Well it has certainly been a long week! My first real taste of long distance bicycle touring and I am relieved to say I am really enjoying it, even with the cold and rain. I’ve learnt a lot about my equipment and bike, how it all performs and also how I perform in terms of how much food I need to cover the miles (way more than anticipated is the answer to that!).
After a day recovering in Hove saying goodbye to friends and playing a farewell gig with my band I had a short ride to Seaford where I’d be staying in holiday bungalow with my parents for a night before catching the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry the following morning. The ride down Cycle route 2 was much nicer then the one on Routes 21 & 22 from London to Brighton mostly running along the seafront and away from main roads. Crossed paths and said hello with another fully-loaded (four panniers) cyclist who’d come from Germany.
Half-way down the seafront the annual VW Campervan meet was on, fun to see them at all but it did mean pushing my bike for the best part of two miles!
After pruning as much extra weight out of my luggage as possible I was up early to cycle down to the ferry and to say my final goodbyes to family. Managed to get onto the ferry without getting too emotional and met a couple of other cycle tourists on their way from London to Paris for a few days. We chatted about gear for a bit and then rolled up on to the ferry to stow the bikes.
A final Full-English was had and we decided that since the three of us were all heading down the Avenue Verte (The London-Pais cycle route) that we should ride together until the point where I was heading off to my WarmShowers.org host for the night (A hospitality website much like Couchsurfing.com but for cyclists).
French customs was a breeze, we got to skip the queue of cars, flash our passports and we were off to the seafront in Dieppe for a quick drink before going inland on the Avenue Verte. I’m a big fan of Dieppe, it has a lot of nice little Seafood places but I didn’t really have anytime as it was already 3:30pm and had about 25 miles to cover.
The Avenue Verte is great to cycle along, it is built on an old railway line so is dead straight and flat. Some nice views along the way includeing a massive Chateaux at Mesmieres-en-Bray where I said goodbye to the cyclists I’d met and headed up a huge climb towards Bully to find my host for the night.
The climb lasted about 1km and I was surprisingly OK with it, just dropped into my granny gear (super low gear on a special touring cassette I bought) and headed up it quite slowly. The Google Maps directions almost sent me up a downhill mountainbiking track (!!!) but I found a route around it and got to my hosts at about 7pm.
I’ve never used any sort of hospitality club before so I was a bit nervous but it was a fantastic experience. I was invited into a beautiful home (Grand Designs standards), served a lovely Beef Stew with purple potatoes (extra portion for the cyclist 🙂 ) as well as some wine and Neuchatel Cheese which was great (somewhere between camembert and stilton in taste).
Up early the next morning and off on my first long day cycling in France towards Amiens. I decided to follow the main D road as I’d heard cycling on these was good in France. These are probably equivalent to A roads in the UK but the main difference I found was the generous amount of clearance passing cars would give to cyclists. I have to say I maybe made a bad choice on my initial route in France as the 50 miles to Amiens were repetitive agriculture, and whilst the D-roads were fast and easy to cycle they weren’t the most interesting.
I was still quite worn out by the time I reached Amiens and headed straight for the campsite with the plan of seeing the cathedral in the morning. Setting up camp was a slow process, I needed to come up with more of a routine, and my first camp meal was pretty enjoyable (spaghetti and tinned tuna). Solar panel worked a treat and fully recharged my phone.
Packing away in the morning again took longer than I hoped, again a routine will improve this, and headed into Amiens to grab a coffee in front of the Cathedral. I stocked up on snacks in a petrol station and then headed onto the almost perfectly straight D-road all the way the to Saint Quentin.
Again this road was another fairly uneventful 50 miles of rolling agriculture. Several climbs and I’m already feeling much better about them, I think half of it is psychologically as I now know that I can do them even with the weight of the bike (45kg total, bike + luggage).
I stopped in a McDonalds outside Saint Quentin to look for a campsite and found a municipal one in the centre as well as a backup one in Homblier, about 6km east of the town. Good job as I got to the Municipal one and it had closed. I’d later find out the Municipal ones pretty much close when kids go back to school as then their main revenue stream is gone. A lot of private camp grounds are funded mostly by permanent caravans so they stay staffed much later into the year.
Shattered at this point I cycled onto the one in Homblier which was mercifully open and promptly setup camp, quickly ate and went to sleep promptly to be woken up by nearby gunfire and rain throughout the entire night.
I was greeted the next morning by even more rain. I resolved to get into my waterproofs, eat and pack my stuff away keeping it as dry as possible and crack on as rain is going to be inevitable, I have to deal with it despite it being a bit depressing. I wolfed down some porridge and planned to stop at the first opportunity as I was out of snacks for whilst riding, the campsite owner drew the location of a camp north of Vervins on my map for me (about 35 miles away).
This would be my first day off of the major D-roads onto more minor roads, this was not a good idea in the now torrential rain. It was pure rolling hills, in the first ten miles I must’ve done 10 two hundred foot climbs and there were no stores or anything in any town I went through. The combination of hunger, cold and rain was getting to me a bit. I spotted large town (Sains-Richamount) half way to my destination and thought there must be something (Cafe/Tabac/Patisseire) so powered on with that in my mind. When I got there, to my horror, there was nothing open. All the businesses looked like they’d gone under, however, there were three (yes 3!) thriving hairdressers. Unbelievable.
I carried on and finally reached Vervins and at this point decided I could go no further due to hunger and rain resolved to find a cheap hotel. I found one that looked like a castle (The “Tour du Roy”) but it was a bit too pricey, I pushed my bike around the whole town and of the two other hotels one had gone under and the other had an angry owner and a hallway full of flies. I decided to get food and went into a pizza place to find out they were out of Pizza but could serve me some plain chicken if I like? No. I went to the pricey hotel and booked in rationalising that they had free Wifi which I could do some route planning with as well as do laundry in my room.
After laundry and a bath I once again went on the hunt for food walking nearly every street in the town finding nothing. I spotted a petrol station about half a mile out of town up a hill and decide to head for it hoping they have a shop, once I reach it I see it is automated, I swear someone is teasing me now. I spot a McDonalds sign, I don’t care at this point food is food. I get to the sign and it says “McDonalds 20km”. What!? Why is that sign there, do we have signs that far away from McDonalds in the UK? If so I’ve never noticed. At this point I thought I saw heaven when I spotted an Aldi super store between some trees. I walked across a busy main road with no crossings to get to it and spent the best part of an hour attempting to do a sensible shop in my sorry state hauling my spoils back to the hotel and binging.
Once my head was clear again I used the hotel Wifi to research my next campsite and to make sure it was definitely open! A mistake I did not want to make again. I thought another half day would be good for me so planned to reach Rocroi the next day, about 30 miles away.
Off early to Rocroi and finally roads were getting a bit more scenic! The building style changed and began to remind me a lot of North Wales (where half my family is from). Similar sort of building materials and style, livestock as well as the smell of coal and wood burning fires, was lovely! Reached camp at 2pm and settled down to read in my tent for a bit. Again rain started coming down hard and it got seriously cold (2 degrees celcius or so) out of nowhere. Felt a bit low at this point in a “Why am I doing this?” sort of way, decided to treat myself to a hot dinner in the campsite Cafe and after a huge omelette, two portions of chips and 2 beers I felt great about the trip again!
The next day I awoke feeling much better for the extra food and had a 50 mile route laid out that would drop me off just inside Belgium in a town called Florenville. Just as I was about to head off I went to pump up my rear tube and the valve stem snapped clean off! That will teach me not to have replaced the cheap tubes that came with the bike (rubber stemmed) but I brought two spare tubes just for this instance. I was struggling to reseat the tyre when an old guy rushed over from his caravan (saying he was a retired bicycle mechanic!) and showed me his way of massaging the tyre around the wheel and it popped on smoothly!
The rest of the day went wonderfully stopping in Charleville for coffee and Sedan for a break before taking an incline up towards the Belgian border. The border was right at the top of the climb and I must say it felt great to reach the sign!
Florenville is a beautiful little town but I was slightly nerve wrecked by the fact that when I reached the campsite there were two unchained, unsupervised Alsatians guarding the way in (if you don’t know for some reason dogs really hate bicycles). I hopped off my bike and thankfully they were tame enough and I just walked past with them following me a little bit. Set up camp again (got a routine now so much smoother), made dinner and then had a couple of Jupilers in the camp cafe (£1.50 each!)
Woke up excited the next morning for my final push to Luxembourg, my first major milestone. Annoyingly I’d found out the night before that the only hostel in Luxembourg city was full so made plans to rest in a town 10km north called Hollenfels and then have one day in Luxembourg city to sight see.
The route to Hollenfels was very scenic, lots of country lanes through the woods and then a climb over the town of Arlon. I stopped in a Friterie (Chip van) as you have to get Fries in Belgium! After the big climb over the town of Arlon I descended the other side all the way down to the Luxembourg border.
The border was one of the most noticeable I’ve been across (excluding the North Korean one) as the Belgian side was full of potholes but literally on the border the tarmac became some of the smoothest I’ve ever seen. And it’s like this even on tiny country lanes making cycling a pleasure.
The 15km or so to Hollenfels was really lovely cycling, a big climb out of the valley where the border was through woods and then descending through immaculate corn fields and cow pastures. The corn and animals were so well groomed it looked like they were just there to look nice and that the country has enough cash to not bother with agriculture! One weird thing I did notice was in the woods near the border there were lots of person sized bank vault type doors made out of polished metal buried into the hill side. If anyone has any idea what that’s about I’d love to know?
When I rolled into the hostel I was gobsmacked to find it is part of a castle! My second one in a week! I guess not going straight to the city was a bit of luck in the end.
Anyway, now to rest for a couple of days and to plan my route to Donauschingen, the source of the Danube River , via the scenic cities of Strasbourg and Freiburg, looking forward to Germany!
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.