Planning: Reflections on Cycle Touring in France

In a footnote to the 2008 trip from St Malo to Tarn and Garonne, Robert Watkins, offers these interesting and helpful final thoughts.  I think I see where he is coming from.

Would we do it again? A definite yes! The idea was mooted as a pipe dream and it was due to Polly’s impetus that we actually got going with it. Her reasoning, if we wait until we’re fit, we’ll never do it, was spot on. There are things we’d change next time though. This was always going to be a one off, spending a bit of windfall cash, as it seemed unlikely that we would afford another holiday where we stayed in hotels and ate out at least once a day for a fortnight. In 2009 we’re going camping! Last year Polly wouldn’t entertain the idea of camping. That was fair enough, neither of us had done a tour like it before, so we felt the idea of doing the tour itself without the complication of taking everything needed for camping would be a stretching enough goal.What would we do differently?

We wouldn’t use chambres d’hotes. The ones we stayed in were beautiful places, Polly spent hours looking for our accommodation on the internet, but they were relatively expensive, ranging from €55 to €109 a night, they were B&Bs and at the end of the day you are staying in someone’s house not a hotel.

The food that we ate in chambres d’hotes was quite expensive compared to the cost of restaurant meals and lacked any choice. They were generally taken at one table with other guests and there’s no pleasure in having to make polite conversation in French with people with whom you’ve nothing in common and you’re not likely ever to encounter again when you’d prefer to be having your own conversation and recounting the events of the day. Then there was the small matter of how much food there was to go round. When you’ve been cycling all day, you might want to dive into the bread. No embarrassment to ask at a restaurant, a different matter, when there’s only one or two baguettes to go round the whole table. The same comments apply to breakfast, a croissant and a piece of white bread doesn’t set you up for the day.

Staying with the subject of food, we didn’t do well with our eating. Despite my comments above about the quantity of what we ate, between the two of us, we put on around a stone and a half – 21 lbs or 10kgms. That was a lot considering that we were cycling every day; obviously we were doing something wrong. Next time, we will try to resist the €12 three or four course lunch, however tempting it seems, it might be relatively cheap, but, it’s no fun cycling with a plateful of steak and chips and few glasses of wine inside you, and, it generally takes two hours. Also, we’re going to try not to over-shop at lunchtime. Buying picnic ingredients from the local shop and bread from the baker might seem superficially more economical, but realistically, what are you going to do with the rest of that whole camembert? A better option would ready made sandwiches from the boulangerie – which are only slightly more expensive.

We also made the mistake of trying not to have lunch before arriving at a certain mileage. The only way this would have been of any benefit to us would have been by cycling faster. There’s absolutely no point in saying we’re not having lunch until such and such a place if it takes until 2pm to get there. This meant that often we ate lunch with the majority of the day’s cycling completed. Next time the plan will be to buy lunch at around 11.30, eat it straight away and try to get back onto the road quite quickly to benefit from the lunchtime quietness of the roads. Somehow, I suspect that this year, we won’t have learnt the lessons from last year though!

We’re not going to entertain using unmade roads next time. On reflection, most of the D roads we used were very good. Traffic was hardly ever a problem, and they generally have very good surfaces. The other advantage of D roads is that they generally tend to go by the most direct route.

I am however, going to plan the route in roughly the same way. Each day, planned in detail on the pc, with waypoints named with a number and instruction eg. 145-L, 146-R, 147-O2, for left right and second exit at roundabout. Restricting the waypoint names to six characters means that the letters are big enough to read without glasses. This is an issue for me, long waypoint names results in tiny letters. The Garmin worked well most of the time. I had road atlas pages on my bar bag and followed those as well, but it was good not to have to stop at every junction, find glasses and the place on the map ponder and decide. Next time, I’m going to use fewer waypoints, restrict them to those that are really necessary at turns, and perhaps the odd confirmation map point after a turn. I’m using memory map to identify the summits of climbs and am putting a way point with the elevation in metres in its name. I’m not sure if this will be worthwhile, but I’ll give it a try. I’m not sure if knowing that we’ve got 700 metres of road in which to do 50 metres of climbing is going to be helpful or not.

We’re not changing the tandem this year. We’d like a new one, but it’s not this year unfortunately. We’re going to make sure it is roadworthy before we start, although we tried last year. The problem we had with the front bottom bracket could have been foreseen, and it was likely that the same problem that occurred in the rear one would sooner or later happen in the front. I didn’t think of that.

Then there were the punctures. Next year we’re not going to have any ! I have realised the mistake I made with the tubes though. I only found this out after reading an article by Leo Woodland on these pages. When we bought the tandem it had Schrader valves. I changed these to Presta, because it seemed to me to be easier, to have Presta valves on all my bikes and not to have to change the fitting on the pump. This was a mistake and probably accounted for two or three of the five punctures we had on the trip. The point Leo was making was that if your rims are drilled for Presta valves you can’t get Schraders through the hole, however, if your rims are drilled for Schrader, you can get the valve through the hole, but you shouldn’t as there’s too much wiggle room which puts strain on the valve. I have never read this or ever heard anyone say this before, but it makes eminent sense though. I’ve got myself a couple of rim adaptors that fill in the space between the hole and the valve, that and a mini track pump should help.

In conclusion, it was one of the best things we’ve done together. The weekend before we went for a meal with a couple of friends who said, ‘We’d like to have a meal with you whilst you’re still a couple’. I’m assuming they were joking! But there are many of Polly’s friends who thought she was totally mad to spend a fortnight on the back of a tandem with me. In reality, the trip has made us closer as a couple.

Taken from Robert’s Blog – an excellent account of his trip and how he went about planning it.


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