No you didn't miss day 8. It was a transfer day and we spent 10 hours driving from Italy to France.
Let's start with the numbers, although as ever they don't really tell the story of the day:
Distance - 145km
Elevation - 1,375m
Ride time - 7:40
Average speed - 19kph
From Le Mesnil-sur-Oger to Saint Quentin
Long term readers of this blog (hello to all four of you) will know that route planning is one of the toughest parts of solo long distance rides. I'm often faced with a choice of taking the more direct route along busier roads or meandering around the countryside and taking my time to enjoy the views. The former often means dealing with traffic and the latter can be frustratingly slow. More often than not, it can just be the difference between picking the road riding option on Komoot or the touring one when mapping. What neither of these take into account is rider fatigue and the weather because these were the two most important factors today.
We had all stayed overnight in a small hotel in the middle of the champagne region and were surrounded by thousands of hectares of vineyards. I had a leisurely 9am start and Rachel rode out with me for the first 20 minutes or so which was a nice way to get going. I had all day to get to Saint Quentin so I wasn’t in a hurry but those first few minutes set the pattern for the day. It's all very well driving through vineyards when your are in a car but on a bike you realise very quickly that you have no protection against the wind, there's nothing to stop the flow. And bloody hell was it windy. Riding along the main D roads was proving challenging as there's no hard shoulder just 20cm of gravel then grass. That meant riding along in the same single lane as the cars. Most French drivers are respectful and give you space when overtaking. Most. Others skimmed by at 100kph. Enough of them to make me nervous. Throw in the wind buffeting me around and after an hour my nerves were fried. It was a relief to hit towns and slow down.
I had plotted a route through the Parc naturel régional de la Montagne de Reims because it showed up on Komoot as a bike touring highlight. Reviewers has commented on the views and super quiet roads. They were right. But they had also forgot to mention it's bloody hilly. The hour I took to ride through the forest was constantly up and down. Nothing like the alpine climbs of course, but enough that already tired legs could feel it. At least there was no wind.
Once I had cleared the forest it was back to long straight roads all the way to Reims. It had taken me three hours to ride 40km. I sat and contemplated this with a coffee in the square but the wind was making it too cold to stop for long. Riems is much bigger than I thought and although there was another long straight road to get out, it was mostly on a segregated bike lane so more relaxed.
Outside the city it was back to the dreaded D roads with the traffic and the wind. If anything the wind was stronger and I was now pedalling hard in the small cog to keep going. After one incident of being blown across the lane which forced a car to swerve to avoid me I have up and headed towards the smaller roads linking tiny villages. This required a lot of stopping to check the route. Then I found a canal to ride alongside for 12km. Hooray I love canals. It was into a headwind. I must have looked like those people you see taking part in that annual Dutch race on the seafront into the wind, huddled over the front of my bike in bottom gear. I fucking hate canals.
Post canal there was another section of D road until finally it was over and I was riding on smaller roads through deserted towns and villages. Is there anywhere in Europe more dead than rural France on a Sunday afternoon? I'll bet there are parts of downtown Chernobyl with more life. At least there you might see someone in a hazmat suit wondering around with a geiger counter. Where do the French go? No one washing their cars, playing in the garden, hanging out washing etc. It's weird. Even Belgium has more life and that looks like the set of '28 days' later most of the time.
After 100km I finally reached somewhere with signs of life, Laon and our old friend Ronald McDonald. It seems the only time I ever eat this stuff is on bikepacking trips. I felt marginally better after eating - I know that's oxymoron, no one feels better after eating a McDonald's. I still had 45km to go and at my current speed that meant another two and a half hours. They went by very slowly.
I have written before about mental resilience being a bank account not a credit card (I even made a video about it) and today was a day I had to withdraw all my savings to get to the finish. But on the positive side, getting to that finish puts another big deposit back in the bank. I will remember days like today when it gets tough again and remind myself I can do it. Probably tomorrow.