Monday, June 20, 2011

By Brompton to Le Mans 2011

The Le Mans tour 2011 started with a dress rehearsal at Gurston Down Hill Climb the Sunday before departure. £10 per adult for a pleasant afternoon of motor sport in the Wiltshire countryside. Don't let the farmyard location fool you into thinking this is not serious racing.

So after watching the gifted amateurs it was time to set sail for Le Mans to see the pros. Thursday June 3 we caught the 09:30 Newhaven-Dieppe ferry with our fully-loaded Brompton bicycles. I was sporting a new front carrier bag, lightweight sweater (borrowed) and high-viz waterproof. Jack is riding the long-wheelbase orange Brompton with custom built handlebars.

We cheated by taking the train from Lewes to Newhaven deeming the road routes too hazardous (I tackled the west bank in 2008. See PunchBuggy Passim.)
The ferry bar was soon out of baked goods to go with our coffee and Dieppe was reached after a light gargle. We were first off the car deck having followed an old hand to the correct ramp away from the trucks. We set off into Dieppe in the hot sun busking our way westward out of town. After a long descent and climb we diverted to Offranville in search of a bank and to escape the onshore wind. We were soon broiling in the afternoon sun and glad to reach Bénesville, after a pitstop in St Laurent-en-Caux. Orangina never tasted so good. We couldn't find our digs and I suffered two bouts of cramp in my thighs shortly before arrival - an occurence new to me - now I know why those guys are hopping about on the Tour de France. After twenty miles we found the delightful chateau for our night stop, madame serving Kir Normande as I flopped on a recliner on the lawn. A four course dinner followed: fish pâté, Coquille St. Jacques, cheeseboard and fresh fruit washed down with white wine followed by red and a shot of vintage Calvados and we were all set for an early night. Next morning after a splendid breakfast madame insisted we take bananas and bottled water for the route. Excellent value and highly recommended. Propriétaire: BEATRICE MAZURIER, Téléphone: 0663061805.
After a baptism of fire the first day the weather moderated and we took the routes du boeuf to Caudebec-en-Caux on the Seine, pausing for coffee and trail food en route. The descent into Caudebec turned hairy as I got onto the marbles at speed, letting a van pass, but gathered it up by not over-reacting. We arrived by 13:00 stopping for lager before checking in at the Normotel by the Seine. A frosty receptionist made us doubt the wisdom of staying in hotels when France is peppered with friendly Chambre D'Hotes. We did what sightseeing you can do in Caudebec, the day culminating in a pasta supper al fresco at a windy cafe.
Next morning it was across the Pont de Brotonne (no longer a toll bridge) and sharp right following the Seine downstream. An ominous chevron on the map told of a 300-foot climb to Bourneville. Jack won the Index of Performance by climbing the whole way while a push was rewarding for me, seeing two deer in the woods. Jack was already buying bananas when I reached Bourneville, but a pot of tea soon revived us. We took the country roads to reach the valley of the Risle at Montfort where we lunched in a bus shelter. The simple task of reaching Brionne was complicated by taking the voies vertes on an old rail line at Le Bec Hellouin and overshooting in the woods due to a lack of signposts. A moutainous diversion via Calleville added at least five miles to the day. We found a bar in Brionne, known to us, before reaching our digs at the Coeur de Lion. A snooze before dinner concluded the longest day of the tour at about 35 miles. See here for B&B.
The weather was wet on departure next morning but the rural route was clearly signposted all the way to Rugles, a timesaver as we did not have frequent stops to check the map. A pot of tea at Beaumont-le-Roger was most welcome - no milk for me as the hot milk served is unappetising and black tea proved the perfect antidote to dyspepsia. Unaccustomed to cycling hard right after breakfast my stomach was grumbling. But I was beginning to hit my stride, side drafting the Kellett Express in our own version of the flying wedge. Charitable Frenchmen yell "Bon regard" and "Chapeau" when they hear we are going long distance. On arrival at Rugles the town was closed, as on every Monday, and we were shown the door in the bar after a short stay. Madame at the digs slipped us a bottle of cider to compensate - no charge.
The fifth day felt like the moment of truth. It is one thing to go cycling and quite another to keep going day after day. We set off down the main road right after breakfast and it was taking me an hour or so to hit my stride. An early stop at L'Aigle was suitable for tea and market shopping. I took a photograph of Jack posing with a plaster Maitre D outside our café. Then on quieter roads to Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe, taking a rural set lunch en route. Arriving mid-afternoon we lodged the bikes in an outhouse at the Hotel de la Poste before doing the bars and a creperie. Appetites multiply on a bike tour. Again the hotel seemed something of a letdown after the more attentive alternatives. Wifi was most welcome.

Next morning I sat on the wall outside the hotel in the sunshine guarding the luggage while Jack rushed about fetching the bikes and settling the bill. On to St Mars Sous Ballon via Mamers, where we take tea. Brother Julian is texting us for news. We have left Normandy behind and are heading for Le Mans. After boozing in the hilltop town of Ballon we spend an evening in a rural restaurant, gazing out at a trout pond. We are the only customers. Delightful. Restaurant: Les Nymphéas Creperie Saladerie Grill, L'Auberderie, 72290 Saint-Mars-sous-Ballon. Téléphone: Accomodation: Jean-François LEMAIRE, Les chambres du Verger, Le Verger, 72290 Saint-Mars-sous-Ballon. Mobile: 0671040513.

An early start next morning (Day 7) and we are shortly in the suburbs of Le Mans at Coulaines. Then we burst onto the quai in the centre past the cathedral by the Sarthe, wrong slotting on the exit of the city and taking a hair-raising ride on the périphérique to recover our way. An early paella lunch at Casino in Allones and Jack races ahead to get the keys to the cabin at Camping du Houssay in Spay at 12:30. We have ridden some 185 miles so far, and there is more to come.

We stock up the cabin with food and drink before heading to Guécelard along the back roads to see Pete Webber, taking a bow for our exertions. There is a noticeable lack of punters in the bars and restaurants compared to previous years. The bars in Spay are empty/shut on race weekend and the strip in Arnage is a shadow of its former self on Saturday morning. The £5 pint of lager and some gouging on food is driving folk away. The ACO have added insult to injury by hiking the general admission price for the 24 Hours from 57 to 67 euros - not the year for a near 20% increase. (I scored a discounted ticket at 50 euros.)
Dave Roadway appears mid-evening Thursday and we head off by car to Mouliherne and Saumur on Friday, with bike rides in both places on our folders. Dave is aboard the Dahon 16spd with 26" wheels. A visit to the Loire valley is an unexpected bonus and I get my washing done to boot.
Friday James and Ian show up from the UK, with an intriguing gearless folding bike made in China. Jack and I watch the start of the race at Arnage which is fairly full but not unpleasantly so - the big screen shows the battle between McNish and Bourdais - a classic which was cut short by a massive shunt by the Audi driver which left the car wrecked and some brilliant photos for the Sunday papers. Mike Rockenfeller later bit the armco quite viciously and Audi were down to one contender. But the car of Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer soldiered on to win. Peugeot did just about everything right and came up 13.8 seconds short.
No rushing off before the finish this year as we go the distance at Mulsanne. A wet visit to Guécelard on Sunday night to watch the Canadian GP is unrewarding as we head home in the red flag period and miss the outstanding drive of Jenson Button. The generous hospitality at Club Motorsport is considerable compensation.
By early Monday we are down to two at the cabin and we head for La Suze sur Sarthe, reaching there in a shower. We stop at Roézé-sur-Sarthe on the way, for tea, and you half expect Steve McQueen to be heading up the road in a Porsche 911. Jack points out the many French classic bicycles, including Motobecane, which are unloved and now overwhelmed by a flood of cheap imports.
The trip ends with a ride into Le Mans on the Tuesday, TGV to Paris, a ride across Paris to the Gare du Nord and home by Eurostar via Ashford. We have ridden 250 miles (400km) in all.

Plus Points: Long distance cycling, reliable Brompton bikes, Chambre D'Hotes, SNCF.

Downsides: French hotels, Le Mans ticket prices, closed bars and cafes, Radio Le Mans (dull as usual), no wifi on SNCF.

Overall: Well organised, good company, health benefits, superb race, roll on 2012.

1 comment:

YMGW said...

Congratulations both. I imagine the Pont de Bretonne is spectacular to cycle over. Did you have a GPS gizmo with you?