Reflections on my two-wheeled journey from Saint Malo to the Dordogne
By Tor McIntosh
By Tor McIntosh
The seed of my two-wheeled adventure was sown over ten years ago when my Mum moved from Cornwall to France; it would be more than a decade before it finally came to fruition. Despite owning a touring bike for many years, the most adventurous I had been on two wheels were long day rides exploring my locality. And despite owning panniers for a similar number of years, they’d only been used for carrying my shopping on the occasional trip I made by bike to the supermarket — other than that they’d been gathering dust in the garage. For the best part of 20 years cycling has been part of my life, via recreational rides, commuting, triathlons, sportives, audaxing and the odd club 10-mile time trial, but I’d yet to experience cycle touring. In truth, since maturing into a much slower pace of riding this has been the type of cycling that has increasingly become more appealing.
Spurred on by the publication of France en Velo, a guide to cycling 1000 miles from Saint Malo to Nice, in January 2015 I committed to ticking “cycle to my Mum’s house in the Dordogne” off my Bucket List during my summer break from teaching. My very own To(u)r de France in July 2015. On Sunday 12 July I boarded the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Saint Malo, with just my bike, my panniers, and a pile of Michelin road maps highlighted with my intended route. Arriving on French soil the next morning I set off on a seven day, 750km adventure through six regions of France — Brittany, a smidgen of Normandy, Pays de la Loire, Poitou-Charentes, Limousin, and the tip of Aquitaine —all with their own look, feel and characteristics that became obvious as I pedaled through each region.
For the first two days I cycled through open farmland full of cows and crops and along narrow, winding rural lanes, reminiscent of the roads and landscape I cycled along and through growing up in Cornwall and, more recently, living in Devon. Even the black-and-white Bretagne flag, Celtic place names and the overcast July weather — too warm for arm/knee warmers, too cold without — were all too familiar. But as Brittany turned into Pays de la Loire, and the flat northern terrain made way for an undulating topography south of the Loire, the familiarity ceased and fields of cows became fields of sunflowers and rows of barley became rows of vines, a sign of the warmer climes. By Day 3 the winding rural lanes had transformed into ruler-straight Roman roads, punctuated at each end by towns and their prominent church spires — on 20km+ stretches of road the distant church spire felt as if it would never get closer.
As my route meandered south, it was clearly not following the path the crow flies, instead it was taking the longer scenic option; a route the French charmingly refer to as prendre le chemin des écoliers, which translated means the path schoolchildren take (to avoid getting to school!). The latter half of my journey was shaped by the three main rivers that I followed and traversed umpteen times: the Loire, the Vienne and the Dordogne. A dip in a quieter section of the Loire provided a cooling relief from the oppressive afternoon sun. The Vienne became the backdrop to long lunch breaks picnicing on a fresh baguette, ritually bought each morning from the boulangerie in my stopover village, and Boursin cheese. And reaching the banks of the Dordogne, where the roads steepened as they wound through dense woodland, signaled that I was nearing the end of my journey.
For seven days I cycled through a large section of rural France, during which I glimpsed under the skin of a country that for over a decade I have visited at least three times a year (usually arriving by plane, occasionally travelling through by car); a country that since my Mum’s relocation I have considered to be my second home. And I benefitted physically, mentally and culturally from the adventure. I lost weight despite eating a lot (my record was three croissants for breakfast); I got a healthy suntan (albeit with dodgy cyclist’s tan lines); I became fitter; I observed locals of all ages going about their daily lives; and I felt the gradients of France beneath my wheels — in doing so I found myself reciting a favourite cycling quote by Ernest Hemingway:
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
I’ve been up close with wildlife that didn’t immediately scarper as I quietly passed, the only sound my tyres rolling along the tarmac: an otter fishing on the banks of the Loire, oblivious to my presence; a hare standing statue still on the edge of a field of cut barley, before leaping into the distance; buzzards perched on fence posts by the side of the road, warily watching me pass, many a time my eyes connecting with theirs; and other smaller animals, from birds to voles, fluttering in hedgerows or scurrying along roadsides. Sadly my observations from the saddle also counted hedgehogs, red squirrels and pine martins as the most frequent victims of road kill.
Apart from Day 4 — christened Hellish Heat and Headwind Day, where out of sheer suffering in 40+ degree temperatures and an evil hot southerly headwind I resorted to putting an earphone in my right ear to listen to back-to-back BBC Woman’s Hour podcasts — it was just me, my thoughts and the sounds of the landscape around me. Kilometre after kilometre, and hour after hour, my mind wandered aimlessly: I wrote articles, book proposals, business plans, letters, poems and blog posts in my head; I composed photographs that occasionally I would stop and attempt to reproduce; I thought up wild and wonderful business ideas; I dreamed of different careers; I reflected on the past, considered my future and observed the present, the view in front of my wheel; I talked to myself, both in my head and out loud; and I sang (out loud and very badly). Sometimes my mind was completely blank, woken only by the need to navigate my way through a small town or village; other times it was buzzing with thoughts, ideas and plans. Pedaling along, on my own, on my bike anything seemed possible — unfortunately as soon as I stepped off the bike that belief and confidence disappeared.
It’s often said that cycle touring is about freedom, and after my seven-day cycle through France I wholeheartedly agree. But it’s also about exploration, endurance and enjoyment. On several occasions as I pedaled through France I found myself mouthing the oft-quoted adage and the title of an influential book by an inspiring young photographer, Dan Eldon, that I read in my teens: The Journey is the Destination. My destination was always important, to spend a few weeks with my Mum at her home in France, but this year my journey played an equally important role as my final destination.
My week-long slow adventure on two wheels through France has left me well and truly bitten by the cycle touring bug. And according to France en Velo there’s still another 500 miles of cycling left to do until I reach Nice…