Thursday, May 7, 2015

A small taste of a big adventure, cycling La Vélo Francette

French Village Diaries cycling La Velo Francette Freewheeling France Niort Marais Poitevin
With Freewheeling France cycling La Velo Francette
One day I would love to take on the challenge of a big cycle adventure. As a child, going out on my bike was limited to cycling the towpath of the Basingstoke canal, turning around and heading home. More than anything, I wanted to be able to do circular cycle routes. Here in rural France I’m in circular cycle route heaven. Whether we pick up a marked route in the Charente or plot our own route, the varieties are endless. But I want more. I want a big adventure. 

French Village Diaries La Vélo Francette Caen La Rochelle France Cycling
La Vélo Francette
In June of this year a new French cycle route is opening up, La Vélo Francette, that runs from the Ouistreham ferry dock near Caen in Normandy to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. With 600kms of marked cycle ways linking up and joining existing cycle routes, just reading about it was enough to give me a tingle of excitement. Lynette Eyb from the French cycling website Freewheeling France, is giving the route a pre-opening test ride, with the help of various local tourist information offices. I won’t deny I’m slightly green with envy, but yesterday Adrian and I were able to meet up with her and her friend Nicole and help escort them through one of our favourite cycling areas, the Marais Poitevin.

We met in Coulon, a pretty town in the heart of the Marais Poitevin, and a regular start point for our bike rides in the reclaimed marshland area situated between La Rochelle and Niort, that is criss-crossed with canals, waterways, footpaths and cycle tracks. We joined them for the 20km ride into Niort, which is our closest big town; somewhere we have to go to if we need something not available locally, or if we have to visit the Prefecture for official French bureaucracy. It is not somewhere we had ever considered actually cycling into for pleasure. The beginning of the route took us through our beloved Marais Poitevin where we acted as unofficial tour guides and pointed out the knobbly, pollarded trees that are essential to keep the structure of the canal banks, the fields of angelica, which is a local delicacy and told them about our visit to the annual market that is still held in barques on the water (see here for photos). Although we knew the start and end destinations for this stretch of La Vélo Francette, it was nice that the route itself was a new discovery for us as well them. Arriving in Niort along the cycle path by the river was so different to battling the traffic and reminded us that cycling into a town or city is always a special way to arrive, like sneaking in the back way. The view of the town sitting above the river was quite spectacular.

French Village Diaries cycling La Velo Francette Freewheeling France Niort Marais Poitevin
Niort, Deux-Sevres
It was lovely to actually meet Lynette in person and we chatted like old friends from the moment we pulled up outside their lunch stop in Coulon and twenty kilometres later as we arrived in Niort we were still chatting away so decided to join them for a drink in the sun (any excuse). What struck me most was that despite being cycling enthusiasts Lynette and Nicole are still just normal cyclists. Neither of them has undertaken a big adventure before, they are not kitted out with the latest cycling must-haves and they are very laid back about the number of kilometres they still have to travel. Their attitude is that cycling is something anyone can join in with, from a short family ride to a big adventure like this one, cycling in France is accessible and fun for everyone.

French Village Diaries cycling La Velo Francette Freewheeling France Niort Marais Poitevin
Refreshments in the sun in Niort, Deux-Sevres
On the drive home, part of my brain was back to routine thinking about what I was going to cook for dinner and wondering if the washing had dried, but part of it was thinking wistfully about their next step, making their way north through the hillier contours of Deux Sevres from Niort to Parthenay. Bon courage ladies, I’ll be keeping up to date on your progress via Lynette’s daily blog posts (see here). Have fun for me!