A Winter Jaunt Through France 2013

This is the first in a series of articles on my 2013 adventures. This trip — from Salisbury, UK to Montpellier, France — was my first long ride of the year. It served as a great warm up to longer distance events later in the season, although the frigid March temperatures were something of a challenge….

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The ride to Montpellier had been on the cards since slightly before Christmas 2012. My girlfriend had been accepted into a university program and would be based there for a few months; this provided a place to stay a good distance from home — a perfect opportunity. The timing was slightly less perfect; I was limited by my own university schedule, meaning that I’d have to ride over Easter Weekend. This was a problem; France, being a Catholic country, completely shuts down over this period. Limited re-supply opportunities I could prepare for (an extra bag was fitted to my bars to hold some more food solved this problem) but the temperatures were another story.

 If there’s going to be one dominant memory of the trip, it will be of being constantly cold. Don’t get me wrong, cold weather rides have a certain magic to them — crisp air, stops for warm coffee, and not having to worry about overheating are all great, but being out in temperatures of -10C for five days is not ideal, whichever way you want to look at it.

IMG_0940I definitely couldn’t think of many positives when I woke up on day two to find my bivy bag surrounded by snow. It wasn’t a surprise to see the snow there, although it wasn’t forecast in the Domfront area — I’d been kept awake by the weather throughout the night, regretting my decision to bring summer-weight gear. My Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag does exactly what it says on the tin — it’s a great bit of kit for three season use, but it doesn’t ensure a good night’s sleep when the mercury dips below zero. I can vividly remember the numbness in my hands and feet as I ran around, packing up at a jog to try and get my circulation going again. I’m still impressed that I managed to get a photo…

Despite the bitter temperatures, or perhaps because of them, I didn’t linger long in Northern France, averaging over 130 miles a day. Breaks for warm croissants and baguettes, accompanied by hot chocolate or something stronger, kept me going and soon enough I’d blasted through Tours, Chateauroux, and Clermont-Ferrand.

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Resupply was still proving to be a challenge however — I’ll always remember stumbling gratefully into an open takeaway in Montlucon at 7pm on Easter Sunday, attempting to explain to the assistant that I didn’t want the free pizza that came with the one I’d ordered, but I did want to sit on the floor of the takeaway to eat. Some disjointed French and slow English later and I was happily munching away in the corner, much to the amusement to the employees!

Montlucon marked more than good pizza however, it represented the gateway to the Massif Central — a mountainous region in the south of France, that is often visited by the Tour de France and Paris-Nice. In fact, I visited some of the roads used by the 2013 Paris-Nice so soon after the event that chalk from fans was still visible on the road. Although the riding improved as the terrain became hillier, the temperatures dipped further as I climbed. After a night in a wood just outside Montlucon, I put in a big day to press deep into the mountains, passing over the Col de la Fageolle before bedding down.

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Although I’d tried to loose altitude before sleeping, I didn’t descend enough — I woke to a nice coating of frost, and a few cows huddling around me. I hadn’t noticed the livestock before falling asleep the night before, but they’d moved toward the tree line before grouping together for warmth. Amused, I extracted myself from by bivy and packed up — glad it had only been cattle that had approached in the night.

My last day in the mountains was a tale of two halves. I was looking forward to cruising into Montpellier, having a shower and a good meal — not to mention warming up. But just as my Garmin was telling me that I had nothing but a long downhill to the coast, I hit a sign declaring that the road ahead was closed to bikes. This wasn’t because I’d planned to take a major route, rather it was because the major route was closed and traffic was being re-directed onto my nice, quiet road. Within 70 miles of the coast, this was a bit of a crushing blow.

IMG_0968Not to be beaten, I was back on the road after a cup of coffee and a map check — the downside was that I wasleft facing a few big climbs and an extra 30-mile loop. It turned out to be one of the better day’s cycling of the year — I was on deserted mountain roads with spectacular vistas at every bend. To cap it off, the final decent out of was as sinuous and exhilarating as any I’ve ever ridden.

As I lost altitude the climate immediately became Mediterranean and I was riding in just a jersey and shorts for the first time of the trip. A few sunny hours later and I was rolling into Montpellier. At just over 700 miles in five days, it wasn’t the longest bike ride I’ve ever done, but the temperatures and limited resupply made it a challenge — a perfect way to usher in the 2013 season and dust off the legs after the long UK winter.

Home made box for the flight home from Montpellier

Home made box for the flight home from Montpellier

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