Ceret!

Day 12: Le Barcares to Ceret

Distance: 58.56
Trip total: 1223.42km
Average: 17.5kph
Max: 44.8kph
Time: 03:19:40

(This is yesterday’s ride, the final day of the ride to Ceret)

The final day of my epic cycle through France finally arrived. I struggled to sleep, partly due to the heat, but also my excitement at the short ride ahead of me, taking me to Ceret to meet the rest of my family.

In a weird middle of the night state of confusion, half awake, half asleep, at around 4am I even considered getting up, packing my things away and setting off before the heat of the day. But then my sleepy side kicked in and told me not to be an idiot, so I drifted off again, getting up at about 7:30, going through my morning ritual, and leaving the campsite at 8:15.

I headed south along the coast to Canet-En-Rousillion before heading inland and skirting round Perpignan, with views of the Pyrenean mountains ahead of me. At times I was battling against strong headwinds, unable to move at anything over about 10kph, but the winds started to ease as I moved away from the coast and towards the hills.

I crossed the river Tech (which flows through Ceret, and directly past the house in which we’re staying) at Brouilla, then joined a perfect, smooth cycle path running parallel to the D618 for the remaining 20km or so to Ceret.

I cycled the last few kilometres into Ceret with a huge grin on my face, knowing that I’d finally made it, arriving at almost exactly the same time as Mum, Dad, and Rosie in the motorhome, so headed to the market and waited for them to park up and come to meet me.

Mum gave me a big hug as soon as they arrived, and the ride was finally over. The last twelve days and over 1200km of cycling have been incredible – by far the most physically challenging and psychologically demanding thing I’ve ever done. At times I’ve struggled a bit with the loneliness of cycling so far, and for so many days, on my own, and the nights I stayed with Anne then Christophe and Valerie, and the time I spent Connor and Alba, definitely made the trip far more enjoyable than it would otherwise have been. I’d love to do more long tours, but I doubt I’d do something of this distance again on my own, or if I did I’d arrange as many WarmShowers stops as possible along the way.

The bike has now had a much needed deep clean and some mechanical TLC, and is having a well deserved rest in the shade beside the pool. I plan to ignore it for the next few days, and waking up knowing I didn’t have to cycle 100 or more km today was a feel worth savouring.

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Nirvana.

Day 11: Carcassonne to Le Barcares

Distance: 116.49
Trip total: 1164.86km
Average: 23.3kph
Max: 47.9kph
Time: 04:59:36

Strong tailwinds almost all day, some incredible scenery, and a route that was almost entirely downhill for much of the day (and when it wasn’t it was flat), made today the most fantastic day of cycling I’ve ever had. By a long way. And as if all that wasn’t enough, today was also the day I arrived on the Mediterranean coastline, having set off from La Manche at Ouistreham 11 days ago.

I rose earlier than I had for the past few mornings, knowing that I had a longer day ahead of me. I’d packed everything except my tent and sleeping particulars away last night, so only had to get up, shower, and pack said items into the rack pack.

Connor and Alba were just getting up as I’d finished loading the bike, so I said a quick goodbye, and they gave me an open invitation to go and visit them in Limerick, which I’m definitely going to take them up on! I should probably let them get the whole having a baby thing out of the way first…so hopefully I’ll keep in touch and make a trip over to Ireland in a year or two and see how they’re doing.

I set off from Carcassonne at around 8:30, quickly joining the D6113, which runs through the valley and more or less due east towards the coast. It was almost all downhill, and a consistently strong tailwind meant I was motoring along for the first couple of hours of riding, averaging around 25kph over two hours, and getting half of my intended distance done in the process.

I left the D6113 at Fontcouverte, heading south-east to Fabrezan and crossing L’orbieu, before heading over the only hills of the day, which was over after 15 minutes or so of climbing, if that, before more flat and downhill tailwind-assisted riding, heading south-east and through the breathtaking Parc Naturel Regional de La Narbonnaise En Mediter (bit of a mouthful).

A steep and winding road followed the course of the river Berre through a dramatic, narrow, rocky valley, which reminded me in places of the Gorges du Verdon in Provence. I spent an incredible 20 minutes or so enjoying the descent, stopping far too often to try to capture some of the dramatic scenery on camera, and failing totally – I think it’s one of those roads you just have to ride to appreciate it fully.

My route followed the Berre all the way to the coast, where I passed through Sigean then out to Port-La-Nouvelle, getting my first proper sight of the Mediterranean somewhere between the two – one of the most memorable moments of the trip so far, having been cycling towards it for so long.

From Port-La-Nouvelle I followed the coastal road, heading south past the Etang de La Palme, which was full of wind- and kite-surfers, before arriving at Leucate, the location of my intended site for the night.

The site looked like an absolute dump, more trailer park than campsite, and it was an easy decision to keep going and find another campsite further down the coast. It was relatively early, and my legs were still fresh feeling fresh due to the tailwinds and long downhill riding I’d been enjoying all day. I also had half a mind on trying to make as much progress as I could comfortably make today to minimise tomorrow’s final ride to Ceret, which will involve a fair bit of climbing.

I set off again, following the same road along the coast through Port Leucate, and as I was going round a roundabout felt the telltale wobble of my second flat tyre of the trip, so stopped to fix it quickly in the shade before carrying on to Le Barcares. I popped into the tourist information office and found out there were a handful of campsites to choose from just round the corner. They’re all pretty terrible, as is much of this part of the coast, which has been spoiled by sprawling, run-down holiday resorts and bars. I’m paying more tonight than I have at any of the campsites so far, which have all been far nicer.

However, I’m only here for a night, and had the most perfect day of cycling I could have wished for today. I’m going to settle down and watch Spain play the Netherlands, get to bed, and try to contain my excitement knowing that tomorrow I’ll finally arrive in Ceret for a week of rest with the family. Can’t wait.

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Carcassonne.

Day 10: Castelnaudary to Carcassonne.

Distance: 50.99km
Trip total: 1048.37km
Average: 16.9kph
Max: 46.1kph
Time: 03:00:41

I had a very leisurely start to the morning, knowing that I only had 40km or so ahead of me to get to Carcassonne. I woke up late, then spent most of the late morning having breakfast with Connor, Alba, and Molly, the family who’d arrived and pitched up near me last night.

Connor is an engineer who works for Johnson & Johnson, and lives with Alba and Molly just outside Limerick in Ireland. Alba visited Ireland about 7 years ago for a summer, and never left, and is now a dance teacher. She’s pregnant with their second child (but still came cycle touring in France!), with the baby is due in December. They’ve been touring the Canal du Midi, which connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, running from Bordeaux through to Carcassonne and out to the coast from there.

After I’d packed up my kit this morning we said our goodbyes, but were due to be heading to the same place, Carcassonne today, and with a very limited number of campsites close to the city we knew it would be a possibility we’d end up at the same site, so I let them know I was heading to the municipal site close to the old walled city.

The short ride from Castelnaudary to Carcassonne was fantastic, with 30 of the 40km route taking me along the tow path next to the beautiful Canal du Midi, so I enjoyed flat, shady riding for most of the ride. The only negative was that the tow path gradually got more and more bumpy and poor quality, so I eventually gave up and joined the roads for the final 10km to Carcassonne.

The ride into Carcassonne was almost all downhill at 35-45kph all the way, and after popping into a supermarket on the outskirts of town I made my way to the campsite. It’s a great little 4 star municipal site (municipal usually meaning cheap for a cycling camper), and as I was sorting out payment in the reception Connor, Alba, and Molly turned up, carrying with them my towel, which I’d left hanging up at the Castelnaudary site and completely forgotten about.

We set up camp together, then agreed we all wanted to take a walk round the amazing old walled part of Carcassonne, which looks like something out of a film (indeed it is something out of a film, having featured in plenty). We rode our unloaded bikes along a cycle path towards the city, and then climbed the cobbled streets and into the ancient walls of the city. Words and photos can’t really do justice to Carcassonne, and it has to be seen to be believed.

We wandered through the narrow streets inside the huge walls for a couple of hours, then stopped for a couple of beers in a bar before heading back to the campsite, where we plan to pool our collective food items and concoct some kind of supper from them.

Tomorrow’s ride will take me to Leucate on the Mediterranean coast, and should be under 100km. Getting tantalisingly close to Ceret now, and a well deserved rest for a week.

I’m having problems uploading photos on this wifi connection, so today’s will have to be uploaded to the blog another time.

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Peacocks.

(Yesterday’s blog, not posted due to lack of internet)

Day 9: Gaillac to Castelnaudary

Distance: 99.70
Trip total: 997.38km
Average: 18.4kph
Max: 54.6kph
Time: 05:24:33

Cuckoos: 0
Peacocks: difficult to tell, many, noisy.
Squashed snakes: 1
Squashed lizards: 1

Today has probably been the most enjoyable day’s riding of the whole trip so far. I set of from Gaillac shortly before 9am, climbing into the hills and heading south past Peyrole, then descending and crossing Le Dadou at Briatexte, over another set of hills and across L’agout at near Fiac. The morning was relatively cool, in the mid-20s, but it has been noticeably more humid for the past couple of days, and the humidity today made it feel a lot hotter than it was, and I drank far more water than I usually would.

The afternoon’s riding started on high, undulating ground with amazing views, and was hot, peaking at 45C in the sun, the highest temperature of the trip so far.

My original route would have taken me from Albi (instead of Gaillac) down to Castres and then on to Carcassonne, which would have involved a massive climb of around 1000m over a large range of hills. Today’s route skirted round those hills, and as I was traveling south towards Mouzens I could see them towards the south-east, and was relieved I’d made the decision to skirt round them. They looked huge and intimidating, and in the high-30s/early-40s would have been hell.

Before long I was cycling through the valley in which Carcassonne sits, headings towards Castelnaudary. The valley is huge (around 30km wide I think), bordered by hills to the north and south, which I could see as I headed towards the town. From what I can see on the map, the valley leads all the way out to Perpignan and the Mediterranean, meaning no more serious hills for me to climb over the next couple of days.

I arrived in Castelnaudary at around 3pm, finding the municipal campsite quickly, but also finding that I was a week early – it was not due to open until next Monday. Fortunately, someone on site saw me arriving, called me over, and when he saw the blank look on my face in response to his French, asked if I was English. Once we’d established that, he spoke in perfect English and explained that the campsite was closed, but that there was another site 4km away in Saint-Martin-Lalande, writing down the name of the site, the street it was on, and the telephone number for me. I can’t remember his name, but during the brief conversation we had he told me he had lived in England in the past, working as a barman in Leeds and Skipton, and had a friend in Lincoln. He was also sweating profusely despite apparently not having been doing anything.

After stopping off at a supermarket for supplies, I found the campsite, which has turned out to be the nicest I’ve stayed at during the trip. It’s hidden away in the middle of the countryside, and is a beautiful site with unmarked, shady spots for tents among the trees. As I write I can hear peacocks peacocking from across a field, and not a single cuckoo.

It seems this campsite is a bit of a cycle-camping hotspot, being located only a few km from the Canal Du Midi. I’ve spotted a few other cyclists here, and as I was pottering around outside my tent a couple on two bikes, one towing a trailer with a young child in, pulled up and pitched near me. They’re Connor (Irish) and Alba (Spanish), with their young daughter Molly, and they’ve been touring the canal since last Tuesday. We chatted for a while when they arrived, and they’ve had a lot of the issues I’ve had this week, running out of water and finding one or two campsites closed, forcing them to cycle further than planned.

Tomorrow’s plan is for a leisurely 35-40km to Carcassonne in the morning, giving me the afternoon to explore the town, before my final two days of cycling to the Med and then Ceret. I’m feeling relaxed and under no pressure without any more really big days ahead of me, and can’t wait for the next few days. But for now, I’m going to crack open a hoegaarden and not listen to cuckoos.

(Can’t upload photos for some reason)

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Impatience.

Day 8: Septfonds to Gaillac.

Distance: 63.29km
Trip total: 897.68km
Average: 18.2kph
Max: 60.4kph
Time: 03:27:54

Cuckoos: Yarp.
Buzzards being dive-bombed by smaller birds: 1
Squashed snakes: 1

It’s been a really nice feeling covering shorter distances over the last couple of days, and has given me the chance to get some much needed rest. After a week of up to 158km a day, I’d definitely started to lose some of the enjoyment, and the daily pressure of getting as far as I could before the hottest part of the day, knowing that I’d still need to carry on through the heat at a slower pace, was starting to take its toll.

Today was the shortest day of the trip so far, and I arrived in Gaillac just after 2pm, as the day was starting to heat up, and have been resting in the shade since.

There was some climbing early on in the day as I headed out of Septfonds towards Montricoux, crossing the hills and then dropping down into the town to cross the river L’aveyron. After this I climbed back out of the valley towards Puygaillard-De-Quercy, and enjoyed some flat riding along the banks of La Vère and through Larroque, a tiny village sitting beneath tall cliffs cut into the rock by the tiny river.

More relatively flat riding took me on to Castelnau-de-Montmiral, a tiny, ancient looking town perched on a hilltop, and I couldn’t resist a slight detour from the route to climb the steep, narrow streets into the town, arriving at a tiny, bustling market place, where the traders were just starting to pack away their stalls.

After a quick breather in Castelnau I set off on the final 12km to Gaillac, only briefly stopping to check out a tempting looking pizzeria, but thinking better of it being so close to my destination. An exhilerating, fast desent down a long hill into the Tarn valley saw me hit 60kph (during which I was pleased I’d tightended the brake cables last night) before a final few flat kilometres to the outskirts of the town, where I found the campsite without any problems.

I feel like I’m nearing the finish line now, and keep finding myself impatiently wishing the next four days away, probably a little prematurely. There shouldn’t be any really tough days ahead of me now (famous last words), with 80km to cover to reach Castelnaudary tomorrow, then a barely-worth-getting-on-the-bike-for 40km from there to Carcassonne, where I’ll have more or less a whole day to explore the town. From Carcassone on Friday I’ll travel 80km or so to Leucate and my first night on the Mediterranean coast, and then a final 70km to Ceret the following day, hopefully arriving mid-afternoon and finally meeting up with the family!

And so, with cicadas making a din in the background, I’m going to kick back, chill out, and get ready for the next few days of impatient riding.

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Mole.

Day 7: Luzech to Septfonds.

Distance: 64.84km
Trip total: 834.43km
Average: 17.7kph
Max: 54.3kph
Time: 03:39:17

Cuckoos: Yep.
Squashed moles: 1
Canadians spoken to: 1
Peacocks: 1 seen, 1 heard

Today was definitely the most enjoyable day of the trip so far, due to the shorter distance travelled, less punishing terrain, and a drop in temperature for most of the day, although it still got up to 38 or 39 in the sun.

But first a bit more on Valerie and Christophe, as I don’t think I did them justice in last night’s blog.

So, after chatting to them a bit more, it turned out that only Christophe works at the care home where they have an apartment, and Valerie works in nearby Cahors, where she works (from what I could make out) for local government as the P.A to someone quite important.

In 2001, before they had children, Valerie and Christophe set off around the world by bike, cycling through Europe and arriving in Turkey on September 11 2001. Their original plan had been to continue through Turkey then into Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for obvious reasons the timing of their arrival forced them to change their plans. Instead, I think, they moved on to India, carrying on around the world and cycling up through Chile, Argentina and Central America before heading back to Europe.

Their trip was primarily to raise awareness of Multiple Sclerosis, and in each country they visited the HQ for multiple sclerosis charities, and for part of the way they were towing trailers on their bikes, carrying M.S sufferers.

In France, when someone has been an employee with the same company for a total of five years, they are entitled to take a career break and keep their job, which will be waiting for them when they get back. This is something Anne (who I stayed with a few nights ago) is planning on doing, and Valerie and Christophe did this fairly recently, taking their bikes, trailers, and two young children Lalie and Esteban (who are about to be 4 and 6, so must have been very little!), and touring New Zealand and then Thailand for six months, just before the trouble in Thailand started.

They seem like a very contented, happy family, and are constantly off on adventures with the children, and like to stay active all the time. On the day I arrived they’d taken their inflatable canoe to a local river for the day, and when I left they were preparing to go fishing for the day on a lake.

I decided to keep moving today, rather than staying in Luzech, but halved the distance I’d originally planned to cycle, and after a long lie in and a big breakfast with Valerie and Christophe, set off for Septfonds, about 5km from Caussade.

I stopped in the centre of Luzech to plot the route on the GPS, and a group of cyclists across the road spotted me pulling up. One of them, from Quebec, walked over because my loaded tourer had caught his attention, and started chatting to me. He told me how 40 years ago he’d flown to England, bought a 5-geared, steel framed bike, and set off on a tour of England, Ireland, and Wales, and then taken the bike back to Canada, where he realised 5 gears don’t get you up mountains.

The late morning was quite cool, and there was light cloud cover, so although the first 15km or so were very up and down on tiny, winding, rural lanes, it was far more enjoyable, especially knowing i didn’t have 100km ahead of me.

I took my time, eventually emerging from the steep hills into more open countryside near L’hospitalet, and joining quite a large but not too busy road all the way through to Caussade, making very slow progress up long, hard climbs, but at times enjoying kilometre-long descents at 45-55kph, slowed only by the wind resistance on all my luggage.

From Caussade, it was a short 5km or so to Septfonds, where I’ve set up camp at a lovely rural site, a couple of km out of the town, and I’m now sitting in the evening sunshine with a cold beer (there’s a theme developing for my post-ride reward). Tomorrow will take me to Gaillac, tonight’s original destination, which is now another 50-60km away, so I can afford to get up at a leisurely pace tomorrow and take it easy again. I’m counting down to my arrival in Ceret now, and as I type Mum, Dad and Rosie are motorhoming their way to Dover, ready for an early ferry tomorrow and the start of the race to Ceret.

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Pétanque.

Day 6: Saint-Felix-De-Raillac-Et-Mortemart to Luzech.

Distance: 99.91km (YES!!!!)
Trip total: 769.59km
Average: 18.4kph
Max: 44.8kph
Time: 05:25:40

Dead foxes: 2
Live deer: 1
Cuckoos: More bloody cuckoos.

Today was a much better day in the saddle, partly due to the change in terrain, and partly the shorter distance cycled. I’ve now decided to ban any more days over 100km for the rest of the trip – in 40 degree heat they’re just too much, and take the enjoyment out of it. I’ve also been warned of hills hills hills between here and Perpignan, so trying to keep up the same pace I’ve been traveling at for the last six days would be stupid.

I left the campsite at about 08:50, joining the same road I’d descended a few km on the night before, and was again treated to more uninterrupted downhill riding. I descended for a full 12km all the way down to Les Eyzies-De-Tayac-Sireuil, the only downside being a headwind blowing up the hill and stopping me going at a decent speed. When you’re having to pedal downhill to get anywhere you know you’re up against it.

At Les Eyzies the route took me along the valley of the La Vezere to Le Bugue, then along the Dordoigne to Soirac-En-Perigord. Here I headed into the hills again, but thankfully it was a series of long but steady climbs, followed by equally long descents, as opposed to the endless ups and downs of the past couple of days.

After a few of these climbs and descents, I finally enjoyed a long downhill section which took me to the river Lot, which I joined at Prayssac and followed through the valley all the way through to Luzech, my destination for the night. By this point the temperature had reached 40 degrees in the sun again, and it had been climbing steadily since midday, but I managed to get finished by just after 3pm, just as I was starting to seriously overheat, and found shade to cool down while I waited to get in touch with my hosts for the night.

I’m staying with a lovely family in Luzech, who I got in touch with through Warm Showers. They’re Valerie and Christophe, and have two young children, and they all live in an apartment attached to a home for adults and children with learning disabilities, which V&C run.

They’ve been extremely accommodating, greeting me with a cool beer as soon as I arrived, making sure I had a shower, putting on a load of washing for me, and finally including me in a game of pétanque (boules) and a barbecue this evening with a group of friends. I’d mentioned in passing that the first day of my trip had been my birthday, and at the end of the meal they suddenly started singing happy birthday and brought over a cake they’d already made but had put candles in for me when they’d found out. They’ve been amazing, and tonight was just what I needed after a gruelling few days in the heat, after which I’d really started to question my resolve.

I’ve got a few options for tomorrow – Valerie and Christophe have offered to accommodate me for another night if necessary, or I can move on if I feel like it in the morning. I’ve found a campsite 50km away, so if I do head off that’ll be the most I’ll do. It’s just impossible to keep going into the afternoon during the hottest part of the day, and I’ve got until Saturday to get to Ceret, so can afford to slow down.

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