It is a strange thought that 2 years ago I was on a similar, albeit very different, football pilgrimage in Brazil for the world cup finals. There is something almost inexplicably exciting about a major football championship that is hard to explain to an outsider.
So without further ado here is the France 2016 prologue – and, like the Tour De Frace often does, we’ll be starting in a country that isn’t La Francais.
A long cycle trip has been on my wish list for the last few years, and as my love for biking has only increased, so has the desire to hit the long road.
After original plans of cycling across the whole of Europe were shelved after time constraints and other factors, it only left with me around a month to play with. After half-planning a number of different routes, all of which were undoubtedly over ambitious looking back and would surely have left me destroyed or on a train, an uncharacteristically good suggestion from the old man swayed my plans.
‘Why don’t you get a ferry to Santander’, he mentioned one day over Skype. I’d already dismissed it the second the word ferry came out of his mouth. Ashamedly I didn’t actually know where Santander was, and rather stupidly I assumed it was a tax haven in the Channel Islands or somewhere near Tenerife, but I hardly gave it a thought.
Later it came to me again later that week, and as I started to piece together the distance I could probably actually do (100km a day) along with the amount of time I would have, it seemed to all fit into place. Even better, the ferry would let me take a bike down for an extra cost, done – it was booked.
Despite advising him of my intentions to acquire the bike myself, the old man obtained a random bike given to him by a friend. It was far from ideal, being a mountain bike and too small for me, but it looked decent enough so that was that.
Arriving back in England with a few days home to sort my proverbial shit out, I was ready to roll and with the father in tow. Sadly it wasn’t for the whole trip, but we would grab a train to Brighton and then cycle along the coast to Littlehampton, where he would see me off, before I went on towards Portsmouth to catch the ferry.
The train ride was fairly uneventful, but as we descended into Brighton on a beautiful sunny day towards the beach, it was as good a start as could have been planned. We flew along down by the sea, making good pace when we weren’t stopping for photos, chips and free ice-cream, or to stealthily use a pub toilet.
From Brighton to Hove and beyond was on a fantastic cycleway running next to the promenade, which lured us into a false sense of security. A few miles down the road and then BAM, industry and sandy roads came at us in a rush. Once we reached Worthing the path became better, as we zig zagged onto the National Cycleway 2 and a couple of no cycling zones.
Jutting in land we entered off-road territory, which felt very bouncy on a bike with no front suspensions, as we navigated our way through several fields until we found our way to Littlehampton. The hostel there didn’t disappoint in its strange character quota, with a number of oldies seeming to hang around in the kitchen for no reason other then to get in the way of me cooking.
We had a home cooked steak (STEAK?) and some very questionable wine from Lidl (‘You’ll like this wine, it’s 15% and on special offer…’), before heading out to grab a couple of left-over ale festival pints for a grand total of 3.00! Amazing himself with being able to get two pints for less than the price a usual one, Dad had tired himself out. After returning for a nightcap and milk (‘you should take a 4 pinter of milk with you, you know…’), we retired to bed where we had the room to ourselves.
I had saved offline a blog of another person who had done (or attempted) the route going from Santander to Bordeaux, though hadn’t gotten around to reading it before now. As we started to read it out loud, both lying on the bottom bunk, it quickly became apparent the guy was a bit of a clown. Perhaps someone unknown to me will stumble on this one day, reading it out as he is on his way to start the same journey thinking ‘what a pillock!’. Everything goes in cycles, especially in the cycling world!
There was occasionally some useful snippets of information, which constituted my only real research of the trip. The next day we grabbed a Wetherspoons breakfast in true Hicks style, before I shut Dad down before he could reach one of his ‘It’s funny to think..’ soppy speeches.
It was a deep shame his knee had stopped him from coming any further, though impressively he made it all the way back to Brighton the next day… so there is life in the old dog yet! As for me, I set sight for Portsmouth.
The first half was on a very busy and narrow main road, though luckily becoming more enjoyable in the second half of the journey. After stocking up on some food and drink for the ferry, I exchanged some banter with a motorbike group heading to Portugal, and also some older cockneys taking their expensive roadbikes to the other side of Spain.
Both were quite humoured by my plan (or lack of), and what must have looked more like riding a kids bike. Them, all in their latex and no luggage with all their accommodation pre booked. Me, with everything crammed into one backpack and no plans of where I would be staying other than the night somewhere on the ferry. I know which one I’d rather have!
Expecting a shit ferry with nothing to entertain, I hadn’t really given it much thought until I walked on-board and was instantly surprised. The boat only had a fucking pool!! (which I quickly made use of), along with a bar that looked like something out of a Phoenix nights remake. It was a proper cruise ship, and as I had imagined with proper cruise ships, it also had a couple of proper bellends on-board too.
One of the rowdy groups were talking to someone about the flag they had brought with them, and I could hardly believe my ears when they said ‘Yeah, it says We’re from Bletchley, We share….’ I didn’t hear what they said they shared, and although I was now really intrigued with that conundrum, I left it be.
Gambling on there being a public microwave on the boat, I had picked up a pack of noodles before boarding. Luckily there was indeed a microwave and after a long procedure of acquiring two bowls from a restaurant, finding a nearby water tap and using the two bowls as a makeshift container for microwaving, it worked and I was proud of my yummy noodles. My next pikey move was to buy a sprite, then go up to the bar and ask for a pint of ice, which I would then use to mix with the gin I’d also brought aboard with me.
As I walked back into the equivalent of the lower decks in titanic which was my ‘room’ for the night (a small room with air plane-style seats for the minority who didn’t have a private cabin), I pour my gin in from one of my metal containers as the smell wofts up to my nose.
That’s probably very obvious I thought, as I turned around to see an older gentleman who clocks exactly what I’m doing, glass and ice in hand, sprite in the other. Catching me red handed he winks and says ‘Good lad’, leaving me to depart with a wry smile. You’re never too old to sneak your own alcohol in I though, and with a much vaunted 100% record (including a very close metal detector and frisk at a Vancouver Canucks game) I like to think I’ve got it down to a tee.
As I sit here drinking my smuggled gin and typing these notes, the sun drifting down behind a misty sky, spice girls are playing as part of a music quiz in the main bar. It all has a sense of a Butlins holiday about it, though undoubtedly it has been a great laugh so far.
Time to finish up writing the prologue here, as I head for my second top up of gin and lemonade. I think I’ll save the beers until Spain!
Second day on the boat
A night spent wondering around the ship and people watching brought some interesting sights. Particularly witnessing the unsavoury incident of two drunk older women squaring off with each other, doing nothing to deter the Butlins feel from the boat.
Rather than sleeping in the airplane-esque seating of the economy class ticket, I decided to try and sleep on a hidden away patch of ground with my airbed. I scouted around and found a couple of possible spots but in the end settled for the fairly-comfortable restaurant lounge seating, which didn’t need the airbed.
As it approached 12 I could hear the cleaner vacuuming around me, praying that they wouldn’t wake me to send me to my room. They must have pitied me, or just not given a shit, as they left me to it as I grabbed 4 or 5 hours sleep. The next day was spent falling asleep in random places, as we rattled towards Santander in glorious sun.
The lads from Bletchley were on fine form, as I heard them tell a French waitress who was asking if she could take their glass ‘Yeah you can take that, you can take me an’ all luv’. There was also a large stag group drinking heavily the whole trip, the majority of them being in their 40s or 50s. Surely one of the good things about getting old is that you don’t have to engage in ridiculous activities like wearing matching pink t-shirts with ‘nicknames’ such as ‘Peachy C*nt’ and ‘Dick lover’ (genuine names) written on their back.
Nope, this still happens, even once you start sprouting grey hair, apparently.
From reading through the previous trip report of the bloke mentioned earlier (my only research), he had mentioned a short boat that went from Santander across a short stretch of water to a place called Somo. This would cut out a lot of the city riding, giving me a clean run into the countryside for the first night’s sleep, or so was the plan!
The sun was still out as we got off the boat around 7pm. Breezing through customs I made my usual error of speaking Spanish when asking a question, with the recipient reeling off lines and lines in return at breakneck speed, not knowing I’m not likely to really understand all of it. I got the gist of it – the ferry terminal I needed was just a few minutes up the road.
It was closer to 15 minutes but it was easy to find, as it nestled next to the water. Santander looked a nice place, much better than I had imagined and would certainly be worth spending a day or so exploring if I had more time. There was a large promenade and parks that lined the waterfront, and from here I grabbed a ticket for my bike and on the last ferry across at 8:30pm. Feeling great to have made it, I spotted a little corner shop type place next to the ticket office. One of the customers was drinking beer and it looked too good to pass up.
I ordered my first Mahou (which tasted amazing), and I set myself up on the chair outside, looking out over the water. Looking at the bike, I felt a rush of excitement as the hairs on my neck started to stand. I was in a heightened mood, with the sense of freedom and excitement passing through me.
It felt like the adventure was about to begin, as I grabbed my second beer I couldn’t wait to hit the road.
The short boat ride dropped me off at Pedrona, which looked like a nondescript little village across the bay. I double checked my bike to see if the bag was attached sufficiently and my tyres were okay, before riding off east.
I had covered about 15km as the sun started to snake its way down the horizon, setting later then I had expected, with it still being very nicely lit around 9:30pm. I called this the prime cycling time and even took my shirt off for an uphill section where I began to sweat. The evening’s cool breeze was a delight for the body as it rushed passed, though I figured this might be a faux-pas in anywhere other then England. Luckily, there were few people on the roads and the sparsely populated area had a quiet and relaxed feel to it.
As I started to think about where I would stay the night, on the verge of a hill there was what looked to be an old path or road going off to the left. It had clearly not been used for a year or two, as the grass, weeds and plants had all but covered the tracks, making it look like the perfect place to stay the night.
I walked down about 10 metres until the track could barely be seen and I was out of sight from the road. I set up the tent and switched into my warmer sleeping gear, while gazing out of the window up at the blood red sky. I switched the MP3 player to ‘Coffee Break Spanish’ to brush up on a few of the basics and took a few swigs from the little remaining gin I still had.
Before I knew it I was sound asleep.