North of Thouars, France

Mimizan to Thouars – about 240 miles

So, we had a fairly definite plan for today. Leave early, have a ‘dry’ breakfast to save time, don’t get lost, don’t take detours and just get the miles done and stay on schedule. With our departure day fast approaching we wanted a bit of contingency in case anything went wrong with the bikes, and things started well enough. We got up early (not as early as planned, but that’s par for the course), had a quick breakfast of bread, peanut butter and nectarines and I played around with the compressor to get our tires pumped up. A bit of fiddling with the pen gauge and I worked out that we were getting about 2psi every ten seconds from the compressor, so now that we had control over it, that job took a bit less time.

We were off by 10am and back onto the crazy-straight roads. Almost immediately I was almost killed by a granny who arrived at a junction, watched me barreling towards her at 110kmh for about five minutes, then decided at the last minute to pull out in front of me and motor along at 30kmh. At least now I know my ABS works. Just after that we arrived in the town of Sanguinet. The next place we were headed for was posted east, but I’d seen a sign for a supermarket straight ahead, and I wanted to stock up on supplies early so we could get a few hours of solid riding behind us. After a bit of cruising around, getting outsmarted by the one-way system, and being directed past a really cool lake, filled with miniature sail boats and kayaks, we eventually said fuck it, let’s just get on and worry about shopping later. Of course, around the next bend was the supermarket we’d spent an hour chasing.

Suitably stocked, we had to find our way back to the signpost and get back on the right track. We hit a roundabout on the edge of the village, and stopped. Maria was sure it was down this road, I was sure it was the other. Since I’ve got a history of getting us lost whenever we get anywhere near civilisation, I decided to trust Maria’s instinct and veered off in the direction she was pointing. A half hour of looking for anything familiar, and not finding our signpost and we decided to head back into town. Back at the roundabout we took ‘my’ road and around the first bend was our signpost, looking very much like victory for me. Shame I couldn’t be too smug, since she’s got a pretty long list of my navigational disasters by now.

From there to Bordeaux was pretty straightforward. We had a plan to turn eastwards and skirt around the city, then back north and towards Saintes. As we neared the city, there was very little in the way of signage and the only thing that looked familiar was a small inconspicuous sign for Thouars. Assuming there must be a better option, I pressed on north. Bad idea: I led us straight into the centre of Bordeaux, and a half hour of creeping along between traffic lights. Not a huge problem though – we just waited for the first available east-bound road, followed it till we could cross the river to head north, did that, and eventually we were back on our way towards Saintes where, being the clever guy I am, I made exactly the same mistake again.

Never mind, we were slowly making our way north, and we were actually getting a sense of the towns we were passing through, instead of just skirting around the peripheries. Bordeaux is nice enough, if a bit on the large side and with the ring road encircling it, it’s a bit too traffic oriented for my liking. Saintes seems a lot more laid back; quite fashion conscious by the looks of things, with a big student population to keep the bars looking beautiful. Shortly after that we reached Niort – a town we’d passed through on our way south. I’d been impressed with the style of the place and the architecture and even though progress through the town was held up by traffic, it gave me another chance to look around. We ambled through the modernised central square we’d seen before and soon ended up in a cool old part of the town, full of little bars and cafés. This was definitely a town to earmark for a future trip, since this time round we were pushed for time, and we couldn’t afford to stop for the day of we wanted to make the ferry.

Around about this point I came across a fundamental truth of travelling. No matter where you are, how long you’ve been on the road or how zen you think you’ve become, you’ll very quickly see red when you’re stuck behind a truck doing 20 below the speed limit that Will. Not. Move. The Fuck. Out of your way. We spent a good two hours on the roads north of Niort stuck behind trucks, camper vans and learner drivers, and the inside of my helmet heard some creative new swear words. Mercifully the French had started experimenting with the Spanish system of including an overtaking lane incrementally for each side of the road. The French ones are considerably shorter though, which made for some fun, derby style riding. Since you only have about 500m to overtake before the two lanes merge again, everyone who has somewhere to go prepares themselves at the first sighting of a signpost, we all go full throttle for half a kilometer, then swerve back in at the last second hopefully having cleared a few trucks in the process. Maria was racing to catch the ame gap as me so she wouldn’t lose me and then she almost got killed. The one British van on a road full of French trucks decided to pull out straight in front of her at 60mph, as she was overtaking at about 80mph. Thank fuck for good brakes and lady luck!

That went on for about 40km or so until we made it past Thouars. By this point we’d been in the saddle for nine hours, to do a hard earned 240 miles, and we were both exhausted. I jumped on the first dirt track I saw and Maria, following behind spotted a second track branching off and broke away to explore. When my track narrowed to a tiny path and turned up nothing, I got off to turn my bike around and follow her. A few attempts at pulling the bike backwards, jumping on to ride it forwards, rinse and repeat, and I was starting to break a sweat. Eventually I figured bollox, I’ll just gun it up and over the ditch I’m wedged in and either I’ll come unstuck or fall over and be done with it. Luckily I managed the former, and I made it down to where Maria was waiting by a nice spot where a cornfield met a hedge and some mature trees gave us a bit of cover. That’ll do nicely.

No sooner had we made camp and opened our wine than a toot and a rumble signalled an approaching train, which came screaming right past us. We hadn’t spotted the tracks since they were hidden by the hedge, but by now were were in no mood to pack up and start the search again. It’ll be an interesting night…

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