When all you hear is the purring of the front wheel on the tarmac and the satisfying “clunk” as the rear derailleur perfectly positions the chain down a sprocket, when the chain is silent as it strains against the gears and your bike responds to your every whim, when the previous days of cycling put you in good shape and you are going at a good pace without an apparent effort, then you are one with the machine, and all is right with the world, and you feel you could fly.
We were cycling down a straight stretch of a lane on the banks of the river Loire to Ancenis, a small town on its bank. The sun was shining in a sky scattered with altocumulus and cirrus clouds, omens of good weather. The lane was well paved, with trees and bushes to our left leaving enough gaps to reveal intermittent glimpses of the river. At that point the Loire had become wide and deep, a very different river to the one we had followed the day before. This river, we learnt, has so many personalities.
Loire à Vélo
Our fourth bikepacking trip (and the third tracking a river), this was our favourite. Corinne and I tracked the Loire for some 370km from Orleans to Nantes and witnessed a river that morphed imperceptibly from a shallow stream among sandbanks to navigable stretches of deep water and back again to sandbanks. The official “Loire à Vélo” cycling route (which starts at Nevers and ends in St Nazaire in the Atlantic) is well traced — as well as travelled — and spurred an industry of hotels, cafés and bike workshops dotted along the way. We picked a section with a high concentration of chateaux, that led us to Nantes without too much effort, averaging 60 km a day. We chose September to avoid the mad rush of July and August where the route becomes an “autoroute”, but there were still enough cyclists to justify keeping open the myriad cafés and “guinguettes“ (as they are called here) across our route, making for a lively atmosphere.
We were impressed with the infrastructure. The route is essentially well paved and secluded from cars for the vast majority of the way. It loyally tracks the Loire, with the occasional detour over vineyards that are invariably uphills. At one point the signposted route deviated from my GPS directions for just 100 metres. It baffled us as it did not seem necessary — until we saw that the deviation passed by someone’s house with apples for sale. Now here’s a house owner with influence.
Contrary to our previous trips when “Accueil Vélo” signs in front of hotels were just a marketing gimmick, here they really do signify that the hotel caters for the needs of bikepackers. As bikepackers we carry everything we need for the trip and our panniers are full of trade-offs between weight and necessity. Bikepacking is an exercise in minimalism. We learnt that we could live one week with only 7kg of luggage, accounting for maintenance, hygiene, comfort and entertainment. That took quite some discipline from me.
At the “Accueil Vélo” hotels, at the very least we could find a closed and secure enclosure for our bikes, and very often we found more amenities (although a clothes dryer is the “holy grail” and is quite the rarity). Hotel Le Monarque in Blois had at our disposal a toolkit, a garden hose, as well as a bucket and soap. I was duly impressed. I also felt the urge to wash my bike just to congratulate the hotel on their wise decision. The things we do for our fellow cyclists.
Our rhythm was leisurely and varied little. We spread the 4 hours or so of cycling across the day, and took our time to smell the flowers, take photographs or just chit chat side by side. We often found bucolic areas on the banks of the Loire for a picnic lunch, and of course we regularly stopped for our requisite morning cappuccino at a guinguette that had attracted our attention either through its location, or through its patisserie menu. We aimed to arrive around mid afternoon at our destination, giving us ample time to shower, rest and roam the town in discovery mode.
Our overnight stops were chosen the night before based on how much we felt like riding the next day. Blois, Tours, Montsoreau, La Bohalle, Ancenis, and Nantes, made for an eclectic mix of big cities, towns and villages. We were blessed with sunny weather from the start, but the forecast had consistently called for intermittent rain on our final day of cycling to Nantes. We decided to get as close as possible to the city the day before, giving us the agility for a quick departure during a lull between two showers and minimising cycling time. That was how we came to cycle our longest stretch, 76km, from La Bohalle to Ancenis, only 36km from Nantes. It was also our hottest day (around 30 degC) and we were glad to have found our air-conditioned accommodation. As we roamed the small but busy town, we figured business must be good in Ancenis, if the number of upmarket German cars circulating is anything to go by. We also counted six barbers, which, for a town of 7,500 inhabitants, did seem like an extravagance.
As well as being immersed in beautiful countryside, cycling the Loire is an inescapable trip down French History, so steeped is the region in stories of kings, battles, heroes, villains, alliances and betrayals, stories that marked and shaped the country that it is today. It is here that Jeanne d’Arc liberated Orleans and pushed back the English during the 100 year war. It is to Tours, Blois and Ambroise that the French court had moved from Paris in the 15th century. The region must have the highest concentration of castles or chateaux anywhere in France. The big names are not always exactly on our cycling route (remember that deviating only 10 km on a bike is not an insignificant endeavour), but countless smaller castles — the more humble abodes of the Court’s entourage — are scattered along the route. It is difficult to avoid castles in the Loire Valley.
As this is an official route, it is easy to meet fellow bikepackers, and indeed we sometimes recognise each other from the hotel the previous evening. On arriving at our hotel in Nantes, we finally spoke with the Dutch couple whom we had been alternately following and leading the last 4 days, with the occasional “hello” or “we have to stop meeting like this” exchanged when we crossed paths. They looked to be about ten years older than us, and being Dutch, were die-hard cyclists. They told us they were riding the whole Loire à Vélo route from Nevers to St Nazaire. Not for them cycling only a portion of the route. That put us a little to shame, but by then we had learnt that everything is relative.
On our first day out of Orleans, we found ourselves next to a cyclist as we waited for the light to turn green. His bike was heavily loaded, with panniers at the front and back, a sleeping bag and what looked like a tent attached to the rack. He was clearly not spending nights in hotels. I asked him where he had started his journey. “Dresden”, he replied laconically. Our jaws dropped. Dresden is about 1,300 km from where we were. He had at least a thousand more kilometres to cycle before reaching his destination in Portugal. Well that certainly put our meagre 370km trip in context. Luckily he didn’t ask us the same questions.
We spent most nights in hotels, with one exception in La Bohalle, a sleepy residential village that had a school but no restaurants, which was problematic to us. We found a “chambre d’hôte” in a house where the landlady very kindly offered to have us share her meal with her guests that evening. Our landlady was quite loquacious, and within five minutes of meeting her — our bikes barely stored in the garden shed — we practically knew her life story. A wine researcher who had set up a renowned university Masters program, she was recently made redundant and was trying to re-orient herself towards a new career in hospitality. If you listen carefully though, you can detect a slight bitterness that she was trying to hide; she clearly misses her work and the stimulation that it used to provide. As a host, however, she was charming, a good cook, and she tended to our every need. We ended up having a lively dinner with a single mother of a six year-old (a long term tenant renting the annex of the house), who had just moved to the region to start a new job in Angers, and a French farmer, based in Senegal, attending a course in the area. Our conversation was varied, covering topics from wine growing, to life in Senegal, to changing careers, to politics. All of which made for an agreeable change from our experiences in anonymous hotels.
Our last cycling day had finally arrived with dry weather, proving, to our delight, the forecast wrong. We made Nantes from Ancenis in good haste. Our hotel was situated in the theatre area, close to the opera, with narrow alleys full of bistros fronted by outside tables that lit up with chats and laughter well into the evening and night. Occasionally, the sound of rehearsals from the opera could also be heard in the afternoon, much to the delight of the patrons. Nantes, the biggest city on our route, is easy to cycle in, with well organised bicycle lanes and patient drivers. With a population of about 30,000 students (all apparently sprawled across its many terraces and cafés), Nantes appeared very young, and we felt a vibrancy in the air, a palpable liveliness that was infectious.
The forecasted rain finally arrived the next day, but that didn’t bother us as we took that day off from cycling, and we lost ourselves in Nantes’ pedestrian lanes, cafes, and shops. We had decided to skip breakfast at the hotel, preferring a cappuccino and a croissant in one of the many cafes spread across the city, but we found it very difficult to find one open in the morning. That did seem against character.
Our Loire à Vélo trip ended with a train journey back to Orleans where we had left our car. We traced back our route in three hours instead of six days, often identifying the cycle route that we were on not long ago, giving us time to reflect upon those last six days. It was not particularly strenuous trip, but then again, we were not going for performance. Bikepacking is an exercise in slowing down, in being mindful of the here and now, where the journey is as important as the destination. And in this respect Loire à Vélo did not disappoint, as the journey took us through beautiful landscapes rich in French history. The week passed by quickly as Corinne and I enjoyed exchanging and sharing, highlighting sights, discussing alternatives or just silently cycling together enjoying our proximity.
Ok, we did guiltily enjoy gossiping about our neighbours at that seafood restaurant in Nantes. But honestly they were quite loud.