Five-day European bike ride – September 2003

Text and photos © and by squaddie John: squaddieJH@milism.net

I left London first thing on Wednesday morning, dodging the rat runs round the London Congestion Charge zone from Vauxhall to Blackheath to leave down the A2/M2 route to Dover. The Medway crossing is pretty much complete now with two huge motorway bridges spanning the estuary valley plus the Channel Tunnel rail link bridge, though as yet no trains. After a few miles more roadworks facing the last of the commuters from the Kent countryside, I had a clear run down to the Channel.

Fast crossing Dover to Calais, flat calm on one of the smaller ferryboats, and landed to bright clear warm weather in Northern France. I took the autoroute a few stops south in the direction of Paris but left it when I first needed fuel. Lunch from a country boulangerie was some chocolate croissants and other patisseries that I ate on the edge of a potato field somewhere in Picardie.

South of Amiens – where lost my way again – I took back roads over the rolling arable fields on the hills of Picardie, now further south than the battlefields of nearly a century ago. Wide roads, very little traffic plus great views. Pleasantly warm in the unlined leathers underneath the Kevlar-armoured orange and grey leathers matching the tangerine and titanium colours of my CBR600.

Back on a Route Nationale with commuter traffic coming home from Paris, a couple of towns had gendarmes checking speed and documents, apparently co-ordinating by radio. I got on the N104 rather than one of the outer orbital routes, maybe less known to the English as it isn’t designated as an autoroute like the périphérique: it’s a useful route to the East of Paris to Marne la Vallée; on this occasion the overhead signs gave advance warning of congestion due to an accident.

I stayed with a mate in a country village not far off the A4 with his dog in an unusual house which he’s laid out with kitchen, living room (barber’s chair and mirror set up in one corner) and adjoining gym room that opens on to a small garden. I changed out of my leathers, he did a nicely graded and convincing coup militaire; I showered and we walked his dog in the fields and forest, then we went out in his Renault Twingo car to the next village for dinner in a gastronomic restaurant: he had lamb and I had lobster pieces steamed wrapped in a parcel of pasty and leaves… this is France! Afterwards we took his dog out again for a short night walk across the flat fields looking at the harvest moon and red Mars, now pretty much as close as it gets.

Thursday morning was bright and clear, my mate left for work and I started off a little later when the sun had warmed things up and the commuter traffic had subsided. A few kilometres across the flat fields and forests, a fill up with cheap petrol at a local supermarket and then joined the autoroute in the direction of Lyon.

near Macon

Increasingly warm and then hot as the A6 descended to the Saône valley. Now on the lower fold of the map of France; not much traffic, no great speed rush, plenty of time so stops twice per fuel refill, ie every 75 miles (120 km). I left at the péage past Bourg en Bresse. Then the RN via Belley, Chambéry was the signposting head town at last but it was several impressive limestone gorges away plus the town of L’Ain – renowned in Moto Magazine as the French town with the highest ratio of bikes to population. I stopped there for a coffee and water; temperature now showing over 30°C… The weather forecast in the local paper was for torrential rain for the weekend: perhaps wishful thinking as many trees in the gorges were brown already, not the pretty of autumn colour change but burnt by the heat of the summer.

The RN504 has a tunnel before descending to Aix les Bains but I took the Col du Chat for the panorama of the Alps and the lake of Aix les Bains, a time stop that enabled me to arrive in Chambéry at the time my friends expected me .

Aix les Bains from Col du Chat

Friday was overcast and five-minute showers but not the heavy downpours or as much rain as the weather forecasters had predicted. We left Chambéry together on three bikes and met with some other AMA bikers in Grenoble and then set off up to the Vercors, the rocky limestone mountain stronghold plateau to the south of Grenoble.

We were the first to arrive as AMA was organising the event. Others arrived from France and Italy, even after dark. The president of the Italian club CoMoG was showing the red St Andrews cross of his GLME / GMBCC 2003 Exeter run trophy t-shirt under his Kawasaki green one-piece leathers. Eventual complement was 32 bikes and 38 bikers.

 

Finally we enjoyed a meal together and some of us left the hostel for a drink in a bar in the town of Villard de Lans.

Saturday started clear but cold but cloud arrived quickly. Happily it cleared by mid-morning while we were riding around the balcons and cols of the région. Gorges de la Bourne, a rocky road clinging to the side of the limestone cliffs through irregular tunnels. Climbers and canyoners out even earlier than us, one canyoner walking up the road with his drysuit stripped to the waist showing his muscular torso as he dried in the hazy autumn sunshine.

 

Plenty of photo stops. By coffee time it was hot and we were seeking shelter in the shade. 150km further on, having descended out of the Vercors and crossed the river Isère and back again, we ascended to the balcon over viewing the bowl and rockface of the Cirque de Combe Laval and a small road below into a definite cul de sac.

 

 

Lunchtime: picnic bags from the hostel in a piece of shady forest somewhere. More mountain riding: Col de la Machine then Col de la Portette, before stopping for magnificent clear views in both directions from the crest of the Col de la Bataille, 1315m, on the route of the Tour de France.

Col de la Machine

A long stop in a café with a shady terrasse for cool drinks and then a run downhill to the valley of the Drôme and an increasingly fast ride back towards Die. A refuelling stop and, now late in the day, not much other traffic. Rather than climb the zigzags of the Col du Menée in groups, we split and I enjoyed a fast ascent in company with a fast ride from Marseille, passing easily the light traffic. 265km for the day.

Col du Menée

CoMoG, the Italian biker club presented the post-run aperitivo. The meal together was raclette, with French cheese including the rare bleu de Vercors and then another visit to the bar in the town nearby for digestifs.

Sunday also started clear skies but clouded over by after breakfast. I packed, accepted the many good wishes for the journey and left for the North.

Once again riding against the majority of the car traffic, this time the commuters of Grenoble climbing for a Sunday outing to the Vercors. On to the autoroute once again – take a ticket and increase the speed. The mountains and cliffs receded and were replaced by hills; I could see the sky again without twisting my neck! The autoroute broadened but was spookily free of traffic in the industrialised valley of Lyon.

Happily, there was only five minutes of rain between Villard de Lans and Belgium, though that was a very sharp downpour that slowed all traffic right down.

The experience of riding so far from South to North joined up various pieces of countryside that I’d previously seen separately. The wide valleys of vineyards north of Lyon giving way to the wide rolling hills that form the watershed between the Mediterranean and North Sea. The hills changing to arable plains and forests. Skies changing from obscured by cliffs to the huge Flanders cloudscapes. The trees changing from Mediterranean pines through to the frost-resistant deciduous species of the north. And the long-distance car traffic changing from Parisians returning, Belgians and Netherlanders and (unexpectedly) a large number of Polish plates heading east. Finally around Lille, the traffic queues reversed with those returning to Paris outnumbering the northbound.


Yes it was fast... but my worst problem was the large distances between petrol on the A5 autoroute near Troyes: usually there is petrol every 32km but in that region some the interval between petrol is more than 64 km... I had to slow down to 80km/hr to conserve petrol when I was running on "reserve" for much further than expected.

I arrived in Gent/Ghent/Gand in Belgium at 1840, journey of 575 miles ( = 920 km ) via Lyon, Rheims and Lille. Total autoroute péages 38€.

My mate took me out for a meal in Gent; afterwards we walked around the canals and historic city buildings as we enjoyed the warm air that changed to autumn chill overnight.

He left for work on Monday morning and I rode for Calais. The latest ferry is even bigger than the predecessors but had hardly any passengers. By now the sunshine was warm and – double-skinned in leathers – I enjoyed staying on deck throughout the crossing. The Channel was completely clear of mist so it was possible to see the white cliffs of Dover as we left the Calais harbour gates. Much shipping traffic – I counted 28 other ships when we were mid-Channel.

Calais 

The big ship takes much longer to manoeuvre to its berth and the English roads seemed quaint, in poor repair and the curves seemed unreliable. England does a good line in roughie-toughie men but also on the streets there’s a persistent infection of Gatso speed cameras and the excessive iron street furniture: railings, bollards and steel fences. South London traffic was intense, especially as I passed by the Oval, where England were scoring a famous victory over South Africa in the final test.

And that’s it. 1672 miles, which is 2675 km.

Tuesday, it was my turn also to go back to work…

(The views expressed are my personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of the clubs mentioned)

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