"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Beauvais to Chalons - 220k
It was wet but mild on Wednesday morning when I set out with a daunting 220k ahead of me and a very mixed weather forecast..
From Beauvais I used GPS as far as Therdonne and followed my home made routesheet to the aptly named tranquil town of Mello. It was quiet and peaceful in the morning drizzle and I'd chosen good roads with hardly a car in sight.
I crossed the Oise on a footbridge and turned to follow quiet roads from Creil towards Crepy en Valois. A quick café stop for coffee and to rest my legs gave me a chance to check the route ahead on Google and I could see I was going to be passing through a Zone de Silence des Grands Ventes. I wasn't sure if that meant high winds, volcanoes or a Big Sale but the road did take me into a magically silent valley of narrow fields hemmed in by high forests under swirling cloud.
Google led me by the shortest "cycle route" towards Crepy but the road soon became no more than a farm track. It was only a couple of kms until the track rejoined a road with a name (usually that means tarmac) so I opted to ride the trail. Soon it became muddy, stoney, impassable on a road bike, so I had to cut my losses and ride a slow kilometre back the way I'd come. With upwards of two hundred km in the day, detours and setbacks like these are less than welcome but you have to stay cheerful and accept them. As I reached the sealed road I realised I'd got a flat rear tyre again, probably from another sharp stone plus the fact that I'd been riding on a low pressure since the previous day's puncture (and the problem I'd had getting the mini pump to seal on to the valve). Not wanting to let minor hassles get me down, I cheerfully upturned the bike and repeated the ritual of a tube change while skylarks sang over the fields to either side of me in what was otherwise a genuine "zone de silence". I didn't see another person or any vehicle for the whole time I was there. I was still struggling to get a decent air pressure into the tube, with air hissing out as fast as I could get it in, but once I had enough psi to get going I cleaned myself up with handfuls of rain soaked grass and rolled down the gritty road while Google recalibrated a car route to Crepy.
Avoiding highways was a challenge now that I knew I really couldn't trust the bike option on the Google maps GPS, but at least it stopped raining and I found a Lidl. Gourmandises only came in packs of 4 so I bought a pack, ate 2 and stashed 2. Same rule applied to the massive chocolate pralines by the counter so I got 4 of them and 2 litres of water which I converted into electrolyte drink with some soluble tablets. I'd brought enough of those for 2 drinks a day and wrapped them in foil but water had penetrated and reduced the individual tabs to a single sticky object... I broke off what looked like 2 tabs worth, filled the bidon and drank as much of the remaining solution as my stomach could take. Thus restored, feeling human again, I examined my pump and found a loose ring nut that was causing it to leak at high pressure... a quick adjustment and I was able to force a full pressure into the rear tube. Boardman pump, I'm sorry I ever doubted you, you're amazing for one so small and light.
Fed, watered, properly inflated, I set off into the ancient region of Valois after which one of the royal houses of France took its name. Soon the cloud dispersed and I found myself under a hot sun on a quiet route called the Rue de Meaux. Much like a quiet rural B road in England, it snaked its way through mile after mile of wondrous landscape. There were silent villages, poppies waving in the fields, long descents to lazy rivers and tree lined climbs where I was grateful for the shade. By now I had got the hang of combining Google navigation with my sketchy route sheet. I paused at each town to tap in the name of the next one I was aiming for and compared the bike and car routes.... Any road without a name was probably a dirt track! I came through Ferte Millon, where a sign declared it was the birthplace of Racine, then wound my way through more and more Valois miles to Epaux Bezu. I finished my remaining Lidl food before descending to the valley of the Marne via a surprisingly hilly final approach. The sun was really cooking me now and after some more route confusion I opted to cross the mighty river to the south bank and head for Epernay on the D3.
I was running out of water now and the only restaurants and cafés I passed had signs that revealed they only opened on Fridays and weekends. There were a few gites, also closed. No shops. Villages marked on the Google map came and went but they were just houses, nowhere to get food or drink. Salvation came in the form of an ancient copper spout pouring water from the hillside into a trough. I'd passed a couple of these already with big warning signs saying "eau non potable" but this third one had no sign and I needed water badly, potable or not. Hot miles of ups and downs (I'd told myself the valley road would be flat, but that's always a fantasy) finally led to the bustling tourist town of Epernay where I stopped for dinner hoping I'd be restored enough by some calories to tackle the final 2 hours to Chalons. It was half past six so I'd been riding hard for 11 and a half hours. My training had progressed as far as back-to-back all-day rides on a weekend but this was my first experience of day 3 on the road, and I was feeling it. A cheerful waiter confirmed that the veggie burger really was veggie and I packed myself with tasty food in a restaurant in the square, trying to sit as far as I could from the other guests as I was aware of just how sweaty and filthy I was at this stage. I'd chosen a drinks table not a food table though, so the waiter politely relocated me to a food table. The people at the next table immediately lit cigarettes which I suspect was because of me. My food came immediately while my dining neighbours grumbled to the waiter because they'd arrived first and still hadn't been served.
I was away by 7pm with 35k to go which soon became more like 40 thanks to road closures for some kind of gendarmerie memorial service with bands playing and what looked from a distance like a wreath laying. I wasn't about to go ninja-cyclist through that, so I obediently followed the Deviation signs. This forced me into fumy traffic queues and then, once I broke free of those, a taxing climb in the wrong direction out of town on to a busy dual carriageway. Finally I got back on to the more cycle-friendly D3 and began to eat up the remaining kilometers to Chalons. I was pretty wiped out. Once again whenever I felt weighed down by tiredness I sang to myself, either silently or out loud, and soon felt cheerful again - you just have to fill your mind with something positive otherwise it tends to fill itself up with fatigue. The Valle de Marne was gorgeous in the evening sunshine with handfuls of workers dotted here and there between the rows of grape vines. I was getting a bit of a headwind, but I was used to that having had it virtually non-stop since Le Havre. After what seemed like a very long stretch I turned off the D3 to cross the marne and was rewarded with a perfect road through avenues of gently waving trees, passing lakes and meadows all the way to the outskirts of Chalons.
The final challenge of the day came when I realised my Enzo hotel was located on a road that was pretty much the equivalent of a motorway and it was hard to work out how to get there by bike. I hit the directions button on booking.com and it gave me a Google route which I had to switch to bike mode to avoid the highway. Slowly I navigated my way through business parks and empty lanes until I could see the hotel, but the final approach took me on a tarmac road that led into farmland, passing only 50 metres from the hotel but with a full on motorway, complete with crash barriers, in between. I was too tired to retrace who knows how many km to try another approach so I had to carry the heavily laden bike down a bank, over the barrier and on to a slip road where I could get on to a non motorway exit and through the business park to the Enzo for about 8.50. Reception was still open and I was able to get soup, a bottle of powerade that I swallowed in pretty much a single gulp, some water and some kind of snack I don't recall from a machine before collapsing in the room. I was conscious that on my birthday trip, with a visit to Pujaloy at the end of it, I should be trying to get good meditations in every morning and evening, but I was so wiped I could only manage 7 minutes before keeling over. That was the hardest day of the adventure and I finished it feeling pretty much finished but having really enjoyed the ride. I tried to keep thoughts of the equally long day 4 out of my mind...
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