The plan was simple enough: to cycle stages 1 and 2 of the 2016 Tour de France at our own pace. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: the number of stages, for a start ...)
So, as part of my ongoing efforts to convince anyone who will listen that it's possible for anyone to cycle in France and have fun, I asked my friend Claire if she wanted to go for a ride in Normandy.
Her response was something like: "Well, I can't remember the last time I rode my bike, but it sounds like fun."
We were away.
Stage 1 - Mont St-Michel to Utah Beach, 182km
Stage 2 - Saint-Lô to Cherbourg, 188km
However, to avoid death by bike, we split the two stages into two-day rides. As much as I like riding my bike, I'm not daft enough to imagine I'm up to riding 188km or 182km in one day in this lifetime any time soon.
So our schedule looks something like this – after the ride (or during it, depending on what condition I arrive in each day), I'll post ride reports at the end of each section below.
THE PLAN: Claire lives in the UK, so she's driving to Portsmouth, parking up and then getting a Brittany Ferries boat St-Malo as a foot passsenger with her bike (see here for Tour de France ferry deals). She's going to meet me at Mont St-Michel. It's a 46km ride from St Malo to Mont St-Michel on the coast road, but to save time she's cheating and getting a taxi. Via the Normandy tourist board, we found WPO Transports (+33 (0)6 50 00 07 29), a taxi firm that can take bikes.
I'm getting the train up to Pontorson (the nearest station to Mont St-Michel) via Castillon, Bordeaux, Paris and Rennes (phew!) and voyages-sncf.com – see here to find out how to book your bike on to a French train and here if you're coming to France by Eurostar or another international rail service.
We'll rendez-vous at Chambre d’hôtes Les Epinettes, a B&B near Mont St Michel that's accueil velo accredited. Tracy and Chenél recommended eating at Hôtel le Beauvoir when they cycled La Veloscenie Paris to Mont St Michel last year, so we'll see if the food is as good as they say it is.
THE REALITY: OK so the ride has now become solo as Claire has caught the dreaded fever virus thing that's sweeping the UK and France. Prepare for lots of scenic photo without any cyclists in them until I get the hang of the autotimer on my camera ...
Concerned about the chill in the air in Paris, the fact that Normandy is even further north – oh, and the fact that there’s rain and 45km/hr winds forecast off and on during the week, I decided that choosing the Decathlon foldaway wind shield thing in lieu of a proper cycling jacket was a mistake, as was leaving the thermal top behind.
I had exactly 61 minutes at Montparnasse before my connection to Rennes, so I ducked out to Go Sport, fortuitously located one block from the station (could not believe my luck!), to get a proper waterproof/wind proof cycling jacket and another layer to wear under my jersey. The store doesn’t have a super cycling range but it has all the basics if you get stuck, including a small workshop and the usual range of inner tubes, lights and cycling tops.
I arrived (after 12 hours of trains and train stations) to be greeted with a fine welcome by Caroline at Chambre d’hôtes Les Epinettes, a B&B near Mont St Michel (see here for a review). She's accueil velo accredited and has a lovely little shed for bikes. My 'suite' was palatial, with a spare bed AND a spare room and could have comfortably slept 5 or 6 smelly cyclists.
The rest of the B&B was a homely affair – no posh soaps in the bathroom, just a key to the front door and a very welcoming feel.
Dinner was at Hôtel le Beauvoir (where the very friendly lady informed me that they also have a garage for bikes and regularly welcome cyclists). I ate dinner while being watched by these guys.
TOTAL DISTANCE MONDAY: 10km to station from home, 12 hours on trains/in stations, 6km to Beauvoir from Pontorson (nearest station to Mont St Michel)
THE PLAN: We're going to spin by Le Mont for a poke around the ancient monument – one of France's most visited attractions (there must be a reason, right?) See here for information on arriving by bike and details of where to park (don't forget a lock).
Then have a date with Fantine Georges, from the association that's brought the Grand Départ to Manche. I'm a little nervous that she's riding the first day (that's around 90km) with us and that she may be expecting people who can ride faster than 20km/hr 15km/hr for 6 consecutive hours.
THE REALITY: Just stuffed myself senseless with pancakes and other homemade goodies that Caroline makes at Chambre d’hôtes Les Epinettes. I've stolen extra gateau (the one with choc chips, Caroline!) for my pannier in case I start dying on today's ride and need a pick-me-up.
Still have fuel (I think) in my belly from last night's feast at Hôtel le Beauvoir, though I'm not sure Chris Froome ever feasts on warm goat's cheese salad followed by steak followed by a cheese platter with seven different cheeses before an opening stage of the Tour de France ...
I got to Mont St-Michel early, and I was glad I did, because by 10am it was getting crowded (must be crazy in summer; it's only April now).
But it was amazing. I rode up by bike before returning to the main car park/hotel preccint where there are three parking areas for bikes (parking bikes up at the Mont itself is banned, though I noticed some people had and presumably these are removed in high summer). Make sure you bring a good lock.
Look for signs like this for bike parking. You then catch a navette (free bus shuttle) to the Mont (or walk).
The Abbey itself is truly remarkable. Allow lots of time to see it (the self-guided walking tour that takes you around goes in one direction only). The views are exceptional – even on a hazy day – but the inside is even more impressive. There are also guided tours for a surcharge.
When I made it down and back to the bike parking to meet Fantine, I found that she is indeed a super fit cyclist who can go much faster than 15km/hr for six hours (she does triathlons).
The next 6 hours were the hardest I've ever spent on a bike. DO NOT believe the Tour de France stage profile when it says Stage 1 is 'flat'. It's not flat – well, not by mere mortal standards (and Fantine, I discovered, was not a mere mortal). We'd climbed 630 metres (the most I'd ever done in one ride) by the time my Garmin died a good 30km from the B&B.
We also rode into a strong headwind almost all day, plus it rained and we had occasional tiny hailstones. This part of the Normandy coast is very windy, but it's also superb for views, especially the stretch before Granville when you can see Mont St Michel across the bay (I won't post a picture because mine is a foggy haze but I'll find one when I get home).
I'll do another blog when I get back home on good places to watch the Tour de France, but if you are after a northern stage then this is a serious contender. It's magical.
Here's Fantine after waiting for me at the top of a (another) hill, though I came to notice through my huffing and puffing that she sometimes did training rides up and down the hills while she waited for me. As in she rode them twice. By choice. Even so, see how energetic and comfortable she looks?!
Somewere around Granville (when Fantine had generously taken us on a short cut to avoid another hill), I nearly gave up. I had a brief recollection that the stage profile evened out a bit so (with help from Fantine's dad, who was conveniently visiting her on holidays and who came by and collected my panniers with 21km to go), we soldiered on. The next 21km were hard into the wind and I prayed that every hill was the last (eventually it was).
I arrived at the B&B completely and utterly shattered. I sit here this morning typing with every muscle in my thighs aching.
Restaurant Le Grand Herbet on La Plage at Blainville-sur-Mer was a saviour. Wonderful seafood and asparagus risotto and magical views out to sea. If you are passing by, then this is the place to eat – and certainly there were enough locals there to suggest I wasn't the only one who thought so. I sat inside on a chilly and windy night, but you can just imagine how splendid this place is in summer.
Tomorrow I'm on my own for the rest of stage 2, and the realist (no longer the optimist) in me is amending the schedule to ensure I can make it to Utah Beach alive. I think I will cut the next 90km into another two halves so I can stop and enjoy the scenery a bit more en route. Stay tuned.
TOTAL DISTANCE TUESDAY: 94km (ish)
THE PLAN: Has gone out the window.
THE REALITY: After yesterday's 94km heroics (and hills), I took a reality check (the optimist gave way to the realist) and I decided to split the remaining stage 1 kilometres into two days/rides so I could enjoy a bit more of the ride, and stop to take more photos, enjoy lunch etc.
So that also meant canning Stage 2 altogether as I'm going to run out of time as I need to be in Paris on Monday for an appointment I can't change.
So today I booked a colourful B&B in Montebourg and rode 63.6 blissful kilometres from Blainville-sur-Mer through Normandy listening out for seagulls near the coast and sniffing in the farmyard odours of the countryside. Occasionally I was overtaken by a tractor, its driver cheerfully waving to me.
In reality the riding was easy. It still included 367m of climbing, which is still something of an achievement in one ride for a leisure rider like me, but the hills seemed longer but steadier and better paced than yesterday's wave-like inclines that would come and go one after the other.
From Lessay, where I stopped for cake at the beach (above), the route follows the D900 through to Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. This road is fast – cars and trucks were really moving – but the road is also in excellent condition (Fantine told me yesterday a lot of money is being spent on making sure these roads are TdF quality – and it shows; all along the route there are signs of work in progress or recently completed). The lanes are smooth and wide, and not particularly busy. I never felt vulnerable or at-risk.
I arrived in Lessay at 11am and killed some time writing and posting postcards while I waited for the local creperie to open. I then discovered the lovely public gardens at the back of the tourist information centre, and these were perfect for loitering for a good half hour or so.
I ate a galette (crepe) at the Hotel Le Normandy after depositing my bike back at the tourist information centre, where the kind man said I could lock it to the railing. The restaurant wouldn't let me park it in the foyer inside (even though I was the only customer) and there was no other street furniture to use – with the TDF coming, bike parking is one thing Lessay needs to address.
Back on the road, I saw the first signs of things to come as I ventured closer to Utah Beach: an imposing war memorial marking the efforts of US forces in La-Haye-du-Puit. The flags were big and noisy in the wind, and for the second time today I remembered how small my bike ride really is in the grand scheme of things. Over breakfast at Blainville-sur-Mer, I'd stared, captivated, at a framed certificate and Légion d'honneur given to a relative of my host.
In the end, the roads were so good – the last 20-odd kilometres through beautiful Normandy farmland impossible to imagine soaked in blood and bullets – that my legs probably would have made it to Utah Beach today. But I'm pleased to have stopped when I did. A short day awaits tomorrow, leaving more time to discover the real heroics of yesterdays more horrific than mine.
TOTAL DISTANCE WEDNESDAY: 63.6km (including a detour to a village where the B&B wasn't)
I arrived at the wonderfully tranquil Le Grand Hard, just a few kilometres from Utah Beach, after a day spent sightseeing. Today I was very much the cycle tourist, hopping from one D-Day site to the next as I made my way to Utah Beach. In all it took me This really is a spectacular coast and the slaughter that went on here on June 6, 1944 – and the horrors of war before and after that date – are unimaginable as you sit looking out to sea.
And I spent a lot of time looking out to sea. Firstly at the fascinating Mémorial de la Liberté retrouvée with its focus on life under occupation and in the days following liberation.
The museum is a treasure trove of old wartime posters, old photos and memorabilia, and there's an interactive corridor that shows what the empty streets of the town must have felt like under curfew. This is a real 'local' museum (in fact I found most of the museums today carried a real 'local' feel, telling the stories of people who lived through one of the great dramas of the 20th century).
Quinéville is at the western edge of the landing peninsula, and this museum can easily be overlooked in the rush to get to the 'main' D-Day beaches, but find time for a stop here if ever you are passing.
From here I rode on along the stunning coastal road and then to the Musée Airborne at Sainte-Mère-Eglise, where Allied paratrooper landings paved the way for the beach assaults.
This is a stunning piece of modern museum design, mixing heritage (there is a fully preserved Waco glider plus a C-47 place) with a captivating interactive display in the 'Operation Neptune' exhibit that recreates what it was like on the night of the D-Day landings when paratroopers were dropping from the sky and bombing raids were weakening the German lines. That means it's dark, it's noisy and it's utterly terrifying; it's (almost) possible to imagine being there.
By the time I got to Utah Beach, I was in quite a sombre mood. So much so that I almost forgot I was approaching the finishing line for Stage 1 of the 2016 Tour de France. Almost.
It might look a little different in July (today I was the only one there).
The finishing line is just a hundred or so metres from the Utah beach Musée du Débarquement, which is Utah's showcase display, but already it was going to have to be good to live up to the previous two museums I'd been today.
So I put my sombre hat back on and went in.
Among the guns and the landing equipment, the emphasis again is on the personal stories, the human stories; stories about and from the people who were there, either landing on the beaches or bearing witness to a night that changed the course of a war, the course of history.
Humbled, I set off for a walk along a beach now as peaceful and relaxing as it is quiet, the memorials and plaques dotting its edge too numerous to mention.
And then I hopped back on my bike and pedalled back 3km to Le Grand Hard, where s different type of tranquility awaited in the form of a long, hot shower and a cup of tea.
TOTAL DISTANCE THURSDAY: 43.8km to Utah Beach from Montebourg + 3km back to the hotel
THE PLAN: Today is a 'link' ride to get from Utah Beach to Saint-Lô, where I was meant to have started Stage 2, though I no longer have time for Stage 2. I'm still, however, going to ride to Saint-Lô by following the shared route that links the D-Day Beaches back to Mont-Saint-Michel bike route at Carentan (you can download the GPX here). From there it's onto Saint-Lô – this section doubles as the D-Day to Mont St Michel route AND the Tour de Manche, which is part of EuroVelo 4.
THE REALITY: Today I’m heading in land to Saint-Lô, the starting point for Stage 2 of the 2016 Tour de France.
With the extra day it’s taken me to get from Mont St Michel to Utah Beach, I won’t have time to ride the full Saint-Lo to Cherbourg Stage 2 route, but I’m still keen to have a poke around Saint-Lô, and to then head onto Cherbourg by a more direct route.
I had a super cycling breakfast at Le Grand Hard – complete with eggs!
Then it was on to the official (non-TDF!) bike route from Utah Beach to Mont St-Michel, which doubles/triples as the EuroVelo 4 and Tour de Manche routes. It goes via Carentan with a connecting route down the Saint-Lo and is a quick and easy way to nip between the two stages.
In general, it’s a smooth, high-quality back-roads shared route to Caranten with the exception of a 1km stretch of farm track about 6km from Utah Beach. This was muddy and difficult today in the rain, and it would be ordinarily very bumpy on an out-and-out road bike (I’m on a touring road bike with 28 tyres). Another stretch just before Carentan is very rough as well with sharp stones and, I reckon, it’d be a puncture hazard on thinner tyres.
After Carentan I can’t comment. Three or four kilometres short of the town, the drizzle turned to sheets of rain and I had sleet bouncing off my helmet. I left the EV4 and took the more direct road route into town.
I then did what any mildly intelligent person with puddles of water in their shoes would do: I rode to the train station and asked what time the next train to Saint-Lô left. Half an hour later, for just €7.60, I was on my way to a warm shower and dry clothes.
I saw no point in enduring at least another two hours of soggy cycling without any sensation in my fingers or toes, and with the weather preventing any enjoyment or sightseeing. And this is the great thing about cycling in regional France.
While there are some longer distance train lines where bike reservations are needed (see here), in general most local TER services will allow you to jump on and off with your bike when you need to. Lower Normandy is blessed with a wonderful local train system.
The guy at the ticket counter didn’t blink an eye when I pushed my dripping bike in, bought a ticket and proceeded to discard my wet weather clothes in the waiting area. This is perfectly sensible behaviour on a bleak and rainy day in a wonderfully civilised cycling country. (See voyages-sncf.com for ticket info and times).
After donning the waterproofs again, it was a 2km or so ride to the B&B Chambre d’hôtes Aubert’Cail, which I'm embarrassed to say is a beautiful B&B now tarnished by my wet footprints, my wet weather gear and panniers drying in the lovely Italian shower, and my jerseys all draped over the radiators.
I had a few hours relaxing after a wonderful shower – the B&B has lovely gardens but with the rain so heavy, I stayed tucked up in my room.
For dinner I rode a fee kilometres into town during a break in the rain. Now, I will say this only once: if ever you are in Saint-Lô, you must – OK, I'll say it again – you MUST eat here. Le Goût Sauvage is a highly original, down-to-Earth restaurant using only organic and locally produced ingredients (all the fish comes from sustainable sources as well). It's run by Caroline Vignaud, who on the night I visited was front and centre, taking orders and talking to guests. Now I'm no foodie (just ask my husband) but I know good food when I taste it, and this was like some sort of Masterchef experience: the flavours were simply amazing.
Wanting to stay on and drink more organic wine, I chose the sensible option with night falling and my bike parked out the front: I pedalled back to the B&B to chart my next course.
Tomorrow, I hope for sunshine. Tomorrow, I ride.
THE (NEW) PLAN: Cherbourg and the bike-friendly Hotel Le Lourve. If the weather is poor again, I am going to catch the train ...
THE REALITY: The sun was shining and there were only clouds in the sky for decoration. I decided to ride to Cherbourg and plotted the following course:
Before leaving, though, I met up with Maxime, a reporter for the Ouest-France newspaper, who was interested in hearing what foreign cyclotourists thought about cycling in La Manche, and in wider Normandy. (I, of course, said nice things about what a wonderful place it is to ride a bike and how more of us should do it).
Then it was on to the road. There were around 85km between Cherbourg and I.
After negotiating a killer climb out of Saint-Lô, what a day! The D-roads were exceptional. There were a fair few climbs but either my legs were improving or the climbs seemed more enjoyable today (probably both).
This ride – or a variation of it – for faster riders (I pottered along at 15km/hr) would mean it would be possible to see the Stage 2 TDF start in Saint-Lô and then ride the 85km to Cherbourg to catch the finish.
For anyone coming off the ferry, this is a lovely ride through the heart of Manche (and the hills would be more forgiving, too, going from north to south).
I rode by farmers' fields (and was probably overtaken by more tractors today than cars), saw wind farms, and whizzed through villages.
With tomorrow a public holiday in France, I was aware many village shops and restaurants would also be closed today. I set myself an 1.30pm deadline to find an open restaurant (ideally serving omelettes!), otherwise I'd pick up a sandwich at the nearest boulangerie.
Which is how I came to have a picnic in a grass clearing under a blue sky, just off the side of the road near Pont-l'Abbe.
In Orglandes I stopped at the German war cemetery, for no other reason than I was passing. Having seen so much Allied and French war memorabilia at Utah Beach, and having heard local and Allied stories and read about their losses, it was something of a shock to see the graves of more than 10,000 German fighters. They may have been on the wrong side of history, but here were more than 10,000 sons, brothers, husbands, with the French and German flags flying near one another just metres away.
I cycled through Valognes and regretted that my stomach hadn't held out this far because it looked like a super place for lunch, with vibrant stores, brasseries and market stalls.
Just after Le Mesnil-au-Val I verged off course, hooking around closer to La Glacerie after the Google map I'd downloaded and the OpenStreetMap used on my Garmin didn't see eye-to-eye. It ended up being an excellent offroad diversion that saw me end up on a walking/mountain bike route overlooking Cherbourg.
As luck would have it, the diversion spat me out at the bottom of a wonderul descent that ended right near the Parc du Château des Ravalets, whose road linked in with the EuroVelo 4 trail into Cherbourg. It had been one of those perfect days on the bike.
TOTAL DISTANCE SATURDAY: 85km + a few extras in detours
THE PLAN: I'm an early train home via Paris. We'll have taken a week to do what the pros do in two days.
THE REALITY: Sunrise in Cherbourg on the way to the station. I had a fabulous week. The first half of the first stage was challenging - I hadn't factored the wind in as being such an influence. In retrospect I probably could have (should have?) tackled all of stage 2. However at my pace it would have meant forgoing the day I spent pottering around the D-Day beaches, and I'm pleased I made time for this as that part of Normandy is such an amazing place.
Stage 2 would have also coincided with the horrendous day of rain and the thought of slogging 90km in that weather probably marks me out as a leisure rider (an on-my-own-terms cycle tourer), rather than an all-out road rider, and I'm OK with that.
Normandy is a wonderful place to cycle, and I'll be certainly going back.
Cycling in Normandy
Here's our Normandy map – we're adding more bike routes, bike-friendly places to stay and bike hire outlets all the time.