It all started late last year, when fellow Audax Kernow-ite John Morse told me he was looking for a suitable challenge for the Summer of 2005. LEL just didn’t float his boat – it had to be a PRoF*, and not just any old ProF would do either. Local organiser Simon Jones is well known for his ultra-long permanents, many of which have been ridden and written up in Arrivees past by Simon Kolka and George Hanna, but John couldn’t spare the time required for Trafalgar – Trafalgar or Calais – Brindisi. Happily, one of Simon’s more recent creations, Roscoff – Nice, fit the bill to a T.
The start is just a ferry ride away from Plymouth, and it’s a ride that takes in some of the best scenery that la Belle France has to offer: the sunkissed Loire valley with it’s fields of sunflowers and old windmills; the rolling hills of the Auvergne; Provence, and it’s endless symmetrical fields of Lavender; the fearsome Mont Ventoux and Europe’s own Grand Canyon – the spectacular Gorge of Verdon. All this, and a generous ration of memorable climbs and pant-wetting twisty descents on roads that tend to be better surfaced than most motorways in the UK. Best of all, a time allowance of seven days to complete the 1405km – no kipping in hedges necessary! John had planned to do RN solo, but I was already sold on the idea. After i’d accomplished the difficult trick of selling the idea on to my cycling-sceptic wife, the date was set for the beginning of July.
* Permanent Ride on Foreign Soil
In February this year, after a few months of less than military planning (we bought a Michelin map of France and traced the route on it), I checked the ferry times from Plymouth to Roscoff, and trawled the Easyjet website for a cheap flight back from Nice. Ever the bargain hunter, I worked out that, if we left Plymouth on Friday night, a cheap flight home would be possible only if we trimmed the schedule to six days, returning the following Friday afternoon. A quick play with Autoroute yielded a six day plan of 4 x 250km days and 2 x 200km. For the first four days we’d be taking a bite out of the next days mileage, until by day 5 we’d catch up with Simon’s 7 day schedule. John agreed to all this without demur.
With flight and ferry booked well in advance, we could rest easy. No need to book anything else, except perhaps the hotel at the Nice end. I managed to find one next to the Airport and booked us in for the Thursday evening. Job done. In the few weeks before setting off, I quizzed Simon Kolka and George Hanna by email. As seasoned PRoF-iteers, their knowledge was invaluable – how otherwise, would I have known how to ask for a stamp in France (un tampon-humide, s’il vous plait). It turned out that Simon had ridden RN the previous Easter. He had to contend with snow and foul weather on the way to Nice – I was hoping that heatstroke or TdF road closures would be the main worries in July. Simon also counselled against flying with Easyjet, and attempting the ride in less than seven days (too late on both counts).
All too soon, the day was almost upon us, and I gathered together all the kit I’d planned to take, to make sure it would fit in my saddlebag. Miraculously, it did (two thumbs up for the Carradice Camper Longflap and Expedition Saddlebag support). All that remained was to buy a few hundred quid in Euro, and my train ticket to Plymouth.
Arriving at Plymouth Ferryport on the Friday night, we found oodles of weekenders queueing to board the good ship MV Bretagne. A group of (motor) bikers on big Japanese cruisers exchanged good natured banter with us as we waited to check in. The heat from their exhausts was most welcome as nightfall and the proximity of the English Channel brought a pronounced chill to the proceedings. As only a handful of cyclists were waiting to board, we were fast-tracked to the back of the car deck and shown the bike park, a handy little room at the stern with plenty of space for the half a dozen bikes making the trip that night. Once we’d familiarised ourselves with the layout of the ship, and located the sleeping lounge with it’s banks of reclining seats, we hit the bar for a nightcap or two. We were joined by Roger Floyd, a Plymouth rider who knew many of the Devon DA gang like Graham Brodie and Mike Hunting. As a “frequent flyer” on the Plymouth-Roscoff route, he shared a few pearls of wisdom with us – e.g. take breakfast in the posh looking on board restaurant instead of the self service canteen – you pay pretty much the same price and get waiter service in an almost empty restaurant. After a few Kronenbourgs, we retired – Roger to his pre-booked berth (another of his top tips), John and I to an uncomfortable night of fitful sleep in the reclining seats.
At about 05:30, I rose unsteadily from the makeshift scratcher and staggered to the washrooms to try and get myself shipshape. We met a much fresher looking Roger outside the restaurant at 06:00, and were soon sitting down to a full English breakfast plus cereal, coffee, fruit juice and croissants with maybe half a dozen other passengers for company. Roger was meeting a friend who owned a house in Josselin, and cycling down there to spend the whole month on holiday. We were heading for Josselin too, but we wouldn’t be stopping as it’s scarcely 100 miles from Roscoff, and the first stop on our compressed schedule was Blain, 25 miles further than the first Control at Redon. We rolled off the ferry and waved cheerio to Roger as we powered uphill out of Roscoff on what was shaping up to be a pleasantly sunny Saturday morning. The small and pretty town of St Pol de Leon soon gave way to a flat and very scenic ride along the estuary towards the market town of Morlaix. After the flattish ride into Morlaix, a succession of drags up over hilly moorland and woods to Berrien felt like a chore, and we took a quick stop in Carhaix-Plouger for some water and bananas. The next 20km was on the N164 to Rostrenen. I wasn’t looking forward to bashing up a dual carriageway – this wasn’t a time trial after all – but once on the road, whole minutes went by without encountering any traffic at all. Very odd.
Around lunchtime, we broke for lunch at a roadside eaterie called “Le Relais Armoricain” in search of a decent feed. It was a very traditional sort of place – everyone who walked through the door was treated like a long lost relative, made a fuss of generally, and shown to their table with no small degree of ceremony. Alas for us, this kind of star treatment was reserved for locals only, and we spent 20 minutes being ignored before Madame plonked a menu in front of us. After a further lengthy wait, an over seasoned omelete rustique avec frites arrived and I ate without complaint as I couldn’t for the time being call to mind the phrase for “excuse me, but did the top come off of your salt cellar?!?”. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied Roger passing by the window. He had spotted our bikes and stopped in with his friend, Dave Newman, to say hello. It turned out that Dave had met us both before, having stayed in Penzance a few years ago and accompanied us on a club run with the Penzance Wheelers. Like the man said, it’s a small world…but I wouldn’t want to paint it! Dave and Roger saw us down the road as far as Pontivy, where they had planned to stop for lunch, and Dave showed us a shortcut out of town before we bade them farewell.
Other than a quick picture stop in Josselin, there was little more to tell until we arrived at Redon, the first control town. John had been suffering a bit, so I pressed on and found a control at a bookshop. The lady behind the counter stamped my card, but showed little interest in my sweaty personage. Suddenly a voice behind me said: “You are Scottish, no?” I turned and met the gaze of a very pretty French girl, who had doubtless espied the large red letters “AUDAX ECOSSE” across my shoulders. I responded in my best French: “Oui mademoiselle, je suis Ecossais”. This was music to her ears – she had spent her last summer holiday touring the west coast of Scotland, staying in Oban, Skye and the Outer Hebrides. She just loved Scotland, and it’s people – clearly a woman of taste! The ice was broken – even the brusque old baggage behind the counter was transformed and chipped in “Ah, but of course he is Eccosais… so handsome and rugged… like Sean Connery!”. I took this hero worship in my stride – it wasn’t the last time i’d be hearing Sir Sean’s name on this trip… a pity that it’s phonetically identical to a French word meaning bullsh*t, but there you go! I exited the bookshop on a wave of adulation, blowing kisses as I went!
John pitched up soon enough, and we pressed on to Blain, arriving there around 7:30pm. Here, we were to learn the folly of our casual approach to organising overnight accommodation – there was no hotel in Blain! After a wild goose chase into a nearby forest, we discovered a charming little Logis de France …which was fully booked!
Desolate, we returned to Blain, to grab something to eat and decide what to do. Luckily for us, a kebab shop was still open and we were able to stoke up on Steak Hache avec Frites while pondering the hopelessness of our situation. As darkness fell, it was clear that we were facing the grim prospect of a night on the tiles. Resigned to our fate, we set off for the next town on the route, Nort-sur-Erdre, arriving there around 11pm.
Several fruitless circuits of the town later, we headed on into the night, stopping briefly at a derelict farm building for a snooze and waking up freezing an hour later. We reached Ancenis, on the banks of the Loire, in the small hours and were drawn moth-like to a glow of neon in an industrial estate on the edge of town. The glowing building turned out to be a Credit Mutuel Cashpoint lobby – a very well appointed one too, with heating and automated sliding doors. We wheeled the bikes inside and dossed down on the floor, managing four hours of sleep in spite of the lights and piped muzak.
The happy discovery of an open bakery (at 7am on a Sunday Morning!) near St Florent gave our battered spirits a much needed lift, and we ate a Randonneurs breakfast of Croissants, Custard Doughnuts and Orange Juice on a low wall beside the Boulangerie.
The warmth of the sun soon banished the chill memory of the night before, and we continued on our way, encountering several chain gangs out for their Sunday club runs on the rolling road along the Loire valley. Just before noon, we reached the control town of Saumur and, chastened by our first night faux pas, we sought out the Office de Tourisme to book that night’s accommodation before finding lunch and a stamp. Further up the road, the town of Chinon formed part of the route on tomorrow’s stage of Le Tour, and direction arrows and Tour paraphernalia (clowns on penny farthings!?) were in evidence.
We stopped for the day at Ligueil, where we’d reserved a room. The hotel was a flea pit, and the terms were room only (the owner’s daughter was married the day before, and she was too tired to prepare any food – lucky escape for us then!), so we dined at a local Pizzeria instead.
We awoke to a crash of thunder at 4am – unhappily, this is the price you pay for sun-kissed rides along the Loire in 30 degree temperatures. The rain was lashing outside, where John had hung his kit the night before… I rolled over and went back to sleep, convinced that the storm would have blown over by the time we got up at 6.
To our collective chagrin, it was still cats and dogs when the alarm went off, and we were forced to set off into pouring rain and forked lightning. The one upside was the strong tailwind that blew us along the busy N143 to Chateauroux. Here we stopped for a hot choc and a sandwich, and to our relief, the rain stopped too. By 2pm, we had reached the next control at Montlucon, a fairly large town with some diabolical road surfaces. Again, we headed straight for the Tourist Info Office, where they managed to find us a room in a newly opened hotel just off the route in a little town called Ennezat.
We soon tired of Montlucon, and after a quick feed and a stamp at a Chemist, we set off up the long drag out of town. When we arrived at our hotel that evening, we found that we were the only guests – they had just opened! M’sieur Le Patron made us welcome, and cooked us an excellent meal washed down with a bottle of some poky local red. For the first time on the trip, we retired to bed happy, well fed and scrubbed clean of the day’s dirt. After a simple breakfast of bread rolls, jam, coffee and Orange Juice, we set out for a rendezvous with the next control, 80km down the road at Arlanc. Here we stopped for a feed and a rest and attempted to sort out some accommodation further up the road. After a few false starts, the young lady managed to find us a B&B at les Ollieres Sur Eyrieux, 150km away.
The owner asked when she could expect us, and we erred on the side of pessimistic, telling her that we might not be there until 9 or 10pm. As it turned out, this was hopelessly pessimistic – we hadn’t appreciated that the 40 miles between St Agreve and la Voulte sur Rhone is one long descent! Woohoo!!!
We arrived in les Ollieres around 7pm and hit the nearest bar for a wee refreshment followed by two gigantic Pizzas from a nearby takeaway. We sat and ate these sur le Pont, and enjoyed the evening sunshine for a while before tootling up the hill to our B&B. M. and Mme Palix spoke very little English, but made us very welcome in their charming home. The following morning Madame made us breakfast, with some delicious home made preserves which she assured us were 100% “Organique”. As we left, she offered us handfuls of organically grown Apricots from the trees in her garden. These proved equally delicious and disappeared down our gullets long before we reached the bridge over the Rhone. Once across the river, the short stretch to the next control at Crest was fast and mainly flat. We passed many orchards on the way, dodging showers from the sprinklers as they watered the trees laden with ripe fruit. We arrived in Crest before 8am, and grabbed an espresso and chatted to some local cyclo tourists at a café. By this time, Armstrong was starting to tighten his grip on a seventh tour victory and the sporting papers were full of the news. The barman rolled his eyes in disgust – how many more years must France wait for another Bernard Hinault?
This was to be the day when we finally caught up with the seven day schedule, and we planned to finish our day at the control town of Oraison. A short way down the road from Crest at la Begude, we stopped for a quick feed and tracked down a Chemist for some lip salve. The blazing sunshine and cool mountain air had combined to give me some grotesquely chapped and sunburned lips, which took weeks to heal completely.
The scenery on this stage was a landscape photographers dream, with fields of sunflowers and lavender, and ornate roadside water fountains. One such fountain saved the day on the long drag up to St Leger du Ventoux. I hadn’t replenished my Camelbak at Nyons, where we stopped for lunch, as all the shops were closed, and in the vicious heat of the afternoon my scarce supply of H2O was soon used up. I had just about got to the spots before the eyes stage when we reached St Leger du Ventoux and a large water trough by the roadside. I felt like jumping into it, but confined myself to emptying a few bottles of water over my head and drinking several pints of mountain dew. A little further down the road, we stopped for an ice cream and a rest to let our dehydrated muscles recover.
We enjoyed some excellent views of Mont Ventoux, the “Giant of Provence”, but thankfully we didn’t get too close as the route skirted the edge of that lofty peak. Later that day, I encountered another shower high up in the mountains above St Trinit, and caped up for only the second time on the trip. It was a price worth paying for the scenery and the occasional thrilling descent on the run in to Oraison. I was still suffering a bit after the earlier dehydration scare, but kept my spirits up by singing a medley of “the Proclaimers” greatest hits to the brown-eyed bemusement of several bovine spectators!
I arrived in Oraison at about 7pm, expecting to see John waiting in the town square, as he had dropped me near Reilhanette, but he was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he must be close by, I found a café with a good view of the road into and out of town and settled down with a beer, but in the space of deux bieres, he still hadn’t shown. I took the initiative and decided to look for a room, finding one at “La Grand Bastide” (the big bastard?) a rather cheesy motel just down the road. By the time I retraced back to the town square, I spotted a familiar looking bike propped against a phone box and it’s familiar looking rider gabbing into the phone. He had been waiting for me in Revest-du-Bion, but must have blinked as I passed through! After I had brought John up to date on the nights sleeping arrangements, we repaired to a rather excellent Pizzeria just off the square. The chef was a larger than life character named Eric, who spoke excellent English which he had learned while working in Inverness. He made me a present of a bottle of wine, and insisted that I send him a postcard when I got home. I retired that night slightly the worse for wear, but looking forward to our final epic day in the saddle, over the Gorge of Verdon.
For once, we set off at a halfway civilised time (07:30am), and were soon approaching the picturesque village of Moustiers Ste Marie. We stopped for a snack and a few pics before pressing onward, to the start of the climb up to the top of the Gorge. There are two routes round the Gorge, and we opted for the one that seemed to be going downhill.
Sadly, this was just an illusion, and we were soon grimping up the Col d’Illoire. Some pesky mountain bikers were trying to suck my wheel up the climb, but I put the hammer down and blew them off in short order. After about forty five minutes of slog, I reached the top to find John waiting by the side of the road, and took advantage of the quick break to take a few pics of the view down into the valley below.
I made several photo stops on the journey through the gorge to try and capture some of the epic scenery on my little digital camera. Just standing on the Pont d’Artuby near the Balcons de la Mescla, required a head for heights.
A popular spot with bungee jumpers, it’s a 600 foot drop to the bottom of the gorge – looking down made me feel a bit queasy, so I took a few snaps and pressed on for a lunchtime rendezvous with John at Comps-sur-Artuby.
Here I wolfed down an enormous ham and cheese sandwich and a beer or two, while John (who had been there for half and hour) checked the map. There were two more 3000 foot climbs before Nice, but we reasoned that, as we were already pretty high up, there couldn’t be too much climbing involved, and this proved to be the case for the Col de Clavel, which took only a few minutes to summit.
Further down the road we enjoyed a spectacular descent through mountain tunnels to the picturesque village of Greolieres. Brightly coloured hangliders were surfing the warm currents of air rising up from the valley as I rounded the switchback curves leading down to the village.
The theme music from the Stella Artois adverts was playing in my head as I wandered about this quaint little time capsule. Before long, I had located the village shop and made a dent in it’s impressive stock of cream cakes! After refilling our water bottles at another roadside fountain, we carried on descending for a while before the road inclined upwards for the last big slog of the trip, up to the Col de Vence.
As we approached the sign for the summit, John’s finely tuned Randonneur sixth sense kicked in – “something’s wrong here…”. “Eh? What’s wrong?” I replied. “Can’t you see it?… no more mountains!”. He was right – a few metres further and the road swept downward for 20 miles to Nice. Far distant cruise ships were plainly visible atop the deep blue Mediterranean that marked our journey’s end.
After another lighting speed descent we found ourselves caught up in the unpleasantly heavy rush hour traffic of suburban Nice, but a quick recce of the Airport and a time trial along the Promenade des Anglais saw us outside the hotel I’d booked us into a few weeks before. The celebratory meal we enjoyed at a bar along the road from our hotel was less than memorable – possibly due to the number of grand bieres we consumed.
Security at Nice Airport the next day was extra tight, due to the London bombs of the day before – all shoes were removed and X-rayed, and hand luggage inspected in minute detail, though the nice lady frisking John passed when he asked if she wanted to rifle through his bag of malodorous used kit!
After all our detours and misadventures, my computer read 1520km for the six days, about 100km more than the actual distance from Roscoff to Nice. If I do it again, i’ll definitely be taking the seven days that Simon allows – six is too much of a rush, and you really need to take your time and enjoy the fantastic scenery en route. In summary, if you’re looking for an “end to end” type of challenge, but don’t fancy risking the vagaries of British weather, this is one ride that won’t disappoint.