This Bike Ain’t Made for Sprinting

[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]

Leaving Saumur I head east along the Loire Valley. The view of the city I get as I leave makes me sad not to be able to stay and explore. I ride through old winding streets, heading up past the chateaux. It seems the perfect place to spend a few days.

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But I must head on. The trail heading east follows the Loire valley, weaving up and down in a world of rock walls…

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and vineyards…

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I pause for a little goats cheese sandwich and apple juice in an antique shop / book store / cafe. I’ve see a few cute little places like this.

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At times I follow the trail, but often I stick to the backroads and forestry roads, trying to push out some miles. My mind is focused on trying to get to Clermont-Ferrand in four days – further than I’ve come already in the last 7 days. I’ve never ridden consecutive days of much greater than 40 miles or so. Over these next four days I manage to cover 65, 76, 75 and 50 miles respectively, but it pretty well breaks me. I am astounded by endurance riders such as those racing the Tour Divide; the distances they cover, albeit with lighter bikes and a million more times training, are huge and unfathomable to me after these few days. Sometimes I follow forestry roads, but often what is there on the map is no longer there in reality.

There’s meant to be a road here…

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So a large portion of these four days are instead spent following slightly larger French roads which have significant stretches where they plough straight across the landscape and whatever lies along the way. Rounding a bend to see the tarmac disappear up a slow long hill to the horizon again, initially induces a grimace, then a groan, and towards the end of the day an audible whimper. I can hear my big 2.4 inch Ardent tyres, for all their good rolling ability, literally sucking themselves down onto the tarmac.

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There are some tears on days 3 and 4. I’ve gone from virtually no riding in the past few months to racing across France on an overweight bike with barely any rest, and I start to realise I can’t do this all the way the south of France. Eventually I remember that I let some pressure out of them a few days ago to make things more comfortable on the trails, and I use my tiny pump to stuff as much air back in them as possible. It makes a noticeable difference and I kick myself for not having remembered this two or three days ago…!

Some of the scenery is still lovely. There are more fields of wheat…

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more decrepit buildings…

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tree lined avenues…

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and fields of sunflowers…

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Early on I am relatively happy 🙂

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But I take very few photos on these days, its all I can do to push on for another ten miles. Just another ten miles. I use campsites as targets now, rather than succumbing to the urge to stop and camp in the first suitable woods I pass. And possibly because I know I’ll appreciate the ability to get a shower and charge my phone. I’m using this for navigation and despite the dynamo hub doing a valiant job of keeping it topped up, it can be difficult not to let the charge drop when riding slowly up hills and when the phone is being used heavily. Each day I roll into camp a little bit later and a little more exhausted. I’m aware that this isn’t fun, and that this isn’t the kind of riding I want to do, especially not on this bike. But at the same time there is a small part of me that values the challenge. Its good to see that I can do it when I put my mind to it. However, I can start to feel some niggles. A back problem that I’ve been working on over the past year starts to make itself felt again, and the outside of my right knee has been slowly getting painful over the last couple of days. So much for my plan of easing myself and my body into this ride slowly…

Rest

On the fourth day, I don’t have much left and can’t make it into Clermont-Ferrand itself. I realise that I’m done, and that I need to think about not just heading straight onto the Grand Traversee du Massif Central route and instead, taking some rest. I manage 50 miles and arrive in a village where I had hoped to find a campsite to find nothing other than a sign for a gite d’etape. I follow the signs for a couple of miles out of the village, up more hills, but when I get there it is occupied by a family and the owner is away. I carry on through the tiny hamlet, heading back to the main road, resigned to sleeping in the woods but really, really not wanting to tonight. My phone is running low, I don’t have much water, and I just want a hot shower! (I do realise that my tolerance for being uncomfortable is fairly low…!). I stop and ask a couple working in their garden, if there is a campsite nearby, partly hoping they might invite me to camp in there. They don’t, but they are lovely and even with my broken French they direct me to a campsite a few miles further on. It is shown on my maps but is off my planned route and I hadn’t spotted it. If I hadn’t wandered out to look for the gite, I wouldn’t have passed their house, and I wouldn’t have found my way to the site. Sometimes things just work out…

There is an auberge attached to the site which looks lovely and I decide that I deserve some decent food. I can’t face smoked meat pasta and so head in for some food, once I’ve sorted out my gear and washed some clothes. There is a set menu, which I don’t pay much attention to on my way in through the door. I’m sat down and a few minutes later given a huge plate of bread and…smoked meats!

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Perhaps I’m too late for the main menu that I can see others have. I devour everything on the plate, just in case, but am then pleasantly surprised when course two arrives – omelette and a salad. Ahhh, things are looking up. And then… the biggest cheese board ever, with more bread.

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Wow. I stuff myself. And then dessert. I’m in pain now, but chuckling to myself in slightly excessive glee.

Sipping the end of a beer I notice that everyone paying as they leave are writing out paper cheques. Cheques…? I look in my wallet and realise I have just €10 note, not enough if, god forbid they don’t accept cards here. The next family passes the bar and pays with a cheque again… I play innocent and go to present my card at the bar, to have my doubts confirmed. Shit. Apologising profusely, they take the offer of my passport if I can come back in the morning and pay. We work out that the nearest bank is in a town a few miles away but which is down a huge hill. I resign myself to getting up early and biking down there and back, although its the last thing I want. What I want is a long lie in and a slow and gentle ride into Clermont Ferrand in the morning. What I don’t want is to have to ride a bloody big hill unnecessarily. I kick myself for not having checked how much cash I had, and for having those two beers. Without that, I might have been able to squeeze the bill out of my €10 note and what coins I have…

Just as I’m heading to bed, feeling an idiot, it slowly occurs to me that in my bike is a dummy wallet with two expired credit cards and… the holy grail… a €20 note!! At least I think there is; that was my intention before I left. Did I do it…? Did I…? YES! I find the wallet and the note and once again feel excessively happy. No early morning, no unnecessary hill. Everything is good again. The little highs and lows, things that back home would be no more than an inconvenience or vaguely pleasant experience are really accentuated even just a week or two into a trip like this.

The next day I slowly pack up in the rain. I’ve decided to head into Clermont-Ferrand for a day or so. I need a rest and need to sort out a couple of things. I’ve somehow ripped half the valve off my lovely Klymit Static V air mat. It seems to still hold air but I live in fear of hearing a hissssssssssss by my ear in the middle of the night.

There are meant to be three lugs on the top of that valve, which hold the twist-cap locked in place…

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My chain has also been getting slacker over time. Because I have a Rohloff rear hub, the chain setup is essentially a single speed. The chain is new and heavyweight and shouldn’t have stretched over the past few weeks, but the wheel hasn’t moved position, so I’m not entirely sure what is going on. Its a little tricky to adjust despite the frame dropouts accommodate so many different options. The wheel is already right at the back of the dropouts. If I move it further back, the locking nut that stops the hub from rotating won’t engage with the hub and hold it in place. If I remove two links from the chain, I would need to move the wheel forward a little. This would also mean moving the brake calliper forward, but the calliper is as far forward as it can go. What I think I need is a larger adapter for the brake calliper – one designed for a larger brake disk. Happily, I thought about this before I left home, and bought the right adapter. Unhappily, in the rush to pack and leave I decided that I didn’t need it and left it at home. Nice one, Chris.

Heading south from my campsite its less than half an hour and only a little bit of climbing until I hit the GTMC at the apex of its loop north out of Clermont Ferrand, before it turns south and heads for the coast. We’re now at the very north of the Massif Central, and this is extinct volcano country.

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I ride the trail back in reverse down into the city. Passing through Volvic, the source of the ubiquitous bottled water, I’m so glad that I’m not leaving the city this way, heading the opposite way up the trail – there are incredibly steep sections around here. Heading closer to the city I find myself pushing up a stupidly steep road onto a ridge overlooking the city. Half way up I give up and turn round, riding around the long way instead. The niggle in my knee is sore now, I don’t want to be on the bike. I’ve done perhaps 20 miles and just want to not ride for a few days. How can I not be in the city yet?? Eventually I do get there, and ride right into the city centre. There is something very cool about riding into a city on a big bike, dusty and sweaty. You get some very odd looks. I grab a map and sit with a coffee trying unsuccessfully to get onto wifi for an hour to locate a bike shop, watching people stop and look curiously at the bike resting in the main square. It seems to spark some animated debate within some groups of passers by. I guess it does look a little bit apocalyptic in a Mad Max sort of a way…

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In the end I give up and just head out of town for the closest campsite I can find, just a few miles away in the suburb of Royat. But – oh my god – this city is surround by bloody volcanic hills. Blindly following Google I end up pushing up the longest, 20% gradient hill in the world (in my head, at least) for a very sweaty 45 minutes. It makes up my mind – I’m absolutely staying here for a couple of days and will look at doing the GTMC in two sections, taking a break in the middle to head down to Montpellier by train.

The following day, after downloading maps of the route to Montpellier in a much-quicker-than-last-time 25 minutes, I head out to a bike shop, Cycles Geral, in the suburbs. They can’t help me with the bigger brake adapter but do agree, despite my broken French, that it might work. They direct me to another place – Culture Vélo Boyer – a few miles further out in Cournon-d’Auvergne. Here I find Batiste. He also doesn’t have the spare part but after a lot of debate, we decide to just try a new chain – a ubiquitous Shimano 8 speed. Somehow, perhaps down to slightly different chain dimensions, we get a snug fit without needing to pull the wheel too far forward for the brake calliper. Success! This chain isn’t as big and tough as the original, but hopefully it will do the job.

This is Batiste.

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He fixes bikes :-).

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Relieved, I spend an hour pedalling back to camp, happy with an afternoon well spent which means I can have tomorrow to explore the city a bit. No riding, just a bit of this instead…

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The next day is well spent, wandering down from the village of Royat into the city.

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I stock up on fuel, a couple of days food, and get a replacement mat. The Klymit valve would probably just about hold with some duct tape applied each night, but I don’t want to take the risk. The only lightweight optio I can find is an exorbitantly expensive Thermarest X-Lite, which is possibly the mat I should have bought in the first place. The Klymit (left) is lovely and wide, ad is comfortable, despite having an unusual feeling due to the ridges. But the X-Lite is really well reviewed, a touch taller, warmer, lighter and packs smaller. Its pretty narrow, but I guess we’ll see how it goes…

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So tomorrow I set off east out into the land of volcanoes, heading for the Puy de Dome. From there, at Laschamps, I’ll pick up stage 2 of the GTMC and start heading south. The plan is to take it easy, only try to do the short stage that the guide suggests each day, have some time to smell the flowers and taste the coffee…even if it is nasty instant stuff since I got rid of my Aeropress coffee press and Porlex mini-mill grinder a few days ago in an attempt to lose some weight… :-/

Posted in Bikepacking London to Seville (2014) and tagged , , , .

11 Comments

  1. Thanks Chris! I’m enjoying your writing very much. Questions come to mind and I hope you won’t be bothered answering them. Do you lock your bike and gear up in anyway when you are inside having dinner? Why did you go with a Rohloff instead of external mech? Keep the posts coming many of my friends are following your trip. Take care! Josh

    • Thanks Josh, that’s very nice to hear! I have a tiny cable combination lock that is really just to immobilise the bike to stop a passer by wandering off with it rather than stop a determined thief. But I’ve used it leave bikes outside shops, supermarkets and overnight in a square of a tiny village in Spain (last year). I do try to keep an eye on it and not leave it for long. I did once carry a heavy cable but I find that, outside of cities in particular, there’s little chance of someone trying to wander off with my loaded bike.

      Re the Rohloff: I sat in a cycle trip workshop at the RGS Explore weekend a couple of years ago and 4 out of 5 of the speakers had used a Rohloff. The other speaker wished he had because he would have saved money on worn / damaged drivetrain parts. It is a tricky decision and does make some things more complicated (a year ago I promised myself I’d only use easily available Shimano parts after having to buy a new wheel as the shop I was in in Spain didn’t have parts for my broken DT Swiss hub), but it is so nice not having to worry about the rear mech gettinv damaged or clogged up. Cass Gilbert (www.whileoutriding.com) has written a lot about using a Rohloff, which helped convince me it was the way to go.

      Do you have any trips planned??

      Cheers!

      • No long bike packing trips planned as of now. Some overnights maybe. Dreaming about Tour Divide as well. Great following your trip. The photography is terrific. Thanks for your work. Keep pedaling, Montpellier here we come!

          • I’ll start reading it presently. Just started While Out Riding after you mentioned it. The Rohloff seems to have a few drawbacks. Not being able to switch gears while applying pressure to the pedals is one the weight is the other. I’m intrigued but am not convinced that external mech is really that failure prone. The family and I were in Annecy last Summer during the TDF. I enjoy France from your description it seems like a perfect place to bikepack. So you’re taking a day or two in Clearmont then continuing the bike tour? I hope so. I’ll look at your gear list but from the pictures it looks like you’ve got the kitchen sink strapped on there somewhere!! Any chance to lighten the load? Do you feel like you get real sleep in the bivy? I have pretty neat tent but it is a pain to set up and isn’t very stealthy. Loved reading that you slept on the other side of a wall with cars commuting by on the other side. Finding that cement shack was perfect as well! Thanks for the replies. Take care, Josh

          • I guess there are some pros and cons – I find with a rear mech you need to time your shifting when to you’re not applying maximum pressure on the pedals, and the Rohloff isn’t that different. I am slowly lightening stuff up as I go. A lot of the weight is a small laptop, camera and the associated chargers etc! I’ve found that I love sleeping outside a tent when I can. Once you’ve got used to it, it’s great a opening your eyes to be able to see what’s around you, and being in a tent feels a little odd and enclosed. Depends in the weather tho!

  2. Sorry about the mat! Do you have the crisp packet Thermalite mattress or quieter one? Also, can you ship Batiste to the US please? He looks kinda useful and I have no brake pads – think the mud and sand eroded them completely in a few days and the nearest shop is 3 days away 🙁
    The coffee pot and grinder going made me smile a little even though I feel for you saying goodbye to them! I felt so much better after shipping off 8Ibs of stuff but also am worried about no back-up warm layer if one gets wet so despite having loads at home and one now with my cousin, I’m contemplating ANOTHER long-sleeve merino top.
    Look after those knees!
    Laters hobo

    • Yeah its a shame the valve went so quickly. I have the crispy one but to be honest it’s not that bad, mainly just when you roll it up. So far it’s comfy, jus narrow so not sure what to do with my arms when sleeping on my back – need big elbow pads to rest them on o some kind of hospital pulley contraption to hold them up with ;-).

      • If only I had my sewing machine with me I could make you some elbow pads and post them over. Unfortunately I sent it off to my cousin’s when I was trying to lighten my load.
        No pad is perfect I guess and ‘comfy’ sounds a good outcome I reckon!

  3. Sitting on Level 3 Park View. Reading your posts are a lot more inspiring than the thought of the Environmental Basis of Design awaiting me 🙁
    There is a process engineer sitting with his back to me that has been comparing bike components on Chain Reaction for the last hr, and i am getting excited about 4 days riding at 7Stanes – maybe it is the Brentford effect?
    Stay safe, have fun and keep the excellent posts going – i am impressed you have the energy and discipline to post them.
    Greig

    • Hey Greig,

      I think it might be the London effect. I definitely remember getting a little distracted by other people’s biking blogs whilst attempted to write some Environmental Basis of Designs myself! Thanks for your kind comments, it makes a big difference knowing that people actually read this. There should be another post soon on the last week or so. To be honest, after heaving my overloaded bike up some of these trails, a few days on a lightweight bike at the 7Stanes, with regular cake stops at the cafes there, sounds very appealing! Are you spending more time up in London than in Bristol lately, or is this just a flying visit?

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