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!

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