Tour de Farce: cycling from La Manche to Le Med | Martin Love

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Riding the length of France gives Martin Love and three friends the chance to savour endless rain, empty roads and performance-enhancing croissants

Its a misty morning in March. Ive got a stinking hangover and am being dragged round the block by the dog. Suddenly my friend Frank bounces out of the murk, part man, part Tigger. Hey, Martin, he says. Ive had a great idea. Fancy cycling to my mums house? Even by his zany standards this is bizarre. His mum only lives in Sydenham, about a mile from where were standing. I mean, my mums house in Aix-en-Provence, he adds. Hes half French, but is he half crazy, too? Aix is hundreds of miles away. But I know Frank and there is always a fearsome inevitability to his plans

Three months later its another misty morning and Frank and I are about to cycle to his mums house. A vague feeling of disbelief grips me. Frank has persuaded two other misguided souls, Mark and Joan, to join us. The route Frank has plotted, from south London to the south of France, is a meandering 900-mile wiggle which will take us in a lazy curve across Kent and under the Channel before dropping the length of France. Well be cycling from La Manche to Le Med. To keep things interesting, Franks included un petit dtour up and over Mont Ventoux a windblasted 6,273ft mountain known as the Beast of Provence.

Lets go from here to here: Joan and Frank do some route planning in the Eurotunnel terminal

Over the months, our pleasant five-day jaunt has expanded into a full-blown nine-day adventure. There have been meetings (in the pub), training rides (1) and weve been assigned areas of responsibility. Frank: route planning, accommodation, kit, logistics, nutrition. Mark: extra route planning, communication. Joan: nothing. Me: nothing.

We finally set off at 7:30am on a Saturday in June for stage 1: London to Dover. Riding as a group takes some getting used to. Joan, a handsome Catalan adding some much-needed flair to our micro peloton, doesnt seem to realise its not an actual race. He instantly disappears over the first hill. When we catch him he looks baffled at our lack of speed and stamina. Where have you been? he asks. I begin to worry our single training ride may have been ambitious

Hours later we roll into Dover. Kent in high summer has been as pretty as ever, but this time it was pockmarked with Vote Leave banners. We board the Eurotunnel train and slip beneath the Channel, feeling relieved to be back in Europe, at least for a week. Franks sister lives in the tiny hamlet of Nortbcourt (pop 449), about 20 miles from Calais. She gives us a bed for the night and fortifies us with pizza and local cider which we later discover comes from Hereford. We watch England scrape a toothless draw against Russia, marvelling at the antics of the hooligans in Marseille. Just other boys on tour, we joke.

Aces high: the final resting place of Arthur James Fisher, shot down by the Red Baron

Day two and our first proper taste of riding in France and also of riding in heavy rain. Thank you, weather gods! We snake our way across the open pastures dotted with white cows, past old dairies and disused mines. Where is everyone? Mark asks. Its a question we repeat over and over again in the coming days. Desolate roads skirt vast fields. We swoop through silent and shuttered villages as if we are the last people alive escaping a zombie apocalypse. The only signs of life are chained dogs. Fences are strung with dead crows literal scarecrows. They work. Were scared.

Then its on across the flat fields of Flanders. Poppies flutter everywhere. Arras is on the horizon, the Somme beyond that. We stop at the war grave near Bancourt. Its the final resting place of Franks great uncle, Arthur James Fisher, sixth victim of Manfred von Richthofen the infamous Red Baron. Arthur was killed at 21. Manfred went on to claim another 74 hits before being shot down himself and dying from his wounds at the age of 25. Arthurs grave lies on its own at the edge of the cemetery. We stand around it in the drizzle, lost for words at their courage, at the dazzling brevity of their lives.

Another croissant?: Mark and Frank get the carbs in at the campsite at Bdoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux

We pedal on across Picardy and eventually arrive in Laon. It boasts an incredible five-spired, 12th-century cathedral which sits on a giant rock. Looming out of the mist, it hardly seems real more like a princesss palace. We check into an Ibis before heading back into the towns beautiful square. It, too, is totally deserted. We are the only diners in the only open restaurant. We toast each other with pastis, and marvel at the cathedral. Its covered in carved animals dogs, horses, cows, donkeys and chickens. Mark discovers France has yet to open its arms to vegetarians when his asparagus arrives wrapped in bacon.

The following day we leave the battlefields and head for Champagne-Ardennes. The endless, immaculate vineyards are mesmerising, as if all the green slopes have been neatly combed. Past Reims and en route for Troyes the gentle hills peter out. The horizon is broken only by a phalanx of wind turbines. Their long arms turn elegantly like synchronised swimmers. Its hedgeless, treeless, limitless How can France be so big? How can it be so empty? It feels like were in the Prairies. We crank out a steady rhythm along rapier- straight roads that are 5km long without a kink. Whod have though youd miss a bend, Mark says, before trailing off, mesmerised by scale of the vastness.

We eat, we joke, we follow the wheel in front. Its amazing how the hours spiral by, our minds set free to unspool. We become obsessed with spotting birds of prey. And goats. And ornamental wheelbarrows.

Peak performance: the winding road to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Photograph: Alamy

Day four brings proper sideways rain and wind so strong it fells a tree. We have to carry our bikes across it, Tarzan-style. It gives me a chance to practise my French. I flag down a motorist to warn her that: Il y a un grand arbre la route! Mark tops this later by telling a pharmacist he needs decongestants: Mon nez est ferm! Frank, totally fluent, thinks its funnier not to help out at all.

Another day, another hotel, motel, campsite they begin to blur. We try to remember what weve seen on which day. We start to get into a steady routine. Each morning we load up on croissants and coffee. Then theres map chat. Then the creaming starts Ride a bike for more than a day and everyone asks you about the state of your arse. Its wellbeing becomes a matter of intense scrutiny. Weve brought bumper tubs of chamois cream and shovel handfuls of it down our shorts. Its cool and soothing. We soon work out its best to do that after weve eaten the croissants

How much further?: Joan takes a quick siesta by the road

By now we are two-thirds of the way down the country, weve inched past Bourg-en-Bresse, skirted Lyons and traversed the Drme. At last La Belle France is beginning to live up to her billing. Provence brings us oak-covered hills, farmhouses, cherry orchards and fields of lavender.

But up ahead we know we still have our biggest challenge an ascent of Mont Ventoux a massive, brooding presence that dominates the area. Its also a cycling mecca and this year the Tour de France headed to its summit on Bastille Day. (Well, it tried to strong winds resulted in the summit finish being moved down the mountain and the race resulted in the bizarre sight of Chris Froome, the race leader, running up the road.) On the day we arrive the lower slopes are busy with cyclists rather than fans and everywhere we look Lycra-clad pilgrims are beetling their way up its vertiginous flanks.

Its a 22km slog up an 8% incline. Near the top the trees give way and you arrive in a waterless, lunar wasteland. The camaraderie among the riders is amazing shouts of Allez and Courage keep us straining ever upwards. Its an agonising, lung-popping, thigh-burning two hours. At the top theres laughter and backslapping and a glorious feeling of awe. We take in the view for a moment before turning and speeding to the bottom like stones dropped down a well 6,000ft in 20 minutes. I find it terrifying and arrive at the end a jibbering wreck. Joan looks at his speedo and is disappointed to see hes only hit 83kmh.

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