Writing this blog entry from our tent fortress in Toulouse! We have been resting at a campsite and sheltering from the rain; living in a tiny flat in Hull has prepared us well for managing in this confined space. We finished the Canal du Midi cycle route from Sete to Toulouse, the first leg of our travel by bike adventure… this blog entry will try to relay some of our experiences, so many come to mind that it will fail to do the excitement and intensity any justice! We were also joined by my amazing Dad for the first three days of cycling, and Liam and I did the last two on our own.
We chose the route of the Canal du Midi as it made logistical sense having attended a festival near to Sete, the route being flat for ease, and with good train links so my Dad could join us for a section. Wanting it to work out, I did kind of ignore a lot of the warnings online that the route was very badly maintained and difficult/impossible to ride in places. My usual experience dictates that when people whine about routes being hard, it is never as bad as they make out. I did some more research, and there was even a Cicerone Official guidebook. How bad could it be? We decided to give it a go.
Well, I was wrong. The people online were completely correct with their assessment- the track was very difficult to ride for the most part! Liam and I set off on our fully loaded touring bikes with road tyres, and were greeted with easy to medium rated mountain bike routes, including slithers of single track with dicy drop offs into a canal, tree routes, gravel, sand, subsidence where parts of the canal were missing, huge grasses providing resistance to the panniers, no paving on most of the track causing rattles and jerks. Having no suspension and little control over our tanks of bikes, this made things, well, very challenging! My Dad had his mountain bike with proper tyres and suspension and less load, so he fared a little better!
Our bikes, arms, legs and tempers were put through their paces as we experienced a good beating and rattling as we made our way on the route. Liam’s front rack and mud guard broke, his bike stand broke, everything got shaken loose, all the nuts and bolts needed tightening.
All that being said, we had an absolutely fantastic time! We found great humour when faced with these adversities. We saw the positives of the experiences as we were able to really test our bikes and my amazing mechanic Dad helped us fix the issues. We will be facing unpaved roads and tracks in many countries we intend to visit… so it provided a great opportunity to see what would happen!
The route itself, was really beautiful and I would highly recommended it for bikepacking on a mountain bike. We travelled through beautiful rural French villages and towns along the waterways, spotting heron and water birds, cycled along the meditterean sea and had a swim, bought local cheese, cherries and strawberries, had coffees in lovely local cafes, explored French towns, saw lots of fascinating locks and shared greetings with holidaymakers on canal boats. The sun mostly shone down, and was glorious. The grasses were long, the smells of spring and summer floating in the air, and the enormous plane trees planted along the banks were glorious and provided some shade.
We worked really well as a team, and had some amazing wild camp spots. The best one, my Dad found, was underneath an aqueduct which supported the Canal! So, not only did we ride along the canal but we slept under it. We found it after the only evening it rained, we were cold and wet, and in need of shelter. The universe provided! In the morning we had a much needed wash by swimming in the river with the fish. Then shared our breakfast with the ants whilst drying out in the sun.
Another fun bivvy was after Liam and I’s first solo day… we had put in some hard miles and could not find anywhere to bed down. We cycled and cycled until we had nothing left in our legs, and the light faded, so we were forced to just put up camp on the side of the track in full view of anyone passing. However, we counted on no one passing that far our in the rural area whilst it was dark! We eventually managed to get to sleep about 11pm after Liam cooked up a feast! Then, about 1am, I was startled awake by 4 bright lights in my face. A group of four night cyclists whizzed by at high speed, and shouted Bonne Nuit!
We had a lovely time in Carcassonne exploring the medieval city, where a nice French cycle tourer helped my Dad fix Liam’s bike. My dad didn’t ask for help, but Bernard was extremely excited by the technical challenge and jumped up when he saw my Dad working on the bike. I was very amused watching them work together with limited shared language – but they functioned in harmony. Bernard offered us some comments on our gear, not all good! Ha ha!
Finally we arrived in Toulouse after a day of cycling on amazing paved track. It was hot, and it took us a while to find the campsite. We learned we do not like cycling in cities even when they have amazing cycle paths. We have enjoyed the city, its beautiful rivers and architecture. However, we also enjoyed the comforts it offers… namely Starbucks…. Where we passed an afternoon charging our electronics and learning how to use the Garmin, which will help us navigate.
Liam and I are sometimes a bit haphazard, and owned this amazing piece of kit with no idea how to use it or even what it does. We were absolutely amazed by it, and now have downloaded our onward routes for the next few weeks. Fingers crossed it makes navigation a bit easier. Stay tuned for updates.
Toulouse also provided us with an opportunity to catch up with some of Liam’s friends he made whilst couchsurfing in 2016. We went out expecting to be home (tent) by 11pm and away cycling by 7am. How foolish of us. So here we are, nursing hangovers safely back in the tent at 10pm the next day. We’ve spent the day resting and sheltering from the rain because it has not stopped raining really for two days. Unexpected in the South of France!! So, it kind of worked out. We also learnt some more lessons about not riding bikes whilst drunk, not navigating whilst drunk, and not planning epic cycles the day after going out for a beer!
We are making slow progress as we try and get fitter on the bikes and adjust to sleeping wild, cooking every meal outdoors, and living cheap. I have to say, we are in our element. I love sleeping outside, being on the move, shopping for cheap food, having so few possessions and living simply. All you worry about each day is where to sleep, what to eat, and where to go. Every day is full of new experiences and rich with learning, struggle, joy and suffering in equal measure. A coffee in Starbucks or a warm shower is like the ultimate luxury! You appreciate everything that you have. Emotions are felt with intensity. I love this life!
So… tomorrow we move on. We are aiming to cycle to Switzerland via Foix, Perpignan, Montpelier and Eurovelo route 17 in the next three weeks. It is about 1000km and lots of ascent! So, we will have to see how that goes. Honestly, we have no idea how we will fare. Our bikes are very very heavy and we have a lot of muscle to build! Whilst googling stupid things like can you cycle 1000km in 3 weeks, all I found were posts on forums of people asking if they could do it in 2 days. So… we will give it a punt. To be continued.
Just wanted to give a massive shoutout to my amazing Dad, who we miss as our third musketeer! Despite being more than both our ages combined he was faster than us, had more energy, more skills and more positivity! He really is an inspiring individual! Thanks so much for coming and all of the laughs we shared. Thanks for fixing our bikes, buying us cherries and coffees, keeping us motivated and cheerful. Thanks for doing the washing up and letting us rest after we were too exhausted to move and you were full of beans 😂