Saturday, 29 August 2015

What did you bring home from your holiday?

A fridge magnet? A snowglobe? An 'I [heart] <insert place name here>' t-shirt? Diarrhoea?

Tonight, I had one of those moments when you just go for broke on the culinary front. 'Caution to the wind' job. "Let's do Thomas Ivor some galettes before he goes back to school".

As perhaps befits such an effort, I managed to end up producing six litres of batter, which turns out to be twice what we were up for consuming, and my technique is still, shall we say, 'improving', but it worked! The egg one went a bit wrong, but cheese and ham worked nicely, and magically, the creme fraiche and smoked salmon came good, too. Took me right back to lunch in St Méen le Grand, just missing the scallops!

We haven't had galettes since we left Brittany a few weeks ago, having enjoyed the traditional Breton staple with all manner of fillings most days during our trip there.

Yes, we have our memories, and our photographs, our blog posts and videos, but how wonderful to bring home the means to have a little taste of our French adventure any time we like.

We're going to have to buy a 'billig' so we can entertain, Breton style, next time we have people to stay with us...

Friday, 28 August 2015

Inspire the next

Today's trip to the park has seen all three children making progress on their cycling journey.

We started out by raising Ruth's seat, and she is now scooting with increasing confidence. I'm amazed how slow she can travel with both feet up in the air! We do need her to cotton on to the idea of using her brakes before too long, or she will learn by the school of hard knocks. We're also going to have to speak to Islabikes about the long seatpost for the Rothan, because Ruth is now right up on the stop.

Thomas Ivor, meantime, has been working on bike handling, taking the opportunity to use laps of the bandstand to practice the skills we want him to have at his disposal on the road, in comparative safety. Today we've done riding one-handed and looking behind whilst tracking in a straight line, leading to indicating left and right, which has gone well. Until he's doing this as second nature he will rely on having one of us on his shoulder on the road, so this is an important, if mundane, rite of passage for him, which will lead to him becoming more independent.

That's where the report might have ended, but sat in the rucksack on my shoulders as we did all this, a little girl kept insistently shouting "Bike!, Bike!".

Once Ruth decided she wanted a sit down, out came the allen key, and Rhoda, at all of 16 months, sat imperiously on the bike, like Borat with a chair, before edging forward a couple of inches...

 ...and falling off.

"Oh Dear!", she pronounced, getting back to her feet without a fuss.

Proud Dad.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Deep Breath

We did it! We're home. That's the first thing. Moreover, we are home safely, with all our gear, the same number of us as we left with. We also have proof of our endeavours in the form of a few broken bits of kit, some smelly clothes, filthy bikes and well over 2500 images and video clips to edit and share, which are still not all downloaded yet. It's funny, too, how the books and bits of paper strewn around the house from our departure all mean something so much less abstract than they did last time we saw them. Place names have been upgraded to memories and knowledge.

We want to thank each and every person who contributed to making our trip a success, and over the next few days there are a number of special people, not least our hosts, whom we want to contact personally and on Warmshowers to express gratitude and reciprocate friendship. That will take a day or three but the Amazon Prime man cometh!

For reasons we prefer not to dwell on on the blog, but those who have met us may have learned, it has been a difficult couple of weeks in some ways, and there are other, more serious matters we must attend to which were waiting for us when we stepped through the door of the house yesterday afternoon.

What we can say is that our French expedition worked out, and we are looking forward not only to sharing the experience as we illustrate and publish our blog pieces over the coming days, but to the next time we set the wheels rolling. Katie has got in the car this morning to go to work, with great reluctance...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Family ByCycle, on location...

Another morning, another departure. Another farewell to new friends, en route to stay with more strangers. We had a great time with Yves and Christine. In particular, it was so affirming to meet people who had done what we are doing, and more, long enough ago to be able to judge that it worked! They're off soon to return to the road without their now grown-up children, at which I will be pleased to hear some more feedback, because I would still like to take Katie for an epic trans-continental bike trip once our children are packed off to university, before they beat us to it! Ruth took a turn this morning at writing in our hosts' visitors book.

No sooner had we dropped back into town than we bumped into another touring family with their children and trailer, in the supermarket car park! Jean-Yves and Caroline, Romane (3) and Gabin (2) were also headed for the north coast and we had an interesting chat with them before getting underway for real.

Thanks to our changes of plan, today has been our first actual low-mileage day, as we prepare to turn north tomorrow and head towards St Malo and home. Finally, we've had some time to do some filming and photography.

That awkward moment when a car crosses the road in front of you whilst the self-timer's running...
Filming yourself on trips like this is rather harder and very much more time consuming than it looks, and there are lots of folk out there having a go at it, with varying degrees of success. It adds a lot of weight, it increases the 'battery burden' significantly, and most of all, you have to find a happy balance between riding and filming. Too much stopping and filming can become tiresome for the group; too much riding and you never have time to film any of what you're passing through. Throw in a triple dose of 'never work with children and animals' and you're asking for trouble!

Today turned into something of a 'filming day', which has been fun, although the quiet paths of the canal aren't all that representative of the greenways we have been on for much of the trip so far. It's also difficult to get the camera very far from us within the confines of the towpath.

Canal towpath isn't really our favourite kind of route for covering ground, although it does increase the likelihood of finding picnic and play areas en route. Like some railway paths, they can serve to insulate you from the places and people around you. Being flat they also demand a steady slog, particularly noticeable when touring, and depending on how the path is engineered you may have lots of width restrictions, gates and road crossings to contend with. Most of all, if I can say this, we don't like trying to put the miles in when we are tripping over the kind of 'Sunday afternoon' dog walkers and cyclists who are only going to cover a mile or two all day and who aren't attuned to sharing space. None of that is conducive to riding freely. Mercifully, although the section we used yesterday ticked many of these unfortunate boxes, moving further inland (as generally with Brittany, we are finding) caused things to quieten down considerably. We didn't see many people at all today, of any kind!
For every 'Family ByCycle riding past the camera' shot, I have established a well-worn m.o. which, in practise, runs something like this:
  1. Decide that there's a shot to be had, and stop; shout to Thomas Ivor to pull up.
  2. Park the bike up and un-bungee the tripod; shout louder at Thomas Ivor's rapidly disappearing form.
  3. Get back on the bike, hunt Thomas Ivor down and bring him back to where I've left the tripod at the side of the path.
  4. Extend the tripod legs and plant it. Try to control breathing.
  5. Camera out of bar bag; start explaining the shot to Katie so she can turn the trailer round and return to the point we need to film from.
  6. Mount the camera, send Thomas Ivor to follow Katie and use his retreating ride to check the shot out.
  7. Set the camera rolling; retrieve bike and set off to join the others, mindful of the precious memory card and battery capacity that is already being used up.
  8. Turn back half way to make sure it really is on. Discover that it is. (Note - miss out this step and it isn't).
  9. Finally rejoin the rest of the team, as the sun ducks behind a cloud.
  10. Nominate who will ride past the camera in what order; remind Thomas Ivor to keep to our pace.
  11. Wait for the sun to come out again.
  12. Sun comes out; dog walker enters the shot. Slowly...
  13. Dog walker leaves shot as the sun goes in again.
  14. Set off anyway, in the determined order. Thomas Ivor promptly drops one of us / fails to keep up / has a huge and inexplicable wobble / fails to set off at all because he's seen a wasp several yards away (delete as applicable).
  15. Turn everyone round to try again. Seconds later, tripod blows over and sun comes out on empty road. Start muttering to self.
  16. Retrieve camera. Stop film and delete the evidence. Repeat Step 8 on way back to the group. Sun goes in.
  17. Contemplate asking for the emergency diazepam stash whilst waiting for the sun to come back out.
  18. Sun comes out; wait for stream of traffic coming the other way.
  19. Decide 'stuff it' on the solar front and set off anyway. Sun miraculously comes out and all is going well until a van drives past the camera right in the middle of the shot.
  20. Frantically dash back and do it again whilst everything's looking good. Katie's lip now bleeding from trying not to say 'Calm Down Dear', in the style of Michael Winner.
  21. Take number goodness-knows-what. Get in! Upon reviewing the footage, it turns out that an enterprising Thomas Ivor has pulled a face as he passed the camera. Decide at the last minute not to pitch his bike into the hedge. I'll only have to retrieve it myself.
  22. Go back and do it all again. Return to the camera to find that it ran out of battery/memory card/both, moments after you entered the shot
  23. Ruth announces she's done a poo. Bite own lip. Give up and decide to make do with whatever footage we have.
  24. Dismantle the camera and tripod.
  25. Look for the bungee that holds the tripod onto the rear rack, which pinged off into the grass earlier.
  26. Hurriedly lash the tripod back onto the rack and set off after the family. Breathing exercises.
  27. Wonder "Good heavens, what was that" (or similar) as one end of the bungee comes free, catches on a spoke and pulls itself apart, firing the hooked end through the drivetrain and nearly pitching you off.
  28. Improvise a new method of attachment for the tripod using the top straps on the panniers and the remains of the bungee, vowing never to waste time and effort trying to film like this ever again. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
  29. Flog back up to the rest of the family, who by this time are wondering what on earth has happened to you and have stopped. Forego the break they've just had, and take the front once more.
  30. Move on, look for another spot, and repeat.
Now, I admit that this may sound like an exaggerated version of events but every stage has genuinely happened, on occasion on the same afternoon and several of them in the same take. It is a wonder we get the footage we do, sometimes, but with some ingenuity attaching the GoPro and with our new video-capable DSLR body (shamefully, bought immediately before this trip without chance to practice with it - not recommended) it is most certainly possible to put together a few minutes of film from a family trip, and I think it's nice to have evidence that we all went on the ride together, even if our relative pace on the road may mean that it grossly misrepresents the extent to which we actually ride in formation!

Ten minutes' work for three seconds of film!
It will be some weeks, even months hence before I will have sorted out, edited and cut the video from this trip, but I always find that the editing process is a nice way of itself to relive the places we visited and experiences we shared.

It's a shame we haven't had more short days like this, and I do think it's important that families record their memories, even more so than other cyclists - not least because the children won't remember half of it! We would undoubtedly have put a couple more days like today into the schedule if it weren't for the need to fit in with both ferry timetables and Thomas Ivor and Katie's holiday dates, but either way, hopefully we will have something encouraging to show you when we get home.

Our impression that the canal was somewhat energy-sapping was confirmed when we rejoined the road for the first time in many miles, which felt much better on the legs even though we had some climbing to do. A tricky little run in on freshly topped road to meet our host, Gilles, and his little girl Adélie who's three, at a much earlier arrival time than we've become accustomed to. We have been made wonderfully welcome, the bikes are parked in the garage, the girls have made another new friend and we're looking forward to sharing a meal later with another likeminded family. Something to enjoy, and something worth remembering.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Becherel, books, bombard and beans

On a "normal" holiday, departure day marks the end of the journey. When you are touring, almost every day is departure day, but it is also arrival day somewhere new. We had the panniers packed and bikes loaded in record time this morning (just prior to 9am, definitely a Family ByCycle best!). Morgane invited us to have some breakfast, and Ruth really wanted to play with her new friend Brewen, so we took time with our hosts and lined up with our trailers for a group portrait before we left.

Ruth really really didn't want to leave, and threw her first full-power tantrum of the trip. I had to wrestle her, kicking and screaming into the trailer. I knew a little of how she felt. The stay with Morgane and Marin was like wandering into a little corner of heaven, and leaving was a wrench even with the promise of more adventures to be had on the road ahead.

We headed towards Becherel for our lunch stop, and back out onto roads used (in the opposite direction) for this year's Tour de France, passing the very pleasant-looking municipal campsite which we'd originally planned to use. Forewarned by Marin, we were expecting a decent climb up to our intended lunch stop, but were promised that the rewards would be worth it. Indeed, the warning wasn't for nothing. It was a long climb (on the road this time) with several false summits on the way which turned it from a "grit your teeth and struggle to the top climb" into a definite "get off and push" climb in places. Thomas Ivor and Daddy had fewer difficulties but still looked tired at the top.

Arriving into Becherel, it was clear why the town is such a tourist honeypot. Narrow, picturesque streets of bookshops, little eateries and lovely views back down that massive hill. Our appetite for galettes whetted by Morgane's lovely cooking, when we found a crêperie, we couldn't refuse, and the Family ByCycle caravane was soon safely parked up at the roadside. Five galettes, four crepes and about a million litres of water later (it was thirsty work getting up there!) we emerged back into the sunshine to look around. Becherel isn't called the 'Cité des Livres' for nothing, and we had arrived during a book festival. Long trestle tables loaded with books lined the street. The art galleries exhibited works inspired by French literature. The whole atmosphere of the place breathed culture.

We were therefore delighted to pause to listen to two young Breton children who sat down in the street and began to play Breton folk music. Since our ferry wake up call, Thomas Ivor had been asking about what French music was like, so this was a great chance to stop and soak up the atmosphere. The two young people were very competent musicians, and they soon gathered a crowd and accrued (to their innocent surprise) a fair few well earned euros in their instrument case. Tom has come away wanting to acquire a double reeded 'bombard' (in addition to the billig - the Breton shopping list is getting expensive!) to join the three trombones, tuba, piano, saxophone and assorted recorders in the Family ByCycle musical collection. Ruth and Rhoda were surprisingly engrossed in the music given that they were both due a nap, and we lingered in Becherel for an extra hour.

It was therefore with some relief (given that today was another relatively long mileage day) that we knew the next section of our road would very definitely be downhill. It turned out to be the steepest and longest descent of the trip. Thomas Ivor in particular did us proud, confidence restored after his spill earlier in the trip, and we made good time towards the Ille et Rance canal.

I reached where Tom and Thomas Ivor had stopped at the canal, to find Tom looking at his watch. It was later than it looked, and we needed to warn our next hosts that we were running an hour or so late. Tom dropped his pace to keep me company for the last stretch, which was along more traditional, waterside tow path with a sandy surface (really loose in places - drive chains caked with grit again after five minutes!). We passed plenty of families out walking and fishing together, and a decent number of other cyclists (mainly leisure riders rather than cycle tourists) who without exception all shouted a cheery hello. Perhaps, like yesterday, that Breton flag on the trailer does make a difference! Betraying our true nationality, Tom called out a greeting to a slightly bewildered couple on their boat, with an Ullapool registration, telling them that was where we'd cycled last summer!

I was looking forward to some more nice level canal path after the morning's exertions, but after passing a number of locks and with the tourist count thinning out, we took to a section which was not really canal towpath, but rather cycle path climbing up the hillside alongside the canal through the trees. It was shady, which was nice, but otherwise quite tough going with the trailer since the surface was loose and criss-crossed with tree roots. Before long, I was lagging far behind the boys, and running out of steam. The girls woke from their nap (probably due to the sudden change in surface). I wondered what they would make of this, but I needn't have worried. They were delighted with the bumps and wobbles, promptly deciding that mummy and the trailer were the "Ninky-Nonk" and they were off for a bumpy ride. Mummy was slightly less delighted, but happy children makes for an easier ride even if you do think you might be about to lose your teeth as the trailer snags on tree roots for the millionth time. In due course, though, it flattened back out and we joined the road, passing the railway station (Thomas Ivor's first sight of French trains in the flesh) as we entered town.

Our hosts for this evening are Yves and Christine, cyclists who had taken their two daughters in a trailer and cycled round France when they were not much older than our girls are now. We had a delicious meal al fresco in their garden and enjoyed learning from them how they thought their travels had benefitted their girls, and listened to their plans for their next trip as a couple now that both girls are off to university.

Violette and her father Yves, pictured by Thomas Ivor
When we tell people that we are taking our children cycle touring, most think we are mad. It is so nice to meet families who have put doubts to one side and gone out and done it. Our circumstances and resources mean that we are not really able to throw caution to the wind and take off for months or years at a time, but hearing about their experiences inspires us to believe that we have more in us, even in our shorter holiday rides.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Who will buy...?

I'm not a morning person. I never have been. I'm just not the sort of person who wakes, or is woken, and automatically dives headlong into a new day, full of bounce and vitality, like  a character in a breakfast cereal advert. At the other end of the day, I can keep plugging away into the night, but don't call me in the morning.

Alastair Humphreys wrote "Mornings come peacefully on the road". Now that I am settled back into being 'on the road', even a broken spoke isn't disturbing that peace.

In a complete reversal of the normal order, I woke first this morning, at dawn. Instead of fighting the daylight, or being aware of other people having beaten me to it, I heard the sweet silence of the morning, punctuated only by birdsong, the occasional call from Morgane and Marin's rooster, and the tolling of a distant church bell, quite unlike those we hear at home. All the moment wanted for was some Grieg playing in the background.

Tempting as it might have been on another day to vegetate and luxuriate in the calm, and despite the mileage we've done, which at the moment amounts to more strenuous exercise than I am ever used to at home, I got up, got dressed, and, taking the camera, slipped out into the crisp morning air. With the lifting of the burden of a day already being accounted for before it even begins, and with the children still asleep, I was wound back a decade or more, to the days when I would have gone out to take photographs, just for the pleasure of it, and because I could. Nothing earth shattering, but a wholesale and liberating paradigm shift all the same. Shades of the first scene after the intermission, in 'Oliver'; "Who will buy this wonderful morning...".

I can only attribute to the invigorating power of the road, the slowly settling change in me.

That's not to say we didn't have things to do today, because that spoke wasn't going to fix itself, and our bikes were literally caked in sand and grit after many miles on the voies vertes. The resulting mess was like having oiled your bike with cutting compound.

I returned to the house, where everyone else was starting their day. We breakfasted with our hosts, the girls taking the opportunity to show their new friend Brewen 'In the Night Garden' on the iPad, in between playing with his toys. Oh, add rhubarb jam to the menu when we get back home!

Morgane, Marin and Brewen were off to a baptism, so we let them get on their way and got ourselves ready for a trip into St Méen le Grande, the nearest town, to try and get my spoke fixed, and source some kit to clean the bikes with. Riding the bikes unladen was something of a novelty!

A beautiful new mural adorns the water tower as you enter Saint Méen Le Grand.

Saint Méen Le Grand is a cycling town, justifiably proud of her most famous son, three-time Tour de France winner Louison Bobet. We have seen, again, levels of civic pride we just don't recognise from home, heightened of course because of the passage of a stage of the Tour this year. Every shop in town has a picture of their 'local boy done good' in the window. To think all we managed for our Olympians was a thin coat of gold paint on a post box.

In the midst of this cycling fervour, rolling into town we were stopped by a Police  roadblock - for a bunch of roadies! We never quite got to the bottom of what the event was, but there were loads of them knocking about town. The first guys we stopped to talk to told us the bike shop wasn't open all day, so we got on with that bit of the job first.

In a town like this, we were unsurprised to find a nicely-appointed bike shop, with something of a racing bent; lots of lovely rims hanging up, but nothing of the kind that might have tempted me to buy a replacement wheel. The mechanic took the view that rebuilding the whole wheel would be uneconomic, so we had him crack on and change the broken spoke, whilst we had a whizz round the shop buying cleaning materials and a couple of new chains. I'd had some slipping a couple of times yesterday, and having previously broken one (embarrassingly, in the middle of a road-rage incident, whilst on a roundabout, towing the trailer) in Exeter last year after our trip to Scotland, I figured that whilst they've not done massive miles, at almost a year old, and now covered in rubbish, they could go.

I also managed to source a cycling-themed souvenir from our trip, which will appear in due course...

It was back into town for lunch next, via a cracking patisserie, with their obligatory picture of Bobet in the window. We're learning not to miss lunchtime now! 

We struggled to find somewhere to park the trailer, and our bikes, in the blistering midday heat. In the end, the bikes were locked up at one end of the town square and the trailer came with us to the other. We got some funny looks for parking Ruth and Rhoda a few metres from our table outside the restaurant, but the shade was critical, not only for the comfort of the sleeping girls (and 'Froomey') but for the cakes nestled in the back!

Unsurprisingly, it was galettes for lunch, with some new fillings. Smoked salmon and crème fraîche couldn't be passed by, but when we translated 'Noix de St Jacques', I had to order one of them as well...

Thomas Ivor put away another plateful of steak haché without blinking. It makes such a change for him to just demolish meals without fuss - the lad's clearly been working hard.

Lunch concluded (crêpes all round!), we went back out down 'Rue Louison Bobet' (that man again!) to the industrial estate, to visit the supermarket for some provisions, and for a naughty trip to the jet wash. A bottle of degreasant later, we had the worst of the muck rinsed off the bikes, ready to ride back to base to change the chains and give the drivetrains a thorough clean. This went well enough except for the heart-stopping moment when Thomas Ivor, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Rhoda as I linked up my new chain, took my filthy old one and made for the house and our hosts' living room. Mercifully, we got to her just in time!

We've had a lovely day in Saint Méen Le Grand, although we must move on once more tomorrow. Another time perhaps we will be able to make time to visit the Bobet museum. We have dropped the shortest day of our schedule to stay here, so we do have mileage to make up tomorrow once more, but we and the bikes are refreshed, the distance won't break any records, the weather is nice, and perhaps I can even look forward to another relaxing early start in the morning.