8 - 22 July 2017
This section covers the 1,400k from the French border at Bagnères-de-Luchon along the Atlantic coast to Saint Malo in northern France from where I will take the ferry to visit Channel Islands Guernsey and Jersey.
Itinerary and weather
From the Spanish/French border, I continued north down the mountains to Montréjeau, where I turned west through Tarbes and Pau to Castets on the Atlantic coast. I expected an easy flattish ride, so I was surprised having to navigate endless rolling hills and only a few flat stretches – most of the way through open countryside. Except for one hot and humid afternoon, it was overcast and/or raining the whole way and even more discouraging I faced a strong headwind.
From Castets. I rode north to Arcachon where I took a tourist boat to the Cap Ferret peninsula and then continued further north to Le Verdon-sur-Mer. The area is referred to as the lake district and was very touristic especially with lots of campers. It was a mix of rolling hills and flat - partly coastal with sand and pine trees and partly a little inland through fresh-smelling forests and countryside regularly interrupted by cosy villages and small towns. Most of the time it was overcast and/or rainy with strong headwinds, so I skipped several lake detours – why bother? It was only sunny (and hot) one afternoon so I appreciated the lovely views of a lake with white sandy beaches and small harbours.
From Royan, I followed the west coast north through La Rochelle, Saint-Nazaire and Lorient past Brest to the north coast, where I rode east past Morlaix and Saint-Brieuc to Saint Malo. Travelling much along the coast meant riding many small roads and taking several ferries/boats, along the way passing dunes, rugged cliff shores and countless beaches. However, most of the way I had to ride inland through irrigated farmland and rolling countryside with surprisingly much climbing (most days +1,000m) and many steep hills (up to 15%). The rainy weather continued until Saint-Nazaire, but afterwards I got a couple of beautiful sunny (but also hot and humid) days until Bénodet. It then became constantly changing weather with predominantly overcast/rainy mornings and sunny/hot afternoons – one day it rained all the time with few short stops and even ended with one and a half hour torrential rain. Almost all the way, I faced a strong headwind even when turning east towards Saint Malo, but it was never cold. Many evenings, nights and mornings were rainy, so I often had a late start of the day. The last 550k through Brittany (Bretagne) was my favourite stretch passing many small medieval towns/villages with beautiful old stone houses and churches, though riding the cobblestones was a hassle.
Roads, drivers and people
The road quality was unchanged a mix of good and poor, seemingly unrelated to road type, size or location. Charante-Maritime (around La Rochelle) must be either the poorest French province or not prioritising traffic, because they “offered” the (by far) most horrendous roads/bike path in France (and there’s much competition). I always rode the bike paths when mandatory, but when optional it depended on the quality – being mostly bad (cracked, poorly patched, bumpy from roots, etc. damaging the bike), I often biked the roads making many drivers angry honking and shouting at me. The same happened on the smaller roads without shoulders where many drivers stressed having to wait 5-10 seconds to overtake me despite the road being “holiday cramped” so they couldn’t progress anyway. Some places, vehicles queued for kilometres to get in/out of towns and inside towns were countless traffic jams. At least, I could still progress navigating between vehicles. Why do people go these places and expose themselves to these experiences - especially considering how stressful it is for most of them? Stressing on a holiday contradicts the purpose so why not relax, take the time and enjoy the ride - or if you have to be somewhere at a certain time, start earlier. I guess one explanation is that most French drivers love speeding whether highways, busy main roads or narrow, curvy streets without overview.
While people in southern France also drove fast at least they were cautions when overtaking me, but during this leg to Saint Malo, I had several close calls as cars squeezed by without room. And while people in southern France were indifferent, people on the Atlantic coast seemed unfriendly and uptight – almost nobody greeted me (back) and besides the shouting and honking one passenger spit at me and another flicked a cigarette butt at me - both missed. Once I had lunch sitting next to the small side street in a village when several vehicles passed 20-25 cm from my feet going 50-60 k/h - why go so fast (a kid could run out of a driveway) and why come so close when there was lots of room? Another example was biking the mandatory path through a busy town (despite the poor quality, high curbs and no right-of-way) – it was a shared two-way bike/pedestrian path and while waiting at a light, a woman yelled at me because my pannier was a few inches across the line on her meter-wide path.
The exception to this aggressive and unfriendly behaviour was the bicyclists, many greeting me and two even talking to me (the rare English speakers).
Camping in the mountains had been challenging and coming down from them, didn’t make it easier. Camping in the open farmland was impossible and forests were often far between, private and inaccessible because of steep slopes or deep ditches preventing me from pulling off the road. And when I did get into a forest, it was almost always overgrown with thorn bushes making me carry my stuff hundreds of metres getting scratched and bleeding all over.
With the bad and sometimes horrendous roads, it was no surprise I had two broken spokes – actually surprising it wasn’t more. I also had a couple of flat tires – too many with a good wheel but with the fragile rear wheel quite normal.
The considerable rain entailed several challenges. My wet phone screen didn't work well with wet fingers (despite being waterproof to 5m?), so it was difficult navigating. I never found a shop to solder my broken dynamo charging cord, so I had to use tape, which was a constant hassle with everything being wet (tape, cords, fingers, paper, etc.). Finally, I had camera problems – being my last camera, I was cautious not to take pictures in the rain but apparently, the high humidity was enough to get zoom problems. I fixed it by the usual hitting making it work for a while. I finally stopped working in Guernsey after only 1,500 pictures - embarrassing.