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Atlantic coast to Mediterranean coast – A beginners bicycle tour of France. (Pt 2 – The Garonne and the Canal-du-Midi)

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Descending to Lodeve on the final day. Spectacular.

Part two of our unprepared/untrained/unorganized Atlantic to Mediterranean bicycle tour. Part one can be found here.  The route chosen would take us from St Malo to Béziers via the Loire, Canal Latéral de la Garonne and Canal du Midi, passing through the regions of Brittany, Pays de la Loire, Aquitaine, Midi Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon. We decided to camp along the way to save cash and mainly eat delicate French pastries. We had not ever attempted a ‘longish’ bike ride before, let alone we hadn’t done any training. As always, any questions please contact us.

Day 7 

Journey: Bordeaux to Cadillac

Distance:  41km

Time Taken (Including stops): 3hrs

Route : Bordeaux, Bègles, Villenave d’Ornon, Cadaujac, Podensac, Cadillac

Accommodation and cost for two:  Camping Intercommunal Piscine – €13.40

After doing almost everything possible (me not wanting to get up mainly) to miss our first train, we made it, packed in with commuters for the morning rush hour.  After a quick change we were back in the South of France.

(Saumur – Bordeaux by Train €140 for two persons incl of bike space reservation TGV charge of €10 each)

Bordeaux, I’m sure is a delightful place.  Plenty of people have told us so.  We however just breezed through and got more familiar with some B roads and questionably safe junctions.  We saw a place on the map called Cadillac, so we thought we had to visit.  This is where we started to get a feeling that we were in wine country.  The corn fields and slate roofed houses that never seemed to leave our field of vision ‘up north’ were now replaced by vineyards and terracotta roofs.  After a stop in a small one bar town called Podensac where we were told our plans were crazy by some French guys we followed the road to Cadillac where we were happy to find the campsite was also the local swimming pool.  Unfortunately for me the ‘no speedos, no entry policy’ was enforced here and I couldn’t quite bring myself to borrow a pair from the nice man, so we settled for a beer in the town.

Day 8

Journey: Cadillac – Le Mas d’Agenais

Distance:  63km

Time Taken (Including stops): 4hrs

Route: Toulenne, Castets-en-Dorthe (To the start of the Garonne Cycle path), Fontet, Le Mas d’Agenais

Accommodation and cost for two: L’Aire Naturelle de camping “Les Allées” du Mas d’Agenais – €5

Hunting for the start of our cycle path took us off the beaten track to some more ‘middle of nowhere’ spots.  Little towns with nothing going on surrounded by fields of vines.  It really is idyllic at times out there.  Eventually Ollie found a path to Castets-en-Dorthe where we rolled onto the Garonne’s cycle path.  We decide on a short day of cycling and head for the quaint little town of Le Mas d’Agenais, and we find a small campsite split in half.  One side exclusively populated with tour cyclists and the other side a few French families who seemed to have installed themselves in this little grassy car park for the summer.   While the cyclists heated up their tinned dinner on camping stoves and washed their well-worn padded shorts out, the French sat together and enjoyed what looked like yet another evenings ‘apero’ together, before retreating to their respective four wheeled homes for dinner as families.  We drank wine out of plastic cups and pondered our route for the next day.

Day 9

Journey: Le Mas d’Agenais-Valence d’Agen

Distance:  81km

Time Taken (Including stops): 4hr50min

Route : Cycle Path – Canal du Garonne

Accommodation and cost for two:  Campsite Unknown and would not recommend – €6

Should have probably stayed here: http://valencedagen.net/camping-caravaning/

After a leisurely 81km along the picturesque Garonne we arrived in Valence d’Agen where we rolled into a little bar where we sunk a few frosties and rested the muscles.  Ollie found herself in need of a replacement screw for her cycling cleats and found a bicycle shop that time had forgotten.  The keeper of antiquated two wheeled accessories was very happy to oblige for the princely sum of 1€.  Camping was less pleasing that evening as after an hour of trying to drive tent pegs into concrete like grass nearly bringing us tears with frustration, we were then subjected to French scout troupe who felt it necessary to choose that night to mix their expressive Franco-teenage emotions with multiple cases of beer until around 3am.  These bastards were told to “dib-dob off” by many but listened not.  A strongly worded letter to the head scout is still due!

Day 10

Journey: Valence d’Agen – Toulouse

Distance:  97km

Time Taken (Including stops): 5hr10min

Route: Cycle Path – Canal du Garonne

Accommodation and cost for two:  Hotel Le Royal Wilson – €60

The Garonne is a great ride for a beginner cyclist as its flat, full of signs and very, very beautiful for the most part.  A fantastic addition was a variety of randomly placed art projects installed along the way, ranging from straw models to a full size pink Star Wars X-wing suspended above the canal.

With no time Toulouse (sorry) we headed for one of our favorite spots in France, the Ville Rose.  Toulouse.  We had only just visited a few weeks earlier; you can read my father’s guest post on the sunny city here.

The last stretch in Toulouse was a big push for us, just shy of 100km along the flat where we found the path a bit samey and boring. Very industrial and bleak looking but an easy ride.  So many other tour cyclists of all ages littered the path on our way but we were in the zone that day.  As we passed a gaggle of British ladies who I suspect were some kind on some kind of public sector bonding excursion, the town was in sight.  It felt like a homecoming for us and soon found ourselves in our favorite bar visiting our favourite lethargic barman and aloof pub dog, while we enjoyed some pricey ‘demis of Belgian beer’.  A day to rest our bones, and a chance to visit a lovely little restaurant called Le May for some steak and wine was much needed.

Day 11

Journey: Toulouse – Castelnaudary

Distance:  65km

Time Taken (Including stops): 7hrs

Route: Cycle Path – Canal Du Midi

Accommodation and cost for two:  Camping Municipal Castelnaudary €11

Bellies full of steak, pizza and beer with bodies full of sleep we set off to check out this Canal-du-Midi everyone wants to visit so much.  As we reached the city limits, my rack decided to snap, so back we pedalled to Decathlon to search for a replacement.  After a quick fit on the street out front we were off, rolling past canal boat city and off south to warmer climes.

We were struck by the difference between this and the previous canal, as this seemed much rougher, older and ultimately busier.  It sounds strange, but our fellow cyclists were less friendly here.  No ‘brother on two wheeled head nods’ or even a cheeky bonjour along this path.  Lucky the scenery was so pleasing.

We rolled into Castelnaudary where we found a picturesque campsite surrounded by sunflowers and inhabited by not only cyclists and speedo enthusiasts as normal but also a group of medieval re-enactment types who along with offering some ‘smithing’ lessons were serving an overpriced cassoulet for dinner.  A visit to the supermarket for bread, cheese and beer was a better option for us as we planned our route for the morrow.

Day 12

Journey: Castelnaudary – Trèbes

Distance:  55km

Time Taken (Including stops):  2hr40min

Route: D33 to Carcassonne, N113 to Trèbes

Accommodation and cost for two: Ville de Trèbes Camping €16

Canal Du Midi… Canal Du Midi… Canal Du Midi.  Everyone bloody bangs on about wanting to cycle down the bloody Canal Du Midi.  I don’t get it.  The Garonne doesn’t seem to get a look in.  I’ve stumbled onto a Guardian article where a lady with more money than sense paid £3,000 for a week cycling along the Canal Du Midi.  As we would soon discover and from what you can probably tell from my tone, even though the Midi is older and has much old architecture, our preference lies with the Garonne.

After the tour cyclist friendly path ended around 15km before Castelnaudary the previous day and turned into a mud track, we decided to leave it altogether.  We soon found our way onto an amazingly flat and straight old roman road where we zipped into Carcassonne in no time.  The fantastic old castle sitting proudly on the skyline as we headed to the center of town for a beer and visit another of our ‘old haunts’ for a refreshing demi.  As we had previously conquered the castle on our last visit we jumped back on the road and found ourselves in the delightful little town of Trèbes.

The price of camping was steep, but it was yet another wonderful spot by a river.  We ventured off to explore the town and found a little spot by the canal to drink some locally made white wine and watch the end of the Tour de France.

Day 13

Journey: Trèbes – Capestang

Distance:  65km

Time Taken (Including stops):  7hrs

Route: Trèbes – Homps on and off the Canal du Midi path as very rough. Homps- Capestang via D124 and D418

Accommodation and cost for two: Camping Municipal de Tounel €13

Heads a little sore to say the least after one bottle of delicious wine too many we set out along the Canal-du-Midi again, to give it another chance.  It was a foolish choice with our setup.  If you have a mountain bike and no luggage, I would suggest you go for it.  Cycling over waterlogged and mossy Roman aqueducts and through muddy tracks is not something you want to be doing when you have all of your worldly possessions on the back of your thin two wheels.

Deciding to come off was a fantastic choice as we soon found some back roads taking us through some ‘fantastically French’ towns and fields.  Capestang is another little choice spot and attracts a few tourists on four wheels as well as two.  The huge church tower makes the town seem like a medieval fortress from the distance as you approach.  The town itself has no shortage of watering holes and another expensive campsite to accompany.

Day 14

Journey: Capestang – Ceilhès

Distance:  35km (Capestang to Béziers)

Time Taken (Including stops):  4 hours (To Béziers)

Route: Capestang – Colombiers D11 and D162.  Colombiers to Béziers – Canal Du Midi.  Beziers to Ceilhès – Train (€1 Each!)

Accommodation and cost for two: Camping d’Arbousses €16

A long day planned but we are determined to save cash and get up into the hills so we set off along the back roads towards Béziers.  Feeling like we should give it one more chance, we decide to hop back onto the Canal du Midi for the last trip into Béziers.  It was rough, but not as rough, but involved a tantrum or two.

After rolling past the iconic 8 locks of Fonserannes we found ourselves trying to stay alive on the unaccommodating roads into town towards the city center.  Béziers is not a nice place for cyclists.  Large hills and traffic-clogged roads.  We sought shelter in the park for a little lunch and rest before hopping on our train into the hills.

The train was pretty empty, and we soon realized why.  We were heading into the middle of nowhere.  Our stop arrived, and not only were we the only people to get off, but we were the only people around.  Not even a platform at this station.  After pondering our choices in life that led us to this place, we set off and stumbled upon a little Dutch run farm where we sought shelter for the night in a field.

Day 15

Journey: Ceilhès – St-Etienne-de-Gourgas

Distance:  U/K – About 25km

Time Taken (Including stops):  5 hours

Route: Up a big hill and down a bigger one

The last day, and it was going to be a hard one.  You couldn’t drag us out of that tent.  The world was cold, wet, windy and grey.  Getting out of that tent would mean that we would have to ponder why we had chosen to come and live in this awful dreary climate when the Mediterranean was only down the hill.  But we finally managed it…at 11am.

Up…Up…Up!  What a hill.  I don’t know the exact height or distance, but we were as near vertical you could get at times.  People passing us in their struggling cars were looking at us and for once we were those people.  Those ‘nutters’ you see out there.  We carried on climbing for near two hours in the grey and wet afternoon and soon found ourselves covered in cloud.  And then…we reached the top and soon needed to apply some layers for the descent.

What a difference a hill makes.  As we rolled down the hill the landscape opened up to us as did the sunshine, bathing the bountiful green hills in warm glow as for as we could see.  Lac de Salagou, 30km away was in sight as well as collection of other rocky terrains for exploring in the near future.

Down…Down…Down!  What a hill!  Into sleepy Lodève for a quick coffee before we set out for St-Etienne-de-Gourgas, which will be our new work away home for the months ahead.

So, was it worth it?  The aches and pains that we didn’t know we had?  The poor night’s sleeps?  The never ending oil stains? Starting every morning by packing up a tent and fighting with the pannier bags?  Pulling on the cold and wet Lycra shorts every morning after applying cream to your nether-regions? Of course it was.  In fact, I quite like the stretchy shorts now.

After exploring a continent via bus this was a welcome change.  A fantastic way to immerse yourself into your surroundings and find some unexpected gems.  I would suggest if you are thinking of it, and are worried you are not fit enough or don’t have enough experience, then just do it.  You get fitter as you go, and if all goes terribly wrong, you can always check into a hotel and then fly home with the bike.  Just get on your bike and give it a go!

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Our final stop...for now.

Our final stop…for now.

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Atlantic coast to Mediterranean coast – A beginners bicycle tour of France. (Pt 1 – Brittany to the Loire)

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“Stop! Stop!”  We haven’t made it 5 minutes before I’m slamming on the breaks and testing out my poorly balanced and rushed setup’s capability in dealing with sudden stops. Ollie finds a metal coil in the road and is convinced that it has sprung off my bike.  She swears it fell off, but we can’t identify it.  We spend a couple of minutes checking over my setup, without really knowing what we’re looking for.  A giant spring-shaped hole maybe?  We shrug it off and make for Tonbridge train station. Lesson one, know your bike!

This was to be our first bike tour.  The route chosen would take us from St Malo to Béziers via the Loire, Canal Latéral de la Garonne and Canal du Midi, passing through the regions of Brittany, Pays de la Loire, Aquitaine, Midi Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon. We decided to camp along the way to save cash and mainly eat delicate French pastries.We had not ever attempted a ‘longish’ bike ride before, let alone we hadn’t done any training.

We found that there was a lack of easily accessible information out there for a trip such as this through France, so we promised that we would make the effort to write something if we made it.  So, if you’re planning your first bike tour of France and looking for a bicycle route from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, here is our coast to coast break down.

 

 

 

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Day 1

After we decided the mystery spring was no bother we jumped on our train and headed for Portsmouth.  We had booked an overnight ferry with Brittany Ferry Company for a reasonable 78 Euros for two, so after rolling onto a ferry amongst fellow cyclists and bikers we settled in for our crossing and an uncomfortable night’s sleep on the floor.

 

 

 

Day 2

Journey: St Malo to St Médard-sur-Ille

Distance: 65km

Time Taken (Including stops): 5hr 45mins

Route : St Malo, Château Malo, St Père, St Guinoux, Plerguer, Le Tronchet, Lanhelin, Combourg, Lanrigan, Dingé, Montreuil-sur-Ille

Accommodation and cost for two:  Aire Naturelle De Camping (By the canal path) – 3€

As a first day of cycling, this was a gentle introduction.  Taking in some of the iconic Breton slate roofed houses as well as getting lucky with the weather,  we rolled down flat and long roads for most of the journey.  Hitting our first canal at Montreuil-sur-Ille, we set up camp for the first time and sourced some beer and sandwich provisions from the small lifeless town.

Day 3

Journey: St Médard-sur-Ille  – Marcillé-Robert

Distance: 74km

Time Taken (Including stops): 8hr 45Mins

Route : Chevaigné, St Grégoire, Rennes, Chantepie, La Faroulais, Domloup, Châteaugiron, Piré-sur-Seiche, Boistrudin, Marcillé-Robert

Accommodation and cost for two:  Camping municipal de l’étang – €8.15

Feeling cocky, we decided to push further than planned and pass through Rennes, but a broken chain in the middle of nowhere delayed us for some time.  Finding our way into Rennes was simple enough, and after a quick stop at a bike mechanic on the outskirts of town to check out my cassette, we hit the ‘Old town’ for a well deserved lunch amongst the  medieval buildings that loom over the cobbled streets below.  Bellies full of the ‘plat du jour’ we left the city by the back roads and took in some ‘middle of nowhere sights’ on the way to Châteaugiron.  After a fizzy pop we push on through to Marcillé-Robert, where an enormous hill and closed shops await us as a reward.  Luckily, Ollie sources a couple of beers from a fellow camper and we settle in to another evening in the tent by a picturesque lake.

 

Day 4

Journey: Marcillé-Robert –Le Lion D’Angers

Distance:  69km

Time Taken (Including stops): 5hr20Mins

Route : Visseiche, La Guerche de Bretagne, La Roë, Ballots, Craon, Pommerieux, Ampoigné, Chemazé, St Martin du Bois, Le Lion D’Angers

Accommodation and cost for two:  Camping Les Frênes – €9.15

 

This was a tough day, with the D25 kicking our butts as it took us up and down in a flat straight line towards Craon.  After a longer-than-planned lunch break, we headed on our route through the countryside, passing through a variety of quiet towns.  Quiet being an understatement.  No one there at all.  No shops open.  No refreshment available.  And it was a seriously hot day.  As I was about to lose my mind, we found a bar open in St Martin du Bois for an ‘English sized beer’ before pushing on to camp by the river in Le Lion D’Angers.  Just as we had showered and were about to set out for dinner a manic French man shouts for help by the river.  Being led off, into the shrubbery with this stranger, we come across a heavy set French lady in her 60’s with a small dog, who has slipped down the 6ft bank and become stuck in the river.  Just when I thought my back couldn’t take any more for one day…

 

 

Day 5

Journey: Le Lion D’Angers – St-Mathurin-Sur-Loire

Distance: 55km

Time Taken (Including stops): 4hrs

Route : Grez-Neuville, Cantenay-Épinard, Montreuil-Juigné, Avrillé, Angers, La Daguenière, La Boholle, St-Mathurin-sur-Loire

Accommodation and cost for two: Chambre d’Hôtes – €70

 

A frustrating start to the day, dealing with road closures and poor quality city roads.  France is an amazing country to cycle through, but Angers needs to catch up. Finally making it out of the city alive despite the best efforts of the traffic, we see the Loire for the first time.  But as we roll into St-Mathurin-sur-Loire, so does the thunder storm we had been promised.  Feeling like we had earned it and not wanting to get washed away in our tent, we took up for a night in a Chambre d’Hôtes with views out over the Loire.  Very fancy stuff for us, but it had been a long few days.

 

Day 6

Journey: St-Mathurin-sur-Loire – Saumur

Distance:  33km

Time Taken (Including stops): 2hrs

Route: Along the Loire…

Accommodation and cost for two: Hotel L’Écuyer€49

 

After a day of rest in the fancy Chambre D’Hôtes due to illness and weather, we headed to Saumur, along the Loire.  The weather was pretty rough, but abated long enough for us to make it there.  My first and only fall happened in Saumur, but nothing serious.  Feeling unwell still, Ollie checked us into a budget hotel by the station, so we could get the early train to Bordeaux the next morning.  The taste of the delicious croissants and home-made preserve breakfast at the lovely chambre d’hôtes was a distant memory when we bedded down in that budget place for the night.  Saumur however, is a beautiful place.  Ollie made time to sample some of the wine it is famous for.

 

This is part one of our trip.  If you would like to see the second part of the trip, along the Canals Midi and Garonne, then it will be following soon.

If you have done this route or are planning to, and have any suggestions for detours or ‘must see places’, please comment below.

Thanks for reading and sharing.


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Hop on the good foot…on two wheels!

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It’s 11am on a Sunday morning just outside Montpellier. After a fully indulgent French wedding. Ollie feeling a little worse for ware. Myself, feeling pretty hyped up…probably still drunk.
“Why don’t we ride across France on our bicycles?”
Cue Ollie’s look of weary hungover indulgence/pity… at me and my silly ideas in general (I know this look, it’s not my first time). I decide to work on her later and go back to quietly googling what a pannier is and the idea in general.

Seed planted and hangover subsided we start to question if we can really do this…then we have our 5 o’clock beers and go to work on planning what we need.

• A destination
• Kit for the bikes
• A route
• General knowledge on bikes (we only knew how to ride them and take them to the shop when they stop working)

Come 9pm it’s a definite!

Disclaimer – after travelling together for sometime now, we have realised many things about each other. Mainly and most importantly, I can be a little over-enthusiastic in the grand ideas department . As in, not really thinking things through and then arguing the silly idea obstreperously by simply saying “Why not?”
Where as Ollie has a tendency to be a little more cautious and think things through in detail; whilst coming up with the ‘snags’ in my plan. She will clearly lay out the facts and say things like,
“This is why not you silly manchild!”
Luckily, this is the ultimate combination for a travelling team as it results in things actually happening and it has worked thus far.

First of all, we decided to become volunteers via workaway.info in the south of France, near a town called Lodève. Quick sign up, few emails, bit of Skype action and boom…destination sorted!

All the rest was going to be tricky. Bike stuff is expensive. So, reeling from Tom’s blog and his wonderful post on putting together a virtually free tour bike, we sent out a begging email…no one replied. There are other methods, but we only had a week to get ready so had to turn to the wallet.

Luckily we had one of these!

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Ollie’s Dad is Mr Bike, with many bike tours under his belt, a literal shedload of parts and a mind full of knowledge to boot. He donated his time (and some spares) to getting us road-ready.

First of all, before we thought about fancy panniers and shiny jerseys, we needed to look at the bikes. I needed to replace my chain, cassette, brake pads, adjust brakes, adjust gears and very nearly replace the tyres. Ollie had a similar list. Together with fitting new parts such as racks and pedals, we learnt how to repair and fix the basics. Valuable road knowledge. As we would find out, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong on the road!

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Next a route. What can I say, Les helped us out again after we had an idea. We decided to sail overnight from Portsmouth to St Malo, ride to Poitiers, train to Bordeaux and then ride the rest of the way. In two weeks. Les was happy to plan the first section for us. Very important as he knew what the roads (and, crucially, inclines) would be like by looking at the map. Something I would not have been able to do. We would sort the rest of the journey out ourselves. Must remember maps!

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So what’s the point of this blog post? There’s nothing in it about how to prepare for a bike tour or the planned route?

Well firstly, I’m a firm believer in continuity, and even though I’m pretty sure only about 7 people actually read this blog, I feel it’s necessary to bridge the gap between backpacking and bike touring.

Secondly, look at this guy’s blog for all your budget bike tour planning needs; it’s fantastic really, not just about bikes, but for ideas on how to live better:

http://tomsbiketrip.com

Thirdly, the Coast to Coast route will come, in later posts, with pretty pictures. But essentially we planned to ride from St Malo to Beziers.

So, why do it at all? The reason…why not?! (my favourite argument)

So many people see the world in different ways and after (an amazing) 8 months of bus travel through the Americas we felt it time to see a country differently and who knows, maybe carry on afterwards…

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