For the best part of three years now I’ve had a low level of pain in my lower back. Not agony, but enough to wake me three of four times a night. Sort of an old man’s ache, as I’ve come to think about it.
It’s probably the cycling; that combined with sitting in a chair for a large part of the day means that some muscle imbalance is sure to occur. I’ve been to a physio, a couple in fact. No dice really; when you struggle to answer the question ‘is that better, or worse, or about the same’ you know it’s not the answer. I’ve had a hip X-ray for possible arthritis; again, inconclusive.
This all leads me to believe it’s fundamentally a muscle imbalance. I can feel fine, yet struggle to pick up an object off the floor without a significant twinge of pain in the lower vertebra, or to lie on my back for long without my lower back objecting. It has the feel of tight hip flexors yet exercises to loosen those and my hamstrings don’t do much. What a puzzle.
On the bike, things are most obviously indicated by a lack of punch. Steady efforts are fine but punchy riding becomes tiring and tiresome, with the result that I haven’t been on the MTB a huge amount. Some of you might have noticed…
That doesn’t been I haven’t been riding. Road mainly, and mainly commuting with a nice long week in rural France on holiday too. Ironically, breaking my collarbone riding home from work didn’t really do my back much good either; I still have the lump on my hip from where I landed and that was back in February.
So, what do you do if you’ve been riding all summer and want to ‘get something in’ before winter arrives? Well, in my case, it was a long day ride around Northern France.
Why France? Because in terms of road riding it excels, being predominantly rural with very, very quiet roads. Such a relief from a ride in the UK which is characterised by a depressingly poor level of driving behaviour. I’ve been harassed riding down Reigate high street, had all sorts of abuse thrown at me, been chopped up and generally treated like crap by a small but significant minority of drivers and to be honest it all gets old pretty quickly.
In contrast, having ridden some 700+ miles in France in recent years (admittedly on rural roads) I’ve never once been intimidated or threatened in any way; if anything people will wave a greeting more than anything else. So, France is great. Then there’s the fact that travelling outside the peak summer season is remarkably cheap even with our dismal exchange rate in these Brexit-poisoned times. An overnight ticket is £23 each way on the Eurotunnel if you choose the right times to travel and it lets you stay over and return anytime before midnight the following day.
Another motivation was my brother-in-law Mark, who has never ridden more than 43 miles on any kind of bike. We both decided to take advantage of the cheap travel and quiet roads to attempt a big day out round the Pas de Calais, starting from Desvres just 20 minutes from the Channel Tunnel.
So it was that last Wednesday Mark and I found ourselves getting up at silly-o’clock to drive to Folkestone for the 5:50 train to Coquelles.
Using the power of Google Maps and Streetview for research, as well as Strava’s route planning feature I’d mapped out a long ride from Desvres, a town situated about 15 miles from Boulogne in the Caps et Marais d’Opale Natural Regional Park. I had a route that looped south, then northwest to the regions’ most picturesque town (Montreuil), then on to the coast at Hardelot, before completing the ride back to the car – about 90 miles in all. I was comfortable I could go further but knew that 90 odd miles for Mark, on his very economically priced road bike, was a big ask.
Arriving in Desvres just past dawn was an unprepossessing event. Desvres is… a small rural town. Not quite scabby, but not that pretty either; this impression wasn’t helped by the fair arriving in town, and being assembled in the market square in front of us, in the middle of a steady, persistent rainfall that promised to curtail our efforts if it didn’t let up. Still, we weren’t there for too long, just long enough to get changed and ready the bikes.
We set off, underway by 8:00am GMT, and headed out of the town toward Courset and what promised to be a bit of a wake up call, but it transpired to be much tamer than the route planner suggested, a steady 3-4% climb of about a mile and a half, followed by a long steady downhill for the next 25 miles. Sure, not all downhill, but a steady loss of some 420ft on nice, quiet rolling roads, following the Course valley south.
The rain became increasingly sporadic thankfully but within five miles we were spattered with mud from the roads; that’s the flipside of rural roads – what traffic there is comes from tractors leaving muddy fields! A short stop was forced on us somewhere near Inxent when after 10 miles or so neither of us could hold our bladders any longer. As we stood by the deserted roadside, peeing into the bushes, the local Gendarmerie passed by, slowed up, but soon satisfied themselves we were there for legitimate purposes!
The route all the way to Hesdin – south toward Montreuil, then east along the La Canche Marais (or marshes) is easy riding through well kept, affluent looking villages. We were startled by an abrupt barking near Neuville-sous-Montreuil and started counting dog barks for the rest of the day, eventually accumulating nineteen separate dogs.
At Hesdin we reached our most easterly point of the day; from here it was west, then north-west with a good prospect of a tailwind and better weather. It had stopped raining long ago and the roads were dry so things were looking up. Hesdin is a reasonably sized town and we planned a short coffee and pastry break here. The town square, unfortunately, had little to offer – no patisserie nearby, which meant no pain au raisin for me and just a tired looking Tabac which – even at roughly 11:00am French time was rammed full of old men drinking coffee and beer. Not a woman in sight, except one behind the bar! So we made do, scoffing a Cliff bar from our supplies instead, only to find, on a busy road as we left town, a large drive-in cafe/patisserie! You live and learn!
Crossing La Canche we anticipated another climb but it’s bite was tempered by very active roadworks near the top where we had to pick a path round several big machines and workmen as the road was technically closed for repair. [shrugs] C’est la vie as they say. Now we were heading south-west toward Tortefontaine, passing through Mouriez where we once had a family holiday, though our erstwhile accommodation appeared abandoned.
Then it was west to Douriez and a short stop in the bakers there; I was keen to have something to munch and a Pain au Chocolate hit the spot nicely.
Next up was the Abbaye de Valloires, a large, fine looking 17th century estate now open to the public in pretty much the middle of nowhere but notable really for marking the point at which Mark equalled his biggest ride distance so far. Just a handful of miles past that, we turned north-west toward Montreuil, but by now we were into the unknown as far as Mark was concerned.
We kept a nice steady low level pace going, spinning easily over short hills and speeding down the otherside before reaching Montreuil at the 58 mile point. We’d covered two thirds of our planned day’s effort, lunch was on the menu and things felt great. Although we were both anticipating it, the climb into the town is a bit of a shock as you are quickly hit with 12% gradients up through the Old Town, not helped by a good quarter of a mile of pave (robust cobbles) to negotiate. I’m riding 28mm tubeless tyres and felt alright, Mark was on 23mm tread, tired and looked less happy!
Stopping in the large town ‘square’, we looked around for somewhere to eat but this late in the year not everywhere was open for lunch. We did find a very nice restaurent though which happily sold us Croque Monsieur and fries (what else?) and this proved to be just about ideal. I could have eaten more but then, I didn’t really need to and we still had a long afternoon ahead. Next door to the restaurent – pretty much – was a Carrefour Local (for want of a better description) where we purchased more water for our depleted water bottles. Perfect!
Underway again, we really took our time for the next half hour, unwilling to push it and see our lunch again. From here, north-west toward Neufchatel and ultimately the beach at Hardelot were a couple of long climbs followed by swift, long 10% descents; I really enjoyed this part of the day’s riding.
Hardelot Plage was a lovely seaside town and a very good recommendation to visit on a day trip with the family if you want a long four mile sandy beach and a nice selection of places to eat and drink. Really, it was a welcome sight for us and at 80 miles we were in high spirits knowing we’d broken the back of the ride. The sun was out to celebrate and the shore was being pounded by an nice rough surf. What a way to spend a Wednesday!
Of course, we still needed to finish the ride; and as the miles wore on they started to take their toll, particularly on Mark who had really hit the ball out of the park with the day’s distance. We probably should have had a snack/energy bar at Hardelot as you could see his conversation skills gradually shutting down as nondescript towns and repeated hills took their toll. My route unintentionally led us up some sharper hills than necessary and we ended up with a final days distance of 93.5 miles.
‘What a pity you couldn’t get to a hundred!’ said some family members later, but I say always leave something on the table and to be honest, Mark was done.
What we did leave on the table (apart from those final 6.5 miles) was a fine meal in Boulogne, just 15 miles from where we were parked up. I had it all planned out, but after getting changed, putting the bikes away and getting ready to leave our plans were scuppered because the car wouldn’t start!
Flat battery… only our luck in finding a robust but friendly Frenchman with improbably large jump leads saved us and got us on our way. By then, prudence said get back to the tunnel and home; but the UK roads conspired to stop a swift return. Diversions took us via roadworks and back roads to the M2 and Dartford before we could turn toward Surrey.
It was a long day; next time, an Ibis in Boulogne and an overnight stay to enjoy that meal that’s waiting for me is planned, along with a leisurely breakfast the day after. Sometime around April/May next year I think. All welcome!