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!

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