– by Jason Miles
The Little Voice Of Reason, so often ignored, had been telling me to weeks that my plan to ride from the north coast of France to the south coast of Spain in less than a week was far too simplistic- far too basic and fraught with risk. The other little voice in my head – the laid-back, feet-up-on-the-desk, smoking a fag voice was saying “it’ll be fine” like it always does. Guess which one I was listening to?
Plotting my route on Google Maps from Caen to Murcia, I could see quite clearly that I would need to ride just over 1500 kilometres of ‘roads legal for cycling on’. The route would head in a south-westerly direction and follow the coastline of France from La Rochelle to Biarritz, from there it crossed the Pyrenees and headed due South across Spain. Easy. What could possibly go wrong?
That was pretty much Plan A. Armed with my train tickets to Portsmouth and a ferry ticket to France I would leave my house after work on Friday on my Mango Bikes Point AR, covered in Ortieb bikepacking bags. I’d be taking minimal sleeping kit (a mat and a bivvy bag), even-more minimal clothing and spares to get me out of most situations.
Plan B, because one should always have a contingency plan situated somewhere in between ‘success’ and ‘rescue from life-and-death situation by a helicopter while on fire’, consisted of ‘Get the train’.
Erm…that’s it. While I’d done some homework in that I’d checked that France and Spain are actually aware of an invention called trains and that they’ve got some, I’d not really investigated further. I’d just go to a town or city and…you know…get a train…
I wasn’t going to invoke Plan B anyway. Mr Laid-back Puffing On A Lambert And Butler said so. Plan A was 100% bulletproof. No, 110% bulletproof.
Besides, too much planning would remove all of the fun anyway. What am I? Some kind of cyborg?
Off I went into the rush hour traffic of Manchester and rolled up on a train in Portsmouth some 8 hours later, 8 hours too early for the ferry. As night fell I busied myself by wandering around a bit, napping in a bus shelter and fiddling with my bike. Eventually the ferry set sail for France and luckily I bumped into some friends from Prestwich who loaned my their cabin for a couple of hours so that I could grab some sleep.
Rolling off the ferry in Caen, I reckoned I could get three or four hours of riding in now before finding somewhere to sleep. I managed about 70 miles, including stopping briefly at some kind of village fete where I ate a hotdog and a tray of the oiliest chips in the world, before grabbing a few hours’ kip in an orchard (yes I realise I probably shouldn’t be camping willy-nilly in random orchards but anyhow). As soon as the first hint of daylight started to poke through the darkness (about 5am), I was packed up and on the road again.
Day 2 needed to be A Big Day. I reckoned I needed to be riding over 200 miles daily if I was going to stay on top of the schedule and get to Murcia by Thursday. Today was Sunday.
It was a few miles before I realised that the route recommended by Google wasn’t going to be practical. While the roads on the route are cycling-legal, unless you really wanted to meet a sticky end under the wheels of a high-speed lorry you wouldn’t ride on them. Far from safe, they weren’t particularly enjoyable either.
Riding from village to village to town, always heading south, I was riding with the use of a paper map. Always sticking to minor roads I would see how I got on. It was when I reached Nantes though that the fun and games really started.
I’m not a fan of Nantes. In fact it’s probably one of the most horrible places I’ve ever been to. A non-existent cycling infrastructure, a motoring population seemingly hell-bent on the destruction of everyone else, traffic jams everywhere and a huge river bisecting the city that needed to be crossed.
That last bit cost me a good hour of riding around in circles (on one occasion almost straying onto the motorway) trying to find a bridge that wasn’t a motorway.
Glad to see the back of Nantes, I arrived in a small town called Port Saint Pere further south, complete with pizza restaurant and a campsite. The woman at the pizza place poured me a beer, made me a pizza and even refilled my waterbottles from the tap. The trouble was, I’d only travelled 170 miles and was nowhere near the point I should have been by Sunday night. Plan B edged closer.
By now I was starting to smell quite bad. I’d brought a couple of spare tops, a change of shorts and some spare socks. The temperature during the day was well into the 30s centigrade so I changed all the clothing that I could. Still, when I walked into boulangeries and supermarches, I was summarily given the “GET OUT OF MY SHOP” look by any shopkeeper who was unlucky enough to have a working sense of smell. No doubt me buying rather a lot of pastry, bottled water and processed meat products helped to ease their anguish.
I pressed on in a southerly direction. By now I’d recognise the weather pattern – warm and not windy in the morning, extremely hot with a pesky headwind in the afternoon. Day 3 was better than day 2 though – this time I didn’t take as many wrong turns and managed to make it through La Rochelle and as far south as Rochefort. I also rode along the coast for a while, ate an ice cream and started to remember why I was doing this in the first place. I was still a long, long way behind schedule though and started to think very carefully about what to do next. At this rate the number of hours and miles I was riding wasn’t taking me far enough south and I was going to run out of time. I had intended to cross the border into Spain on Tuesday – currently I was nowhere near and I was now estimating Wednesday afternoon.
I abandoned Plan A and set about riding to Plan B. I’d head for Spain and ride straight to San Sebastian. There, I’d get the train to Murcia. Simple.
After a very short sleep in a farmer’s field and then another sleep slumped across a picnic table next to a salmon (or possibly trout) farm, day 4 was a good day. I’d been looking forward to this (rather big) bit because I had to ride to Royan, get the ferry across the estuary to the start of a 200-something mile long, traffic-free cycle path along the coast all the way to Biarritz. It’d be nice to ride it all in one go, but I expected there would be plenty of places to get a sneaky few hours’ sleep if I didn’t.
Mile after mile of tarmac cycle path meandered through dense forests. Occasionally a car park or a caravan site would appear and thankfully many of them had shops nearby. I continued to load up on the packs of sliced cheese and garlic sausage. I had a near-crash when I rode straight into a party of naked cyclists who were evidently on their way to the (very crowded) nudist beach. “Not what I was expecting”, I thought as I ate the last of my processed wiener.
I managed to ride 200 miles that day but was still 50 miles or so from the Spanish border. I slept rough on a quiet harbour for a few hours, couldn’t get any sleep really so set off again at about 3am.
Being chased along a deserted cycle path in the dark, in a foreign country by torch-wielding and quite fast-moving thugs is not something I want to repeat in a hurry. I’d just ridden a double century in the heat, had a 2 hour sit down and now I’m having to sprint on a fully-laden bike because someone presumably wants to nick my bike/kick my head in/skin me alive or whatever. One of the guys had a head start on me as he ran from a point to my right and in front, so it wasn’t an absolute certainty that I’d be able to get away.
But I did and once I’d slowed down a bit, I left the cycle path at the first opportunity and carried on riding along the road, lights turned off. It was another hour before I reached the first town (the name of which I honestly can’t remember) and sat on the church steps until the sun came up.
That was all pretty shit and it took a long time for me to stop being really pissed off about it.
I hurriedly pressed on for the border after stopping off at a bakery for some water and breakfast (they REALLY wanted me out of their shop quickly!) and eating it while checking the train timetable. This was going to be tight!
I never did find the cycle path again, which was probably just as well. I carried on along the roads into Bayonne and then Biarritz, both of which took AGES to negotiate – Bayonne seems to suffer with traffic jams everywhere and Biarritz has a very medieval layout. It looked like a fun place though and I grew envious of the beautiful people sipping fine wines outside posh bistros.
I knew the border was approaching because I started spotting Spanish number plates on cars and the terrain suddenly became very hilly. Hauling my tired legs and heavy, luggage-covered bike over the last few mountains and into Spain, I also noticed that the roads became rougher and even-less cycling friendly. I didn’t care though, I had two hours to cover the remaining 30 miles into San Sebastian before the train for Madrid was due to depart.
I practically skidded to a halt in the train station doorway with 30 minutes to spare after negotiating the midday San Sebastian traffic. “Estacion? Si, by the river!” were the directions given to me by the bloke on the moped.
“Bicicleta? No ees possible”, the Spanish ticket vendor said.
“Your bicycle – no possible to take on train”
“You need it in a bag”
“How about a box? Do you have a box that I can use?”
He handed me a small leaflet with specification of bags for bicycles. Basically, you can only take a bicycle on a Spanish train if it fits in a small suitcase. A folding bike, in other words. Definitely not a cyclocross bike.
I sent Debbie a text message with swear words in it, thus using my last 1% of phone battery.
It took all of 30 seconds to realise that my only option here was to abandon the bike, but only after I’d stripped as much value from it as I could.
So here I am, multitool in one hand, penknife in the other, undoing bolts to remove the stem, seatpost and brake calipers from my poor Mango Point AR. I’m sawing the hydraulic brake hoses to free up the master cylinder before slinging all of that into a water bottle to bath in their own fluid. I’ve already removed the Ortlieb bags and I’ve got all the components laid out on my sleeping mat. Another minute or so later I’ve got the whole thing – bags, parts and sleeping kit – wrapped up with elastic straps and I’ve removed the wheels.
Oh, and the whole time I’m doing this, SOMEONE IS TRYING TO STEAL EVERYTHING FROM ME. Yep, I’m being mugged while performing emergency bicycle mechanics in the street of a foreign city. Knowing that the ‘mugger’ isn’t too steady on his feet (he’s carrying a glue sniffing bag in one hand), I give him a big old shove in the chest whereupon he staggers backwards and falls into the road. Whoops.
He seems ok(ish), I resist the urge to stamp on his leg and I gather up my stuff, take one last glance at the sorry sight of my abandoned bike and make my way back into the station where I buy a ticket to Murcia.
Ignoring the guard’s moaning that I “can’t take wheels onto a train” I climb aboard and sit down. Everyone thinks I smell bad.
I’m not out of the shit yet. When I arrived in Madrid it was 10pm. My train to Murcia wasn’t until the morning after. I’m stood in cycling shorts, cycling shoes and a sleeveless vest in a soon-to-be-closed train station with a rolled-up pile of bike parts on one hand and a pair of wheels in the other.
I approach a taxi driver to see if he can take me to a hotel. A risky move, admittedly, but I needed a shower and I wasn’t keen on spending another night sleeping rough, especially here. A taxi driver mini-conference breaks out. Eventually, a driver who speaks some English explains that there is a nice hotel with rooms to spare but it’ll cost 100 Euros.
I know the driver was probably getting a percentage, but It’s a nice hotel and I was grateful for the assistance to be fair to him. In fact, it’s a whole apartment in downtown Madrid so in some ways it’s a shame I was only going to be in town for another 6 hours….
I showered, charged my phone and slept like I’d never slept before.
The last chapter of this story is dull and uneventful, thankfully. The morning after, I discovered that the finest espresso in the world is actually available from a kiosk in Madrid train station. I got on the train to Murcia and it took me without any drama to Murcia. It even arrived 4 minutes early.
Have I learnt anything? Loads. I’ve learned that a trip like this needs to be open-ended. A deadline is incompatible with a 2000 kilometre bike ride.
I’ve learned that a Plan B needs to be A PLAN. Not an idea or a concept. The what, when, where and how need to be thought about rather than assuming that trains in other countries are as welcoming to bicycles in the UK (because they are).
French shops don’t seem to be open all hours like UK ones. Nor does France have any all-night garages, only automated ones and automated petrol stations don’t sell butties and chocolate.
I’ve also learned that just because Google says a ride is 1500 kilometres, it doesn’t mean that it’s all on roads that can be cycled on safely or enjoyably. I’d ridden 1200 Kilometres just getting to San Sebastian and I reckon Murcia was at least another 800 away from there.
Finally, a big “thanks” to Lyon Equipment for supplying the brilliant Ortlieb bags and to Mango Bikes for the use of the dear, departed Point AR. A fast, comfortable bike that was perfectly happy with whatever abuse I threw at it…apart from the abandonment bit. It probably didn’t like that bit very much.