Well, we are back! After four days on bikes, Lorna has concluded that our long weekend was “an experience”, which those who know her, will recognise immediately as a) a euphemism and b) an understatement.
Let me just start by setting the scene we had in mind. We had anticipated a bucolic, and gentle journey through France’s beautiful countryside, punctuated only by refreshment stops along the way, where we would avail ourselves of fine French food and wine. We would continue, suitably full and probably a little tiddly, before coasting to our countryside inn, where the innkeeper would be waiting with a welcoming glass of kir royal and an iced towel (ok- maybe not the last bit – not on this budget). We would enjoy a fine dinner ,watch the sunset and enjoy a deep and well earned slumber, before repeating the exercise the next day. Above all, we would return healthy and refreshed and eager to repeat the experience.
So what was it actually like?
The trip started out pretty well, which, in my experience, is always a bad sign. The scariest and most unpleasant part of the cycling itself was, as expected, getting from our house to the harbour. This is a distance of only about 3 miles and most of the route is on quiet roads, but in Guernsey, cyclists are regarded as expendable irritants by the average motorist, and most of our roads, designed in the age of the horse, are too narrow for pavements, let alone anything as radical as a cycle path. One has to expect being overtaken at inopportune moments by impatient drivers.
The crossing to St Malo, the nearest commercial port to us on the Continent takes two hours and is very comfortable, on a very well run service. We arrived at the ferry terminal in bright sunshine and found our next ferry across the bay to Dinard within 11 minutes of leaving the first ferry.
The crossing from St Malo takes just over 10 minutes, and our hotel was visible as we neared the landing stage. Unfortunately, perhaps, as I feared, a new 5 star boutique hotel was also visible, and closer. Of course, Lorna’s eye was drawn to the upmarket polished granite 5 star temple, and not the shabby chic, fin de siecle, rustic offering I had chosen, which she described as Fawlty Towers. I had tried to manage her expectations beforehand, but I could tell she was disappointed, especially when she saw our room. I will just say though, that it was comfortable and clean and looked out directly over the Bay towards St Malo, and I thought it was fine.
We went for a stroll and, to appease Lorna, we had a cocktail in said luxury very chi chi hotel. The cocktails cost about the same as the room rate for our hotel. Lorna suggested we come back and stay there next time. I wasn’t sure if she had clocked the rate per night (eye watering).
We ate back in the hotel. There were a few other guests for dinner but I believe only two rooms were occupied that night.
Setting off around 8 am the next morning, we found the start of the green route South within half an hour of leaving the hotel. Based on the site of the old Dinard Railway Station (long since gone and now principally abandoned, save for one new building serving as a library), it would be easily missed without precise directions. The start looks like a piece of wasteland come parkland but when you find the start of the trail itself, it is a revelation and perfect for cycling. Literally following the old railway line down to Dinan, it is a path of compacted sand and gravel, meandering through the outskirts of Dinard and out into the coutryside.
Every now and again, one finds old stations and railway crossing point houses, converted into private residences. There was even a preserved piece of track at one former stop. It was quite charming and definitely in line with expectations. We stopped at one of these for a cup of coffee from our thermos flasks, which we had filled at breakfast.
The sun was still shining and we were on track (forgive the pun) for Dinan and, again, it seemed too good to be true.
The trip down to Dinan takes a little under three hours. The train track ends at St Sampson la Rance and one follows minor country roads down a hill towards the Rance canal and the towpath that leads to the Port of Dinan, a picture postcard riverside honey trap for tourists and hungry cyclists.
I wish we had set off and arrived later, as we were a little early for lunch and settled for a coffee and a beer at one of the riverside restaurants, thinking we would grab a bite to eat a little later on the route to Tinteniac. Big mistake as it turned out.
The route to Tinteniac continues exclusively along a canal towpath, whose surface was firm but quite bumpy in parts. These bumps add up. Let me say that again THESE BUMPS ADD UP! After an hour or so of further peddling, our backsides were on fire and we were desperate to stop and take a long break from our saddles.
You will find, if ever touring in France, that it is a big country and that in the countryside the villages have very little to offer in terms of eateries or places to stay, especially on a Sunday. We eventually found a cafe in a village that was open and made, what turned out to be a fateful decision to order chicken burgers. Lorna, being more observant than I am, thought them under-done and left part of hers. I was starving and wolfed mine down. A bottle of pouilly fume and a drop of water later, and we were on our way.
We had met a group of French cyclists at lunchtime, who were on their way from Rennes to St Malo. They told us Tinteniac was not far away. That was not actually true and when we arrived there, some three hours later, we were saddle sore, sun burnt and covered in grit from the trail and from the dust of nearby fields. We really needed to lie down.
Being a Sunday, and the hotel being from my selection of sleep anywhere, the reception was not actually manned. One had to telephone for someone to arrive at the motel style building to let you into your room. Our host duly arrived 10 minutes later and let us into our room, which was basic but clean enough. She then asked if we had made plans for dinner. You would have thought that eating in the hotel was a possibility, but no, being a Sunday, the restaurant was closed, but there was, apparently, a pizzeria half a mile up the road. Well, as it turns out, that too was closed – on Sundays. There was a bar open in the village, but it reminded us of the bar we had seen in outback Australia where conversation stops as strangers walk in. We gave that a pass. Who needs food anyway?
We trudged back to the hotel and tucked into the peanuts we had brought from home. We were tired, so took an early night and decided to set off early the next day. We had covered 38 miles. We had 30 more to go.
A few hours later, and the hounds of hell had arrived and taken up residence in my stomach. I spent the night in the bathroom, with occasional trips back to the bed (immediately regretted). I could tell Lorna was worried, as she almost woke up at one point (she does not do empathy). I had visions of collapsing or (worse), having to spend another day in the room.
The morning finally arrived, and, sleepless, washed out and drained, I knew it was not a good idea to cycle 30 miles. By this time, Lorna was also feeling a little poorly.
Looking for the nearest train station seemed like a good idea. We had a map, and it would have been a really good idea to look at it and see that the nearest station was at Combourg – about 10 miles away. Instead, we messed about on the internet with “find my nearest station” on Google and concluded that Rennes was our best bet, albeit we needed a more direct route than the canal. There was a direct route, but we would need to venture out onto the open roads.
If we could follow the minor country roads, we could shave 10 miles off our journey and be there by midday. That was the plan we chose.
The roads were fine, but the hills! How long were the hills? Up and up, seemingly forever. I was in despair, walking a good way up hills too numerous to mention. Lorna cycled up most of them and, to her credit, at least waited for me at the crest of the hills. My one advantage was, that carrying more weight, I screamed ahead on the very occasional downward stretches. Oh for flat tarmac! One lesson here. Be very careful about what you pack. You will really curse the weight up hills.
It took about three hours to cover the 20 miles to Rennes, which we thought pretty good considering the state we were still in. I could not eat anything and was just sipping the water from my dust encrusted water bottle. At about 9:30 am on Monday, I have to say I was hating cycling and regarded the entire weekend as an endurance test.
I have never been so pleased to see a town sign as we crossed into Rennes. Finding the station would take longer, but at least we had made it. into town.
The train service is welcoming to cyclists and we were able to load our bikes and sit with them on a regional train back to St Malo leaving at 12:45. Lorna managed a sandwich, but food was still not on the menu for me. An hour later and we were back where we started in St Malo. Thank goodness for modern transport!
Just one more night in an eccentric hotel in St Malo, and we would be on the boat home. We found the hotel and we slept for a good hour and a half before deciding to venture out. By now, both of us were able to eat again, so went and found a pizzeria. We slept well that night and woke before dawn to make our way down to the ferry terminal and the journey home. We had completed 60 miles by bike in two days and we felt pretty good about that. And, as Lorna said – it was an experience.
1.Invest in gel covers for saddles or wear padded shorts. I had resisted the latter, thinking that they look as if you have a nappy on underneath (might have been useful though on the last part into Rennes). Besides, I took an oath that I would never become a MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra), and it would be better to look like a regular human being on the treck.
Speaking of regular human beings, I swear my backside has grown a second backside, a bit like ababoon’s butt. The soreness has diminished slightly, but I have ordered the gel from Amazon.
2.Watch the weight. I have heard of people cutting out the labels from their clothes to save weight. I would not go that far but I definitely took too much extra kit.
3. Do your research and stop in places where you know there are plenty of shops and eateries
4 do not cycle all day. It is soul-destroying. We would cycle in the mornings and have the afternoons at leisure. I wish we had stopped in Dinan.