We decided to take today off, a sort of settling in period before the next leg of cycling along the Loire. With no plans for the day, I made sure it would be a lazy one.
A trip to the supermarket was in order after breakfast. With Bastille Day on the horizon, we wanted to stock up on supplies for the next two days just in case nowhere would be open. They very well could be open but if the 40 hour lunch breaks the French normally take are anything to go by, I highly doubt it. The walk to the supermarket was great fun. While on the bikes, we’re in single file a lot of the time. This makes it hard to hold a conversation. It was nice to be able to talk shite again and just stroll around together.
The supermarket we went to was huge. Like, Walmart huge. Everything under the sun was inside. There was even a guy there whose sole job was to weigh your fruit. Yes, his job was to place your fruit on a machine identical to the one my Nan uses in SuperValu back home. How helpless do you have to be to need a guy to push the banana button for you? We opted not to use said service and focused on our list instead. Along with the food, we were able to pick up some new brake pads for Ruth’s bike. While flying down the steep hills two days before, Ruth kept telling me there was something wrong with her bike. I kept brushing it off, insisting that, “Meh, it’ll be grand”. It turns out she had lost one of her back brake pads while descending the 8% gradient hills on a fully loaded tourer. Woops!
The rest of the day consisted of us lazily setting up pitch at a table by the camp restaurant. We took full advantage of the free Wi-Fi and Skyped home for the first time, mainly just to show the Mammies that we weren’t dead yet. We were meant to be meeting Ruth’s mom in Italy in about two months, but while talking to her we discovered we had the date wrong and she’d be there two weeks earlier than we thought. Balls! We were already pushing 100km a day to make sure we made it to Italy in time but now we hadn’t a hope. After a little fretting session, we went back to the drawing board and worked out a new route. We figured that, with a little re-jigging and a small train ride, we might still be able to make it in time to meet up. The new plan meant that we would cycle to the end of the Loire path and take a train to Mulhouse, near the German border.
We only noticed today just how much time we waste on the internet back home. After five days of pretty much no connection, to have full Wi-Fi was a bit mad. So far, deciding which way to go involves a bunch of maps and the ever so accurate thumb and index finger measuring system to work out distances. You would think that this would take way longer than using a certain popular route planner, but you would be wrong. Every bloody time we went to look up a route or train time we would just ‘have to’ take a look at Facebook or the latest FailArmy video on YouTube. Now don’t get me wrong, watching FailArmy videos is never a waste of time. Quite the opposite actually. There is very little in this world funnier than people falling. It’s my evil little pleasure. I won’t say guilty pleasure because I don’t feel guilty about it at all.
Anyway, the moral of the story is that we got to talking about internet use and the like. It reminded me of something I had read before about which type of life was better - a life where you’re subjected to so many stimuli that you’re easily bored, or a life so absent of any stimulus that the most simple of things excites you.
I think that I would probably fit into the latter. I’m the opposite of the guy that has to have their smart phone with them all the time. I broke my jazzy new Sony phone just two months after getting it last year and rather than getting it fixed, I just went back to my old brick with no internet access. Constant connection to the internet is just a bombardment to the senses, there’s no need for it all. If news is important enough, I’ll hear about it somehow. As for that child in North Korea who trained his cat to dance the Hokey Pokey? Yeah, I can live without seeing that.
On a different note we’re back on the bikes tomorrow. It’ll be odd seeing so many people but it’ll be great to talk to other tourers and hear about their trips.
Ezy-sur-Eure – Orleans
Distance: 41km (bike) 2 hours by bus
Max Speed: 35km
Average Speed: 18 kmp
Today was a roller coaster of emotions to say the least. The morning began with a potter around the local market in the town square. The description of the place given by our patron last night didn’t over sell it at all. There were so many stalls, as in they were everywhere. Every street and side street had something on it. The covers came so close to each other it almost had the feel of an indoor market.
It didn’t take long before I spotted my treat for the day. There, propped in a sea of baked breads, was a deliciously buttery croissant. It just called to me! It was my first ever taste of a fresh, homemade croissant and it was amazing. I can only describe its magnificence in the words of the great Homer Simpson, “Ahgrerahaaaa”. As I bit through its crunchy layers, I could see Ruth in the corner of my eye looking at me. I imagine she was crying inside, trying to convince herself that her Medjool date was just as decadent, but really just cursing being a coeliac.
We only realised yesterday that it would be Bastille Day by the time we hit Paris. This made it impossible to get any accommodation that wouldn’t be a total rip off. As a result, we decided to change our route and bypass the Paris madness all together. According to the local signs, there should have been 40km of bike path left, which would nicely bring us slightly south of Paris. From there, we’d take our detour and continue east. Well we would have if the path hadn’t randomly stopped in the middle of nowhere after 10 kilometres. Confused as to where the cycle path had gone, we had to abandon it and take the main road into the nearest town of Dreux. Our maps weren’t detailed enough to navigate our way through the town and the road signs were as helpful as a knitted condom.
We’ve found that the closer we got to Paris the more assholey the people were getting. The people of Dreux didn’t break this pattern. Anyone we stopped to ask for help, in French I might add, brushed us off claiming they didn’t speak English, in prefect English. Either that or they would fob us off with any old directions. So after wasting the best part of the morning following one asshole after another’s wrong directions, we eventually stopped a cyclist who was convinced that the bike path we were on did continue. So back again we went, 10km up the road to where the bike path had ended. No bike path to be found. Imagine that. Needless to say, at this point we were pretty pissed off and fed up with the unhelpful attitude of everyone we met.
Finally, in our hour of need, a young French girl, holding a child against her chest with one arm whilst carrying a bag of shopping with the other, approached us and asked if we needed help. She confirmed our initial thought that the bike path was in fact unfinished. It turned out she was a bicycle tourer herself and was all questions about our trip. When told of our route around Paris, I could see her facial expression change.
“That is not a very nice way. The roads are not nice for bicycles and it will not be enjoyable.”
“Is there a nicer way around?”
“No.” Jaysus, fair enough.
She paused and then ushered us across the road to her house to top up our water bottles. She talked to her boyfriend about all of the options for us. When they returned they were both smiling. Ah, I liked the look of this. They were adamant that we should ditch our planned route and head south immediately to the Loire Valley. We could follow the Loire bike path east until we meet the Euro Velo 6 which would take us to Basel, our planned entry point into Switzerland. They had cycled the route before as a family and had only great things to say.
It’s hard to argue with the locals. If they tell you where they live is shit, it’s shit.
Our options to get to the Loire valley were to cycle for two days along flat, boring roads or take a bus to Orleans. After the day we just had, all we wanted was to get as far away from this area as possible and we were totally fine with taking the bus. I regret forgetting to ask the girl for her name, but whoever you are, thanks.
So it was back to Dreux again to catch a bus. We were guided to the bus station by a local cyclist. I have found that old men on racing bicycles in France are very helpful. Hats off to you sir, you are a diamond in a bucket of coal. The bucket of coal being you, Dreux.
We got the next bus to Orleans, with a change of buses in Chartres. We didn’t have enough time to see the famous cathedral that I had learned so much about in school but I did get to see it from afar on the way in on the bus. It was a pity I didn’t get to have a closer look but as I have no future plans to return there I will have to chalk it down as seen. We did have enough time to discuss the pronunciation of the town name; I always assumed it was pronounced Shartrezz, whereas Ruth went with the far more amusing, Shart, as in “I just shart in my pants”. It’s the little things in life.
Arriving in Orleans was a relief. Setting off on the bikes, we felt like we were beginning a new leg of the trip. The cycle through Orleans was amazing. Most of the streets were empty, allowing us to mess about a bit on the bikes. Oh and the cathedral, don’t get me started on the cathedral. It was such a beautiful city and it will definitely be somewhere we would love to return to.
Our campsite was 6km outside the city, set on the bank of a small river. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen. There was table tennis, trampoline, playground, restaurant and most important, a shop with wine. The camping area was in a wild meadow. Each pitch had its own private circle mown into the tall meadow grass for privacy. Once we had the tent up we treated ourselves to a bottle of wine from the shop to toast the beginning of our next leg of France … also to drink away the frustrations of the day.
I sensed earlier in the day that Ruth was seriously frustrated with the wrong directions and cycling back and forth earlier, so I asked how she was. It turns out the monotony of the cycling was beginning to get to her. She missed our lives back at home; the chats, the music, work, just stupid shit (her words, not mine), but stuff that makes her happy. She explained that even though we were cycling together, sometimes the silence was just too much. She was craving a bit more interaction with people. I can see her point as up until now it has just been the two of us cycling in single file on the empty roads. However, the minute we decided to take the girls advice and get the bus to Orleans, it was like a weight had been lifted from her. The second she stepped off the bus, everything changed and arriving in Orleans was like a new beginning for the trip.
It was so good to see Ruth so excited about the trip again and we were both looking forward to meeting more bicycle tourists as, up until now, we had only come across a handful. Roll on the Loire bike path tomorrow!
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.
On the 20th August 2015, Ruth and I put our bikes in bags, taped our panniers together and headed for the airport. It was not, however, to head for the next leg of our trip in Vietnam but, rather, back to Ireland.
Though we have only been on the road for two months out of a planned ten/eleven month tour, our trip has for the moment been put on hold. There were no broken bones, no drug related chases for the border and no horrific break up that was the reason for the decision to return home.
The reason was something that is never talked about in the travel and adventure world. That is just the simple fact of not enjoying the travel itself. This is especially never discussed (and we googled the hell out of it) in relation to traveling as a couple and how to deal with it. I remember reading somewhere before about people who travel reaching their 'saturation point'. This is the point in a journey where a mountain is just another mountain and a village just another village. Ruth reached her saturation point.
We were meant to be entering the Asian leg of the trip, the part I was both most nervous and excited about. Ruth has been obsessed with Vietnam’s history for years and it has been at the top of her travel bucket-list for years, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She had been steadily unwell since the first week of the trip, feeling pretty crap and a few weeks in she expressed her concerns about continuing into the trip. We chatted it out and agreed that her concerns were probably just a settling in stage and would pass. They didn't.
About a week after this, Ruth sat me down over coffee for to talk. I knew before she even said anything what it was about. I could tell over the last few days that she wasn't herself and I knew something was up. She explained that, despite loving bicycle touring and the nomadic lifestyle, the heat we were experiencing (due to the freak heatwave all over Europe) was a little more than she was mentally prepared for right now. I won’t lie – I was pretty angry and extremely disappointed at first. We had been looking forward to the trip for years and I was fully prepared to continue on, but I understood what she meant.
Something I have learned from doing long distance cycling is that it is much more of a mental game than a physical one. Like Paul Kimmage once said, "With weak legs and a good head you can go a long way. With good legs and a weak head you go nowhere". Now, Ruth has great legs! But her head just wasn’t in it. No matter how physically capable you are of continuing on with the journey, if your head isn't in it, there's nothing you can do.
We could have easily decided to fly out to Vietnam (the next leg of the trip) there and then, avoiding the 40-45 degree heat we were experiencing in Europe. But we felt that this would result in us half-arsing the trip and we’d end up not getting to do what we really wanted to do. Plus, it would mean missing out of the majority of our European leg. So, it was a toss-up – a shorter trip with more fun or a longer trip with one of us miserable. Not exactly a tough decision! We decided to shorten our tour to just doing the Mainland Europe and Iceland legs, getting to see everything we’d planned to see there.
We increased our daily budget to compensate for the extreme heat. This meant we could stay in an air-conditioned room every now and again so we didn't have to deal with sweating like a turkey at Christmas every night in our tent. We also made a crucial decision to increase our budget for fresh, healthy food. Diet, we’re convinced, had the single greatest impact on Ruth’s head in the first few weeks. Going from eating a well-rounded, nutritious diet before leaving to surviving on bread, porridge and pasta was, in hind-sight, destined for disaster! Great for energy, crap for nutrition. Upping the budget allowed us to eat well and really enjoy every minute of the rest of the tour.
Of course, this all took some serious consideration but we were happy with our final decision. Despite this, though, we were filled with dread - the dread that we now had to tell people that we would be home so soon after the big goodbye parties. I would be lying if I said that this didn't worry me more than the actual decision to end early itself.
At home we always do what makes us happy, not what we think we should do. This lack of giving a shit about what people think attitude was only enhanced then when we were touring. (When you know you always smell from cycling so much and have a general look of a hobo, you need to not care). But that is one of the beauties of bicycle touring – you realise it doesn’t matter. It took me by surprise then that we were caring so much about what people would think of us coming home after the European leg.
The more we thought about it though, the more we realised that we had nothing to be embarrassed about. We had cycled around 2,000km in 6 weeks, in temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius and completing up to 130km some days. We had shit in the woods, drank straight from rivers and cycled over 1200m passes in the Alps with gradients up to 18%. We had just got our asses out of our comfortable beds, turned off the TV and cycled from Ireland to Dubrovnik. If that wasn't something to be proud of then I don't know what is.
So does this mean the end of Ar An Rothar? It most certainly does not. In the coming days I will be continuing on to Iceland for a three week expedition style bicycle tour through the country’s highlands. We will complete our Vietnam leg in 2017 and will continue on with the rest of the planned route over the next few years but in smaller intervals.
There might even be a multi-day endurance bicycle race thrown in there also…. What can I say-I’m a glutton for punishment!
So, we just want to thank everyone for their support before we departed on our trip and for just showing an interest! We had a truly unforgettable experience. We met some brilliant people (some of which we hope to meet again) and saw some of the most amazing places. Hopefully you’ll continue to follow us as we follow our dream of cycling the world … one little bit at a time. Thank you.
ar an rothar
endurance cyclist, adventurer and usually hungry