As a child, sitting on a suitcase squeezing the contents to try and flatten it sufficiently to close it, I could hardly find the strength. The anticipation of spending the summer holidays sitting on the banks of the Dordogne, surrounded by the Chateaux and the Gateaux of the region, the hot hazy days and shooting-starry, moonlit nights was always so exciting. From the age of 11 these had been endless and magical times of fun in the sun. Swimming, fishing, eating and exploring.
To discover several decades later that I was heading back to this part of France stirred many memories that were long forgotten. The long walks, exploring local streams, dinners in local restaurants, the sound of my father trying to speak French using the only phrases he knew “Encore du vin”, “fait le plein” (pronounced Fet le plonk) and “l’addition s’il vous plait” in what he called his best French.
Despite the time spent there, my father never got to grips with the language – not that he’d admit to, anyway. This didn’t stop him pulling up alongside people as they walked down the street, looking as though he was about to ask for directions then shouting “Vive La France!” in his best accent Anglaise as he put his foot flat to the floor – leaving the poor peeps shouting “oui, Monsieur, Villefranche c’est a gauche”. All they could see was a puff of smoke from the exhaust and hear enormous guffawing coming from the front seat. The rest of us in the car could do nothing but shake our heads.
35 years or more later, sitting on the rear deck of the ferry to Caen, I looked at my luggage and wondered what he would think if he could see me now. About to head 455 miles south on my bicycle.
Starting this Fridays Tour 2014, these thoughts drifted in and out of my head. As I reached my hotel a welcoming committee set the standard for the rest of the holidays. Friends not seen for too long gathering under the sleeping sun as it kissed the horizon and disappeared from view.
To think that three years ago I had been introduced to The Fridays, a group of people who just like cycling. The ethos of the person behind it is to create a cycling opportunity that allows people to ride distances they never, ever thought possible. On a Friday night, to the coast. The generosity of spirit from the Man at the Top infiltrates every single cyclist right through to the person on their first ride. It is utterly unique and I am extremely fortunate to be part of it.
Even though the Head of the Fridays had been unable to take part in the ride, a different ride leader, nnnnamed Mmmmartin had been able to pick up the gauntlet and was clearly aiming at the standards set by The Boss. Arrangements had been fastidious. Impeccable planning was covering a million things.
Once we had joined up with the rest of the team the next day, we headed alongside a canal. Whilst we were all busy chatting amongst ourselves, mmmartin set a level of thoughtfulness that freezes my fingers on the keyboard.
For the next week he thought of nothing other than us. Never himself. He was the first up, last to bed, and always the last to eat or drink. Constant thoughts as to whether the man at the front knew the route? Were the way markers marking? How was everyone doing? How far to the next stop? All things plus a zillion other that he was focussing on.
Moving out of Caen in Fridays chatty style, we poignantly stopped at Pegasus Bridge – it was only a week after the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings when, to quote Winston Churchill “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. The bridge may not be the original one that played such an important role but it was very poignant all the same.
Weaving along the path, out onto a road, heading to Domfront, we were warned of hills. One of them was so long and so steep I had to organise my brain to ensure I wasn’t defeated. The new bicycle did everything I wanted it to do. It lurched ahead with gusto, as my legs started to burn. “Push the pedals. Push the Pedals. Andy Allsopp. Andy Allsopp.” I was screaming repeatedly and silently at myself to reach the top. My breathing was so loud I sounded like a car. At the top I put my lungs back in and vowed to go and find mmmartin to slap the back of his head.
A Brompton Quartet amongst us flew about like busy bees, one of whom was leading the ride, two of the others way marking and the third keeping everyone together.
With my new found set of wheels, having over exerted myself in the heat and excitement of it all I found myself drafting a Brompton!
I free wheeled at 24 mph and enjoyed the rest. When he turned round to see who was so close behind him he gave me a big smile! During the rest of the day I took a lift from two of the other Brommie peeps – ironic, cheeky and hilarious all at the same time!
Up another hill after lunch, roads sweeping through valleys, wild flowers and hedgerows, stunning views under a hot sun on we went. Disused railway tracks converted to cycle paths followed by country lanes that like the trip to Scotland allowed us to be part of the countryside without imposing upon it.
Fields of miele (corn not hoovers) lettuces and a whole range of crops, under a blue, blue sky. Local cyclists went by, saying Bonjour as they did, tractors going about their business and sheep taking no notice of us at all.
My grandfather may have been a keen cyclist but my father had refrained from doing anything that involved exercise since 1949. Time and time again, especially towards the end of his life, we tried to encourage him but he simply didn’t see the point. Exercise and indeed eating green vegetables were things that other people did. It made me push myself harder up the hill, determined to try to keep fit for as long as possible.
Cycling over bridges and out along the river. Shouts of gravel were passed along the line, the views of the river were breathtaking. Seven miles later or so we rolled up a hill and up and down country lanes as beautiful if not more so than the day before. How could it possibly be getting better – I kept pinching myself. We were surrounded by agriculture – lanes weaving around fields of green, green crops, blue skies and the sound of us talking to each other about a million different things. At one of our regrouping stops we had to wait whilst two tractors pulled into the car park we were using.
We were surrounded by agriculture – lanes weaving around fields of green, green crops, blue skies and the sound of us talking to each other about a million different things. At one of our regrouping stops we had to wait whilst two tractors pulled into the car park we were using.
A pee stop for one of us became slightly hilarious as I wandered into a field to do the same, unaware of him, until I was right in front of him. Fortunately being June foliage covered his vanity – we did laugh!
Each day the lunch time stop was perfectly placed and perfectly timed. Local cafes, restaurants and on some days picnics from the van on a river bank all became normal. The vistas didn’t let us down. Weaving roads surrounding fields of ripening crops, churches on hills in the distance. Every day a winner.
The route to Royen was coastal and beautiful. Cycling by the sea along a cycle path it reminded me of Spain. Hot and dry. Possibly also 31 degrees made it feel Spanish too. A deadline to meet an upside down transporter bridge kept the pace up and we made it with minutes to spare. Upside down because the workings are 30 foot above ground level which moves a platform from one side of the river to another. 30 foot high to allow the shipping channel to flow.
A picnic lunch in the sunshine then a ride across marshlands with the most fantastic animal life. Herons perched high on their nests, cows perched on river banks taking in water, Kites flying looking for food, the sound of our leader saying at the top of some shocking hill “oh yes I remember this one now” as though that made it ok!
We left the road and onto a cycle path through a pine forest. The smell of pine was luxurious – a dry Radox bath. It went on and on. And on. I don’t know how many acres but it is a big park.
From Rochelle south was apparently going to be the most expensive land we were going to see. Even as a non wine drinker, seeing chateau after chateau, vineyard after vineyard, signs that became labels as they transfer to supermarkets all over the world it was fascinating to see. Rose bushes marking out some of the vines – was it a code? Who knew?
A farewell dinner in Bordeaux followed the next day by a train to Paris let me relive the vistas. Seeing the hills and fields I had cycled through, it was a little surreal.
What a tour it had been. Boardman Bike inaugural ride after a great bike fit were a winning combination. Chris Boardman and Stan’s cycles, you did me proud. As for the Fridays – they are sublime.