Cycling 2,187 miles in 21 days at an average speed of 24.55 mph takes some doing and can win you the most prestigious bike race in the world, albeit by just a few minutes. Such are the statistics from this year’s Tour de France, won for the third time by British rider Chris Froome. Congratulations don’t seem enough for such a feat but all the same another great ride by Chris and his team this year – very well done. At the same time as Chris and 197 other riders and their entourage were riding around France, I was myself back on the beautiful French roads on my own TdF after an absence of precisely 675 days!
I absolutely love cycling in France: the roads, cycle paths, scenery, architecture, campsites, weather, food, ambiance and even considerate drivers make it a cycling heaven. Unfortunately some 6-months after my last trip to the River Loire in 2014 and a short tour of Puglia at the beginning of 2015, my left knee had become worn out and necessitated a Total Knee Replacement (TKR) on 25th April 2015. Since then I have been slowly working my way back into cycling and gradually, though with some difficulty, increasing distances and loads. Ironically some nine months after the operation the left knee wasn’t too bad, though still requires more work on the bike to regain full use but it was now the right knee which started to show similar signs of deterioration! Notwithstanding, I eventually got back on my audax bike in March this year and have recently managed local rides of up to 25-miles. I remain uncertain whether either knee could sustain a fully loaded cycle tour again, instead as a test we took the car and bikes to northern France and cycled out each day on generally easy routes.
Inevitably we intended to return to the Avenue Verte and the adjacent area just southeast of Dieppe but began the nine day trip in the region of Picardy by the Baie de Somme. I had scoped this out last year as an interesting but flat area for my return to French cycling but alas my knees were not ready for such an undertaking so soon after the operation. This July we eventually made it there and were not disappointed. In a typical French way the regional council have provided an excellent system of cycle paths around the bay, which combined with the adjacent network of minor roads makes for some excellent rides.
The Baie de Somme marks the estuary of the River Somme where it enters la Manche (English Channel), having previously passed by the infamous battlefields of WWI some 60-miles upstream. As we have just remembered those who fell at the Battle of the Somme 100-years ago, it seemed appropriate to be here at this time; I cycled the Somme battlefields in 2009 but that‘s another story. About 2.5-miles wide at this point, the bay stretches from St Valery in the south to Le Crotoy in the north, with wonderful views across large sand filled estuarine channels that during the year attract millions of migratory birds.
The aforementioned towns are very attractive and interesting, it is not an exaggeration to describe the whole area as quite spectacular and for that reason popular and busy. With numerous beaches along this coastline there are many commercial type ‘campsites’ everywhere but we camped at a small, more basic but excellent site at Pinchefalise just outside St Valery that formed a perfect base for day rides. All-in-all I cannot recommend this area enough for cycling – it is clearly a big French favourite too as the cycle paths were very well used.
After four nights at Baie de Somme it was time to move the short 40-miles southwest to our long-time favourite camping and cycling location of Martigny and the 2-Rivièrs campsite; it was very good to be back for the first time since our tour to the River Seine in 2013. Unsurprisingly very little had changed and we were welcomed back by the receptionist as though we had just been away for a moment, which is always a nice feeling. Having cycled here extensively in the past it was mostly a matter of going over old, familiar but well-loved old ground and we were not disappointed. However, unless staying on the Avenue Vert itself hills are inevitable, which using my lowest cogs I’m pleased to say I managed to overcome; it was nonetheless hard work especially on day-1 as the temperatures soared over 35oC!
Unfortunately on our cheese pilgrimage to Neufchâtel-en-Bray on the last day of cycling, my wife’s chain broke about half way there and we had to curtail the ride. Notwithstanding, we had a great time and the combination with the Baie de Somme rides was a very successful return to cycling in France. All-in-all we rode 162 miles, tackled some decent hills and discovered some new and rewarding new rides, as well as old favourites. At the end my knees were a bit sore and I remain unsure if I’ll be able to cycle camp again given the loads that need to be carried but this was a good substitute and for now marks my own version of the TdF, which in my case might better be called the Tour de Fromage!
BAIE DE SOMME RIDES
The focus of most rides in this area is the Baie de Somme, with destinations in the form of St Valery, Le Crotoy and La Hourdel, though minor roads in the hinterland also provide enjoyable cycling, especially the Canal de Somme to Abbeville. All the rides described started at the Pinchelfalise La Picardy campsite and effectively radiate to various points of the compass each day.
Ride-1 Le Crotoy: 27 miles
An excellent cycle path follows the line of the bay from St Valery to Le Crotoy, most of the way along the same route as the adjacent D940 road. This is a little unfortunate as the road is surprisingly busy and noisy but nonetheless the track is separated, well paved, attractive and well used. At a few points it crosses a number of mostly minor roads and the D940, after which things quieten down. Not long after crossing the D940 there is a left turn-off through an underpass, which links to a separate path right that runs along edge of the bay and thereby straight into the centre of Le Crotoy. The seaward outlook from this part of the track is stunning and is not to be missed.
Le Crotoy itself is an attractive coastal town, probably best along its western edge where the main beach is situated. The town is a Mecca for fans of moules (mussels); given the number of restaurants serving these tasty treats and private outlets located adjacent to residential houses outside of Le Crotoy, it’s a wonder there are any moules left in the sea!
Rather than return on the same track to Pinchefalise from Le Crotoy, we chose to head north with the intention of taking the back roads home instead. Immediately outside of Le Crotoy on the D1 a cycle track runs along the eastern edge of a series of attractive lakes that are home to a wide variety of birdlife and form the Marquenterre Bird Sanctuary. Continuing north with the intention of linking up with minor roads heading back east was however not successful, as all the aforementioned roads have been eradicated by the largest sand and gravel pits I have ever seen. Now flooded this area is completely impassable (except by boat) and requires a long detour towards the town of Rue before it is possible to return homewards via Bihen.
Ride-2 Abbeville: 22 miles
The large, well-kept but almost completely unused Canal de la Somme links St Valery with the town of Abbeville, some 10-miles inland. So as to vary the ride we chose to ride outwards on the D3 road to Abbeville, subsequently returning along the canal path. Located just south of the canal and somewhat elevated, the D3 is a pleasant ride through typical small French villages and rich agricultural scenery, though there is nothing specific to see otherwise. Towards the end we dropped back down to the canal which then runs straight into the centre of Abbeville, so as to avoid the busier town roads.
Abbeville was substantially bombed by the Germans early in WWII and much of the present architecture reflects the aftermath: early 1950’s, modern, somewhat brutal concrete buildings, with little character.
Notwithstanding, the central square is a pleasant place to head for, in particular to visit the nearby and now more sympathetically restored 15th century Collegiate Church of Saint-Vulfran. On this occasion serendipity took us here to one of the very best cheese shops I have ever encountered just across the road from the church = result!
The ride back along the canal is very attractive and less busy than the cycle paths around the Baie de Somme. Built in the 1770’s the Canal de la Somme was transporting 300,000 tonnes of goods annually as recently as the 1960s but today is more serene and bucolic in nature, with just a very occasional pleasure boat and wildlife. We were there around Bastille Day and it was nice to see the banks of the canal at the seaward end near St Valery, being used for various well attended community functions.
Ride-3 St Valery / Cayeaux: 28 miles
This ride initially heads to the most westerly point along the southern edge of the Baie de Somme at La Hourdel, before turning southwards along the coast to the seaside resort of Cayeux-sur-Mer, then winding north-east back to Pinchefalise. At first a short 1.2 -mile ride via either the Canal de la Somme or the D3 road goes straight into St Valery. Located on the southern bank of the Baie de Somme and the western starting point of the canal, the town has a wonderful outlook over the entire bay. We had already spent time here in the evenings sightseeing, shopping, eating and drinking but were strangely unaware of the old town situated at the western edge of the main town. The streets and buildings here are very old with much history and character, including a prison where the English held Joan of Arc in 1431! Being on a hill the area provides even better views across the whole of the Baie de Somme and for that reason alone is perhaps the best location of all to visit when in St Valery.
Thereafter the ride continues westwards but it is necessary to back-track from the old town first in order to re-join the route out of St Valery on the D3. This road soon joins the excellent cycle path from Le Crotoy that now follows alongside the D3 before finally taking a right turn onto the minor D102 road and a short ride out to La Hourdel headland. From this location the views stretch some 270o across the bay, to the beaches and the sea beyond. Birdlife offshore is prolific, as well as numerous seals sunning themselves on the sandbars that are exposed at lower tides. There are a few facilities here but take a picnic as it is a great place for lunch whilst appreciating the truly fabulous views.
Turning south-west after La Hourdel the D102 is closed to traffic except bikes, following the edge of the beach and sand dunes to the seaside town of Cayeaux via a Picardy version of Brighton!
Like many British seaside towns from another era, Cayeaux is somewhat decrepit in nature but on a sunny day is a good place to stop for an ice cream before heading back. Taking the back roads just outside of Cayeaux and heading north-east the area is flat, very quiet and agricultural in nature before eventually reconnecting with the cycle track towards St Valery, which this time we took all the way back to the Canal de la Somme and thence Pinchefalise.
AVENUE VERT (AV) RIDES
I have reviewed this area previously but it is always good to return. Our three rides on this occasion were:
- Southwest on the D154 along the Varenne river valley, left over the Forêt d’Eawy plateau on the D22 and D77 to the AV and directly back to the campsite – 28 miles
- North on the D1 via Martin Eglise, turning south-east along the Eaulne river valley on the D920 before crossing the chalk plateau on the D58, down to my favourite lunch spot near St Vaast and then back on the AV to Martigny – 31 miles
- Neufchâtel-en-Bray (not completed), see text below – 18 miles
For the first time we set out to ride to Neufchâtel on the road rather than the AV. The D1 is a quiet road that runs close by the AV but for some reason I had not previously ridden along, except for short stretches. Despite its close proximity to the AV, the road is slightly higher up the valley slope and passes through the centre of numerous small, attractive villages, with the occasional boulangerie and café and far reaching views along and across the Bethune valley along which the AV runs. As a result the experience was surprisingly quite different from the AV itself and very enjoyable. Unfortunately the ride was cut short after nearly 10-miles due to a broken chain on my wife’s bike but I’m sure we’ll return to complete the route another day.
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Tour: 14th to 22nd July 2016, 9-days
Total mileage: 162 miles
Maps: Michelin 1:150,000 Maps 301 & 304 + IGN 1:100,000 Maps: 103 & 107
Ferry: DFLS Newhaven to Dieppe £177 car x2 passengers and bikes dep 9.00h arrv 14.00h, return 12.30h arrv 15.30h. From May to September there are three services a day and two at all other times.
Campsites – charges for a small tent in high-season without electricity:
La Picardy at Pinchefalaise approx. £14 p.n.
2-Rivièr at Martigny (Municipal) approx. £15 p.n.
Neufchâtel – x4 different types
Trou du Crou