Cycling from Bridgwater to Madrid via Plymouth-Roscoff
I needed a bicycle, so I decided to buy one. I wanted it to be strong, reliable, and stubborn, and after intensive reading my finger fell on Thorn, the well-known British manufacturer specialised in expedition-style touring bikes. I didn’t like the idea to have my new bike sent to me by courier: I wanted to collect the new borne (a black Sherpa!) directly in Bridgwater, Somerset, where the shop is located, and ride it straight away. Of course there was no point in catching a flight back to Spain, the only logical thing to do was to test my new bike (and myself) by cycling back to Madrid through south-west England and France, and this is how it went!
It took me 17 days (from 1 to 17 April), 1796 km and I don’t know how many snickers and cans of beans and pork to travel from Bridgwater, UK, to Madrid, Spain: 17 days through the wonderful countryside of Somerset, Devon, Bretagne, Pays de la Loire, Aquitaine, Navarra, Rioja, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha, and – shortly – Madrid. I kept the itinerary flexible: the only things I was sure of when I started riding was that I wanted to visit the Exmoor National Park, run along the Dartmoor National Park, catch the ferry in Plymouth and keep heading south. In Devon, on my third day, I came across the Velodyssée (the cycle-conceived itinerary linking Ilfracombe, northern Devon, to the Spanish Basque coast) for the first time. The Velodyssée – of which I knew nothing – turned out to be quite a good surprise and I followed and abandoned it for several times between day 3 (Devon, UK) and day 12 (Côte d’Argent before Capbreton, France).
||–||–||–||Madrid to Bristol|
||40.6||(40.6)||UK||Bridgwater to Brendon Hills|
||106||(146.6)||UK||Brendon Hills to Monkokehampton-Exbourne|
||91||(237.6)||UK||Monkokehampton-Exbourne to Plymouth|
||86.52||(324.12)||FR||Roscoff to Montagnes Noires between Spezet and Gourin|
||94.7||(418.82)||FR||Montagnes Noires to Pluvigner|
||84.5||(503.32)||FR||Pluvigner to Marzan|
||110.51||(613.83)||FR||Marzan to Pilon/Le Pont Béranger|
||116.52||(730.35)||FR||Pilon/Le Pont Béranger to La Grande Chevalerie|
||134.80||(865.15)||FR||La Grande Chevalerie to St-Agnant|
| day 10
||149.3||(1014.45)||FR||St-Agnant to Carcans Plage|
| day 11
||118.3||(1132.75)||FR||Carcans Plage to La Broutasse (Étang de Cazaux et Sanguinet)|
|day 12||141.3||(1274.05)||FR||La Broutasse to St-Vincent de Tyrosse|
|day 13||68.44||(1342.49)||FR||St-Vincent de Tyrosse to St-Martin d’Arrossa|
|day 14||87.62||(1429.51)||FR/ES||St-Martin d’Arrossa to Astráin|
|day 15||109.67||(1539.18)||ES||Astráin to Yanguas|
|day 16||102*||(1641.18)||ES||Yanguas to plateau between La Riba de Escalote and Barcones|
|day 17||155*||(1796)||ES||Barcones to Madrid|
DAY 0 – Madrid to Bristol. Easyjet flight: uneventful. Arrived at Bristol Apt. at 11:10 PM. Cold, windy. 7°C. I’ve booked a room at House Hathway (40 GBP), about 1 km from the airport. The place is small, private, comfortable and essential. The cheapest accommodation I could find nearby. Warm welcome, free wi-fi, tea and coffee.
DAY 1 – Bridgwater to Brendon Hills, 40.6 km. Flyer bus from Bristol Apt. to Temple Meads station (7 GBP). Small train to Bridgwater (50 min., 10.40 GBP). Arrival in Bridgwater at 10:42, scheduled appointment at Thorn Cycles at 11 AM. The shop is on St. John street, not far from the train station. Before heading to the shop, 15-minute stop in Eastover park to prepare my panniers (I had 1 pannier as handle bag and all the others in a worthless bag I checked-in in Madrid). I meet my new bike for the first time. The guy at the shop checks the size of the bike and send me for a test ride of 10 km passing by Chedzoy, a farming settlement east of Bridgwater (he provides me with a map, just in case). No problem whatsoever. Back to the park for the final adjustments: mounting the bar bag and the Cateye Wireless+. I leave Bridgwater at 2 PM. Using the Michelin Wales South-West England 1:400,000 map: not the best, but the only map of the region I got. I pass through Quantock Hills. Try to avoid Bishops Lydeard – with no success at all. A few kilometres on the A358 and then back on a countryside road to Lydeard St. Lawrence. Taken the B3224 towards Wheddon Cross (steepish!) and voilà, I’ve just entered the Exmoor National Park. Weather is OK, no significant showers. Good night in the woods.
DAY 2 – Brendon Hills to Monkokehampton/Ebourne, 106 km. I keep cycling on the B3224. Pass by Wheddon Cross and Exford, then on the B3223 from Exford to Simonsbath, and finally on the B3358 from Simonsbath to Challacombe. Yes, I’m in Devon now – and it’s foggy as foggy England can be. I proceed towards Barnstaple, which doesn’t charm me at all. Out of there as soon as possible through the A377 to Bishop Tawton and from BT on the beautiful, scenic and appeasing B3217. A jolly good piece of countryside: villages, rural houses, fields, all surrounded by silence and light rain. I buy chocolate and water in Atherington, then I decide to head to Okehampton passing through High Bickington, Dolton, Iddesleigh, and Downland. At 5:30 PM I start looking around for some place to pitch my tent – not easy in a part of the country where all the property is private! Foggy and rainy day, not so cold though.
DAY 3 – Monkokehampton-Exbourne to Plymouth, 91 km. Didn’t sleep well. Got up at 5:30. Light showers during the night. Followed the B3217 and reached Okehampton at 8:30 AM (life doesn’t start before 9). Bought bread, sausages and other amenities in a well-stocked superstore in the town centre (Co-operative). I found the indication of the cycle route 27 (Devon Coast-to-Coast), i.e. the English section of the Velodyssée. Leaving Okehampton, the 27 follows the railway and passes by the station of Meldon Quarry just before the Big Oke Abseil-Meldon viaduct. The route runs along the western side of the Dartmoor National Park and passes through Lydford, Tavistock and Plympton. Really amazing. Before entering Tavistock there’s the possibility to avoid the city centre by taking the 270, the alternative cycle route that reconnects with the 27 once the town has been bypassed. Arrived in Plymouth by 5:30 PM. Horribly windy, some tourists strolling around. Cold. Found the ferry port of Brittany Ferries and bought a ticket to Roscoff, Bretagne, with the 11 PM ship (61 €, included the 7€/5GBP seat, mandatory for night crossings). Enjoyed a lot the warm waiting room, the extremely pleasurable sensation of my hands around a hot cup of coffee, the absence of wind on my ears. Then a horde of French pupils burst into the hall and all became less heavenly. Bikers have the priority over cars and motorbikes, so checking-in and boarding went quite smoothly. The ferry was a sort of floating Las Vegas, I used what remained of my energy to send a couple of whatsapp messages and then I fell asleep like a dead piece of narcoleptic stone.
DAY 4 – Roscoff to Montagnes Noires, 86.52 km. Started in Roscoff at 8 AM. A relaxing day of cycling in Bretagne. Cloudy, but not a single drop of rain. Followed the Velodyssée intermittently. Ended up in Morlaix and from there towards the Parc Naturel d’Armorique via the very good D769 (>D14 to Huelgoat > D17 to Spezet). Stopped for the night on the ascent to the Montagnes Noires (“black mountains” but they are just hills) along the D17 between Spezet and Gourin.
DAY 5 – Montagnes Noires to Pluvigner, 94.69 km. Really a good day. The Breton countryside of Finistère seems perfect – and probably it is. In Gourin I took the excellent cycle path that goes to Scaër up to the intersection with the D108, and then through local roads towards the Roches du Diable (Ellé river), a relaxing spot to take a short break. Some ascent involved here. Direction Pluvigner. Not interested in getting too close to big towns such as Lorient, Auray or Vannes – just the opposite.
DAY 6 – Pluvigner to Marzan, 84.5 km. Short day, scenic road, extremely sunny and extremely windy. Pluvigner > Plumergat via D102 and D133; Plumergat > Meucon via D308; Meucon > St-Avé (superstore just in front of the churhc) via Ruillac and Lescran; St-Avé > Bizole via D135 and C?; Bizole > Questembert via D104; Questembert > Noyal-Muzillac via D5; Noyal-Muzillac > Marzan via C4. Flat leg but I needed a pause: in the mid-afternoon I came across an ideal place to spend the night and I called it a day.
DAY 7 – Marzan to Pilon, 110.51. Long ride that left me wit mixed feelings. I wanted to cross the Loire and camp south of Nantes, and also to pass through the Parc Régional de la Brière – which seemed interesting. From Ferel I cycled to Herbignac and from Herbignac to Montoir-de-Bretagne via D33 and D50. I planned to to reach St-Brevin-les-Pins from St-Nazaire by using the bridge… Yes, the crossing over the bridge is feasible (as I know now ) but when I first saw it I thought: this is a bloody highway, no way bicycles are allowed! So I headed towards Le Pellerin to catch the ferryboat and finally cross the bloody river. After the bucolic atmosphere of the Park of Brière, it’s been rather shocking to cycle across a strip of land filled with oil refineries. Cows and refineries. The ferryboat in Le Pellerin is free and the crossing takes only a few minutes. When I crossed the Loire it was late in afternoon and I had the impression to have wasted too much time between Montoir-de-Bretagne and Le Pellerin. Anyway, I was happy to be on the other side so I cycled a little bit more and ended up in a fascinating wood after Pilon. Slept like a baby.
DAY 8 – Pilon to La Grande Chevalerie, 116.52 km. Quiet ride trough secondary D-roads. Landscape OK (no more refineries!), it starts getting better south of La Roche-sur-Yon (lake of Groan).
DAY 9 – La Grande Chevalerie to St-Agnant, 134.8 km. Beautiful day, polyhedric landscape. Followed the D85 to La Jonchère and St-Benoit-sur-Mer and then took the cycle path to Moricq where I found the impressive, pigeon-inhabited tour, a former fortification and silo now converted into a historical attraction. Near the village of Le Vignaud I joined again the Velodyssée. An amazing ride through the network of channels and the huge open spaces that constitute the interregional park spreading between the two départements of Vendée and Charente-Maritime. Before heading south, the route follows the channel going from Pont-du-Brault to Marans and then, just before Marans, starts running along the canal de Marans à la Rochelle. I left the cycle path and took some local roads towards Rochefort (not a good impression, but that’s just me with big and medium sized towns!). In Rochefort, without knowing a proper way out, I was lucky enough to run into the Velodyssée, so I followed it (quite satisfactorily I must say).
The route between Rochefort and Tonnay-Charente is unattractive, but then everything changes. Excellent pre-dinner with the pont sospendu (the “hanging bridge” linking Tonnay-Charente to St-Hippolyte) in the background. Passed Cabariot the route is cycle-only and I really enjoyed it.
DAY 10 – St-Agnant to Carcans Plage, 149.3 km. Flat route, good ride, landscape a little bit boring in the last section. Channels, birds and otters between St-Agnant and Marennes. From Ronce-les-Bains you start getting an idea of what to expect in the coming days: pines and sand. The only urban experience you may have is in St-Palais-sur-Mer and Royan, where I caught the ferryboat (bac) to cross over the Gironde. The ferryboat is not free (3,20 € passenger on foot / 5 € passengers with bicycle) and it takes 1/2 hour to reach the other side. On this very ferryboat I had my first coffee after 10 day of abstinence. From Pointe de Grave the route follows an old railway and then it heads straight south through long stretches of pine forest. Rainy afternoon, dry sleep.
DAY 11 – Carcans Plage to La Broutasse, 118 km. The route keeps heading south. Reached Cap Ferret. From Cap Ferret I took the small boat going to Arcachon (13,5 € with bicycle, 1/2 hour) and from there I proceeded with the route towards Dune du Pilat (full of tourists, absolutely to avoid during week-ends) and Petit Nice. Then pines and sand up to Biscarrosse-Plage. A little piece of advice: there’s nothing to do or see in Biscarrosse-Plage, so if you don’t need to buy anything (there’s a bike shop in the centre, just 20 metres away from the supermarket) you may want to skip it by cutting through the D305 and heading directly to Ispes and Navarrosse. Tempted by a hotel named La Caravelle, on the Étang de Cazaux et de Sanguinet, but at the end I pushed back my dreams of luxury and spent the night where only true heroes spend the night.
DAY 12 – La Broutasse to St-Vincent de Tyrosse, 141.3 km. Sand and pines along the Côte d’Argent. Long day of uneventful wonderful beaches. I left the Velodyssée a few kilometres before Capbreton and turned eastward on the D89 to Seignosse. Spent the night in a wood near the highway.
DAY 13 – St-Vincent de Tyrosse to St-Martin d’Arrossa, 68.44 km. When I started the day I thought that I’d have reached Spain before sunset, but as the hours passed by it became more and more evident that I needed a pause. A pause, yes, and a bed and a shower. I followed the road to St-Martin-de-Hinx and Urt and then I took the outstanding secondary road D510 to Hasparren. The land is hilly and I was feeling tired. After Hasparren the road starts ascending: Hélette, Irissarry… In Ossès my mind was clear: reaching Spain had to be left for the next day. The only hotel I found in Ossès was closed for jour de repos (‘rest day’) – a hotel, WTF! – so I headed to St-Martin d’Ardossa, a village a few minutes away from Ossès. Here the Hotel Eskualduna found me and I – for 60 € including breakfast – found a room. Deal. I strolled around St-Martin to take a few shots, ate a can beans and pork and a grapefruit and by 8 o’clock I was just a corpse.
DAY 14 – St-Martin d’Arrossa to Astráin, 87.62 km. One of the hardest and most beautiful legs of my journey. It had to be hard, and I knew it. But resting in St-Martin had had a doping effect on my body that made the ascent easier. From St-Martin to Aldudes the way is relatively easy. When I stopped in Aldudes to have a coffee in the old hotel-restaurant in the village square, the owner told me: “You go up for 7 kilometres, than you have 5 kilometres that are flat and then another ascent for about 2 kilometres. And then you go down all the way to Pamplona”. It was exactly like he said! The border is an invisible line on the way up, to mark the passage to the other side a shop-restaurant with a small gas station nearby and the sign “Navarra – comunidad foral”. All the pain ends in Urkiaga (918 m), one of the starting points of the senda pirenaica. From Urkiaga the route descends to the Embalse de Eugi down to Pamplona (which, if it’s not the place where you’ll spend the night but just some city you’ve to cross, should be avoided). Slept in Astráin, 10 kilometres south-west of Pamplona on the N111, on the top of a small hill facing the open fields.
DAY 15 – Astráin (Navarra) to Yanguas (Castilla y León), 109.67 km. This region is popular with pilgrims doing the Camino de Santiago (some people thought I was one of them and in a few coffee shops they tried to make me an American coffee instead of a simple café solo, the common short coffee served in Spain – which, by Italian standards, is not so short, but this is another story). Ride along the desert N111 to Puente de la Reina, NA601 to Mendigorría, Larraga and Lerín, and then NA122 to Andosilla and NA134 to Calahorra. Passing through Calahorra is not so enjoyable (even crossing the city centre, which didn’t strike me at all), so try to catch the LR134 to Arnedo as fast as you can. From Arnedo the route becomes more pleasant, unfortunately there were a lot of trucks on the way due to the construction of a dam up in Enciso. Arnedillo is a gem and deserves a stop, and so does Enciso. I set foot, oops, wheel in Enciso late in the afternoon when the trucks were already gone. Just after Enciso I dealt with a tough ascent – short by very intense! – and after a while the route crosses into Castilla y León. Here the LR115 turns into the S0615: all of a sudden the road becomes an old-fashioned decaying strip of concrete running along the Cidacos river. Very scenic. A small waterfall and a source of drinkable water are on the way (unfortunately surrounded by a discrete amount of litter). Spent the night 1 kilometre before Yanguas.
DAY 16 – Yanguas to Barcones, 102 km. The hardest morning ever! The ascent to Modorra and Puerto de Oncala (1453 m) is quite tough, all the pleasure of the descent ruined by the wind and the cold. Balaclava on. On the way down there’s a small drinking fountain: I stopped to refill my bottle and lost my odometer (a trusted Cateye Wireless+). Found a bar-restaurante in Ausejo de la Sierra where I had the first coffee with milk in many years (in that precise moment I needed something hot and abundant). Reached Soria relatively late. Taken the SO100 to Quintana Redonda (lunch with bocata de tortilla and torrezno) and Fuentepinilla. SO100 up to Berlanga de Duero and then SO152 to Caltojar, La Riba de Escalote and Barcones. I spent the last night in the most magnificent way possible: pitching the tent on a huge empty plateau between La Riba and Barcones.
DAY 17 – Barcones to Madrid, 155 km. Got up at 5AM. SO154 to Bochones, GU154 to Atienza and then CM1001 up to El Cubillo de Uceda. Breakfast in Cogolludo, bought a can of meatballs and peas. Passed El Cubillo de Uceda, before entering the Comunidad de Madrid, it’s possible to distinguish the four towers of Plaza Castilla, about 50 kilometres away. Home! Unsure of how to reach Madrid. The M120 from Valdepiélagos to Torremanca de Jarama and then the M103 up to Fuente el Saz de jar, and then… a total mess. My 1:400,000 Michelin map wasn’t so useful anymore and I started using googlemaps on my smartphone. San Sebastian de Los Reyes was just there but I couldn’t reach it by bike and I was growing frustrated. The indication on how to reach Alcobendas on foot were very creative – to say the least. I took the carretera de Burgos (by bicycle on the M100!?) to end up in Alcobendas, a more familiar place. Carretera de Fuencarral to Fuencarral, La Paz, Plaza Castilla, home.
|bike||Thorn Sherpa MK3||very satisfied indeed!
|panniers||rear panniers Ortlieb classic||super|
|Ortlieb front panniers Front-roller Classic||good, but the two shifting hooks of one bag broke after the bike fell|
|handle bar bag Ortlieb Ultimate 6 Plus||good|
|waxed waterproof bag||my third rear bag, used to carry the tent|
|camping||Vaude UL argon 1-2||light 5-season tent, it does her job perfectly|
|Ferrino High Lab sleeping bag||OK, but must get something more solid|
|ground cloth||very useful, always good to have a insulation layer between the ground and the tent. Quite light, easy to carry|
|clothes||technical breathable t-shirt x2||a very cheap one, no complaints|
|micro fleece-layer||a cheap jacket found in Decathlon, no complaints|
|fleece-layer||heavy layer for the night|
|Goretex jacket||my old and mythical Lowe Alpine goretex jacket|
|waxed poncho||bought in Indonesia, I carried it in case of impossibly heavy rains (e.g. when pitching the tent). Never used, I won’t pack it next time|
|gloves||wind stopper gloves|
|tech||digital photo camera||I got a Fujifil X100S, very good, never had to recharge it|
|items||knife||a classic Opinel|
|headlight||don’t forget it!|
|bike accessories||locks||a D lock and a chain lock
|Topeak Mountain Morph pump||had to study a little bit to get to understand how it works with Presta valves!|
|Topeak Alien II||never used, but not negotiable|
|Cateye Wireless +||simple and functional. Unfortunately I lost it.
|spare tubes||Schwalbe tubes|
|spare spokes x 6||bought with the bike|
|elastic straps x 2|
|navigation||Michelin 1: 150,000||very good|
|Michelin 1: 200,000||good|
|Michelin 1: 400,000||acceptable|
|IGN 1: 150,000||inadequate|
|Geo/Estel 1: 250,000||inadequate|
OK, that’s all. Shi ke nan, as my prof would say. The ride has been great and now (6th day at home) I’m feeling awkwardly steady. I experienced a new way of travelling and I found it extremely exciting, calm and romantic. A post-medieval experience, in a sense.
Nos esprits libres et contents
Vivent en ces doux passe-temps.
Et par de si chastes plaisirs,
Bannissent tous autres desirs. La danse, la chasse et les bois,
Nous rendent exempts des lois
Et des misères dont l’Amour
Afflige les cœurs de la Cour. Car en changeant toujours de lieu
Nous empêchons si bien ce Dieu,
Qu’il ne peut s’assurer des coups
Qu’il pense tirer contre nous.