Conjuring up a plan
It all started with too much time and not enough company. It seemed like everyone had plans, they had their other halves, their own clubs and their own adventures.
Not adverse to a challenge and with a compulsory holiday in July to fill, I started to brainstorm ideas. No ties, no limits and with ten days to play with, I knew that cycle touring was something that I wanted to give a go. I played with the idea of just heading North, plotting a route to Edinburgh and seeing how far I could make until I had to hop on a train back down South again.
Looking for a little more guidance, I consulted my cycling inspiration Mad Jack. Having toured extensively and just taken part in the Transcontinental Race, the ultimate test of self-supported, carry-it-all touring ability, I knew he’d have a suggestion or two.
It wasn’t until Jack had pointed it out that I realised my dates coincided with the start of the world’s greatest cycle race, the Tour de France. Well, it would be a crime not to, especially as the Grand Depart was being held in Normandy this year, just a stone’s throw, or rather a Brittany Ferries ride, across the water.
So off I headed, a few short weeks later, with only two ferry crossings booked, a large saddlebag attached to my Colnago C60 racing bike and a jersey pocket full of flapjacks.
Fail to prepare, prepare to adapt
Completely out of my control-freak character, I’d purposefully not planned much of the trip at all, leaving myself open to whatever opportunity came my way. The intention was to give myself the liberty to ride as little or as much as I pleased, to take on recommendations as I travelled and to join other riders along the way. However, I soon learnt that even with my makeshift paper printed map of Normandy and Brittany and the Garmin 810, it’s only usable if you’ve first downloaded the local map files.
Lesson #1. Prepare. Download maps, scout out potential routes, look up options for places to stay and sites to visit before you depart.
On leaving home, the century ride from Exeter to Poole was long enough for it to sink in, to start to shake off life’s everyday mutterings. Long enough to get a feel for the Alpkit Koala perched on my seatpost, my only luggage for 10 days on the road. I was quite proud of my 3.5kg kit, just the basics for getting by, including a change of casual clothes, a spare jersey, charging kit and the essential toiletries, most crucially the factor 50 and chamois cream. The lightweight Koala barely changed the handling of my steed, in fact seemed to steady the flightiness of the responsive C60 so that I could ride no-handed – an important quality that would go on to provide much entertainment along my solo journey.
Across the channel
It was a race from the ferry terminal in Cherbourg to Utah Beach for the finish of the first stage of the Tour. The buzz of cyclists and racing fans along the route and at the finish was incredible, and nothing could compare to the applause and cheers from the international crowds lining the race course that I inadvertently joined on my way. The first woman in the Tour de France perhaps? In my dreams.
Seize your opportunity, evade the Gendarmes
One of the best parts of being involved with the Tour was riding those same roads that the pros would be speeding along just a few hours later. Only trouble is the Gendarmes who seem to have a penchant for putting a stop to your fun as you attempt the last climb of the second day up to Le Glacier. The solution? Absolute politeness, getting off and walking your bike obediently just a hundred metres along the pavement, then quickly hopping on and jumping into the bunch of charity sportive riders that whizz past, praying that no-one notices your lack of coordinated armband (and extra luggage for that matter) as you attack attack attack on the mighty climb.
Lesson #2. If at first you don’t succeed, persist until you get what you want. You’re only passing once, after all.
Three pints too many
With the buzz of the Tour passing through Normandy and heading South, it was all too easy to get wrapped up in the excitement, especially when surrounded by numerous new friends all with a taste for the wet stuff. So easy in fact, that after three pints of Belgium’s finest, an empty stomach and a young female cyclist’s constitution, it was inevitable that I would become a little careless.
Let me tell you, trying to find an unobtrusive terraced house on your own at 3am in a foreign town whilst under the influence with no phone for a map is not so easy. And to add insult to injury, keeping your bank card tucked in the phone case may be convenient, but it really doesn’t help the situation when you’re now left without any method of communication or payment.
Lesson #3. Don’t overdo it on the beers. Don’t get pickpocketed. Don’t keep your carte bleu with your phone. The hangover will be doubly – no triply – painful.
Coping in crisis
At this point, you have two options. One – wallow in the hangover of the decade, feeling sorry for yourself and utterly hopeless, disconnected from the all-too-accessible world by the lack of internet at your fingertips and limited by the restriction of no banking capabilities. Two – embrace the challenge, forget the communication, the instantaneous help of using a mobile, adopt the old school touring methods with paper maps and cash and actually talking to people…
You can guess which one I chose. Still, it didn’t make the throbbing headache and uneasy stomach any easier to bear. Focus on the positives; I had €200 in cash that I’d just taken out the day before to see me through the rest of the trip, I had already booked a place to stay in Saint-Lô that evening and a pocket full of Madeleines hurled from the passing Tour caravans the day before. After a nightmare trying to navigate out of Cherbourg going in neverending circles, I eventually got my hands on a paper map and it was all South from there.
Lesson #4. Every challenge presents an equal and opposite opportunity. It wouldn’t be an adventure if it was easy.
A quick bit of maths can get you a long way. After spending nearly half of my Euros on a cheap Go Pro knock off so that I could take photographs again (well worth the outlay), I had just under €20 per day to spend on food and anything else bought in cash such as maps or souvenirs. When you consider how much you have to eat whilst on the bike to fuel such miles, that doesn’t get you all that far unless you are canny with your meal planning. Breakfast would typically involve a trip to the local Patisserie, lunch a browsing market affair of a demi-baguette filled with cheeses or salade Breton, or my favourite of Boursin and pear. That was like rocket fuel for the legs and rather agreeable on the palate too. Peaches formed a staple of the diet, not only due to their seasonal availability, irresistible deliciousness but also for their energy to cent ratio, which was excellent at only twenty cents a piece.
It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to eat well when touring, especially at the end of a long day in the saddle. Tomorrow, you have to get up and back on again, so your legs will need to feel fresh, and nutrition plays a key part in that. On the occasions that you roll into your hotel, B&B, hostel, tent, wherever, absolutely shattered, all the shops are shut or too far away, it is imperative that you find some way of getting adequate fuel on board to repair and rebuild before the next leg. Even if it does involve begging a bit of stale baguette and a tin of sardines.
Lesson #5. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT skip dinner. Your legs will feel pants tomorrow if you do, promise.
A little more on food
I may hark on about it a lot, but food is more than simply nutrition when cycle touring. Food is also a means for getting closer to the local culture, and most importantly acts as a morale boost, when you get it right. Take the croissant and chocolat chaud breakfast in the bay of Barfleur after a very soggy start, the tipple of kir royale at the Saint-Pol-de-Léon Artichoke Festival, or the kebab just outside Saint-Brieuc after a long day in the saddle. You’re right, the kebab wasn’t exactly typical Breton cuisine, but being the only local eatery open at that hour, you can’t grumble. In fact the combination of a carby pitta, some protein-packed chicken and a fresh salad is arguably good recovery nutrition!
It’s also important to try not to set your hopes on something too specific. It can really help to tell yourself ‘at the next stop in twenty miles I will treat myself to…‘ (or is it just me, highly motivated by an impending snack), however I soon learnt that if you promise yourself a crêpe, you won’t be able to find one, and if you set your heart on an ice cream all the Gelateries will be closed for lunch!
Lesson #6. Bribe yourself with food, enjoy local delicacies and whatever is on offer, but don’t get upset when the one thing you’re craving isn’t available, there will be other days.
Eat like a local, with the locals
If you get the opportunity, partaking in the regional way of eating is a fantastic way to travel. Luckily on my tour, I chose to stay in Airbnbs, typically a spare bedroom within families’ homes, which meant that not only could I keep my bike securely locked away, but I also enjoyed breakfast with a couple of very welcoming hosts. I was certainly flying that day out of Saint-Malo after espressos and brioche toast with caramel au beurre salé. The other bonus was the opportunity to converse with these friendly housewives or children, whether it was in their native tongue or mine, which is much appreciated after several days in rural Brittany on your todd.
Another great way of winning conversation is to seek out the local tourist offices. In Normandy and Brittany these were in every major town, so you can clock up quite a few in one day. These proved to be invaluable for providing basic tourist maps of each local area which were key to navigation along with my daily route card list of towns and villages to pass through.Who knows, they may also present some inspiration for alternative routes past local must-see spectacles or hidden gems.
Cutting it fine
Back again to the most important topic: food. If you’re doing really well on budget and you fancy blowing €15 on a fancy three course lunch, do it. If you’re on the ferry home with another fifty miles to ride across Dartmoor the following day, only a couple of Euro coins left to your name and a craving for M&Ms, don’t.
Thankfully my generous Plymouth host and student Max was kind enough to donate the only thing he had left in his house to fuel me on the last leg of my ten day epic. Not so pleasant was pulling the now-cold foil wrapped garlic baguette from my jersey pocket and proceeding to take a chunk halfway up onto the bleak moor…
Lesson #7. See Lesson #3. And if you really do run out of dosh, beg nicely and be grateful for whatever you can get your hands on.
It’s a rollercoaster, get used to it
It’s unreasonable to think that every moment will be bliss when solo touring. I certainly wasn’t mentally prepared for the darker times, the days when my legs felt like great lumps of lead and my gloomy mind filled with doubt and desperately longing for company.
You have two choices here. Either you need to pick yourself up, give yourself a good talking to and change your attitude, or learn to be okay not being okay. Just don’t give up.
Also be aware that you’re highly likely to go a little crazy when riding for so long on your own. Making up word games to play with yourself is totally normal, as is riding along no handed, videoing yourself whilst singing Italian opera.
Lesson #8. There will be epic moments, and there will be crap moments. Learn to ride it out.
Love your steed
Your bike is your greatest asset when touring (and generally in life?) so make sure you treat him/her with the care and respect they deserve. Don’t neglect basic maintenance just because your legs have just pedalled hundreds of miles too, it’s no excuse.
Don’t forget that whilst it’s fantastic to get victory photographs of your noble steed in all the landmark locations, the embarrassment of the crash as the bike lean goes to pot and the horror of a broken hanger is one best to be avoided.
At the end of the day, there is no magic recipe for an easy, stress free cycling tour. Every day will throw up a different set of challenges to test of your resilience and resourcefulness. The right kit and preparation can help, but ultimately it is down to the strength of your legs and the strength of your mind. All I can urge you to do is to abandon all doubt and go and make some mistakes of your own – they’ll be some of the most fun you’ll ever make.
Find the full route here.