Un petit velo... Paris to Nantes

As part of my research work I am required to attend and present at academic conferences, which is a great perk of the academic life and often leads to travel to interesting places. Sometimes it is possible to extend the trip a little and do some exploring or racing... Last year I attended a conference in Tokyo and was able to add on a few extra days in Japan in order to run the Mt Fuji race, this year the European part of the same conference took place in Nantes, not quite as far but still an opportunity for a good trip! I didn't find any interesting races at the right time, so decided on a bike trip from Paris.

I have never done any cycle touring before, but over the months read up a bit and the the help of eBay set up my bike with front and rear panniers and bags. I also had to carry a padded bike bag (for the way back), so this meant the last-minute addition of a rucksack.

Day 0: Paris – St Savouir des Bois (50km)

I left Sheffield, got the train to St Pancreas, then the Eurostar (for the first time – very exciting!) to Paris Gare du Nord. The bike in its bag had to be booked and loaded seperately so after wandering around the station for a while I finally found the little luggage office and was able to collect mon velo. Thankfully he had been looked after well, and after half an hour or so was re-assembled and ready to go.

Half an hour or so at Gare du Nord...

I'd planned to get a train south from Paris and set off from somewhere like Fontainbleu, but since I was there it seemed sensible to do a bit of sightseeing so I decided to brave the Paris traffic and ride all the way. It would probably mean a late finish to the first day but nevermind.

I've been to the Eiffel tower before, but not for a long time, and had forgotten how impressive it really is. I was glad I'd changed my plans and spent an enjoyable couple of hours taking in the sights of Paris. Eventually I set off south, though the map I had was of a very large scale and printed in 1987, so was fairly useless. It took a predictably long time to leave Paris behind, and I was still in the suburbs when it got dark. I wasn't really prepared for cycling, didn't have any water and was still wearing my travelling clothes, but I knew of a campsite about 50km south of Paris and headed vaguely towards it. At about ten past 10 in the evening I arrived into the nice little town of St Saveour des Bois.

Unfortunately, the campsite closed its door at 10pm and despite only being a few minutes after this I couldn't wake anyone up. However, there was a nice little park just next door so I pitched my tent there and saved 15 euros! Food was a bit more tricky – everything in the town was closed, in fact the whole place was very empty. I eventually found a man closing up his restaurant who told me that there was a McDonalds about 5km further up the road... Not ideal but it would have to do! Luckily, on the way there I spotted a Pizza shop instead and enjoyed a tasty takeaway Pizza back in my tent. As I did so two people arrived in my little park and I wondered if they too had missed the campsite. They said not, and quickly disappeared to another bit of the park, so I didn't dwell on what they were actually doing there!

Day 1: St Savouir des Bois – Beaugency (140kms)

My route plan was to go South, then West along the Loire river, so I left St Savouir aiming for Orleans. With my useless map it was hard to find the little roads that I wanted to use, obviously rather than the big national roads (some of which at least I think bikes are technically allowed on, but would certainly be no fun!). I seemed to veer between riding on tiny little rocky farm tracks and ending up on dual carriageways. The tracks were great fun and seemed to be taking me the way I wanted to go, but were slow going and I had to be really careful not to damage my bike... There was still a long way to go and I was riding my normal road bike with 700x23 road tyres!

Not quite what Mr. Bike had in mind...

After breakfast in Arpajon, one particularly special little track took me up and over a hill to the town of Entampes. It appeared to be a motocross bike area with jumps and stuff, and the ruts in the track eventually became too deep... it was time to push. At the top of the hill there was a spectacular old quarry with five or six burnt out cars and tyre tracks everywhere, apparently a popular spot for the end of your joy ride. After this experience I did find some more suitably sized roads and had a good ride from Entampes to Orleans, where I joined the “Loire et Velo” route which would theoretically take me the rest of the way to Nantes on minor roads and riverside paths. It was getting late in the day now but I wanted to make a bit more progress after the earlier slowness, so did a few more hours riding. I had planned to stop at a place called Mer, but arriving in Beaugency (maybe 10kms short of Mer) I spotted a nice campsite on the other side of the river and decided to call it a day.

Big bridge at Beaugency
The campsite was good, I pitched up right on the riverbank with a great view of the bridge. Unfortunately I had not been able to buy any gas for my camping stove so wasn't able to cook any dinner, this meant I ended up with Italian food for the second night in a row, but this time a fishy salad rather than pizza.

Day 2: Beaugency – Montsoreau (170kms)

The morning started well – the campsite restaurant sold crossiants. I was packed up and off by 8ish as I expected today to be the longest day. I wanted to ride at least one hundred mile day, I know that's not really a long way for a normal ride, but with all the bags it would probably take me eight hours of riding. I aimed for an average of 20km per hour, again very slow but with baggage and navigation stops (the route doesn't always stay within sight of the river, so it's not quite as easy as you might imagine!) I wasn't often going much faster than this.

Somewhere after Beaugency (what zoom function?!)
I made good progress in the morning, from Beaugency, through Blois, and on towards Amboise. I had a quick lunch stop there (Jambon Emmental sandwiches were my staple lunch), having done about 80km in about four hours. Riding along the river on little roads was great, the sun was shining any day 2 was probably the day with the best scenery. The roads in the afternoon continued to be great and I passed through lots of lovely little villages and past vineyards. The bike was working well and my rear pannier rack appeared to be holding on. My bike isn't designed for panniers so the rack was bolted to P-clips on the frame, which I was a bit nervous about.

After skirting around Tours I came to Berthenay, where the Loire does a bit of a loop and turns back on itself for a while. There's also another river (Le Cher) in this area. It's a beautiful area, just upstream from the chateau at Villandry, but the confluence and meandering rivers confused me and I realised I was heading east. Not good! Still, I was enjoying myself and not feeling particularly tired, so the backtracking and detour to get back to the right side of the right river was not a problem. The time spent working out what I'd done did cause my average speed to drop though, so I made a concerted effort to push on in the last couple of hours and aimed to get to a campsite at Montsoreau by 7pm. This was my favourite area of the trip, and a really great evening of riding. I felt really good, the roads were nice, and the scenery was stunning. There were also even a few little hills which made a nice change! I stopped in Avoine and bought food (salad – still no gas) and a beer to celebrate my 100 mile day, then cruised the last ten miles or so into the village of Montsoreau. The sun was starting to set as I arrived and I stopped for a quick look at the Chateau.

Montsoreau chateau
The campsite was great, those of us arriving with bikes were put right in the middle of the site (for once I had to get changed inside the tent!) and had our own little building with some picnic benches and a fridge. With the beer and chevre in the fridge I had a shower and set up the tent, then set myself up a picnic feast for the evening. The local chevre from Avoine was really good, as was the little tin of pate. After dinner I went for a walk up above the campsite to see the cave houses. These are houses built into the cliff rocks overlooking the town, and were really cool. There were steps up and then a little path along the front of the houses, most of which appeared to be occupied. I walked around for quite a while so it was a bit late when I went to bed.

Day 3: Montsoreau – Nantes (160kms)

Consequently I didn't get off to a particularly early start, especially as I went to the market in Montsoreau for breakfast and had a coffee before I set off. It was quite a cold morning till the sun hit you, but sitting outside a cafe with a coffee and crossiant watching the mist rise from the Loire was exactly what I'd had in mind for this trip (and I suppose some cycling), so it was worth the late start.

Morning on the Loire
I didn't actually follow the Loire et Velo for all that much of the final day, after Saumur I couldn't find it so instead followed the compass west and ended up going through Grezille, Les Alleuds and Brissac-Qunice, south of the river, then Moze-sur-Louet and rejoining at Rochfort-sur-Loire. From there I continued along the river through Chalonnes-s-L, and into Montjean-s-L... Or so I thought! On the last descent down into Montjean there was a sign telling us the road was closed in 500m. I assumed it would be roadworks and that I could probably squeeze through on the bike, but soon came across a huge pile of hay bales blocking the road! They had been installed well, there was no chance of getting through in a car and it was hard work to even walk around the edge to see what was going on. It turned out there was a timed car race (a hillclimb) taking place. The start was visible just down the hill from the bales, so I wondered whether I'd be allowed to push my bike down the side of the road and continue past. Approaching a marshal the arm-waving and shouting suggested that it would not. He insisted I would have to go back and said I could get round by going up the next road. I watched a couple of cars go up the hill and screech around the first bend, then set off up the steep hill. It nearly killed my but I made it over the top and along a nice road for a while, to another “Route Baree” sign! More waving and shouting by another marshal indicated that this was also not the way. In the end I had to go through the parking field of the race and carry Mr. Velo up and over a pedestrian bridge over the race road, then through another car park and finally down a farm track into Montjean!

An old Renault taking on the hillclimb
From there, I rejoined the Loire et Velo route for the final 50 or so kilometres into Nantes. I was having another great afternoon's riding, and looking forward to getting to Nantes, where I had rented luxurious accommodation for the week (well, a bedsit!). The last major town was Ancenis, where I thought I was going to encounter another closed road, but in fact the bridge was closed to traffic but open to everyone else. I wasn't sure what was going on, but later saw on TV that there had been a huge table set up along the length of the bridge and the residents of the town had all had lunch there! From Ancenis I didn't have far to go. The little town of Oudon was another lovely place, unfortunately from there the route to Nantes wasn't great, but it didn't really matter as I'd had so much great riding over the previous four days. After a busy narrow track along the railway line the final 10k or so did open out into some nice parkland, but it was still really busy. I had a bit of finish-line fever so was trying to go as fast as possible, but in the end I gave up and joined everyone else in pootling along the riverbank into the city.

Final riverbank ride into Nantes
As I'd expected, arriving in Nantes was a bit mad. There were people everywhere, and I wasn't sure really where to call the end of the ride. I decided that the chateau in the middle of the city was as good a place as any, so officially ended my ride there. Luckily, there was a bar overlooking the chateau and the park next to it for the compulsary finish-line beer.


It was only a few days but I really enjoyed the ride, particularly being self-sufficient and camping rather than staying in B&Bs. This does mean I had to carry a bit more gear than I would've and consequently the daily distances were a bit lower, but for me it made it more of an adventure (and cheaper). The rest of my time in Nantes was great too, and as I write this I'm on the train back from St Pancreas to Sheffield. Time to plan another cycle adventure!


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