Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Grand Day Out on the Bike !

The Apprentice and the Bent Boat


"Jings! that last one was a bit grim, was it not ? Did you never just go out on your bike to enjoy yourself ?"


Of course I did, most of the time actually. So what you're saying is, can we not get something a bit more uplifting to cheer us up in this dreich ( a fine old Scots word meaning cold, wet, windy and grey, all at once ! ) winter time ? Will I tell you about the ride that the Apprentice and myself did a few years ago ? Sunshine, French scenery at it's best, tailwinds only, good food and not a clock to be seen, how about that ?






Wild flowers in August.
Ok, one fine summer morning in France,  the Apprentice wheeled the bikes out and checked them over. A couple of drinks and some emergency rations were loaded into my bag along with the regular Handlebar Code Kit, Tubes&Tools ! "Where are we going ?"  There was a very gentle breeze floating in from the north east, so we headed into that taking us out of town towards the village of Frossay. I was riding a fine Dutch roadster, a Gazelle Impala. The words "Gazelle" and "Impala" kind of lead you into thinking about speed, agility and lightness. Hah ! They say only the English do irony ? The Dutch do too !  This is a great bike but jings, it weighs a ton ! A Gazelle Elephant  would be a more appropriate name !  However it's got qualities I love. Rims and handlebars are stainless steel, it's got a fully enclosed chain, full mudguards, a front hub dynamo with built in lights, a sturdy steel rear rack with straps, Shimano seven speed hub gears and Shimano roller hub brakes. In a word, Bullet-proof ! It's the kind of bike that you can just step on no matter what you're wearing, what the weather's doing or what time of day or night it is. Short runs to the shops or all day contemplatif rides and anything in between. I used it a lot in Glasgow where the peace of mind came from the built in rear wheel lock and combined anchor like chain, meaning that I didn't have to keep it in line of sight at all times. And of course in Glasgow it was truly unfashionable, so the local low-life thought that it was not an easy Buckfast voucher. ( Buckfast tonic wine is made by a religious order in the south of England. It's cheap and fortified with extra alcohol and the thieving classes in the west of Scotland just live for it... and probably die because of it. So much so, that the rumour is, a pipeline is going to be installed between Devon and Airdrie to cope with the demand. ). For the day, the Apprentice had chosen his wee Decathlon MTB, sturdy, not overburdened with gimmicks like a lot of kids' MTB's and not expensive. The only real criticism I had was the length of the cranks, come on ! 175mm cranks on a kid's bike ?  That's OK on a BMX that's going to be thrashed about, but not for long steady runs. It's a recipe for damaged young knees and disillusionment with cycling. However, St John Street Cycles came up with a decent set of shorter cranks and they were mailed out to me in a few days and half an hour's work had the boy on a bike that he would enjoy riding for as long as it fitted him.




Alexis Maneyrol Monument
The sun on our backs, birdsong in our ears as we rolled through the air perfumed with the scent of wild flowers. Bliss on a bike !


René Leduc and R-16

"What's that monument thing ? Was he some sort of hero ?" This was the monument in the village of Frossay to  Alexis Maneyrol. He was one of the first, but certainly not the last of a long line of pioneering aviators from Pays de Retz. The tradition continues today with the huge Airbus factories in St Nazaire and Nantes. When you look into it, it's amazing what aeronautical development was done in this quiet rural area. René Leduc ( not the René Leduc who developed the ram-jet engine ! ) was a disciple of Alexis Maneyrol , broke speed and altitude records with his revolutionary design of light aircraft and was born in our town of St Pere en Retz. He was also involved, near the end of his life, with the development of ULM's ( Ultra Light aircraft )  and a local flying club specialising in these fascinating machines is very popular. Hardly a week goes past here without you seeing something unusual in the sky, an Airbus Beluga so big it looks like it's breaking the laws of physics or a Flying Flea that looks like breaking the laws of common sense ! And there's so much wartime stuff too. Only last year the Mairie organised a memorial for the crew of a WW2 Lancaster, the remains of which had just been unearthed by a farmer clearing some woodland. During WW1 there was a huge American/French Airship base at Paimboeuf . They were used primarily against WW1 German U boats. This site is well worth a look, it's in French but the photos are great and Google will translate it for you if you want. Recommended !



Cordemais Power Station on north bank of the Loire
Well, that was the climbing done, such as it was, now for a lovely freewheel almost all the way to le Migron on the south bank of the canal de la Martiniere. We turned left here and ambled on for a few kilometres to the start of the canal. And what a canal ! It's not used as it was intended nowadays, but it still makes British canals look like flooded ditches ! It obviously cost an absolute fortune to build ( reading the heroic French newspaper articles of the time comparing it to ancient Egyptian pyramid building makes you wonder though ) and took about ten years to construct. The reason for building it was because bigger and bigger ships were wanting to get along the Loire to berth at Nantes,but the Loire at this point was shallow and very slow to navigate. A canal seemed like the ideal answer. However , such were the technological advances in modern powered dredging , that a permanent channel was soon created in the Loire, and the canal was obsolete within a few years of it's opening. Now it's well used for leisure purposes and is incorporated in a wild life preservation area. So we crossed a bridge and cycled on rough tracks as far as we could go, right up to the south bank of the Loire with a great view of the Cordemais power station, It burns coal and oil, and maybe gas but I'm not exactly sure on that. I looks a bit nucleary but I think it's just that French Techno Industrial architecture. It is quite a sight, if you like that sort of thing ! I like the contrast between the nature reserve , the river and this twentieth century monster. Here's a link to a wee You Tube video of the Canal de la Martiniere, It's worth a watch.


A nice Bob Jackson Curly Legend at West Locks
" This canal's not very long, why don't we follow it to the other end where it rejoins the river ?" Which is exactly what we did. The route along the canal going east was well surfaced and wide enough to accommodate cars if necessary although I think we only saw half a dozen the whole trip. By now it was really warming up, so we stopped at a point opposite a man made storks's nest and watched them for a while as we topped up our hydration levels. Rolling along, side by side, we passed the ULM flying club and stopped to watch a couple of micro lights taking off and landing, Looked like great fun ! Near here we could see the shell of a tall square tower, this was the remains of an Abbey which had been badly knocked about during the revolution but is still a pretty impressive piece of architecture.


Abbey at Buzay
The next stretch had us cycling in the shade of some trees bordering the canal, very "Wind in the Willows" stuff, until we came across a flotilla of dinghies going through their manoeuvres. They were from a sailing school with it's club house on the opposite bank. John Grieve singing  " The Crinan Canal for Me " came to mind. Certainly looked fine and safe for kids. I'll bet they never get the experiences my pal John and I had when we went to a sailing school in Tighnabruaich on the west coast of Scotland. That was memorable !  We slowed right down to keep abreast of them while they tried to  tack  along the canal and we joined in with their laughter as they merrily ran aground or rammed one another. This was fun sailing ! Then we came across the queerest looking things ! A couple of semi- submerged canal barges, big ones though, much bigger than any British narrow boats. But they were made of reinforced concrete !! We'd never seen anything like them.
Concrete Barges !
On enquiry, it turned out that during WW1 there was a shortage of steel which was what these type of barges were usually made of, so someone engaged in a bit of lateral thinking and came up with the idea of reinforced concrete. This turned out to be a great success as construction was fast and cheap. but when the canal fell into disuse they were no longer required and these are left as monuments to French ingenuity.  








     
Erwin Wurms strikes again !






By this time we were at the locks which let boats back into the Loire and the end of the canal. But the boat here really took the biscuit ! Check the photo, it's almost impossible to describe ! It's a sort of sculpture by Erwin Wurms who also does models of American cars made from cushions. But it made us smile !














Le Cafe 
We'd crossed to the other bank and were making our way back to Le Migron when we came upon a perfect stopping place, a canal-side cafe. A couple of Oranginas for the Apprentice and a nice cool Kronenbourg for me as we waited for our galettes. French fast food at it's best !  Sure enough, sitting under a parasol, digesting a fine wee lunch and watching people having fun on the water,the world really was our lobster that day . Back in the saddle after settling up in the cafe and off we went. No kidding though, we would have spent more in a McDonalds, and not enjoyed it nearly as much. On our road back we talked about how the spirit of Jules Verne seemed to pervade the Pays de Retz. Of how we'd spent the day enjoying things on land, in the air and on water that French ingenuity had brought about. Has Neal Stephenson become the twentieth century Jules Verne ? You can't beat a good blether on the bike!! (Blethering is Scots for indulging in spirited, animated and invigorating conversation )
The light breeze that we'd cycled into now seemed to have picked up a little, but it was on our backs,
 O Joy!
 So then we got that sensation of just not being aware of the pedals at all. We seemed to just float back along the other bank. Even when we approached Frossay and had to climb up to where we first noticed the Alexis Maneyrol monument the breeze was worth another gear. Back through the vineyards and through the fields of wild flowers a fine long freewheel, last wee drag up to the level crossing and we're on the road for home. Both feeling just fine ! Have you ever noticed how easy it is to describe unpleasant, painful sensations but how you can be at a loss for words to describe truly joyful experiences ?

The Apprentice with Decathlon MTB

Distance ridden, just over 50km. Time taken, who cares ? It was probably the first time the Apprentice had ever had such a good day on the bike. One of those days when you come home tired but not exhausted, you feel as if your whole system is in tune with ...something ?
You could get spiritual at these times.... but people would talk, so you just say " Aye, another braw day on the bike, wife, is that my tea ?"

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