Firstly though an apology to those who knew of the trip but nothing of the cycling bit. Asking questions, to be told “Yes I’m going to Italy and yes I’m going on a bike” I simply didn’t want to see shocked faces or hear that its impossible, because I would have ditched the whole idea in a heartbeat. So the stunted answers and secrecy where just to ensure I got the journey underway
On Wednesday evening, two days before departure I stuck my bike in the back of the car and took it to the Holiday Inn at Folkstone. That is the collection point for cycles using the channel tunnel. Its a cheap ticket too, at £20, they pick you up in a van and you are driven onto the train and dropped in France an hour or so later. Anyway the hotel offered to store the bike so I didn’t have to take it to Folkstone on a busy commuter train the next day. I finished work at 3pm on the Thursday, rushed back to my digs and picked up the last of my luggage, a cheap set of panniers laden with the stuff I needed. It seemed awfully heavy to carry, but that’s not my problem, the bike gets to carry that little lot. A few beers and a snack at the hotel and I was off to bed.
Friday morning and I was up in plenty of time to dine on the included breakfast and load up the bike fully. As 8am approached I waited, watching for anyone who may be here to collect cyclists, no one turned up. 8.15 still no one. I checked my booking, it was all correct and the money had been paid. There was a phone number, but of course they didn’t open until 9am. Time ticked on and at 8.40 still no lift. I then located an emergency phone number for the transport. It was an emergency in my mind so I called it. The voice on the other end was a very tired taxi operator who barely managed to say “Ok we will get someone to you” before hanging up. A few minutes later he rang back to explain that my name had not been added to the list but someone would be with me very soon. Very soon was just after 9am and a van in Eurotunnel markings pulled up, my bike was loaded and we were on our way. I was the only passenger on the cycle shuttle. 11am I was dropped off, add another hour for the clock changes and half the day was gone. I had a hotel booked some 70km away.
I had filled the bike water bottle with tap water before setting off but not the hydration pack on my back, so I had about a litre of water. The drop point was in a shopping outlet area, but I wasn’t here to shop and immediately set off with the phone sat nav in my ear. The very first thing was to realise the sat nav was not speaking to me, but i had seen the route and felt I could get a few miles done before needing to sort out directions. GoPro on I was enjoying introducing the first kilometre of my journey as I rode up the slip road onto, well onto the motorway as it happens. Don’t lorry drivers have a sense of humour? It was a short jaunt to the next junction where I picked up the correct road. I had already realised that the rear tyre was struggling under the weight of panniers, sleeping bag, ground sheet and my lardy arse. I stopped again to pump up the tyres as much as I could, sort out the sat nav and get going. My cunning plan had been to create a route on Google maps, specifically for cycles. Part of the set up asks if you are happy to use trails and tracks, I was.
I was on my way with my water bottle full and no money. Within a few miles I was cycling through gorgeous countryside and then a few cycle paths across fields and through parks. It was all good in glorious sunshine, however the spoken words from the sat nav were few and far between, causing me to doubt its ability which in turn caused me to stop and check it. All this was very time consuming. At one point I was directed to take a right turn, but there were two. I took the one slightly more to the left up onto a bridge, this was not correct so I dropped back down onto the canal path. It was very scenic and I was making steady progress along the gravel path, which turned into a shale path and then pulped wood, each stage sapping my strength a little more. Along the way small but very steep bridges crossed the tributaries adjoining the canal. Then the path became just a grassy track. I was 4km into it and going back to find another route was out of the question in my mind, but then the decision was made for me as the path was blocked off for construction. Harris fencing stretching across the path. At the time I was using the GoPro to explain how I was enjoying the ride! So the only option was to turn round and cycle back to the bridge and cross to the other side. It was soul destroying. Once I had trudged back, pretty much cursing all the way, I saw that the bridge was at the end of a tiny village that not only had a cash point but also a shop that was open. A limited selection meant that lunch was a bar of chocolate, 2 litres of water and a bag of Moam to keep me going. I cycled off along the very nice road on the other bank of the canal. I knew it would be a longer route but I needed to make up some time in order to get to the hotel. The theme of canal tow path continued well into late afternoon. It was beautiful but by 6pm was starting to bother me. I wasnt fully trusting the sat nav and I was right not to. Once again the path deteriorated. I was off the bike and wading through a collapsed canal bank which had the monopoly on stinging nettles.
It was sore and hard going, the luggage catching on pretty much every bush. I stopped momentarily and with my next step I fell down a hole hidden by the foliage. The bike remained upright and once I had finished desending into the boggy pit I was at eye level with the pedal crank. Sally satnav told me there was another 2km of this to go. I opted to pull the heavy bike up the canal bank to a ploughed field some 8metres above me. It was hard, sweaty, hot work but once at the top I could easily push the bike around the outside of the field until I re-joined the road. By 7pm I was sick of canal paths and was pleased to join a road that flowed with minimal traffic to the village of Ecquedecques, about an hours ride. The hotel Le Jardin Helant is a picturesque little place with gorgeous little chalets. The staff were so welcoming and even let me keep the bike in my room despite the courtyard being very secure. I was pleased to see the power shower. I was even more pleased to see the menu and get stuck into a vegetable pie, followed by chocolate truffle and a nice coffee.
Before long I was back in my chalet and sleeping, having clocked up 84km