22/09/17 - I got an e-mail yesterday: “The harvest in Chablis will start the 9th of September.”
That’s exactly the kind of news I was looking for. I still have one week at work; enough time to set up my bike and then 10 days to go! I called my friend in Paris, he just broke his van, he told me that if he can’t drive he will ride his bike; I replied quite satisfied that we should do it.
Let’s meet in Chablis, Burgundy, the 9th of September! By bicycle.
I need to find luggage. I have been travelling before with my touring bike but this would be the first time that I'd have to ride 1100km in ten days and with my vintage CX bike "Alan" that I have in Liverpool.
“'Allo Helen speaking!”
“Hi, I am Pierre from France; I need some bags for my bike can I come to meet you in Leeds?”
Two days later in Leeds, at the terrace of an old petrol station with Ollie and Michelle, I realise that my travels have already started.
I cycled all way from Liverpool to meet Nathan, Restrap’s founder, share a beer with Helen and say thanks to Restrap staff Nat for the saddle bag, Marco for the frame bag and Janet for the bar bag. I felt very happy and finally ready to go to Burgundy.Liverpool to Dover
I decided to travel with a paper map to have a general view and Google maps on my phone to be more precise and helping me to go faster by going straight to the destination.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover some of the roads that Google maps can send you on. Little roads in the countryside, tracks in the forest and even gravel roads. The downside was having to take out the phone to check the way.
I don’t have much more plans in England than the one to pass by Much Wenlock, have a look at London and take the ferry in Dover before Saturday.
Today I am riding to meet Andrew Stevens in Much Wenlock. Much Wenlock is the village twinned with my home village in France; Cysoing. A treasure story between us... Nothing is better than a journey by bike to go to visit your people. I had called my grandfather who knows a bit about this village and he gave me the name of his friend, “He’s called Andrew Stevens, he is a very nice person and he plays guitar.”
Ok, let’s ride today with the anticipation of the journey and the challenge to find this guy with no more than his name (and the fact he plays guitar...).
I wanted to cross the River Mersey this morning by ferry but it’s now 1pm and I am in the train to go across the tunnel... The way to Chester is no more special than usual despite the fact than my bike is a bit heavier. In the city I easily find the National Route 45 to drive me down south! The NR45 is well indicated which offers you comfortable navigation and goes through nice landscapes. It’s a nice ride along the River Dee until I am no longer following a path and starting to wonder if I am still on the NR45.
I am fine with my 35c tyres so I decide to keep going on the grass but suddenly I hit a little hole and having not properly locked it, the pouch carrying my belongings fixed on the top of my front bag decides to go on its own. At this time I can just stop and watch the pouch rolling straight to the canal, half a turn more and I was losing my phone with my English and French sim card and my camera... After this fright, everything else would seem easy in comparison!
“Does anyone know Andrew Stevens???”
It is 8.30pm, I am asking the third pub in Much Wenlock and while I am looking at the regulars leaning on the bar a young boy behind replies: “Me, I know Andrew Stevens”
I confirm by asking if Andrew plays the guitar and after a pint Alex drives me to Andrew’s place. Even at 9pm without knowing me Andrew and his wife Linda welcome me and offer me a nice sleep in their peaceful place.
Andrew is left handed on the guitar... “Next time I’ll bring mine and we’ll have a jam, thank you again and see you soon!”
I had planned a 150k a day to reach my destination on time but I would only do 99k the second day. Unlike yesterday I am not feeling good on the bike. I ffelt like I had a hangover all morning due to dehydration, I decide to drink at least twice more during the next few days.
In the early afternoon I stop on the side of the road to have a look on the map. “Maybe I could sit while I look at the map; why not lean on it a bit? Ok let’s have a nap!”
I’m feeling better at the end of the afternoon. In the early evening I find myself in the Cotswolds Hills. The place is so beautiful that when I cycle to the top of Snowshill I have to stop to enjoy the outstanding view. There is a sheep cottage in the field behind me; that will be my roof for tonight!
Goals always keep you going. Doesn’t matter if you're spending 8 or 10 hours on the bike, doesn’t matter if you feel pain, doesn’t matter if you're tired or alone, the goal doesn’t matter either, but at the end you have the satisfaction of accomplishing something.
So today I have a new goal, for once I will start from the countryside and end up in a city; and not just any city, still today the largest city in the EU but maybe not for a long time anymore: London!
Starting in the countryside with a “9 miles to go” for breakfast while the sun is rising, this is paradise! I arrived during the market day in Stow-on-the-Wold. I take my time for a good breakfast and quickly plan this long day ahead. Well, very quickly planed: first Oxford then London...
Luckily I also arrive in Oxford on the market day, isn’t this the best in city??? The architecture, the colleges, the indoor market... Oxford is beautiful and is taking my time away!
I call my brother in France while I have a last coffee. He confirms that he will be waiting for me Saturday morning in the port of Calais. I don’t want to miss this rendez-vous.
I didn’t meet anyone to cycle with while I am crossing England, and when this finally happen I am more than happy. I am in the suburbs of London trying to reach the city; it’s not an easy thing to do!
From now it will take me exactly 2 hours to be in the middle of London; it’s 11pm I rode 188k today I don’t want anything else than eat and sleep.
Let’s find an hostel have a shower and wash my clothes, after three days I start to have some irritations, doesn’t matter if I will start with wet clothes tomorrow, let’s start clean!
I was complaining yesterday about getting into London but I wasn’t expecting that getting out would be worse. Well it’s not exactly London itself, it’s more about wanting to get rid of cities and buildings... When I finally reach the countryside I am exhausted and I don’t believe that the way to Dover will be nice. I need to stop for a beer. A beer comforting me and helping to carry on! Soon enough I am cheerfully surprised to discover the Pilgrims way which could lead me close to my destination. I reconnect with the landscape and the surface of the road. For more than 60k I am cycling through the forest, on a little path of gravel, mud and sometimes cobbles. It’s not easy but I am happy, I love to cycle with these conditions and there is only one way so it’s not too difficult to follow...
The Pilgrims way is a nice ride that I strongly recommend but sometimes you need to take care. Right now I am blaming the people who cut the hawthorn and left it straight in the middle of the path. It’s 8.30pm, it’s getting dark, both of my wheels are flat and I have only one inner tube to change. More I am getting nervous and more the 50k left to go to the ferry seems to me a very big deal for tonight... Fortunately we all have a good star above us, and my good star tonight is Mike. He is this kind of guy who learns from life and remembers what he learnt every second of his life. “What is done is done, let’s fix it now”. After fixing my inner tubes with his puncture kit, he goes back to his son and wife and I go down to find the A20 and try to carry on with the ambition than whatever happens I will catch a ferry tonight in Dover!
Today seems to me an endless day.
Having lost my main back light in London I stop in a petrol station on the other side of the road. Some people already honked me and I hate to cycle unsafely at night. The guy gives me his own yellow jacket, I take the opportunity to buy him some food and exchange some travel stories with him.
Arriving in Ashford, damn my front wheel is flat again. I don’t want be desperate, there is a LIDL by my side closed for 15 minutes now. There are still people cleaning inside, let’s try my luck! I knock heavily on the window; obviously I am not expecting any other answer than to get with body language “It’s closed”... I insist until one of the managers opens me, I tell him the unusual situation in which I am and lucky as I am this is the “week of the bike” in LIDL.
I buy two bottles of sealant spray to put in the inner tube and that’s works! I am ready to go once again! It’s now 10.30 and the internet tells me that I still have 40k to go! I call my brother to say that I will be in Calais at some point but I can’t say exactly when, he is riding exactly at the same time than me, well in reality with one hour faster on his clock and has 40k left to be in Calais...
My front wheel keeps me worrying all the way to Dover, I don’t trust my bike anymore and this is the worst when you are riding. My front wheel is really under inflated but I prefer to go like this than to trying to add any pressure in, in each climb I have the feeling that my wheel is flat again. During this 40k I imagine my brother on the coast line on the other side of the sea seeing the same thunder storm breaking the sky as the ones I see!
The last hill of England, from the top I can see the lights of Dover’s port, even by night the landscape is impressive. I now have 8k downhill, it’s done, I have done it! It is now 1am and I am going to the border line check-up with my ID and...my bike, a strange sensation between the cars, the vans, and the trucks.
The port is massive for me and my bike... Anyway, next ferry to Calais is calling at 2.20am!
Calais to Chablis
In France I will ride with my friend Simon. He is more used to long distance rides than me. He went on the French Divide last year and on the Tuscany Trail this summer. Between us it’s clearly a story of bike and Paris-Roubaix. No, Paris-Roubaix is not only about bicycle...
We’re going to travel using his GPS planning three days and half across the countryside using country roads and off roads.
The French part of my trip feels like a holiday to me. I just have to follow my friend (which is actually not really like a holiday) who is himself following his GPS. We can’t be more relaxed and my goal despite wanting to arrive on time to harvest the grapes is to enjoy the many bakeries I will find on my way. Such a pleasure to be in France, each village has its little pub and its bakery and sometimes the bakery before the pub or sometimes you can find bread in the pub... You will also always find a cemetery to fill up your bottle of water which is a convenience for cyclists!
We spend the first night with Olivier. He has been a stallholder on a merry-go-round, truck driver and much more. The thing is that during the last couple of years he had some health difficulties, he always carried on but this obviously affected his story. Luck is something subjective but when you are strong and keep hanging on you’re making a big step further. He is open-handed and full of ingenuity, he would find in his place a better piece to fix your bike than your technical assistant on a race... We met at the cemetery one year ago, I was crossing France with my brother, we stopped to fill up our bottles and wash ourselves and he invited us for dinner. It’s feeling good tonight to give a short unannounced visit.
We are not far from home but it doesn’t matter, cycling doesn’t have to be always about cycling.
The second day we decide to cycle to Reims. We are having a bath in the canal before entering the city of Champagne. I am quite enjoying my first and maybe my last swim of 2017. Reims is a beautiful city and people are really welcoming but we didn’t expect it to be so expensive! Even Simon currently living in Paris is surprised by the prices.
This night we will sleep behind the beautiful cathedral of Reims. As we aren’t carrying any tent we put my sheet ground on the floor before to lie on with our sleeping bag. We are waking up at the exact same time due to the rain.
Simon: “What do we do now?”
Me: “Let’s wrap ourselves in the sheet ground!”
Simon had told me yesterday about his desire to find himself in serious difficulties, giving himself a hard job (being tired, cold, wet, hungry...); I guess he is talking about pushing himself to learn more about himself.
Anyway this will not happen this morning. We managed to sleep and I am strongly thinking of the bakery waiting us at the corner.
We are leaving the Champagne region, not far now from our destination. Between the wine and us there only stands a few beers.
In the late afternoon I have to encourage Simon to protect me from the wind. He prefers to be at the front, he has the wind but he goes at its own pace. I don’t have the wind but I have to follow him... We get along pretty well for that. The earth is flat, at least around us, there are no more grapevines, at least until we arrive in Burgundy; the route is long and windy it’s not interesting, we don’t talk, we are bored.
Simon: “J’en ai marre !” (I am fed up !)
Me: “Oui moi aussi en fait !” (Yes, actually me too !)
We are stopping at the next bar. I have never been so close to Chablis with my bike, I’m going to see my friends Eleni and Edouard to harvest the grapes tomorrow but still I miss something, there is something going wrong. Wait, Simon is ordering some Picon to mix with the beer. Jesus, that’s what we need! Picon is made of oranges, full of vitamins, now we are talking! I think we had 3 before going back on the road and to be honest it’s feeling better now.
This is the last night under the stars, now we know, we only have 50k to go! After 2 “Picon bière” we are riding between the chardonnay again.
Of course, the journey was sometimes worse than it sounds, but it was equally as nice as it sounds, but when you are close to the end the journey everything seems to have been nicer than it was.
I would almost have liked the trip into Chablis to have been a bit longer, but the village is so small that we are already there, standing on our bicycles looking at Edouard in the courtyard. He is the same, same sunglasses, the same cap, in the same place, the same as last year but this time we are on our bicycles. I am smiling outside and happy inside, I know that Simon is feeling the same.
It’s nice to have arrived!