Cycle Touring France – Our First Steps

Wow! and I don’t use that term lightly. These first two weeks have been scary, painful, hot, and infuriating but it’s been absolutely fantastic. What we’ve done so far any UK resident could do quite easily – without going into politics. I’ve been astounded by how much of an adventure it has already been.

As with any tale I suppose the best place to start is with some context. For those unaware we are undertaking a cycle tour from the UK to New Zealand and we recently got married making this one cracking honeymoon. We’ve set the boundaries of the “honeymoon” period as Cherbourg to the beginning of the Transcontinental Race in Geraardsbergen.  There we will see friends and family off and begin our journey east.

After an unladen cycle from our home to Portsmouth we checked in to our last UK hotel for some time, a mere 15 minutes from the Port, we polished the day off by binging on Nando’s. As the city awoke so did we, loading the bikes ready for our adventure to begin. Pedalling slowly towards the port, rush hour whizzing around us, we felt overcome with glee for this was no longer our routine. Our ship was the Normandie Express to Cherbourg, which almost became an adventure in itself – neither of us suffer from seasickness but everyone felt the bumps on that voyage. As we rolled of into our first country it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t completely sure where we going and only one action made sense in such a predicament – stop for lunch.

Our first lunch in a foreign land - provided by Ellie's Mum
Our first lunch in a foreign land – provided by Ellie’s Mum

We eventually found a tourism office, which are a fantastic resource, who provided us with maps of the area including campsites. Cycling through Normandy was an amazing and eye opening experience. We have all heard of D-Day but what suprised us most was the level of respect and gratitude that still exists. American flags still fly next to French, roads are named after the fallen, and even in the most remote areas homage is paid to those liberators.

It has not all been clean sailing though. The first of which came after testing our limits, with the reward of a hotel at the end. We cycled 109km, on bikes weighing over 45kg, in 25c heat, with little in the way of stops… generally a recipe for disaster and our bodies paid for it. This is also where Ellie’s freewheel problems began. Flying down the hill at the end of the day, the hotel less that 3km away, a loud clunk is heard. It sounded like a stone flying up and hitting the bike, only bigger, and needless to say Ellie wisely stopped to investigate. Unable to see any problems we continued assuming nothing was awry.

Over the next couple of days, the freewheel slowly stopped freewheeling. Ellie’s bike essentially became a fixie which is not ideal for touring, especially when you’re still breaking in the saddle. We must commend the local bike shops of France, even when the problem was intermittent they did what they could to fix it. When it had broken completely a small bike shop in Caudebec-en-Caux had us back on the road, in less than 24 hours, with a new freewheel and without hitting the wallet too hard (EUR 46).

The stop had given us time to plan ahead, the following day we had the most perfect day to date. We started the day with a typical French breakfast of bread and coffee, we’ve had a very bread heavy diet. After picking up Ellie’s bike from the shop we freewheeled our way out of town, then had our first stop in the shade. The day generally followed this pattern, interrupted by a stop at the shop – Ellie sent me in for food, I came out with sweets. It had been a day of riding bikes, relaxing in the shade, conversation, and sweets, this was topped off by a picturesque camp spot.

We've definitely camped in worse
We’ve definitely camped in worse

This was our winning formula and we intended to follow it. This trip is about being open to the unknown but in western Europe it seems that not having a plan just makes life harder. France is a fantastic country for cycling, the roads are well maintained throughout and the drivers are friendly. Their cycle routes however still have work to be done. There are Eurovelo routes, which admittedly some are unfinished, just make no sense. Passing Le Havre was a terrifying experience, the cycle route involves being next to motorway traffic on a bridge and then fast traffic on busy roads. Certainly not fun for the whole family.

That space between the lorry and curb - that's for cyclists
That space between the lorry and curb – that’s for cyclists

France has definitely been an adventure, as I sit here in Bruges. thinking back I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Like learning to walk there has been a few wobbles and falls, but we were standing tall as we passed into Belgium and onto their beautiful cycle network. We hope to take advantage of Warmshowers over the next two weeks. After which we head east in the hope of slowly making our way to Berlin. Don’t forget to check our Flickr to see all our photos.

Until then, happy cycling.

2 Comments on “Cycle Touring France – Our First Steps

  1. Hi Ellie,Phil,
    Was wondering if the freewheel failure had anything to do with pack weight? Or was it just too much of the Pic a Mix at the wedding reception,Good to read your adventure and hope that’s the only mishap you have
    Dave(Blacks Outdoor)


    • That did cross our mind, we’ve put it down to having the faulty 1 in 5000 though 🙂


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