Places I stayed – France

With the risk of changing this blog into a travel guide, I’d like to take the time to highlight the places where I stayed during the TCR. They only ever managed to get a mention if it fit the narration of that particular day and/or if they were otherwise note worthy. But I have some fond memories of pretty much all of them, and I wanted to write about them all, probably more for my own entertainment than yours. Still though, if you ever plan to do a pilgrimage of my TCR16 ride, here’s where you get to sleep.

Night 0 – Etreux

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My comfortable bed was on the right side of the Hotel de Ville, just outside this picture

Initially I planned to not sleep at all during that first night right after the start, but I was forced to wait out the first daylight after a front light malfunction in the dead middle of the night in rural Northern France (you can read about it in a bit more detail right here). It was about 4am and I estimated it would be another hour or 1,5 hour before the sky would start to light up enough for me to safely resume my ride. The village of choice – or not so much choice, just the first upcoming village on the route – for my short nap was Etreux. The village had an English cemetery (probably the 5th or 6th one I’d come across), but there didn’t seem much else to it. But there was a Hotel de Ville with a little nice looking square in front of it. Nice and exposed and in the proximity of other (sleeping) people, that’s how I preferred my first night ever bivvying out. There was a canal next to the Hotel de Ville with a nice looking patch of grass next to it. So I parked the bike against the fence, got out my bivvy with silk liner and blow up pillow, put on my leg warmers and down jacket, bunny hopped into the set up and laid down next to the bike. I wasn’t necessarily very sleepy when I had to stop, but since there was not much else to do until daylight, I had little problems getting the energy levels down and fall asleep. It was actually quite a quality nap too. Sure I got a little stiff from lying on the grass and it was a bit sweaty in the bivvy (I opted for cheap and light, instead of quality), but when my alarm went off an hour later and I saw it was still rather dark, I was comfortable enough to give myself a 30 minute lie in before I got up, packed everything away and got on the move again. First time bivvy: success!

Night 1 – Hotel Arlequin Troyes

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Hotel Arlequin right in the historical centre of Troyes

Once I got to the city of Troyes I stopped quickly to look for a hotel that was as little out of the way as possible. Luckily there was an Ibis Budget hotel right in the center which was on route, so I continued my way until I found it. Alas, it was fully booked! So I had to do a new Google search and found another sort of budget hotel which was a bit out of the way, but only 700m away from where I was. So I started making my way there when I passed a little boutique hotel. Since I was there, I figured I might as well inquire, and they had a room available for €55. Sold! The room however was on the 3rd floor and there was no elevator, so I didn’t even try to negotiate to have my bike in the room. There was no way I was gonna carry the bike all the way up, it was a struggle enough to carry myself up with my tired legs. My bike didn’t need immediate maintenance and I could get to my bike whenever I wanted and get out of the hotel, so that was good enough for me.

That first shower felt like a godsend. At that point I wasn’t really used to being in bike clothes and feeling sweaty all the time yet, and my off the bike clothes were completely fresh. After the shower I was so very sleepy, but there was work to be done. I had to get dinner and find a grocery store to stock up on food for the next day, which was the dreaded ‘Sunday in France’, when it’s hard to find opened service stations. The plan was to go for a pasta or pizza somewhere, but once in the Carrefour I decided I was too tired to have a sit down meal, so I stocked up even more for a dinner in bed. I cranked up the AC, which made a hell of a noise, but I knew I was tired enough I could sleep through it. And that proved to be true, when my alarm went off at 6am, I woke up from a very very deep sleep.

Night 2 – Hotel F1 Moulins

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The hotel looks a lot less depressing in daylight

The ride on day 2 had been absolutely amazing in terms of views and scenery. But it was also a lot more up and down than I had counted on and I didn’t get as far as I hoped. I wanted to reach Saint-Pourcain, but when night fell, I wasn’t even past Moulins yet. Moulins wasn’t even on my route, I was supposed to pass it a couple kilometers to the east, but it soon became clear I wasn’t going to find accomodation en route (that would be open at least) anytime soon unless I’d take a little detour. On Google I found a Formule1 on the south side of Moulins so I started navigating there. I foolishly hadn’t charged my light the night before, so it then became a race to get there in daylight. I didn’t make it that fast though, partly due to a road that was closed off and then some difficulties finding an alternative, so I had to ride the last 20 minutes with just the extremely low setting of my front light. That was a bit uncomfortable, but the traffic was low and the roads were smooth, so it wasn’t that long after dark before I got to check in at the F1.

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One bed for me, and one for the bike

For those unfamiliar to the concept of Formule1 hotels, these hotels are absolutely brilliant for people joining events like these, or anyone who’s just in need of a simple bed and shower and nothing else really. They can typically be found on N roads or highways, are usually quite cheap (sometimes as low as 20 euros) and they never mind if you take your bike up to your room. For any more luxury than mentioned above, this is not for you, but when in the TCR, this is just perfect.

Night 3 – Hotel l’Atelier Ennezat

After two very long days in the saddle, I needed an early night in. Where I initially planned to continue to Vichy I saw a sign for the Hotel l’Atelier on the road and decided I was done for the day and went to look for the entrance. I was a bit nervous when I got there, the place looked so fancy that I thought it would be extremely expensive. But thankfully the price was very reasonable and when the lady saw my bike, she said ‘oh you’re in the Transcontinental?’. Apparently I wasn’t the first one to knock on her door. I got to place my bike in a huge room under construction, which was going to be a restaurant. And a nice one I’m sure, since the room was already beautiful even unfinished. I parked the bike against the big fire place, where it made friends with another rider’s bike overnight (see picture in this blog) .

The room itself was simple but charming. The bathroom was a bit outdated and not as clean as you’d expect for a hotel as nice looking as this, but the fluffy pillows more than made up for that, they just felt like a big hug. It made it hard to get up in the morning, but at least I felt well rested for the day to come. I wouldn’t mind coming back there at all, especially when the restaurant part is finished.

Day 4 – Bivvying at Hotel du Jura, Louhans

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My second and last bivvy experience of the trip was on some hotel lounge chairs in Louhans. In my post on day 4 I already described how it came to be. What I didn’t mention was how I actually screwed this up earlier that day. A few hours before I quickly talked to the B-twins #227, telling them I wanted to push on for Louhans. They said they just cancelled a room in Hotel du Jura, planning to stop earlier. If I’d call now, they said, I could probably get their room. Not sure why, but I stupidly ended up not following their advice. 

So there I was in Louhans, three nice hotels almost directly next to each other, but no bed with my name written on it. I asked the neighboring restaurant for some suggestions, and they had a card of a chambre d’hote somewhere, but it wasn’t that close, looked expensive and I doubted they would let me in that late. The most reasonable other option after bivvying was riding along for another 20km to the next Ibis Budget. But I couldn’t get through on the phone and since the Ibis in Troyes had also been fully booked, I was reluctant to take that risk. The lounge chairs would by far be the most comfortable bivvy option, and the only sleeping option at that time I was certain of. I deliberately didn’t write a post that night, not wanting to share with my family that I was bivvying. The added advantage of that spot would be that my tracker showed up at a hotel, so my family would think I found a hotel room. I knew otherwise my parents would be worrying and my brother who had developed a habit of trying to tell me what to do, would have probably told me to continue looking for a bed. I didn’t want either to happen, so that took care of it.

This is what finding a place to sleep looks like


It was warm enough to just lie in my silk liner, so I didn’t have to sweat in my bivvy. The cushions were comfortable, so far so good. There were several other problems with that place though. On the adjacent building there was a large motion triggered outside lamp that shined right in my face, which also reacted to cats. The upstairs neighbor had a metal balcony and stairs that was quite noisy when she walked on it, and she found it necessary to come down several times to look for her cat and do who knows what. At first I was afraid she would see me and shoo me off, but either she didn’t notice me or she didn’t care. Then a group of drunk guys came out to play. I think they were staying at the hotel and just came back. They were messing with a bunch of chairs on the patio only 2 meters away from me, and I was afraid they would come to bother me. But again, either they didn’t notice me or they were kind enough to let me be. Still their presence was annoying, because they were noisy and they kept triggering the light. After that it got a bit calmer and I think I still had two or three hours of proper sleep. When my alarm went off at five, I was in just a little bit of hurry to get away, worried that the owner might show up soon for breakfast service and send me away like some homeless person. It had been a rough night, but riding through the morning mist quickly turned my foul morning mood around and what was to follow was a gorgeous ride through the Jura and into Italy.

Reflections

Unbelievable, it’s been three weeks already since I’ve abandoned the TCR. Three weeks back at home and two weeks back to work and my old routine. It felt so relaxed, not having the pressure of trying to balance training time with social life all the time. And the weather has been really good, we even got a heat wave, so lots of terraces, park picnics, swimming and going to the beach whenever I could. I’m enjoying myself and I’m doing well, but not a day goes by where I’m not thinking about anything that’s happened in those days between July 29th and August 15th.

In many ways the signs of the race are still showing on my body. On my hands and the top of my feet the skin is peeling. The tips of my left pinky and ring finger are still a little bit numb and the strength in my hand isn’t quite back yet, but they only cause very minor inconveniences (like being unable to open a jar) and I’m kind of used to it by now. My tan lines on my hands, arms and knees are fading, but still very much visible. But I cherish them as kind reminders that the race and the entire experience was real, so on the hot days I’m making very little effort to hide them. 

Eventually they will fade though, and the memory will be less fresh. Sometimes I read back one of my blog posts and relive certain parts of the route or think about where I was at the time of writing (I really didn’t do enough justice to some of my overnight addresses, I might have to get back to that sometime). Other riders have also started to write up their experiences, and it’s really funny to read how everyone’s story is so highly individual, yet huge parts are extremely relatable and sometimes nearly identical. This goes from certain places where I know I’ve also paused, to route fails or other bad choices I’ve also made, to emotional processes I’ve also been through. 

Reading blogs from fellow riders I’m sometimes triggered to go back to trackleaders and pull up certain parts of my route. When I look at my route, it’s amazing how many little details this brings back. Though my daily blog has been quite OK in describing the overall day and highlighting some note worthy anecdotes, I now noticed I definitely omitted a lot of details. Mostly because I wanted to keep it kind of short because I was tired and wanted to sleep, and sometimes it just wouldn’t fit in the flow of the story. Or it just wasn’t of any particular interest for you, eventhough it’s still a really nice memory for me. So I’ve now started to write up a more elaborate recap nearly on an hour to hour basis, just as a way for me to not forget anything, and not necessarily meant for publishing on this site. But who knows, if I do come across a particularly funny or interesting memory, I might dedicate a little post to it.

Post Race Thoughts

Ever since I’m back, the question I received most is how I feel now. Mostly they were referring to how I feel physically, but also how the trip has enlightened me. A couple of days after returning home I went to my physiotherapist and told him about the pain in my knee cap that suddenly occurred in the first couple of days, but then also left on its own. So he said ‘oh that probably came from here’ and proceeded to pinch in my upper leg. That immediately got me doubled up, shit that hurts! ‘Yeah, that’s definitely a bit stiff’. My physiotherapist has a sadistic kind of humour sometimes. Apparently the pain in my knee derived from overburden on my lower back and hip. So he massaged that area to decrease the tension and I’ve been taking it relatively easy on my bike rides (except the one where I had to do a 15km time trial to the train station to make it to my train home in time), to give my legs a bit of a break. 

In terms of catching up on sleep, it only took me about one day to feel fully rested. But then again, I wasn’t nearly as sleep deprived as most others have been, sleeping relatively long and nearly every night in a proper bed during the TCR. Only my sleeping pattern seems to be a bit off, especially the first couple of days I’d sometimes wake up in the dead middle of the night, thinking I was still underway and that I had to get back on the bike again. That doesn’t occur anymore, but now I still have nights where I can hardly stay awake til past 9pm, and other nights where I can’t catch any sleep before 2am. Not really sure if that’s directly caused by the TCR, but sleeping is usually one of my bigger talents, so this isn’t normal for me.

As far as if and how this has enlightened me, I can say it mostly reaffirmed what I already knew: biking is fun! And it’s even more fun when riding your bike in areas you don’t know. Since my return I got to ride a fair share of pancake flat rides, which was a nice change from my hilly ride from Belgium to Croatia. But boy, do I miss those mountains. The views and scenery I got to see were truly spectacular, and I can’t wait to go and see more of the world on my bike.

On a more inspirational, life lesson-y note, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Anna McNuff wrote in a Facebook post: “if the last few years have taught me anything it’s that there’s nothing waiting at the finish line that I do not already have”. (Seriously, if you were even remotely entertained by my blog, you should consider following her. She’s a British adventurer explorer doing nothing but cool stuff, but she also writes very humorous pieces about all that cool stuff) That quote really helped me be OK with deciding to quit the race, but it also made me realize that the journey was just as important as the finish line. The stars may not shine as bright once you managed to reach them, so you better make sure you enjoy the way to get there. So there you go, your motivational quote to put on a tile and hang on the wall!

What’s next?

Good question, but I don’t have a good answer just yet. I’ve been inspired to continue doing more bikepacking, but for TCR2017 I will probably step down and let others have a go. I’ve been thinking about voluntering on one of the checkpoints next year and then continue on a touring holiday on my own account. Doing a bit more touring is definitely appealing and I already have a long list of countries in my head where I would like to do that. I’m also still considering the option to fly back to Split somewhere late spring, and finish my route to Turkey. There were still some wonderful areas on my route that I missed out on, so I’d love to go back and make up for that. And lastly, I’d love to do a similar challenge sometime soon. Probably a bit shorter, a bit cheaper, maybe some randonneuring events, but I’ve learned so much about bikepacking on this trip, and I’d love to learn even more and continue fine tuning that knowledge. So yeah, I’m really not sure yet what will be next, but rest assured. Whatever it is, I will be writing about it on this site.

A picture says a thousand words

Here’s a previously unshared image to compensate for this otherwise imageless post.


My pit stop on Day 2 just after National Park Morvan. It was hot and I’d been craving a cold Coke the entire afternoon, but it was Sunday so nearly everything was closed. But then I stumbled upon this little gem of a service station. It was also a tiny restaurant and hotel, and it was so charming, I’d love to come back. If not to stay there, then at least for the lovely melon Popsicles they sold, delicious!