2018 Tour de France: AKA ‘Three Men in a Tent’

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The original tale, ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome tells of three friends rowing their way along the Thames toward Oxford. The pals consider themselves capable outdoorsmen, though they have trouble with simple outdoor survival skills and tend to find themselves holed-up in local hostelries a little too often. Setting up a tent flummoxes them, cooking on a camp stove proves way too complicated, before they eventually ditch the boat and take the train back to London. Though occasionally at odds with one another, their friendship is shown in the way they are willing to not only share a room at an inn, but also sleep three to a bed when necessary. Along the way, author Jerome K, single, young, and a member of London’s middle-class metropolitan elite (no parallels there then), tells meandering, whimsical and often tipsy tales of the places they visit and sights they see. Sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Prologue

Several of you may recall last year’s solitary five-day/500 mile slog down the centre of France to ride only one stage of the Tour through the lovely Dordogne town of Sarlat. Needless to say, as I still wake-up in a cold-sweat over that particular route march, this year’s was going to be shorter, easier, more social and far less troubled. Complying with my telepathic request, the Tour decided in its infinite wisdom that it would indeed visit the far more accessible regions of Brittany & Normandy and a plan was hatched for a less demanding, less exhausting, 500km round trip taking in several route stages. Probably.

Long-time escapader, Stu Hart, was hoodwinked into the cabal and new-kid-on-the-block, Josh Illsley, clearly didn’t know any better. Let the games commence.

The Grand Depart – Sunningdale to Portsmouth

My only advice to my fellow travellers was to get some miles in your legs beforehand and ensure you travel light. Consequently, Stu arrived having only ridden twice in six months and never on his bike with panniers, and Josh turned-up with three pairs of cycling kit, five pairs of pants and four pairs of thick woollen socks. The Kardashians have been known to travel with less. Reassuring him that we were only away for five days and he really would need only one of each, we pare it down to the bare minimum though he does later insist on travelling the whole route with a large glass jar of Nutella!

With what feels like the proverbial ‘sword of Damocles’ over our heads we hit the (short) road to Woking where our train to Portsmouth’s overnight ferry awaits. A good time to see what we’ve got in our legs me-thinks and we crack-on at a steady 18mph lick for the ten-mile-ish journey and the resounding answer is not a lot. Stu sweats like a scouser in the dock. I’m experiencing more flashbacks than Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett in the seventies. Only Josh looks good and I put that down to complete ignorance and a 26 year old’s fitness.

Several cold comforting beers at the port’s Ship & Castle rejuvenate our enthusiasm but, deep-down, we all already know a cycle in the park this ain’t going to be.

Stage 1 – St Malo to  Mauron (130kms, 32 degrees heat, 22km/hour average pace)

We took our first tumble even before shaky sea-legs touched terra firma. Riding cleats and slippery ferry steps do not a fine romance make. Imagine a rugby prop attempting a Tom Daly-esque double-tuck mimic into the back of his least favourite scrum half and you’ll get the picture. Thankfully, I heard Josh coming, grasped the handrail and somehow managed to take his (considerable) weight or it would’ve ended in two-flight-tears. As it was, he performed the most perfect ‘deadleg’ on me and I subsequently winced on every turn of the pedals for the next three days.

I know from bitter experience that any first morning on foreign soil, what with driving on the wrong side, unreadable signage and differing road-manners, is a whole learning curve in itself. Throw-in faltering pannier-laden baby-steps, three riders sussing each other out and a shed-load of miles needing to be dispatched and this proves to be the case, again, but more so. Dinan should’ve taken an hour but took three. The N168 used to be a lovely sleepy country road but is now a 110km/hour quasi-motorway. Our first  coffee stop elicits four different local opinions on which direction we should head and they cover all four points of the compass. I kid you not. Josh baulks at the 21Euro three-beer round, claims student status and knocks it back like a true fresher. More a case of ‘French’ courage than Dutch!

Sensibly, we decide against the planned full trip to Ploermel and call it a day late in the afternoon at the aptly named, Mauron. Naïvely, we’d all run out of water ages before hitting our host town and limping into the SuperU with slaking of thirsts the only thing on our parched and dehydrated minds. Brandishing four-and-a-half litres of France’s finest Josh attempts to drain the first bottle in one massive glug only to find-out we’ve bought four-and-a-half litres of…vinegar. How my check-out-cherie laughed at our misfortune as I tried, and failed, to secure a refund. Stu’s water bottles never tasted the same thereafter.

Worse was to follow when, at the campsite, we discovered the ‘three-man’ tent we’d borrowed would struggle to accommodate three children let alone two (very) grown men, a midget and all their kit. The final ignominy was when we were asked to move by a group of young teenagers as they intended to have some fun that night and didn’t want to keep three old, tired and shrunken men awake. In the true spirit of Brexit we snootily declined and hit the sack.

Stage 2 – Mauron to Sarzeau (95kms, 33 degrees, 21km/hour average)

The 4th actual stage of the Tour the route ran from La Baule to Sarzeau, both located on Brittany’s south-coast. According to the guide book, the 192 kilometres course is rolling, as is typical of the Breton landscape, while the race ends on a flat Sarzeau dual carriageway offering a four kilometre sprinters’ finish. Personally, I’d call undulating, or up without any down.

Needless to say, a sprint finish was the furthest thing on our mind as we all awoke from possibly the worst night’s sleep of our collective lives. Synchronised-spooning is yet to be formally recognised as an Olympic sport but upon its eventual acceptance (above squash no doubt) I can assure you Team GB will be an automatic shoe-in for gold. After several hours of practice, we made the ever-fidgeting Josh turn around and topping/tailing was the order of the trip thereafter. Also, I’m sure he touched me inappropriately.

Out on the road our efforts were now accompanied by the cycling equivalent of Les Dawson’s Blankety-Blankety. Those of a certain age will remember the signature tune of the archetypal 70s gameshow and this was now the noisy percussive accompaniment of Stu’s previously unused two-wheeled perambulator – clackety-clack-clackety-clack. If he’d’ve brought his clackety-clack cheque book & pen he might have had the wherewithal to get it fixed but sadly it was stay with us for the duration. Mercifully, he was never close enough to the rest of us to be a true annoyance!

Several Chaussons des Pommes (a doner kebab for Josh. Obviously) later and 20km of easy-going canal towpath made light work of the morning mileage and soon enough we are on the aforementioned nondescript finishing straight, quaffing Kronenbourgs with an effusive contingent of the Cornwall Cycling Club and awaiting the imminent arrival of the ‘caravan’. The pre-race caravan is an absolute laugh-out-loud hoot and sooo much more fun than the cyclists themselves – what’s not to love about a comical twelve foot giraffe riding a miniature two-stroke motorised tea-cup whilst being mounted by a voluptuous advertising brunet courtesy of sponsor, Carrefour! The passage of said caravan is just about as much fun as the French have had since liberation and to see them fight tooth & nail over a plastic Confidis key-ring almost brought a lump to my throat. Mind, the best give-away had to be a large laminated fridge magnet thrown out by a senior-citizen retirement home catering for those who had once ridden – ‘your prostrate, our business!’

Quick, the peloton’s coming, blink and you’ll miss it. I blinked. And missed it and still, to this day have no idea who won. And so to bed. And, even though France later proceeded to the semis of the World Cup, a better night it was too as Josh decamped to a humid shed to share his fidgets with other people’s damp washing. Night-night…

Stage 3 – Sarzeau to Baud (70km, 36 degrees, 19km/hour average)

The plan was to catch the Lorient start of the next stage but as dawn broke none of us truly thought the 55 kilometres to Stage 5 to Quimper (can anyone actually say that without sniggering? And yes, Brest truly was the start of the following stage. Two Benny Hill double-entendres for the price of one!) for the 11.00am start was on the cards so we went back to kip. Josh, on the other hand continued to single-handedly fight off the soldier ants from the nest he’d unknowingly disturbed during the night. They had my sympathy.

A brief inspection of our trusty steeds highlighted the tech gremlins had struck during the night. Josh had split his tyre and needed an immediate replacement, my headstock had already worked loose and Stu’s clickety-clack took on a whole new life of its own. Eventually, we headed out West and, following the timely intervention of the ladies at the port quayside, boarded the tiny 20-person ferry to Locamariaquer. Two cyclists from the infamous ‘cobbled’ town of Roubaix (where all the tour pros would fall off three days hence) described the place as a hell-hole and unworthy of a visit cheered me up no-end.

A gratefully received uneventful journey thereafter saw us arrive in lovely Baud where the supposed campsite we were aiming for turned out to be the town hall. Uh oh. Thankfully, I always find riding blindly around a town in ever-increasing circles pays dividends and we did indeed find the only unadvertised, unsigned and unattended campsite in the whole of France. If not further afield. I’ve even tried to subsequently track it down on Google Earth from the comfort of my desk and swear to you it doesn’t exist. An ‘honesty-box’ (“I’m not really around much so work-out the price and push it through the letter box”) completed the affair and great facilities for about a fiver was the order of the day.

To show exactly how partisan the French are, the night before we had no alternative but to endure the French victory over Belgium as it was being shown in glorious HD on every screen in the country. However, this night, when we were playing Croatia not even the town’s ‘Sport Bar’ was showing it. Gallic shrugs seemed to suggest they knew it wouldn’t be worth the hassle. Mercifully, the local Tabac relented, though it had to be said it was probably due to the Croatian contingent present. I kid you not. Needless to say, it wasn’t the team’s finest hour but it did allow us to experience a unique, if somewhat idiosyncratic, French law that allows the barman to refill one’s glass, or indeed buy another cold-one, only when your current one is drained empty. I have to say that, as a law intending to slow down one’s consumption, and hence avoid the universally accepted English footie supporters’ usual behaviour, it works a treat and we should all lobby our local MP for its immediate adoption on this side of La Manche. Mind, it still didn’t prevent us from a noisy hair-raising, unlit midnight time-trial dash home.

Stage 4 – Baud to Mur de Bretagne (75km, 32 degrees, no comment on the pace)

Mur de Bretagne, with its punchy two kilometre 13% closing climb, represented something of a 181 km jewel in the crown for our particular escapade and we were now getting into something of a workmanlike routine: Up seven-ish, on the road eight-ish and into a village Tabac ten-ish for several coffees, a chausson aux pommes and a pain au raison. Or anything with a pineapple on it for Josh. Another brilliant French quirk is that the owners of these local bars allow you to buy your croissants from the boulangerie/patiserrie next door (occasionally separated by every village’s pharmacy, hair salon and their ubiquitous dog-grooming parlour) and eat them in situ. Somewhat surprisingly, we were more than capable of declining the morning pastis (with water) or straight cognac most of our French counterparts obviously considered one of their five-a-day.

Back on the road another routine was taking shape. I knew where we were going as I’d cut-out the relevant pages of my 1998 1cm/2km Michelin French atlas. Josh knew where we were going as he had an iPhone and Google Earth. And Stu knew where we were going as he followed the signs. Sadly, we seldom agreed. In fact, more often than not there were three different opinions. Needless to say, it did occasionally result in heated debate, especially in the mid-day mid-thirty-degree heat, and many dead-ends (literally and metaphorically) were followed but we’d get there eventually. Apart from when Josh’s tech couldn’t recognise the difference between a river and a canal and a none-too-pleasant fifteen kilometre detour ensued…encompassing the only hill where we all had to get off and push! My, how we laughed.

For the record, Mur de Bretagne, is a fine town and well worth a peek. It’s also a town where dark-coloured polyester ¾ trousers are making a single-handed fashion comeback. Or maybe, like Bracknell, they never went out of style? We duly took-up residence on the aforementioned hill, drank beer, fought-over the same pre-race caravan-tat and completely missed the finish. Some days later I found out the Oirishman, Dan Martin, had won and good on him. We then wearily pedalled the fifteen kilometres to the campsite where Josh, for the first time ever, tried Moules Frites, only to describe it as ‘swimming in the polluted sea with your mouth open’. Nice. And so to bed.

Stage 5 – Mur de Bretagne to St Malo (130km, 25 degrees, 22km/hr average)

This one we were dreading. By now we knew our pace, or lack of it, and with a ferry to catch there was no choice but to crack-out the return to St Malo in one go. A cold and chilly start soon revealed a troubling headwind along with the dawning realisation that this was going to be a long day.

And so it proved and I’m not going to expand on the next eight hours other than to say it was hard-work. Very hard work. Pulling into St Malo, albeit on a non-bicycle allowed motorway N road, was a delight, only to be spoilt by the ‘no room at the inn’ sign at the only campsite in town. Doh, shouldn’t we have known it was Bastille Day and traditionally the start of France’s holiday season? My secondary school O-level (C-grade dontchaknow) ‘allo-allo’ French did nothing to change the demeanour of the staff but, being French, they sympathised completely with the subsequent one-hour militant sit-in that we undertook. Eventually, in a show of united revolutionary action they relented and reversed their decision. No really. I kid you not. An hour. We were not going anywhere and they eventually capitulated and gave us the smallest, slope-iest, hardest-grounded pitch on the site. And we were delighted with it. Think of Peter Sellers’ arrival at the Gstaad Hotel in ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ and you won’t go far wrong  – “you want a rheum?”

An hour later saw us enjoying a cold-one on the harbour wall listening to a bar-pianist tinkling out his own rendition of Otis Redding’s ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’. It was so blissful that not even Josh complained about the 24Euro three-beer round! Home, Jacques.

Now returned, my only advice would be ‘do it’ but don’t underestimate the weight of a fully-laden panniered-up bicycle, don’t overestimate your ability to ride distance in 30 degree heat on tiny roads with melting tarmac, and underestimate the size of France at your peril. It’s a big country. Admittedly, whilst I wouldn’t again take a 1998 map on a 2018 tour, I also wouldn’t trust to new-fangled tech either. So, what did we all learn en route? Much the same as last year as it turns out:

–              OK, it’s all about the journey. But you knew that all along didn’t you!

–              Unlike Jerome K and his pals, we resisted the strong (almost overwhelming at times) urge to ditch the bikes and catch the train back.

–              Bonjour, je suis Anglais et j’ai necessite de assistance, sil vous plait? If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask, in the right manner, and you shall be given.

–              What the weather gives with one hand it takes with the other. We were sooo lucky in that we didn’t see a single raindrop all week.

–              What goes up doesn’t necessarily have to go down.

–              If you actually want to watch the Tour de France, stay-put and put the tele on. Apparently, some Welsh bloke won…

–              Never has 500 kilometres felt more like 500 miles.

–              Continental Gatorskins are the only tyres to shod your shiny rims with. Can you believe it, not withstanding Josh’s tyre split, no punctures for any of us.

–              Put yourself in the shoes of other road-users and they really don’t want to hit you. Probably.

–              Perhaps erect the tent before your first night on foreign soil.

–              Beer’s good. And pizza is the food of champions the world over.

–              A transistor radio and BBC Radio4 (LW) is all you need to stay connected with the outside world.

–              Go off-line and off-piste, it’s where the good stuff happens.

–              There’s no substitute for twenty-six-year-old legs and Josh can certainly turn a pedal. Don’t tell him but he was THE star.

–              Two ride-outs in six-months prior to an escapade should be considered neither training nor preparation.

–              However, 500 clicks does, apparently, prove to be exactly the right approach for yesterday’s 100 mile Ride London. I feel used & abused.

–              Do go the Post Office beforehand and stuff your pockets with euros. Sleepy, rural France knows no alternative.

–              Ask things of yourself and, trust me, you are capable of coming through. My, you could even surprise yourself.

2019 Tour de France. Who’s keen?