Here’s a great idea: let’s spend a day riding bikes, because riding bikes is awesome.
Here’s an even better idea: let’s spend a day riding bikes in France, because riding bikes on quiet roads and stopping at patisseries and restaurants is even more awesome.
But, wait: therein lies a challenge. Spending a day riding bikes in France involves spending more than a day, because you need to spend time travelling there and back. Except… you don’t.
All aboard the lumbering, slumbering overnight ferry, where you don’t spend any time travelling: you’re simply booked in to a moving hotel, where hours are whiled away in the pleasant confines of places you’d be anyway: a bar, a restaurant, or a bed.
With the mode of transport decided, all that remained was to find two sailings which would allow outward travel one night and return travel the next, with an achievable distance between them. And so, with one ferry arriving at St Malo at 8.15am and another leaving Caen, 200km away, at 11pm, we had ourselves a convenient round trip from Portsmouth.
It was time to enlist some old partners in crime (Phil, Gavin and James), pay the deposit, and fire up the route planner.
It turned out we’d picked a popular crossing: we showed up at the port around the same time as a large group doing some sort of charity ride. Being old and wise travellers, we made sure to be last to put our bikes into the hold, because although this meant spending a fair while watching everyone else pile bicycle after bicycle into the hold, and then a while longer watching them thread locks through them (it’s not like a thief is going to get far, is it?) we knew it would pay back in the morning.
After dumping our pint-sized baggage in the cabin, it was off to the bar with its nostalgic brand of underwhelming but gloriously honest cabaret entertainment and its underwhelming but gloriously affordable selection of beers. Then off to the restaurant for a second tea; off to the shop for a paving slab-sized bar of Fruit and Nut; and off to the bar again before turning in for the somewhat stormy night, during which Phil pleasingly and against all expectations managed not to throw up.
With the morning duties done (shower taken, bibs pulled on, inevitable post-bib defecation dealt with, teeth brushed, extra-minty arse lard applied, coffee and pain au chocolat hurriedly consumed) we smugly retrieved our bikes from the top of the pile and were first off the boat, casting a smug glance back at the charity brigade still undoing the first of the locks that held their mountain of expensive machinery together.
One of the fortuitous aspects of a St Malo-Caen route is that it broadly follows the prevailing westerly wind. It’s something I was well aware of at the planning stage, but equally something I’ve been caught out on before: six years ago Gavin and I rode from Penzance back to Sussex hoping for the same prevailing wind, only to face an unrelenting 30mph+ easterly the entire way. (I say “the entire way”: the wind was accompanied by blazing sun and the hottest temperatures of the year, and we aborted at Salisbury having stopped at every shop in the West Country that sold either refrigerated water or ice cream.)
Fortunately the Wind Gods were kinder to us on this occasion: once we’d made our way to the open rural roads outside St Malo the westerly duly scooped us up and we found ourselves making 30-40km/h with barely any effort at all.
As is inevitable in France, we found our route passed directly through a roadbuilding project. But bicycles are very good for ignoring “road closed” signs without upsetting anyone—and anyway, gravel’s very zeitgeisty—so we pressed on. In fact, the only thing that hampered our eastward progress was Phil’s puncture. (Come to think of it, Phil was also the only person to puncture on our London-to-Paris ride a few years ago. Shoddy maintenance, no doubt.)
It was with mixed emotions that we collectively sailed past a number of patisseries (not least because I’ve stopped at one of them before and seem to recall it being particularly good). Stopping for food is to my mind a fundamental part of having a good day out on a bike, but it was still early, and by the end of the day we absolutely had to be somewhere. So we milked the headwind and cracked on.
We skirted the coast for some way, first on the road and then shortly after Cherrueix switching to the EV4 gravel route that meets up with the Cuesnon, the river which empties itself into the face of Mont St Michel. It seemed wrong not to at least get close to the Mont, so our route took us to the base of the causeway for a bit of sightseeing, albeit at a distance.
In the end, our only patisserie stop of the day was further still along the coast, at Pontaubault. Here the V40 cycle route switches from quiet roads to a vast length of disused railway; we would cover a mere 40km of it before turning northwards at the midpoint of our journey.
The V40 is a pleasant enough route, as is the nature of most disused railway paths: it is traffic-free, surfaced with fine gravel, and makes for a relaxed passage through the countryside.
I will say this, though: you don’t actually get much in the way of stimulation on most disused railway lines, either physical or mental. They are by nature quite flat, with few turns to speak of, and many—including this stretch of the V40—are lined with trees which, although pleasant enough in their own right, tend to obscure any view of the countryside you’re passing through. On this particular day, the trees also sheltered us from what would have been a most welcome tailwind.
As it was, by the time we were within an hour of our lunch stop at Mortain I was running into some difficulty. Some months previously, I’d idly predicted our riding times between various towns along the route, but I’d failed to notice that the morning’s plan showed a gap of around six hours between breakfast and lunch, and I know I start to falter if I don’t eat every four.
The pain au chocolat on the boat and the torsade at Pontaubault had not been enough: I should have kicked off with the full English. And so, as the kilometre count on the GPS ticked lethargically towards the 100 that would signal our arrival at Mortain, I found myself adopting the rigor mortis of the bonk victim: legs wearily pushing pedals over the top of the stroke, shoulders dropped and staring at the stem, communicating by grunts alone.
I could sense that the others were a little concerned by my state. I was less worried—I had enough experience to be pretty certain that all I needed was a big pile of food—but I was still well aware of my desire not to be the one to scupper the plans by conking out.
Mortain took the piss somewhat, having positioned itself at the top of a short but cruelly steep climb, but at least there was food at the top. We filed into Les Cascades (a decision heavily influenced by the fact that I stopped outside it and silently but quite obviously refused to cruise round town looking for anywhere else) and filled up. Two beers, a salad, a pizza, a crême brûlée and a large coffee later, and I was back in the saddle with adequately replenished reserves.
A descent and another piss-taking climb stood between us and a couple more kilometres of disused railway before we returned to tarmac—much to my relief, as for some reason I’d found the gravel unexpectedly draggy. (I blamed this on my particularly fat new tyres, and you can shove your “bad workman” jibe up your chamois.)
Over the gently undulating hills of Normandie we rolled, past fields and hedgerows and through occasional small villages; so replete were we from lunch that we didn’t even need to stop at the tabacs for refreshments. A recent history of insufficient riding may have left me slow, but the recent pile of beer and pizza had at least returned my stamina, and—even if the others were setting a fairly reserved pace—no longer was I dropping off the back.
And so it was that we continued through the afternoon, tapping out a few little climbs until, a few kilometres past St-Pierre-la-Vieille, we reached our final “summit” (all 240m of it) and eased into the final 5km descent, making the most of the meagre altitude we’d accumulated before reaching the bottom of the valley and the town of Thury-Harcourt.
The snack bar at the old railway station was unsurprisingly closed, and although I was hankering after fresh water (I had a full bottle, but I’d regretted putting an electrolyte tablet in it) I couldn’t be bothered to ride round town looking for some, so we set off along the V43 to Caen.
This voie verte was again a disused railway, but this time tarmacked, making for easier progress. As a bonus it also offered a short tunnel—always curiously enjoyable—and a number of river crossings which made good excuses to stop and dispatch a cereal bar whilst enjoying the sun setting over the valley.
We rolled into Caen as dusk fell in gloriously autumnal fashion. We were pretty much on schedule, but since this particular schedule didn’t allow for too much faffing about we didn’t spend long deliberating about where to eat. We locked the bikes up at the front of Le Napoli and piled in to the warm interior, asking if we could be done and dusted by 9pm so that we could make the ferry without a rush. The staff cheerfully obliged, and not long after 9pm we were back out in the cold, with beer and burgers and mussels and ice cream replenishing the stores once more, for the last 15km of voie verte to the ferry.
It was now properly dark and there was little to see along the estuary, so we cracked on and made good time, and were onto the boat before we could decide whether to hit the bar or just go to bed. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to settle on the former, although in a break with tradition it was Oranginas all round before settling into some less refreshing beverages and then turning in for the night.
The Caen night sailing is a relatively short one, but it’s a moving hotel nonetheless, and even though we could have used a couple of hours’ more sleep, all was well as we rolled off into the chill coastal air early on the Saturday morning.
And so our satisfying mini-adventure came to an end as we made our way out of Portsmouth almost exactly 36 hours after arriving.
It was a day and a half, quite literally.