Friday, 31 July 2015

Religieuse, Ribot, Rayon, Relax

At the conclusion of today, four things stick out in my mind, and it all began at the end of the street where we stayed last night in Loudéac.

Rolling into town, trying to balance Google maps with not leaving Katie behind to keeping Thomas Ivor on the anti-clockwise-and-narrow at roundabouts, I didn't take in much of Loudéac, but upon turning onto the street the hotel was on (for 'hotel', read 'promised land' by this point!) I would have had a job missing the boulangerie/patisserie at the head of the building line. 

In the first glance I formed the instant opinion that upon checking out from the promised land, manna was likely to be found therein. 

I was right. And some!

With the novel advantage of having neither bedding nor tent to pack away, and our bikes still half loaded having spent the night slumbering in the back of the hotel kitchens, we were rolling sooner than usual this morning, and Thomas Ivor grabbed a quick picture outside the hotel before the shortest leg of the day, back to the bakery.

Ruth has so far not spoken much French, it is fair to say, but my word, can she work the 'international language of the gesture'! It was one of those moments when your heart melts, as she entered the shop and just gazed for a moment in wonder, trying to take in the bewildering array of sugar, cream, chocolate, fruit and pastry before her. She couldn't quite believe her eyes.

Soon, she very much could believe her eyes, and had not only decided what she wanted to order, but that she was going to conduct the necessary procurement exercise herself. Not only did she manage to say 'please' and 'thank you' in French, but she managed to pay for the cakes herself, with but a sotto voce reminder from Mummy to take her change.

Oddly enough, the Religieuse which Ruth had so carefully chosen and delicately carried out of the shop was subsequently demolished with great gusto...

All we had to do before we left town was to pick up some milk for the girls. 

That sounds simple enough, but we've been surprised to find how difficult it is to get milk round here. Yesterday in Gouarec our lunch stop told us they only had cream, for cooking with. I am neither a milk nor a tea drinker, but it would seem that the absence of the latter from the local diet makes it harder to obtain the former! Where we have bought milk, it has generally been semi-skimmed or lump it. All we needed was a supermarket and we could be on our way, and the sat-nav was telling us that we would go right through the middle of town to rejoin the voie verse. There had to be somewhere selling milk, somewhere along that route - surely?

We were almost back on the railway path and fearing that we would have to backtrack right the way through town, our early advantage wiped out, until, half way round a roundabout, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a branch of Netto. Sorted!

The day's heat was sneaking up on us as I waited in a car park with Katie's bike, the trailer, and all three children, as the former dashed into the supermarket, returning a while later with water for our bidons and 'milk'.

'Lait ribot' turns out to be quite unlike ordinary milk - it would seem to be partially fermented buttermilk, with salt added. Katie described it as 'like drinking sour yoghurt' and frankly her facial expression upon tasting it told me all I needed to know about its suitability for the girls' morning lactose fix. Seriously frustrated, Katie trudged back across the street and further along, found an organic supermarket (beware genetically-modified supermarkets) with something a little more palatable. Finally, having found a storm drain for the other stuff (lest it become cheesy as well as salty, in the back of the trailer), we got back on our way out of town. 

The remains of the Réseau Breton
The relaxed French way of doing things, which gives rise to the sacrosanct lunch period, actually becomes a source of stress for us, because it gives us a deadline in the middle of the day and reduces flexibility. As it became apparent that we weren't going to make it to Merdrignac for lunch, we took the decision to take a signed link off the path to a fair-sized village where we reckoned we should find somewhere to eat.

A short but very sharp climb later (ideally accompanied by the 'Hovis' music, played on an accordion) past a number of encouragingly-named but distinctly 'ferméed' buildings, we arrived at what turned out to be the only outlet in the village these days, a sports bar with an en suite village shop.

Thomas Ivor and I walked into the bar and practically everyone turned to look. It was like I'd burst into a wild west saloon with a gun in each hand. I'm not sure they see many English families there, in fairness. I had a quick scout of the place, looking for signs of food, but was aware of the eyes following me.

"Who are they?" asked maillot jaune-clad Thomas Ivor, pointing to a frame on the wall filled with pictures of cycling legends. Channelling my inner 'Fraülein Maria', I put my 'confidence in confidence alone' and spoke loudly enough for my audience to hear, too. "That's Jacques Anquetil, son. Big Grandad remembers going to watch him in the tour. There's Eddie Merckx - they used to call him 'the Cannibal'! That man there is Laurent Fignon, I can just about remember seeing him when I was first watching bike racing on the telly, and Bernard Hinault, there, 'the Badger' - these are all very famous, very talented riders, Thomas..."

I glanced over my shoulder; it had worked. The faces were smiling. Suddenly, it seemed, we were accepted. Come to a rural sports bar in Brittany and talk cycling, and it's like a French family arriving in a working men's club in West Yorkshire and talking about Rugby League. I imagine.

Katie, having decided that it was here or bust for lunch, spoke to the genial proprietor of the establishment. No, they didn't serve food, but if we bought our drinks from the bar, we could get something from the en suite shop and sit at a table to eat it. It was the next best thing in the circumstances.

We cobbled together a lunch of stale sliced bread, ham and cheese, a big bag of crisps, and since we didn't have a handkerchief to eat it off, like the local men around us, we fetched out food boxes and sporks from Thomas Ivor's panniers to use as crockery.

We rolled back down the hill to rejoin the voie verte and pressed on, sheltered from the heat by the trees for most of the way. The surface was more sandy in places, but it had generally been tamped down well; the gradient profile was also far more gentle than we'd experienced on the run to and out of Carhaix.

We were in good time for our arrival with our Warmshowers hosts for the night, so much so that we took the time to get the girls out for a nappy change, clean clothes and a leg stretch towards the end of the run, where Ruth learned about the workings of a combine harvester, of which we've seen a few in Brittany. All was going brilliantly until I picked my bike up. The load on the wheel as I raised it up managed to pop another spoke. Just when we were gaining confidence!

The last couple of miles passed in a more circumspect fashion, as I tried to keep my wheel as straight as I could. Thomas Ivor and I stopped briefly to talk to a couple who were evidently impressed with the little guy's progress. Their English, unusually, was no better than my French, at which as I ran out of vocabulary I had to explain that my wife would be along shortly!

As we homed in on our destination, we turned off an already bucolic, rural railway path, further into the backwater. Following field boundaries we came upon a sign for a road serving only two houses, and as we approached the end, out came Morgane, our host, to meet us. After ferries, campsites and a hotel, it was like arriving home. Soon we were joined by little Brewen, and with Thomas Ivor playing photographer, despite sharing not a single common word between them, the children hit the slide together.

We've been welcomed like old friends into Morgane and Marin's home, as have the bikes and the trailer, who are tucked up with our hosts' Chariot in the workshop. We've enjoyed our first galettes of the trip (more of which tomorrow), and been introduced to some of the more vernacular aspects of contemporary Breton culture - like 'Breizh Cola'! It's clear to us that there is a tremendous sense of civic pride here - both at a local level and in Brittany as a whole. Although many of the closest cultural similarities are to Cornwall, the identity reminds me a lot of Wales.

We're reliably informed that there's a decent bike shop in St Méen le Grand, just up the road, so today's spoke can be attended to tomorrow. After a couple of days of logistical difficulties, the Family ByCycle are tucked up in their little outhouse in rural Brittany, and we're feeling quite at home!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Making up the miles: Mäel-Carhaix to Loudéac

We woke to light mists, but with the promise of another beautiful clear sky. Having stayed the night at Camping Etang des Sources we still had a lost day to make up, so we needed to aim for an early start to get some of the 40 miles planned for the day under our belts before the real heat of the day was upon us.

When travelling with three children, timing is the very first thing to go totally out of the window. When they put their minds to it, ours can unpack faster than we can pack, and you can guarantee that at least one of the three will choose an inopportune moment to demand a trip to the toilet or a clean nappy. So it was rather closer to 11am than 8am by the time we were finally all packed and heading up the road out of the campsite (saying goodbye to the tree the girls had adopted, and heading back over the speed humps that Ruth and Rhoda found so hilarious as we arrived yesterday evening).

We were resolved to try to do some of the day's mileage using the roads today, to give us a bit of variation from the greenways. Both Tom and I feel that whilst the traffic free status of the voie verte is lovely, there are two big drawbacks if you plan a whole day's riding on them: first, you don't see much of France. You could be on a tree lined path anywhere in the world for mile upon mile. Second, they absolutely kill our pace (whether because the surface is hard going with the trailer or because there are gates and chicanes to negotiate every few hundred yards).

We rode to Gouarec for lunch, having learned our lesson yesterday about lunchtime finishing at 2pm. As we arrived in Gouarec, we spotted the same bicycle tourist we'd seen yesterday whizzing around Mäel-Carhaix. Seeing other bicycle tourists is still a novelty for the children - last year in the Hebrides we barely saw a soul, let alone other cyclists! We were all very pleased to have the opportunity to chat for a while with Kirk, while we decided on where to have lunch. He gave Thomas Ivor his top touring tips (get decent shoes, wear "normal" clothes, always wear a helmet), and told us about some of his adventures in New Zealand and around the world. Inspiring stuff!

Our lunch in Gouarec was a happy find: a café frequented mainly by French locals, whose plat du jour of roast turkey in vast portions was just what we needed to set us up for the long afternoon ahead. Thomas Ivor fared better today too - his swollen lip being much reduced in size. Today was also a breakthrough day for the girls - both of whom managed to drink their water from a glass without a straw.

After lunch, we picked up a stretch of the Nantes - Brest canal path. Like the greenways, it was very quiet. The surface was better than the greenway and it was mercifully flat, so we were soon flying along and enjoying the shady path as a respite from the heat of the day.

We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by people as the canal path deposited us at the Abbaye de Bon Repos. We became something of a tourist attraction ourselves as we stopped to consult the map for options for the next stretch of our day's mileage. One lady got her camera out and started snapping pictures of the girls in their trailer, which was a bit surreal. The lady and her family stopped for a chat and she was amazed at Thomas Ivor's proficiency and the distance we were hoping to cover. She told me I was mad to do this with my "remorque". By the end of the day, I was starting to agree! Today's mileage was a PB for me towing the trailer. We've done longer days, but always sharing the towing.

We made a decision to take the road here, which the guide book shows running parallel to the greenway. We were all ready for a change of surface, and we needed to up our pace from what we were managing by the canal.

Near Saint-Gelven on D2164. Should have stayed on the cycle path!
Decision taken, we set off gamely enough along D2164. With hindsight, it was the wrong call and the next few miles were a bit rubbish. The road route included a fair bit of extra climbing, but even taking that into account we were initially making better progress than the path. We slogged up one climb, lost all the height downhill and climbed another. We were being stoical, resting and then carrying on. As usual, my pace with the trailer was miserably slow on the ascent (around 4mph). Ahead of me as I rounded a bend, I found Tom stopped at the roadside gesturing to me to turn around and go back. Suddenly I saw why: ahead of us was a very long and steep climb: no way we would make the top of that one without getting off to push, and there was no shade to be had from the sun or shelter from the traffic. Back to the greenway we went, losing in 2 minutes almost all the height we had just laboured for 2 hours to gain.

Despite getting frustrated with the sand and the variable surface, after that we stuck with the greenway, the profile of which was rather more agreeable, until we reached Mûr de Bretagne at around 4pm. Somewhere along the way, Tom found one of the former station buildings standing empty and resolved to purchase it as a second home! We had planned to turn off the path to go to find the stage finish for the Tour de France which passed through Mûr de Bretagne a couple of weeks ago. This meant another climb up a big hill (they didn't decorate the Mairie in red spots for nothing), but after all the climbing we'd already done we weren't missing this!

Thomas Ivor posed in his maillot jaune for some pictures and we set up a team portrait for posterity. We cracked out some drinks and snacks and took a rest. Ruth was very excited and keen to get out of the trailer for a bit.

We also made a strategic call to change our route from the one we had planned to Plougenast and to head instead to Loudéac, a more direct path towards tomorrow's destination - by doing so, tomorrow's mileage will be the same as planned, but today was shortened a little. I took a wander to the tourist information to see if they could help us find some accommodation, but Loudéac wasn't on their patch. They gave me the opening hours for the Loudéac office and the phone number, but we set off from Mur de Bretagne in faith that Loudéac was big enough that we would find somewhere to stay, especially given how quiet every other site we'd stayed on had been.

The landscape character on the approach to Loudéac was different. The greenway was not so much enclosed tree tunnel, but more gravel path alongside fields, and the views out across the countryside in the sunshine were lovely and uplifting.

We passed fields of wheat ready for harvest; bathed in sunlight and golden. Thomas Ivor wanted to know how much wheat from France went to the Weetabix factory near our house. I had to confess that I didn't carry that particular statistic in my head...

We pointed out the maize crop for Thomas Ivor, who despite loving to order corn on the cob at the Beefeater near his mum's house didn't realise it grew in fields on a plant! We tried to identify as many things as we could think of that contained maize.

There have been some new roads built recently with complex arrangements for crossings under them, but all perfectly navigable even with the trailer. The guidebook made them sound far more daunting than they turned out to be- if only Britain took such good care of its cyclists when designing new roads!

As time passed pleasantly enough, we realised the afternoon was really heading to the evening. We were still 8 miles out of Loudéac and the tourist information office closed at 1830. Time to get really brave and use the telephone.

Nothing tests your linguistic skill in your second language quite like the telephone. No gestures, facial expressions or body language to help out. Frankly, I dread it! But I applied myself and soon had phone numbers for a campsite and five hotels. We looked them up on Tom's 3G data and decided to enjoy the luxury of a proper bed after a 40 mile day, some mains power and some free wifi at Hotel Restaurant 'Les Routiers'. Another phone call (what's French for cot? - essential parenting phrases notably absent from my A-level vocabulary!) and two rooms were successfully booked, along with an evening meal and space to store our bikes and trailer overnight. Result!

There was one last obstacle to overcome in the form of a scramble over an earth mound to avoid a long road crossing detour, and we were back on the Tarmac for the last three miles.

'Les Routiers' has delivered on all our hopes: a warm welcome, lovely dinner, kind staff who went out of their way to accommodate the children, power, free wifi and (bliss!) a hot shower and a proper bed!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Chasing the day

I left the tent quietly at dawn and as I showered by the light of a lazily-flickering hurricane lamp, contemplated the challenge ahead. We were a day down.

The itinerary I'd designed had recovery time built into it, for just such eventualities and to make sure we made it to St Malo for the ferry home, but to shift the next few days' arrangements back a day would wipe out our margin for the rest of the trip and be a serious logistical headache. Ideally, we had to pull back a day's mileage and get back on track within three days, so we arrived with our first 'Warmshowers' hosts, Morgane and Marin, on time.

If we could do two days in one, I figured, we would give ourselves the least to do - doing two 'days and a half' would require a new overnight stop as well as two cancellations.

We weren't the only ones a day down - the weather yesterday had delayed other cyclists on the campsite, and I gave them a wave and wished them luck as they got on their way. We still had the tent to pack away! I got back to the tent and used my recording of the music from the ferry to wake up those of the team who were not already climbing over the others.

Saying goodbye to Judi at the campsite
We bade farewell to our friends at the campsite, drawing a sharp and disbelieving intake of breath from one chap (whose children were merrily lapping the campsite on their bikes) when we said we were considering a 40+ mile day with Thomas Ivor and the girls. We knew we could do it because we'd done it before - but it's amazing how often strangers think they know your capabilities better than you do! Nothing like the disbelief of others to fuel you as you hit the road.

Back we rode towards the Réseau Breton. As we did so, Katie took her first 'scalp' with the trailer, overtaking a family with a horse-drawn caravan. I'm not sure where they stood in comparison to one another on power:weight ratio, but downhill, the horse and steel-tyred caravan were no match for Mrs J and her Croozer!

Down at the station, the caravan we'd seen on Monday night was hurriedly departing, likely in some way connected with the presence of the Gendarmerie in their van at the top of the path! These guys looked a lot rougher, possibly Romanies, but it was tricky passing them on a bike, never mind with a trailer, on a path barely as wide as their outfit and decidedly soggy at the edges. As ever, it seems, no piece of 'cycling infrastructure' ever caters exclusively for cyclists. Either you have to share it with cars, pedestrians, or in this case, horses.

Aside from a couple of such encounters, and cows crossing the route at one point, the path was a bit depressing, truth be told. What must have been a beautiful and challenging piece of railway has been allowed to be turned by nature into a 'tree tunnel' for much of its length, totally isolating the cyclist from the surrounding countryside; it may as well be Bedfordshire as Brittany. The path, saturated by two days of rain, offered considerable resistance but limited grip. It was something of a grind - to the point where even on a slightly falling gradient there was no prospect of rolling freely. The guide book suggested that the surface would deteriorate and so it did as we zoned in on Carhaix. If we couldn't make Carhaix as our first leg of the day, we weren't going to make up any lost distance.

We got as far as Poullaouen (which looks more Welsh than French as a place name!) and I decided I'd had enough. We scrambled up onto the road and found some of that lovely, smooth, tarmac stuff we'd almost forgotten existed. The road was hillier than the railway, but we decided we'd happily deal with that; it immediately felt like we had returned to France. Unfortunately, our pace to that point meant that lunchtime was slipping away. We would have to ride well into the evening to do today's mileage as well as yesterday's.

Our departure from the railway route deprived us, very sadly, of the sight of the steam locomotive on the path nearer to Carhaix, which was a real shame, but we had to press on. Arriving at the edge of town, D54 got busier and we raced towards what turned out to be a stonking great hill, on a bend, to get to the town centre. It was like Dawlish all over again, but bigger, and in the heat of the day. We found another way up the hill, on a shaded road with almost no vehicular traffic at all, and ferried people, bikes and trailers up as a team effort.

Thomas Ivor captured the second of what was ultimately four legs shuttling us and our kit up the hill into Carhaix.
Carhaix-Plouguer is a pleasant little town. We rolled round the one way system in search of somewhere suitable to eat (Katie catching a kerb and having one of those embarrassing, slow-motion-falling-off episodes whilst also looking for an ATM), somehow crossing paths four times in the process with a fellow cyclist who had passed us on the path earlier in the day, but as the guide books warn of much of France, if you miss the 1200-1400 lunch period, you can expect to find a lot of places not serving food, or indeed totally 'fermée'. As cyclists and particularly with the demands of the children, it is harder for us to conform to this pattern; you learn to carry more cash than usual, and to take what is available, when you find it. In all fairness, this doesn't work out too bad, because the discerning French don't tolerate poor food, and we haven't been sold a duff or hideously pricey meal anywhere we've stopped so far. The children have definitely eaten better than usual, Thomas Ivor and Ruth especially so. We must aim to take something of this home with us.

Lunch had to be a picnic from the supermarket in the end, in the company of a statue of three old Breton ladies who periodically sang, with water squirting (without warning) from the floor around them! Katie was at least able also to find a jeweller's shop to buy some ear studs from - one of the more bizarre items to have forgotten!

Looking once more at the plan, we decided that, since combining the next two days on the route amounted to a smaller daily total than trying to do a double stint today, we would get ourselves to the site we should have stayed at last night, and have another go tomorrow. It wasn't that we couldn't do it - more the case that tomorrow should be better. Despite the dodgy roads, my wheel has held up, albeit now running a very low pressure to cushion it. I'd rather a puncture than a broken spoke, I figure.

As we left town, we passed the railway station - this one, almost disconcertingly, open, as part of the portion of the Réseau Breton that was upgraded to standard gauge in later years. The GPS showed me a street name I had to get a picture of Thomas Ivor with - if one day he ever does make it round the world on his bike, it will be priceless - although I fancy he will need more than 80 days...

All this being so, thanks to our earlier push, we've arrived earlier than we might have done yesterday at Maël Carhaix, on a beautiful and very cheap municipal campsite (no toilet paper!) with barely a soul on it. The advice that Brittany's interior is quiet even during the French holidays has been well worth following, thus far. We have a field almost to ourselves, the girls have made friends with one particular tree near the tent, the pasta is cooking and I've even had time to set up the camera to do some filming; there's a lake, play area, and all the amenities you could reasonably need for a night's stopover. All for something like €8. We're still chasing that day and we must do something tomorrow, but I can think of worse places to prepare!