Calais-Nice: France in Winter

I have reached the Alps so writing blog posts, or anything else that isnt going up hills, has gone right to the top of the to do list. Only when I lit a fire at 5pm today did I finally admit I wasnt going anywhere.

The great thing about cycling though is stopping. One beer is heavenly. Warmth is like a gift from the gods. You can eat as much as you want. The view is pretty much always epic. And you feel like being lazy is being responsible for your health. So no need to worry. But I think it is time to get back to cycling before I get out of the groove.

In my defence, all of the mountains are covered in snow, and, as a novice, edging up them on a fully loaded bike, making turns on wide hairpins into impenetrable mist, feels like a terrible idea. All of the time. Especcially when there is an icy cold wind in your face and you don’t know where you are going to sleep.

But France in winter has been absolutely amazing. And the cycling is so much easier than you think. I was where I am now just over a month ago, via a plane and a car, and I kept looking out the window, thinking getting here on a bike was incomprehensible. Now it feels quite easy, but I’m feeling the same way as before about the proper mountain passes up ahead.

So here is a quick overview of some of the highlights before I set off for the final days in France.

That small amount of words is as far as I got before the Alps, five days ago, in the nice house with the fire, with all that free time on my hands, so I’m going to finish up this blog post now that I got past them, after wild camping next to the motorway…

I have passed Sisteron now, so am on what I see as the final leg of my tour in france: the “wind plains” from Calais to Paris and Orleans; the Loire river valley; the Alps; and now the South.

The biggest thing to get used to is not knowing where you will sleep. And, even if you do know, not knowing whether you will be able to get there. Some of the best times are when you cycle as much as you want, though, and then find a place to camp. Last night was the first time that strategy threatened to really go badly. Come 630 and sundown I was exploring abandoned stone huts on steep hill sides and clambering down to river banks looking for a spot in view of all of the houses in a small enclosed river valley. Being in a densely populated valley was much more difficult than in the forests on the Alps. But I found a place in the end, in an abandoned wood between the motorway and a retail park (yes, with a Decathlon).

And the hospitality of people you meet on the road has absolutely blown me away. I have stayed in people’s houses, farms, caravans and gardens, been plied with local beers, wines, cheeses, and enjoyed hearty meals throughout France. People have allowed me to stay the whole weekend when I needed a break, left keys for me to stay in glorious houses in the Alps, and accompanied me along the way to show me the best routes… Thankyou to all 🙂

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When I left Calais an elderly man stopped me in the street and shook his head gravely, acting out the effect of the wind on people stupid enough to go outside. Full of adventure I ignored him and went straight out into deserted countryside and started wobbling and stopping in turn up rolling hills. I came to my senses in a garden centre near Desvres, the first open shop I saw all day. After walking around the store shooting an amazed video of the shelves, and consuming a full pack of fizzy cola bottles and a lot of lemonade, from the local delicacies section, I decided to divert to Boulogne. Cue an even worse road for 2 hours but I got there in the end.

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Taking the elderly mans advice this time I got to Abbeville on a train and did 10k out from Abbeville to Port-le-Grand to make it to a place I had been offered to stay only one day late. I then got back on the bike and carried on to Beauvais and then on to Paris.

The Loire

Joining the Loire in Orleans was pretty majestic. There is a cycle path all the way along, alternating between the river and the canals that run parallel to it. I got used to cycling after sundown as the stars came out, with my head torch on, and camped near the banks in Sully-sur-Loire and near Sancerre.

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Just as the flat started to get surprisingly tiresome, I was very lucky to visit a cool new project in the countryside near Decize. Idea being to turn the barn, farmhouse, and land, all with a lot of work needed, into a cycling workshop and working farm. I got some good advice and decided to head into the Alps rather than go the simple way along the Rhone valley.

I went through Paray-le-Monial, staying in a religious pilgrimage house, and then started to enter the steeper territory on the way to Lyon. On the first night I got turned away from a campsite at 830pm, in the pitch black on the side of a mountain after a long climb, and ended up staying in a garden around the corner. But I got to Lyon the next day, where I stayed with a super cool couple who had cycled across Asia and Europe, on a tandem, across mountain passes as high as 4700 metres.. I promised to take a picture to match theirs with my tent, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan in it…

The Alps

The Alps have been the absolute highlight so far.

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I never once thought that I would like cycling up mountains. I was secretly convinced I would completely hate it and would only do a small amount of it to say I did it. But it’s great. Being surrounded by 3000 and 4000 metre high snow-covered mountains winding your way through valleys and villages and up and down passes is brilliant.

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If you get tired you pause and eat cola bottles. It would be very different if you ran out of cola bottles / food / water / shops but that will come later I guess.. I got into a few scrapes, including getting all the way up to the highest pass I was going to do, Col du Noyer, to find the road covered in snow and ice. Maybe the ‘closed’ signs should have been a clue. I started walking my bike through it when a police car arrived behind me and asked me politely to turn back. I can’t imagine they were happy for a lycra clad foreigner to interrupt their friday lunch, and were very friendly, and I obliged. So I had to go the very long way around, but still managed to cycle through a ski resort before a descent of around 1000 metres, going up to 60 kph on a heavy bike, ushered in the south..

Here was my last lunch in the grand Alps…

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The South

Only just beginning.. but so far I stopped in Veynes – given it was very dark I tried a chambre d’hotes and was invited in to a three course meal with wine and company from a group of people ski-walking up the big mountains nearby, followed by a great breakfast with local juices, honey, and jams.. I think it cost just a little less than my flat in London for the night… 😉

Then through Sisteron and an unfruitful detour through the Jabron river valley looking for a place to camp.. to here, about to depart to… not sure yet… either Manosque or Castellane direction… depending on whether I want to go up a mountain on the way….

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