You can’t say we’re not persistent. But committed? Not so much, since it took until 2023 to achieve a 100 mile ride in France. Finally we made it.
Our first attempt around the Pas de Calais was way back in 2017 with our 19 dogs around Desvres route. That year we missed out by 7 miles. The following year? We got nowhere near but spent a lot of time in the care of Eurotunnel, with the number of dogs reduced to five.
This year? Well, this year we made it and had a fine old time of it too. With 20+ dogs and a cockerel.
About the route around Montreuil
Over the years my initial route has not changed too much. A few extra miles tacked on here and there to make up the 100 miles, and a few quieter roads chosen to keep tired riders away from end-of-day drivers, but really the basic concept has remained sound.
The route we’ve long established starts in Desvres, a non-descript town about 20 minutes out of the Tunnel, chosen because you get off the A16 autoroute before the first toll post! It’s not scenic in any way, but does serve as a useful start point to the ride, with a large (free) car park behind the shops.
Starting in Desvres the route takes you almost directly south down the valley of La Course, a minor river that drains into the marshes at Montreuil. From there the route loops out east to Hesdin, then crosses a couple of small rivers – La Canche and L’Authie – and heads back to Montreuil on the south bank of the L’Authie. These are all small rivers that populate the low lying marshland that the town of Montreuil rises above.
By this point you’ll have covered about 100km/65 miles of the route. The remaining 40 miles take you north-west to the coast at Hardelot before cutting back inland to Desvres. The full route comes to 170km/106 miles and rewards you with about 5,500 feet of climbing.
It’s not the hardest route. But it’s not easy either and there are constant sharp punchy climbs that are back loaded into the latter stages when legs are at their tiredest.
Why did we do this?
Do we need a reason? Actually we have at least three for our trip:
- MarkJ still hadn’t ridden a 100 miles in one go!
- Riding in France is a lot calmer than riding in the UK
- It’s an adventure
I mean. Why justify yourself!
MarkJ, MarkC and myself decided that this was our year to finally put the route to rest.
We were fairly relaxed on inviting others, so long as people understood that a high speed roadtrain wasn’t part of our plans. JR was in Japan, Gordon was on a golf weekend and most others refused to accept that road riding is for them. Except we were on gravel bikes, so that’s OK.
In the past we’ve used road bikes and truthfully, that’s the ideal bike. But with MarkJ and I currently using gravel bikes predominantly for riding English roads and MarkC recovering from his broken wrist, gravel bikes made sense. In MarkC’s case, he was on his steel Genesis Fortitude so it was practically an MTB anyway!
A brutal start
Our plan was a day ride in northern France, followed by an overnight in Boulogne and a nice meal as a reward. This would afford a leisurely breakfast before returning home sporting our victors’ laurels.
In practice, this means you have to get up at a ridiculously early hour. I would have preferred riding a couple of weeks earlier but schedules needed syncing. Even so, if we wanted to be riding at about 8:30am local time it meant catching the 5:20am train from Folkestone which in turn meant a 2:30am departure from MarkC’s place to accommodate overnight road closures on the M25.
That was hard. But the spirit of adventure was strong, dampened only slightly by the cost of a bacon roll and coffee at the Eurotunnel Starbucks. By 7:50am, pretty much bang on schedule, we pulled into the Place du 8 Mai car park. As with our first visit, the fair was in town with the place half full of fairground rides.
After limited but considered faffage, we saddled up and headed out on our ride, each of us secretly pleased to have fitted mudguards. Conditions were lightly damp.
They didn’t stay that way for long. And pretty soon the wisdom of gravel/MTB bikes started to be challenged.
Gravel bikes on French tarmac
Gravel. I know. Overkill right? You may be thinking that French roads famed for their smoothness should never be sullied by gravel tyres. For the most part I’d agree, but given our need for comfort, given the likelihood of farmers mud on the road and given that even in France it’s possible to find really scabby tarmac (and we did) it made sense to use our gravel bikes.
Admittedly, MarkCs Genesis stretches the definition of gravel but it had quiet-running Teravail Rutland tyres on it with tan walls. That’s just about a gravel bike isn’t it? MarkJ and myself were rather more traditional, running road bike shaped bikes with 38-40c tyres.
All of us were running mudguards; after our experience on our second ride attempt none of us wanted to make the day any harder than it promised to be. Within a mile or two our wisdom repaid itself as the skies started to leak and we passed frequent large patches of wet mud on the roads. The mudguards shrugged it all off and kept us rolling while our larger tyres gave us more grip than we could possibly use.
The downside of course was that despite adding extra pressure – 38psi front and 42 psi rear on my 38c Specialized Pathfinder tyres – I never really felt I had a fast bike all day. This was exacerbated by the weather which though damp was hovering around 17°C for most of the day. With a waterproof shell it meant my day was just the wrong side of boil in the bag discomfort.
Water, water not quite everywhere
I had another reason for discomfort too – MarkJ had left his water bottles on his kitchen worktop back in the UK, so I gave him one of mine to use instead. This meant I felt over hot and under hydrated nearly all day as I stretched out my water consumption between stops. I’m sure MarkJ suffered in the same way.
Talking of suffering, there was MarkC on his ‘gravel’ MTB. 1×10 and fat tyres certainly hampered both his top speed as well as his progress up some of the steeper gradients. In fact straight from the off the road kicks up for three or four miles and MarkC had to warm up fast. My tolerance envelope was suitably broad though as he was carrying my Eccles cake supplies!
Once we got into a flow our pace settled down with MarkC’s superior mileage total this year compensating for our faster bikes. But overall, a road bike is your better bet for this route (with mudguards if it is damp).
Getting into a groove
Almost from the start we found we were riding under damp skies. It was the sort of rain the Scots probably have a name for – dreich or mizzle or something. Nothing significant but enough to make the roads damp and throw up mud from farm traffic. A lot of the fields round here have level access direct from the road with few hedges, so mud appears suddenly and randomly.
Within a mile we had our first climb, about a mile uphill at 6.5% and enough to notice with cold legs. I don’t really remember this from our last attempt, mainly because it was raining much harder and we were keen to push on but this time we immediately found MarkC taking his time to warm up on his ‘flat bar gravel bike’.
Heading south east to Bourthes we then cut across to the Course valley via Zoteux. Despite the odd sharp climb the route trends downhill for 23 miles before settling in to a relatively flat eastward leg to Hesdin. We stopped a couple of times for a bit of snackage but I was keen to make the most of the downward trend.
However, I just didn’t feel my bike had any speed in it and it was hard for us to get into a road train with each of us comfortable with a slightly different pace. Once we turned east we had constant rain in our faces too and a slight headwind. It wasn’t raining as such; but we needed to continually wipe our glasses as there was so much moisture in the air. We got thoroughly soaked. Over about 14 miles I reckon we were about 10 minutes slower than previous occasions.
Of course, this disparity adds up. By the time we stopped in Hesdin for a quick coffee in the market square I was getting concerned about the time because we still had 25 miles until our planned lunch stop.
This time gap was bothering me – I was hot and thirsty and no matter how I tried I couldn’t seem to get on top of my gear. Partly, my front brake was rubbing and without wanting to get all Chris Froome about it, the psychological toll had me thinking it was holding me back. More prosaically I just didn’t have 100 mile rides in my legs, which grew increasingly sore. But a ride like this doesn’t come easy.
A brief lunch
I finally worked out why we seemed to be behind schedule. The revised route was an extra 14 miles over our original effort, and half of that – about 6 or 7 miles – was in the first part of the ride. This meant by the time we stopped for coffee in Hesdin we had already covered 38 miles instead of 31 but my understanding of this wasn’t until much later.
So we were chasing time as we climbed up another 6% climb out of Hesdin and then rode out to and along the L’Authie valley. We paused briefly for the Jardin de Valloires at Argoules (a garden I’d like to visit in more detail), but really there are quite a few architectural highlights that you pass along the way, all part of the 12th century Abbaye de Valloires estate. There’s lots of small roads to explore too which felt like a missed opportunity but on a big ride you just can’t fit all this in.
We pressed on and finally reached the fortified town of Montreuil at about 2:00pm. The town sits on an escarpement looking over the surrounding countryside, with city walls rising precipitously. Again, with time on your hands you can find a decent meal in one of the many restuarents or take a stroll around the city walls enjoying the views.
Sadly, we had to be practical. It was not exactly raining, but not anywhere near dry and we still had over 40 miles still to ride. We reluctantly decided to hit up the small Carrefour supermarket for food and to skip our planned lunch stop in a nearby cafe. This meant passing up a large bottle of Leffe with my name on it, which was probably for the best!
Instead, suitably loaded with crisps, sandwiches and sweets we settled for a hurried meal in the town square under a large statue of General Haig. At least the Marks were happy but I found myself losing temperature very quickly in the wind.
The second half
Soon, we pressed on. The mileage may have said we were over halfway but we had some large-ish hills to navigate and right out from Montreuil we were hit by a heavy shower of rain just as we were at our coldest on a fast downhill. Fortunately, it lasted barely a minute and in fact about an hour later we could see our own shadows as the sun came out for a short time.
It didn’t really lift our spirits. Mainly because between Montreuil and the coast are a couple of long climbs that are a total slog. MarkC’s MTB was a clear handicap here but my gravel bike was decidedly not much fun on these climbs either. All of us were getting tired but I actually found the climbing rythmn suited me better than trying to find a cadence on the flats.
By the time we rode into the other worldly experience of Hardelot (or at least, the other worldly weekend home of rich Parisians) I could tell that MarkC’s superior riding fitness was starting to show to his advantage.
I was sore legged, as I think was MarkJ but it was a pleasure to see the sea. The beach is vast and empty, yellow sand stretching away to a strong surf as the wind blows unhindered up the Channel. As I’ve thought several times before, it would be ideal for a summer weekend with the family.
No time to rest
The day was ebbing away. I think we all knew that it wasn’t an ‘if’ we’d finish the ride but a ‘when’. So soon we were back riding away from the beach with about 20 miles left to cover. Unlike previous years, I’ve modified this end of the route too.
In the past, we’ve ridden through Carly to Samer but have found the route to be both ugly and relatively heavily trafficed, particularly at the end of a working day. With tired riders, I didn’t really want to mix it with freight traffic, so we turned briefly south east toward Verlincthun and then east to Tingry before heading directly north to Samer.
Almost immediately it was clear these roads were going to be quiet – great! But also, hilly. The Rue du Montaigu for instance was not only the scabbiest bit of poacher road I’ve seen in France but kicked up to 10% in places.
On the whole though the roads were ideal. As the short, sharp hills took their toll, MarkC finally found his stride and pretty much pulled MarkJ and myself back to Desvres. We actually hit the 100 mile point climbing up the 7% Rue de Breuil into Samer before my Garmin frustratingly died at 100.1 miles for the day. It’s an old unit.
Our last miles through Longfosse into Desvres were just a case of hanging on and wondering how MarkC looked so perky. Even MarkJ dropped me from time to time as my legs finally started to cramp up. But we made it with a half hour of daylight to spare and 170km/106 miles racked up. And me pondering a new road bike…
Post ride in Boulogne
All the above is very much a 2,500 word preamble to say that our reward for a long day of travel and cycling was an evening in Boulogne, followed by a leisurely morning on Friday.
We stayed at the Ibis Styles Centre Cathedrale at Porte Nueve in Boulogne. We have visited before and it is ideally placed for a short stay, offering Travel Lodge/Premier Inn levels of accommodation.
The Cathedral location has two benefits.
First, there is free parking opposite the hotel. If you are disinclined to pay the €10 fee for the hotel car park this is a good option. Second, the hotel has reasonably secure parking for bikes in its car park (although I’m not sure who would be responsible should the worst happen). There’s a bike rack, access is via a security door and the car park is for guests only so we felt we could lock our stuff there with some peace of mind.
The rooms are decent – comfortable with modern decor, if a little cramped but no hint of bed bugs(!). I actually had a view of the Cathedrale itself if I craned out of the window.
The best bit though is the Ibis is just yards from the Porte Nueve which leads directly into the largely pedestrianised old town.
The Rue de Lille leads straight down to the main square and has numerous restaurents. After some deliberation we picked the Belle Epoque (I think) for a cosy steak and chips (what else?), chased down first by a super-cold Leffe and then a bottle of French red. All relatively unsophisticated but I had a great evening of decent food and good conversation with the two Marks that I enjoyed immensely.
The following morning we continued to replenish lost calories with an all-you-can-eat breakfast in the hotel (n.b. bring your own English Breakfast tea bags!). Then we set out to explore the old town in daylight.
We took a tour of the city walls and found ourselves in the middle of a school cross country race round the ramparts, then it was back to the town for a last coffee by the Jardin Éphémère. It was nice to actually see an English school trip taking place while we were there too.
All in all that was a lovely and successful trip to France and an appetizer as always for more. We’ve loose ideas to cycle to Bruges from the tunnel at some point but there’s so much to do and explore it’s tough to narrow it down.
Congratulations to MarkJ for finally finishing a 100 mile ride and hats off to MarkC for pulling us along the last painful miles.