner, we realised that in order to shop for the next day we would have to ride back to the valley floor before climbing all the way out on the following morning. The hotel certainly came up to its name as Cosy and we earmarked it for future journeys. The lady owner had told us that a German couple had left their car there and had gone touring. This is well worth knowing if you are planning to take your own vehicle to Brittany and then go cycling.
Our next point of call was in the area known as Monts D’Aree the highest area of Brittany. Huelgoat is a small and attractive town on the edge of the Foret D’Huelgoat, a small remaining part of the famously forested Argoat region of yesteryear. Huelgoat is famous for its unusual stone formations and I had missed out on the chance to see it last year when I was in this region due to time constraints.
There would be no such rushing this year as we dragged the trikes from their overnight stay in the hotels garage where they seemed quite happy to reside. It would be the last time they were out of the elements for the whole trip, so I hoped they hadn’t got the wrong idea from their pampering.
Our route today would be almost entirely along an old railway line given over to cycling some years back. Roads at either end would provide the links to the campsite that we had been reassured to be open. Although it was June, this is still early in the French camping season, with the main months being July and August to coincide with the main European holidays. Before and after that period, many campsites are not open. This is quite different from the UK where they tend to open at Easter for the summer, closing between September and October, so if you intend to travel at these times, do check out your intended destinations before arriving. We found the Tourist offices that are in every town to be extremely helpful in this respect.
Our trip down to the valley floor provided an exciting way to start the day. Cars wanted to overtake but we were travelling just as fast as them making it a little tricky. We found it best to slow down and let them go even though their behaviour towards us was exemplary. We soon located the supermarket and stocked up for the day, our trikes attracting attention every time we stopped. We let a man have a short ride on Michele’s trike and he came back with the inevitable grin and a barrage of questions that we struggled to understand with our limited knowledge of French. Oh how I wished I had learned more languages at school! Being in Europe and only speaking English leaves me feeling inadequate and ignorant.
Traffic in town was as polite as anywhere and we were soon climbing away from the mayhem below in order to find the beginning of the Velodysee cycle route that would lead us to within a stone’s throw of Huelgoat. For reference, there are shops in Huelgoat and we could have avoided some of this climb had we known that and shopped for our needs the day before. As it was, we soon found our way out of Morlaix, something that is rather tricky the first time you arrive here. We slogged up the tough little climb that started our day properly, arriving at a point where the tarmac disappeared and the fun began.
The next 20 kilometres or so climb gently, more of a railway gradient than a hill, but combined with the gravel surface it felt just as hard as it had the previous time I tackled it. We took it slowly, enjoying the fact that we were down among the flowers with no reason to rush anywhere. The trikes were performing brilliantly and Michele commented on how comfortable they were even when the surface was rough and bumpy. Lumps and roots seemed to get absorbed by the fat tyres we were running on the rear of the trikes along with the elastic cord that laced the seat cover. Whatever the reason, we rode gently, taking our time to stop and look at the view whilst those on a mission whizzed past us on their bikes in order to get to wherever they were heading.
We passed several disused railway stations that had fallen into a poor state. It was at one of these that we came face to face with a man touring on a trekking bike and two old boys on their road bikes. The two elder statesmen were well into their seventies, if not their eighties, looking as fit as fleas and very lean from decades of hard pedalling. Our broken conversation with them all was a joy and one of them took Michele’s trike for a ride to try it out. This was something we would have to get used to during the whole of this trip but we enjoyed letting people try them out and seeing their grins on their return. All commented on the quality engineering employed by AZUB, and all enjoyed the experience.
Reaching the road
We learned that all these stations have a tap with drinking water where you can fill your bottles, a useful tip that we placed carefully in our memory banks. Witnessing these gentlemen riding filled me with hope for the future. There are few physical activities where people can carry on into old-age, but cycling is one of them. Long live cycling.
Further along our route we rode through a farm that hires out gypsy caravans along with a horse to pull it. The colourful vans sat in lines, waiting patiently for the main season to start. By now the conditions were hot for riding. We hadn’t had any really warm days in the UK during our preparation and our biggest worry about the trip was that it would be cold and miserable. Our choice of equipment reflected this. These early days showed us that it wasn’t likely to be the case, although the weather in this part of France can change very quickly. So we didn’t count our chickens before they hatched as we say in the UK.
Reaching the road that led to our overnight stop, the cycling suddenly became a whole lot easier. The smooth tarmac passed beneath our wheels without clawing at the tyres and sucking the life out of our progress. I’m always surprised at the difference between road surfaces and how sensitive you become to them when you ride. Tyre choice for longer rides is always a compromise for touring cyclists and I always err on the side of puncture protection and comfort. Skinny tyres would make life a whole lot easier but then, your chances of punctures increases considerably.
We pulled into our campsite happy with our day and overjoyed with the quality of the riding this far. The campsite was fine, although nobody had bothered cutting the grass, leaving us to the ravages of the midges that simply love damp wooded conditions. We had begun our tour and already decided that tomorrow we would take the day to explore Huelgoat, something I had relished for a long time.
We pitched our tent for the first time in blazing sunshine, it couldn’t have been more different from the cold weekend just two weeks previously when we headed off for a test ride to Hartland in Devon, UK. Trevor was stocked with good food as well as a bottle of Bretagne cider and we settled into what would become a delicious pattern for the next three weeks of pedalling though Brittany’s widely varied landscape.