How to cycle to the alps (I hope): No8, actually make a start

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Looking nervous at Portsmouth before boarding the ferry – shorts over the bib shorts to protect the sensibilities of others

People will tell you that setting off on a challenge or adventure is a 50-50 mix of excitement and apprehension. Lucky them. For me it was at least 80-20 in favour of apprehension.

So it was that on the evening of my 63rd birthday Mrs O dropped me off at Portsmouth docks to catch the overnight ferry to Caen on the north coast of France.

We’d been in Bournemouth for a couple of days – with a delightful birthday lunch at The Jetty overlooking Christchurch bay but now I was on my own, heading for France.

The aim was to ride the 510 miles (800+km) out to the alps to meet up with friends in Les Carroz d’Araches in the Haute Savoie, for a week riding in the mountains (and a day watching stage 10 of Le Tour).

After years of skiing out there I started to cycle as a hobby and I began to wonder if I’d ever be able to ride up to Les Carroz from the valley (about 600m – 1968 ft – of climbing). I first did that (to my delight and surprise – and with much sweating and stress) in 2010. In more recent years I’d begun to wonder if I’d ever be able to ride out there. This was going to be that attempt. Strangely, I’d not been able to convince any of the 5 others I go out with to come with me.

I am a keen cyclist, but my enthusiasm is not matched by my ability and I’d not done any long journey by bike before. In 10 weeks of training I’d ridden over 2000 miles (admittedly, too much of it on the turbo trainer) or nearly 3300 km. Sadly, I’d flunked the long rides which I should have built in (my longest was 76 miles – 123km).

To add to the difficulty, I’d decided to try to do the trip in 3 days. That was really just a function of wanting to be in the UK for (most of) my birthday and the fact that the first of my friends were planning to get to the apartment in 3 days time. I’d given them a set of keys in case I wasn’t there – but I was hoping that was just belt and braces on my part.

The daily distance coincided roughly with the 175 miles (282km) I’d done when everesting in 2017 – but that had been a single day ride (admittedly with 8912 m of climbing) so I wasn’t sure how relevant that was going to be. See that story here everesting

Mrs O was not at all keen on me rough camping. I’d not booked any accommodation but I had agreed to look for a hotel each night as I didn’t really know how far I could get each day. Booking something 170 miles in advance might just mean I was 50 miles short of a welcoming bed by the time I could go no further. Conversely, in the event (admittedly a very long, long shot) that I was making better than expected progress, I’d have hated to get to a hotel early with more miles left in my legs.

I was travelling with just an emergency blanket in a feeble attempt to cover the lack of hotel – at least the weather forecast was for very warm and dry weather.

I deposited the bike in a little side room on the car deck, detached the three bike bags and found my seat in one of the lounges. The ferry left at about 10.45pm. I probably hadn’t needed to book the seat as I managed to get some sleep lying along three of them. It was a bit cold, rather uncomfortable, noisy with the sound of snoring and disturbed with the lounge door being opened regularly – perfect preparation for the ride!

We docked just after 7am on 11th July. Waiting to disembark I got talking to a couple of other cyclists who were planning to cycle to Roubaix (rough camping on the way) to watch the Tour – I hope they made it in time and safely.

I had a couple of oat bars for breakfast, filled the single water bottle that I was carrying and rolled off the ferry and out through customs at 8am – and into the Normandy countryside.

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