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About three years ago a good friend of mine, Chris, and I began to hatch a plan to cycle from our homes in Hove, near Brighton, all the way to Paris. As with many ideas of this sort plans fizzle then re-ignite but finally we got off our back sides and put the trip together…

We loaded up our bikes and hauled them onto the street corner outside Chris’ flat, the same street corner that 20 months earlier I’d set off on the second day of my bike trip from London to Shanghai. I had the same bike and half of the same luggage which this time around was in a far more tatty state after 11,000 miles on the road!

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A quick train to Portsmouth and we were soon on the fast ferry over to Cherbourg in North-Western Normandy. We’d ended up dropping the Brighton to Paris plan in favour of a trip along the Normandy coast because travelling on the ferries rather than the eurostar was far more practical with two big heavy bikes.

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Three hours later and we were rolling off the boat into Cherbourg. Well walking as the boat crew didn’t seem to like us trying to ride down the ramp. As always international border points don’t seem quite set up to handle people on bicycles so the 10 or so of us on bikes rolled up to a car gate where the French border control officer simple shouted “Are you all EU?”. “Yes!” was the response and we were waved through, into the Schengen Zone, without so much as pulling our passports out of our pockets.

It was 8pm now and we’d found a little campsite on the map about 8km south of Cherbourg. After visiting an ATM we headed south and quickly suffered the consequences of poor planning. This “short” jaunt out of the town became a huge slog as we began to climb the huge hill towering in front of us.

It’s about now that I should mention that in an effort to keep costs down on this trip Chris was using the single geared town bike that he already owned which made this hill a particularly unpleasant experience, it was bad enough for me with my granny gear.

As we reached the top of the hill we pulled into a supermarket to stock up on food for the next day as it would be a Sunday when virtually everything in France is closed. Panic struck as the supermarket had already shut it’s front doors but I managed to squeeze past the few people still moving through the checkouts and purchase a couple of baguettes.

Off to the campsite, which was also closed, and required us interrupting the operators evenings Television to get ourselves checked in. After a meagre bit of bread and peanut butter we put our heads down to rest. I was more than slightly concerned that this bad start may have been putting Chris off of the idyllic picture of cycle touring I may have painted.

After loosing two hours in the morning due to heavy rain, we raced off down the road towards a Carrefour supermarket 20km’s away the Google told us was still open until midday. Low on energy, slightly sodden from the rain and now rushing across France to get to a supermarket this was turning into quite a grim start to the trip.

Our luck began to turn as we made it to the Carrefour on time and began to stuff our faces in the car park. The sun soon came out as almost a reflection to our lifting moods…

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Now the trip could really start. Good weather, no deadline to get to a shop, and the hills had begun to flatten out as we’d moved further inland. Quiet French towns rolled under our wheels for the next 30km. British and American flags were being flown outside most buildings which was a bit perplexing until we noticed a sign commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings.

On the approach to St. Marie du Mont a huge bell tower caught our eye and we stopped for lunch…

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The church and town centre were littered with signs detailing the many exploits of the soldiers involved in fighting in this town. On one occasion two German officers were stood at the top of the bell tower making detailed drawings of the area when a gust of wind caught the map and it fluttered down to the streets where it was hidden away by a painter who’d been using the public toilets. The officers confronted him but he pleaded ignorant of his concealed map before later handing it over to US forces.

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The luxury of cycling along the coast of France is that there are campsites dotting along the entire thing giving you the option to ride as much or as little as you like. We set our target for the day in a little fishing town called Grandcamp-Maisy and after stopping for a sneaky McDonalds coffee along the way we checked into an unbelievably cheap campsite at around £3 each.

In another cost and weight saving measure Chris was borrowing my light weight one person Hubba NX tent and I was sleeping in my British army bivi bag under a tarp held up by the tent and one of my bike wheels. Apart from a few insect bites I think I preferred sleeping like this to being in the tent, it gives a bit more of a feeling of sleeping outside…

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After a campsite dinner we headed into town for a few beers as a treat after the fairly rough preceding night. In the morning I was keen to re-enact something that had become a daily ritual for myself and Stephen Cunningham as we cycled across China last year, Instant noodles and coffee for breakfast…

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Feeling fully charged after our “nutritious” breakfast we headed off down the coast to Omaha beach. As mentioned above many of the D-day landings took place in the area, in particular the American ones, which due to popularity of American war films have become some of the more famous landing beaches.

Dotted off of the coast were what looked like either sunken landing craft or some form of dilapidated mooring points. There was little left on the beach apart from a memorial to the events…

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What had started out as a lovely warm day begun to grind on as the midday sun took it’s toll on us. Farms offering cider tastings and rooms to stay in tempted us sorely but would’ve left us little time to make it to our ferry home. Our goal for the day was the ferry town of Quistraham which you have gone through if you’ve ever taken the Portsmouth-Le Havre ferry. We’d opted to splash out on a hotel for the mid point of the trip so as to wash out our cycling gear properly. Due to the ridiculous nature of internet bookings and loyalty schemes it was cheaper to sit outside the hotel and book it online on my phone rather than just walk inside.

Feeling ever so slightly fresher after showering and sleeping in a bed we set of in the morning down the first cycle path we could find. A slightly ominous “Route barree” sign appeared but looked like it had been moved out of the way and the path was no longer closed…

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A sign at the other end of the path explained the route was dangerous, thankfully the path had not subsided into the water whilst we were on it. The D514 and D513 roads became our friends for the day as we snaked through touristy sea side villages and scenic little church towns…

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Our hodge podge minimal camping setup assembled with the goal of purchasing no new gear for the trip took up nearly all the space on the bikes. A new rear rack for my touring bike probably would’ve been a good idea…

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The final approach to the town of Honfleur was particularly fun, an undulating coastal road where you’d get just enough speed up on the descents to carry you most of the way up the corresponding climb. Despite the terrain getting a bit more hilly Chris and his single speed were getting up all of the climbs fine, it’s shocking how quickly your legs adapt to distance cycling.

After a sun filled descent we reached our destination of the scenic town of Honfluer at the mouth the Seine, the river running through Paris. A popular town for river cruises making their way along one of the largest rivers in France. We checked into the central campsite, cooked up a cheap campsite dinner of grim quick-cook spaghetti, provencal sauce and chickpeas before wandering into town…

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We quickly discovered, rather unsurprisingly so, that the marina front cafes were just a tad out of our price range. Instead we opted for the off license and bought some of the local cidre and calvados (an apple based spirit) and retired to the campsite…

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Thanks to mounting tiredness (and absolutely nothing to do with the booze) we awoke with ever so slightly sore heads in the morning. It was to be a fairly long day at 70km but it looked fairly flat across the Seine delta followed by a few climbs as we crossed to Dieppe inland.

There is a large suspension bridge just to the east of Honfluer that spans the width of the Seine. Google Maps informed us there was a cycle path across it which would save us a 30km detour. The path was rather elusive but after winding through what appeared to be a dilapidated road we found the start of it and began the climb over the hump of the bridge.

With every metre we went higher the wind got stronger and stronger and we were soon forced off of the frankly quite dangerous cycle path onto a neighbouring walkway along the bridge. Reduced to pushing the bikes we finally made it to the top of the span…

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I did make a little video at this point to capture just how bad the wind is but you can’t hear a word on it! Just wind noise. It is quite surprising that in France the few pieces of cycling infrastructure that are in place are quite so dangerous. As you can see in the above photo the narrow black cycle path runs just inches from where trucks are passing. Due to the high winds there are huge vortexes of air around the lorries that pull you towards them.

The reasoning I’ve come up with is that France has not needed to build much cycling infrastructure due to the level of caution and respect afforded to cyclists by French car and lorry drivers. Both Chris and I and ended up playing a game I had also done on long straight roads across France, on the way to the China, where you attempt to guess the nationality of a car by how close it is overtaking you.

By enlarge the French drivers give a full lane of clearance, Germans, Dutch and Belgians give a good half a lane where as the British holiday makers were inevitably the ones passing us by just a few inches despite an empty lane next to them. It is likely a by product of the busy, narrow roads in the UK but still it was frustrating seeing people representing your home quite so poorly.

After descending the other side of the bridge we had a few easy miles across the Seine delta before attacking the steep climb out of it. This was by far the longest and toughest climb we’d done and by the top Chris’ mood had dropped. On a single speed bike you don’t have the option to drop into a low gear and spin your way up a steep gradient, you must grind out every single pedal strike more akin to weightlifting than cardiovascular exercise.

This constant strain was taking its toil on Chris’ knees but after a rest with some anti-inflammatories and food his determination to cycle all of our planned distance shone through and we pressed on. Flat roads and a merciful tailwind pushed us through some lovely scenic fields before we arrived at our campsite in Cany-Barville…

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An evening stroll around the town reminded us that we were now on the route of Stage 6 of the 2015 Tour de France from Abbeville to Le Havre. This wasn’t something we’d known about when we planned this trip and had become a bit of a back and forth between this being a bonus to the trip or also possibly crippling the roads so badly we’d end up riding through the night to reach the ferry.

A quick bit of googling showed that the first half of the next day we’d be riding on the route in the opposite direction of the tour. At the half point of our day we’d be pulling off the route onto a different road and we hatched a plan based on the assumption that the tour must be a rolling road block rather than a complete shut down. We got an early start the next day with a goal of getting to the fork long before the tour arrived and then staying at that point to watch it pass before heading off down the unblocked road.

The climb out of Cany-Barville was already lined with people waiting for what would be a fast paced descent as the tour came through later in the day. Families cheered us on up the climb as though we were racing up an Alpine pass which was a lovely start to a day where fatigue was beginning to rear its head.

Pressing on across flat roads through fields lined with campervans awaiting the tour peloton to come through. The road seemed to have been closed to motorised traffic as the only vehicles were road cyclists mimicking the Tour de France stage or cycle tourists like ourselves hunting for a good spot to watch the race…

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We reached the fork in the road in the town of Veules-les-Roses and sat down for the long wait for the race to come through. Not long after we arrived they shut down the road entirely with police urging pedestrians and cyclists to clear the road as various event vehicles came along inspecting the route.

After a couple of hours it was announced that the “Caravan” was coming through. Now this is not something I knew about the tour. Several hundred vehicles preced the race advertising the various sponsors of the Tour de France…

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Vouchers for free baguettes were thrown into the crowd and people went feral trying to get at them. The baguette mobile…

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Once the freeby give away had ended it was almost as though the entire crowd left and then a different crowd arrived who actually wanted to see the race. Tensions were high amongst the police as a local cat kept slowly walking back and forth across the race course to the cheers of the spectators.

After an age of waiting finally a herd of motorcycles came down the road in front of us followed by a breakaway group of sprinters, one of whom was Daniel Teklehaimanot of Eritrea who would go onto the win the Polka dot Jersey for the day (meaning he was the fastest climber of the stage) setting history as the first African rider to ever to do so. You can just about make him out on the left of this freeze frame, I’d post the video but it’s far too shaky…

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A few minutes later and the several hundred strong peloton came through. Quite a sight although they were moving fairly slowly due to a speed bump in the road…

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Our plan had come together perfectly as we now turned around to ride off up the empty D925 towards Dieppe. Come together in all ways except for the fact the fast ride in the morning followed by a four hour break had led our legs to seize up a bit making the climb out of town rather unpleasant.

After a final 24km of depressingly hilly road we finally flew down the last hill into Dieppe and treated ourselves to a few too many cocktails on the quayside…

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All in all a great trip. I’d highly recommend the coast of Normandy for a cycling holiday due to wealth of campsites, quiet scenic roads as well as WWII history and picturesque towns. I’d add a note though that doing the trip either on a single speed bike, or one heavily loaded with luggage might be a bit less enjoyable!

I’m off next weekend to carry on with the next stage of my project to walk the length of the River Thames so there will a blog post in the next couple of weeks covering the stretch of the river from Lechlade to Oxford.

 

 

 

 

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