Three days of Normandy - May 2018

Aravis

Here for the ride.
Location
Gloucester
This is my three day loop from Gloucester via France.

I used to love short tours. Typically I'd be away for one or two nights, staying in Youth Hostels such as Clun. Llanddeusant, Nant-y-Dernol amongst others. The last time I did anything that might be described as a tour was a pre-Easter trip to the Gower in 1991.

Since making a comeback to cycling in 2015 I've been hoping to recreate the spirit of those days at least one more time. I've been looking at Brittany Ferries' day in France offer, which I've used often enough with the car! There are many possible combinations, but the one that seemed to to work best was Portsmouth - Ouistreham on the way out, returning Cherbourg - Poole.

The timetabling this year means the trip could start on a Monday or Tuesday. I've found that these crossings, even with a car, can be booked at the very last minute, and I've been waiting for a good weather prospect since early April. The week starting May 14th looked a good chance, but with a significant northerly wind set to be strongest on the Wednesday. I didn't want to be riding back from Poole on the final day against that, so I decided to start on the Tuesday.

Pre-ride checks revealed nothing untoward with the bike. A broken cleat, but fortunately I had a replacement pair. They didn't fit too well with the pedals on the bike. Maybe they're cheap copies! An old pair of Shimano Tricolours gave a better result.

Using panniers again after so long took a bit of getting used to. I have an extremely cheap pair from SJS Cycles (£16 IIRC) which I bought a while back for precisely this sort of adventure. I wouldn't expect SJS to sell rubbish, but £16? Now that the time was here, I wondered if they were really up to it. If anything was going to give way, the hooks for mounting on the rack looked the most likely point of failure. To give them a bit of help, I used a pair of bungees to pull the bags into the rack, thereby taking some of the strain off the hangers. I strapped my toolkit, including a pair of headset spanners because I've had a little difficulty with its adjustment lately, on top of the rack where all being well it would stay throughout the trip.

The final bit of kit was a small rucksack, stored inside a pannier, to help me to remove and carry valuables when away from the bike. I didn't need to buy one because my daughter had something I could borrow. It wasn't quite ideal – more pockets would've been useful for keeping everything in order. So I'd look at that more carefully another time.

All good to go, I set off at about 9:40 on the Tuesday morning, returning after a few seconds because I'd left my cap behind. Although I still have a reasonable head of hair it doesn't provide the impenetrable barrier to the sun it once did, so protection is essential.

Starting off towards Cheltenham, it all seemed unreal. Can this really be happening? Cheltenham negotiated, I climbed up the A435 Cirencester Road, not the pleasantest, but it crosses the Cotswold ridge at a lower level that the other roads nearby. The reward is immediate, with a 12-mile run down the Churn valley to Cirencester. Onwards into the upper Thames Valley it's all stuff I ride fairly regularly. Through Highworth and Shrivenham, my text target was the Lambourn Valley. To reach that I had the climb over the chalk ridge at Ashbury, which I hadn't ridden up since a memorable day in 1987. It's one of those dead straight, dispiriting climbs, but again, there's a quick reward. The sweeping descent to Lambourn and on towards Newbury is a bit of cycling heaven.

From past tours I remember that when loaded speed is inevitably a mile or two an hour slower than when riding light, and I was finding that this remains true. I'd thought I would have plenty of time for pauses and photographs, but I was quickly realising I'd need to keep an eye on the clock.

I grew up in the village of Kingsclere, near Newbury, and my parents remained there in the family house until the ends of their lives. So I knew I would find a conveniently-placed water tap in the cemetery on the Ecchinswell road, a godsend on such a warm afternoon. Nowadays my only tangible association with the village is a headstone, a strange feeling when my family lived there for over 50 years.

The B3051 over White Hill is an old friend from my childhood! But once beyond Overton, I found myself in countryside I hardly know at all – a series of immensely pictureque villages: Micheldever, Alresford, Cheriton, Warnford, Droxford, and Southwick. It's an area of chalk downland criss-crossed by small rivers full of crystal-clear water, and I was finding it pretty hard work. Finally, the intimidating climb of Ports Down, to be greeted at the top by the glorious spread of Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours in the evening sun, with the Solent and Isle of Wight beyond. On the way down I was overtaken by a young couple and Strava later showed that for the lady it was the inaugural outing on her first road bike. Sweet.

There were a few hair-raising roundabouts before I rolled into the the ferryport at about 8:10, plenty of time to secure my bike and wander down to Morrisons for some essential supplies. I seemed to be the only cyclist crossing that night, and once on the vehicle deck I was ushered into a small alcove, which looked ideal.

Gloucester – Portsmouth, 118.42 miles.

The ferry was far from empty but there was little competition for the good sleeping spots and I had a wonderful night's sleep. Almost too good, and whilst stretching I was a bit surprised to hear the last call for breakfast. Now that would have been a problem! I heard a few mutterings about the French not knowing how to do a full English, but it was good enough for me.

Returning to the bike, I was a bit startled to find 16 other bikes in front of it, so I had to wait for some time to get myself organised for the day. At least I could untie the ropes while I was waiting. They came to release me soon enough – all on stripped-down lightweight machines with a supporting van on their way from Bristol to Bordeaux.

Following advice I've read on this forum, I headed inland to being with. Carentan, at about half-distance, was the first major target. I took a route south of Bayeux, the largest settlement on this section being Balleroy, built around a highly impressive central avenue which plunges down to the River Drôme – and up the other side.

My RidewithGPS-generated route let me down a couple of times when there was no road at all where it wanted to send me, but I was able to get back on track easily enough. All in all, a lovely morning's ride through quintessentially rural France.

Turning abruptly northwards at Carentan, the expected wind was making its presence felt and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable afternoon. I saw the sea for the first time since Ouistreham a couple of miles before Utah Beach, but it still seemed to take forever to get there.

Sections of the road have been named after soldiers who died during the D-Day landings and the days following, not seemingly anyone prominent or famous. I thought this was a nice touch. Here is one of the signs:

Utah.JPG


Riding along the coast into the wind was a battle, and on the completely flat road most of the time I couldn't even maintain 10mph. At times the road runs right alone the shoreline, which I did my best to enjoy, but I couldn't help wishing I was behind a ten-foot wall. Ahead I could see the hills of the Cotentin Peninsula, slowly getting bigger, and the clock was in my favour. There's the old adage that if you keep turning the pedals the miles will take care of themselves, and I told myself that quite a lot.

Eventually the road starts to wander inland a little. Groups of local cyclists started to appear, enjoying the following wind of course. At about 83 miles I reached the town of Quettehou, from where I'd always assumed I'd take the coastal road via Barfleur. But the more direct cut across to St Pierre Eglise, despite two big climbs with a plunge down in between, seemed a better option. Somehow you know where you are with that sort of terrain, whereas coastal roads tend to produce nasty surprises round every corner.

Reaching the coast again near Cap Lėvy, there was just one “nasty surprise” before I rounded Pointe du Brulay and finally saw – Cherbourg!

Cherbourg2.JPG


The weak cold front passing over had made the atmosphere a little hazy, but visible near the top right is one of the gaps in the outer harbour wall.

There were still a few miles to go, and it's an easy approach to the ferryport from that side of town so I was able to thoroughly enjoy them. I can't know whether I'll ever cycle in France again and if it never happens again, this will have been a good way to end.

Ouistreham – Cherbourg, 102.76 miles.

I bought a can of beer from a Carrefour Express store that was surprisingly still open. Back in the ferry terminal there was an interesting photographic exhibition on the upper floor.

There was another touring bike in the cycle storage area, and as check-in approached I met the owner, David, who'd had to cut short a camping trip short due to family illness. He was a similar age to me and seemed pretty impressed by what I was doing. As he's a recent veteran of Raid Pyrénéen (100 hour version), it was mutual.

There were no more than a dozen cars waiting when boarding started, and on the boat it was similarly quiet. Once we were sailing I had a good meal, chatted with David until we realised everyone else had disappeared, then settled down to sleep. I didn't know much else until we were passing the chalk cliffs at Studland and approaching the Sandbanks ferry, so back to the cafeteria for another full English breakfast to see me on my way.

RidewithGPS had suggested a largely off-road cycle route as far as Wimborne, which seemed a good idea. It was a mixture of shared path and old railway, and worked pretty well. There was a section where the surface was sandy and loose, probably hazardous in wet conditions. Approaching Wimborne the off-road route petered out so it was back on the road.

North of Wimborne, it was back into chalk download, much more open and sweeping in character than the area north of Portsmouth, and stunningly beautiful. I took the B-road northwards before heading north-west along a road which would take me to Shaftesbury via Zig-Zag hill. I think I may have driven up it once, many years ago, and I knew my only priority would be getting down safely. I failed to locate Tesco in Shaftesbury but found a convenient Co-op in the next town, Mere, where I fuelled myself for the finish.

The wind was less strong than the previous day, but fairly gusty and completely against. But I was always making sufficient progress. Another time I might've diverted through Stourhead, but there's nothing wrong with the B3092 which used to be one of my regular routes when I lived in Bristol. I passed a pub with a board outside – 2 meals for £12. Now that's could be useful – one of them's for my invisible friend, honest! But not what I needed this day.

After Frome, the obvious route would be via Bradford-on-Avon, but when I was there a few weeks ago the less steep route out to the north was closed and there were temporary lights on the very steep alternative – not a good combination for a laden cyclist. I'd planned to go via Trowbridge instead, but the A361 was horrible so it was Bradford after all. Happily the roadworks had gone. It's still a stiff climb out of town and a seemingly endless drag up to the A4 at Corsham. After a short section on the A4 I headed towards Biddestone, and because I stopped for a feed I achieved this on what is a quite a popular Strava segment. An ambition of sorts achieved!

BiddestoneSegment.JPG


Soon another significant moment as I joined the B-road into Castle Combe, bringing me firmly back into my usual territory. Still a few hours to ride though! The Badminton estate looked somewhat tired after the recent events there. I'd picked out the descent from Hawkesbury Upton as the best way down from the Cotswolds for a weary traveller, and it was fine, with few motorised vehicles to worry about. At my final feeding stop I texted home with a more optimistic ETA than I'd been able to give before.

The A38 south of Gloucester is a good mile-eater. These days I nearly always come off before the Quedgeley by-pass and use the back route via Stonebench. Apart from avoiding the dual carriageway, this has the advantage of completely circumventing the multiple traffic-light extravaganza at the north end of Quedgeley. Now I really am nearly home. I can walk now if my bike dies!

Poole – Gloucester, 111.18 miles.

So there it is – a thoroughly enjoyable three day tour, including a full day in France. Travel and accommodation £31 at published rates. Here is the complete route and profile:

Normandy2018.jpg


I faced many doubts along the way, but in the end everything went completely according to plan. It's a bit early to say whether I'd ever do something like this again. I always used to regard solo touring as the best way, but nowadays on my usual rides I never leave my bike unattended, and the need to look after valuable equipment, particularly GPS devices, meant that stopping for supplies always felt like a major undertaking.

On this year's timetable there's the possibility of a “grand” version. Days one and two would be the same as last week. Day three is from Poole to Portsmouth, which could include a circuit of Poole Harbour and/or some time on the Isle of Wight. Crossing overnight to St. Malo, day four is from there back to Ouistreham, with day five returning home from Portsmouth. I think there's just one day each week on which this could start. With the double return journey across the channel the cost of travel and accomodation becomes £62. Lets hope that in years to come it remains possible to arrange these things so easily.
 

Rooster1

I was right about that saddle
EPIC
 
OP
Aravis

Aravis

Here for the ride.
Location
Gloucester
Thanks for the nice comments. I still smile when I think about about the trip, the pain having long gone.

"Fully loaded" is a bit generous, though it was amazing how much less nimble the bike felt with just a few extra items added. One thing I defintely will leave behind another time is my heavy Campagnolo-branded headset spanner, bought from the Freewheel catalogue in the 1980s. My headset is a bit old and worn but I've found I can keep it adjusted just as effectively with a single lightweight tool which lives in my day bag anyway.

I'm hoping that "another time" might be Ireland. Gloucester - Liverpool; Belfast - Dublin look OK, but getting back home from Holyhead is a bit of a stretch. If I land before 6am with at least 15 hours' daylight to come, perhaps it's not impossible. Just keep on turning the pedals. I could always call for a rescue - and never hear the last of it.
 
OP
Aravis

Aravis

Here for the ride.
Location
Gloucester
You could always do part of it by train, say Holyhead to Wolverhampton or something.
Absolutely, but I do have a "thing" about starting and finishing tours on my doorstep, and not using vehicular assistance. Clearly ferries are admissible when they're a required part of the route.

It hasn't always worked out for the best though. In 1986 I rode across Wales to Ireland, intending to reach the west coast. The first day was from Bristol over the Abergwesyn - Tregaron road to Blaencaron YH, then a desperate rush the next day to catch the afternoon ferry from Fishguard. I was completely shattered and only managed three moderate days in Ireland before heading home. But I did ride all the way.

A few years later I more sensibly took the train and finished what I'd started.
 

capricapers

Active Member
Really enjoyed this well-written piece. You did brilliantly and have inspired me to embark on a similar kind of trip - before I get too old!
 
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