Au revoir Eu - My ride across France
August 17 2019 - London to Nantes
I learnt yesterday that my baby granddaughter had received her French passport. It was great news, of course, her dual nationality rightly reflects her parentage and it gives her a real benefit in a post-Brexit world; but it is a tragedy too, and painful, that the madness of our departure from the European Union impacts on our family in this way.
The news came as I was packing to cycle across France to mark the momentous event (at that time it seemed as though we might be out of Europe by October 31). ‘Le grand départ - #aurevoirEU’ was intended as a week of contemplation of the mess we are in and what will be lost once our ties with the continent are rent asunder. I’ve been planning the ride for ages, but the news about the passport gives it greater poignancy.My route is from Nantes to Besancon. I’ve ridden north/south lots of times and thought west to east would make a healthy change, a decision reinforced by a desire to try out one of the dozen EuroVelo routes that criss-cross the continent. EuroVelo 6 seemed particularly attractive as it follows the route of the Loire, that most romantic of gallic waterways. It continues to the Black Sea, but I haven’t got time to do all that.
It seemed a good idea to take the train to Nantes which led to a decision to use my Brompton instead of a road bike since Eurostar don’t like big bikes and the route is pretty flat and easy going.
News that Brompton Junction at White City was renting out electric foldables gave me the idea of trying out a new toy, but to my disappointment, they hadn’t got the system up and running yet. Luckily, I was in conversation with Christina Lindquist, head of marketing at Brompton, about the Car Free Day Summit in September, where both I and Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams are speaking, and she kindly offered to loan me one.
I’m a big fan of Brompton anyway. I’ve been riding one for 15 years or so. I love their pragmatic British design, their convenience, their role in promoting more active travel and the fact that they are made in London. But electric Bromptons are something different. Suddenly the wind seems always at your back, you fly along as though a kind companion is giving your seat a friendly push. Since my journey requires a week of 150km a day, electric seemed a relaxed way to go.
News published last week that people riding pedal-assisted electrics, as opposed to ones with direct drive motors, maintained high levels of fitness was reassuring since I am preparing for a charity ride from Glasgow to London in aid of the Architects Benevolent Society in September. As a veteran cyclist, I’m also interested in the impact on health of increasing bicycle usage among members of my generation. Pedalecs are really good for that.
I briefly flirted with the idea of flying to Nantes via EasyJet to save a few hours, but in the nick of time read some small print that said they wouldn’t take electrics. So I left on the 7.52 from St Pancras this morning but not without incident. I had foolishly imagined that a folded Brompton would be acceptable on Eurostar, as it is these days in most civilised establishments. A quick google would have disabused me of this view, as did the curt Eurostar staffer ‘No bag and you don’t get on the train.’ Luckily the lost property office at St Pancras, who maintain a supply of various bag sizes for ill-prepared travellers like me, had one big enough to cover the bike to the guard’s satisfaction. Such a nuisance as I’ll have to carry the bag all the way to Besancon if I’m going to be allowed back on Eurostar at the end of the week.
The Eurostar booking gives me just half an hour to get from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse station. In spite of pouring rain, the bike does a great job weaving through the traffic and I arrive in the nick of time. The only problem is that platform 2 is not where you might expect it to be - ie two along from platform four. It’s only when you get to where any rational person would imagine it to be that a sign tells you it is 10 minutes walk in the opposite direction. I run, climb escalators that aren’t working (an electric Brompton with a spare battery is a hell of a lot heavier than I’m used to) and arrive just as the gates are closing. My romantic view of la vie Francaise is fading already.
August 18 Day 1 Nantes to Saumur
Not a great start. It was windy and rainy and it seemed to take ages to get from the hotel to the start of EuroVelo. The rain meant that the ‘greener’ parts of the route were pretty slippy. The route is a mixture of well-maintained cycleways, gravel paths and on-road. The cycleways were lovely, smooth and wide; the gravel paths are probably OK when it’s dry but in the wet they’re really unpleasant with sludgy bits that are like cycling in sand. On-road was also great. There wasn’t much traffic and what there was gave cyclists a wide berth - the only car that close-passed me had a GB sticker on the back!
Route 6 is well signposted and seems to put a sign just when you’re wondering if you’re still on the right track. Even so, sometime after Angers I lost it and consulted Mr Google instead - which was a disaster. He took me through tracks that were so narrow that the brambles ripped my skin, nettles stung my legs and dumped me on the wrong side of a recently ploughed field. The clay soil stuck to my cleats and to the tyres of the laden Brommy. I took a route on roads instead which was much more pleasant. The sun had come out and I remembered how empty the French countryside is. There was little traffic and the villages were devoid of people.
Through all the different conditions the electric bike performed admirably. I set it at lowest power - 1 - in the morning which was largely flat. It gave a little push when starting off and when I needed to up the speed a bit. I did that for 60 miles and there were still two of the five lights on that show how much battery you have left so I moved the power up to 2 which lasted for about another ten miles until I changed the battery. With only 30 miles to go, I switched to 3 - maximum power! I was flying. A great finish. None of that how-long-before-I-can-get-beer feeling as the last few miles tick by. My legs felt good; the only discomfort- apart from bramble-induced bloody arms - were in my biceps, I presume because of the different riding position of the Brompton. I’ve only spent that amount of time in the saddle before on a road bike.
I’m staying the night in Saumur, a rather beautiful town overlooking the Loire - the views from the hotel terrace make the effort of getting here worthwhile. My room luckily had a commodious shower, so I was able to wash the mud of the day off the bike and my kit. The forecast says that’s the end of the rain, better riding conditions tomorrow. Next stop Blois, 132km away.
August 19 Day 2 Saumur to Blois
I knew I had to go to Villandry. As I followed the signs they seemed like an invitation to lunch.
In the days when I was publishing Blueprint our offices were just off Marylebone High Street which was then a bit of a dump. The first sign of its revival was the opening of the Villandry restaurant by Jean-Charles Carrarini. He named it after the vegetable garden in the eponymous Château.
J-C represented all that was good about our increasingly close links with Europe at the time and the impact that was having on our taste buds. The food was prepared by his wife Roz: simple, straight forward, fresh salads with delicious dressing, good quality meat cooked with no fuss, cheeses to die for. We ate there all the time.
I am from a generation where, as children, spaghetti came from a tin, avocados and yoghurt were unheard of. Europe broadened our horizons.
I didn’t manage to visit the vegetable garden, I had a hundred miles to ride, but I looked over the hedge and said thank you to J-C.
The day had started well. The rain had gone and the early morning ride out of Saumur was staggeringly beautiful. I cycled through forests where a deer leapt out in front of me and an owl led me down a dark tunnel of trees. The River Loire, my constant companion, which at Nantes was rather wide and dull became more interesting with weirs and boats and wildlife. For a few hours I was on my own, but as the day wore on more and more panniered long-distance riders passed by, and they were joined by an encouraging number of local French families making use of their section of the Veloroute. Everybody acknowledged each other with a ‘bonjour’, which was nice.
The Brompton Electric continues to perform well. I set the dial at 2 out of the three levels of power right at the start and that let me do just on 40 miles on the flat before I had to change the battery. I dropped back to 1 for most of the next 59 miles - which were a bit hillier - and got to Blois just as the second battery ran out. I did get a puncture though; or rather I think the inner tube was faulty. Bromptons are a bit trickier than road bikes with their quick-release wheels, but I managed to replace the inner tube in reasonable time.
The total ride was 99.14 miles, according to Garmin, and I arrived in Blois in time to take look at the Château. I was keen to see at the spiral staircase which was featured in Nicholas Pevsner’s ‘An Outline of European Architecture’. In my day this was at the top of the reading list for A Level Art and Architecture. Architecturally we owe most of what we have done in the past to Europe whether Gothic ( I had really wanted to get to Cluny, but couldn’t fit it into the route), Renaissance or Modernist. Pevsner discussed architecture as a European and unifying culture. How sad he would be at the current turn of events.
August 20 Day 3
“Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there,” said Joan of Arc. I felt it appropriate that when I cycled into Orleans, from where the Maid caused so many problems for Henry v, I rode across the Pont de l’Europe, an elegant bow-spring arch designed by Santiago Calatrava (a Spanish architect/engineer who practices out of Switzerland and does OK without being in the EU.) which celebrates the European adventure.
The Maid of Orleans turned the tide on the English in the 100 years war which was all about how much of France English kings controlled. One might see this as an example of what some might see as a centuries-old legacy of hate, but I prefer to view as an intertwining of cultures that we throw away at our peril. It’s funny that ‘this sceptre’d isle’ which I imagine is now a Brexiteer slogan is from Richard II, who as well as being King of England was also Richard of Bordeaux.
A lot of the riding today (101 miles) was along the top of high berms that run alongside the Loire to contain it in the event of flooding. It’s a bit like the Greenway at Stratford but 500kms long! It’s quite boring to ride but gave me time to think about the different approaches we have with the French about infrastructure. They just get on and do it, whether by Royal decree or orders from Napoleon. Whereas we faff about - as shown by the announcement today that there will be a review of HS2. After the Great Fire, the King had a plan for rebuilding the City, but the merchants overruled him and wanted to get back to business without waiting for a plan. When the French built their canals they were wide, grand and with Royal approval and they have been publicly maintained ever since. Ours were commercial enterprises built tightly to the dimensions of the narrowboat. When the trains made them redundant they were left to fall apart. They were rescued by volunteers and are now run by a charity.
I’m not sure which system if best. The French way of doing things have a grandeur we lack, but our way is more efficient and responsive to change. To survive the self-inflicted trauma of Brexit, probably our way is best.
I ended the day in a small town, which I won’t name; I don’t want to be cruel. I had booked a flat through Air BnB because it was the only accommodation available. I asked a neighbour if there was somewhere I could buy food. No, he said, she won’t be open until September. Now I understand most things close down in France in August - but the only food shop in the village? Where could I eat? There’s a take away pizza place he said. I went to get cash from the ATM. A Credit Agricole sign covered the hole in the wall and said that the supply of cash had been terminated for the foreseeable future. I went for a walk and checked out the pizzeria, aiming to return shortly. I found one other open shop, a Boulangerie Artisanale, with a smart logo and tasty looking fare. The young propriétaire responded to my halting French in fluent English. I wanted to ask her what brought her and, I presumed from the sign, her husband, to this one-horse town. But another customer beckoned and I missed my chance. I wandered back to the pizzeria only to find that at 8.00 pm it had shut up shop! Further on I found a small restaurant that was still serving. I ordered a pizza which turned out to be the most disgusting I have ever eaten. Whatever has happened to the home of the gastronome? To make things worse the AirBnB flat was one of the most sordid places I have ever stayed in.
But more tomorrow about the French service culture!
August 21 Day 4
One of the things I have been doing to pass the time on the rather long stretches riding along the top of the Loire flood defences is to try and understand the bike’s electric motor a bit more. It kicks in gently at level 1, more sprightly at level 3. It is responding to your pedal stroke, recognising the effort you are putting in. So even in level 1, if you come to an incline where you stand in the pedals it gives you a good boost. I try to work out if it responds mainly to the downstroke because I’m worried I’ll get too used to its kind assistance. In recent months I’ve been trying to improve my pedal stroke - to get a good circular movement, with a scrape at the bottom and a push over the top, reducing my natural urge to put effort into just the downstroke. Will Brompton encourage me to go back to bad habits?
Riding on the flat - and practically the whole of this route is flat - and with a daily target of 100 miles, I get a reasonable speed on level 1 and have very little impact on the battery. The support from the motor is so gentle that sometimes it is just a slight whirr that lets you know it’s giving you a helping hand. But I find that if I practice a really good round stroke, not putting excessive pressure at any part of the cycle, I can stop the motor kicking in. Each time I hear a whirr I know I’ve done a bad stroke. When you move up to level 3 there’s no such subtlety- it gives you a really good pull until you get over the 15.5mph limit.
At Port de Decize, which is a mooring spot for canal craft, I chat to a chap from Salisbury who, now retired, spends a lot of his time in his boat on canals across Europe. I’m wearing my Brompton T-shirt and he comes over to me to explain that he was a friend of the late Julian Vereker who started Naim Audio but was also an early investor in Andrew Ritchie and his newly founded Brompton bicycle company. Small world!
He also tells me that he’s been holed up at Decize for several weeks and is about to go back to the UK because the water in a lot of the canals is too low for navigation. Some were closed, putting a stop to his sort of long-distance cruising. The lack of rain is such that even the Loire (see pic below) is running low. Not much need for the flood defences this year!
He described how in normal years he was able to use the rest of the European network of canals. I hadn’t realised before how connected the waterways were. It’s no wonder the British never quite felt a member of the club.
Napoleon was right. We are a nation of shop keepers. It’s so hard to find even a convenient corner shop in this part of France it’s rather disconcerting. For instance, I was cycling into Nevers - a reasonably sized city - looking to buy a bottle of water. While in the UK you would find a tobacconist/newspaper shop at regular intervals on a ride in from the suburbs, in Nevers there were none.
I had been struck by a lack of enterprise more generally. Thousands of cyclists use Eurovelo 6 each year, yet along the 750 or so kms I rode I only saw three cafes that in any way attempted to address this huge market. The benefit to rural communities of the tourist cycling economy is well documented, but no one seems to have told that to the people of the emptying villages of the Loire.
I came across one lively enterprise in Châtillon en Bazois - a bike hire shop which also sold coffee. I stopped and gave my order and the proprietor answered in perfect English. Greg and his wife Jo moved to France after buying a tumbledown property. Having spent so much time doing it up they thought they would move there permanently. They now provide holiday accommodation in their home and a few years ago bought the bike hire business.
Greg confirmed my view. George Bush, he joked, was only half wrong when he said the French had no word for entrepreneur. When he and Jo arrived in the village, the Mayor told him there was no work in the area. Don’t worry we’ll make our own, said Greg. And they did. Now they provide a valuable asset to the local economy.
Greg told me about the excellent cycling in the area, the rolling hills and ‘if you want something tougher, the Forest of Morvan’. I told Greg where I was going. ‘You’re going in that direction then?’ He said pointing west. ‘No, that way’ I said, pointing east. He nodded. Alarms bells should have sounded, but the canal was heading in the right direction and the little green EuroVelo signs still there.
I bought some water and coke to keep me going and set off.
A few hundred metres past Greg’s shop the Nivernais canal took a 90 degree turn to the north, and so did the little green signs. Damn! I checked with Google who confirmed I needed to go east. Sh*t!
So I cycled across Greg’s ‘rolling landscape’. I had the electric motor on 1 to reduce battery usage as I could see this was going to be a long day. ‘Rolling landscape’ is great fun on a road bike, but on a heavily laden Brompton, it’s just one f***ing hill after another. The rolling hills went on for a couple of hours.
Then ahead I could see a really big one, with no way around it. The signs announced that this was indeed the Forest of Morvan. The road went up, and up, and up. At the summit, it told me that I had just climbed 755m. I tried to get a feeling of how it compared with riding an unladen, lightweight road bike. Because climbing is all about strength to weight ratio isn’t it? On level three I would have leapt up, but I was conserving power and stayed on one. I reckon on a 6-8% slope the motor made up for the additional weight and I was pushing about the same wattage. Where it came into its own were the shorter sharper bits where, when I stood in the pedals, level one gave an extra kick. Without that help - or more gears - I know I would have had to get off and push.
I get to the top and check with Google how much further to go and, guess what, there’s no bloody signal.
So I do it the old fashioned way. It’s 3.00 o’clock and I point my watch at the bright sun and bisect the space between the12 and the 3 to check where south is. At each junction, I take a turn that takes me roughly south-east. By this time Garmin is telling me I’ve climbed 1750m. The 10k ride down was wonderful and in spite of its weight the Brompton handled really well.
Connections are restored and Google gives me the good news that there’s another 75k to do with a likely completion time after dusk. The lights on the electric Brompton are powered by the motor battery - what happens if I run out of juice?
I’ve still got two blue lights (out of five) of power, so I reckon if I keep on level 1 and keep a good round pedal stroke I can make it last until I’m nearly there.
It’s been such a long day that Garmin has given up the ghost so I don’t know my speed. It was a race against the dusk. The final light started flashing and I turned off the power with 30 miles to go. Luckily I was following another canal and it was nice and flat. Although I’d already done a century, and plenty of climbing, I felt pretty fresh for this last section. Once I was at speed it didn’t feel any harder work than my normal Brompton.
I arrived in Chalon sur Saone in the dark with lights (nice and bright) working. Google tried to take me down a Route Nationale which seemed suicidal, so I made my own route to the hotel, only to find the restaurant closed.
Distance completed, 209km.
August 22 Day 5
My original intention had been to cycle from Chalon to Besancon, take the Eurostar to Paris and on to St Pancras, but with the train leaving at 4.00 pm and the exertions of the previous day a dash across the last leg of the ride was unappetising. Instead, I decided to spend a few hours enjoying the historic bits of the city before taking a local train.
I had managed just about 800km of enjoyable cycling in the 5 days - sometimes wishing I had more time to stop and look - so wandering around the market outside the cathedral, enjoying the River Saone while static and contemplating my adventure over a good cup of cafe au lait was a welcome relaxation.
I’d kept up with the news during my ride as Boris Johnson dropped in on Macron, but Brexit seemed a long way away from that bit of rural France. When I wandered into bars for a beer I thought the rather unfriendly locals were probably le Pen supporters anyway. The fact that I had LONDON in big letters across my shirt certainly didn’t seem to make them any more welcoming.
The journey provided plenty of time for introspection about the impact of Brexit and the UK’s relationship with Europe and reinforced my views about the ridiculousness of the course the referendum set us on, the appalling response of our politicians and the chasm which separates metropolitan from rural communities. I also found this when I cycled across the US in 2013. Speaking to someone in Boise, Idaho, they said ‘You have to remember that we are just a pinprick of blue in a sea of red’. It was the sea of red that elected Trump.
Cities have more in common with each other than countries; the parts of France I cycled through will remain great places for Brits to holiday in, but it will be the conversations between Paris and London that will lead our relationship in the future.
I thought a lot about MIPIM - the annual real estate exhibition and conference in Cannes - during my journey, for several reasons. The first being that it is the destination for the Club Peloton bike ride from London which has raised millions for charity since the first one nearly 15 years ago. Then, I got together a group of 17 riders and we cycled the 1500km in five and a half days. Today, 200 or so riders regularly take part. This last week I recognised some of the same elements of that first ride: the difficulty of finding places to buy food and drink, the emptiness of French rural areas, and the consideration given by drivers to cyclists. Like the Club Peloton rides, I stayed where I could in Accor hotels - they are reasonably priced, they let you take your bike to your room and they provide a plentiful breakfast. In the first couple of years of the MIPIM ride the hotels were unprepared for the huge number of calories consumed by the energetic cyclists and other hotel guests arriving down to breakfast found counters stripped of croissants, rolls, ham and toast. The problem was exacerbated by cyclists boosting their performance with an ‘Accor energy bar’ - a croissant or roll with ham and cheese wrapped in a napkin and stuffed into a back pocket for later consumption. I found such sustenance indispensable while cycling through the empty regions of the Loire.
The other thing about MIPIM is that it is an event where cities speak to each about planning, architecture and development. The 2020 show will be a particularly important one for London as we try to make sense of the new political order.
The Brompton Electric was fantastic to ride. I certainly couldn’t have done the mileage without its assistance. The weight of the motor and two batteries together with all my gear was considerable, and manoeuvring the bike and bags while not riding was hard work, particularly around access-light French railway stations; but as soon as I started riding, the motor made light work of the extra kilos, taking the effort out of acceleration and giving a helping hand on inclines. I went up into the hill town of Sancerre - home of my preferred white wine - and on power level three the bike shot up the steep narrow streets.
By the end of the ride, I was feeling in good shape, pretty sure that electric-assisted pedalling is good for fitness levels. The proof will be in the pudding: I’m doing a ride from Glasgow to LONDON next weekend and I’ll see how well I keep up with the rest of the peloton.
I rode most of the way from Glasgow to London, slipping into the van for a rest a few times when my legs were really hurting. I surmised that while the ride across France may have prepared me for the flat it hadn’t toughened up my legs for the 20 percenters of Cumbria and the rolling hills of the Peak District. After three days hard riding my muscles were shredded!
Back at work, I’ve been commuting regularly on the electric Brompton and it’s great. It’s quick and it’s fun. I realise one of its greatest boons is being able to get back to pace after stopping at lights or crossings - one of the pains of inner-city cycling. I’ll do longer distances across London without even considering folding it up and putting it on the Tube. The other day I did from Excel in east London to Chiswick in just over an hour without breaking a sweat. It’s an enjoyable bike to ride, but the Velocity boys are planning to do some cols next summer; I reckon I’ll have to put in some heavy unpowered work before then to prepare if I'm not going to get shredded again.
You can see my video of the ride here: