Thursday, 23 June 2011

The final leg!

Without further ado, its time for the final blog post of our adventure. I have been waiting for pictures to develop so apologies for the delay, but it should make for a colourful finale. I've had to go back in time from the start, so Day 1 marks the day we left the farm, and so on.

Day 1.

I'd love to say that leaving the farm was an emotional, tearful and dramatic departure, but that wouldn't be their style. It was however, a lovely send off which marked an amazing two months of the trip. We gathered around for a group photograph and then left with a kiss on each cheek from Laila, and a handshake from Peter, it was firm.

Despite a windy first day back on the bike, it felt good! The legs felt fresh and the bike felt as reliable and smooth as ever. We had also had several espressos prior to our departure and had a major kick of caffeine in the system.

The initial paranoia that I felt about leaving the farm (I knew I would leave something), turned into sadness that it might be a long, long time before we see them again. We have agreed to return to the farm one day; in their words: 'even if its in 10 years with your kids, you must come back'. However, this feeling was replaced by overwhelming excitement about what lie ahead. I felt a strange sense of ease and relaxation wash over me as I got back into the rhythm again, there’s a lovely feeling of just cycling into the unknown. As much fun as the farm was, at times we could grow restless and crave the travelling lifestyle (usually on the rainy days). But back on the bike, everything clicked into place. 

We managed a steady 50km before we got rained off, and having done little to no cycling training in the past 2 months - the muscles ached. So we called it a day and pitched our tent in a nicely hidden spot just next to a farmers field outside the town of 'Caraman'. 

Day 2.

I woke after a terrible nights sleep, the ground so bumpy and erratic it felt like sleeping on a nicely spread group of boulders. It left me aching in parts of the body I didn't even know could ache - primarily the shin. Unbelievable.

It was also raining. We had been expecting rain but its never any consolation when it does arrive. We 'rain proofed' all our gear and were back on the road by 10am. It wasn't a heavy downpour but it still managed to dampen the spirits. 

After about 15km I heard a twang from the back of bike and instinctively knew it was a spoke. It was the first time it had happened to me on the trip so I held off from moaning, but with the miserable weather adding to this it was hard to remain positive. On my next cycling trip I am determined to become an expert at spoke fixing. It’s an unnecessary hassle that I should have learnt how to do. 

We limped into the town of Galliac and every shop was closed for fiesta. By this point it was 3pm so I was confused as to why the shops were still shut (usually the fiesta is 12pm - 2pm).  We did eventually find a bike shop and waited patiently outside thinking it would re-open. After investigating why every shop was still closed we discovered that today was a national holiday to celebrate 'the rise of Jesus Christ'. Now my patience was really being tested. We decided to find a campsite and wait until morning for the shop to re-open. When we arrived at the campsite... It was shut! I think my exact reaction was: 'Ahhh f**k this, f**k Jesus! lets just sneak on'. However, we picked a nice central spot and inevitably got caught. The guy let us stay for 5 euros each, which was lucky - otherwise I might just have had a breakdown.

Our method of peeing.
Day 3.

By 9am we were cycling back to the bike shop hoping that the Jesus festivities had ended. Thank GOD... they had. Within 30 minutes the bike was thankfully fixed for a very reasonable 9 euros (sam had been charged 65 francs in Switzerland for the exact same job). They also tightened a few screws and pumped the tyres and the bike felt wonderfully smooth. With the bike fixed, cycling on perfect roads all day and the sun shining with a cool breeze, we managed 95km. It felt good to finally put in some good miles once again.

There has also been a noticeable shift in the roadside ecosystems we cycle past. Since leaving the Mid-Pyrenees area the soils seem a lot drier, resulting in some die hard grasses and scrubby vegetation fighting for survival in the midday sun. The topography of the land remains familiar with rolling valleys and rivers penetrating through. Farms are plentiful with vineyards and other more typical types of arable agriculture the most apparent. In the South, pastoral farms seem to be less predominant, the environment is presumably too dry to accommodate such an intense demand on the land which pasture would cause.


We finished a wonderful days cycling about 10km shy of Cahors. I could have cycled for longer but we needed to stop at Cahors in the morning for supplies. 

Day 4.

Day 4 epitomised the highs and lows, peaks and troughs, strikes and gutters etc... of cycle touring. We were climbing and descending for over 90km.

The days cycling actually brought a new meaning to the word 'sweat'. It actually made me question its function. 'To cool down ones self' is just a lie. Its been baking hot all day and 'sweating' has only added to the problem. A sweat drip into the eye is blinding, I don't know what the eyebrows are meant to be doing in all of this, clearly not their job. Its also been hard to escape Snoop Doggs new single 'I wanna make you sweat', that makes me laugh, the lyrics are obviously genius, but the subject matter is all wrong. He desires a sweaty lady, which obviously means she's hot, tired and probably overweight. And if it's bodily fluid he's after, try the urine. 'I wanna make you urinate' would work so much better, his ladyfriend would then be cool, well hydrated and ready for action. In fact, urine has so many more functions than sweat; its sterile, full of nutrients and far tastier than sweat. The salt content alone in sweat could kill a slug with one drop. 

Digressions aside, its been a tough day. We still managed good miles and have found a nice spot in the woods to make camp.

Day 5.

A lot more of the same. The sun made an appearance today so the ascents were soul destroying. It was also a Sunday and every shop was shut so we quickly ran out of water. The highlight of the day occurred after an hours constant climbing in the sun we found a village water fountain. We couldn't resist dunking our heads into the cold, refreshing and wonderful water. What a relief it provided from the hot and humid conditions.


By 4pm we still had no water so we decided to check into a campsite. That night our tent proved to be a valuable asylum from the storm that passed over us. We woke several times through the night to the heaviest of rainfall, unable to sleep through the noise, but thankful that our little refuge was sufficient to keep our possessions and us dry.

Day 6.

I simply logged: 'Fantastic day on the bike. Rolling valleys made for tough cycling but we reached 100km'.

Day 7.

What occurred on day 7 was described by Sam as the following: 'An absolute nightmare; bullshit; torture; hell' and several other expletives. However, I would simply describe it as character building (in retrospect). 

The day started well, smooth flat roads with overcast weather combined to provide at least the potential for another good days mileage. Then: TWANG! Followed by Sam saying "Spokes gone again". At this point we were 30km to the nearest town of Argenton sur-Creusse, which looked big enough to contain a bike shop. Upon arrival the first local we asked actually gave us a driven escort to the bike shop! However, it soon became clear that the shop owner was a complete dick and had no interest in us or any inclination to help. We discovered that there was no other bike shop in town and our only option was to cycle ANOTHER 30km to the city of Chateauroux to get it fixed. By this point we had already cycled 70km, 30 of which on a broken spoke. With no other options we soldiered on.

The roads began flat and within 15 minutes we were a third of the way there. Then, inevitably, a storm rolled in. Spirits were already down with the extended diversion to find a bike shop, but this was to prove a real test of courage. Sam obviously wanted to push on to get the fix, and although I could empathise with the situation, I craved nothing more than some simple shelter.

Reluctantly, we cycled on through this great downpour. It was tough to carry on in what seemed like the coldest, wettest and most miserable hour of my life. The shorts were still on though and passing cars must have endeavoured in a wee giggle at our expense. To our delight we found the bike shop without much trouble and were able to dry off a bit while they did the repair. Once we got out of the city we pitched the tent in a field to reflect on what had been a character-building day!

Day 8.

(Journal entry)

 Another 100km day! The cycling was exactly average: Slight headwind, average 12mph. High point - cycled through parts of the tour de France circuit that were preparing for next months race. Passed by massive group of enthusiastic Korean cyclists who were full of cheer. Pitched in a field near Onzain.

Day 9.

We met a fellow tourer from Holland who was cycling to Portugal with her dog! She had custom built a doggy trailer and what a life it was leading! Had a nice chat with her about each other’s adventures. It made me realise how happy I am to be sharing the journey with someone. There is just something lacking from solo expeditions in my opinion. It seemed like she had a lot to get off her chest when we met and was very talkative!

Later in the day we were also offered a place to stay by a man in a passing car! It was a strange proposition but we obliged. It turned out to be a poorly maintained farmhouse where he lived in his own filth. Before we realised this we had already accepted a place in his garden and it was too late to back out. The signs were there from the start: When we were taken into the garden a pitbull ran around the corner to my terror. These dogs are illegal in Britain and (we think) France for mauling children.

At about 7pm our manners again prevailed and we accepted his offer of a drink in the squalor that was his home. He sat there with his equally scruffy mate drinking whiskey and becoming more agitated and aggressive with his opinions on marriage. His wife had left him that year and his life and seemingly gone down the pan since that event. It was without doubt the most uncomfortable hour of my life as we struggled to make conversation with these two depressive alcoholics. When we eventually found an excuse to leave we crawled back into the tent hoping for an uneventful night and to leave at the break of dawn.

Day 10.

Glad to leave our place of residence for the night, we managed 95km on the bike. It was a tiresome day, we hadn't had a break in 10 days and the legs were beginning to get fatigued. With just 3 days left the thought of the return to the UK lingered in the mind. As excited as I am to see familiar faces and indulge in some home comforts, I know it won’t be long before I'm back on the bike - crossing countries. 

In our rush to escape the rain late on in the day, we became complacent with our choice of camping spot and got caught out in the morning. What ensued was a strange exchange between a man (probably telling us to leave) and I, protesting our innocence. We quickly left after we'd been told, and nothing more came of it.

Day 11.

We needed to push for big miles today and reached the 100km target with the usual tiresome routine. The muscles seem strong enough to sustain an even tougher and gruelling challenge; with the right energy and hydration levels I'd love to push myself to the limit. Coincidentally, today was the day Mark Beaumont cycled 'Arch to Arch' - London to Paris in 24 hours! Amazing effort. 262 miles is an unbelievable distance to cycle in one day.

We decided to find a campsite to have a shower (it had been over a week), and during our search a local offered us accommodation so we obliged. This residence could not have been more of a contrast to our prior stay with the depressive alcoholic.

Upon arrival we were offered food, drinks, a shower and then given the tour of their wonderful home. We could not have felt more welcome. After we pitched the tent we met all of the family. We soon discovered that the lady who offered us her home didn't actually live there, she was just staying with her sister. Anyhow, there were two guys around the same age as me and Sam, who were cousins, then the two sisters (their parents), both with hints of a wild and eccentric past. Both had partaken in cycling tours around Europe and had received warm welcomes whilst in the UK, so we fell nicely into their good books.

They were great company and we enjoyed an evening of banter, fine wine, beer..... but an awful meal! To the amusement of everybody, the visiting sister had endeavoured to produce some 'famous French cuisine', only to serve up some stodgy and rubbery noodles. We all had a laugh at her expense, and she followed suit. However, apple pie and ice cream is enough to forgive her culinary misfortunes. We were just grateful and happy to receive such a warm welcome into their home.

Day 12:

We departed our residence for the night with fond memories; also with an air of anticipation that today (if all went to plan) would prove to be the last day on the bikes!

We had left ourselves just a short 50km to cycle to the portside town of Ouistreham. The weather has proven to thwart and frustrate us since our departure of the farm. Since the warm and temperate South a gradual chill has descended upon us. With the wind against us, and the rain becoming more predominant, day-by-day, the final leg has been a tougher stretch than we once imagined. 

However, within a few hours we had reached our final destination! On a wet, miserable day in Northern France, our cycle tour had come to an end. A slight anticlimax if ever there was one. I wasn't thrilled to finish as it marked the end of an adventure, but an adventure that has taken us through the flatlands of the beautiful Holland, the rustic Belgium, the pocket delight of Luxembourg, natures finest - Switzerland and finally the charming, wonderful France. 

We celebrated with a man-sized bottle of Desperados in the comfort of a warm, cozy hotel. For it has been a barbaric and wild existence; travelling in such manners determines to outline such primary desires in a fashion that seize to exist when surrounded by such a familiar comfort zone. And that about wraps things up...

It were good that.

The end.