Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tash and Bilal do France, 2015

This whole idea of riding around France with heavy panniers attached to our bikes only took shape following Natasha's incessant bemoaning over how much she misses Europe and how she hasn't seen her mom in a while (a few months but who's judging). Her mom lives in Brighton, England and we could have simply flown there but whats the fun in that? So we decided to fly to the south of France instead and ride up to Brighton on our bikes -- a bit circuitously through the Pyrenees of course!

Trip Planning
Half the fun of such trips is planning them. Given that both of us are severely allergic to the tourist industry, we charted out our own route using ridewithgps with daily mileages, campgrounds to stay, places to stop for lunch, etc. We also decided that we'd spend our money on good food and not splurge on hotels, instead staying in campgrounds and sleeping in a tent. After much google OCD, I manged to find the lightest two-person tent in existence and after another round of OCD, managed to find the cheapest price for it. Anyone looking for an absolutely awesome two-person tent that is suitable for bike touring, look no further than the Terra Nova Solar Photon 2. Luxury tent this is not, but it weighs 2lbs and packs up into a tiny little ball. Given the real estate on our bikes was in high demand this was quite the space saver.

Other things that went into our panniers were sleeping bags, pads, pillows, and clothes. We packed light with only a couple change of clothes, an extra kit, fleece and rain jacket, lights, flip flops, and some lightweight loafers.

We didn't plan to carry any food with us apart from knickknacks we'd pick up locally. Our nutrition plan was simple -- eat a nice breakfast, a nicer lunch, and an awesome dinner. We were going to France after all!

With tickets booked and bikes packed in boxes, we headed to the airport to begin our 12 day romp around France...

Excited to be on a plane to France!

South of France and the Verdon Region
Landing in Nice, we were immediately greeted with a nice bike assembly workstation right next to the baggage conveyor belt. After a bit of technical haggles assembling the bikes, we finally got on our way out of Nice in the late afternoon.

Got bike?

This being summer, Nice was super crowded with tourists. The beaches were really nice but were packed with people so we slowly made our way along the coast to Cannes. Soon thereafter, we turned inland and immediately the climbs hit us hard.

This was a tiny spot on the beach that wasn't overflowing with people

A bit of background -- we had just gotten off an 8-hour plane journey, were sleep deprived and jet lagged, so yeah we were a bit tired. Anyway we had about 50 miles to do that day and turns out about 42 of them were uphill. Curses.

Riding uphill on a loaded bike is an adventure. While Natasha had her brand new shiny touring bike with a dinner-plate cassette on the back, I had a measly 12-28 in the back and was carrying about 40lbs of weight. So it was a slow uphill grind -- Froome-esque cadence I did not have!

With a few extra chest hairs grown, we pulled into our campground for the night. Campgrounds in France are no joke -- they're super clean, well maintained, with hot showers and an onsite restaurant. After showers and a nice meal, we settled in for a well deserved sleep.

Our general plan was to ride towards Mt. Ventoux as its been on my bucket list for a while. Unfortunately we were a bit too optimistic with our planning so ended up having to skip Ventoux in favor of reaching Nimes in time to catch our prepaid train to the Pyrenees. It was disappointing to miss out on Ventoux, but hey the mountain isn't going anywhere and we now have a reason to come back!

The next few days we wound our way across the Verdon Gorge and towards Avignon. This area of France is absolutely stunning. I had no idea before coming here that this region is so beautiful. Some of the locals we met were also surprised that we were bike touring there as not a lot of foreigners come to the area. Well I'm happy to report that we found a real cycling gem. You now know where you want to go for your next cycling vacation -- it is absolutely stunning out there.

Retirement home anyone?

Verdon Gorge

Avignon is a nice city and we spent an afternoon there catching up with Natasha's uncle and aunt and then made our way to Nimes the following day to start the second half of our journey. 

Avignon -- apparently the construction crew went on strike... a century or so ago

One quick note here about bikes on trains in France -- no one cares one bit if you bring your bike on a train. Every website we checked beforehand told us how stringent the rules are and how bikes aren't allowed on certain routes... total BS.. Apart from the TGV, you can simply roll your bike onto any train and basically leave it anywhere. On our last leg from Pau to Paris, the conductor even put our bikes in a sleeping couchette!


Into the Heart of the Pyrenees
Our train brought us into the small town of Foix, at the foothills of the Pyrenees. This is a really cute little town with a nice castle but not much else. After a quick look around we started our uphill slog toward Masat, a small village some several thousand feet up. This was a grind but by this time we had both found our rhythm and happily ate up all the uphills. What was more scary was the 18% downhill we had to negotiate riding into Masat. The road was narrow and bumpy and I have canti brakes on my bike (which if you know canti brakes are simply a suggestion for the bike to slow down). So this was an interesting descent but we managed to come away unscathed.

In Masat we stayed in a local cycle lodge for the night. This was one of the nights we had earmarked to splurge on a nice bed in a hotel. It was definitely worth it and we enjoyed a great meal and some good company of other cyclists.

Unfortunately, this was also the day I felt really sick with a terrible saddle sore and the beginnings of a fever. However, after a good night's sleep and some aggressive saddle sore treatment we kept on chugging forward. I guess it helps to be stubborn at times!

Riding through the Pyrenees is surreal. Many times over the next few days we were above the clouds and the views were absolutely stunning. Every person we met, be it on a bike or in a car was super friendly. Most of the roads we were on didn't really have cars on them at all. I think we saw more cows than vehicles especially atop Col d Aspin where Natasha befriended one who didn't want her to leave!

Riding above the clouds
I just met you and I love you
We camped atop the summit of Col d' Ares the next night and then continued onto Luchon and beyond the next day. This included the climb up Col d Peyresourde which is really steep and the temperature was nearing 100 degrees. But we kept our steady march towards our ultimate goal in the Pyrenees -- Col d' Tourmalet.

It was hot...

...but Tourmalet beckons

For those who follow professional cycling, Tourmalet holds a special place as its one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France. We arrived at the base of the climb the day before and started up it early in the morning.

Tent up, bikes put away, kits hung to dry, gf sunbathing... all is good in the world

The climb is steep with the gradient steady at 8+ % the whole way with many steeper pitches. But quite anticlimactically this turned out to be an easy climb for us because we had left all our weight and pannier bags at the campground. So we were climbing like everyone else -- super light.

The top of Tourmalet was a circus with so many cyclists and everyone wanting a picture next to the famous cyclist statue. One guy in particular (see below) insisted on taking picture after picture of himself, both alone and with others at the summit. Natasha and I took our picture, ordered coffee, consumed coffee, ate a croissant, and all this while this guy was taking pictures. Well good on him, he'll have about 60 of them to show his kids!

The attack of the selfie-man! 

Our day wasn't done. We descended back to camp, packed up and then continued on our way all the way to Pau. The last stretch ended up being quite exhausting as both of us were pretty tired. And to top it all, the campground we had earmarked to get showered and changed had closed down so we had to resort to stripping naked behind some bushes and dry cleaning with a towel.

R and R 
The final stretch of our journey was an overnight train from Pau to the ferry town of Dieppe.

Here we caught a ferry to England and rode our bikes early in the morning to Natasha's parents' house in Brighton. We spent the next four days simply catching up on sleep and calories before finally boarding a plane back home.

This was a most memorable trip and indeed the first of many to come. We're already busy plotting our next adventure!

The end -- a couple of tired but happy cyclists!