Cycling the Canals du Midi et Garonne

Last year some pals of ours moved to rural France and we thought we’d show up our friends who thought it would be too difficult to go and see them by travelling down by train and bike. On that trip we included some of the Canal du Garonne and we enjoyed it so much we thought we’d do some more of the canals this year. So, we planned a trip from Montpellier.

Leaving work at lunchtime we were on the train to London (1st class naturally – there are some benefits to being over 60) with the bikes travelling 2nd class of course. Dropping the bikes off at Euro despatch and meeting an old friend by chance in the departure lounge, we were on to Paris. We stayed at the brand new Citizenm Paris Gare de Lyon, popped in to our favourite craft beer bar nearby and on the morning were set for our train from Paris Austerlitz to Toulouse (you can’t book bikes on the direct train to Montpellier so we changed at Toulouse – a long day’s travel on the inter-cité) Checked in with Marie Noelle at the airbnb and with the bikes stored in her son’s flat downstairs set of to explore the city. We found a cool area with a good bar and restaurant and returned home to sleep.

Saturday 2/9

Montpeliier – Sete 45k

The next day started with a ride down the river to the coast, where we tried out the track that runs along the canal that passes through the lagoon – water on all sides but the track was poor quality and soon ran out, so we headed inland and made our way towards Sete on a mixture of roads and tracks, guided by Google. Just outside Sete we had an encounter with a mad motorist who overtook someone in the middle of town, practically creaming me.  Calmed down from that, then on Sete which we did not like one bit. Often first impressions of a town can be telling and the way that we found ourselves dumped in an industrial area on the outskirts of town, favoured by youth doing wheelies in motorbikes in an intimidating fashion, should have told us all we needed to know,  We found a litter-strewn unsigned route under the motorway and the railway that brought us in via the old and somewhat derelict dock area. 

Our accommodation, another AirBnB, was poor. We had a crap experience in a tourist restaurant and the evening was only saved by the nice people in the Jaipur curry house. We’re not going back to Sete if we can avoid it! 

Sunday 3/9 Sete to Mirepeisset  95k

The next day was our longest. Following the cycle route out of Sete, (not sorry to leave) this takes the strand along which the road, railway and cycle route stretch with easy access to the beach. We’d left early enough to get a swim in and  see the traffic jam as we  left the beach area and headed alongside the road toward Agde, getting a bit lost en route but using the Garmin to guide us in.

“Mandatory” “bike route” into Agde

There are some very poor bike routes and terrible signage in this area. Crossing the river at Agde we had reached the start of the Canal du Midi. A short ride along the towpath confirmed our suspicions that the towpath was not going to be good for riding in this area, so we worked out a road route which mostly worked pretty well, taking us through some nightmare theme parks.  Further along we reached a good quality stretch of path and that took us for about 20k towards Béziers. The flight of locks at Béziers has become a real tourist attraction with cruise boats, a restaurant etc.  Beyond that the towpath is crap again so we took to the road, using Google to navigate as Garmin is a bit too fond of busy roads. Stopping for a late lunch at a country house where very attractive young women were being delivered in limousines, we rolled on but made the mistake of using Garmin to navigate in for the last section, thereby ending the ride on busy D roads instead of trundling romantically along the canal.

Typical surface on the Canal Du Midi east of Castelnaudry

We arrived at the nights accommodation, a Houseboat, actually a Norfolk Broads cruiser, moored at Porte La Minervoise close to Mirepeisset. We were in time for basic tapas & beer in the canal side and enjoyed our nights stay on Bella Mia, moored just up from the junction of canal du midi and canal du Robine (that heads towards Narbonne).

Monday 4/9

Mirepeisset to Paguignan  (about 10 k)  

Crossing the former tourist line from Narbonne to Bize

A short but very pleasant ride past Bize to Paguignan to stay in a friend’s grenier (converted grain store) good to see Ralph who lives and works nearby, for B&T seeds. A good evening at La Grange.

Tuesday 5/9 Paguignan  – Carcassone    

The hottest day, temps up to 33C. and with a strong headwind that did at least cool us a little. Did some of it on the towpath but the surface still too poor for distance cycling. Noticeable that many of the diseased limes have been cut down giving the Canalside a very different feel. Some good road riding today even with the headwind .  In Carcassonne we stayed in an apartment complex, made our way down to the town centre for bagel burgers, and Leffe.

Carcassone – Castelnaudary 40km

We visited Decathlon before leaving town which meant a great tour of the industrial sector. 

Leaving Carcassonne the route was barrée, and we had a spot of bother finding an alternative. A road that looked as though it would take us in a straight line out of the urban area turned out to be the gated entrance to a private chateau. Eventually we bumped our way along the footpath on the other side of the canal, until we were able to cross at some lock gates.

We also had a spot of rain, but otherwise another hot & windy days cycling and I slip-streamed a tractor for a while which was very satisfying.  Whatever. Castlenaudry is a very pretty town with a lake formed from the canal harbour. Saw coypus &  ate burger (not coypu burger – don’t think so anyway!) on the canalside.

Coypu in Castelnaudry harbour

Thursday 7/9 Castelnaudary – Toulouse 66 km

About ten klicks out of Castelnaudry the dirt track towpath turns into tarmac, at the boundary with Haut Garonne. The landscape starts to change too, with the motorway and the railway following the canal, lets be clear about what was here first, and vineyards replaced with sunflower and wheat fields. On a good surface our speeds started to increase, it had been noticeable that people heading east had not been in a good mood and you could see why when they were forsaking traffic free tarmac for a bumpy dirt track. But after a tree rooty start we were rolling well as we made our way into Toulouse past Matabiau and out the other side without having to contend with city traffic. Our apartment was in the cool Minimes area and we found a decent bar with craft beer, a great local restaurant and local boulangerie although the bio Coop couldn’t get its act together early enough for us to use it for lunch provisions, a pity as we were getting a bit tired of cheese.  

Friday 8/9

Toulouse – Moissac  85km

A handsome bridge on the Canal du Garonne

Our second longest day but with good surfaces, clear signing and a generally downhill direction, the Canal is of course flat except for the écluses , locks,  we sped along. As you leave Toulouse you see the seamy side of the town, a lot of homeless people have found places to pitch camp on the land between the motorway and the canal. They didn’t bother us however, and after leaving behind the largest railway yard I have ever cycled past  we were out into the countryside again. 

At Dieupentale, I suddenly got a hankering for sausages  – you know how it is, as we came under a bridge, suddenly, a miracle! – a restaurant with saucisses on the menu.  We parked our bikes and approached, slavering – well I was – only to be told – “Vous avez réservé? C’est complet! Désolé.” Oh well, bread and cheese for lunch again! 

The Sausage restaurant
Old Dieupental Station (took the photo so I’d know where it was for next time)

We did get a bit lost in Moissac, having visited the town the bike route weirdly takes you around the town and you get your first view of the Garonne, a very wide river at this point. As you leave Moissac the river and the canal stay close together with the railway and the road. We stayed at Chambres D’Hotes at Pugnal, a lovely place run by Brian and Jenny, a very nice couple from Hertfordshire like me. www.pugnal.com

Saturday 9/9 Moissac – Agen

Our final day and we enjoyed the spin along the canal, again with the Garonne beside us.  On arrival I was determined to see the aqueduct that takes the canal over the river, so leaving Patrice at the station I sped along to take a look.  It is indeed an impressive structure and when I got halfway along it the heavens opened so by the time I got the half km back to the Gare I was soaked! This lasted for the rest of our time being driven to our friends house.

Pie

Richard on his tractor

After a very pleasant sojourn we were deposited back at the Ibis Agen for a night before the early train back to Paris. A note to fellow travellers – if you;re looking for somewhere to eat in Agen you can do a lot worse than the Grande  Brasserie at the station. Dinner was fab and breakfast wasn’t bad either.

Agen – Sheffield

And another note to fellow travellers – if you’ve booked your bikes on the TGV be assertive about getting them on. By the time we’d finished being nice to our travelling companions they had stuffed all their bags in the rather paltry bike space. We did just about manage to squeeze them on-

Bike Space on the Agen – Paris TGV (Goes via Bordeaux)

There only remained to cycle across Paris (this train went to Montparnasse, not the easiest station to cycle to Gare Du Nord from, but once you get to Bastille you can follow a segregated route along the canal, although if it’s market day there will be a bouchon) book the bikes in to Euro Despatch, go for a slap-up lunch and get the Eurostar home. Arriving back in Sheffield in the rain took the edge off things!

Pen-Y-Mynnydd Cycling week

Some of you will have enjoyed holidays at Pen-Y-Mynydd and may have enjoyed some cycling there into the bargain.

However, now we have a new concept for you – a fully catered cycling week with guided rides everyday.

Our catering consultant, Alex Lee, will provide nutritious meals especially geared to cycling every day. Meanwhile, your humble self will provide the rides. I am a certified Cycling UK Group Leader with over twenty year’s experience of leading rides.

The start date for this trip is 7th October.

If you’d like to be reminded what a fab area this is for cycling Click Here and Here.

The booking form is here:- 

https://goo.gl/forms/U3TwzTJyfRwsa54C2

A tale of Three Stations

4 New stations have appeared on the Northern network in recent times. I took time out to visit three of them in one day to see what the connectivity with the cycle network was like. The one I missed was Apperley Bridge, simply because I didn’t realise that had opened too!

Ilkeston

A mad dash to Sheffield station saw me on the 09:05 to Nottingham, dropping me off at 9:45. Before this station was opened Ilkeston was the largest town in Europe without a rail station, it’s not that long ago that this honour belonged to Mansfield, not that far away. The station can be accessed from station road alongside or a smaller road leading to the drop off point. There is a short section of shared use pavement avoiding a narrow section of road and the station bridge serves as a shared use route as well. Wheeled access to the platforms is by ramps. All day car parking costs £3 – the car park was not well used.

There are a useful cafe and pub nearby and a sign pointing to a cafe in a nearby mill as well.  I feel sure that the opening of the station will lead to regeneration in the area.

Once out of the station, a short trip up Station Rd leads to the Erewash canal, a link off route 67, but the access to the canal is by steep steps. An alternative route is via a footpath off Wentworth Rd. This has a good surface going north  as far as the edge of town. Heading south, you can get to Trent Junction, or Nottingham or Derby by getting on NCN6 at Long Eaton. There are uncovered cycle stands on the drop off area – no bikes were there although there were plenty of cyclists around. I took the canal up to Langley Mill which took about half an hour at a decent pace, the poor towpath surface slows you down and there are a lot of barriers. There is no signage to the NCN from the station.

It’s always a bit strange to pass through your home town on the train without getting off and this time was no exception. The “Trent – Aire” Nottingham – Leeds train however makes this  possible.  (One day this may be Trent-Eden or even the  Trent-Clyde, who knows…?)  I had about 10 minutes in Leeds to grab a coffee and carry on to…

Kirkstall Forge.

This station is served by Northern Electrics on the Leeds – Ilkley run (you’d need to change for Skipton). The station has already attracted developers with an office complex going up adjacent to the station. Access to NCN66 is on the west side with a good quality path leading to the Leeds-Liverpool towpath – there were a lot of mums with pushchairs using it so it is clearly thought of as being safe. There is no signage to the NCN to or from the station. There was one bike to be seen locked up to the stands and the owner had wisely removed the front wheel and locked it to the frame – you shouldn’t really have to do this when you leave your bike at the station though.  Access to the platforms is by lifts. Lifts or ramps are fine by me as a bike-rail user but there is something pleasing about being able to get your bike to the platform under your own power. You shouldn’t be expected to have to carry your bike up and down stairs in this day and age and we have this in common with disabled station users. Car parking at this station is free – the car park was busy but not full. The Kirkstall Bridge pub is nearby should you be in need of refreshment.

Walkers and cyclists peacefully co-exist on Route 66 and it has a good surface as far as Apperley Bridge, where it becomes variable. The link from the canal to the Shipley Greenway is under construction and a little hard to follow.  Once on, however, this is a pleasant route through green space leading on to quieter roads as it approaches Bradford City Centre. It’s good to see the long-promised redevelopment of the City Centre has taken place after Bradford was brought to it’s knees by a Tory council under Eric Pickles.

   
 Aire Valley Greenway (NCN66)  I saw 3 “Bike&Go” users on the Aire Valley Greenway – someone’s using ’em!

I took the train from Interchange up to Low Moor   – the next train out was the Grand Central London service which has a compartment for bikes which is kept locked, but the guard suggested I pop the bike into a flexible space area for this short run, which I did.

Low Moor

This long-awaited station is adjacent to the Spen Valley Greenway, again on NCN66, and while the route is signed all the way out of Bradford you might want to avoid the urban grime and start your walk or bike ride from here. The route is clearly signed from the station – access when I visited was by a short flight of steps but it looks as though a wheeling ramp is under construction. There is covered cycle parking with a Falco stand and 2 bikes were in evidence on my visit.  The station is served by infrequent trains on the Huddersfield  – Leeds and Grand Central Kings Cross  – Bradford routes . Access to the platforms is by lifts. Car parking at this station is free and the car park was about 80% full. 

Leaving Low Moor, I had a very pleasant run down the Spen Valley Greenway, including a chat with the local ranger and then linked in with the Spen Valley and Dewsbury and Ossett Greenways – sadly the Dewsbury greenways were in very poor condition, overgrown and litter-strewn.  I hadn’t done the Ossett Greenway before and this now leaves only a short section between Ossett and Horbury that you have to do on-road (albeit not a very busy road) before getting onto the “Rhubarb Route” into Wakefield, also part of the Wakefield Wheel.  Wakefield cycle routes are iffy but getting to Kirkgate for a Northern “Fast” service isn’t too much of a problem.

 

Tunnel on Ossett Greenway View From Ossett Greenway
 Part trackway, part road in Ossett The last remaining sculpture on the Rhubarb Route – the rest have been nicked. 

So which of these stations gets the “Golden Sprocket” award? For my money it’s Low Moor  – good quality cycle parking and easy well-signed access to the NCN.  It’s just a pity it doesn’t have more train services – I was surprised that Calder Valley services don’t stop there.  2nd prize goes to Kirkstall Forge, 3rd to Ilkeston.

 

 

 

 

 

Brincliffe Edge Road

Brincliffe Edge Road has been give the Amey treatment and is now a pleasure to ride on. There has been controversy about the Amey PFI contract but I do think that they are capable of doing a street refurb sensitively and well, particularly in a conservation area like this. The introduction of 20mph at the top of the street will make it even better.

 

 

The Uphill Struggle

The Uphill Struggle –   Lenny Fairhall 21/11/2017

The road from Llanachaer in Cwm Gwaun over to Dinas Cross rises 250 feet or so in the first half mile, and the initial couple of bends are killers. Actually the next couple of miles are a challenge too, but at least there’s next to no traffic and the views are lovely. As the final stage of a very pleasant autumn run out to Strumble Head this was a great chance to try out a bit of hill climbing technique. There had already been hills on the ride, but not quite like this.

A couple of years before Id been cycling in the same area with the same friends and one had remarked that, instead of hating the hill climbs, you should love them. You have to go up them to get the best views, and the downhills are exhilarating.

So, maybe the hills are really about your head, not your legs and lungs. Of course the head isn’t everything, otherwise you’d end up rolling backwards and falling off. But having a positive attitude certainly seems to help in getting up them, and even more importantly in converting some degree of dread into anticipation. It can help to know what the hill ahead is like, and how long it has taken you in the past. In this case, I knew it was evil at the bottom, but the gradient becomes easier further up.

p1040624

At an even more basic level, you should be approaching hills knowing that your tyres are well pumped up, your gear shifters are working, your brakes will work on the way down the other side, and the cables are in good nick.

My bike is a fairly standard hybrid (Giant Escape) with straight handlebars. The lowest gear is a 32 rear sprocket with a 28front chain ring. I’ve fitted bar end extensions so that I can hold the handlebars like Im holding a steering wheel, rather than gripping a trapeze, because it seems to be more comfortable like this. You can get a similar position with drop handlebars, holding the brake hoods and of course there’s a million positions available with butterfly bars. I also have strapless toe-clips on the pedals, which means I can pull them up as well as push them down. I can’t be faffed with cleats, and being strapless, the clips let my feet come off the pedals when I need them to.

p1140678

The road out of Llanychaer doesn’t give you a chance to get a run at the hill. You’re into bottom gear from the off. I always try to get into the right gear a couple of bike lengths maybe before a hill really starts, or the gradient increases. Of course you can get off the bike and walk but then I wouldn’t have written this if  I’d decided that was always the way to go. On this particular hill, walking up is almost or as quick anyway.

So I started the climb holding the bar extensions, leaning a bit forward and staying seated. I find leveraging my legs by pulling on the bars with my arms and upper body helps. I never get off the saddle and pedal standing up. (The last time I tried this on a steep hill, the chain snapped and off I fell. Thanks for your concern, but I was unhurt.)

This is hard work, but 10 or 15 minutes of aerobic exercise is not excessive. You are allowed to stop and rest when the road gets a bit less steep and you know youll be able to get started again.

Having both a mental and physical strategy seems to work. Personally I also like an extra-strong mint.

A couple of us stopped to give the lost and slow a chance to catch up. While we waited we agreed another tip for the hills, namely to take it easy early in the ride and on long hills to give your body a chance to warm up, and you leave something in the tank for later on. It’s not a race…er…unless it is, but if you’re into racing, then I’m not writing this for you.

Riding a bike in any area like this part of Pembrokeshire is wonderful, and anticipating rather than dreading the hills makes it even more so. Love the hills!

photo-29-10-2013-13-42-36
Is this person actually clinically dead? – ed