Category Archives: cycling along the Loire

The big debate: to hell in a helmet, or to hell with the helmet?


Setting a good example – helmets are compulsory in UCI events (but, I think, only since 2003)

Geraint Thomas has recently been reported as saying that he thinks helmets should be compulsory for cyclists.

He is said to argue that the development of helmet design in recent years now means there is “no reason not to” wear one, that he “always” wears a helmet – and feels that others should do the same.

It’s important to note that this is a news report and that the quotes attributed directly to him are also entirely compatible with him merely making a recommendation that helmets should be worn.

Since the article appeared he’s tweeted:

Wow! This was one question in an hour interview. It’s nothing I’ve ever thought about. So when asked I thought… I always wear one and I’d advise all children to wear them. Didn’t realise people felt so passionately about helmets!!

So, let’s be kind and say he was just unprepared and naive … however, whatever he said and whatever he thinks, it has reignited the helmet-wearing debate in the UK.

To put my cards on the table, I don’t pretend that I have understood (or even read) all the research on the topic – but I always wear a helmet when riding a bike (other than on the turbo!).

As far as I am concerned, I hope I won’t fall off, I try very hard not to fall off but if I do fall off I’m keen to have sensible protection to my brain, my most valuable and vulnerable organ. I also always wear a helmet for skiing.

Most members of my cycling group wear helmets – but a few very intelligent and rational riders do not. The non helmet wearers either simply do not like helmets, or have reasons for believing that they are not the answer to preventing injuries from falls.

One argument is that wearing a helmet gives a false sense of security such that it can promote less careful riding.

I don’t go along with that – I know that if I fall off my helmet won’t save me from road rash, bruises and other injuries to arms and legs, broken collar-bones or hips. I certainly hope that my helmet will offer some protection to my head, but with everything else remaining so vulnerable, the helmet in no way makes me less careful.

Other arguments are that helmets can actually cause some twisting neck injuries, that research has suggested that drivers may give less room to helmet wearers than they give to riders without helmets – and that helmets do not offer significant protection in many cases.

It is also said that we should be promoting healthy lifestyles so that anything that might put people off cycling – like compulsory helmet-wearing – should be avoided. It was reported that Western Australia’s helmet law reduced cycling in Perth by 30-40% and that in Melbourne, cycling levels reduced by 36% in children and 44% amongst teenagers as a result of helmet compulsion – I do not know if participant numbers later recovered.

I know we have compulsory seatbelt wearing in cars and compulsory crash helmets for motorcyclists in the UK, but is the legislative programme so empty that cycle helmets get national scrutiny?

If you’ll forgive the ‘reductio ad absurdum’, I believe that there are significant numbers of people who damage their health by being inadequately dressed in cold weather or by over-exposing themselves to the sun. Anyone for compulsory coat wearing if it’s below 10℃, or compulsory long sleeves, hats and sun cream when it goes over 25℃?

It’s complicated but although I choose to wear a helmet I am not in favour of legislating on this.

I know the BMA (the British Medical Association) advocates compulsory helmet-wearing, and you can call me a wishy washy liberal but I prefer to give people freedom of choice on issues that affect their own well-being and safety – all the more so when the case for legislation does not seem to have been made beyond reasonable doubt.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall, 1906.

“I recommend helmet-wearing, but although I may not fight to the death over the matter, I am in favour of the rights of others not to wear one” – The Omil, 2018.

Back to ‘normal’

In spite of my very best efforts, it’s been a pretty constructive week, coming down from the ride out to the alps and a week of riding up mountains.

We were in London last weekend where I watched a couple of games in the Women’s Hockey World Cup with our younger son (who plays club hockey) and it was excellent. As a state school boy, I’ve never played hockey and the first time I’d seen top class hockey was the men’s tournament at the London Olympics in 2012. I loved it then and I loved the women’s games too – fast, athletic, skillful and hard fought, what more could anyone want from a team sport.

I’ve run twice with Mrs O and once with a friend – 15 minutes to the gym for half an hour’s weights, and a run back.

Ah yes, I went for a ride on the bike too. I’m currently doing a stint as route setter for the club (happily, they seem to have forgotten about my routing  problems on the ride to the alps) so I went on Saturday clocking up 50 miles (80km)and had a good time.

I was happy to sit at the back with the sweep, helping to look after a rider who was struggling a bit. I did a fair bit of towing on and off including a long homeward stint of about 20 minutes at 28.8kph (17.9mph) on the flat but into a bit of a headwind. So, the legs seem to be returning, with the benefit of the French ride in them.

Ride to the alps: round up and verdict


Mont Blanc from Le Bettex. A lovely place to be – but was it worth riding out there?

The most important question from the experience: Would I do it again? Answer: Yes.

Eating, sleeping and riding: a simplified life, and very liberating. I loved it.

Some metrics:

  • Time – 84 hours elapsed
  • Distance – about 880km (c.550miles) and over 5600m of climbing (18400 feet)
  • Punctures – 3 (all on the last day, two within minutes of each other)
  • Gashed tyres – 1
  • Falls – 1
  • Mechanicals – 0 (other than the bent rear mech hanger as a result of the fall)
  • Sworn at by drivers – 0 (as far as I know)
  • Drivers sworn at – 4
  • Hooted at by drivers – 1 (a friendly warning as I was heading for a ‘no-cycles’ road)
  • Pills/medicines taken – 0
  • Shops visited – 1
  • McDonald’s visited – 1
  • Directions requested – 3
  • Raindrops felt – 0 (lucky – very hot but dry)
  • Cramps – 0
  • Water refills by knocking at random house – 1
  • Garmin ‘Off course’ messages – innumerable
  • Almost impassable cycle tracks – many
  • Phantom cycle tracks – loads
  • Time spent lost – a few hours
  • Fun had – immeasurable
  • Lessons learned – countless
  • Satisfaction gained – huge
  • Lunacy factor – off the scale

There were times when it was very hard – but they were vastly outweighed by the times when it was exhilarating, and by the feeling of satisfaction at having done it.

Would I do it differently? A bit.

  • My routing left much to be desired. I didn’t understand that going for cycle routing meant going for unsuitable paths and tracks in preference to perfectly good roads. Equally, I guess that going for road routing would not work perfectly as it would miss out on some great paths and would put me on some unsuitable roads.
  • On balance, if I were to do something similar, I’d go for routing using the driving option, avoiding highways, and then work out detours around any major roads that got included, and ways to include particularly good paths.
  • Not booking hotels in advance was a little bit of a pain – but added to the excitement. To be able to book ahead safely, my daily milage targets would have to be relatively modest to make sure I got to the hotel at the right time. That would take away a bit of the challenge but would give more time to stop en route to take in the scenery and any local attractions.
  • I guess you need to know why you are riding in the first place: is it to get somewhere as quickly as possible, or within a certain timescale, or is it to be a tourist or just to enjoy the ride?
  • I wanted to take my road bike because I was climbing mountains when I got out to the alps. Had that not been the case I would have gone for something better suited to long distances. I guess that would have slowed me down which might have made me feel more of a cycle tourist. Perhaps I’d have been more prepared to view the ride as an end in itself, rather than a means of getting to the alps as quickly as practicable.
  • I love my carbon saddle but it is probably best kept for rides up to about 6 hours. If I did a similar ride again I’d have to sacrifice some lightness for something more comfortable.
  • I can see the advantages of riding with one or more others – safety, companionship, the pleasure of a shared experience etc. On the other hand, I liked the independence and selfishness of just thinking about me – and you’d have to be well matched as cyclists not to get frustrated by the other’s speed, whether faster or slower.
  • I took, all packed in three bike bags:
    • cycling clothes – one jersey, one pair of gloves, glasses, helmet, one pair of socks, two pairs of shorts, rain jacket, shoes, arm and leg warmers:
    • evening clothes – one pair of shorts, one t-shirt, socks and underwear, one pair of trainers:
    • other, bike – Garmin, pump, bell, one spare tube, puncture repair kit, multi tool, tyre levers, lights (2 battery and 2 rechargeable), one bottle, lock and long cable,
    • other, non-bike – 9 oat bars, electrical tape, toothbrush, toothpaste, anti-perspirant, medicines and plasters, portable charger and adapter, passport, money, ferry ticket, credit cards, biro, reading and sun glasses, phone, plastic bags and dry sacks, two bungees, sheet of places passed through or nearby, wipes.
  • I used almost everything I took. The unused items were: the multitool, cable ties, lights (save for one small rear light that I used on the final run in to Les Carroz when it got a little bit darker as the storm clouds gathered – but delivered nothing), electrical tape, medicines (paracetamol and ibuprofen), tyre levers and spare plastic bags. All of them were pretty trivial extras – the only remotely significant items as far as weight went were the multitool and the lights and I think those were essential, even if I was lucky enough not to have needed them.
  • A slightly bigger frame bag would have been useful but for cheap and cheerful versions, the bags did really well.
  • Could I have done it in the hoped-for 3 days? Possibly, possibly not. Everything would have had to go in my favour to do that: no mechanicals, good weather, friendly winds, a route on roads and good paths, no getting lost, no falling off, perhaps an earlier start each day.
  • I’ve promised Mrs O, no big solo challenges next year, but our younger son is looking at April’s Rotterdam Marathon and it might be fun to run that with him …


Ride to the alps: day 3. ‘Lost in France’ (without Bonnie Tyler)


Not all the paths were bad – sadly the great ones like this didn’t last long

In the morning the French couple in the next room apologised for the noise during the night. I though this might be too much information but they explained that the husband had walked into a wardrobe in the dark. I hadn’t heard a thing.

The usual morning aches disappeared once I got moving and my damp clothes dried on me fairly quickly as I left at about 7.20, breakfastless.

I quickly joined the Canal latéral à la Loire and headed south, still about 80 miles from Macon. I struck off to the east, crossed the Loire at Le Fourneau and resumed the journey south before recrossing the river at Le Perron and rejoining the canal, heading east again.

The turns to the east were a pain as they brought headwinds – not too strong but a pain nevertheless.

I continued with the cycle path problems for much of the day and took to trying to zoom out the Garmin to see if any road I might already be on was a viable alternative to some random path it was trying to direct me to.

I left the canal as it turned north just after Les Eaux Mortes (literally ‘the dead waters’ but more charmingly translated as ‘the backwaters’) but as soon as I got to the road I had (yet) another ‘off course’ warning. I retraced my steps a few times before I realised that the track I was being directed onto (below):

  • was not a track
  • was blocked after a few yards
  • led only to a field.

Another suitable cycle track!

It appeared that the only alternative was the N79 – a major and busy dual carriageway. That was bad enough but there were huge road works going on and one half of the road was shut leaving a contra-flow on the remaining two lanes. I wasn’t sure if I could use that road – but that was academic as there was no way I was going to even try.

I asked a friendly local and was waved vaguely in a direction and told to look for Charolles – which was lucky as it was on the list of nearly 100 places that I would be going through (or near) that I had prepared and had taken with me.

I set off not knowing where I really was or exactly where I was going. Being lost is not great – but I can think of worse places to be lost.

It was proper rural France and, running low on water I stopped at a random property in the middle of nowhere to ask for a refill of a bidon, which was provided by a charming, and very elderly, lady (one of three just sitting in the shade and being very French).

I stumbled on a village called Champlecy that seemed to have just a church and a restaurant and had a lovely meal in the most unpromising circumstances.

Eventually I found Charolles and was back on route, passing through Macon (which had taken a very long time too arrive, with all the detours) and then Bourg-en-Bresse.

I had forgotten to recharge my Garmin over lunch so shortly after Bourg I got the low battery warning. I plugged it into my mobile charger but it then wouldn’t fit in its mount so I put it in the top tube bag in place of my phone. It was not then in direct eye-line and as I slogged along the N1075 out of Bourg towards Pont-d’Ain I eventually noticed that I had the inevitable ‘off course’ warning.

I had no idea how long I’d been off course – and hadn’t seen any likely alternative routes – so I was reluctant to retrace my steps. I found a very friendly French family with a map who confirmed that I was still heading towards Pont-d’Ain. That wasn’t on my list of places en route but fortunately Neuville-sur-Ain was, and it was just 3 miles from Pont-d’Ain.

I must have missed yet another phantom or impassible track somewhere (which would have been a short cut if it existed) but I decided to ignore it and pressed on.

At this point I realised (or, more accurately, finally accepted) that I wasn’t going to do the trip in 3 days. No heroics by trying to ride through the night, I decided to book into a hotel.

I found the only hotel in Pont-d’Ain – it was full. They told me that nearest hotel was (I might have guessed) in Neuville-sur-Ain so I was clearly destined to go there. I headed off fully expecting to be sleeping rough that night – but they had a room and I checked in at about 8.30pm.

It was a real treat, set by a pretty bridge, comfortable and with friendly staff and a garage for the bike. I really needed to soak in a bath but the shower was good and I had a fine meal.

I was on the second floor and was aching so much that I struggled to get up the stairs after supper but slept well after a very hard and wearing 217km (135 miles) with 1370m (4500 feet) of climbing.

Ride to the alps: day 2. ‘Loire to the left of me, sunflowers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with(out) you’


Sunflowers by the Loire

The cycling kit I’d washed the previous night was still damp in the morning but I used the hotel hairdryer to make it at least wearable – and it dried fairly quickly once I got moving. I had two pairs of shorts but only one jersey, one pair of gloves and one pair of cycling socks. The non cycling clothing had only been worn for a couple of hours so that was OK for the next evening (however crumpled it might be by then).

I was continually refining my packing. I had the big sausage shaped bag pointing out backwards from the saddle (which had a tendency to wobble and needed regular re-tightening), a frame bag (I should have got a bigger one) and a top tube bag. The saddlebag also tended to droop – I solved this by strapping my trainers on the outside of it with a bungee cord and they acted rather like ‘splints’ and kept it fairly rigid.

I’m sure there was a more logical way of distribution of my meagre luggage (something like 5kg – 11 lbs – of it) but beyond making sure my passport and wallet were accessible and safe and the bike lock, spares and tools could be reached quickly, I had no real clue what I was doing.

As it was, I was hardly ever parted from the bike during the day (only once was it out of sight for more than a moment) and I used the lock only three times (twice over night) during the whole trip.

I’d woken feeling really stiff, although that eased as I got moving. Leaving the hotel after breakfast at about 7.30 I feared a rush hour into Orleans – but it didn’t materialise and I rolled into the city without drama. Getting through it was another matter as there were road changes and closures. I guessed my way through the city, crossing the Loire for the first time and headed for Sully-sur-Loire, nearly 30 miles (48km) away, where I joined the Loire again.

Initially the bike path along the river was magnificent – smooth tarmac and great views with the river on one side and fields of sunflowers on the other (all the better as the song is by Stealer’s Wheel). I soon had confidence that the ride would be fairly easy and that doing it in 3 days was well within my grasp.

Sadly that didn’t last.

I’d used ‘Ride with GPS’ for my route but I soon realised that opting for ‘cycling’ as the routing option is taken to mean:

‘I love cycle paths so much that I really want to struggle along virtually impassible tracks in preference to riding along smooth and traffic-free roads that are just 50 metres away and heading in the same direction.’

I spent hours being directed off perfectly good roads onto terrible or sometimes non-existent tracks. I assume that they think that anyone opting for a cycle route is riding a hybrid (at least) or preferably a mountain bike. I rode on grass verges, farm tracks (and the occasional decent path) for the whole day. I wasted time and energy and found it all really frustrating. Credit to the bike for holding up to the abuse it suffered, and to the tyres for not puncturing.

At one point I was told by a lock keeper that the path was impassible between there and the next lock. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d just cycled along exactly the same sort of path for several miles – and had come to exactly the same conclusion.


Another ‘track’ I was directed to. OK for a hybrid, perhaps, but not for a road bike. Let’s be grateful for small mercies – it least it had been mown

I got to the point of zooming out the Garmin and trying to guess if a nearby road was a sensible alternative to the path I was being directed onto. The big problem was that, while some tracks were fine, there was no predicting what the next section of track would be like.


By no means the worst track I cycled on

On the plus side, one of the highlights of the whole trip was sitting in the sun at a cafe on the bank of the Loire canal, drinking fruit juice and eating a bag of Haribo and a white chocolate Magnum ice cream. Simple but great pleasures!

I crossed the river to find a quick lunch of a cheese and ham baguette, with more coke (I rarely drink the stuff at home but drank two or three a day during the trip) and a refill of the bidon. It was very hot and shade was at a premium – I remembered to use the sun cream I’d taken but still got the best tan lines ever on my arms and legs.

The feeling of freedom from being on the road with nobody but myself to please or be responsible for was terrific. Life becomes very simple – eat, sleep, ride, repeat.

The struggles on bad tracks meant that I had worked disproportionately hard in clocking up about 240km (150miles) during the day. At least it was fairly flat with about 700m (2300 feet) of climbing.

I found a place that was advertising rooms in Gannay-sur-Loire – a small village which was otherwise entirely shut – and went for that. After 500km (310miles) without mishap I turned into the driveway for the last 20 metres and immediately hit deep gravel and fell off.

Of course, my immediate reactions were, in order:

  • swear
  • embarrassment – did anyone see me looking so stupid?
  • pain, with grazes to my shoulder, elbow and knee and a bang to my right hip.

The bed and breakfast rooms were all taken but I was offered a bed in a room with four bunks, in an out building. I was the room’s only occupant, other than a plague of flying ants that, happily, seemed to go home for the night. I got the room, bed linen, a shower (I could have really done with a soak in a bath), a can of coke and a bottle of fruit juice with change from 20 Euros (about $23).

The French couple in the next room were charming and the owner was great too. He explained that he would frequently leave his car and his house unlocked but still perfectly safe – I put a chain on the bike in the cycle rack but it came to no harm. No supper to be found and I’d had nothing but two oat bars since lunch so I went to bed fairly early, listening for the rustle of flying ants, but slept like a log.