It was a spur of the moment thing. Biker was going back to Switzerland and had decided to ride there, I happened to phone at just the right time and asked him if he wanted some company for the trip. The plan and the route rapidly followed from there and with some carefully orchestrated skiving on my behalf, I was soon driving down to Suffolk to pick up Mr. Thorne and his kit, before heading down to Seven Oaks for an overnighter.
The aim of the mission was to get to Luzern in time for the Big Air festival just out side Zurich over the weekend of 28th/29th September. The bikes were suitably kitted up for such a trip, with pannier racks and in my case slicks and we were pretty much ready to rock. This is my recollection of events. We didn’t take many photos, pretty much because we were on a mission and didn’t have much time to do the tourist thing. Some places I’d love to go back to and explore on a bike again, others I just won’t miss.
Day One – Sunday 22nd September
Dover – Cambrai
The original plan had been to ride from Seven Oaks down to Dover, but such was the way of things with ferry crossing times and other stuff, we ended up taking the train. We rode to Seven Oaks train station, travelled south and emerged out of Dover station from where we had to negotiate the 3.5km to the Ferry terminal to check in for boarding.
The crossing was important in two senses. One I had neglected to fill my water bottles up before leaving and I hadn’t bothered to get and money changed into Euros. Some how with all the talk about what was in front of us, watching the White cliffs recede from view and getting some breakfast I managed to miss the Bureau de Change on the boat and then the bar, which meant as we rolled of the boat into France I had no water and no cash, but it was time to chin up and do some biking.
It soon became apparent that the Autoroute printout of directions wasn’t much cop. Probably fine if you’re in a car, but pretty crap if your on a bike. I think we ditched that bad boy after about 15 minutes. We just used a pocket edition of the Michelin map of France for the whole trip. So using our new found navigational aid we were soon bombing along the road from Calais to Ardres with a hell of a tailwind.
We were really cruising along on the flat in the big ring probably managing well over 25mph despite all our gear. On the section up to Nordausques the roads become a bit more undulating and we could see a storm coming in. It caught up with us in about fifteen minutes and we received a royal soaking. This was important in two aspects: firstly it killed my mobile and it was the only rain we were to have until the end of our trip.
Things became a bit more interesting as we rolled into St-Omer partly due to a phenomenon known as A-Roads Not Suitable for Cyclists. We twigged that one after a lot of cars went past hooting and flashing their lights at us. Plan B was formed on the spot and involved hitting the departmental roads and so we headed towards Thérouanne. By the time we hit Houdain we were well into the stash of energy bars and getting low on the water that Biker had brought. After Arras we were back on a busier road and racing the setting sun into Cambrai.
We soon found our Formula 1 motel and Biker managed to persuade the receptionist to let us keep our bikes in the room overnight. After we’d sorted ourselves out we headed off on what seemed to be a monster walk into town to try and find some food. Eventually we managed to track down the golden arches, but I was in such a state I couldn’t eat and ended up munching fries and drinking a couple of litres of Sprite.
Day Two – Monday 23rd September
Cambrai – Le Chesne
Our morning routine involved getting some food and getting going on route as soon as possible. It was something that we did, but not necessarily in that order. Our first day in France we paid for breakfast in the motel, but soon wished we hadn’t bothered. It wasn’t up to much. As we headed southeast out of Cambrai we began a demoralising slog across the country on pretty much dead straight roads.
On an uphill section between Le Cateau-Cambrésis and Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache the bar holding my Blackburn rack onto the seatstay bridge snapped. A bodge using a bungee cord was soon improvised that held up for the rest of the trip. We pushed on and made really good time. Over lunch in La Capelle we discussed our route and decided to push on further than planned today so as to cut down on the mileage the next day. After Hirson we took a Departmental and cut through Rumigny and Signy-l’Abbaye to Poix-Terron. There was an unexpected slog up and out of Poix-Terron as we climbed up onto and road along a plateau offering fantastic views of the Ardenne.
The descent down into Le Chesne was classic and we both had big grins by the end. We overnighted in the Hotel by the bridge and ended up buying food for dinner from the mini-supermarket across the road. Our bike ended up in the garage round the back.
Day Three – Tuesday 24th September
Le Chesne – Nancy
After making a reasonably early start the next day and headed off into what turned out to be a beautiful countryside route from the Ardennes into the Lorraine. For much of the early part heading towards Buzancy we battled the wind, but as we rode the rolling roads past the war graves into Dun we were both too sombre to care.
We managed to get some bike lube in a little shop in Dun, which was a great help as both bikes were beginning to sound like Sherman tanks. As we followed the river south in beautiful sunshine and surrounded by stunning scenery my knee which had begun feeling a bit odd the day before was getting to be a bit of a state. From then on I was popping paracetamol and ibuprofen alternatively every couple of hours.
Once we’d passed through Bras-sur-Meuse and rolled into Verdun, which once we’d negotiated the city streets was followed by a switchbacked descent and then climb out and up onto the D903. From there we then took the D904 towards Thiaucourt-Regniéville before cutting across towards Pont-à-Mousson. From then on it was a relatively simple trek down the through Dieulouard and into the traffic chaos of rush hour Nancy. We were happy to have arrived so far ahead of schedule and in daylight, but by the time we’d crossed the City to find our Formula 1 Motel for the night we were damn tired. With our bikes once again locked in the room we headed out and ended up eating spaghetti bolognese with loads of bread and a beer for dinner.
Day Four – Wednesday 25th September
Nancy – Mulhouse
When we checked into the Motel the night before there’d been a bit of banter with the receptionists about the weather forecast, snowline and our chosen route through the Vosges. They obviously thought we were mad! We didn’t know what to expect but the plan was to push on, see how far we could go and if things turned nasty we could fall back and take an extra day to attempt an alternative route.
With this in mind we had our earliest start to beat the Nancy morning rush hour and we were soon on our way. With a quick stop at a boulangerie for breakfast we were soon heading to Lunéville. From there it was through the departmental roads to Rambervillers. It was about here I began to experience an odd sensation from the back of the bike and had to resign to the fact that we’d had our first puncture of the trip.
After swapping tubes, we were back on the rolling roads to Bruyères, from where the climbing really began. Lunch was taken in the French Ski resort of Gérardmer and after that it was the ascent of Col de la Schlucht (1139m) and then further climbing and traversing along the spectacular Route des Crêtes, which follows the ridges along the north-south backbone. The views are particularly dramatic at the south end of the route, where the road is highest.
The descent down should have taken us to Cernay, but at somepoint we took a wrong turn and ended up well over ten kilometers up the valley from Thann. This was quite depressing because we were both pretty knackered by this point, but we had little choice but to press on. From Thann we did have a tail wind as we rode a dicey and at times hair-raising dual carriage way section towards Mulhouse in the fading light.
In the end we bottled it and ended up on a bike path and then offroading it on farm tracks across the fields, towards the lights of the city. As we reached the suburbs, we rigged some lights up (rear light on bike riding at the back, front light on bike riding at the front), ended up having to ask for directions and in the end, it was by shear fluke that we found the motel.
The receptionist took one look at the state of us and our mud covered bikes and told us that there was no way we could leave our bikes in the room. They were disassembled and put in a store room outside. After washing off the filth of a days riding we wandered into town and ended up having some top food in a kebab shop that was showing that night’s French football match. It had been a truly epic ride in terms of the distance we covered and the twelve hours in the saddle.
Day Five – Thursday 26th September MULHOUSE – LUZERN
This should have been an easy day after yesterday. The riding down to the French/Swiss border at Basel was pretty straight-forward. The border crossing was a hassle free affair and we weren’t even stopped. Riding through Basel had its moments and I think we were both nearly taken out by Swiss motorists who seemed to be far less understanding than their French counterparts. After we had negotiated our escape from city (with a bit of help from a map we looked at in a petrol station shop) we were back on-route. To avoid a long and hilly diversion we had to ride a section not opened to bikes. We ragged along it from Liestal heading towards Sissach, turning off to take the road and climb up and over to Olten.
As we climbed the rain began. It started as drizzle, but soon as we climbed upwards it turned into a proper rain that was really depressing. We stopped halfway up and took shelter to eat our lunch. After that Biker really put the hammer down and took minutes out of me on the last section of the climb. I didn’t see him again until the bottom of the descent. At some point the day before I’d lost the nosepiece of my M-Frames and on the descent the icy cold spray of my slicks meant I was struggling to see anything.
After our last big climb the roads through Aarburg and Zofingen posed little problem. Not long after we’d past Sursee, puncture number two struck – this time Biker’s bike succumbing to a big shard of metal. After that’d been patched up it was the last little stint into Luzern. That place is even beautiful in the rain, but it was good to get in to the warm and dry.
After washing five days of filth of the bikes, having a pasta feast and doing a bit of shopping it was time to retire, retention wheels and thank god it was over. And we had two days to enjoy the Big Air Festival.