Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Road to Rouen

Small Wheels bicycle tour, June 2013
When touring on a Brompton the same incidents from previous years seem to happen all over again. First of all something drops off Richard's bike early on - this year it was a toe clip. Despite careful route planning we always seem to go off piste. We lack the foresight to carry basic supplies at all times and end up nearly "hitting the wall." We also worry too much about the weather. Dire forecasts of broiling sunshine and thunderstorms failed to materialise at crucial points. Overall it was a blast with only limited mechanical difficulties as we worked our way across the beautiful Normandy countryside to the Sarthe.
I am riding an orange long-wheelbase 'H' model Brompton, with custom handlebars and 6-speed Sturmey Archer gears, entered by Jack Kellett. Sadly Jack has to give this trip a miss so my partner in crime is Richard Banks aboard the familiar black 'P' model Brompton with butterfly handlebars and SRAM six-speed gears.
We set off from Lewes on the Sunday night by train reaching the port of Newhaven in plenty of time to catch the 23:00 ferry for Dieppe. We meet an assortment of other cyclists headed for unlikely adventures in la France Profonde. A lady of about seventy is riding to Versailles on a yellow Brompton 3-speed for charity. A younger couple are heading for Paris via the Voie Verte, having already completed the London-Brighton event. Bikes are banned on trains for the day of this ride, folders excepted, so they joke it will be easier to get back to London via Paris. An elderly gentleman is riding from Derbyshire to Avignon on a old road-racer - "I must get there as my wife is arriving." The camaraderie of cycling is infectious.
Stage 1
After some shots of Calvados in the bar we retire to our cabin for about three hours sleep. All too soon a man is making an unholy noise in the corridor urging us to rise from our slumbers. We are up and ready to rock, taking a quick coffee, then down the gangplank through customs and traversing Dieppe in the dark, on the ‘Road to Rouen’. We reach the D154 which gives us a relatively flat route south. The lack of traffic early morning makes for a relatively safe ride but of course no bars are open to take a drink or provide a croissant. We press on and after a couple of hours and sixteen miles I collapse into a chair outdoors at a café in the square at Auffay, being plied with Perrier and coffee, and after a change of shirt somewhat revived. We take trailfood en route and a pot of tea indoors in the rain at St. Victor, enjoying the Valley of the Scie and following the "iron compass," the railway built by the British in the pioneering days, on the D3 to Clères. There is an unexpected down hill section after the long climb from Torcy to Longueville, during which Richard stayed aboard. He has vowed not to get off on any hills and sticks to this. Chapeau.
We take the D155 to Montville and Malaunay, reaching the suburbs of Rouen, encountering the dreaded bendy-buses, then descend to the Seine, struggling to find our hotel on the west bank. A bus is honking at us as we enter an underpass in order to cross the river. Richard gives the driver an old-fashioned gesture. We are indoors at midday, our precious bikes safely folded in the hotel room at St-Sever. We take a rest and then struggle to find any restaurants serving food mid-afternoon. A veggie-burger and chips is scant reward for all our efforts. We tighten up the nut on the seatpost on the orange Brompton to counter a sagging saddle. Distance covered: 46 miles.
Rest day
Next day is a free day for sightseeing, starting at the archives for a quick bit of genealogical research. We take coffee at the fashionably-named Bar des Abattoirs, 33 rue Henri II de Plantagenêt. Richard acquires a new tour habit, adding a Calvados chaser at breakfast time. We walk into town across the river, seeing the Cathedral, Le Gros Horloge and the Printemps department store, and finding Rouen to be well worth a visit. Some small beers are followed by a trip to the Eglise Sainte Jeanne d'Arc and lunch al fresco at an excellent Italian restaurant, 40 Euros for two courses and a bottle of wine, including generous tip. We ride the tram back to our hotel, sampling some beers outdoors in the evening without venturing far. We dine at our hotel without breaking the bank: Hotel Rouen St-Sever, 20 Place de L'Eglise St-Sever, Rouen, 76100; Phone: +33235628182.
Stage 2
Next morning stage two takes us in the direction of Elbeuf, following the tram lines some of the way and avoiding the main roads. After another pot of tea in exurbia [Oissel] we divert on to a cycle path which rapidly runs out, another snafu at the chateau. We reach the Route des Roches guided by the Seine upstream in a towering limestone gorge. A right/left for Thuit Anger is the easiest route out of the Seine Valley that we can find, but still involves a long climb. We are making good time across the plateau among the wheat fields, via Iville, before desecending for pasta lunch at Le Neubourg, with its busy market, featuring many racks of clothes that have never been in fashion. Some irritating British old buffer tries to make fun of the Brompton bicycles, boasting about how he does nothing with his time in retirement. He doesn't know what he is missing. We wrong slot exiting Le Neubourg condemning ourselves to a windy ride across the prairie via Combon and Bray. We descend to Serquigny taking double-Orangina at a cafe where the patron produces two sugar crepes on the house. It is just amazing how fair people can be. We reach Bernay in good order riding across the cobbles, but there is a sting in the tail as we both climb out of town to the Hotel Acropole, 10 Rue Grande Malouve, Bernay, 27300; Phone: +33232460606. The adjacent restaurant provides beers on the terrace and we tuck in indoors while a thunderstorm erupts around us. Distance covered: 54 miles
Stage 3
Leaving Bernay, we choose the Voie Verte on an old railway line to Broglie. These bike routes are a mixed blessing, often among the trees with little to look at and cold first thing in the morning. This is cycling for softies, on routes, as in this case, which only go a short distance and are not worth a diversion. We acquire two bottles of Badoit at Broglie, needing the minerals in the water. An infusion at a café at Montreuil l’Argillé is most acceptable. We continue to Verneusses, then D232 to Huegon and Cisai-St-Aubin. A lady on the road stops me as she is anxiously looking for a lost dog. We take to the D338 south of Brionne where we quickly tire of the trucks on the main road, diverting to Le Merlerault for quiche and strawberry custard tart for lunch from a patisserie. A fountain in the village provides a welcome spray and wash. After Orangina at Sées, we take the quieter way, [D42, D309] via Bursard, arriving at Alençon running on empty late afternoon. Le Mans counterparts Dave Roadway, Martin Woodward and Stuart Batchelor join us for drinks at the bar. Hôtel Ibis Alençon, 13 place Poulet Malassis, Alençon, 61000; Phone: +33233806767. Recommended. Distance covered: 61 miles
Stage 4
We slip out of Alençon early via the historic centre, taking the D55 to Champfleur. There is a dilemna on this tour. Do you go bushwhacking and ride the quieter, more hilly roads with poorer surfaces or blast down the shorter main roads with the heavier traffic and their own long ascents? In reality you do a mixture of both depending on the mood. We reach Beaumont-sur-Sarthe on the main road heading for Montbizot. We choose to skirt Le Mans to the west, via La Bazoge and Allonnes. We meet Laurent Brochard, [1997 world road racing] cycling champion, and stop to chat. He is not riding a bicycle but a strange contraption with two paddles on which to stand. He quickly disappears up a hill. A pitstop for Orangina at a café and the patron insists on photographing the bikes and riders. We arrive at the Café de la Gare in Spay at 14:05. The boss, a veteran of Paris-Brest, fits us in for a late omelet lunch followed by tarte aux pommes. Distance covered: 48 miles. Total distance: 209 miles.
On the Monday after Le Mans at Little Common when unloading the orange bike I notice it had sustained a puncture, subsequently found to be a nail through the tire. This happened right at the end of the tour, a relatively fortunate occurrence. At some point in France we fell to wondering why the orange bike did not coast as well as the black one. Back in Sussex I discuss the possibility of a dragging brake. Adjustments to the front brake by Jack produce a dramatic improvement in performance on a twenty mile test ride to Ripe, after the puncture was fixed. By the way Audi won the 24-Hours of Le Mans once again.

Plus Points: Collaborative long distance cycling, suitable distances, good-value hotels en route, reliable Brompton bikes, disposable clothing.
Downsides: Lack of sleep on the ferry, leaving Dieppe without drinks early morning.
Learning points: Feed before problems (again), stick with Badoit, more-suitable clothing, bike tune-up.
Overall: Well organised (many thanks for logistical support), good company, health benefits, roll on 2014.

No comments: