Week 4

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Noirmoutier to Mont St Michel

Day 22, 19 September 2015
Noirmoutier to Bourgneuf en Retz

It was the first day of our week and a great day. Our kind host Patrick at Hotel La Ville en L’ile, Noirmoutier, had booked us a hotel for tonight. We could not cross the Passage du Gois to leave the island until low tide at about 2pm. So we had a limited range in the afternoon and for once there was nothing on booking.com.

So after a long lazy late breakfast we cycled slowly to the causeway in the sunshine, overtaken by small children and the elderly. Resting in the sun and watching the tide receding the management was accosted by a friendly native. Entertaining locals in bad French is usually the responsibility of the management.

On this occasion the stoker had disappeared over the sea wall so he had no choice. However, all was not bad as he discovered that there was to be an event at the Passage today. This was a rally over the causeway by riders on Mobylettes, a type of French moped replaced many years ago by Hondas.

We thought it might while away some time of which we had plenty today. At the Passage we climbed onto a refuge and watched as a couple of council workers swept seaweed off the road as the tide went out.

What happened next totally exceeded any expectations we may have had. A beautifully painted American truck hooted its way along the road leading about 400 moped riders, stretching back as far as the eye could see. These in turn were being filmed by a helicopter and several drones.

The Tour de France has used this route on a number of occasions and we watched it once. But this spectacle exceeded that of the Tour. When the mopeds were finally all on the Passage in a blue haze of exhaust smoke, the final ones under tow, we had the caravan.

Compared to the Tour what it lacked in flash vehicles it made up for in enthusiasm, imagination and sheer quantity. The unusual parade of this wonderful carnival took well over an hour to pass.

Finally, concerned that we would miss the tidal gateway, we joined in the procession and that was when the real fun started. We were soundly cheered by exhibitors and spectators alike. We soon learned to avoid any vehicle with a water spray and stayed near those playing nice music.

When the procession halted mid Passage some of those on the vehicles took the opportunity to go for a swim. Others in true French style, probably having drunk a good deal, needed to obey the call of nature.

Just as in the Tour goodies were thrown and we collected a few souvenirs. When a couple of km after the Passage we split from this mad convoy the mopeds had long since gone to wherever elderly mopeds go.

By way of contrast we continued our ride on marais which still feels remote, even after the last couple of weeks. We were glad of the lovely weather so there was no real challenge.

The hotel was like the ones which existed 15 years ago in every village and now have mainly disappeared. It was a pleasant piece of nostalgia to go in, talk to the chef and patron about our food and be shown to our modest room above the restaurant.

Day 23, 20 September 2015
Bourgneuf en Retz to St Nazaire

We wondered whether there had been some disaster which had wiped out the population. We saw hardly a soul as we wound our way towards Pornic on the country roads.

We eventually came to Pornic from the west. We had great views of the town below us in the river valley. Opposite us on the other bank was a display of traditional sailing boats, red sails up and at a crazy angle high and dry on the beach. We could hear traditional music from across the water.

In our laid back frame of mind we decided to follow the cycle route rather than go through the town centre. This was a mistake. The route appeared to be one of those cobbled together to link as many schools and leisure centres as possible without actually going anywhere.

We emerged from the town to the north and took some obvious deviations from the route which not only avoided further frustrating diversions but some TM. We then found a lunch spot in the sun with a fine picnic table.

Soon after lunch we regained the coast, the extreme of the Loire estuary. Opposite us on the far away bank was St Nazaire, our destination today, and in the distance we could see the two huge pylons which carry the suspension wires of the St Nazaire bridge.

We then had a bit of a technical problem. The main drive chain broke. It was a good quality SRAM chain fitted together for this trip with a new chain ring and sprockets. It had been a bit hillier than usual today and we, especially the stoker, had put in a special effort pulling up from the beach and then ping. There it was on the ground.

The management got to work removing the broken link and replacing it with a joining link. All this took place in a quiet place in lovely sunshine. Much better than the last time it broke, eight years ago. That was in the dark, it was raining and the shop canopy we were hiding under also housed a human sized automated Father Christmas, activated by our movements to give us seasonal greetings which we had left the UK to avoid, in Italian.

Several passing cyclists stopped and passing pedestrians also offered help. As is usual in France with matters cycling they understood the problem and once assured that we knew what we were doing left us to it.

We were extremely pleased that the chain did not break on the St Nazaire bridge. Soon after the repair it was fully tested there.

Cycles are allowed to use the bridge, presumably because there is no alternative. Today we had ideal weather for the crossing and there were few HGVs on this Sunday afternoon. The cycle lane is about a metre wide and just marked with a broken line painted on the road.

We wound our way onto the start of the bridge at just above sea level. We then had a serious but steady climb to over 60m to a short stretch at the very top which is almost flat. It needs confidence and strength to get to the top. There are no refuges and certainly no turning back.

Keen to get off this dangerous bridge the management let the brakes off and we reached speeds which frightened the stoker as we descended. The management’s main concern was not to hit the narrow covers put there for cyclists to cross the expansion joints, when we were doing around 60kph.

We then had a short ride into St Nazaire and reached our hotel with time for the management to adjust the chain’s tension. He thinks that the tension being loose following the new chain’s stretching may have caused the break. If so it is now fixed.

Day 24, 21 September 2015
St Nazaire to Redon

We started with a retrace through docklands, under the run off from that huge bridge and into an industrial waste land. It was easy riding on large roads and traffic was surprisingly light.

We cycled around the airport and hardly noticed. Then in the sky coming towards us and apparently hovering was some kind of airship. As it came nearer and gently descended and landed it then looked like a huge airborne dolphin. The airbus freighter has a low snout and a high curved back like no other aircraft we have ever seen. Try googling it, an amazing sight.

Finally we turned north, heading inland and away from the Loire. We enjoyed being on country roads but all too soon there was no alternative but to cycle on the wide D roads. These were not particularly busy but they were extremely straight and boring.

As lunch time approached the few villages we cycled through had nothing worth stopping for. In desperation we followed a sign to a picnic spot which provided us with all we needed.

Soon after lunch we turned off the road and onto the Nantes Brest Canal towpath. We only saw one boat in about 10km and hardly anyone on the TM towpath. This is surprising as the canal is an attractive waterway and about twice as wide as UK canals.

It was a delightful way to come into the busy and ancient town of Redon. It is the centre of the Brittany canals and coming into the town on the towpath was the easiest way to do it.

Days 25 and 26, 22 and 23 September 2015
Redon to Laille

We have been to Redon several times as the management’s brother Andrew and sister-in-law Pauline used to live nearby. There is always something going on in the harbour or on one of the canals or the river. The town is ancient and being in Brittany the crêpes and cider are pretty good. A very nice place to spend a day.

We awoke to a burble of voices down in the street. Redon is full of students, they were on the way to school and college and we were still in bed. The management opened the shutters to a clear blue sky. A mist was rising from the marais beyond the distant masts of the boats in the harbour.

It had the makings of a perfect autumn day and that’s how it turned out. We were following the Vilaine River towards Rennes and started out on the ‘haulage’, the towpath. We greeted the few runners and a good number of fishermen.

Ever since Royan we have seen many of the devices for catching fish where a net attached to a frame is lowered into the water by a small derrick. Fish are then washed into the net by the current. We have never seen the fishermen catch anything but that seems to apply to most fishing. We suspect they go fishing to get out of the house.

Here on the Vilaine this type of fishing is also done from boats. And as usual nothing seems to be caught but it was lovely in the sun and good to watch. After quite a few kms we were fed up with the TM of the tow path. The management had devised an alternative route on lanes which we took for the rest of the day.

This is what cycle touring is all about. We cycled between villages on roads where we seldom saw a car. This does not feel like a factory farming area. The fields were not so enormous as to disappear over the horizon. There were proper hedges and occasional woods. It was a lovely place to be.

The farmers were busy pumping slurry on some fields. In some parts huge vehicles were bringing home the maize harvest. We had quite a few long steady climbs but also long fast descents. We had our picnic on the church steps at Messac.

Our overnight stop was a first for us. The management, keen to find the ideal place to stop, had not realised we were booking into an old people’s home. To be accurate it is a rather up market complex and we have a very large one bedroomed flat. It is by far the largest and best appointed place we have stayed on the whole trip.

The checkin was a bit strange. It was rather like the front desk at a hospital and the very elderly residents were in the nearby café area having afternoon tea. The stoker assured the management that she would not make him live in such a place. That is except for the cruise ship to Australia booked for next year.

Day 27, 24 September 2015
Laille to Melisse

We decided to try the canal route through the centre of Rennes today. This has a slight element of risk. In true French fashion the cycle route along the Vilaine is listed as part of cycle route EV1 but the section into Rennes is not detailed anywhere.

The idea was to follow the haulage right through Rennes and then join the Rance canal to continue going north. We started off with optimism. One or two of our elderly house mates wished us bon voyage and we descended at a brisk pace to the canal.

The TM was fine to start with and we began to wonder why it was not in the guides. Then we came to the type of place with which we as cycle campaigners are familiar. An unspeakable land owner had annexed the route and tried to block it by putting up private signs. People ignored the signs but the well made towpath turned into a quagmire for about 500m.

After this things got better and we had an interesting diversion where the haulage was being improved. We were diverted through a private serious golfing area with courses, a five star hotel and several lakes. Not all land owners are Ms.

Soon we were into the urban sprawl of Rennes and took a detour off the canal to get supplies. We were guided by the GPS to a Carrefour, now our preferred supermarket as we know where things are.

Having left the Vilaine by following the GPS we rejoined the route on the Rance. Because of this we may never know how these two fine rivers join.

The Rance is a properly documented cycle route and we continued on its winding TM haulage until we came off for a very nice stay in the countryside with Emilie and her husband. They provide some very useful self catering apartments which are mainly used by workers in Rennes.

Days 28 to 30, 25 to 27 September 2015
Melisse to Mont St Michael

It was a lovely day and a pleasant route. Most was in country lanes but we joined the Rance again for about 10km. This was just about the right amount of TM for it to be enjoyable. The canal had taken on a much more rural character. There were fine reflections of the tree lined banks and curved bridges in the still water and the stoker was busy with her camera.

It was about here that the management reached down for his water bottle and found it was missing. A check showed the other bottle cages were empty. We had left them at Emilie’s and we were only a short distance further on when she kindly texted to say she had found them. By now we had been going for well over an hour so it was far too late to go back.

As we went on towards Mont St Michel we began to recognise places we have been to before, usually on our way to St Malo for the Condor ferry. It was a fine but rather frustrating ride. We knew that our destination was at sea level and we were averaging about 70m elevation. We kept going down expecting it to be our last descent but then yet another up. But there were some fine views of the Mount and the bay.

We had booked a gite hidden in the maze of polders near to the Mount and it was a great place to stay for three nights. As usual we have the chores as well as the route planning for next week. Both management and stoker were busy.

We did spend a day at Mont St Michael, you have to if you are here. It has improved over the years but is just as tacky as it has been for centuries. Today was interesting because the French were having an ‘explore the mud at low tide’ day. There were large groups dotted on the mud almost as far as the eye could see. There were also large groups of horse riders.

We did go a very little way on the mud but decided that for us to explore the Mount itself was more fun.

The French have spent huge amounts of money to change the access to the mount for both practical and ecological reasons. The idea is good but as in many such schemes its implementation seems a mess. It is unclear where the park and ride starts, stops and ends. The new hydroelectric dam can only easily be approached by steps and the fact that it is also a bridge to the polders is unclear and unsigned.

Cycling to the mount, cycle parking or anywhere else is unclear and unsigned. It would have been so easy to build a cycle path and put some Sheffield stands by the entrance. We saw a couple of very fit roadies carry their carbon bikes to the top of the mount, presumably to avoid theft. We complied with the rules which apply in September, locked the tandem and used the novel park and ride buses.

Next time we come, as we are sure we will, let’s hope that something will have been done to improve it. After all, as the illuminated sign said, it is only 259 days until the Grand Depart of the Tour de France is here.