FRENCH CONNECTIONS: PART TWO
Waking up to warm sunshine wasn’t something I had experienced at all this year until Michele and I hit the shores of Brittany. All our fears about the cold and wet conditions evaporated in the first few days we were there. When you are cycle touring, you learn to take each day as it comes and there’s little point trying to predict the weather patterns of such a variable region. It’s better to just wake each day and see what it brings. You can always pull the covers back over your head and go back to sleep after all.
Contributed by Graeme Willgress
Farm tracks, canal tow paths, stunning roads…
During our trip we rode on every kind of surface, from loose gravel to perfect tarmac. Farm tracks, canal tow paths, stunning roads, we enjoyed them all on our trikes. Michele commented on how the roots of trees and pot-holes never felt as bad on the trikes as they do on an upright bike. The fat rear tyre and elastic lacing of the seat made us wonder whether the complexity of suspension is worthwhile, unless you are intending to do most of your riding off-road.
From Huelgoat with its ancient forest and strangely shaped rocks and boulders, we meandered our way to Pontivy using roads, purpose-built cycle ways, and the Nantes Brest canal path. It was a journey of absolute joy. Never in a hurry and always willing to stop and look made for an ultra-relaxing voyage. The previous year I had ridden directly to the Nantes-Brest canal from Carhaix-Plougher. This time we took the Velodysee cycle route to Carhaix and then the cycle route which follows the old railway line via Mael Carhaix to Rostrennen where we hoped to camp.
The sun beat down, supermarkets came and went, and a picnic was had trackside as we pedalled through open and soft countryside towards our goal. Everywhere we stopped people would gather around our strangely unfamiliar machines. “Would you like to try them?” we would ask. Some did and some sat down to test the comfort. We enjoyed these meetings answering questions that were plentiful and often quite repetitive. We didn’t mind this at all as we had asked all these questions ourselves just a few months previously.
Having ridden up
Rostrennen is built on a hill and the tourist office is some way up it. The pretty stone buildings and masses of flowers gave the town a prosperous and quaint feel, similar to a Cotswold town in the UK. People sat outside bars laughing and drinking as we passed by and we gained more than a few double-take type looks from those not used to seeing recumbents on the roads. The woman in the tourist office was extremely helpful providing a map showing the shop we needed and a campsite that she confirmed as open. Having ridden up a reasonably steep hill to get to the office, the lady confirmed that the shop was further up the same one. After shopping, we would have to ride back down towards the town and then up another hill to find the campsite that we were assured was only two kilometres from town.
The joy of arriving at a campsite has never been greater than on this day. It was hot and going shopping just about finished us off. The campsite proved to be considerably further than anticipated but when we did arrive we found an oasis, something so special that we could have stayed for days. Turning off where a sign depicted a Gite d’etape, we soon came to the end of the road. What appeared as a large stone house was directly in front of us and the gardens were manicured and planted like those of a stately home. Behind was a converted barn with one side completely glass. I strolled across as there were signs of life that I might ask about the campsite.
Inside the building people were busying around setting tables with flowers and cloths for what I assumed would be a large celebration like a wedding or something similar. It became quickly apparent that none of these people knew anything other than the fact that they were preparing for a feast and I left none the wiser about the camping area that was supposed to be here. While I did this Michele investigated the main building, finding nobody at home but a small notice in a window showing fees for the Gite D’etape and the campsite. There were no further clues as to where the camping area was.
Can you imagine that scenario in the UK?
As we stood scratching our heads I noticed a line of perfectly trimmed privet hedges at the bottom of the gardens. The penny dropped as I recognised these as wind breaks. Taking our trikes down the track we found what we were looking for, a camping area all laid out on terraces, each pitch with its own mature wind break in the form of hedges. The utility block was made of modern corrugated steel. Opening the door, which appeared locked from a distance, I found a clean and fully serviced area with showers, toilets, hot water, washing-up area and all the things you come to expect from a French campsite. Best of all, there was nobody here but us.
I pitched the tent while Michele took a well-earned shower still feeling astounded that this site existed at all. It was June, hence the lack of people, but everything was there ready for people to just turn up and pitch their tents for the night. Can you imagine that scenario in the UK? We ate and watched the sun set accompanied by a bottle of Bretagne cider. Tomorrow we would ride further down the road we had used to get here to where it intersects the Nantes-Brest canal.
Next morning, we loaded up, somewhat reluctant to leave. In sympathy with this feeling, I found one of my front tyres completely flat. Mending it in the sunshine didn’t feel like a chore and we were soon on our way. The road we had left the previous night to find the campsite now provided a smooth and rolling link to the Nantes-Brest canal which we picked up a few kilometres later on. Open countryside spread as far as the eye could see and no cars passed us as we warmed to the task of riding.
A great deal of enthusiasm
Arriving at the Nantes-Brest canal was special. Some people find canals tedious to ride along and I understand what they mean. Personally, I love them, as I seem to enter a place where time stands still, or at least moves no more quickly than the water of the canal. Most canals are stagnant but the Nantes-Brest canal incorporates river sections which keep it alive and clean, encouraging wildlife and fauna to thrive along its banks.
The tree lined path is never hard, other than where repairs have been made using a kind of gravel fill that makes you feel like you are riding through sand. There were few other people along its banks and we sauntered slowly enjoying the locks and cottages where few people now live full-time. As we sat by a house taking a drink, a Frenchman arrived with a small and rather cute dog. “Bonjour monsieur,” we said as if we knew more. Sadly we didn’t but through a broken conversation, his interest in the trikes was immediately apparent. “Take it for a ride,” said Michele pointing to her trike, which was more his size.
He didn’t need asking twice and while the dog stayed put, he headed off along the canal. On his return he had the inevitable grin, a great deal of enthusiasm, and an appreciation of the engineering quality of our machines. He explained how all the houses surrounding his had been bought as second homes by English people who rarely came to visit. He didn’t seem bothered by it and talked in a matter-of-fact kind of way that stated how he saw it, without any judgement attached.
Continuing our ride we passed locks and cottages and little else. The canal had a hypnotic effect on me and I wanted to ride slower and slower, moving at the same pace as the water. Being on its banks was like being in a living time-capsule from a bygone age and I wanted to enjoy every moment. Being on the trike added to this, grounding you in the journey. Its low seat brings you into contact with nature in a way that makes riding an upright bike feel removed from it. Flowers pass by at a level where you can touch them with your hand and a panoramic view constantly fills your vision. It never feels uncomfortable and it left me feeling that I didn’t need to hurry to get anywhere.
This effect was so strong that as we passed the canal side campsite called the Tost Aven at Gouarec, I found myself saying “let’s stop here for the day.” Michele was in agreement and we turned away from the towpath and headed into the small town to see what was there. We found the centre to be a group of pretty stone cottages huddled around a covered square where a young couple were selling fruit and cheese. Parking in the shade along with a good many other cyclists, we were soon the centre of attention as people were drawn to our trikes.
“Would you like to try them,” I said to the couple on the market stall. No sooner had I asked than they were careering around the small market area, laughing and grinning like children. Others tried too, taking a seat, smiling as they realised how comfortable the trikes are, and asking the usual questions about whether we felt safe on the roads.
We tore ourselves away in order to buy a few provisions before returning to the campsite where Breton Bikes (www.bretonbikes.com), a UK cycle holiday company, operate their cycle touring business from. Being a large and open site, it took a while for us to decide where we wanted to be. We were drawn to an area just inside the entrance as the grass had been cut short. We hoped would reduce the chance of mosquitoes spoiling the fun later in the day and set about laying out the groundsheet for a picnic.
By the time
Whilst in town, we had passed an attractive restaurant which we decided would provide our dinner that evening. With this decided, we had nothing to do but relax. The tent was pitched and I left for a long, relaxing, shower. On my return I found we had a neighbour in the form of a cycle tourist. Michele told me she had noticed on his arrival that he was heavily laden with large panniers on the front and back of his cycle and a sizeable roll-top bag on the rear carrier. She had deduced that he must be Dutch as she remembered what I had said about travellers from Holland always seeming to travel heavy in one of my books (see the links on the main page of this website). She was about to blurt this out to the man in question when she realised how rude it would be and the man saved her by introducing himself and stating that he came from the Netherlands.
I went to say hello as the man in question attempted to blow up his mattress. After many years use it had a split internal seam which meant it took on the appearance of a beach ball as one cell expanded outwards in a bid for freedom, no longer held in place by the stitching. He explained that he would be meeting his wife shortly and she would have a new mattress. I felt glad as I could see no way how you might get a good night’s sleep on this one. I also learned that he’d had an episode of poor mental health and his doctor told him to take four months off work suggesting he might travel. He did as he was told by riding his bike to Istanbul from Holland and hadn’t looked back, or stopped touring, since.
Delving into his substantial kit bag, he produced a small book with startlingly beautiful diagrams throughout and text descriptions. The drawings were his own and he had made them throughout his long, solo bike tour. On his return from the ride, he produced the book which he was rightly proud of and he was now sharing it with me. I felt deeply touched by this gentle and humble man and what he had achieved. I gave him my card so he could link to my own work via my website and then left him to eat and relax.
By the time we rose the next morning, our Dutch friend had left but he had left an indelible mark on me. He had reminded me just how powerful cycle touring can be in health terms and I felt the pull of desire to make another long-distance ride as soon as I felt able. Leaving the campsite, we had only ridden a few kilometres when we came across a Sunday market near the famous Abbe Bon Repos. We just had to stop and take a coffee and a wander around.
No sooner did we do this than Michele found herself answering questions about trikes once more. A man disappeared up the road on her trike and many questions were answered before she got to sit and relax with her drink. An English couple, who were cycling with two young children, noticed the trikes and spoke to us. Prior to starting a family, they had spent six months cycling in South America and were keen to ask about all things recumbent. We were more than happy to answer their questions and equally interested in how they had found South America during their tour. After a lengthy and informative chat we said goodbye, taking to the lanes and tracks that would lead us to Pontivy.
I wanted to explore Pontivy, fascinated by the fact that it was a town of two distinct halves. One part is medieval and the other Napoleonic, with a distinct line between the two. It has changed its name many times, sometimes it’s been Pontivy, and at others Napoleonville. For the present it is Pontivy with its medieval castle and buildings but some of the signs in town still allude to its other persona.
Our journey there would take us along Lac Guerledan, a stunningly lovely reservoir where watersports ruled, before picking up the Canal again for the run into Pontivy. Without stopping short for the day on Saturday we wouldn’t have got to meet the people we met or shared the stories we shared. Cycle touring is special, regardless of distance or speed of travel. If you put yourself out there, you will meet and share something special, something I can only try to describe to you here. There are so many ways to do it that it defies me why more people don’t try it.
Our trikes are adding to this experience for us, allowing us to travel in absolute comfort as well as in a much more relaxed manner than our upright bikes would allow. Everywhere we ride them we are the odd-ones-out drawing questions and intrigued looks. I wonder why this is as my own experience suggests that we should be in the majority. Perhaps one day we will be?