I had decided that although the route continues all the way to the Mediterranean at Sète, I was going no further than Carcassonne, for a number of reasons - I didn't have time to go all the way; the towpath is reportedly unpaved after Port Lauragais and the popular guidebook by Declan Lyons rather sucks its teeth about the quality of the path; the canal becomes very sinuous so you ride a long way to make far less forward movement; there's an airport at Carcassonne with flights back to Stansted.
Wednesday, 30 September 2020
The first part of the path along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sète, on the Mediterranean coast. Also the only section of the Midi route so far to be tarmac surfaced.
With a total distance to the heart of the old city of around 32km on substantially flat paths, I expect to have most of the day to explore the city.
After lunch, retrace your steps up the Canal de Montech (12km, climb that 20m again) to rejoin the Canal de Garonne towpath to Grisolles (17km, about 10m climb).
After perhaps a kilometre of busy road leaving Sauveterre de Guyenne you turn left on to a much quieter country lane, designated a "voie partagée" with bike signs towards La Réole. The road is quiet, though not traffic-free – watch out in particular for agricultural vehicles which seem to be able to move quite fast – and the terrain is moderately undulating. My assessment though is that the maximum gradient is probably no more than 5-7% and within the capabilities of the gearing on my Brompton. About half-way through the 15km to La Réole you pass a splendid old watermill, the Moulin de Loubens.
As you approach La Réole you can join a busy road or you can cross this and follow a quiet back road which brings you into the northern side of the town instead of taking you direct to the bridge over the Garonne river. The town has a few bars and cafés, notably one overlooking the river close to the bridge, from which it is a short gentle climb up a street which connects directly to take you across the bridge.
On crossing the bridge, you follow a moderately busy local road for about a kilometre before reaching a junction with a much busier bypass road, which you cross to access the quieter road which leads down to Fontet, where you meet the canal. For the next 20km or so you are on the canal towpath, which alternates from one side of the canal to the other from time to time – you can’t miss the changes because you see that the path in front of you is no longer asphalt, and usually there is a sign to indicate that you need to cross the bridge
To access Marmande town you need to leave the towpath and follow local country lanes for about 5km across a flat alluvial plain. You will see evidence of sand/gravel extraction by Lafarge all around you. There is about a km of slightly busier road before you come to a junction where you can join a separated cycle lane for most of the way into town, apart from over the bridge across the Garonne river just before entering the town.
Marmande is a modest town with hotels, bars and restaurants and small grocery shops. I didn’t see any evidence of a camp site but again you can wild camp discreetly beside the canal if you wish. It styles itself "La Ville des Tomates" but I didn't see any tomatoes on my route. It has its own wine appellation, Côtes du Marmandais
The towpath is a prepared tarmac surface, in fact for its entire length to Toulouse which is well over 150km. It is in pretty good condition overall, although in a few places the top dressing is crumbling and the surface becomes a little rougher. I saw no signs of potholes, though, and drainage seems pretty good with no puddles of any size on the path. It is about 2 metres wide, which for the traffic seemed adequate, and it is of course substantially flat, as it follows the water. The level rises in steps with each lock but in this area the locks are well spaced and rise perhaps 1.5-2 metres a time. The path does however vary in height above the water surface, between about 50cm and perhaps 2-3 metres, so there is a very slight undulation.
The path is also heavily shaded along its entire length in this area by tall mature plane trees on either side – planted originally by the constructors of the canal, to provide protection from the summer sun for the commercial barges plying it. This does mean some tree root disturbance creating mini speed bumps which were slightly uncomfortable on a Brompton, but generally they were easy to spot, often easy to steer around, and I wasn’t in any hurry.
Like the Roger Lapébie cycle path, there are very few benches or picnic tables to stop for a rest en route, and no water fountains to refill your bottle, although down in the shade of the trees that becomes a less pressing imperative.
The path is exclusively for walkers and cyclists - there are clear signs prohibiting cars and motorcycles, with an added panel saying horse-riders are prohibited too. The only vehicles you typically see are the engineers' vans from Voies Navigables de France (VNF) and some heavy machinery maintaining the banks, eg brush cutting or doing embankment reinforcement. It seems that VNF sees no need to instal gates or barriers to discourage motor vehicles so by and large there is nothing to obstruct non-standard bikes, and indeed I saw families towing child trailers and baggage trailers, and even one tandem and one tadpole trike.
There are however occasional spots where staggered barriers have been installed, apparently to force more sporty cyclists to moderate their speed as they approach small boat marinas, picnic areas and the handful of designated waterside campsites. These might require a certain amount of manhandling to get a bike/trailer combo through.
Geotagged photos along the route can be found here.
Marmande is a few km from the canal but after that you stay with it all the way to Agen where the canal passes through the town centre after crossing the river on an aqueduct.
Sunday, 12 April 2020
Years ago, before our children were born, we used to tour the wine regions of France on vintage 1988 Bromptons (which I still have, to give to my kids as heirlooms). I think the most we ever did in one day was about 70km, around the Monbazillac/Bergerac region on the Loire, and that is slightly more than I plan for any one day on this occasion, but we didn’t carry luggage with us as we travelled from town to town with the folded bikes on the back seat of our vehicle. We did however have small pannier bags which permitted us to collect 6 bottles of wine per bike to bring back to base camp, the boot of our vehicle, so not entirely luggage free.
Since then I have a new Brompton, which is a story in itself - one of the vintage Bromptons got damaged in an accident at Hyde Park Corner and was considered probably beyond repair, I bought the Birdy as a replacement, because it folded and was really nice to ride, but quickly discovered that it doesn’t fold easily or neatly enough to do three times a day in my home-bike-train-bike-office-bike-train-bike-home commuting routine. So I bought a new Brompton and kept the Birdy.
(Curiously, several months later FW Evans called to say “aren’t you going to collect your Brompton?” so I went to get it. The bent pedal crank and seat post had been replaced, the frame it turned out was undamaged, and Brompton, to whom it had been sent for evaluation by Evans, refused to charge anything for the repair)
Anyway, the new Brompton, which I’ve had since 2007, is this one.
According to this Youtube video, it fits the bill for touring: an M6 with the reduced ratio on gearing (by fitting 12% larger rear sprockets). It goes part way towards this video in that it has the Titanium seatpost, rear triangle and front forks, but I’ll dispense with the rest of his suggestions. I won’t be able to use my Ortleib panniers on it, but the standard Brompton handlebar stem-mount bag and a rear rack-top bag should suffice - I'll travel light, and I’m not expecting Aquitaine in summer to require much waterproofing.
In comparison, the Brompton is certainly easier to fold than the Birdy, it folds more compactly, and the more delicate components are better protected inside a carapace of mainframe ironmongery - being thrown around by airport baggage handlers always required a certain amount of straightening out and resetting gears and brakes etc on the Birdy where more delicate stuff found itself near the surface of the folded package. On the other hand, the Birdy rides like a full size bike and has full suspension. It could handle the gradients on Iceland’s roads, and the very coarse chippings used in the surface dressing of their road tarmac, in a way I suspect the Brompton wouldn’t. But this trip involves asphalt-dressed off-road cycle paths, mainly dead flat canal towpaths, with an old railway track at the start. About 360km, of which barely 20km is on roads, and only 10 of those on undulating ground.
So, hopefully this virtual trip will still become real, eventually.
Sunday, 29 March 2020
(* At the time of writing, this is just a dream - the Corona Virus has put it on hold, certainly for the original timing of May 2020 and possibly until 2021 or later. But what do we have if we don’t have dreams?)
I'm splitting the route into six easy stages. Stage 1, from Bordeaux to Sauveterre de Guyenne, largely follows a tarmac cycle path known as the "Piste Cyclable Roger Lapépie" on an old railway track bed, so although not entirely flat, the gradients are shallow and the total climb and descent is a modest 250m over 65 km.
Apart from short sections in Bordeaux at the start, Toulouse at the finish, and on Day 2 between the Lapépie path at Sauveterre and the canal near La Reole, there isn’t really any wayfinding involved - just follow the paths - but for navigation I’ll use the “Geoportail” app on my phone and iPad, to get French IGN mapping, which is similar to Ordnance Survey Landranger and Explorer maps.
I'll be travelling lighter this time. For one thing I won't need as many clothes - at Midsummer in Iceland the temperatures rose to a giddy 8 Celsius (OK - I chose a bad year to go) - but I expect better in Bordeaux, with the climate averages for May showing a daytime max around 18-20C. For another I have no plans this time to camp so won't need to carry a sleeping bag or tent. I don't want to anyway - I prefer a proper bed with a chocolate on the pillow and a turn-down service, and I only contemplated (very briefly) camping in Iceland because of the thin spread of hotel accommodation - but one slight issue with the Garonne Canal route is that there are few camp sites near to the route so some detours would be necessary, whereas small hotels and Logis are liberally sprinkled along the route in the little Bastide towns.
In addition to blogging, and tweeting, along the route I am also hoping to post photos from my phone (so not exactly art photography) onto a shared Google Photos folder. After a bit of playing around I figured out how to ensure that the geotagging gets uploaded so you can click on the i symbol for location data and a link to it on Google Maps. This way I hope if you're interested you will be able to see the quality of the route if you feel inclined to try it yourself.