On the road again…in Portugal and Spain

My last two really big rides were to celebrate my 60th and 65th birthdays, so they were five years apart (O-Level maths, 62%, Fairfield Grammar School, Bristol, 1967). I did a few century rides in between, but nothing on the same scale as these continental adventures. As I approach my 66th birthday, it occurs to me that one big ride every five years means that there probably aren’t going to be very many to look forward to. My New Year’s resolution for 2018 is, therefore, to fit in two big rides every year. It’s time for the first one.

The inspiration for this next ride, which will start from Faro in Portugal on Monday morning, 12th March, was Andrew P. Sykes’ most recent book. Entitled “Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie“, it chronicles his journey from Gibraltar to a point so far north that it’s doesn’t get dark at night, at least in the summer. For convenience, I want to fly from Bristol Airport – it’s local – so I’m planning a slightly different route. I’ll fly to Faro in Portugal, stay at an airport hotel tomorrow evening, then turn right and head for the Spanish border. From Huelva, the first big town in Spain, I plan to ride into Seville for the night, then turn left the next day and cycle pretty much due north until I reach Gijón on the north coast of Spain, in the Asturias region. This route will differ from Andrew’s in that he cut north-east across from Huelva to Merida before picking up the Ruta Via de La Plata whereas I fancy a night in Seville to have a look around. Also, Andrew turned right just north of Zamora to head to Pamplona but his book mentions heavy traffic after doing so, and I don’t fancy that when there are said to be so many quieter roads for cycling in Spain. My current plan, therefore, is to keep going due north to Gijon and then figure out a way to get back home.

Andrew P. Sykes’ route follows Eurovelo 1 through Spain. I’m planning to cycle along a slight variant of this, starting in Faro (just to the left of Huelva on the south coast of Portugal) and heading to Gijón on the north coast of Spain. However, “planning” is a bit of a misnomer because I’ll probably make quite a few changes as I go along.

I’ve been a bit extravagant with respect to return flights. The original plan was to fly Easyjet from Bilbao to Bristol on Thursday, March 22nd. There’s just one flight per week on that route. However, Easyjet was also offering a flight from Asturias, near Gijón, to Stanstead in Essex on Wednesday, March 21st. It was £20, so I booked that too. Since then I’ve considered the option of flying back to Heathrow from Oviedo, which is about 30km south of Gijón, so I’ll already have been through it once. This has the advantage of being a daily flight, so timing is flexible.

This is going to be a different kind of experience from the earlier big rides. I’m going to be riding a modern bike, rather than one of the vintage machines I used for the last couple of trips. The greatest difference will be having brakes that don’t make my knuckles go white on every steep descent. More about the bike later. Time to start packing.



Day 10: Just north of Girona to Barcelona: the tenth century

From the moment we set out, we had the feeling this was going to be a good day’s riding, and so it turned out to be. We had a slight headwind, which became stronger as the day went on, but by sticking with main roads we made great progress. The traffic was heavy and fast but we’d become immune to some extent and there was usually a hard shoulder to ride on, so we felt reasonably safe. The hills around Girona are long, sometimes a couple of miles or more, but not especially steep, so even riding with just a big chainring was not particularly difficult. Of course, we were tired by this point in the ride but the knowledge that this would be the final day kept us pedalling enthusiastically southward.

There were some wonderful views across the valleys south of Girona, particularly from this viaduct, but traffic was heavy

We bypassed Girona on the N11 but on the south side of the city we hit the same problem we’d experienced the previous evening – the road became a motorway on which cyclists were not permitted. Coming off the junction, we searched for signs that might put us back on the road to Barcelona but could not find any. Even though we had a map, it was difficult to plot a suitable route to connect us to the C35 road we would need to take us towards our final destination. In desperation, we reverted to Google Maps and the outcome was just as we could have predicted – we ended up on a farm track in the middle of nowhere, even losing each other at one point as with skidded around the gravel covered lanes. Then we suddenly came across a cycleway, figured out where we were, and then did a five mile detour to bring us back on track. The sun was shining, we had time in hand, thanks to a relatively early 7:45am start, and found ourselves riding through forests on the minor GI-555 road before stopping for coffee and a sandwich at a delightful roadside garage where the owner and his staff were most curious about our ride. We stocked up on Madelines – tasty cakes – and carried on south to the C35. Only ten miles further on, we stopped for chips and Coke at a Burger King on the outskirts of San Celoni and set about planning the final part of our route into Barcelona. We had to add about 25 miles somewhere, otherwise we wouldn’t hit the magic 1000 miles for the trip. Our original plan was to cycle south of the city towards Sitges then turn around an come in from the south side. Surveying the map, we thought it may be better to get the final big climb of the day behind us while we were still relatively fresh, then make up the additional miles on the coast road, which we assumed was flat but turned out not to be totally so. We turned left onto the C61 to face the biggest climb of the whole ride, one far more challenging than scaling the Pyrenean pass into Le Perthus. The spike in the middle of the route profile gives some idea of knee-grinding endeavour it took to conquer the peak. I got to the top just ahead of Richard and took this shot of him coming to the highest point of the ride.

Richard about to reach the crest the biggest climb of the whole trip
The ride profile of the final day – the large peak is where we crossed the mountains north of Barcelona. After just over 50 miles, we were on the coast road for the rest of the day.

The descent was a fantastic reward for our efforts and after reaching Arenys de Mar on the coast, we headed north for twelve miles to make up our mileage. A frozen yoghurt with fruit at Malgrat de Mar provided the fuel for the final 37-mile blast south into Barcelona. We had a strong headwind all the way and stopped every hour or so for a few minutes’ rest. At one point, I think I was first to spot the Spanish fleet en-route to invade Gibraltar – it looked like it may need some updating.

Spain is clearly serious about its claim to Gibraltar – the armada is on its way!

We had company for the last 30 miles. A French cyclist from Barcelona started chatting to Richard and rode alongside him. In fact, he wouldn’t stop talking until we paused for a while to let him get ahead. All we wanted to do was enjoy the view and the final few miles of our adventure.

About an hour and a half from Barcelona, the only cloud in the sky rained on us. We got wet for about an hour but still had half an hour to dry out as we used the cycleways of the city to take us to our final destination in the old cathedral square. The sun shone again, the view was glorious and the roads were quiet for all but the last couple of miles.

The rain cleared and a beautiful evening greeted us in Barcelona

We arrived in the cathedral square to the sound of a live classical guitar performance and an America tourist from Virginia was kind enough to take our final shot of the trip.

Arrival! 10 days (9.5 to be absolutely accurate) and 1000 miles after we left Wiltshire, UK


Day 9: Narbonne to (nearly) Girona

This was the day we expected things to get tough. We had the Pyrenees between us and Spain, and I had been particularly concerned that my bike’s gearing might not be low enough. (For the technically minded, I had a 48-36 combination of chainrings and the largest sprocket on the back was 28 teeth.) There is a cycleway that would have taken us south to Perpignan and through some great scenery but as we didn’t know how rough the surface might be, we decided to brave the main D6009 road.  We had a tailwind and made great progress for 23 miles then stopped for a coffee and refuelling. A short distance later, the chain came off my bike and wedged itself between the crank arm and the chainring. We managed to fix it but ten minutes after there was an odd metallic tinkling sound. We pulled over. Some bolts had worked loose and my inner chainring had fallen off. It was dangling inside the outer chainring and there was no chance of finding the special bolts to fix it back on. For a moment, I thought this was going to be the end of the ride. It was Sunday – no bike shops open and in any case, none were likely to stock the parts needed to fix the problem. Using Richard’s last cable tie (cable ties are essential things to take on any extended bike ride) and some white insulation tape that I carry with my tools, we taped the errant chainring to the bike so that I could at least ride on the large one, the one that produces higher gears and makes hills even more challenging.

A temporary repair, but it worked for 170 miles

The next few miles were on the flat and we enjoyed a helpful tailwind so made good progress. We were on the main N11 for our climb from Le Boulou on the French side of the Pyrenees to the border town of Le Perthus. I’d been dreading this but it turned out to be less demanding that I’d thought as Richard and I battled slowly up the climb. Relieved to be at the top, we stopped for chicken and chips to refuel.

The French-Spanish border town of Le Perthus – a strange place full of tourists and not as demanding a climb to reach it as we had feared

Our destination for the day was Girona and we still appeared to have time to get there as we left Le Perthus. However, the wind changed direction and it wasn’t long before we were head-down fighting to maintain a decent speed. We stuck with the main road and it was busy but we couldn’t countenance the prospect of being sent into the wilderness again by Google. There were long steady climbs relieved by the following descents. The headwind drained our energy and our speed so it was about 8:30pm and just beginning to get dark when the road, at least for us, was ended abruptly with a “no bicycles” sign. It was becoming a major dual carriageway. Worst still, the original old road was blocked by cones because there was major construction work in progress. We didn’t know which direction to take and, to make things worse, the battery on my headlight was flat, so I had no front lighting. Looking across the junction, we could see a hotel. We were ten miles outside of Girona, our original destination, and had covered 96 miles by the time we reached the door of the hotel, slipping four miles behind schedule with one day to go.

Richard entering Spain
Richard about to cross the border into Spain and enjoy the long descent into La Jonquera

The hotel looked closed but when we used the intercom, we were greeted by a woman who came out onto a balcony and asked what we wanted. We explained our predicament and she tried to tell us which road we should take but we were unconvinced, exhausted and ready to find a bed for the night. Our host opened the hotel, made us filled baguettes, salad and fresh fruit for dinner and asked us what time we wanted breakfast. It was an extraordinary welcome considering we were the only two guests at the hotel, arriving at nearly 9pm on a Sunday evening. She could so easily have simply turned us away.

The following morning we had a 7:30am breakfast of coffee and croissants then headed over to the road junction that had so confused us on the previous evening. There was a construction worker at the entrance to the blocked road. We asked him how we could get to Girona and he told us to ignore the “no bicycles” sign because just a kilometre along the new road it joined the old one and we would be fine. So that’s exactly what we did.

Day 8: Narbonne to Cap de Agne and back again

This was supposed to be the easiest day of the trip. It had come about because we decided a couple of days ago to end the trip in Barcelona, as originally planned, rather than head over to Majorca to do the last 100 miles there. With our target of 1000 miles in total, we needed to add some during the trip. Basing ourselves in Narbonne and doing an out-and-back trip seemed like a good idea and it meant we would travel luggage-free for a day It should have meant the opportunity to add more miles, leaving us fewer to do in the final two days.

We resorted to Google again for directions and all was well when we set off. Almost immediately after leaving the built-up areas of the city we were riding on small but well-surfaced country roads, some of which ran through vineyards. It didn’t last long. Before long we were being directed along almost non-existent trails and finally ended up with nowhere to go in a swamp.

“Turn right” said Mrs Google, but there was no right turn, or any other option except to go back

We backtracked, losing an hour of cycling time and the rest of the day saw numerous repetitions of Google Maps’ inadequacy. It does state the cycling routes are in ‘Beta’, which means still being tested. They can be useful going through towns but are pretty much useless in the French countryside.

Anyhow, in the end, we reached Cap de Agne, had a quick look around, then headed back. We used our printed map in the main, navigating carefully between small villages to find the most direct route back to Narbonne from a tangle of country lanes.

The harbour at Cap de Agde; lots of smart people and smart boats, so I felt eatery out of place

We got back at 9pm, more tired than we’d ever been and with just 90 miles to show for it. Our buffer of 10 miles from the previous day was gone but at least we were still on target – 8 days and 800 miles into the trip.

Day 7: Toulouse to Narbonne

This was supposed to be an easier day. We had 100 miles to cover on the Canal du Midi cycle path, heading almost due east. We had a northerly cross wind in the morning but it was forecast to turn westerly in the afternoon, creating a helpful tailwind for the ride.

In the end, it turned out to be as tough as the previous day. We both had big dips in energy along the way, Richard’s coming early in the ride, mine much later. As soon as we left Toulouse, the cycle path deteriorated into something more like a mountain bike trail and not only did this bring our average speed down to single figures in mph, but it shook us about on our rigid road bikes and required a lot of concentration to avoid tumbles.

Despite this, we felt we made reasonable progress and stopped for coffee at a converted lock keeper’s station along the canal. We sat outside in warm sunshine and it was apparent that we were now in the south of France. We then set out again but the cycleway progress was slow – it was just too rough. We stopped at a lovevly restaurant and had pizza for lunch. It’s great cycling fuel. We were chatting to a French couple next to us who had moved to the area from Paris just two days earlier and time flew. I guess we must have been there for an hour and a half, but we were unconcerned about time.

As soon as we set out again, we knew we were going to have to up the pace as the canal path surface deteriorated again. Richard then had his third puncture of the trip – he now leads 3-1. It set us back another 30 minutes and we headed off once more.

3-1 to Richard

At this point we met a French family on British made Genesis expedition bikes (Croix de Fer models). The father had a trailer to carry the couple’s daughter, who was perhaps two years old. His wife’s bike was fully loaded too, and their luggage included campaign equipment. They had set out two days earlier from Toulouse and were on their way to Norway via Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Denmark. This was to be a six-month trip and it made our little challenge seem easy.

We decided to turn back and find a road route, abandoning the canal path. We ignored the first ‘route barre’ sign we came across – something which normally means you have a traffic-free section of road to ride on and can then squeeze through a gap somewhere at the end with a bicycle. We made a wrong turn at one point and ended up heading down a cul-de-sac where the house at the end was guarded but two barking dogs. We’ve seen dozens of guard dogs behind fences on our trip, but these were not fenced in and started to charge towards us. Our ride is recorded on our GPSs and i think when we analyse it, we’ll find our time for the 400 metres or so after the dogs headed our way will qualify Richard and I for the next Olympics. I’ll write to British Cycling.

Escaping without in jury, we then found the road to Narbonne via Carcassone, the latter being about 15 miles away. We switched on Google Navigation and got through Carcassone but just as we were leaving the city, we spotted the French family beside the road and gave each other a wave. How they got there ahead of us with a trailer in tow, we’ll never understand or find out!

The road was now busy and only a narrow white line separated us from the traffic thundering by, some of it uncomfortably close. We pushed on through the last 40 miles making good speed with the promised tailwind and there were only two diversions from the D6113 indicated by Google. The first of these led us along a lovely country lane through Crobier vineyards but then dumped us an impassable 800m rutted and wet track. We had no option but to wheel the bikes between rows of vines hoping that the owner did not let his dogs loose – we could hear their frenzied barking behind us.

Google doesn’t distinguish between a road and this

A final push and we arrived in Narbonne just after 9pm. Another pizza,  accompanied by desert and wine this time, and we were done.

We’d covered 103 miles putting us 10 miles ahead of our 700 mile target for the end of the seventh day of our trip.

Day 6: Sainte Bazeille to Toulouse

After a good breakfast, which included a fine selection of preserves made by our charming host, Catherine, we headed out into a cold, bright morning to make our way to the Canal de Garonne, and the veloroute Vers Duex Mers.

Richard saying goodbye to our host, Catherine. She could not have been more helpful or considerate. Highly recommended!
After around 10 miles, we joined the canal path, which would take us along a 100-mile almost traffic-free route to Toulouse, our destination for the day. Progress was good in the morning with our average speed over 30% more than in previous days. The scenery was varied and spectacular, accompanied by birdsong and the drilling of a spotted woodpecker. What a change from cars and trucks thundering past.

I have to confess that I’m now back on performance-enhancing drugs. Three days ago I decided to copy Wiggo and I applied to Richard for a Theraputic Use Exception (TUE) for Ibuprophen. Unlike Wiggo, I do acknowledge the performance improvements these enable. They’re for nagging knee pain and eliminate my need to stop every 30 minutes and burst into tears, boosting my average speed significantly.

Just one of the many fabulous views we encountered along the Canal du Garonne

We stopped frequently to refuel with pastries and chocolate bars, as part of a calorie-controlled diet. Lunch was a freshly prepared baguette at a bar in one of the villages along the route. 

The weather was great – sunny but not too warm – but cycling on the flat has one disadvantage. Because you’re in the saddle and pedalling all the time, you don’t get the relief of standing out of the saddle as you climb, or resting your legs on long descents. Richard had a severe bout of bum pain for the first time on the trip, so we stopped for short rests more frequently than on previous days.

We crossed several impressive aqueducts and viaducts along the canal

I had a puncture in the afternoon, the first of the trip, which added another 30 minutes to our journey.

Although we saw quite a few other cyclists on the route, the canal path was remarkably quiet most of the time

It was therefore around 9pm before we arrived at our Best Western hotel in the centre of Toulouse. We had a late dinner at a recommended restuarant a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. By the time we got back to the room, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, hence the blog being posted this morning, rather than yesterday.

We covered 114 miles, our longest day yet, enabling us to set off towards Narbonne on the Canal du Midi this morning with 7 miles in credit against our 100 miles-per-day target.

Day 5: Chandonnay to Ste-Bazeille

Wednesday’s journey took us from the manoir in Chandonnay to Jonzac then on via Montendre and Laruscade to the vineyards of Lalande-de-Pomerol, through St Emillion and into La Raole.

The day started on fast, busy D-roads but our average speed was 30% higher than yesterday’s so we considered it worth the traffic terrors. It was a cold start to the day when we set out at about 8:15am but warmed up a couple of hours with the sun pushing through a misty sky with high clouds. I called home only to be passed a message that my youngest daughter, Matilda, is unimpressed by this blog because it has too many basic spelling errors. I’ve been through yesterday’s and corrected some of them but the combination of an iPhone screen and being completely exhausted when I write these blog posts is guaranteed to produce further errors. I’ll tidy everything up when I get back.

The ride through the forest from Montendre to Laruscade was a delight. We probably only saw a car every 15 minutes or so.  Just north of Libourne, which we had decided to circumvent to avoid heaving traffic, we came across a small restaurant and decided to stop for lunch. It looked busy and one table was occupied by six gendarmes so it couldn’t be bad, could it?

When I walked in and asked for a table at 1:50pm, the waitress stared at her watch, obviously hoping if she could keep that up for another 10 minutes, she could tell me to go away.  I stood my ground and she pointed me to a table. Richard and I both ordered moules-frites, but prepared in two different ways. In both cases the result was a smelly mass of emaciated shellfish accompanied a pile of greasy, unattractive chips. Whe Richard mentioned that the mussels stank, the waitress simply told us that she didn’t catch them but bought them at the local shop. This photograph of the lousy establishment is only included to ensure that others don’t make the same mistake we did.

A dining experience you’re not likely to forget, and not in a nice way…

Two things have surprised me on this trip. Just how much effort has gone into creating cycleways and dedicated cycle routes, and how few cyclists we’ve seen. There were a few small racing groups on Sunday morning, and there’s the odd shopper but cycling does not seem to be important in France. What happened?

We did spot a couple of guys heading in the opposite direction this morning but they turned out to be British. Laurence from the Ponsay manoir was quite dismissive about touring by bike, He said the French just don’t see the point.

We rode east and south between the Pomerol chateaux. A few are grand but most are fairly modest buildings. There are a lot of them.

By mid afternoon, we reached St Emillion and asked a passerby to take a photograph of us under the road sign where I had one taken five years ago on my trip north on the Thanet. Like today, and recent days, there was a northerly wind blowing in 2012. At that time I was cycling north so it made the journey doubly difficult. This time, it’s helping most of the time.

St Emilion is roughly half way between Bath and Barcelona

We reached La Reole before looking for a hotel. On booking.com we found the superb Chambre d’Hotes du Clos Semper Felix about 7 miles from Ste Bastille and made another last-minute booking. We arrived to a warm welcome, lamb stew, cheese and biscuits with sorbet for desert. The room is superb, and the bathroom has a heated towel rail. The latter may seem like a minor point but after five days on the  road the opportunity to wash and dry travel clothes is a real find. At £60 for a twin room and breakfast, it remains a real bargain, despite the weakness of the sterling.

We clocked up nearly 103 miles today. We still have about 7 miles’ deficit to make up but maybe we can do that tomorrow. In the meantime, as I sit on my bed writing this blog, I’m falling asleep. Time to go, and prepare mentally for tomorrow.

With apologies for any typos and misspellings. I’ll fix them tomorrow!

Day 4: Chandonnay to Pons

A cold start this morning but there was a friendly headwind so we made good progress at the start. Despite intentions of an 8am start, we got away from the manoir at about 8:30am. It wasn’t long before Richard needed to stock up with fuel for the day so about 12 miles into the ride we stopped in a small village to do so. This threw Google into fits of confusion and we were directed into every road out of the village in succession until we eventually found the right one.

We spent the night in the Manoir de Ponsay near Chandonnay – highly recommended

It was a hiller ride in the morning and we were again led down blind alleys, across unsurfaced farm tracks and through woodland. This makes for slow going with a fully laden bike but Richard was delighted to find somewhere to park his rabbit next time he visits the area.

Richard – clearly delighted to find somewhere to park his rabbit

The poor roads, reminiscent of Italy’s strade bianchi and the classic L’Eroica vintage bike ride, kept our pace down and, when combined with stops, meant we were hard-pushed to make our 100 miles for the day. By mid-afternoon we got another soaking from the skies – not a downpour but steady rainfall for about an hour. Over the next couple of hours we dried out and set Pons as our destination for the day, initially expecting to arrive by about 7:30pm. It appeared to have a choice of hotels, so accommodation shouldn’t be a problem –  or so we thought.

Google can’t distinguish between this and a proper road. The future for autonomous driving looks bleak.

We started to make excellent progress on proper roads. The ‘day three dip’ was behind us and we both felt the benefit of the previous three days’ ‘training’. Only misdirections and diversions from busy D-roads delayed us and, after sprinting through vineyards for the last hour or so, we finally arrived at Pons. The only hotel was full and the Auberge a little further down the road was closed for refurbishment. It was 9pm and beginning to look like we’d have to resort to booking.com then ride another 10 – 15 miles. It didn’t come to that after the Auberge owner came to the rescue. He had offered to tidy up one of the rooms for us, which was nearly finished, but apologised that he couldn’t provide breakfast. We accepted gratefully.  103.7 miles covered and a quick check confirmed that we’re just 10 miles off the pace to achieve our target.

The bar-restaurant in the town stopped serving food at 9pm and it was now 9:20pm. However, the kebab and burger place 50 metres away was still open. Not finest French cuisine, of course, but I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a couple of burgers and chips more. Back to the bar for a drink and coffee.

I’m writing this in the same bar, where we’ve just had coffee and croissant. It’s the start of Day 5 and we’re aiming for 110 miles today to be back on target at the half way point.

Day 3: Heric to Chantonnay

It’s 11pm local time and I’m writing this post from the Manoir de Ponsay, just outside Chantonnay, 91 miles from our starting point in Heric this morning. We didn’t make the full 100 today, leaving us with a deficit of 13 miles to make up, just as we had yesterday morning.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least eating and drinking too much, and too late into the evening, yesterday.

Despite a 7:45am alarm, we didn’t leave Heric until 9:45am on a cold, foggy morning. However, it wasn’t long until the mist cleared and we were treated to a warm, sunny day, albeit with a headwind for most of the day.

Both Google and Michelin apps failed miserably by leading us along muddy grass tracks that were supposed to be roads, and into dead-end roads that delayed us at least five times during the day.

Google told us to carry on – straight ahead
Our second dead-end of the day
A Loire bridge in the process of being rebuilt completed out hat trick of ”nowhere-to-go”

A lovely 3-mile ride alongside the Loire took us to the next available crossing.

The terrain was a mixture of miles of flatlands interspersed with some long but not very demanding climbs and descents. Towards late afternoon the roads we were directed along became busier and we sought some quieter lanes for our journey.

Having consulted Google once again, it appeared that Bazoges-en-Pareds would be a good place to find a bed for the night, although it would mean our day was cut short at around 84 miles. The village seemed to boast two hotels and an auberge but when we got there we found everything was closed until Easter, when the season begins. By now, it was 8pm and sunset threatened, in an attractive kind of way.

Richard at a magnificent chateaux on a lake just a few miles from Bazoges. It was early evening.

A check with booking.com again come to the rescue and the Manoir de Ponsay was revealed, albeit a little over six miles away.

The owners, a couple, were not expecting us when we arrived and the 8-room hotel. They were only expecting one other guest, who’s car had broken down, so she was going to be late.

They could not have made us more welcome, showing us where to park our bikes, inviting us for a pre-dinner drink and then serving up a simple but very good meal of salmon, rice and peas followed by a selection of French cheeses. This was all topped-off with a desert made on the premises using a recipe created by the owner’s grandmother.

Ready to refuel at the Manoir-de-Ponsay

Laurence, our host, told us a little about the history of the manoir. Built around 1440, it has been in his family since 1646. His father started running it as a small hotel in the 1980s but Laurence and his wife now live on the premises while struggling to make ends meet and keep the place afloat financially. The cost of repairs and high rates of taxation threaten Laurence’s ability to keep the magnificent building in family hands much longer – what a responsibility.

As I mentioned earlier, after today, we’re back to being 13 miles behind our daily target but tomorrow’s another day and we’ve promised ourselves an early start – bums and knees permitting!

Day 2: St Malo to Heric

After a day on the Brittany ferry dinner was devoured, and it was excellent. A quiet crossing was then rudely interrupted by a 6:45am (5:45am in UK time) know I at the door when breakfast was delivered to our cabin.

The start from St Malo was slow. Under leaden skies, we searched for an ATM and then a coffee, both searches taking longer than they should, and we finally got to edge to the city around 10am. Then the confusion started. Navigating by Google Maps took us straight toward a main road with a no-entry sign for bicycles despite the fact that we were on the recommended route for bikes. Richard had the Michelin map guide on his iPhone, so we switched to that and used it most of the time but throughout the day were sent down blind alleys and lost a fair amount of time.

As we headed south in the general direction of Nantes, it remained chilly and cloudy but most of the roads were reasonably quiet. We stopped at a roadside bar where four excellent coffees and a large bottle of water cost 6.70 Euro. I thought back to San Francisco where that would probably have been the tip. Rural France still offers great value, even after the pound’s recent devaluation.

Once again birdsong accompanied the journey. Chaffinches are everywhere, as are buzzards, I also spotted a wren, a kestrel and most cheering of all, a solitary swallow, a sure sign that summer is not so far away.

We cycled through the city of Rennes where, at least on our route, there was nothing to recommend the place. It’s an architectural desert full of concrete blocks of apartments and walls covered in graffiti. Both navigation systems seemed to want to take us onto a motorway and in the end we gave up, ingnored the no-entry sign and within about 400 metres joined a cycle lane.

The terrain considered of long, straight Roman roads and rolling hills. By the 60 mile point, we were both tired and Richard questioned the sanity of our 100 miles-per-day target. Then he had a puncture. We fixed it quickly and pushed on.

Coffee time – our first break of the day about 25 miles into the ride

Despite a weather forecast of rain, we didn’t get any. That was relief and we started to make better progress on quiet roads where we’d sometimes not see a car for miles. The sun came out and we were treated to a beautiful spring evening. Our pace quickened and as we approached our 100-mile target at around 6:45pm, we stopped and used our phones to find somewhere to stay. Due to a bit of finger trouble with booking.com, I booked a hotel that I thought was two miles away but turned out to be 14 miles south. At least is was on our route.

Richard getting into his stride – traffic not posing much of a problem

After only a few more misdirections from the navigation system, we rolled up to the Logis L’Abreuvoir hotel in Heric, to the east of Nantes, at 8:40pm. It was quiet, with two couples in the restaurant. We had a great dinner accompanied by copious drinks, and slept like babies, with the exception of the snoring!

A just reward after our first century ride of the trip

With 108.5 miles under our belts, we had eaten into our target deficit of 13 miles from the first day – it was only 87 miles to Portsmouth. Our third day’s riding should see us back on track.