Mike Simpson

Breaking My Own Rules

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The '80 mile rule' was my staple. I conjured it up a few years ago. I would never finish a ride having ridden between 80 and 100 miles. If I'd happen to go over 80 mile by even just one mile. I would have to continue and complete over 100 miles. A few occasions it has been tough. I remember a race that I finished totally out of it but as I had 'only' covered 89 miles, I had to do a very painful extra 11 miles. I've lived by this for years now and even my friends who I ride with seem to have adopted it as the norm! I broke the rule yesterday for the first time. The reason wasn't lack of energy or enthusiasm, it just seemed appropriate.

I had stumbled on an amazing bike path earlier in the week. It was along a disused railway line, which had been meticulously converted. It was flat, fast and car free. I had been riding some climbs in the Haute Languedoc region of Southern France and was finishing off the last 10 miles of the ride back to the car along a fairly busy road. I don't like main roads, I avoid them at all costs. At home I never train during the morning or evening rush hours. Have you ever heard someone say, 'Bikes shouldn't be allowed on the roads'? Usually by an ignorant driver who has been momentarily inconvenienced. Well to be honest I agree..... bikes should not be allowed on the roads. The infrastructure is just not there for a rider to be safe. The pedestrian has the pavement, the car has the road. Any cycle path, if there are any, in the UK is totally inadequate. Not in France however, as I was on this main road I saw a cyclist up high on a beautiful old railway bridge. I joined the path and rode on it for 12 miles back to the car. It was fantastic. That night I investigated it more. It turned out the 12 miles I did was just the last section. In fact it is an amazing 44 miles long!!!! But it is not just a cycle path, as it follows the same route as the railway track used to, it has bridges over the roads, mostly original side barriers and it is shielded when it passes through towns just like the train would be.

A 44 mile continuous bike path. It was too good a prospect not to undertake, so I changed my existing training plans and decided to ride it in it's entirety. Obviously though I would have to get back to the car, so in fact it would mean an 88 mile out and back. Totally car free!!! I couldn't sleep the night before, like a big mountain route or an important race, I was just too excited.

I jumped out of bed at 0530 and drove the 50 minutes drive to the start of the path. I set off strongly averaging 21mph for the first 12 miles. This is good, I thought, I could up this and average 22mph for the ride at least. Three factors would soon put pay to this aim:

1) 15% - After 13 miles the path veered off up a hill side. Suddenly I was on a 15% climb. Oops had I gone wrong and come off the path? I carried on as the path was very cool, narrow and steep. Then it descended even steeper and rejoined the old railway route. Very cool but I'd temporarily lost my decent average speed. I kicked on to make up.

2) Treacle - It started raining. Initially I thought this would be good, I ride faster if it's not so hot. But it soon dawned on me, this path is going to get boggy! It was made up of fine gravel on what I though was a hard surface. Within 5 minutes of the heavy rain it was like riding through treacle. Again part of me was cursing it, as despite my upping of output, my average speed was again taking a tumble. Being on a road bike, it was also possible that, due to lack of clearance, the brakes would build up with mud and bind. So I unclipped the quick release to delay that from happening. Again I upped the output to try and compensate. (The photo at the top of the page was taken a few days earlier in lovely conditions).

3) The Darkness - Now at about 25 miles in, I had already gone through half a dozen or so tunnels. These were super cool, as well as knowing it means no junction to slow things up, they had automatic lighting. I could ride fast into the darkness and within a second or two the lights would illuminate the way. By the tunnel at 25 miles, I was confident to absolutely fly into the entrance, as I knew that the hard surface on the tunnel would be excellent for bringing my average speed back up and no one was coming the other way, else the lights would be on. Unfortunately I was unaware that the lights in this particular tunnel were broken. After a few seconds I was in total darkness. I couldn't judge where the side of this cave was, I had to brake hard and stop. At first I tried to use my Garmin to see the way. But this was no good. My phone proved just enough, but now I was forced to walk. It also happened to be the longest of the tunnels on the route at about 800metres. Eventually I got to the other end and could get riding again.

Initially these things reducing my speed had annoyed me but I realised that this ride was meant to be enjoyed and savoured, not just staring down at my handlebars, pushing it eyeballs out. It would turn out to be up there as one of the best experiences ever on a bike, and one fact maybe highlighted that more than anything else - It wasn't until 34 miles in that I saw another rider! Ok so it was early and wet but 34 miles of pathway without seeing a soul, amazing. Imagine riding from Marlow to the other side of Oxford without passing or seeing anyone! Now I'm not someone who would like to, say, ride across the Outback and be somewhere uninhabited, but to be able to ride so safely in a glorious environment (mountain views both sides) is truly special and pretty unique.

The signage is pretty subtle, but it's pretty impossible to go the wrong way. It is packed with great features. Like a cobbled (and wet) underpass, the aforementioned hill track section, the cool tunnels. You would also suddenly get 90degree turns, where the route deviates from the railway line and you would need your wits about you approaching them at speed in the wet!!

The slippery conditions, despite slowing me down, were excellent cyclocross training. At the halfway turn (44 miles) I had only seen about 8 other riders! I had a headwind travelling back east but was thriving in the wet, rough conditions and relishing re-doing the whole route again.The pitch black tunnel was still a slight problem, but I was able to keep riding by shining my phone at the side wall and keep a couple of feet from one side.

Although it misses going through towns and just skirts by them as the railway line did, the path does however make one exception. The designers of the path purposely included a slight diversion into Olargues, which may just be one of the prettiest villages in France, (see photo below, again taken earlier in the week when the sun was out!).

And so after another carefree 44miles without cars or the normal road dangers, I arrive back at the start town of Bédarieux. The path ends and the existing disused railway lines continue. By the look of it they plan to extend the path further, who knows how long it could be in a few years time?

So I don't bother doing the extra 11 miles today, no point, I certainly don't want to ride on the road with cars today. This ride has been so uniquely glorious. It's called the Voie Verte (GreenWay) by the way, a worthy rule breaker.

Click images to enlarge.