Club member Joby Mullens gives another great account of his touring adventures – this time in aid of the charity Mind. He’s written two previous blogs, Cycling Banbury to Florence (2018) and Riding Land’s End to John O’Groats (2017) which can be found on these pages.
The flashing blue light of the police car and the blue and white police cordon stretching across the narrow remote country lane I had just joined were unmistakable.
“Sorry you can’t go down that way, you’ll have to turn back” said the police officer, standing in front of the cordon. My heart sank, just as I thought my luck couldn’t get any worse.
Not a good start
“It’s not just you we’re turning back, it’s everyone,” he said, as I vainly protested, naively hoping that my feeble attempts to say I was on my way to Dover on my way to Marseille would win him over.
This was day two of my 13-day ride from my home in Banbury to the French riviera city of Marseille and I was somewhere between London and Dover.
It’s funny how in the heat of the moment you can start to catastrophise but, after a catalogue of earlier disasters I thought that this really was it and I was going to have end my journey before I had even reached French soil, not quite two days into my journey.
Only minutes before I had fallen off my bike trying to unclip my shoe from my pedal as I negotiated a steep turn, and ended up putting my foot into my rear mudguard, which I had to awkwardly bend back into shape.
Fortunately, I kept my cool and the helpful police officer kindly looked up an alternative route for me on his phone. It turned out that it was about a 10-mile diversion, part of which was down a very steep, incredibly rocky track which probably wasn’t suitable for a mountain bike, let alone my ageing Trek road bike. It was a hair-raising ride downhill as my bike crashed and shook over the
bumps as I anxiously tried to avoid the worst of it. Suffice to say that was when puncture number one happened and I found a gateway on an approach into a village to replace my inner tube.
Leaving London earlier that morning at 7am, there was more drama as my Garmin seemed insistent upon sending me down a lot of dual carriageways and busy roads as I escaped the capital. Conversely busy roads then turned into what were essentially bumpy dirt tracks through wooded areas on what I understand was part of the ancient Pilgrim’s Way between London and Dover. Having left what I thought was plenty of time to get my 5.30pm ferry from Dover to Calais that evening, understandably with all of these setbacks then progress was slow, which I anxiously monitored. Stopping at a random village on the way which had a small supermarket, I stocked up on lunch and used the time to compose myself and charge my Garmin before setting off for the final 35-40 miles to Dover. In the end it was nail-bitingly close as I only just made it to the ferry terminal at Dover to catch my ferry. The cider and vegetarian tagine I had on board as we sailed across to France was very welcome by that stage.
Just in time for the ferry
Months earlier the idea for my bike trip across France had been born as COVID travel restrictions started to ease and my cycle ride to Norfolk and back last summer had failed to satiate my desire for another cycling adventure, but this time in foreign lands (COVID put paid to me even wanting to attempt that when the travel restrictions were greater.) Racking my brain for what direction I could cycle in from home to after my previous cycling adventures in all directions of the compass, I decided I’d like to try cycling the length of France, with the stretch from Banbury to Dover thrown in for good measure. I calculated this was roughly the same distance as cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats which I had done years before. The plan slowly started to crystallise as I mapped out routes in a gpx route creator, largely basing my cycle routes on the Google maps cycle routes between places, and determining stops based on how far I thought I could ride in a day without dropping down and also what towns and cities were on the way. Then there was the booking of accommodation and trains – ensuring that I would be able to take my bike on the trains I had booked (luckily, I have a friend in Brussels who travels a lot on the trains in France with his bike who helped me with this)
Luckily day two of my ride wasn’t all that representative of the whole journey and was probably the most testing day of the trip by far. That’s not to say that the rest of the trip was not without its hiccups. For instance, I started to develop what I shall call puncture anxiety after getting puncture number two on a rutted, bumpy gravelly canal path between Calais and Lens on day three. I was soon to learn that Google Maps cycle routes could not be trusted for reliable cycle routes for road bikes and often later in my trip had to make short diversions to avoid unsuitable stretches. I had brought three spare inner tubes with me but this puncture used up my last inner tube as I realised one of the other spare inner tubes, I had brought with me I hadn’t repaired properly. The puncture anxiety was me anxiously watching my rear tyre expecting to get yet another flat as the canal paths deteriorated in front of me. My anxiety was only to abate after I finally came across a Decathlon sports shop in one of the towns I was cycling through and frantically bought a further three spare inner tubes – I wasn’t taking any chances now.
The straight and easy bits
Then there was also the bike crash I had on the penultimate day of my ride, just as things seemed to be going smoothly. It happened as I took a fork in the road to take what looked on my Garmin like it would be a shorter route than the route I had created. As I momentarily looked down to check on the route, I failed to see a temporary road sign in the road and hit it smack on, coming off my bike into the road. A very kind construction worker who seemed to materialise from nowhere came to check on me. I was fine – I was more annoyed at myself than anything else for potentially jeopardising my trip just as I had almost finished it. Luckily there was no real damage to my bike other than a broken bell and some ripped bar tape and – bar a few cuts and a dented pride – no damage to myself!
That said, for all the hiccups, there were as many uplifting moments on my journey. For instance, some but not all of the cycle routes along tree-lined canals and rivers were along lovely flat surfaces that stretched in a straight line for as far as the eye could see. I would sometimes cycle for hours without seeing another soul, my only company being the occasional graceful heron taking off from the water’s edge. Then there was the time spent exploring lovely cities along my route – including the charming Dijon, sprawling Lyon and Reims with its majestic cathedral and Joan of Arc statue. Days were timed almost to perfection, with my riding being over in sufficient time for me to explore where I was staying. Even the smaller places such as the commune of St Dizier where I had my own apartment in a narrow street with old wood-timbered buildings on it had their own distinct charm. And the tiny village of Neuilly L’eveque – which was luckily not that small that it didn’t have a supermarket. You could tell it was in the middle of nowhere as the trusting owner of the apartment I had stayed in left the key in the door. I think the Dutch couple who stayed in the apartment above me that night must have wondered what was going on as I was in laughter watching an old episode of Friends on television. It probably wasn’t that funny – I may have been laughing more in relief that I had worked out how to switch the television to English! The only exception in terms of lovely places being the city of Macon which was, well, pretty rubbish really (apologies to any Maconites out there!). This wasn’t helped by the fact that it was Sunday when I arrived there so lots of places were closed and my hotel was in the north of the city. So, I had to cycle half an hour into the city only to be disappointed by what I saw and ended up eating my dinner in a Domino’s Pizza (to my shame – one of the only places that seemed open). With every cloud there is a silver lining though and I recall enjoying Tournus earlier that day about an hour up the river from Macon, where I stopped briefly to see the abbey there, clip-clopping around in my cycle shoes and lycra much to the amusement of fellow visitors.
I travelled light
That’s not even without mentioning all the lovely friendly and helpful people I met throughout my trip – from the person who offered to take my photo at the Dover ferry terminal and brought me a can of lemonade to quench my thirst – to the couple from Yorkshire who had spent about six weeks cycling to and around Sicily who I met on the ferry back to Dover and proceeded to travel with them back into London. Wherever I went in France everyone was really friendly and welcoming and only too happy to help. The only exception being the rather grumpy and very rude manager of the hotel I stayed in in Lens who practically rather abruptly ordered me to go to the bank to pay him for my stay when my card was rejected by his card machine which he had proceeded to dismantle moments earlier. I think the fault was more his machine than my card given it wasn’t declined anywhere else on my trip. Despite attempts to placate him he continued to be rude to me which made my mind up that I wouldn’t eat at the hotel that night and instead try a nice looking restaurant across the road, which turned out to be a good move as the food was delicious and the restaurant staff really pleasant.
It seemed someone was also looking out for me weatherwise throughout the trip from the off, when fellow Banbury Star cyclist Paul French – who joined me for part of the first leg of my trip (cycling with me from Banbury to Oxford for breakfast and then on to and up Watlington Hill – making it look a breeze in his customary way – before turning home) told me he had to go home to get his raincoat just after he set off from Hook Norton as it started pouring down. Meanwhile, only miles down the road in Banbury, it had stayed bone dry. Similarly, rain forecast for a couple of days of my ride mid-ride never really transpired, being drizzly early morning rain at best. And, while there were a couple of mornings where I felt autumn’s icy grip first thing as a stark reminder that summer was behind me, it largely stayed and became warmer the further south I headed.
In fact, the wettest I got in the 13 days was riding the three miles between stations in Paris as the heavens opened. The short legs between stations were in fact also some of the more stressful moments of the whole trip as, besides being on a strict time limit to catch trains, I also had to contend with – for instance – a Parisian taxi driver clipping me with his wing mirror cycling through Paris, a delayed ferry into Dover given me less time to cycle to Dover station to catch my train in to London and my Garmin deciding to switch itself off in busy traffic as I was negotiating the capital’s streets cycling between stations.
Everything seemed to go like clockwork on the final day of my ride – well, all apart from my phone deciding to leap out of my pocket after I hit a bump in the road en route to Marseille, ungraciously bouncing onto the road and the screen breaking. Luckily enough, despite the touch screen not working as it should, it functioned long enough for me to capture the final shots from my trip before finally croaking it on my penultimate day in Marseille.
Returning to the final day of my ride, the weather was lovely though and despite having to deal with some nasty busy roads again, I reached Aix-en-Provence mid-afternoon for an extended lunch break and a walk around its majestic leafy boulevards and public squares. Leaving Aix slightly later than planned at around 4pm, I had thought it would be an hour to Marseille but the ensuing hills out of Aix and possibly me underestimating the distance meant it was closer to two. The payoff for the climbing was a delightful stretch of downhill into Marseille, giving me some time to relax and take in the views as I reached the ever-busier city streets. Spotting the green and white striped cathedral I realised I was close to the centre and spied a gravelly path that seemed to take me down to the water. One or two people were sat by the water, some fishing – I went up to one and asked if they could take a photo of me with the sea behind me. Holding my bike aloft and silhouetted by the setting sun, I felt euphoric. After 13 days, three punctures and over 900 miles I had made it!
By the time I had got home and cycling between stations, etc on my way home I had ridden 1,002 miles – and thanks to all the wonderful support of family and friends I’ve raised £1,670 for Mind.