This recap of the annual Europe Spine Ride was written by WSC Europe Vice President Adam Wilkey, and his daughter Chelsea.
Bordeaux to Beziers
(308 miles – 5 days)
Another brilliant cycle trip! For once the weather gods were in our favour, except for the last morning, but otherwise we didn’t start in the rain, get snowed on, or blown off course. And talking of going off course – that didn’t happen this year either. The garminers did their job wonderfully well, well done Dan and Mike.
As with last year the terrain was generally not too taxing, flat cycle paths along the canal for much of the ride. But there was one day where the mountain loomed before us like some monstrous nightmare awaiting our pathetic attempts at its ascent, with sheer faced inclines where we would have no choice but to dismount and push, or according to Dan’s hype, be roped together to ensure each others safety, but before that, we had to get through 214 miles.
Day 1 – Arrival in Bordeaux, and on to Marmande (60 miles)
Thursday started well – everyone arrived, made it on time to the flight and to the van at the other end. We quickly set the bikes up outside a supermarket and ran in for supplies. It was almost 14:00 and the pressure was on as we had 60+ miles to cover. The ride started slowly, going through the centre of Bordeaux but then we quickly got into a nice rhythm following an old rail track along the Roger Lapebie Cycle Path (named after the 1937 Tour de France winner), only suffering one puncture (a pretty good feat in a group of 14!).
After a few miles on the track, we got split into 2 groups, and the first group not having properly looked at the direction cards Dan had given, ended up skipping a hill where the van was waiting for us. A few rode up to it after realising, but the rest waited for the van to come down (it was coming that way anyway, why waste the energy, right?!) and had a quick refill and refuel before getting back en route towards Marmande. Our nice steady ride continued as we enjoyed a visual delight, gorgeous landscapes and lush wine growing terroir. Towards the end of the day the scenery changed to more housing and shops so we knew we were approaching our 5-star accommodation for the night. When we arrived we were all shocked at how quick the last leg had seemed and how energetic we still felt – until we stopped, that is. Adam and Chelsea went to sort out the rooms, and it turned out we had double booked, but we soon got it sorted and quickly got ready to go out for dinner as it was pressing on 9pm and we were worried about being too late to eat.
The choices were Buffalo Grill or a Chinese buffet, with all except John (the vegetarian) and Cam, opting for the former. The staff were lovely and dealt very well with our lack of French and their missing English. Day one was over and I think it’s safe to say we all ‘crashed’ when we arrived in our beds, ready for a 9am start in the morning… or so we thought.
Day 2 – Marmande to Moissac (69 miles)
Friday morning dawned and we were almost all up and ready to get breakfast between 8-8:30, forgetting that we were in fact in France, and how much they like their grasse-matinee. We were in the middle of an industrial park, with all the shops closed until 8:45. Lidl opened and we quickly grabbed whatever we could for breakfast and what we might need for the day before heading off on the second leg of the ride; Marmande to Moissac.
Lunch was a welcome stop at the local Aldi in Agen. The choice was maybe not the most tempting for 15 Brits, but we managed to all find something and put some sort of a meal together that would sustain us for the last push to the Gite we had lined up. After the second group had caught up and been fed we set back off all together, this time keeping off of the canals and on the main roads. The scenery was lovely, with lots of vines and typical southern French countryside. Again, the last leg seemed to go quickly and before we knew it, we had arrived at our ‘home’ for the night. The reception at Ultriea in Moissac was a fabulous experience. The lovely Irish couple who run it had prepared some snacks and drinks for us when we arrived which were quickly consumed and greatly appreciated. We had an interesting chat about the pilgrims that walk through and often stay at the Gite, then we had to clear up to allow them to eat, and to get ready for us to go and eat in the local town. After clearing up and a quick 5 minute walk we arrived at a stunning cathedral which showed us we were in the centre and 13 of us went to a quaint little pizzeria whilst Dan and Luca went to find a traditional French kebab. The meal was lovely, but it did take a while to come as there was only enough room for 2 pizzas in the oven and 2 people working to try and feed all of us as well as their other customers. I think they deserve medals for the work they did that night!
The ride started on a very busy main road that led to the motorway (I’m not too sure if bikes were even allowed on parts of it!) but after one or 2 confusing turns we found the canal path and our rhythm. The sun was already blazing but the canopy of trees sheltered us well. However, they soon proved to be a bit of a nuisance with lots of bumps on the path from the roots, and added to some small stones, we started to get punctures. One group rode on whilst the 2 Dans helped sort the first puncture (which was quickly followed by another as the piece of glass causing it hadn’t been taken out of the tyre). The first group arrived in Damazan – refuelled and refilled and then Mike appeared with popsicles, a very welcome treat! Still in two groups, we pushed on along the canal finally regrouping at lunch. The canals in France are much wider than those in England with much larger boats. As we rode, we saw several that looked very tempting, cruising effortlessly along the canal.
Day 3 – Moissac to Castres (85 miles)
On Saturday morning we had the privilege of not having to get breakfast ourselves, but to be served by our lovely hosts at about 8am. Hot chocolate, fruit juice, madelines, and baguette with jam was a perfect way to get our energy up ready for our longest day of 85 miles. Although if you are Cameron, 85 miles of cycling isn’t enough so you have to start the day with a small gym session with whatever you can find that will work around you! We cycled through the town centre again to get a glimpse at the Saturday market (because when in France, you just can’t miss the Saturday market!) and then quickly were back onto the canal path. It started off well (apart from the VERY bumpy bridge which gave you the option of cycling on a small stretch of concrete about 20 cm wide, on the very edge of the canal, or across huge pebbles that had been cemented into the ground) but before we came off the canal path there were several near crashes with both fellow cyclists and pedestrians, with one definite crash going under a tunnel on a corner, but no one was hurt and no bikes were damaged.
After finishing our 25 miles of canal cycling for the day we had a break on a busy main road, and somehow Mike managed to find a bakery (this is something that happened on pretty much every stop we had throughout) so all of us were happy to enjoy a traditional French patisserie before heading off again, oblivious as to what was to come.
The next part of the ride started on a busy main road again, but we soon turned off and started climbing a hill (small for England but quite big for the South of France) that was a nice steady ascent…then it flattened for a few miles until suddenly we were hit with a 20% gradient incline. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it was very steep and near impossible to do without standing on your bike and pushing with all your force. Most of us made it, but unfortunately Cameron’s chain snapped just as he neared the top which meant we had to have a premature stop to try and fix it. By some miracle, our inspired driver, Ben, turned up just as we needed him and we were able to swap bikes around giving Jens and Ben the time to fix the chain whilst we rode on, ready to swap back at lunch. Little did we know, things weren’t going to get better. We started back on the route and came to a field… Now with the scorching heat we were experiencing as well as the road bikes we were all in possession of, we were terrified that the hard, bumpy surface would ground some of our bikes. Miraculously though, we made it through the first field and decided to just cycle around the other 3 fields we were supposed to go across, no matter how many miles it added (it wasn’t actually too many). After we made it around the fields, we hit some more big, heavy traffic roads, so split into several groups so as not to take too much space and bug the cars too much (they’re not always very compassionate to us cyclists!).
Lunch hit us around 13:00 which meant the sun was out in full force, and as we were in a super market again, there wasn’t much shade and no place to sit and eat except the grass, not a problem for us hardened cyclists. So we grabbed our lunches before chilling out by the van, staying a little longer than expected, but as we were doing well for time it wasn’t a worry. After lunch we stumbled across a car show (we also managed to get one of those in last year, too!) so we had an improvised stop to admire the ‘classics’ and some new beauties before heading off to the hotel in Castres. Unfortunately, many of the roads in the town were closed for the car show, but Cameron and Google came to the rescue. As we approached the stunning town of Castres fatigue was setting in and there was another crash, this time with slightly more bike damage, but no real injuries, thankfully!
The hotel today was a VERY welcome site. Especially as it was a real upgrade from the ‘5-star’ luxury we have become accustomed to. When we went to sort out the rooms, however, there was a mix up we didn’t know about and the sleeping arrangements in the rooms were not at all what we had been told so all 3 teenagers ended up in a double bed together, whilst others had 3 beds to 2 people (but we all managed and enjoyed the rest we did get). Dinner was the McDonalds right next to the hotel followed by an early-ish night for those who planned to leave at 6am the next morning ready for tackling the ‘Montagne Noire’.
Day 4 – Castres to Carcassonne (39 miles and ‘that mountain’)
A few of us left early on the Sunday morning, having breakfasted as soon as the restaurant opened. The dawn was fresh and being out before the traffic was a little exhilarating. Like Hillary and Tenzing we were prepared for anything that nature was to throw at us. A few minor hills warmed us up for the ‘BIG ONE’, and before we knew it we had reached base camp.
The early starters loved the day! Naeomi (aka Chris Froome) raced ahead keeping the pace high(ish) (we didn’t take the bait). John decided to check out the new gearing on his new bike and pedaling frantically in that climbing gear managed about 2km/h. The 3 siblings (ok dad, and 2 siblings) rode together in a group just chatting, weaving their way up the mountain and having a great morning together, no pressure, no competition, just relaxed easy riding up 9 or 10 miles of hill. It wasn’t so bad after all, just long. Of course what goes up must come down. No pedaling required here. Experimentation over, John found his gears and off he zoomed.
The scenery was stunning, the company the best; what a way to spend the Sabbath, immersed in nature and revelling in creation, the best day of the tour!
The accommodation was right in the walls of old Carcassonne, but being on a budget it wasn’t the most chic. We all had plastic feeling sheets to put over the covers on our beds, which made for a noisy, and not the most comfortable night of the ride and as Mike said, was just all part of the experience. The second group weren’t too far behind the first and arrived just in time to miss the heavy rain. This gave everyone chance to have a (cold) shower whilst the rain lightened off a bit, then we enjoyed a fascinating stroll around the city walls, before having a nap and then going out to dinner, unless you are Cameron… then you book yourself into a local spa. Dinner was in a more traditional French restaurant and spirits were high as we enjoyed each other’s company, feeling a real sense of accomplishment for the feat we had just managed.
Sleep wasn’t quick to come for all, due to the noisy 30 something neighbours reclaiming their youth by being noisy in the courtyard of our Youth Hostel, shouting back and forth after the 10pm curfew, but finally the sleep came and it was very welcome.
Day 5 – Finale – Carcassonne to Beziers (55 miles)
Monday morning arrived with the rain which reflecting our moods about this being the last day of cycling. We enjoyed a typical Hostel breakfast and then all got ready, taking all our bags on a mile trek (so it felt) down to the van, and having to come back up to get the bikes from the hostel. The rain followed us for a good portion of the day, but we were grateful that it had stayed away for this long. With the rain also came a cooler temperature which meant we weren’t sweating as much resulting in a lot more toilet stops, poor dad, thank goodness for bushes.
The ride was nice and smooth as we again split into groups, vineyards dotting our route along smooth roads and lovely rolling countryside. Our first stop was at a Stadium – or so the maps told us – which Dan E was excited to see… Turns out it was just an overgrown field!
The next stop, for lunch, was a lot nicer. We were in a very small French village. The kind where when you walk into the local Epicerie men are sat around on high stools, chatting with the shop owner about life, and when anyone walks in they all call each other by name and ask about the family. Mike, again, found us our local Boulangerie and we especially enjoyed the cheap chocolatines and croissants as well as the breads (especially John who bought about a weeks worth for the day) and delicious pizza slices.
After lunch, the rain eased up and the sun started to shine, welcoming us into Beziers. There was a possibility of extending to go to the beach, but due to the weather and time we decided it best just to go straight to the town. The ride was pretty smooth, with the only major thing being a massive, hugely busy road that we some how needed to cross. Thankfully we all made it well and alive. We some how managed to pick up a few touring Americans whilst crossing who asked if they could tag along with us down to Beziers to which we happily obliged. Just a few meters after we had set off with an extra 4 members of the group, we experienced another puncture and the Americans quickly left us and rode on alone. From that point to the van (a mere 3 miles) was very slow with injury and flat tyres, but we all made it and enjoyed the beautiful scenery approaching the town – especially the 9 locks (definitely worth seeing if you are ever there).
We found the van and all got changed, ready to load the bikes up and send them on their way. Once the van left with JP, Ben, and all our bikes, we went to the shopping complex for a traditional French Subway meal – apart from Mike who opted for the traditional American Diner- then set off to the train station. As we had only booked the tickets the previous night (thank you french strikes!) we had a problem with not being able to print out the tickets and not having anyone there to print them out for us, just an information desk lady who was adamant that it wasn’t her job and she couldn’t help at all. Luckily, the conductors on the train were lovely men who liked the English and enjoyed football, so seeing that we had paid and had a reservation number, let us off. The journey to Bordeaux was a long 3 hours, but it was nice to sit talking to each other and reflecting on the ride.
As we thought on the end of this trip there were some bitter sweet feelings. The feeling of accomplishment was immense, but the sadness that the ride was over and that after tomorrow we would all be back to normal routine was also strong.
Roll along next year and ITALY!
If you would like to learn more about World Spine Care Europe and their annual Spine Ride Fundraiser, visit their Facebook Page where you can see more photos and video from their 2018 ride.