First Sportive of the year done and what has to be the best post cycle food I've had at a Sportive.
I'm the yellow guy in the group :) Barrow Wheelers 100KM Sportive 2016
Vimoutier – Ezy-sur-Eure
Max speed: 53kph
Average speed: 18.6kph
Thanks to the now clogged stove, it was cold porridge again this morning. This, however, didn’t dampen my excitement at being back on the bike. My knees were a bit sore after the mad dash of the previous two days. This was a bit concerning at such an early stage. I decided not to panic and just keep an eye on them over the coming days. It’d be a disaster to have to rest up over blown knees so soon into the trip. Besides, I wasn’t imagining something like that happening until we hit the Rockies or at least the backroads of Vietnam.
The first stop of the morning was the beautiful little town of Le Sap. A small place, it seemed to be caught in some sort of time warp. It’s as if it never quite left the effects of the war behind. The narrow roads leading into the town centre were walled with a miss-match of old houses, each one different from the next. Big ones, small ones … I couldn’t help but sing ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts’ as I rode passed. The narrow roads eventually led us to the town square. Just our luck, there was a small market in full swing and, while we had our food for our break sorted already, it gave us something to look at and an excuse to hop off the bikes for a while.
I must say, I really like French markets. Despite having a lot of the same produce as those back home in Ireland, they’re very different. It’s the way the French layout of their stall. There are no fish crates or plastic trestle tables, something that seems to be a must-have in most Irish markets. The French take a much more classy approach when showing off their fineries. Wooden crates, woven baskets and timber counters are very much a staple. Each piece of fruit or loaf of bread placed in their own little crafted home. It’s so enticing and appetising - very hard to resist.
We wandered around the square looking at what we couldn’t afford. I took the opportunity to use up my treat for the day on a crunchy baguette. It was my first taste of a proper French baguette. I don’t really think Cuisine de France that my mam used to pick up in Super Value counts. I don’t think it counts as real bread at all, never mind a baguette. Of course, I wouldn’t have said that when I was younger when I’d be known to cram one with half a packet of ham and stuff my face with it.
Sitting under a brick archway near the market, Ruth and I had a little chin wag about how we were holding up head-wise. A trip like this takes a toll on anyone, so it’s always good to check in every now and again. Running up to the trip I was unemployed, so I had a lot of time to mentally prepare. Having the luxury to run over the gear and go on practice rides meant I was relatively ready for whatever the trip threw at us. Ruth’s time was jam-packed with work. It’s not that she wasn’t prepared physically; Ruth is a very handy cyclist and that was never going to be an issue. But with running her own bakery, she had little time to think about the trip.
Turns out, she was a little worried that leaving the job that she loved and the sudden change in lifestyle, might result in her not loving the trip as much as she could. It was a serious thought and one a lot of people have at the start of adventures like this. We talked it out and agreed that her concerns would probably pass as we settled in to the trip.
From there on, it was an easy day. The roads had levelled out and sure with the wind at our backs, who could complain. Either side of the road was lined with field upon field of grain. I felt like I was passing through the great plains of America. This shift in scenery was a nice change and lead to some cracking farm machinery watching. I wasn’t used to the sheer scale of the farms compared to home. One side of my family are involved in sheep farming, mainly on the mountain. On the other side, my uncle does a bit of farming but is a mechanic by trade. But their farms and machinery were nothing on the scale of the ones we were riding past. At one point, a monster of a Combine Harvester crossed in front of us on the road. The army tank tracks that replaced the front wheels were taller than me. They don’t make them like that back home!
We arrived at Breteuil by 3.30pm. We weren’t planning to arrive there until the end of the day, but with the flatter roads we were way ahead of schedule. There wasn’t much going on in the town so we headed for the tourist information office to find a campsite for the night. Of course, in classic French style, the place was closed from 1pm until 4pm for lunch. Honestly, how hard do they think they work to justify a three hour lunch break? I could easily go home, make dinner from scratch, take a bath and have an hour sleep in that time. But let’s not dwell on that now.
The town pissed us off, to be frank, so we decided ‘sod it’ and headed off. There were enough hours in the day to keep going on the road and we made it to Ivry-la-Bataille before dinner. Château d'Ivry-la-Bataille is a donjon or keep, and apparently the keep at the Tower of London is based on it. The ruins were all that was left to greet us as we descended into the town in search of fuel and camp.
Considering I failed French in school, Ruth was still on translation duties. I wasn’t a terrible student, languages just aren’t my forte. It took the bones of half an hour, two staff members and a random French woman before we could figure out how to follow the touch-screen petrol pump. Curse you language barrier.
It didn’t get a whole lot better after that. We were greeted by what can only be described as a Grade-A bitch in the town campsite. Despite having a sign clearly displaying tents at the entrance and saying on their website that camping is ok, she point blank refused to let us stay. Fret not though as we were met by a jolly camp owner in Ezy-sur-Eure, just 2km down the road. So fuck you Ivry and your stinking campsite.
Most of the other patrons in this campsite seemed to live there permanently. A lot of the caravans were surrounded with a 2ft high picket fence and they all had some sort of dying potted plant at the door. It was like something out of Snatch and made us a little uneasy at first, but the people seemed friendly so we weren’t deterred. After we were shown to our patch of grass, the owner informed us that there was a big market in the town square the next morning. Smashing, I though, I might finally get to eat a real, authentic, homemade French croissant.
We managed to get rid of two of our maps today. It’s always a great feeling when you’ve travelled far enough to get rid of a map.
Day off: VIP-ing it up at the Tour de France
As words go, ‘cool’ is undervalued. Sure, it doesn’t hold the descriptive qualities of other eloquent adjectives but sometimes it’s all you need to say.
Today was a cool day.
It was excitement from the get go. And not the kind we were expecting, if I’m honest. It turns out we were pointed to the diesel pump instead of petrol for the stove the other day. Needless to say, the stove going up in a huge puff of black soot and smoke the first time we lit it to cook our breakfast was a bit concerning. We made the most of a shitty situation though and piled a load of sugar into our lukewarm porridge. It really just masked the taste of the smoke more than actually enhancing the flavour. Ah, we were bound to get one or two bad meals. It’s just a pity it was the first breakfast we cooked.
Leaving for Livarot on empty bikes was, well, it was pretty damn good. You can’t fully appreciate the amount of weight that you’re carrying on a touring bike until you take it all off. I nearly punched myself in the face lifting the bike up.
We made short work of the ten kilometres to Livarot. So much so, that we were a half hour early for the VIP village. Even at this early hour though, the town was thronged. There were as many bicycles as there were people. Traipsing through all those people until the village opened was the last thing we wanted to do so we stayed at the entrance. We were like two excited school girls waiting with our bikes by the gate. It was some of the finest people watching we’ve ever done.
My favourite pastime of being a nosey crowd watcher was interrupted when the gates opened. There were no bikes allowed inside the village. Ironic, really. Fortunately, our charm was on top form today and we managed to blag a spot to lock our bikes up inside the barrier.
The whole experience was so surreal. We felt a little bit out of place in our ‘Rake of Cakes’ cycling jerseys amongst the sea of collared shirts and designer dresses. Not that we really gave a shit. We were there for two things, free food and the chance to see professional cyclists. As there were no cyclists to be found, there was only one thing else to do - gorge on all the free local produce.
As the chino-clad elite nibbled the local cheese, enquiring as to whether it came from a free range farm using organic approved staff, I stuffed my face with every morsel within reach. Nutella waffles, cronuts, pizza sandwiches, cider, cheese, chorizo, bread. There was even cheese soup. I was in heaven. Ruth on the other hand had to watch as I made a pig of myself. The downfall of being coeliac I’m afraid – no freebies. She did have cider though, lots of cider. So it wasn’t all bad.
My feasting was interrupted when the television helicopters began to land just outside the barrier walls. The whole spectacle was all a bit James Bond. I had no idea that helicopters were so elegant. Watching them follow an invisible curved road in the sky was almost beautiful enough to make me stop shoving more pizza into my mouth. Almost. Alas I was eventually summoned away from the food when we were spotted by the guys who gave us the free passes and ushered onto a spoof winner’s podium for a photo opportunity.
The pro-cyclists didn’t turn up until just before the race started. It seemed like they were there just to show face for the sponsors’ benefit and to collect some merchandise. It was funny to see riders flying in and pulling skids in the grass. It made them seem more ordinary and not just the abnormally fit freaks of nature they appear to be. They didn’t hang around for very long though. Once they had their sponsorship duties done, they were off again.
It wasn’t possible for us to see the start of the race due to the crowd. It didn’t really bother us though. There was always another chance we could to see the start of a stage but when were we ever going to get to go to the VIP village again. As the crowd dispersed, we made the most it and hoovered up the last of the freebies. Once the majority people had left the village we shuffled our way through the hordes of spectators and out of the town. The old bicycle air horn on the handlebars came in handy. I felt like Moses parting the sea every time I squeezed it and frightened the life out of everyone in front of me.
With nothing else on the cards for the day, we sauntered into Vimoutier to collect some maps for the next few days of cycling. It was so nice to just relax for the evening under the large tree in the town square reading our books. It was just how I imagined we’d spend our evenings.
Chateau de Vouilly – Vimoutier
Max Speed: 50kph
Average Speed: 16.2kph
Originally a fortress dating from the 12th century, Chateau de Voilly was rebuilt in 1450 and again in 1750 and has a colourful history. The Chateau played a significant part in the Second World War. In June 1944 it became the first press office for the American army. During the months of June and July of that year all of the American press set up in the chateau. They placed a transmitter at the end of the garden. The transmissions were carried to the U.S. with a relay in England. Some of the press that worked in the house included Ernie Pyle, Robert Capa, John Thompson, Andy, Rooney, John Morris and most notable of all was the great writer Ernest Hemingway.
With our maps sprawled out in front of us on the breakfast table I couldn’t but help feel like one of the press that occupied that very room so many years ago. It was hard not to with the large photos of the room being used by the press on every wall.
James took great interest in our trip and was eager to find us the fastest route to Vimoutier. We sat contemplating a sea of maps for ages before finally settling on a plan. While James went off to print some more detailed maps for us we tucked into breakfast. It was a full on French feast of local bread, croissants, local cheese, yogurts and sliced meats. Of course, I did what anyone does in times like those. I crammed as much stuff in my pockets as I could for the lunch later.
After breakfast, we took a stroll around the garden to try and digest our breakfast before getting back on the bikes. There’s always a delicate balance between being full but still capable of cycling and being stuffed. We were stuffed. We had gone well past the point of being able to cycle. The chateau wasn’t a bad place to put down the time until we were bike ready again. The gardens were simple but suited the building. There was no need for extravagance when it came to the planting. The moat and large lawn were more than enough to give the chateau that extra air of grandeur. The horticulturist in me was highly impressed!
Before leaving James took a photo of us and wished us luck. We felt like celebrities posing with the bikes. It was a good laugh and a bit of a boost for the morning. Our good mood continued until 30km down the road. The rolling roads of the morning made a sudden tilt towards the sky. Sitting on the top of the steep road was the town of Balleroy. Despite the steepness of the road, it seemed doable. Even the sign signalling a 10% gradient didn’t deter us. We built up as much speed as possible before hitting the hill. I was determined not to get off the bike. The speed helped propel me up the first few hundred meters. Before long I found myself up out of the saddle. I was now pushing my lowest gear and making no progress. I looked back to see how Ruth was going. I could tell by the look on her face that she was feeling the strain as much as me. I kept on pushing until my knees ached and the sweat coated me. I took a quick glance back and saw that Ruth was now off the bike and pushing. I decided enough was enough and joined her. It was my first time ever to push my bike up a hill. One thing that always stuck with me from growing up was my dad saying you never, ever walk your bike no matter how hard the hill. I was disgusted with myself that I had given up. I could already picture my dad telling me about ‘the time he cycled up a steeper hill on a High Nelly with two flat tires and a bag of spuds on the back’. The usual shite he’d come up with so not to say that he would have done the same.
Annoyed, I sat on a wall at the top of the hill and waited for Ruth. We sat for a bit to get our breath back and cool down a little. I was just about to tell Ruth about what my dad used to say to us when we were younger when she turned and said, “when we were younger, dad used to tell us never, ever to get off a bike when going up a hill”. I broke down laughing.
The road into Balleroy was the turning point in the day. From there on, the roads consisted of hill, hills and more fucking hills. We had some great moments of Tour de France supporters beeping and shouting at us as they passed in their cars. I’m presuming they were cheering us on. Maybe they were just laughing at us in all our hill-climbing misery. Either way, it made us feel good. It really built up our excitement as the closer we got to Vimoutier as more supporters there seemed to be cheering us on.
The plan was to reach Vimoutier for around 6pm. Alas, the hills meant that it took us much longer. We ended up eating our dinner on a street bench in the middle of some random town. It was a right classy affair, with our cold, leftover dinner from the night before in lunch boxes. Eating dinner was becoming a nice full-stop in our cycling day. It meant we had reached camp, had settled in for the night and all that was left to do was chill out and eat. This street-side dinner was not a full stop, more of a comma. The end of the day for us was still up some more cruel French hills.
We were never as glad to see a road sign as we were when we spotted the first one for Vimoutier. At 9pm we slowly free wheeled into the campsite. After 12 hours out on the bikes and some 128km travelled, we absolutely revelled in our awesomeness. We really wanted to make it to see the Tour de France but as the time passed and the miles got slower we were anxious that we’d been too optimistic…. But no! We were bloody awesome.
To treat ourselves for said awesomeness, we headed into Vimoutier for a sneaky cider and chips. There wasn’t exactly a whole lot going on, which surprised us. Not a single inkling could be found to suggest that the Tour de France would be passing right through the middle of the town the next day. It was very strange. After snooping around for a bit we took a seat outside one of the only two places still open. There were a few people around which gave the restaurant a nice vibe. I’m presuming most were cycling fans due to the congregation of bikes against the wall across the street.
Everyone around us tucked into platters of fish, meats and other glorious looking feasts. Mindful of our budget, we ordered a bowl of chips and a big bottle of local cider between us. I’m not going to lie, it was fantastic! We slowly nibbled, to savour the moment and about halfway through, a guy sat at the table beside us. He caught our attention due to the bright yellow Tour de France pass around his neck. We could see him sifting through folders and replying to emails in between each bite of dinner. Curious about the race, since we hadn’t heard anything since arriving in France, we leaned over to ask how it was going.
“You haven’t heard?”
“No. What happened?”
“Tony Martin crashed in the last kilometre of yesterday’s stage. Broken shoulder, they think.”
He paused. We could see him looking at us as we were still dressed in our cycling gear from the day.
“It changes everything. Not sure if he will be able to return.”
He went back to his dinner for a little bit before turning to us again.
“Are you planning on going to see the start in Livarot tomorrow?”
“No, we think we will just watch it pass through here. It goes right by our campsite”
We had passed through Livarot en route to Vimoutier, about 10km back the road, and decided that it’d be more exciting to see the race fly past us than to be among the hoards at the start line.
He leaned in a bit. “You know, we sponsor on of the teams and I might have two passes I can give you for the VIP village, if you’re interested?”
We couldn’t believe it. “Eh, YEAH we would.”
“OK, I must wait for my colleague to arrive to make sure its ok.”
Myself and Ruth gave each other that look you give when you’re trying to give a subtle “Oh my god!!”, but you end up just looking like a pair of psychopaths. When the guy’s colleague finally turned up he gave him the nod of approval. We were in! We couldn’t believe our luck as he handed us the yellow wristbands. I could barely contain my excitement. It more than made up for the scandalous price of the cider and chips.
So, we were burnt to a crisp, shattered and smelly but with cider in our bellies and yellow VIP passes on our wrists, I would all in all call this day a success.
Cherbourg – Cháteau de Vouilly
Max speed: 46kph
Average speed: 17kph
So after a 22 hour boat trip to France we finally started cycling. Saying goodbye to my parents before leaving wasn’t nearly as emotional as I envisaged. I think excitement overpowered the sadness of not seeing people for so long. Plus it’s hard to comprehend being gone for so long so I don’t think I fully thought I wouldn’t see them…
Landing in Cherbourg at 11am, we quickly realised that our map was vastly inaccurate with its delegation of the road importance. Cherbourg was just a maze of red roads, some were cycle friendly then suddenly it would become a motorway. This lead to the next hour been spent going round in circles. What the hell are the red roads? Nothing made sense and no one we asked knew how we could escape this web of misery.
We were just about to give up all hope when Jacque, on his gold 70’s Peugeot race bike, pulled up beside us. Clearly seeing our pathetic state, he asked if we needed help. Jacque looked to be in his mid to late sixties with a physique only achieved by many years of cycling. He was our first bicycle touring angel of the trip. Not happy with just giving us directions he escorted us 6km out of the town. Once we were back on track he scribbled down a few more directions before we were on our way.
The upside of starting in Normandy was that we would be able to ease into the heatwave that seemed to be sweeping Europe this year. Even at that, we still envisioned gloriously sunny French days. That was not the case. An ever present cold seemed to follow us over from Ireland. The dull day slowly turned to drizzle and wind. Thankfully the roads had lush overhanging ditches like at home giving us some passing shelter until the day cleared. Not long after the cloud cleared, we began to see the France I had always wanted to see. The small country roads were broken every now and again by the most beautiful small townland or village. It seemed that no matter how small or insignificant they seemed to be, there was never a drop in perfection. I loved it. I loved it all. You could be cycling down an insignificant section of roads and then, all of a sudden there would be a random little bakery. I remember passing one in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It was still stocked to the nines with all conceivable forms of bread. I just kept thinking, how were they going to sell all that bread? More importantly how were they going to sell it all in a day?
We pulled in to the supermarket at Quenttehou. It was the first significant town we had come across so we took the opportunity to get some lunch and top up our stove with petrol. Despite having studied French for five years in school, my fluency level was diddly-squat. If it wasn’t for the woman at the petrol pump, I would probably still be there now trying to figure out how it worked. That was the least of our worries at the time though. Ruth was unable to find any gluten free food in the supermarket. It wasn’t the greatest thing to discover on the first day. If we were unable to find anything of value for Ruth to eat to keep up her calories and energy, it would eventually lead to serious problems down the line. Fret not, we thought, and we headed off.
The constant swapping and changing of roads was starting to take a toll on our progress. By the time we reached Isigny-sur-men, we had the sudden realisation that we probably weren’t going to reach our planned stop at Omaha beach by the end of the day. We had planned to cover around 100km for the first two days in order to reach Vimoutier to catch a stage of the Tour de France. This plan was becoming less and less likely every time we had to change roads due to cyclists suddenly being forbidden. So we had to make the tough decision, to either continue towards Omaha beach as planned thus risking missing the tour or skip the beach altogether and make as much ground as we could towards Vimoutier. Turned out, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision at all. We used our fantastic logic to come up with a solution to the problem.
Back home, we live just a few minutes from Ballinesker beach. Ballinesker is where they filmed the D-day landings in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Ruth’s parents ran a B&B during the time they were filming and actually had a German Shepard dog and his two trainers stay with them. The dog was meant to be Tom Hanks’ sidekick throughout the film. He spent a few days running through explosions and helping Tom on the beach. Unfortunately for the poor dog, Spielberg felt that it was all a bit Hollywood so cut him out of the film. There’s a little bit of film fact I bet you didn’t know.
Our logic suggested that, considering that was filmed on Ballinesker, surely Omaha would just look the same. Sure what would be the point of going to see something that looked the same as what we see every day? Now, I do accept the fact that we completely overlooked the whole history of Omaha when making our decision. But come on, it’s the Tour de France. How often do you get the cycle to the Tour de France from your house?
Minds made up. We would skip the beach and make for Balleroy. It seemed like the most realistic place for us to reach by the end of the day. It had been a tough day of cycling and at around the 85km mark, hunger and tiredness started to get the better of us. A ‘Chambre d’Hote’ sign caught our eye. Well, it caught Ruth’s eye, because it meant nothing to me. Ruth’s French was much better than mine and, full sure that she knew what it meant, she let out a shout to stop. She stood for a bit looking at the sign.
“Right. I remember learning something about a Chambre d’hôte in school. I’m pretty sure Chambre d’hôte means youth hostel”
“Eh good enough for me. Let’s chance it”
At that point, I would have slept in a thorny bush, so “I’m pretty sure” was more than I needed to hear to convince me. The signs led us down a single lane country road to a farmyard. The soft gravel driveway did little to suggest what lay at the end of it. It wasn’t long before we copped on that Ruth’s French mightn’t be as up to scratch as we had hoped. Turns out Chambre d’hôte means guestroom. What greeted us at the end of the gravel driveway was a colossal old French chateau. Our chances of finding a cheap room for the night began to fade dramatically. Not deterred, we propped our heavy bikes against the wall and searched for someone to help us. James, the owner, popped his head around the corner.
“Hi. Bonjour. Is it possible for us to camp here tonight?”
James smiled that smile someone gives you when you know they’re actually laughing inside. “No, I’m afraid not but we do have some rooms”
Balls, I thought, this can’t be good. “And, eh, how much is it for a room?”
“For two, it’s €110”
I could feel Ruth looking at me before I even turned to her. This was half of our weekly budget. There was no way we could afford to stay here. The feeling of dread about getting back on the bike to find somewhere else began to creep in. It must have showed on our faces as James came a little closer and quietly muttered, “For you, I can do €90”.
Despite trying to smile and look polite, our faces obviously were still saying something different.
“How about you come and look at the room before you decide?”
Sure I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.
I could describe the room in detail, but at the time all I really cared about was that comfy looking bed. That en-suite. That shower. This place was beginning to get harder and harder to refuse. I could see Ruth smiling too, meaning she was thinking the same. The final nail in the coffin was when James took a careful look down the hallway before closing the door slightly. “For you I will give you a special price. You can stay for €60 but don’t tell anyone”, he whispered with a grin.
I smiled at Ruth and she smiled back.
Before boarding the ferry to France, we had been slipped a card with €50 in it by my friend Gabriel. The card said that the money was only to be used to treat ourselves. I think staying in a French chateau constitutes a treat. Thanking you Gabriel for that. It was a cracking sleep. After unloading our bags and parking the bikes in the barn, we were able to cook up a storm in the kitchen. Hawaii, the golden Labrador, accompanied us, mainly for belly rubs though, not to help with the dinner. I wasn’t complaining though. She was very cute.
ar an rothar
endurance cyclist, adventurer and usually hungry