The Last Leg: Paris

I left Lyon before anyone had stirred; I roamed the streets by bicycle alone and had time to reflect on just how for I had come – from the top to the bottom of France, I felt I had done well. This reflection had distracted me from remembering exactly where the train station was located, with 15 minutes until my train was set to leave I was panicking that I would not make it in time…

The inner Mark Cavendish was summoned, as I sprinted through the city regardless of the lights, traffic or pedestrians. It didn’t help that there were three different stations in Lyon, all in fairly close proximity to one another. It wasn’t until I reached the end of a street (at which I had been told to turn right) I saw the correct station on my left, so I made a dash and managed to grab a ticket, find my train and board with a minute to spare. Had I not managed to get this particular train, I would have been stuck in Lyon a further 4 hours, while the next train wouldn’t get into Paris until 8pm, and what a nightmare that would have been!

I hopped onto the carriage and stored my bike away. It turns out that I wasn’t the only cyclist in a frantic rush to try  and hop aboard the train destined for Paris. A whole hoard of MAMILs (Middle-aged men in lycra) and their wives clambered aboard with about 10 bicycles. Suddenly the carriage I was in, which I thought would be peaceful enough for a quick kip before my last cycle, wouldn’t be so peaceful after all. It turned out that it was a big group celebrating fifteen year wedding anniversary, by cycling from just south of Paris back down to Dijon. I managed to sleep for a little while, amongst the many bicycles strewn all along the carriage I was in. Just before Dijon, two ladies boarded the train and sat down next to me. It turned out that both were English and were on a little cycling expedition just like myself. They had taken the train, along with their bikes down to Basel, Switzerland and had been cycling along the canal paths of Germany and France ever since, finishing in Lyon. I was impressed with lack of planning and “chancing” the women had decided to do, booking nothing in advance and merely finding stops along the way. It reminded me of just how little I had planned, given the size of my task, and yet I had managed to cope. It was nice to talk with the ladies, and they helped to speed up the journey as we talked about my trip; a little about theirs and what our plans were when we both finished our journeys.

I had decided to get off at the stop before Paris and cycle in, with the stop beforehand being Sens. Thinking that the stop before would not be too far from Paris, and would perhaps be more of a light cycle in, it turns out that Sens was still over an hour to Paris by train. After a quick google, I realised that it was around 90-odd miles away from the Eiffel Tower – my final destination by bike. I had aimed to get to Paris for about 3 or 4pm, but this was looking slightly unrealistic given that it would take me around 6 or 7 hours at a speed of about 25km/h to hit Paris at 6pm. Starting to slightly regret my decision to come off the train, I grabbed some food and started to make my way on my bike for the final time. I hit the ground running (pedaling) as I knew I would need to really push it on the day if I was to get to Paris for a reasonable time. The scenery along the way was slightly different to what I had seen throughout France all throughout my trip. Although again mostly just farms, the colours were like something out of a Van Gogh painting, with the vivid yellows of the sunflowers mixing with the greens of the tall cornfields, scorched underneath the glare of the bright sun that I had brought along with me from the South of France. 60 miles in and I was making good time, perhaps I was fit after all. I had managed to do 60 miles in just under four hours, which meant I was exceeding my target of around 25km/h and it looked like I may make it into Paris on time (something which hadn’t been a regular theme throughout my trip).

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I started to slow when I realised that my water supplies might not last me for the last 30 miles of the trip. I was pedaling as fast as the bike would allow in order to more quickly seek a nearby town that would have a little shop that would provide me with much needed hydration. I was heading closer to the suburbs of Paris, but my Garmin was yet to give me a break, insisting that I stay on any road but one that would lead to some sort of oasis. I saw my opportunity ahead of me in what looked to be a purpose-built town for commuters into the capital. I headed in and scoured the area for supermarket, high street store or corner shop, anything would do. Luck was on my side and a small shop tucked away in the corner of an estate would provide me with a few bottles of water, a much needed coke and some chocolate to keep my energy up. I can’t remember the name of the little place, but I didn’t fancy hanging around for too long – it was like a weird set from the film Kidulthood and I felt a little uneasy, with lots of guys in full tracksuits, obvious drug deals taking place round the corner and pimp-like characters who were flirting with girls half their age; it was all a little bit strange. Wanting to get as far away and as quickly as possible, I hopped back on the bike and headed for the first exit that said “Paris”.

Having made good time coming from Sens into the suburbs of Paris, I started to be slowed by the introduction of traffic lights. They started to become an (un)popular acquaintance the further into the city I cycled, with our meetings becoming as frequent as perhaps every 500 metres or so. Having managed to breeze through 80 miles in around 5 1/2 hours, the last 10 miles were to become a struggle, due to the stop-start nature of city riding as my legs began to seize up on occasion. Stuck behind two electric scooters on a cycle lane alongside the Seine, I dreamt of having an electric bike in the hope that my motor would start to kick in anytime. Alas, my legs were all I had, so a little shake-out was all that was needed to get my pistons firing again. Seeing the Eiffel Tower in the distance probably helped to motivate me further, and soon I was back haring through the streets of Paris (more importantly past the show-offs on the electric scooters). I passed the Notre-Dame, and heard its bells chime for 7pm, as I darted through the traffic that at times was a little hairy. The combination of crazy taxi drivers, daredevil motocyclists and angry bus drivers were a potential recipe for disaster, but years tearing it through the streets of Southampton at break-neck speeds had taught me something about awareness at least.

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I finally stood below the magnificent steel structure that was the Eiffel Tower. I had seen it countless times before, but seeing it this time was something special. It signified the end of a long journey that had been tough extremely tough at times both mentally and physically.  After fifteen days of cycling, around 2000km travelled, 12 different hosts and 16 different locations, all that was left was one very tired, but also quite proud guy. After months of building myself up for the challenge, it was finally over, the cycling at least, and I have to admit that I was a little emotional. Never before have I completed anything so difficult and more demanding than the 16 days I spent, often alone or in the company of strangers; all in aid of a really good cause in that of the Alzheimer’s Society.

After taking a few pictures, I headed off to the campsite on the other side of the city, near the Boulogne district on the outskirts of the 15th Arrondissemont, where I would meet my friends who I have grown up with all my life, to spend two nights squashed into a campervan. I arrived at the site, sweaty and horrible and surprised the lads as they were eating dinner. After a long shower and changing into something nice for a change, we headed out into the city.

It was safe to say that my experience with French transport already hadn’t been the best. Within a few hours of being in Paris with my friends, it was about to get even worse. Having all bought a one-way metro ticket, we headed off into the centre of Paris. Having only gone about 5 stops, we headed for the over-ground looking for the Pantheon. We were stopped on the way by the transport police, who were checking that people hadn’t hopped on the metro for free. My ticket was swiped – fine. My two other friends – also fine. Just our friend Oli to go, but there was a problem. His ticket was registering as never been used, despite him managing to get through the barriers and buying a ticket. The transport police set about trying to make an example of him, while we all protested his innocence. He even showed his receipt, but apparently its just as easy to find one of those lying about too (what a cruel joke this was turning out to be). Long story short, after lots of arguing and remonstrating, Oli had to pay a €30 fine, despite paying €1.80 for a ticket. It is safe to say that those who work within the French transport system are extremely uncompromising.

Regardless, we had aimed to have a good night and despite Oli grumbling for five minutes about cheese-eating surrender monkeys, we managed to grab a few beers and head towards the Pantheon, Paris’ biggest student area. After drowning Oli’s €30-sized sorrow in a few of the finest supermarket branded Belgian blondes, we decided to find a bar. We headed up to the popular student area, dominated by bars and restaurants and not entirely knowing the way, we followed a convoy of open-top Citroen C2’s full of chicks on a Hen do. The road was called Rue Lacépede, which led up to a small square full of bars. The atmosphere was buzzing and everyone was having a good time, there were dancers and singers on each street corner that interjected one another where the roads converged. We sat down at a super busy bar called Le Wall, which I didn’t realise until after was actually an English pub. It was clear that the carrot on the stick for most punters in this particular establishment, was the offer of €3.50 pints of the house lager, which of course we were more than happy to consume. The night slowed down as we relaxed in our chairs, after a few pints of the house lager and a couple of Chouffes. It was nice to finally be able to fully relax and was the first time on the trip that I had been fully able to do so, which was a welcome relief. We stayed until the chairs had began to be put away and stumbled into the back of a taxi after reloading on the carbs with a huge filled crepe…

Waking up the next morning in less than comfortable surroundings; 4 hairy guys in the middle of summer had made the campervan a mobile sweatbox, not to mention the thousands of mosquitos that made me look like a leper. Today was game day, the big finale, and you could sense that something big was on the horizon from all the flying flags and football shirts that dominated the campsite. We changed as quickly as four men in a tiny camper could, and headed out after a breakfast that consisted of warm orange juice and a bacon sandwich cooked on the grill. Heading into the centre on the metro, we prayed that the same thing wasn’t going to happen to Oli, while I filmed it all partly for a laugh, but partly as evidence! After having no hassle on the metro, we hopped off at the stop Argentine and walked towards the Arc de Triomphe. For me it was a fitting way to begin touring the city, given the previous two weeks exploits, and so we continued on down for some window shopping at all the things we will never be able to afford on the Champs-Élysées. 

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After an ice-cream and drinks pit-stop, we carried on down to the Jardin de Tuileries and sat down to bask in the sun on some deck chairs over looking a large pond in the centre of the gardens. The heat seemed to take it out of us, which surprised me as I had no idea how I had managed to cope in the 40-odd degree heat down in Marseilles. By the time we had finished pondering at fish and pulling Joe’s leg, we were seriously hungry. It was also getting closer to kick-off, and there were lots of people obviously descending in hoardes down to the Eiffel Tower and fan park. I had earlier suggested that it would be a good idea to queue up for the fan park very early – but noone really listened, because honestly who wants to spend half a day caged into a place where the only beer that is served is Carlberg? We bought some streetfood on our way to the Eiffel Tower, following the masses of people, chanting, beeping horns and singing their hearts out. There were more Portuguese fans than I expected, but someone had told me along the way, that there was a huge number of Portuguese migrants that had come to work in construction in the eighties, and just never left! It was kind of nice then to have both countries come together for the final and you really felt that there was a good atmosphere between both sets of fans.

Not being far from the Tower, we felt a little bit left out that we weren’t looking particularly dressed for the occasion, but 3 berets for €10, plus an England flag thrown in sorted us out in no time! The queue for the fan park was enormous and there was still 3 hours until the game started. I didn’t want to say I told you so to the guys (I did a bit) because it wouldn’t have got us in any quicker. Regardless we queued like good Englishmen do, and perhaps because of our heritage, we weren’t daunted by the thoughts of spending the next three hours with our personal space abused and movement restricted. I had got into the queue only slightly quicker than the rest of the guys, but was dragged to the front by the movement of the crowd much quicker than the others. The crowd was looking dangerous, and a couple of people in front of me had fainted, whilst a small skirmiss had broken out, quickly broken up by the heavy handed Gendarmerie (French National Guard). Being aware of the events of Hillborough, as an English football fan, although not in any way comparing the two situations, it was quite clear that this could be a dangerous situation and it would only take a little bit of pushing from the rear for some of the crowd to fall and be trampled – I had experienced this a few times in France with regards to the fan zones and have to say that it was lucky that they managed to avoid any notable accidents or trouble.

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As I was frisked and managed to get through the gates, I couldn’t wait to meet the others inside. As I turned around however, the gates had been closed off as the fan park had reached its capacity. We were all gutted as it meant that only one of us would see it in the flesh, but I didn’t want to hang about in there without my friends. I went in, took some pictures and caught a bit of the atmosphere, but it wouldn’t have been the same without my mates.

After escaping the fan park, which was easily over capacity and I thought held at least around 100,000 within its grounds, we roamed the streets searching for a bar that would be playing the game. Luckily we didn’t have to travel too far, as in a nearby side-street a nice wine bar was showing the game on a projector they had obviously installed especially for the Euro Finals. We all grabbed a beer from the bar and watched from outside, as there was just no space inside. It seemed we weren’t the only guys in town with this idea, and as kick-off drew closer, more and more people spilled onto the street. At first cars had to squeeze past, and people courteously moved out of the way. Closer to kick-off however the street had become so full, that it was in fact impossible for any cars to move down the street and it really felt as if the people had taken over! Despite a boring game (we couldn’t see it from all the people in front of the screen anyway), the atmosphere was electric and the street was full of people singing from all sorts of nationalities. There were French, Portuguese, Mexican, Algerian, Tunisian, English, American, all coming together just because of football; it really was quite amazing. It started to resemble a riot scene when a couple of the Tunisian and Algerians behind us started getting into the fervour reminiscent of the Arab Spring and took to standing on cars and chanting. It really added to the atmosphere, especially when someone brought out a football that was kicked around, but I can’t imagine many of the car owners would be happy to come back and find their rooftops caved in…

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The game had ended with a shock 1-0 defeat of the French by the Portuguese and the streets were filled with some jubilant fans in red and many in anguish in blue. Surprisingly it stayed relatively calm, we only saw one instance of a crazy French guy attempting to windmill anyone with “Ronaldo” on the back of their shirt (most Portuguese do), though he was soon calmed down by a police officer or two. As we followed the crowd into the night, it started to occur to me that my journey was finally over. I had set about on my own tour of France, determined to follow the European Championships by bicycle and despite the absolutely torrid time I endured at the beginning, I had finally completed what I had set out to do.

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I had arrived alone, in a foreign country, just myself and my bicycle. I was now leaving, in the company of three guys who I have always grown up with; and what a way to end my French adventure that was!

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Marseilles & Lyon

I left Montpellier behind, early in the morning careful not to wake my host Eddie, as I wanted to vamoose as quick as possible. Today would be a mammoth ride and would require a small train journey if I was to make it into Marseilles in time for the big Semi-Final between France and Germany that was being held in Marseilles itself. I packed my bags in a hurry, threw everything I had in the lift and made it outside of the tower block, down a few narrow streets and into Montpellier city centre. I found the train station and decided that my best bet would be to head for Nimes, which lay approximately 160km from Marseilles.

After the fairly quick journey by train, which had saved me about 30 or 40km, I headed out to get some food and let the Garmin settle its location and decide my route. The Garmin had been temperamental and slow since arriving in France, but had more often than not pulled through. It was only when I seemed to be in a hurry that it would suddenly start forgetting where the second-most inhabited city in France actually was. I knew that I wanted to head for Arles, an old Roman town with a well-preserved amphitheatre, as this was practically on the way according to Google. After switching locations and hoping that it would be easier to pick up a route to Marseilles from Arles, I set off. The roads became a lot more industrial, with more towns and villages being situated along my route, as opposed to the barren fields I had experienced only the day before. After about 30km or so, I entered Arles, which was a strange town – a mix of typical French architecture awashed with old Roman ruins both genuine and imitation. It was a cultural hotspot and I thought that I had come across the scenery in Arles before – as it would happen, I had. Arles is famous for its links to Vincent Van Gogh, who settled in the city and it is where it is considered most of his finer work was completed. What makes the places more interesting is the fact that it was the place where the famous artist turned to madness and actually cut off his ear, giving it to a brothel maid. I cycled past a drawbridge that is the scene of many of his paintings (and supposedly the scene of such madness) without giving it much thought, as the area is not particularly well signposted.

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Super hot on the way to Marseilles, opening my bib for a bit of cool air! (cracking figure)

With the little bit of history now under my belt, and a Garmin that had finally discovered that Marseilles did in fact exist, I started to pick up the pace as game time loomed. The sun was burning down onto my back as the midday sun hung high in the crisp blue sky above. The riding began to gradually become more difficult, as Marseilles is the opening of the Cote d’Azur region, which backs on towards the Alps, making the terrain slightly more undulating that what I had previously experienced. If I had thought 35 degrees would be the upper limit to my trip, this was smashed on route to Marseilles, with highs of 42 degrees. I have never experienced heat like it, and was surprising myself that I was able to carry on, despite the increasing elevation and constant need for water. The hard work that had seen my climb high into the pine tree lined hills that surrounded the Mediterranean sea that lay below. My efforts on the bike were rewarded by spectacular views of crystal-blue seas and pretty towns such as Martigues, which looked like a “little Italy”; a blend of Venice and the Cinque Terre sprang to mind. I was now not far from my destination, but the uphills just appeared to get harder and seemed never ending. My pace had completely dropped and I was struggling to battle against the heat. A bottle of Orangina from a nearby petrol station managed to fix me up for the last push, the pulpy goodness of the orange (and the copious amounts of sugar obviously) spurred me on to the main Port of the city. Though I was pleased to final get into Marseilles, it should not be forgotten just how large the city is. My host, Hervé, had a place on completely the opposite side of the city, so was actually still around thirteen miles from the port of Marseilles. As I cycled past the port, I did wonder what all the fuss over how crazy the city was, was all about. I quickly ate my words as I entered the city centre, as madness duly ensued. Horns blazed, engines roared, people shouted and gestured out of car windows, while scooters attacked the roads from every direction imaginable. As a cyclist I did feel a little out of place and rightly so, as it seemed that I was the only cyclist on the road in the mad city of Marseilles. I nearly went into the back of a car that decided to cut me up, whilst only five minutes later almost colliding with a scooter as it tried to cut up a car on the inside. Luckily my years of haring down the streets of Southampton and cutting up traffic myself had made me totally aware to all of this, and I didn’t feel to nervous about cycling these streets, in fact I found it almost exhilarating.

I finally arrived in the main area of Marseilles, which I have to say was extremely beautiful, where a low hum of noise was beginning to build. The game was nearly upon us, with the kick-off due to be in around three hours from when I arrived in the city. Germans had descended onto the city in their droves and their songs carried through the streets, while the French attempted to combat such noise with their heartfelt rendition of La Marseillaise, the bloodthirsty French national anthem that actually developed in Marseilles (Hence the name) during the French revolution in 1792. When translated into English, the anthem is quite harrowing, and quite frankly a lot more intimidating than talking about saving old Queenie. The rendition was stirring and I felt was a great welcome to the football-crazy city that was Marseilles. I was glad to have made it, as I had now gone from the very top of France, right the way to its very bottom – which I felt was some achievement after all.

5km or so later and I arrived at Herve’s house, where his daughter let me in and told me I had to wait for Hervé to arrive as he was running a little late. I did think it a little strange that she did not invite me into her home, but I later found out, the house was huge and made up of several apartments, with Hervé having his own seperate living quarters which he shared with his guests. The house was amazing and really artsy. Paintings hung from the walls as sculptures lay strewn all over the floors. Hervé was actually a masseuse, so I wasn’t totally sure where he had made his money, as it seemed he traveled a lot, as well as having a fantastic house, but he was extremely down to earth and we had an interesting conversation over dinner about all the places he had visited.

Hervé was interested in heading to the fan park to watch the game, despite not being a huge football fan, and he had organised to meet his daughter in there later on. With his house being a little on the outskirts, and as we were a bit pushed for time, Hervé thought it would be easier if we went out on his motorbike, which I was really pleased about! It was so much fun being on the back and zipping through all the traffic and accelerating through the crowds. Not being used to a motorbike at all, I found it to be exhilarating and I only wished I was able to travel half as fast on my poor little push bike.

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Me (in my Marseilles shirt!), Hervé and his daughter caught off-guard by the Go Pro

We got to the game, where the fan park was based on a beach area just outside of the city centre. The venue was really cool and there were thousands of people inside the fan park; I was anticipating a really good atmosphere and I wasn’t to be disappointed. The game kicked off and I was surrounded by French supporters, while there were only a minority of Germans inside, which meant that La Marseillaise dominated much of the pre match build-up. It has to be said that apart from that and “Allez les Bleus”, the French aren’t necessarily known for their chants – but this didn’t make their support any less ferocious. It helped that the game was perhaps the best of the tournament and was full of excitement from two teams full of attacking riches; from the creative flair of Ozil and Kroos on the German side, to the power and grace of Pogba and Greizmann (the fan favourite) for the French . When Schweinsteiger gave away a penalty with a flailing arm, the ground shook with excitement and then nervousness as Greizmann, the French hero, walked up to take the spot-kick. After making it 1-0 to the French on the stroke of half-time, the fan park went into raptures and I have never seen anything like it. My vision was blurred by the constant blue white and red that waved through the air, while the noise built to a crescendo as flares were lit and fireworks set off – within the fan park. I have no idea how people had managed to sneak such things in, and although yeah maybe slightly dangerous, they really brought about the party atmosphere like nothing I have ever experienced, it was a pleasure to be there.

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The game finished 2-0 to France and the scenes that followed were ones I would not forget in a hurry. masses of people, covered from head to toe in blue, white and red had all come together into the streets of Marseilles, and as one were singing the national anthem. I would estimate there to have been about 100,000 in our small area and it really felt as though you were going to war, or had just won a battle (which I guess the French had). Coming back on the motorbike, I saw people and flags hanging out of cars, convoys of scooters decked out in the French colours; horns blazing and people screaming with joy long into the night. It was clear what this meant to the French and given all the social unrest they had been experienced of late, coupled with the constant fear of a terrorist attack, it was clear that heading to the final of the Euro 2016 tournament in their own country was a source of immense pride and relief for the whole of France. In this moment I thought that it was a shame I may never get to experience the same with England, I might even have to start pretending that I’m Welsh…

The next day started early again, having bought a ticket from the main train station in Marseilles into Lyon for about 7:30am. I said goodbye to Hervé, and headed for the train station which was about 10km from his house. It was relatively cool, due to how early in the morning it was, but I welcomed this as a bit of respite from the desert-like heat I had experienced only the day before. I got to the train station just in time, but it turned out that I wouldn’t be getting my train anyhow. I had booked my tickets through a company called Ouigo, a site similar to trainline that offered cheaper fares on French trains that were notoriously expensive. In France, there are two types of train – high-speed (TVG) and regional (TER), with Ouigo being tickets for the faster TVGs. Having handed over my ticket and being let through the barriers, after attempting to place my bike aboard, I was told that this simply was not possible and that I had to get off. Not one person would clearly explain to me what I was supposed to do, but I was harried away and told I needed to get on a different train and buy a completely new ticket. It was my first experience of an unhelpful French person in all my trip, and it would seem that when it comes to transport, the French are extremely bureaucratic to everyone but themselves. The whole process was a farce, and meant that I needed to buy two new tickets, on account for the fact that I had made the same mistake with the train heading from Lyon to Paris. about €70 down within the space of an hour, I sulkily headed for my train to Lyon.

After travelling for the best part of four hours on the way to Lyon, I was looking forward to stretching my legs and seeing the city, as I was there for a quick stop before heading to my final destination – Paris. Lyon has to be considered by far one of the most beautiful cities in all of France. Based on the river Rhône, the city has been a hub commercially and industrially for 500 years, maybe more. It is a mix of both old and new, but the old town remains wonderful intact and completely separate from the newer parts of towns full of high rise buildings and shopping centres. Terracotta houses, in all different colours, line the banks of the river that flows through the middle of the city, whilst (much like in Marseilles) the city’s cathedral towers right about the city on a hilltop which can be reached by funicular.

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Messing around in the city by bike

I needed to stop admiring the city, as it was time to find my next hosts, who would actually be my last Couchsurfers before I stayed in a campervan in Paris. Max and Daniela lived downtown, but I would meet Daniela first, as Max was at work. Daniela was from Moldova and was studying French literature in Lyon – which I thought was pretty cool, as she could speak so many different languages. It was really interesting to get the perspective on Europe from someone who was born in an Eastern bloc country, which still seems to be under the vice-like grip of Russia. Together we shared a beer and spoke about Brexit (a conversation I could not escape from) all until she had to head off to work and Max came home. I met max and we headed out into the city, with him giving me a quick tour of all the best sights. The public transport in Lyon was the best for me, because Max explained that once a ticket was not going to be used any longer, people would leave them lying around for others to make use of, instead of having to buy another ticket. It just so happened that Max had managed to pick me up a day ticket, which meant I could use the ticket for the rest of the night- how good is that for philanthropy!

Max also explained to me that during the war, there was a large French resistance movement against the Nazi forces and Lyon is famous for its many “Traboules”. These are essentially secret or hidden passageways that passed unnoticed through courtyards and even through buildings so that members of the resistance could quickly slip away and escape into another area of the city; without being detected by the Gestapo. Apparently you are only a true “Lyonnais” if you are knowledgeable about this sort of stuff, so I had to take my hat off to Max for that one! We continued to stroll through the old town, as I imagined what it would have been like in those times. Too much thinking made me thirsty, so we stopped by one of Max’s favourite watering holes and it would have seemed that he had quite a penchant for beer, much like myself. He recommended one for me, while I recommended him a good English ale (A Brewdog Punk IPA) which he hadn’t tried before. We talked and talked as we continued drinking, and the hours seemed to flow by. It wasn’t until Max got hungry and fancied a naan from the local Indian (Yes, they’re big in France too) that we actually realised we might want to hurry up if we were to get the last underground back to his place! We headed back and Max rustled up a quick meal before I headed to bed, which was essentially a filled crepe with all sorts of ingredients, that would help to keep me going for the last ride of my trip.I went to bed a happy man that night, after having a great night with a couple of people I’d just met, who had treated me like I was an old friend for years.

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A very blurry photo and me, my hosts and their schizophrenic cat 

Agen – Castelnaudary – Montpellier

After waking very early in the morning in Bordeaux, I headed out trying to make as little noise as possible, heading for the closest bakery to get my fix of French patisserie and a few bottles of water to start my day.

Crossing over one of the main bridges over the Garonne and heading out of the city, I found myself on a road marked specifically for cyclists – it is safe to say that the road systems are far more geared towards those on two wheels than here in Britain. It was around 7am, as I knew I had a long day’s ride into Agen, and I could see the sun starting to really rise from the other side of the river, as I once again found myself heading downstream. The cycle route continued for miles and miles, which was nice because it meant no fear of being hit by a crazy driver from the South of France. After the first fifteen miles or so, I had approached a tunnel that I assumed wasn’t so long. I was wrong, and the tunnel had light sensors that would turn on the light as you passed through. At first this was pretty cool because you could see that the tunnel went on for ages, but it wasn’t so great when the sensors were a little slow to react and you would be cycling in pitch black for a couple of seconds, not knowing what could be up ahead. At the end of the tunnel, the path started to open out onto a canal path. It wasn’t until I looked down at the Garmin that I realised I might be stuck on the canal path for a very long time – 80km in fact. The canal was extremely pretty in parts, but it could at times feel like you were on a treadmill, whilst the same scenery was replayed over and over on a television screen in front. The road was also not always so smooth, which slowed me down significantly – mainly due to the roots from the trees that lined the side road to keep the canal shaded, and at times this could be extremely frustrating.

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The arrival into Agen was quite special, considering the fact that the canal path had been mostly arduous given the deja vu of scenery I had experienced… After travelling along the tow path of the canal for so long, I cycled along the Agen Aqueduct just before entering the city, which had spectacular views of the surrounding area, where you could see high into the foothills where there seemed to preside a monastery that overlooked the city. After riding close to a hundred miles, I was looking forward to stopping in Agen at a small cafe, finding some wifi and connecting with a new couchsurfer.

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Outside one of the main churches in Agen, under the shade of a tree!

Agen was, in this sense a new experience for me, as this time I had not completely been able to organise someone to couchsurf with. I finally found some wifi and could use the app – but the woman who said that she may be able to host me had not replied. I now had no place to stay, so was looking at all the options, from an airbnb, to hotel room. I thought I would give messaging a few more couchsurfers in Agen a go, but considering the previous responses, and the fact that there were relatively few couchsurfers in Agen, I wasn’t entirely hopeful. My frantic message was sent in a scattergun manner, hoping that anyone would pick it up. To my surprise, a guy called Alexis came to my rescue, turned up on his bike and asked me if I fancied going for a quick ice-cream.

My stay with Alexis was probably one of the most fun I had on the whole trip. While Agen was not a particularly spectacular place, his company was a lot of fun and made me forget that I had felt so far from home only a few days previously. The France vs Iceland quarter-final was going to be played on the same night, and it was nice to meet a guy with a lot of the same passions as myself. Alexis was very keen on the football, as well as wanting to try his hand in the music business as a producer – which is something I admired. We went out and grabbed some beers, played some fifa and enjoyed an attacking onslaught from France in a 5-2 victory against Iceland. I had felt that even though I only managed to spend one evening with Alexis, it was like we had known each other for a long time and as though we were meeting as old friends. It is quite strange how people can gel, but I am glad this couchsurfing experience led me to meet someone like him.

I headed out early again, after sleeping on Alexis’ sofa, that was actually more comfortable than it looked. On this day I would be meeting up with my housemate from University, whilst staying at his grandparent’s house in Castelnaudary; a small French town half-way between Bordeaux and Montpellier. Because I had wanted to get there slightly earlier than usual, as well as the fact that cycling straight to Castelnaudary could have proved almost impossible, Sam’s grandmother, Henriette, picked me up in her car from the small village of Saint Jory, which was about 40km north of Castelnaudary. Again I would be having another rest day, after cycling around 180 miles in two days, which would be followed by some extremely hard days of riding to both Montpellier and Marseille.

Sam’s grandmother and her partner Louis, lived in a fairly large old farmhouse that was only metres from the long winding canal that I had travelled on to and from Agen. I said hello to my new hosts and went to have a nice shower – one that I was desperately in need of given that the heat had started to rise dramatically in the South of France. My time in Castelnaudary was spent loading on the carbs, with all the food that Henriette prepared. It seemed that each meal was of mammoth proportion, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I enjoyed the local cuisine, cassoulet, which so many people had been talking to me about on my trip when I had mentioned I was staying in Castelnaudary – it seems that the town’s cuisine was known all over France. Indeed I was not let down, the cassoulet consisted of lots of haricot beans, large and meaty sausages, duck and lots of other things. It was basically a big hearty stew that was extremely delicious and I’m sure it could become a favourite in England if it was readily available!

The rest of my time was spent catching up with one of my good friends from University, whilst also trying my hand at fishing – something I hadn’t really ever done apart from once on a holiday in Ireland when I was little. Being fairly restless, Sam thought I would be better suited to “casting”, where I cast out my line, and reel it in quickly, repeating this step over and over. He had told me that he had never caught anything this way in the canal as often the fish weren’t so predatory. My luck, at least in terms of catching fish, seemed to changed and after a little while getting bored of the repetition, I finally managed to get something on the line! It wasn’t huge, but it was, according to Sam, a rare fish (in England) called a Zander. I have to say that I wasn’t overly enthused about fishing, but after catching a relatively big fish (for me) I did get excited for at least a little while…

I had really enjoyed my time in Castelnaudary, and it was really nice to catch up with a good friend, considering I hadn’t seen him for such a long time, but I was on the move again, and this time to Montpellier. Henriette insisted that I be given a lift part of the way, as it would reach 35 degrees when the sun was at its highest peak. I awoke very early again, and as all these early mornings were catching up with me – I ended up falling asleep on Sam’s girlfriend, Laura, for most of the journey to my start point.

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We stopped in Narbonne, where I took the bicycle off the rack and began to load everything back onto the bike for the long journey ahead. The ride, even though 50km or so had been cut out by the drive, would still be about 150km, which meant that I was still cycling around 90 miles, and this time in the hottest heat I had yet experienced. I said goodbye and set off, quickly through the town of Narbonne (which looked extremely nice), and I had noticed that the landscape and smells had distinctly changed to make me think of Spain. The crickets rubbed their legs together in the trees with singed leaves from the sun, whilst I the heat of the sun refract off the asphalt – so hot you could cook an egg. I hadn’t ever experienced training or doing anything physical in 35 degree heat, but with the benefit of the breeze generated from travelling on the bicycle, I was seeming to manage OK! The ride to Montpellier was occasionally bleak, as it was a fairly barren and dusty landscape, but it did make the ride more interesting given that I was more accustomed to seeing golden fields, rather than deep red, dry farmland.

The ride seemed to end fairly quickly, given that I was getting used to doing seven or 8 hour days. Despite the heat, I had managed to cover around 75 miles in just under six hours. The hardest part was trying to find my next host’s flat, which was surrounded by high rise towers that all seemed to look the same. I finally got to the place, and Eddie came down and welcomed me in. He took me up to the sixth floor where his apartment was, and was greeted also by a topless and very small, aged man called Patrice. It turned out that both Eddie and Patrice were in a civil partnership, but did seem a little bit of an odd couple given their relative age gap and cultural background. I took a shower and Eddie offered to show me around the city, which I thought was a good opportunity to perhaps see the city from a non-touristic point of view. We headed first for the city gardens, which were full of exotic plants and many people were just sitting, chilling out and generally doing nothing. Eddie then showed me one of the cities highest point, with a view that stretched for miles, and I could just about make out some of the roads I had actually taken into the city, which was pretty cool. I saw the main plaza, which was very modern and there were lots of nice little parks dotted about all over the town. Montpellier was a pretty city, not too big and not too small, I felt like it had almost a similar feel to that of Lisbon, with the moderately sized buildings, all the shops and central plazas, giving the area a distinctly Latin feel; at least that was my opinion anyway!

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My host Eddie

We headed back to the apartment, which now seemed quite far away, given that my legs had just begun to feel heavy as the tiredness kicked in. Eddie cooked a nice Malaysian-style chicken curry, as this is where he was from, and it was very good! He explained that he was considered a shaman within his family, which meant he was interconnected with the family spirit – I wasn’t sure how much of this I believed (I didn’t believe any of it), but didn’t want my host to think he was being ridiculous (I did a little bit). Regardless, it was interesting to get a completely different cultural perspective, while it was intriguing to watch the dynamics of a couple who were such a strange match for each other, that it  did make for entertaining viewing.. I decided to get some sleep early, as I knew I would have to get up extremely early for my ride to Marseille – which I was really looking forward to; simply for the atmosphere of the game between France and Germany. I was certain that it would be the match of the tournament, and with Marseille’s reputation for its passionate fans and football-mad culture, I was extremely excited to see what the next day would bring…

Next blog will be about my experience of the Semi-Finals in Marseille, stupid french trains and the spectacular town of Lyon.

Peace!

Poitiers – Cognac – Bordeaux

Sorry I have been pretty useless with the blogging, I’m trying to get up to speed so will be doing blogs in quick succession on all the different legs of the journey!

It was the first time the tiredness had truly started to kick in, and my legs felt heavy after the few hours sleep I had managed to get on a sofa in Tours. I said goodbye to my new friend Etienne, who had taken me around all the hot spots of town the night before, heading for the nearest Carrefour in search for a banana or two for breakfast.

I began the ride and after stretching the legs for a few miles, I had started to feel a little less stiff and my body started to move like clockwork again. The scenery soon became vastly different from the hectares of golden wheat and corn fields I had been seeing for the previous three days; to  scenes of rolling brown and green fields, full of vineyards for the production of both wine and Cognac. Despite being one of my shorter rides (I would only be riding around 120km that day), I found the ride, especially in the latter stages to be extremely difficult – especially the last 15km. Poitiers is based upon a hillside and although this makes it an extremely pretty area, I could not begin to fully appreciate it all due to the fact that my knees began to feel as though they might burst from the cap from all the pressure I was exerting…

Poitiers was only very small and was made up of a maze of small and winding side streets all interlinked between a few squares or plazas that played host to dazzling white churches and a small cathedral. Kevin, my host in Poitiers, had an apartment round the corner from one of the main streets and almost as quickly as I had put my bike inside and sat down, he mentioned two simple words: “Happy Hour”. Not needing much persuasion after a long days riding and keen to experience what Poitiers had to offer, I threw on a t-shirt that seemed clean and a pair of shorts and headed to Kevin’s favourite bar. I met his friends who were an eclectic mix of heavy metal enthusiasts, photographers and mostly really arty guys. I had conversations with a guy who had grown up in the north of England, and had spent his adolescence in Wakefield (which fully explained his strange Yorkshire accent whilst speaking in English), while also having a “signed conversation” with another of Kevin’s friends (due to my bad French) about his wine and cheese-making business; you could not have got any more French than this guy… After chatting for a while, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to “Brexit”, and it would not be the last time the conversation was to be had. Thank God for the Chouffe (strong Belgian beer) I held in my hand, because this conversation was never going to be a short or easy one.

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My host Kevin in Poitiers

After a few of the aforementioned beers, my legs had began to feel so light that I could have been floating for all I knew. My tiredness had kicked in around the same time that the beer prices began to rise, and we headed back for a huge bowl of pasta cooked by Kevin. He insisted that I caught up with the latest Game of Thrones season finale, which was accompanied by a running commentary of what was happening from my host – for better or worse. My eyes started to drop as soon as Cersi had blown Kings Landing to pieces and I hit the hay; falling asleep probably even before my head had hit the pillow.

I awoke feeling pretty fresh, given that just the day before my legs had felt like they were finally ready to give up on me. I quickly said goodbye to my host Kevin as I wolfed down some bread, eggs and yoghurt before a big ride ahead to Cognac. I set off, worried in the first instance that given the nature of the previous day, that I might be in for another hilly ride. Thankfully the gradient would be in my favour for one of the first times on the trip. The rolling hills that I was dreading turned out to be downhill in the majority, which made for extremely nice riding into the small province of Cognac. I followed the Boutonne river as it flowed towards the Atlantic ocean, which meant that like the river, I would always be heading downstream, which made for a good ride, considering the torrid time I had endured during the previous day. However, as I had already found out on this trip, the plain sailing was usually short-lived, and with about 20km to go to Cognac, some typically shoddy French roadworks would prove to be my downfall. A newly tarmacked road had been left partially finished, with no signs to say that there was a slight gap where both the old and new road should have been conjoined. Travelling downhill, I was probably reaching speeds of around 25mph when I both metaphorically and physically hit a bump in the road. “CRACK!” was all I heard, and my immediate reaction was to think that the whole frame had been severed under the weight of my panniers. As I tentatively looked around, I feared the worst – that my trip might have ended prematurely and unexpectedly, mirroring England’s own disappearance from the Euro 2016 tournament to the hands of Iceland. What I saw wasn’t exactly relieving, but did make me feel slightly more optimistic. My panniers had snapped from my seatpost, and at first it was not entirely clear whether this would be amendable. It turns out that it was just the bolt that had snapped, but it would require the ability to locate a similar or same-sized bolt in a village that was only five houses big.

I surprised myself with just how calm I was, I think I may have even laughed. My luck on this trip had not been the best and if it was to be the final nail in my coffin, I might as well go out with a smile on my face. The other thing I had discovered on this trip was that help presented itself in the most unlikely of places, with this instance being no exception. I knocked on the gate of the first house I came across as I had noticed a woman playing with some kittens in the garden. She let me in and I pleaded in broken french for some help with my bicycle, and if she knew where I might get a new bolt. Her husband emerged from the kitchen, and headed straight into his workshop hidden in the corner of their garden. he brought out a couple of different screws for me to try and one managed to be the perfect fit. I could not believe my luck that in the middle of nowhere I had managed to break down outside the one house that happened to have the bolt I would need. I did feel in this moment that someone somewhere was looking out for me.

I said my many many thanks and headed off to Cognac, finding the extra energy to cover the last 20km in about three quarters of an hour. I was staying with a guy called Bernard, and I arrived at his house to an open door with the strong smell of Marlboro pervading through the entrance. Bernard was at his computer sat in his wheelchair, but was a mammoth of a man, who filled out the side of his chair (not so) comfortably. On offering me a drink after my long cycle, I accepted and was presented with what I had thought was homemade apple juice. It was in fact a mojito that tasted so strong it could have been made with anti-freeze, so it wasn’t long before I poured it down the sink while Bernard wasn’t looking… Bernard asked me to go and get dinner, which of course I was fine with, given that he was hosting me for the evening, but after he asked for a kebab and chips I felt slightly uneasy that I might actually be contributing to his early death by obesity. Caution was thrown to the wind however, because I myself fancied something greasy after a long ride, whilst the opportunity to be relieved from the smoke-den for half an hour was could not be missed.

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Bicycle without panniers on the way into Cognac for some food

I returned with the food and we sat and ate, while I heard stories of Bernard growing up in the army whilst the Cold War had struck Europe and his friendliness with the NKVD agents where he was based in East Germany. After a few crazy stories in broken French, I decided to head to bed where I wouldn’t be enduring Bernard’s second-hand smoke and could finally get some rest. I needed my sleep because I was going to attempt to get to Bordeaux relatively quickly given that I was treating myself to a rest day the day after.

Waking up, I said my goodbyes to Bernard, who it seemed had fallen asleep in his chair all night, as he was still in the same outfit as the night before (and probably the days before that too). Bernard was a nice guy, but his excessive smoking and eating habits meant I needed to dash, fast. Once again the scenery was some of the best I experienced on my trip, made even better by the fact that the sun remained low in the early morning and had only just began to break over the top of the hills in the distance. I headed towards the Gironde, the river I would have to cross to get into the old city of Bordeaux. The traffic began to get heavier, a testament to the fact that I was visiting a more densely populated area than the sparse towns and villages of the North I had visited. The city skyline was beautiful, with no high-rise flats or office buildings, giving the place a “pre-revolutionary France” feel. For those who who watched the film adaptation of Les Miserables this is exactly as a city would be depicted within that era. This time I would be staying with the owner of two of the more popular student pubs with the city walls, Alison, and I needed to head to the HMS Victory on Place Victoire to pick up the keys to her house.

Alison was out at a Wedding, so I waited for her to get back while I sorted my bike and panniers out. By the time she arrived it was a little later and she suggested that we go and grab a bite to eat and she could show me the city by night. Bordeaux, becomes even more beautiful when the night draws in and the thousands of street lights begin to illuminate the city. We walked past some of Alison’s favourite squares and visited a couple of bars in the process. I experienced the French version of tapas and drank the local wine, both of which were very good! After catching the back end of a performance of an a Californian blues-rock band, I headed home, eager to catch some z’s as the tiredness from the day’s ride caught up with me.

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The next day, as Alison went out to work, I prepared for the big quarter-final between Germany and Italy, by putting on my Germany shirt in support of the old enemy, thanks in part to the dismal showing of England at this year’s Euro tournament. Having now had my chances of supporting a winning team increased ten-fold, I headed into the city to explore on my own. Despite poor weather, many fans were out in force and it felt like the city was awash with black, red and gold. It was clear that the Germans were interested in taking the crown from the Irish, for being the best set of fans left in the tournament. They were in good spirits and filled most of the streets, chanting about zuper Deutschland and the messiah that was Jurgy Low (their manager). As I walked through the winding streets of Bordeaux it was difficult to spot the boys in blue, and it wasn’t until later on in the afternoon that most of the Italians began to arrive. The party atmosphere commenced as both sets of fans sang to each other about past glories that I could only dream about with England.

The time for the game drew closer and I headed over to the fan park, which was absolutely massive in size, far larger than the one in the centre of Lens. As the first half began, it could be said that the atmosphere was slightly lacking, partly due to the poor possession football that was on show, but also due to the fact that many of the fans I had seen earlier had obviously left for the stadium, which meant that it was more of a neutral crowd that headed into the fan park. With nothing too much happening in the first half of the match, there was a mass exoive ldus from the fan park, I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I felt I might be better placed watching the match in one of Alison’s pubs, where the atmosphere would be rocking, as I had seen her pub had featured on the news when the Welsh came to town

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The second half started and I was sipping a beer in the company of two guys who had come to Bordeaux from Bilbao for the day. These two Basque guys were huge football fans, but didn’t really support the Spanish national side, seemingly due to their affinity for Basque independence. They seemed to like the England team, but agreed with me that it was never easy watching a team with so much potential constantly not performing on the big stage. After a dull second half and a cagey 30 minutes of extra time, penalties loomed and made the atmosphere inside the pub tense, given that many people seemed to have bets on each team, or had either Germany or Italy in their sweep stake at work.. Some terrible penalty-taking, uncharacteristic of both teams, meant that it was the most intense penalty shoot-out in the whole competition. Germany managed to prevail after some heroics from Manuel Neuer, the man-mountain, and a poor penalty from a nervous-looking Matteo Darmian.

Alison popped into the pub to come and drag me out to another pub to meet some more of her friends. We stopped by a pub that overlooked the river Garonne, and Alison led me to the bar to meet two of the biggest guys I have ever seen. I couldn’t get over how small they made both the bar look, and the stools on which they were sat upon.  As it turns out, both were professional rugby players for Union Bordeaux who play in the Top French League. Both Steven Kitchoff and Jandre Marais were really nice guys and after hearing about my trip, bought me a beer! I found out only a little while after that Steven had just made his debut for the South African national team and that he was heading back to South Africa in order to play with them more. This trip has allowed me to meet many new faces, but I didn’t think at any point in my life that a Springbok would be buying me a beer, so cheers Steven!

My time in Bordeaux came to a close as I headed back to Alison’s to sort all my stuff out for the next day and get some rest before a long cycle to Agen the next day. Having the extra day in Bordeaux had really helped me to rest up, and it was great to meet Alison, who showed me all the parts of Bordeaux that no ordinary tourist would see. I’ve been amazed on the trip to find so many people willing to help me out, and Alison was one of the best!

My next post will be about Agen, Castelnaudary and Montpellier, cheers for reading!

Peace!

Lens-Beauvais-Chartres-Tours

As I write this, I am a little behind in what I am doing, but I wanted to be able to fully formulate what parts of the trip were interesting/worth talking about; so although I am actually as far into my 9th day, I will be writing about my first five days – which were eventful to say the least…

After my previous post highlighted the many many problems I have been experiencing along the way, it must be said that the trip has been thoroughly enjoyable, although very challenging by physically and mentally.

Lens surprised me with its authentic industrial town charm, that reminded me of being back home, with Redditch being of similar size and scope to Lens. The atmosphere could be described as electric, due to the presence of many football fans, mostly in support of Portugal, but there were many rogue Belgian fans also. I met two guys on my way into Lens, on the train, where we shared a beer and spoke about the inability of the portly Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots, to organise a team full of such promise as the Belgian national team. (It must be said that my assessment of Belgium was hypocritical, given the ineptness of both the England team and their blubbering manager).

My hosts in Lens were great, with both Terence and Sheriban being very open-minded people who put the needs of others, first. This was clear from the onset, when Terence said he would have no problem taking me to and from the game, no matter what time it finished, while he also whisked me away to Decathlon to sort out some of the problems with my bike.

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I headed to the game, which could not have been considered a classic, but the support from both sets of fans provided a great atmosphere for the neutrals within the ground. I did not expect such frenzied support from the Portuguese side, expecting a more reserved nature – but boy was I wrong! A last minute winner for Portugal sent the fans into raptures, whilst many Croatian fans held their heads in hands after their hearts had been in their mouths for a full 120 minutes.

After the game, heading back into town, I met a Northern Irish chap and two of his french friends. I was wearing an RC Lens shirt, and could see that I was receiving a few conspicuous looks. It turns out that the two French guys were serious, serious supporters of the club, and it wasn’t until I had demonstrated some well-researched facts about the team, that they deemed it was acceptable for me to wear the colours of the “Blood and Gold”. We shared a beer and spoke about the games, while the tougher looking french guy harked back to his days as a top dog as an RC Lens football hooligan, which he had to give up on due to an impending job in the public sector…

Beauvais was another fairly quite town, that could not be rescued by the draw of football due to no games being held near, while the only thing truly providing a buzz for Beauvais was the sounds of the plane engines that flew over head from the cheap and relatively close, Tille Airport. I spent the night was Julie and her son Mady. Julie was a music teacher in a local school, while Mady was around seven or eight years old, still mesmerised  by the likes of spiderman and pokemon cards. I enjoyed a hearty meal of sausages and vegetables, and Julie my host was so much fun and an all-round lovely person. It is people like her that make doing a trip such as the one I am doing, so much easier!

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Feeling like I was relatively now “trouble-free” from anything going wrong on my bike (or so I thought) I headed on down the Chartres. When I head read about each place, I had gathered that the area would be much the same as Stratford-Upon-Avon in terms of its history and average age of about 65. About 10 kilometres from my destination, my newly fitted tyre which I have explained about in my earlier post, experienced a slight rip, which punctured a hole in my new inner tube. As I began to change the tyre, the weather began to turn, and soon I was engulfed in monsoon rain, drenched right through, along with my bag and bike. I finally arrived in Chartres, near where I was staying, looking as drowned as a rat that had stowed aboard the sinking ship of the Titanic. My host Claire was pretty accommodating, though I did find that we were two quite different people. Her methods and way of life was a little different to my own, but I couldn’t question her unshakeable determination that she was going to be living in a mud-hut in Morocco with a 20-year old Moroccan man. Good luck to her was all I could think of, because shes going to need all the luck she can get…

The journey from Chartres to Tours was an extremely long one, and I was already starting to really rack up the miles. this distance would see me cover about 115 miles, which is the equivalent of around 185 kilometres. The long roads that went past field after field, was the same road that Pilgrims would walk on their way down to Santiago de Compostella in the Galacia region of Spain. The countryside was vast and winding, but extremely beautiful at the same time. the bright greens and sharp yellows of the fields of maize were like something out of an oil painting of old. I finally managed to get to Tours with extremely tired legs, meeting my host Etienne for the first time. Etienne was a great guy, who worked for an international company, but still manged to visit heavy metal concerts on the weekends and had set up his very own metal festival in the meantime. He gave me a guided tour of the city (of Tours) and I was amazed at just how beautiful the place was, as well as the heavy student population that the city walls entertained. It was surprising as I had not really heard of  Tours before my trip, but it is a place that I feel should be on most people’s list of places to visit in France!

I will be providing a further update to the blog hopefully tomorrow, where I will be in Montpellier, and I will hopefully talk about my trip from Tours to Bordeaux. For now however, I will have to leave it there as I work off the remainder of the last 20 minutes of internet EE has kindly provided for me at a cost of £3 per day…

Cheers for reading (again)

Peace!

99 Problems and a tyre’s just one.

So the journey begins…

With the trusty Garmin adding on an extra twenty miles to the ride each day, I have been in no fit state to write! As I write this I am currently in Bordeaux, able to chill a little because I’m squeezing in a little rest day before heading on over to Marseille, so here goes!

The ferry hull opens after approximately 3 hours after departure, in the muggy and gloomy port of Dunkirk. I was excited for my journey to begin, only for my mood to align itself with the weather upon finding my tyre had been punctured at some point on my 100m ride onboard the ship… As many of the cars and lorries drove past, I had rear-ended my bike and began working away on fixing my tyre – not the best start. What proceeded to follow on my first day was nothing short of a tragedy, Shakespeare himself couldn’t write a better plotline.

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DCIM102GOPRO

After another 10 kilometres, the inner tube again blew, and I was starting to lose my head. What was I going to do, who could I call, where was I going to go, was my bicycle tour about to turn into an extremely expensive tour of France by train? I wanted to leave the bike in the ditch and get the next ferry home. You learn a lot more about yourself when things go wrong than go right, and I found myself staying relatively calm despite nearly wasting all of my CO2 cannisters to blow up tyres that would only pop five kilometres down the line and not understanding where the problem lay, given that one tyre was new and the other had no sign of damage.

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Met a couple of nice Belgian blokes on the train, ready to go and watch Croatia vs Portugal in Lens – shame about the outcome!!

As if by divine intervention, I found help in the most unlikely of places, indeed I was very lucky. A man in a van, helped me on the the next big town; a local farmer who had no concept of English took me to a Decathlon and back; whilst after a quick train journey and a third blowout soon after getting back on the bike, a nice bookshop owner managed to take me to my first host for the evening, just outside of Lens. Problems occured on the second day, despite me thinking that I had everything sorted – another tyre blew. if it hadn’t have been the fact that I broke down next to where a local mountain biking club where having an annual meet, I would have been truly stuffed given that in France everything on a Sunday is closed. The club president sorted me out with a spare tyre he had and a sandwich, then sent me on my way to Beauvais.

From this point, it looked as though I was finally alright, and after a trouble-free trip to Beauvais, I thought I  could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t to be and I discovered a small rip in the spare tyre I had been given, that led me to needing to change another inner tube on the way to Chartres, nicely timed just as the monsoon weather hit, where myself and everything I owned was soaked to the hilt, before having to cycle another 10 kilometres looking like a drowned rat on wheels. After sorting out a new tyre in Chartres, I thought my problems had dissipated, but alas this was not to be, when a newly laid road that masked a harsh dip in the road caused my seatpost pannier rack to come away from my bike as the bolt holding the two together had been severed in two by the impact of the dip. I had to laugh, and once again got lucky in the fact that the first house I just happened to go to with my problem, had a similar-sized bolt that I could use. As I write this, I keep my fingers crossed that this is the last of my problems, but only time will tell…

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A post-problem bike! (fingers crossed)

With regards to the actual ride, the scenery has been stunning and two of the bigger cities I have visited have been really beautiful. The rolling fields of yellows and greens dominated the first couple of days of riding, with the endless amount of farming that seems to be in abundance in northern France. the rides through Chartres and Tour were extremely long and I completely underestimated just how many miles I would be doing… The difficulty of my rides are made better by the fact that the scenery is just simply stunning; though sometimes the settings can be eerie and daunting, given the fact that sometimes I don’t even see another car for half an hour, such is the remoteness of the places through which I am travelling. It hasn’t been easy. I cannot pretend that sometimes it feels as if my knees are about to pop and that my tired body won’t be able to withstand many more miles. On the odd occasion I think about the fact that I am completely on my own with no back-up in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country (despite it only being France), and it is scary and makes me wish I was back home with everyone else. But this is part of the challenge; I am to test myself and push myself to my limits, otherwise how am I to know just whar those limits are? There are simply too many that say “Why?” and not enough that say “Why not?” – I fully intend to remain in that second camp, despite whatever setbacks that this trip throws at me.

I’ll be posting again tomorrow to talk a bit more about my locations and various hosts I’ve stayed with, cheers for the support and reading this once again!

Peace!

Training: Up North (sort of)

D-Day is around the corner, as I rock up on a boat on the shores of Dunkirk, northern France on Saturday. Armed with a bicycle and two sturdy legs as my ammunition, I will be gunning on down to Lens to catch the first game in the Knockout phases of Euro 2016. A little bit more about this later, as I want to talk a little bit about my training in the build-up!

Coming back home after finishing my time at the University of Southampton, I was looking forward to cycling the glorious countryside that surrounds my area; namely the Cotswolds. However, despite enjoying unbelievable weather during my last few weeks down South, I wasn’t treated to quite the welcome home I could have asked for – weatherwise that is (mum you did a stellar job on my return!). With grey and gloomy clouds that were set to burst from the seams with rain, I would have to choose my rides carefully, and it could have severely affected my training! I did however manage to get out with a little self-encouragement, getting soaked several times in the process, but for the end goals this was all worth it…

Having been cycling down South for so long, riding back home was a little different. The Midlands area has far more hill climbs than I had been used to while down in Hampshire, the New Forest and the Dorset coastline – but this has only helped to get me fitter ready for long day rides of around 150KM. The scenery is always stunning, come rain or shine and I had both plenty of that! The pictures would highlight glorious weather, while in reality this only lasted a few hours before a monsoon would ensue, with hundreds of car-owners wondering what a cyclist was doing on the roads in such weather..

I also tried to make sure that I was capable of covering the long distances I am expected to travel around France. with an average of about 120KM per day to accomplish, I felt it necessary to complete at least one 100 mile ride, which equates to around 160km.

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I impressed myself with my speed, as I didn’t feel I was going as fast as I was. Obviously the drawback of riding a single-speed is that there is a limit to the speed at which you can ride. I have found it fairly difficult to exceed 15mph average speeds, but to be able to actually maintain and even exceed this speed for the best part of seven hours was encouraging…

Now, as I await the big day tomorrow, I am resting my legs but racking my brains thinking about what I must pack. It is difficult to know what is essential but I have figured that high factor suncream, Chamois cream for my bum and as many football shirts as I can pack would be a good place to start…

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I am really looking to kick-start my adventure, and what better way to start the trip than actually being able to go to one of the games while in France! Shout out to Charlie Burn for sorting me out with a ticket, I will be going to watch the R16 game in Lens between Group D winners, Croatia Vs. Group F underachievers Portugal. I feel like I have been lucky and bagged one of the better games of the R16 draw, hopefully there will be a lot of attacking intent and it will be great to see such greats as Ronaldo, Modric, Rakitic and of course Quaresma (behave..) in the flesh.

I also couldn’t believe my luck when scouring TK Maxx for a few last minute bits, given the fact that I will be in Lens for the game, the fact that I should stumble upon a Racing Club Lens Home jersey from the 2009-10 season, seemed to me to be fate. I will be proudly displaying the colours of the “blood & gold” as they are known in France. I can’t wait to soak up the atmosphere and sit back, relax and enjoy the game! 13510652_10153708806904849_832613226_n

To everyone who has supported me thus far, I really really appreciate all your kind messages and donations, it’s all been great and I’m proud of what’s been raised so far.. If anyone would like to support me, my JustGiving page can be found on a link within this blog, and I’m really looking forward to keeping everyone updated as I go!

 

Peace!