Power to the Pedal

Cycling is good fun – but it can lead to discontent if one cyclist has to keep waiting for the other to catch up. A tandem is the answer, as Peter and Anna Henshaw found on their way to a Normandy cottage.

I love cycling. It keeps me fit and healthy. I don’t need to worry about parking, petrol prices, tax, MOT or insurance. Best of all, being on two wheels puts you in touch with the countryside better than four ever can.

But there is a downside. Quite apart from the effort involved, cycling holidays inevitably cover less ground. Of course, you can strap your bike onto a car, or into a train. Except that we don’t have a car, and trains seem to become less bike-friendly by the year, especially if you ride a tandem.

So, ferries apart, this would be a cycle-only holiday. Our destination was La Rochelle Normande, a tiny village in Normandy, about 25 miles from Mont St Michel. A rented holiday home would be ours for a week. A quick check of the Michelin map showed it to be 60-70 miles from Cherbourg, or so we thought…

We took the overnight Britanny Ferries sailing from Poole – my wife Anna and I on the tandem, friend Mark on his solo bike. Not having booked until April, we found all the cabins were gone. Still, you can sleep surprisingly well on those reclining seats. Especially after they switch the main lights off (at about 1am) and the school party next door quietens down.

Bleary-eyed, we struggled down to the car deck at 6.30 am and cycled out into a bright morning.

‘The wind comes directly off the Atlantic here, over the beach, across the fields and through your spokes’

It was Sunday, and Cherbourg was asleep. Out of town and onto the straight but rolling D904 we went. It was still very quiet, though of course even at their busiest, French ‘D’ roads have far less traffic than the UK ‘B’ road equivalent – they’re much nicer for cycling.

The drivers are pretty considerate as well, though you see surprisingly few other bikes. We tend to think of the French as being a nation of cyclists, thanks to the Tour de France, but really they see pedal power as a sport, not as a means of getting from A to B. Most of the cyclists we saw were lycra-clad and very serious, apart from the woman who gave a cheerful “Bonjour’ as she rocketed past us on one long uphill stretch.

With visions of sipping coffee at a seaside bar, we were tempted to drop down to the coast at Carteret, but the thought of climbing back out put us off. Even when you’ve got 24 gears, hills are not something you seek out. Instead, we stopped in Barneville for café grande et pain chocolat. That’s another advantage of cycling – patisserie indulgence isn’t just desirable, but necessary.

By now it was hot – a roadside thermometer was reading 27 degrees as we rode the long, flat coastal plain between Barneville and Countainville. The wind comes directly off the Atlantic here, over the beach, across the fields and through your spokes. Despite soil that appears to be 90% sand, most of this area is farmed – huge piles of manure underlined the only way farmers can get things growing here.

It was quite a relief to turn inland again at Brehal, where incidentally everything was closed at 7pm on a Sunday. Not so much as a bar was open.

So we were tired but thankful as we rolled into our village destination at nearly eight. It had been more like 80 miles than 60, but, what the hell? we’d made it. Except that we couldn’t find the house. It turned out we’d misunderstood the directions and come to the wrong village.

There was no one around to ask, night was falling and the weather closing in – oh dear. Eventually, we found the right village and there was just enough light to find the water, gas and electricity supplies and switch everything on. Too tired to cook, we made do with cup-a-soups – then slept for ten hours.