As we stand on the cusp of Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France in our very own fair city today its time to re-open the Museum of Recollections and dig out the substantial file named “Tour de France 1993”, the time that Ned and I traveled to Brittany for our very own Le Tour en Bicyclettes.
It didn’t start well of course, I had arranged to drive down to Portsmouth on the Saturday afternoon, leave the car in a long stay car park and board the ferry to St Malo on our bikes, bikes loaded down with baggage on all four wheels and handlebar, mine in particular was so heavy that after loading up I couldn’t actually pick the bloody thing up to lift it over a wall.
Worse than that though we were speeding down the M1 on the long journey to the south coast when Ned started browsing his passport, he’d only just returned from his second round-the-world hiking tour, he was a well seasoned traveler and well used to packing light and washing your underpants out every night rather than take two pairs for every day (one on the bike one for the evening) as I had done, no wonder my bike was so much heavier than his, I had 14 pairs of underpants, 14 pairs of socks, 14 tee-shirts, a couple of “smart” shirts, a spare pair of bike shoes and a pair of “smart” shoes, jumpers to keep warm at night, pyjamas, a sleeping bag, a nightstand for hanging clothes in the tent, my personal valet and a cook to keep me well energised during the tour – Ned carried the tent and all the camping equipment on his bike and a small Morrisons bag with one spare set of clothes, easy to spot which brother was the world traveler.
We’d got to a spot on the M1 near Oxford when he stopped showing me all the visas and stamps in his well-used passport and just said “Oh shit” instead followed by “My passports expired”.
A long panic followed in which we tried to find a post office open in Oxford and Northampton (none open) and finally rang the Brittany Ferries office in Portsmouth to describe our plight and ask if we could transfer our tickets to Mondays sailing by which time we’d hoped to obtain a one year post office passport, “no need” they said on the phone, “we couldn’t give a damn whether you’ve got a passport or not, all you have to do is get through the dock gate and you’re on…”
The old man stood in a kiosk on the dockside who was checking the passports didn’t stand a chance, they let all of the cyclists on the ferry first and we rode towards him in a crowd of around 30, nobody stopped, everyone just waved their passports in the air as they rode past him and in those days of laissez-faire that was enough, no need to actually let him look inside it, no need to remove your belt and shoes and stand in an x-ray machine, no security schizzle to go through at all, we were on the ferry in no time at all and celebrating our success when we realised that we still had to get into France with no passport the next morning and then get back into the UK with no passport the following week.
Our fears of being slung in Frenchy Gaol were unfounded for as our ferry docked at 6am the next morning we looked out onto a perfectly deserted dockside, there was only one Breton matelot there to tie up the rope then we peddled furiously down the ramp and out the dock gate, just in case some gendarme jumped out from behind a bollard to arrest Ned for being “C’est une idiote”.
As they let the cyclists off first we had a good fifteen minutes head start on the rest of the ferry load of eager British tourists and at 6am on a Sunday morning the rest of France was still tucked up in bed so on empty roads we spun the pedals and I came to realise that a very heavily laden bike would wobble like a very wobbly thing indeed, both wheels wobbling independently as they were all loaded up with different weights, until you managed to get some speed up and then there was no stopping the bloody thing. literally, mere bicycle brakes had absolutely no effect on a bike carrying almost eight hundredweight of luggage and our Ned had a hell of a job keeping up to me, he thought I was an ace fearless cyclist until he caught up with me at some traffic lights that I’d had to start braking for half a mile down the road, with both sets of rubber brake blocks now blazing furiously and emitting plumes of black smoke he stared at my terrified face and suggested that maybe I should ride for the rest of the week with one plimsoll scraping along the ground for retarding purposes like we used to do as kids.
It was probably because we were busy discussing the finer points of how to heavily laden one’s bicycle and why the hell a person would want to bring two complete changes of clothes for every day of a week long holiday when luggage space was already at such a premium, that we failed to notice that the wide road that we cycled upon from the docks had now become much wider and was in fact a motorway, and in France, as in England, cyclists are discouraged by threat of imprisonment and probably execution by guillotine from cycling on motorways – we rode on.
Several miles of cycling on the hard shoulder later Ned stopped me again and noted that many, nay, all of the car drivers that were passing us were now tooting their horns and shaking their fists at us in a most dramatic way and maybe it would be a good idea to look at the Michelin map and find a way off this motorway, so we sat down on the verge and browsed for a while.
Its at times like this that you realise that in England we are absolutely spoiled by Ordnance Survey for the quality of our maps for the Michelin maps of France are complete rubbish by comparison and realising that we may have to cycle most of the day on this motorway before finding an exit we opted to climb over a road barrier, throw the bikes down an embankment and walk through a cow field before finding the sort of narrow winding Breton lane that we had originally envisioned for our cycling holiday.
There was no plan for the week, no distance in mind to travel, nowhere at all in mind to travel to, we had not booked any campsites to stay at, we had not a clue of where we would end up on that first day and as we sat for a 7am breakfast of diluted orange juice and McVities milk chocolate biscuits (no finer breakfast for cycling on) we pondered on what it was we wanted to achieve but after twenty minutes the conclusion was “Nothing in particular” and we set off for the nearest town, a town that we already knew from childhood holidays – the seaside town of Dinard and finally a goal in mind, to find the fabled elephants graveyard of our youth.