Adventures by bike – Just how far can I go on my your first self-supported journey across France?

If a friend of yours suggested a self-supported cycling trip across France what would your initial response be… “Are you nuts?” or “Yes, why not”. To be fair, I didn’t really think too much about why or what I’d said “Yes” to, other than I knew I’d made a choice to experience life expanding travels, so this invitation seemed a logical step (or revolution of my wheels) in the right direction. 

Packaging for 10 days on two wheels 

The word brevity or sparce comes massively into play here. Let’s face it, other than cycling kit what do you really need – my civvies consisted of a pair of shorts, a vest top, a jumper, long yoga pants and not much else. To carry said items for the duration I had two panniers and handlebar bag – and as the trip rolled out my packing skills got better and better, finding space that didn’t appear to exist the day before. 

To give you a little insight into our journey I’ve decided to break the trip down into three sections – Getting There, Across France, and The Journey Home – the main bulk of kilometres covered was ‘Across France’. In essence, the entire trip was one huge adventure, involving lots of navigation, several nights of random camping sourced on the fly, and we also stayed with wonderful family and friends on three very precious nights whilst away. 

Getting there – The journey unfolds

Having left London on Thursday night the last week of July, we eventually arrived in France two days later on Saturday lunchtime, just in time to commence our first proper ride of the trip. However, the journey to St. Malo in France was an adventure in itself as we had to get to Poole via train, then travel from Poole to Jersey via ferry, then another ferry from Jersey to France. Along the way various measures had been put in place to manage health and safety of passengers in regards to Covid-19, including a test on arrival in Jersey, to which I receive a daily SMS health check message that I was invited to respond ‘WELL’ to if well, and ‘COVID’ if myself of anyone in my group has symptoms. I’m happy to report that my response was always ‘WELL’ and may it remain that way. 

Covid-19 test in Jersey

Here’s the lowdown on stats:

  • 760 kms – Door-to-door from the UK, across France (St. Malo to Bergerac) and back to Blighty via plane from Bergerac into London City Airport
  • 5737 metres climbed 
  • 17 rides – 
    • Getting there (x4 rides) – London, Poole and Jersey
    • Across France (x7 rides) – Taking in several regions along the way including Bretagne, Paye de la Loire, and Poitou-Charentes 
    • The journey home (x6 rides) – Taking a series of trains to get us from Angouleme to Perigueux and nearer to Bergerac. We had lovely social engagements to fulfil, BBQs to enjoy and pools to swim in, and some little cycling trips to connect the destinations.

Across France – in a heat wave 

Day 1 – St. Malo to Mexant, 101.53km  

It is a strange but also very liberating feeling to roll off the ferry on your bike and just pedal down the road. We had our route planned for today so it was pretty straight forward navigation on our Garmin. Also, lots of leaves provided dappled sunshine through the trees so not too hot. Having reached our AirBNB we discovered our host was an eccentric cat lady – although ‘host’ is probably a generous overstatement – we got showered and settled for the night. Thankfully we had use of the kitchen facilities so we did make a delicious homemade meal with local ingredients washed down with a bottle of rose. I think staying there alone you’d want to sleep with one eye open!

Day 2 – Mexant to the Coast (Camping du Golfe) – 89.24km

We decided to make a fairly swift exit and thankfully we had some of the porridge oats we’d squirrelled from the UK with us. First stop once riding was a boulangerie – our daily ritual was to purchase a pastry, a baguette, and a filled baguette. This way we didn’t get caught out by the often ‘quirky’ opening times of mini supermarkets, charcuteries and other necessary refreshment shops. To continue our desire to be in fresh air, our destination was a campsite on the mudflats – and what a gem it was… so beautiful, quiet, amazing facilities, no WiFi, and a barn to cook another homecooked meal – plus we enjoyed some local beer. Heaven!

Day 3 – Coast to Crossac – 65.55km

This is a special day as today we see Claire – a super special woman, one of my favourite ladies in the world, and we get to celebrate her eldest boys 21st birthday! After a relatively short ride, it was wonderful to arrive in Crossac and have a cuddle with my godson Erwan who’s just adorable, funny, caring and an absolute gem. Claire is the hostess with the mostest so we enjoyed gin and tonics, nibbles, BBQ beef, salad, and other delights… and that night for me the first proper ‘sleep’ – it was great to wake up feeling refreshed.  Friends for life, Claire and I have the ability to click back seamlessly, laugh endlessly, have a bloody good time being silly and entertaining ourselves with daft antics – effortless and beautiful. 

Refreshing local beer at the end of a hot sunny day

Day 4 – Crossac to Montaigu – 120.73km

Having said our ‘Good-byes’, and for me with a few tears as the last time I spent some time with Claire was just before we went into ‘lockdown’ in Barcelona, so I was a little emotional – the visit was lovely but just too short. Packed and ready we set off down the lanes shortly after 9am with freshly laundered clothes in our bags (very grateful for that). On Claire’s recommendation we amended our route to cross the river on La Bac de Loire, a little ferry between Indre and La Montagne. It saved us traversing the massively high bridge at Nantes, a slightly scary thought as it’s pretty windy up there. Having made swift progress through endless fields of sunflowers, we stopped for a ‘Plat du Jour’… the starter I chose was terrine, the main veal with tagliatelle, followed by chocolate mousse. All I’m going to say is we did well to consume the main at all… I nicknamed it ‘Testicle Tagliatelle’… it turned out to be veal kidneys (I hate kidneys). The main thing is it fuelled us for the afternoon and to find a wonderful campsite where we watched a glorious sunset, dined on tomatoes, tuna, onion and baguette and drank some chilled local beer. I found the sound of the donkey ‘eeeeooooorrring’ at dusk and dawn strangely comforting and rather cute. 

My home for the night

Day 5 – Montaigu to Niort, Magne – 51.90km + 106.52km

Today brings another super ‘hot hot hot’ day… 44 degrees, endless sunflower and corn fields roll out in front of us with very few places to replenish our water bottles. Peach iced tea once again quenched our thirst and provided a shot of sugar quickly into our systems, and thankfully the cemetery water taps where we soaked our hair, soaked our clothes, refilled our bottles and drank a lot on the spot. Sometimes it’s only when you stop near a water source that you realise just how thirsty you are. Not realising the distance we would need to cover in the afternoon, for the second and last time, we stopped for a Plat du Jour in Ferriere. Our meal consisted of melon and palma ham, porc chop and salad, followed by pear tart and coffee – delicious (hooray for no kidneys), and it was much lighter without the pasta!! Again, a fabulous campsite found at dusk, so a super quick shower, eat and sleep.

Lunch stop in the sun

Day 6 – Niort, Magne to Angouleme – 124.86km

Early to rise for what was to be our last long hot day in the saddle. The heat in the afternoon was relentless, frying and baking our skin – no cool breeze to regulate our temperature so by the evening I think I had a bit of heatstroke, my bottom lip was also burnt and blistered which was uncomfortable. Thankfully a charcuterie was open at lunchtime so we purchased some rillette and some goodies for dinner. Rolling fields of sunflowers waved at us all day as we cycled through another region… madness probably in the heat. In the evening at dusk we found a fabulous campsite, managed to sneak in before the reception closed at 8.30pm, but sadly we missed the restaurant so we had warm quiche Lorraine, warm salmon and spinach slice, and delicious fresh fruit. You learn quickly to never throw any food away as you don’t really know where your next meal is coming from, so it pays to be prepared and always have some emergency supplies stashed away.

It was on this day as we neared Angouleme that we decided to get the train for the next leg to Perigueux. A welcome rest to our legs but a slightly anxious time to with Covid-19 and the restrictions with getting a bike on a train in France. I swear guardian angels had watched over us the whole week as the SNCF and tourist information staff were super helpful which made our journey easier. Not being allowed on the initial train we’d booked also allowed us to enjoy a galette before our new train left, and a carafe of rose and ice-cream for lunch in Courtras on a ‘transition stop’. 

Fields and fields of sunflowers

The journey home –trains, planes and bicycles 

Having started to use trains as a mode of transport for me this marked the start of our journey home. We stay with Bill, Denise’s cousin who lives in a picturesque farmhouse on Friday night, then her friends Nicola and Darren on Saturday who live 20 mins from Bergerac – these two days were a welcome slowing of pace for some stolen and much needed relaxing social time. It was also a time to pack our bags away in cardboard boxes to get them on the plane from Bergerac to London City. It was quite entertaining if a little stressful having to re-pack my bike at the airport, but the BA crew were fantastically helpful and kind.

Flying from Bergerac, France to London City Airport, UK

The plane had maximum 30 people on so plenty of space to socially distance. In line with health and safety rules, the plane was spotlessly clean, everyone was wearing masks, and the flight was fluid and quick. On arrival in London it was time to put our bikes back together and pedal home – it seemed only fitting to stop en route at the pub in Putney for a beer to celebrate our adventure and reflect a little on what we’d achieved.

Nights under the stars 

It would be true to say that I’m not someone who would look to camp, so this was the No.1 hurdle for me to overcome. Thankfully I have some fairly adventurous friends (I seem to have a few) and fellow cyclist Sally lent me her two-man tent. Although how you’d fit two normal sized people in it is beyond me, but for the time I was away, and for a subsequent ‘Bivvy Weekend’ in the UK organised by Jasmijn Muller, it was a home and safe sanctuary as I tried to sleep through some super-hot nights. 

A few ‘Thank you’ to make… 

Friends and some fellow cycling nuts 

  • Denise – If it wasn’t for your determination to find a route across the channel and your sense of adventure this trip would not have happened 
  • Claire – I’ve known you for over 40 years and you’re my rock, always wonderful memories made and fabulous to celebrate Oliver’s 21st birthday 
  • Bill – For your amazing hospitality, amazing food, engaging storytelling, home cooked food and a safe place to camp for the night 
  • Nicola and Darren – For the warm welcoming, great conversation, delicious BBQ, relaxing and rejuvenating pool, and safe haven for the night 
  • Sally – If we’d not got together at yours for a BBQ the weekend before I’d have missed out on borrowing your portable home 
  • Jasmijn Muller – I may (coughs – definitely have) put on a few Covid kilos, but thanks to your training I’m fitter and stronger than I was this time last year
  • Rohan – AKA Dr D, my friend and mechanic who looks after all my bikes, keeps them safe and make them ‘sparkly a new’ every time he works on them
  • Clubs Bella Velo and Kingston Wheelers for having me and for enabling so many great adventures and friendships.
Our final destination – time for a swim in the pool!

Adventure Kit and Active Travel brands 

  • Apidura – Jonathan was a superstar for getting my new products to me in time for departure (9L Expedition Handlebar Pack, 9L Expedition Saddle Pack, 1.2L Backcountry Food Pouch and 1L Backcountry Top Tube Pack) – I feel this was the first of many bike packing adventures, many more to come. 
  • LifeVenture – Endless kit here including sleeping bag silk liner, 22L waterproof lightweight rucksack (packs down really small) which was perfect for food shops at the end of a day, and my washbag (used on multiple trips and adventures).
  • Eagle Creek – Packing cubes… I’ve had these for over 25 years and they’re still going strong. For camping they double up well as a pillow. 
  • Ortlieb – I’ve had my panniers for over 6 years as I purchased them for commuting into London (wearing a backpack was uncomfortable and irritated my skin).
  • Wolrus – My home under the stars, a one-woman (two man) tent for life expanding travels in Covid times.
  • Genesis –  AKA “Brownie’ my steel steed for carrying me and all my kit safely on the road (and some off road as it happens thanks to Komoot)
  • Garmin 830 Edge – For navigating and orientating us in 44+ degree heat whilst in France, and for helping us locate ferry ports and other transport hubs along the way.

Life is one big adventure – let’s inspire each other 

As we travel quite literally through our years, I’m discovering more and more the importance to make every day count. Whatever is thrown down in front on me, it’s important for me to assume that people are inherently good and when asked, will be helpful, kind and inspire me to go further. On that subject, I recently received a message on Strava from Dave Compston, a friend who in July this year Everested the Col de Boyer in France, securing his place in the www.everesting.cc hall of fame. As coincidence would have it, I supported my boss and friend Roger Barr as he Everested Box Hill 73 times – the same summer (2014) I was with Dave in France training for the Raid Pyrenean. The message from Dave read:

“I thought of you Emma whilst doing the everesting, when you were here you wanted to do lots of climbing every day to reach your goal of 2,000 metres a day for 6 days.”

Dave Compson

You said…

“I’m happy to ride up and down the same hill to reach my target.”

Emma Potter

I thought how driven you were (mad), look what you’ve done. 

On that note – I’m going to sign off by saying as ordinary people, we’re all capable of doing extraordinary things. Let’s keep inspiring each other to step outside our comfort zones, try something new and have an adventure. 

SNCF – Bridging the gap

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