The final leg of our France ride was not meant to be the most difficult. No more than the last 100 metres of the climb to the summit of Everest or the final few strokes in the English Channel swim. After all, we only had about 50 km left to ride, there were no major climbs left and the weather was as close to perfect as we were ever likely to get.
The problem was that my body was not perfect. I had spent a restless and mostly sleepless night with a tangle of delirious thoughts racing through my head. That toxic baguette from the previous day had left my stomach empty and my energy levels at around zero. My big problem is that I had never failed to finish any of the previous 30 or so overseas rides we had conducted in the past 10 years and I really didn’t want to blot my copy book at this late stage.
When the alarm went off at 6 am, the only thing I wanted to do was hide from the world and wish the whole thing was over already. Somehow I crawled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom, tripping over my suitcase in the process. The day was off to a great start. Maggie looked at me and asked “Are you sure you really want to ride ?” Of course the answer to that one should have been blatantly obvious – of course I didn’t. On the other hand I knew that there would be a peloton of yellow jersey wearing riders who would need someone to lead them the final few kilometres to Le Croisic.
I tried to face breakfast, but a few mouthfuls of orange juice and a little tub of apple puree were the only things I could trust my stomach to hold. I then bundled the panniers for the final time and tried to fill myself with some plain old bloody minded stubbornness.
Our final day began with a short bus ride over the huge estuary bridge to nearby St Nazair. This bridge would make the Westgate Bridge look like a little tacker by comparison and the combination of a very narrow bike lane, high winds, vertigo and speeding trucks would not make it either a safe or pleasant proposition.
On the other side of the bridge we were reunited with our bikes for the last time. The final 50 km would take us north, away from the Loire and to the delightful coastal town of Le Croisic. Since we would no longer be riding the Loire a Velo bike path, the navigation also promised to be a bit more challenging.
The first few kilometres out of town seemed to meander back and forth, without making any real progress. It did not take long to realise that I had virtually no strength left at all and even the small climbs were seeming like mountains to me. I was however aware of one change that had taken place in the following peloton. For most of the trip the group had sorted itself out into the “serious riders” and the “naughty girls”. While the former always liked to ride at the front and set a brisk pace, the latter group loved to fool around at the back making numerous unnecessary toilet stops, taking pictures of just about anything, and riding as slowly as possible without actually stopping.
The naughty girls group consisted mainly of Eugenie, Sally, Carol and Maggie. When Carol had her unfortunate accident in the shower at Angers, the naughty girls were depleted to only three members, but I did notice a change in their riding behaviour from that point on. Rather than always laughing at the back, on quite a few occasions they actually burst through to the front and even looked like real riders. On this final day of riding I was surprised and pleased that the errant backmarkers were now occupying the front of the peloton. All of these women had all taken up cycling only relatively recently and it was an amazing achievement to not only complete the ride, but to get stronger as the ride went on.
After about 25 km we reached the small town of Andre des Eaux. This was our final chance to buy supplies for a picnic lunch a little later on. I still could not face eating anything (especially a baguette), but I did enjoy resting in the warm autumn sunshine. About another 10 km further on we rode into the amazing medieval walled city at Guerande. I remember being astounded when I saw this place for the first time and I knew that the group would enjoy some time to explore the place before the final section to Le Croisic.
While the others went into the medieval city I lay on the grass and used my helmet as a very uncomfortable pillow. At this stage I knew that the only section left to ride was the flat section through the salt pans. Nothing would stop us now that our final target was almost in sight.
An hour later we remounted the bikes. The afternoon sun was warm on our faces and the friendly tail wind returned to give us a welcome assist. A couple of minutes later I discovered that the battery in my GoPro camera that I had carried around my neck for the entire ride had gone flat. It reflected the state of my own energy reserves.
In less than an hour we were gathered on the waterfront of the Atlantic Ocean, looking out at the vast expanse of water. With the lovely white holiday cottages and the sounds of seagulls filling the air, I am sure it will be a moment that none of the group will ever forget. It was a time for well earned hugs, kisses and congratulations to all. What an amazing time we had shared together.
When we arrived at our hotel we found that we were not the first ones there. David and Carol had arrived earlier in the day and were there to provide a huge welcome for us. We were all so glad that they were able to complete the trip that they had set out to do. Maybe it had to be finished in a hire car, but at least they would be able to share the excitement with us. Compared to the challenge that they had both faced with Carol’s broken leg, riding a few extra days on a bike seemed a distant second.
That evening we gathered for our celebration dinner at Restaurant de L’Ocean , a prestigious seafood restaurant situated right on the beachfront. With its panoramic windows providing a breathtaking view of the ocean, it would have been hard to imagine a more fitting end to an incredible trip. Unfortunately sometimes things don’t always turn out exactly as planned.
As we sat down at the starched white table cloth and the impressive array of crockery and cutlery I was very conscious of my distinct lack of breeding. For someone who was brought up with just a knife, fork and spoon, I still cannot really feel at home in this sort of establishment.
The meal began and I was a little surprised when we were given no choice whatsoever. It would be a pity if you did not like seafood as the only choice available was to either eat it or go hungry. We were even more surprised when we were never offered a drinks list, but one of the young waitresses just worked her way around filling every glass. I could have tried to tell her that most of the riders in Group don’t drink, but I didn’t think that the message would have got through. Apart from the wine, none of us were given anything other than tap water to drink. A rather strange way for such a fancy restaurant to operate.
I did manage to eat quite a lot of my dinner but by around 9 pm I was feeling sick and exhausted and excused myself and went back to the hotel, leaving Ross and David to sort out the final arrangements. It was only when the group returned to the hotel that I heard the rest of the story. Apparently when the group rose to leave, they were presented with a drinks bill with a wine cost of over 40 Euros per bottle (around $70AUD). Considering we had never asked for the wine and were given no choice as to any other option, David and Ross refused to pay this charge. I think if I had have been there I would not have been able to maintain the same degree of self control that they apparently exercised. By this time the young waitress really had a bad attitude and even refused to accept the meal payment voucher because it had a tiny piece missing from one corner. It was a shame that such a lovely day had been tarnished by such petty and unprofessional behaviour.
Since we were all booked in to return to the same restaurant the next evening, in the morning I returned to the restaurant to discuss the matter with the staff. It seemed that everyone had experienced a wonderful change of heart and that it would be “no problem” to provide us with just about anything we wanted. I just hoped that my appetite might have returned enough for me to do it justice.