Dervla Murphy, an Irish octogenarian, is one of my favourite travel writers. In 1965, at the age of 30, she hopped on her bike and cycled to India, sleeping rough or in hotelis or truck stops for 1 pound a night, indulging in her preferred beer, Tusker, at least nightly and encountering an amazing number of English speakers willing to engage in far ranging conversations from politics to AIDS that frequently made their way into Ms Murphy’s books. Her globetrotting cycling through Africa, Asia and the Middle East and, with her young daughter, over the Andes by donkey, continued until Siberia in 2010 – which proved her undoing – after a fall damaged her knee, she gave up the bicycle but continued her voyage by train and bus, again resulting in an highly entertaining travel book.
She was my inspiration, but I knew I wasn’t going to completely emulate her. I don’t drink beer and my hotel requirements extend well beyond a room with a bed and door, but I had planned to do a lot of cycling. The hilly roads in Paris where I stayed in the fall, along with the aggressive nature of its drivers deterred me from renting a bike there and, except for bike share rentals in Sweden and Australia, my resolve to do some serious cycling had thus far eluded me. Returning to France and cycling weather in April, it was time to remedy the situation.
As an avowed fair weather cyclist, I kept watch on the weather forecasts in the weeks preceding my return. The region of Brittany, or Bretagne as is referred to in France, was expecting sunny skies and temperatures in the 20’s. It is also known as a cyclist’s paradise, with numerous velo verts or greenways dedicated to cyclists. Plus, Mont. St. Michel, a place I had always wanted to visit, was within cycling distance. After one last check on the weather before I left Doha confirmed the favourable conditions, I booked a hotel in Rennes, a bicycle, complete with 2 panniers (saddlebags) and a water bottle for 10 days and another hotel in St. Malo, 67 kilometres, from Rennes.
When I landed in Paris 7 hours later, the weather forecast had changed dramatically. For the first few days, the forecast held, but on the day I was to bike to St. Malo, rain and temperatures in the single digits were predicted. I was not happy, but there was little I could do except channel my inner Dervla Murphy, who was never put off by a bit of rain, and make the best of it.
I spent two days wandering about Rennes – it is a beautiful city of 200,000, home to the region’s parliament building and a charming old town. Medieval houses, with timbers criss-crossing the exteriors, dominate the old town.
The Cathedral was started in 605 and evolved over the decades from Gothic to classical:
The medieval gates were under scaffolding, but the Park of Thabor, with its traditional French garden design (symmetrical rather than mimicking nature like English gardens) was in full bloom.
After 2 relaxing days in Rennes, it was time to get serious and cycle to St. Malo. My bike was to be delivered at 9:00AM, plenty of time to beat the afternoon rain if the Google Map’s distance of 67 kilometres was accurate. But 9:00AM, then 10:00AM came and went without signs of the bicycle. After a number of increasingly heated phone calls, my bicycle was finally delivered by an apologetic man who spoke good English. He showed me how to lower the seat, work the gears, unlock the panniers and where the tire puncture repair kit was located. When I shot him a dirty look, he said :
“Not to worry, there are repair shops all along the canal which can help if you have a puncture. Besides, we have reinforced the tires to prevent punctures.”
“Canal?” I queried. “I am going to take the Google Maps bike route.”
“Oh, no, no, no, you must take the canal, Velo 2. It is so much more peaceful,” he explained.
“Is it any farther? I haven’t done a lot of distance biking lately.”
“Not so much farther, but so much nicer.”
“Okay”, I said, “you know better.”
And I was off. Finding the canal route was easy since it was 3 blocks from my hotel, and, as indicated in its name, by a canal. In fairness to my sense of direction, there were two canals so getting on the correct one involved at least a modicum of intelligence. The sign post saying Velo 2 also helped.
The bike route started out beautifully. As promised, there were no cars, except where the path crossed well marked roadways. A few barges made their way upstream. Birds – ducks, geese, cranes – chirped and swooped into the water, completely oblivious to a lone cyclist. Three kilometres out I ran into a sobering sight. Police and an ambulance were tending to a downed cyclist. I do not know what happened to cause his injuries, but it was not an auspicious beginning.
Less than 15 minutes later, another police car slowly made its way up the cycle path. I swerved to let it pass, but instead, it stopped and a 30ish year old officer rolled down the window and held up a machine that looked like a large phone with a man’s photo on it. “Have you seen this man?” I was asked, in French. “No, I haven’t seen him,” I replied still in French. “Merci,” he said, rolled up his window and drove on. “Wonderful,” I thought, “the police are doing a manhunt on my bike path. For all I know, there is a psychopath ax-murderer stalking cyclists and I could be next.” Shades of Strasbourg entered my head, along with recognition of my total vulnerability if someone should try to shoot me. At best, my cycling speed is slow and I was weighed down by two loaded panniers and gears I hadn’t yet mastered. There were few other people around – some dog walkers, a few joggers and the occasional grey haired rambler getting what seemed to be his or daily exercise, a couple of other cyclists on the path – and cars were rarely visible. No one who could take down a gun-toting murderer should he appear.
Since there wouldn’t be much I could do if someone decided to jump out and start shooting, there was nothing to do but put such thoughts out of my mind and enjoy the scenery. Verdant forests lined the path, with occasional wild flowers peeking through the grass. The birds provided a symphony of nature sounds, fish splashed up and back into the water. Despite the cloudy sky, rain fell only for a few minutes a couple of times. I cycled on, listening to the sound of the bike wheels crunching the gravel below. It was heavenly.
After 2 1/2 hours, I sat down on one of many conveniently located benches, close to more conveniently provided water dispensers and a bathroom (an empty campground was nearby), pulled out some cheese, a baguette, an orange and ate lunch. I checked my mileage, only to discover I had done only 30 kilometres. Exactly how much longer than 67 kilometres was this path? Google told me: 107 kilometres. 2-3 hours longer than 67 kilometers at my usual 15 kilometres per hour pace. At the rate I was going, , it would take me 9 hours to get to the end of the path, then be faced with a short ferry ride to St. Malo. I had better speed it up!
Regretfully, the path had other plans. It turned from gentle gravel to large rocks, uphill climbs and slippery downhill slopes on what seemed to me an old logging road, with felled trees and a detour away from the canal. Suddenly there were no people around and the skies finally opened and a torrent of rain let lose. All that was missing was lightning. I got off the bike and pushed it through the now muddy dirt and rocks until, after an hour, the path returned to the canal and the gentle packed dirt. But it was already 3:00PM and my mileage computer told me I was barely half way to my destination.
I considered my options, or rather Google Maps did. The path would take at least 5 hours at my current speed. But if I continued on the path for 45 more minutes, then turned out and followed the roads to St. Malo it would take just another 2 hours. It seemed like the better choice.
After leaving the path, with Google Maps informing my I was 2 hours and 10 minutes from my destination, the instructions from Google Maps got me lost 3 times in short order, once into a farm yard with a frightful looking dog who started barking loudly as I wandered into his territory and another time up the 2 biggest hills in Brittany. After cycling off the path for an hour, I finally saw a road sign for St. Malo. I checked Google Maps – my battery was just about dead and I still had 2 hours and 4 minutes to go! I would have to follow the road signs from here on in, but given how badly Google Maps had mislead me, this was not an unwelcome development.
I cycled on the “D” series of highways, pretty country roads without shoulders but with little traffic and slow speed limits. What they did have were mountains. Now my son would call them molehills, but to me, after 6 hours and not in the best of shape, they were giant obstacles. I did what any sane person would do, climbed off my bike and walked myself and the bike up the mountains. But, dammit, on the third such climb, my legs started cramping!
Seven hours later, with St. Malo still 30 kilometres away, the wind picked up, the rain fell non-stop and I had had enough. My thighs were cramping, not only on the climbs or the walks, but on the gentle cycles on the flats. A small town loomed on the horizon. What would Ms. Murphy do? She would push through to the nearest town, find a grubby room costing only a few pounds, locate the nearest pub, have a beer or two and bear down for the night. I had a not inexpensive prepaid hotel room in St. Malo, could not find a bar to save my life and do not like beer. With a great deal of pain and will power, I made it to the town, found the only sign of life at a training school for bakers of crepes and pizzas (I kid you not) and asked them to call me a taxi.
Thirty minutes later, the taxi driver drove me and my bike the 25 kilometres to St. Malo, took us on an impromptu tour of the town (the prettiest beach in the world he claimed ) and deposited me at my hotel.
Ms Murphy would not choose this ending, but it worked for me. A hot shower, 2 glasses of wine and a dinner of St. Pierre filet (dory) and risotto later and I was a very happy camper.