Cycle diary (part 1 of 3) - Southampton to Assisi

Here's the first part of my diary that I kept each night during our sponsored ride after we arrived at our accommodation:

Prelude: Southampton to Portsmouth (for the overnight ferry), via Wickham (25 miles)

Here's us setting off from St. Mary's College. 

We called in to see my good friend Fr. Andrew McMahon at Park Place Diocesan Pastoral Centre in Wickham on the way (it was Fr. Andrew, himself a Franciscan, who inspired me to ride to Assisi with tales of his solo HIKE there about 30-40 yrs. ago). We also called in to see my Aunt Margo + Uncle Ron in Gosport.

Day 1 - Saint-Malo to Solesmes Monastery (Benedictine) (110 miles)

Off the ferry at around 8.30am, then a short ride to our Brothers' community in Saint-Malo (where we have a primary school) for a lovely breakfast. Easy terrain, Pete having to get used to riding on the right. At least that was his excuse for sitting behind me all day... :-) that and the fact that I'm the navigator.

Our first pee stop in France. These often doubled as photo opportunities, as you will see...

Arrived at Solesmes about 1hr earlier than expected at about 5.45pm having done 110 miles, thanks to a cross/tailwind and hard riding to make most of it. Both feeling good. Ritual hand-washing from the Prior of Solesmes Monastery as new guests just before going in to supper in with the 30 or so monks in their large, long refectory together with another 15 or so guests/retreatants. Pete a little unprepared for the rapid pace at which supper was eaten: quails wings (perhaps... they were tiny!) with pale green beans that Pete mistook for pasta. A nice walk around the grounds afterwards (see photo opposite).

Solesmes Benedictine Monastery: one of the most important monasteries in the whole of France.

Day 2 - Sanctuaire de Pellevoisin (113 miles)

Another day of easy terrain: undulating, but nothing too steep and with the possibility of keeping in a big gear and powering over the little "bonks". Arrived at Pellevoisin at 5.05pm having set off 7.30am. Tail/crosswind again but more tail. 113 miles 9 less than planned thanks to taking a few small lanes that made the route more direct. An even faster average speed than yesterday: just under 17 mph. We were very happy with that. Pete had our 1st puncture during the morning, otherwise no drama.

Pete having a stretch at the first pee stop of the day! 

Supper at Pellevoisin sanctuary with a group of Belgian pilgrims.

Day 3 - Abbaye de Bellaigue, Virlet (108 miles)

Today we headed through the lower hills of the Massif Central mountain region of central France, with it getting hillier the further we went. High point at 625m. Light head/crosswind but not too much of a problem. It was very sunny + warm: max. at about 28C. The shape of things to come? 14.5mph average = very good considering the wind + terrain. 

Guess what Pete's doing? :-)

But, Bellaigue monastery ended up not being where Google Maps had said it was. Had to go about 6 miles further west from our route. In the end this may well add about another 10 miles to tomorrow's stage. Bellaigue is a very traditionalist monastery... they sing in Latin at all their times of prayer together during the day. But, the community is flourishing: about 30 monks, the average age seeming about 30. A warm welcome from the Guestmaster. We ended up having a very convivial evening meal (accompanied by some pretty potent semi-fortified white wine) with Portuguese workers who were there to help renovate the old buildings of this long disused monastery that goes back many hundreds of years, but hadn't been occupied since the time of Napoleon until this community moved in about 10 years ago.

Day 4 - Le Puy En Velay (138 miles)

A tough day in searing heat + sunshine: 30C in the shade. Today 2,300m vertical altitude climbing in 138 mls. to Le Puy En Velay, including a couple of minor mountain passes. Could end up being one of our toughest days. But we're through it. No major injuries or mechanicals. 

Arriving at Le Puy En Velay the back way.

Unfortunately, the accommodation wasn't a true B&B as advertised on the website where I did the booking, but rather a youth hostel-style pilgrims' accommodation (or army barracks, as Pete suggested). A bit of a nightmare to find it too up a load of steep cobbled streets. We both could have done with something a bit more homely + comfortable... just one of those things. I think I'll look at tomorrow's planned accommodation (a monastery) before I go to bed tonight and maybe cancel it in favour of something a little more comfortable (... a hotel?). I know this isn't a "holiday" as such, but I think we deserve a little more comfort tomorrow with all the effort we are putting in... call it a moral booster! :-) After all, It's 2 monasteries the next 2 nights (though I know that at least one of them will be perfectly fine = Ganagobie).

Day 5 - Vaison-La-Romaine (121 miles)

121 miles covered. Very strong headwind climbing to top of the Ardeche region this morning. Great high-speed descent though down Ardeche valley, just the kind I really like (topped 40 mph a few times). A bit disappointed that I only managed to overtake one car though :-) 

Descending the Ardèche valley 

A typical lunch stop! (Lidl or Aldi did the trick... lunch for 2 for about 5€!!)

Drama at the end of the day... the rear pannier stem on my bike snapped just as we arrived at our Hotel this evening. Could have been so much worse if it had happened during the descent and fallen into my rear wheel!! Friendly hotel staff have given us the address of a local bike shop. Will go there first thing tomorrow to buy a new pannier rack. As we climb the Mont Ventoux tomorrow (pannier replacement pending) I'd planned a shorter day - 80 mls - so, despite the late start we will hopefully still be able to get to our planned destination in good time can. It was also fortunate that it happened today and not as we were climbing the Ventoux... And to think that we were originally going to stay in a monastery in the middle of nowhere tonight, i.e. with no bike shop for miles around! I think the prayers of my friends + fellow Brothers came up trumps for us here.

My broken rear pannier rack.

Vaison-la-Romaine old town where Pete + I found a nice pizzeria for supper.

Day 6 - Ganagobie (80 miles)

More drama yesterday evening... Pete slipped after getting out of the shower and fell on the sliding rail of the patio door... banged his ribs badly. Looked painful. He had a rough night I think. Managed to buy and fit a new rear pannier this morning and fit my existing pannier bag to it.

"No, Pete, we can't afford this too!"
Pete falling for a £5,000 one piece moulded carbon fibre bike.

Left Vaison at about 9.40am. Not too bad, all things considered. 21km climbing the Ventoux in drizzle (av. gradient 8%)... actually made it much easier. As expected, Pete got to the top long before me. My extra 3 stone in body weight + extra gear in my panniers/handlebar bag compared to Pete aren't quite balanced out by my relative youthfulness. Plus, he's just bloomin' fit, much more naturally fit than me and does far more riding than me during the year. I do more than hold my own though outside of the longer, steeper climbs when I lead the way so as to navigate. Must say I'm proud to be riding with him. When we tell people what we are doing they look at Pete as if they can't believe an "old guy" like him could do such a thing, but how wrong they are. He's not just super fit, he's as tough as old boots!

Shivering, but happy, having made it up the Ventoux (1,912m).

It was freezing on top of the Ventoux and poor old Pete had to wait about 20 mins till I got there, doing the climb in about 2hr10 to my 2hr30. Also freezing and very windy in the dangerous descent. Couldn't make the most of it. Both of us had to keep stopping as we were shaking so much from the cold and weren't able to hold the handlebars straight. Ended the day with a steep 4km climb to Ganagobie Monastery where I did a 3-week retreat back in 1996 to prepare for my perpetual profession (final vows). An emotional return for me. A wonderful welcome from the monks just as they were finishing supper, many of whom I recognised... 80 miles.

... to be continued...

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