Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Le Mans 2003

After planning to take the Smart car to France, possibly to Pau, I canned the whole idea and opted for the luxury of the Mercedes 'V' class of my friend Jack for the annual trip to Le Mans. Being a passenger has its attractions and I rode up front on the tour.
As has become the custom we packed an assortment of folding bikes for the trip anticipating a ride in the lanes of Normandy and trips from bar to track at the races.
I overnighted with Jack on the Wednesday and he took me for a spin in his Honda Insight, his hybrid electric daily-driver used for commuting from Sussex to Gatwick Airport. His Brompton folding bike rides in the back and he boards the Gatwick Express train for Victoria station and a short bike ride to the office in London. I was impressed by the lively performance and handling of the Honda which coupled with the economy makes it an ideal long distance commuter. The car is three years old with 72,500 miles on the clock and is the highest mileage example he has come across.
We arrived at Folkestone at 08:15 to a scramble at services with long queues - managed to grab an orange juice - and we reached Sangatte via the tunnel at 10:08. We stopped over at Abbeville for the plat du jour at the "C'est la Vie" Bar-Brasserie in the Rue Boucher de Perthes. Stuck in traffic approaching Rouen we take a deviation on the S2, slow moving as we approach the Seine crossing. Listening to Pat Metheny on the stereo in the 'V' Class.
We reach the camping municipal at Gacé late afternoon and I struggle to put up the Swiss 'Outwell' tent - it is easy when you know how. Time for a quick beer at the Bar de la Poste "Chez Patricia" followed by Toulouse sausages and Cote du Rhône.
Next morning we pack up and Jack marshals us for a bike trip with modern Bromptons, a sixties Raleigh RSW16 and a "Bugatti Royal" Chinese folder. A circular route on rural roads is punctuated at the rural Hotel du Relais at St Evroult de Montfort. We all choose Orangina - it is too hot and we're too thirsty for alcohol. A long climb follows which sorts out the men from the boys.
We are back in Gacé for lunch - time for a quick beer at the L'Etoile d'Or where the classic car crowd are gathering with their expensive motors. Quickly on to the Restaurant Tahiti, an old favourite, for the set lunch. We sit outside this year and the cheeseboard and atmosphere is as good as ever.
We make good time to Guécelard south of Le Mans where friends have a campsite then on to our camping spot near the Porsche curves in the front garden of Monsieur Hamelin. Travelling via Arnage there are large crowds on the strip, some Brits making mischief squirting motorists with giant water pistols. We avoid the crowds by cycling to the Bar Restaurant "La Croix de Paris" - our old favourite the "Bar des Sports" has changed hands (and names) so it is time to move on.
Our new bar is by the level-crossing with two-car diesel SNCF trains zipping past and we are back there by bicycle for breakfast before eight o'clock and the boys help set up the tables on the pavement. A café grand crème is most welcome after a fitful night sleeping through fireworks and general partying.
After breakfast we cycle up to the office of the Automobile Club de L'Ouest to collect my membership card - we repair to the clubhouse to watch the Legends of Le Mans race - the weather has turned wet and a spell indoors is most welcome. Back outside and my bike punctures - it is a long walk back to the campsite. Thanks to the persistence of all concerned we mend four punctures - turns out I've been running the tyres drastically underinflated.
The weather turns hot and you cannot stay out in it for too long - the Bentley team starts to run away with the race, the only question being which of the two cars will reach the finish first. We all pile into the van for the evening at the Arnage Curves, the newbies among us are getting into the atmosphere.
Sunday we head for Mulsanne in scorching weather for lunch on the strip and a last look at the race - we head off around 15:30 the race already won by Bentley. A stop at Le Mele sur Sarthe is aborted as the Hotel de la Poste is closed. We press on to Brionne noting Police pulling over the race crowd on the N138. A check on our favourite pizza restaurant and it is booked out for a private party, we phone another place but no dice. After a very welcome shower Jack and I cycle into town and secure a table for nine at a creperie which turns out to be a very acceptable substitute and a fitting end to our French tour.
Next morning after coffee and croissants we head for Calais via the Pont de Brotonne, thereby avoiding Rouen - we have a salad lunch at Flunch in Cité Europe and head for the train back to Blighty.

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