Tuesday 28 August 2018

Somme bike ride!

My plan had been to ride from Abbeville to Compiègne, but because I hadn't managed to ride around the lovely medieval town of Saint Valéry sur Somme the previous day I wanted to get that in first before advancing further inland.

It wasn't going to take long to get back to the coast, as Saint Valéry was only 11 miles away, and there was a convenient cycle path along the river to use as well.

So I set off from my lodgings, a nice studio apartment (La Vie est Belle) in the centre of Abbeville. A few chores I had to do got in the way and I ended up hitting the road at almost lunchtime.

I didn't take the canal path to get to Saint Valéry, preferring to save that for the return journey to Abbeville, while going along the road on my outward ride to the coastal town. In fact the roads might as well have been traffic-free given that once I was on the D3 from a village called Cambron there were hardly any vehicles. It was a very quaint sleepy village with practically no one around. Further along the road were a few cows that looked a bit startled to see any other form of life passing by!

The country lane undulated and twisted and turned through woods, and although the general direction was towards the sea, there was hardly any sign of it. It wasn't until after I reached the roundabout approaching Saint Valéry sur Somme that the coast came into view.

Saint Valéry was a very touristic place, as you would imagine. People were headed just for the main feature, the medieval city, making the paths crowded so on the bike it was a bit of a faff getting round everyone. There was a road, but it was cobbley, and with the load on my bike I think that would have been a bit too much for the frame as well as my bones!

To visit all of the medieval city you need to have lots of energy and comfortable shoes for the uphills as Saint Valéry is set on different levels. I had neither. What energy I had was being saved for my ride to Mont Didier, near Compiègne.

So my visit was confined to the highest point I could feasibly ride to, which was conveniently near an old church, the Eglise Saint-Martin, and a café thematically named Au Velocipède.

Eglise Saint-Martin opposite Au Velocipède café, St Valéry sur Somme
Although this wasn't the very top of the town where the abbey is situated I was still high enough to get a panoramic view across the bay, where Le Crotoy was situated. That town had been on my list of places to visit, but time had run out, so a visit to Le Crotoy would have to be for another day.

Seeing as it was now afternoon I made a beeline through the town to try and pick up the cycle path back to Abbeville. This is where I wasted a lot of time. I couldn't seem to find the start of the path, and at one point I joined the main N940 road and ended up cycling over it, feeling a massively frustrated as flew over the bike riders below me, not knowing how to join them. It took me almost an hour of faffing around in Saint Valéry before I was able to join the path. It was a relief to see the sign and know I was finally on the right track and I could look forward to getting back to Abbeville, grabbing a bit of lunch, and continuing onwards.

This path was really pleasant, with a smooth surface, and regular points to stop for a picnic on the various benches, plus little cafés as the path crossed various hamlets. This path, also part of a Eurovelo network, is popular, with all types of cyclists - organised recreational groups on hybrids, couples, friends, families with children, and club riders looking for a quick work-out. If this cycle path was anything to go by I would be in for a treat on the section along the River Somme to Amiens, as that would be a meandering path through woodland, as opposed to this path which was completely straight along a canal. The route from Saint Valéry to Abbeville was 15km (9.5 miles) so it wouldn't be long before I would be stopping for lunch and a photo opportunity at the big church.

Unfortunately, things didn't go to plan, when I got a puncture about 3 miles from Abbeville. What a heartsink moment when you know that even though you can sort it out, it is nevertheless going to delay you further. Also I never feel confident that I can pump up my tyres to sufficiently - particularly when I need high pressures to support my ever expanding panniers!

Well, my worries about pumping up tyres just got worse when I took out my pump only to discover the piece to attach it to the valve had snapped off (God knows how) so I had no pump at all!

Feeling somewhat folorn, I reattached the back wheel to the bike, reloaded the panniers onto the rack, and then wheeled everything, with difficulty to the nearby cafe. Although there were lots of cyclists riding by I didn't feel comfortable interrupting their rides to borrow their pump so I preferred to see if either the café owner or a cyclist on their café stop could help me. Luckily that worked, and I was able to get a pump from two Belgian women who were cycle touring.

If I was worried about the load I had on my bike, I shouldn't have been. They looked like they were each carrying a house on their bikes. Everything but the kitchen sink was piled high. When they offered to give me their pump I had to wait more than 5 minutes while they onloaded their stuff to find it! They were doing a circuit around Northern France before returning to their homes in Antwerp. Between us I don't know who was more impressed with whom - they admired how I was managing to find my way round France alone, while I was impressed at how much they could balance on their bikes. Once back on the road I was soon back in Abbeville and at a bikeshop that I had sighted the previous day as I rode from the train station to my lodgings (Vélo

Just to be sure that I wouldn't have further problems I got a new rear tyre fitted, as I realised it was a little worn and I just didn't want to take any risks.

By the time all this was done though, it was going to 5pm, the sky was looking threatening, and I wasn't sure if I really wanted to ride in what could be a heavy storm. Perhaps I could just ride to Amiens and then catch the train. Looking at the timetable, the train would leave Amiens for Compiègne, where I was headed, at 7.30pm, and according to Google it would take me 2 hours 30 to cycle to Amiens.

They guys in the bike shop reckoned it would take an hour and a half, but they also mentioned that part of the cycle path was closed, and I would need to take a diversion via Eaucourt and Pont-Remy, but if I could ride at 25 kmph (16 mph) I would be fine. I wasn't sure I could average anywhere near that speed on undulating ground, and I often stop to consult the map on these rides. It would be touch and go as to whether I could reach Amiens by 7.30pm. The train after that would be at 8.30pm, meaning I would get to my lodgings in Compiègne at almost 10pm. Not what I wanted. I didn't want to do a stressful ride where I would be up against the clock either. This was meant to be a holiday after all.

Perhaps I could do a leisurely ride up to a village called Longpré, pick up a train from there, change at Amiens, and then get another train for Compiègne. In fact that was my intention. But when I saw that there had been heavy rain in Eaucourt and the sky still looked threatening that made me change my mind about cycling over there, and return to Abbeville from where I could get the train. It is wasn't really what I wanted to do but I feel it is always important to travel in a way where you have a fall-back plan.

So my cycle ride ended just outside Abbeville, with less than 60 km on the counter, and not much further along the road through France than I was at the start of the day. There was no pleasant ride along the River Somme, no chance to see the wonderful cathedral at Amiens, and no regal entrance through the Compiègne forest into the former royal town. It really felt like a wasted day.

Eglise Saint-Vulfran, Abbeville
I really hate that feeling of having missed out on seeing something that I had just assumed I would get to see. I had been looking forward to getting to Amiens. Maybe I shouldn't have gone to Saint Valéry, but then that was a place I had really wanted to see too. And in any case why should I have had to choose between the two? It was perfectly possible to ride to both. I wanted to berate myself for not planning properly. And I cursed at the fact that I had packed so much stuff, which had meant that my bike was just too heavy for me to ride at a decent pace. But then again, given that the first part of my day was an out-and-back from Abbeville, I could have left my luggage at my lodgings and then done a quicker load-free ride. Perhaps I should return to the area in a couple of weeks so that I can just ride those parts that I missed. There were so many thoughts going round in my head.

Well, I guess one can go on about all the if-onlys, buts, perhaps etc, but I guess in these situations it is better to just look forwards. It's also good to look for the positives. The puncture happened when I was near others who could help me, rather than on a completely lost and lonely lane. I didn't get caught up in the pouring rain, where others had been on that day, I had taken some nice photos at Saint Valéry, and the big church in Abbeville.....

My trains got me to Compiègne on time, and I was met by a very friendly, bubbly lady called Véronique who showed me into a rather stylish studio right in the centre of Compiègne (Studio Centre Ville Compiègne).
Between that, and arriving to a very picturesque and pretty town, I felt like my day had not been so bad. It was a shame I only got to see Amiens train station, but I have been to Amiens in the past and I am sure I will be there again some time in the not too distant future.

Here's the route I did.

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Thursday 23 August 2018

Around the Pas de Calais coast

My departure from the hotel, a B&B chain in the St Pierre quarter, felt quite grim. Breakfast was nice, with a descent quality and quantity of food, and there was a friendly atmosphere in the dining room. But the weather was grey. All these hot sunny days that we have been experiencing recently were all but gone. At least it wasn't raining.

My front tyre pressure wasn't high enough to cope with the heavy load I was carrying. Luckily I found a bike shop close to my hotel (Brame Sports Defy Scoot) and they were able to put some air in. I always find it better to use a machine if I can possibly find one.

That delayed my start a little, and it was delayed further when I stopped at Calais Town Hall.
On this current cycling trip, which includes the Chateau de Chantilly triathlon I aim to include castles and monuments where possible.

On my arrival in Calais a couple of days ago I was struck by how run-down some parts of the town were. Cycling down the unaptly named Quai de la Loire, was a bit depressing - particularly when you just roll off the ferry excited to be in a new place and are just confronted with disused industrial buildings, undesirable looking social housing, all along worn-out roads . I wanted to name this place "forgottenville". It didn't seem to be on any public service radar.

Thankfully things improved on the appearance front the following day. The town centre isn't bad at all. In fact I took a photo of this really impressive looking building, Calais Town Hall, with its belfry, or bell tower. Construction of it began in 1885, and it was completed in 1925.

Calais Town Hall 
The building was originally built to commemorate the merging of Calais, and the then city of Saint Pierre, which is now an area of Calais, and the place where I stayed.

A more recent monument that I stopped to photograph was one that honours the people who constructed the Eurotunnel. This is one of the drills used to make the tunnels. There were six, and each one was named after the wives or daughters of the engineers. This one is Virginie.

Sadly, this monument also pays tribute to workers who died during the
construction of the tunnel. Two men on the French side, and seven on the UK side were killed in fatal accidents over the six years it took to build the tunnel. I don't know if a similar monument exists in Kent. If there isn't I think there should be. Apparently one of the tunnel boring machines on the UK side was sold on eBay for £39,999 to a scrap metal dealer, with the proceeds of the sale going to local charities.

Virginie, Queen of the Tunnel-boring machines
During my ride I passed various relics referencing the World Wars. There was a military cemetery at Wimereux, and a museum at Ambleteuse showing the machinery, vehicles and aircraft used.

Some people seemed to have acquired remnants of machines as features in their gardens. I find that a bit macabre.

Military Cemetery at Etaples, near Le Touquet 
Also along the ride were a few military cemeteries, notably one at Etaples, close to Le Touquet. Over 11,500 soldiers are buried there, mainly from World War I. It's really freakish to see so many graves ordered row after row for a few hundred metres. Some of the graves have people's ages - barely 21 years old.

Overall, I had a pleasant ride, but it was tough work. As experiènced on previous occasions, the coastline is quite undulating, and made worse when you have 15kg strapped to your rear end!

In the early part of the route I was very close to the coast, and the Kent coast with the White Cliffs of Dover were clearly visible. After all, they are only 21 miles away.

People were also stopping to visit the two promontories, Cap Gris-Nez, and Cap Blanc-Nez. The area is known as Pay des Deux Caps and part of the Côte d'Opale. It's not quite the same feel as the Côte d'Azur in the South of France, but it is worth a visit, and can be done as a day trip from the UK. You can do a few walks and play in the sand dunes not far from Boulogne sur Mer. This could be a great area for a cyclocross race!

I only stopped at Boulogne briefly, and just found it to be another monotonous northern coastal town. There might have been fun things in the town centre but I was keen to push on to Le Touquet.

Calais to Le Touquet can be cycled via the N940. Although it is a main road it is not so busy because a lot of traffic is on the parallel A16 motorway. So the vehicles en route were leisurely tourists in cars and camper vans from mainly Holland, Belgium, Germany, and the UK - hardly any French.

After Boulogne I decided to leave the main coastal road, and went inland over the toughest climb of the day - rue de Clocheville, just outside Outreau. It lasted about 1km and was about 7 or 8%. This was a big Strava segment, and I am guessing I must be bottom in the rankings given how slow I sauntered up!

A nice smooth cycle path, part of a local network 
The other big Strava segment was the run into Etaples. From Hardelot you region the N940, which is now an inland road, and there's a cycle path alongside it that is part of a Eurovelo network. It is a flat and fast, ideal for those wanting to do a time trial and really push out the Watts. I saw quite a few club cyclists doing just that!

I could definitely see a gradual improvement in the status of the different towns I passed through. Calais had seemed like a backwater - literally, that was somewhat neglected. Things were only slightly better in Boulogne, but by the time I got to Etaples, just outside Le Touquet things were definitely looking upmarket. Le Touquet (aka Paris-Plage) looked like the type of place where Parisians may well have a little pied à terre by for their weekend getaway by the sea, or where they could go for a bit of golf, tennis or just hang out in a health spa.

Life's a beach - Le Touquet-Paris Plage
Having said that, I don't know if the characters there were necessarily any nicer than you'd find anywhere else. As I stood on the bridge checking out the view, a geezer stopped and asked if he could help me with directions. I politely declined, saying that I knew where I was going. He was a little insistent saying that as a local he could show me the short cuts which aren't always clear on a map. "I don't need a map around here when there's this signposted cycle path! I'll be fine" I replied. Oh dear, he wasn't too happy and gave me a "Suit yourself, followed by an indignant Gallic shrug, punctuated with "mauvaise route". Gee this guy must have been really having issues! I hope they're not all like that in Le Touquet! After a snack stop at the beach I called things a day, and got on the train to reach my lodgings in Abbeville.

It would have been good to do the whole 80 miles by bike, but I am not fit enough to do it that quickly, and I just didn't want to be still riding at 8 o'clock at night. In any case I had done 52 undulating miles, and that was good enough for me.

Here is the route I did

Related post
Cycling to Paris again

Somme bike ride

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Cycling to Paris again

It's that time of year again when I make the trip across the water with my two wheels and wend my way to Paris. It's not that there's a rule that I have to do a London to Paris bike ride every year. Things have just happened that way recently.

It's quite a nice run, and I particularly like shuttling between my two favourite cities - two cities that have featured heavily in my life.

I was born in London, but grew up in the north of England. Living in London happened after I finished at university, and it's been my home ever since.

Paris was a temporary home for me for about five years in the early 1990s. It was only meant to have been a one-year stint just to gain experience of working abroad and doing something "interesting" that would be on par with my university contemporaries.

But I enjoyed it so much that I kept extending my time there. My return to London came down to the need to return to the mother ship, and get on with doing a professional job in the UK rather than trying to be bohemian in Paris (which was the life that many people I knew seemed to be living at that time).

It was a bit if a wrench to leave, but it's great that Paris is not far from London and I can go there fairly easily whenever I like.

So here I am again, sitting in a hotel room on the outskirts of Calais ready to hit the road to Paris. I don't normally do the ride at the same time every year. But as it happens, this trip is taking place practically a year after my last cycle ride there.

The timing is because I plan to compete in the Chantilly triathlon. It's an event I came across last year while on my way to the City of Light. Chantilly is an impressive-looking place, with beautifully rustic architecture, manicured lawns around the horse-racing course, and of course the castle. The town,  which boasts of being the French capital of the horse, is twinned with Epsom, so it has a lot to live up to!

As part of the Castle Triathlon Series, a triathlon and other sports races are held within the grounds of the Chateau de Chantilly over the August bank holiday weekend. When I was in the area last year, en route to Paris, I saw the end of the sprint race, and seeing the beautiful surroundings immediately made me decide that this is an event worth coming to do.

So before I reach Paris I will hopefully have done a triathlon,  and gotten a taste of life in a castle, though it remains to be seen whether I will be queen!

Allez, c'est parti!

Related post
Around the Pas de Calais coast

Somme bike ride