Ferry and Bike
Imagine being able to cycle from London to Paris on a dedicated bike trail. It sounds amazing, but it’s not yet a reality. Riding The Avenue Verte, as its called, may not offer a compete route for cyclists yet, but is a great trail for discovering Normandy by bike, and that is a cool venture in itself. Linked by the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry ride, it offers cyclists a car-free route through the French countryside, even though it can’t offer it all the way to Paris. Like many ambitious cycling trails covering longer distances, the route to the capital isn’t yet complete; there are stretches where cyclists have to share the road with cars. However, there are sections of dedicated “green” trail, car free, which are well worth the getting on the trail to enjoy.
Rail and a River
Rail and river are two strong themes of this great cycle trail. The ride follows the river Béthune which flows for 38km south towards Paris, on an old railway route that has many of its old features and historic remnants. You don’t see the river as you ride as it is generally out of sight, but as the road heads out from the small town of Arques La Bataille, there are lakes and running streams to welcome you on your journey. Arques La Bataille, the official start of the bike trail, is just just 4km from Dieppe, and how you get there is up to you; drive there and park for free, or just ride off the ferry from Dieppe to the main trail and leave your car at home. It’s cool that the town has left its old abandoned station which stands right next to the car park and picnic area. On the road you’ll find many traces of this old railway.
The Bike: a Decathlon Challenger
Very hard to find, these Decathlon Challengers. In fact, I defy you to find one just like this on the internet. I know, I know, it’s nothing special, no Pinarello nor a PX10, but it deserves a lot of respect, this bike. It had been left for dead by its owner, and when I had bought it, just a day before taking this ride on the Avenue Verte, it was in a bad way:
- Tyres flat for years
- Brakes all out of whack
- Saddle a complete fat embarrassment
- Front Derailleur Cable Rusted Frozen
- Pedals Loose
- No Handlebar Tape
- Greasy, Messy, Dirty.
10 minutes of speedy work ( at the car park of the trail head! ), and the bike was ready for the road. That’s how vintage bikes are, that’s why they are such amazing forms of machinery. Not only is the beauty of the old steel bike is in its aesthetic simplicity, but in its applied, mechanical perfection. It may have been 20 years since a lever was pushed, but by golly, when shifted it will do what it was supposed to do! Yes, yes, I hear you say, that’s all very well, but would this old bike make it on the trail?
The Road To Paris
I had a number of false starts on the Challenger, having to turn back a few times to adjust some minor problems with its set-up. Once on the road, with its nicely proportioned and lightweight 59cm frame, it rode crisply and wasn’t shy to get a move on. The first mile of road out of Arques La Bataille isn’t the best of the trail; it can get rather bumpy thanks to the tree roots that have damaged the tarmac, the price of having a tree lined road. Thankfully, it clears once out of the town and the road become smooth and easy. Also at the start there are gates every few hundred metres which you have to manoeuvre through, protecting the trail from such imposters as cars and motorbikes. I was wondering at this point if this was going to be a staccato journey, with too many interruptions to enjoy it. Gladly, the road opened up as it left the town and the rhythm and pleasure of a clear, serene, road took over.
The Seine-Maritime landscape is perfect for riding a bike, unless you’re into the masochistic gradients of mountain slopes. Normandy is flat, with smooth, rolling fields, but not empty and lonely at all. France is an agricultural country and there is life everywhere in its countryside: I passed fields of cows and horses, tractors tilling and bulls standing by the fence; cats sat at the side of the road and I could easily have stopped every minute to watch the wildlife or just to take in the scenery. The trail passes through villages every few kilometres, signalled by a gate and signs indicating distances to the next village and town. I thought this was a great way to help cyclists plan their ride and to know exactly where they are, though its always good to have a map. This day was perfect for being on the trail: the temperature was 23 degrees and the was no wind, and hardly a person was on the road.
Journey into the Past
The Challenger needed a new chain, that’s for sure. Every pedal rotation made a creaking sound that complained of age and wear. However, it shifted well and I had no need to use more than three gears on this flat ride. it didn’t detract from the pleasure of the ride. One of the many things I like about France is how its people seem to be connected to the countryside. Even from the houses along the side of the trail could be heard the squawk of chickens, the bleat of a goat. You also realise that you are following an old railway line that once connected these villages, but you can’t really say that rural life here has changed beyond recognition. Normandy retains its farms, traditions, its village life, and this provides a serenity that is perfectly absorbed on a bike. I stopped off at the village of Saint Vaast D’Equiqueville, a quiet, simple place to buy a drink at its cafe and visit its church. It reminded me of Britain in the 1950’s, having a certain peace that is missing in British towns and villages of our times.
Horse, Rail, Bike
I was thinking on the ride that in the past, people would have ridden horses to and from villages. Then came the railway, which would have caused great change and opportunity to the rural people of this country. Now, the car is king, but that won’t last, at least in the polluting form it is today. Since the bike was invented in the mid 19th century, it has remained a pure and undiminished form of transport, and it will always belong in the villages and on the chemins of France. And what is better than a vintage steel bike to visit these wonderful places? The Challenger, though old, was a trusty steed, and never once did I think it would let me down. I rode about 25 miles on it without a slipped gear or unwanted shudder. It was perfect.
I couldn’t ride the whole route of this trail to Paris, as I was catching the evening ferry and couldn’t keep going. I want to do the complete trail, even the parts where you share it with cars. I am determined to return and do part two. It’s a wonderful route through a historic part of France, where writers like Maupassant and Flaubert have based their stories and where two great wars have haunted its fields. I recommend anyone to ride it. I was surprised at how few people were on the trail, this warm day in October, and I hope that the French and UK governments continue funding the project to completion in the next few years. Maybe one day it will become just one of many reclaimed transport routes, giving cycling a chance to grow into the form of transport it deserves.