Week Six/Seven: Beautiful, blustery bike-touring with a teenager on France’s Atlantic Vélodyssée
Pamplona to Saint-Brevin-L’Ocean, 767km; total 3,171k
“Il y a toujours ce vent d'inconnu et d'aventures qui nous talonne tous.”
We were pedaling through Rochefort - a “ville nouvelle” by French standards, its long rectangular architecture built for royal administration by the Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century - when we rode past a modest, embossed metal tribute to the early travel diarist Pierre Loti, with this quote that was strikingly pertinent for the moment.
The “wind of the unknown and of adventure” has hooked us in its claws yet again over this latest epic family bike tour - with all the unexpected discoveries that blow into our path making our journey all the more invigorating. The same could be said for the wild ride that is parenthood - always surprising with new trials and new rewards at each age and stage. And these two concepts merged wonderfully together this week as our teenager, Heron, turned 14 on the Atlantic coast of France.
It’s said that motivating a teen to do anything is a tough slog - but once you find that thing that gets their motor revving, watch out.
Case in point: this past Tuesday afternoon. It was just after 1:30 and we still had 31km of biking to catch the 3:15 ferry across the Gironde estuary from Pointe de Grave over to the beach-lover’s resort town of Royan. Our phone apps predicted an arrival time of 3:12 with no stops, and the ferry’s website warned to arrive 30 minutes ahead.
“Unrealistic,” thought Ed, thankfully to himself as he glided alongside Sitka, French pop hits blaring from the speaker.
“Impossible,” thought Sitka, thankfully only within earshot of Ed thanks to the volume of Stromae’s mesmerizing lyrical cadence.
“Pretty doubtful,” Joce kept to herself as she noticed Heron begin accelerating at the front of the pack.
“Gotta make that ferry,” decided our teenaged tour leader, who had diligently plotted this whole week around a singular goal.
As often and at as many different spots as possible.
For months, this stretch of sandy crescents had stirred the passions of our intrepid extreme sports fan, who’d ditched his toboggan for a snow-skate (essentially a skateboard without wheels) this winter and left his downhill skis at home to spend his babysitting money on snowboard rentals. Ever since his first foray on a whitecap at age seven, in Australia with our Warmshowers friend Rod, Heron longed to ride waves on a board again. After Day One on Mimizan Beach - his long-planned 14th birthday rest stop - he sounded just like those blonde-maned dudes in the YouTube videos he’s been scouring for tips.
“When I wake up, I just want to surf, man.”
Okay, so he didn’t say “man,” but he may as well have wagged his hands in Hawaiian “Hang Loose” mode, because he was hooked on the wind of adventure. We would cycle long days of 100km or more (including a new family record 123km day!) to allow for a few hours of surfing on the best beaches at the perfect tide times, like the dreamy Lacanau Beach on Monday where all four of us - even the notoriously surf-inept Ed - caught a few fleeting moments of serene glide atop a rolling wave (Ed would later notice a deep purple hue to his longest toe later that evening - the price of surf glory for a 40-something newbie).
By 2:30 Tuesday afternoon, then, Heron’s three bikemates had each decided independently to dare not raise the spectre of missing that ferry. Our phones predicted an arrival of 3:20 but we valiantly kept pace with our galvanized group chief. A two-hour window at world-famous Bud-Bud was at stake.
There had already been an emergency bathroom pit stop in the pine forest at 1:45. A suddenly nasty headwind pummeled us on the coast at Montalivet at 2:05. The perfectly paved and sign-posted bike trail was frustratingly busy with children on France’s weeks-long spring holidays. Then, at postcard-pictoresque Soluac-sur-Mer, construction along the beachfront boardwalk. We pleaded with the unsympathique neon-vests, then darted backwards and down several sidestreets, coming to dead-ends each time. Surely the dream was over.
But our dude refused to wake up. Having clearly absorbed his parents’ bike-tour problem-solving mantra - “There’s always a way” - Heron zigged and zagged and bike-bell ding-dinged a path through the frolicking families, the rest of us trailing behind like cartoon characters offering friendly “Bonjours” to reassure the startled vacationers.
Suddenly we emerged from the forest at a rocky point, the ferry terminal 200m away. It was somehow only 3:13pm, but would the bonhomme at the ticket booth let us pass? “Not if we were in Spain,” we each thought, images of finger-wagging train conductors still scarring our psyches.
“Est-il trop tard?” Heron gasped at the stunned man in the booth, the sound of skidding bike tires still echoing in the salty air.
“Mais, bien non,” came the surprisingly calm reply. “Vous êtes arrivés juste à temps.”
Off whisked the Canadian surfer to his boat, his family trailing behind with the tickets. We stood in utter, exhausted disbelief for the first few minutes after the bridge lifted and the ship set off. 3:15 on the dot.
“That was awesome,” beamed Heron. “What do we have for lunch?”
Indeed, bike touring with kids changes significantly between the ages of 5 to 8 - as our boys were during our Oceania Odyssey - and 11 to 14 as they are on this Europe Epic. The volume of food consumption is a larger issue for a future blog post, but it’s the level of eager participation in decision-making that was so noticeable this week. Teenagers have a lot of opinions - many are very well thought-out and productive, and many are very not. As parents, it is requiring a next level of patience to discern which is which, and to respond with appropriate levels of appreciation. There are moments when a hastily snatched cell phone leads to some teenaged tinkering that is entirely counter to what was needed - and others that produce helpful high-tech shortcuts that parents would have never imagined. Sometimes a teen can step in and intuitively figure out how to start a microwave with a German-only manual, and sometimes they can, say, reserve a campground on Rochefort Avenue in Avignon on the other side of France instead of the town of Rochefort along your actual bike route.
What is certain, however, is that every enervating insertion of unrequested opinion is by far offset by the many moments of emerging competence and engaging companionship.
How fitting, then, that this week’s route led us to dozens of sightings of those majestic marshland birds after which our Heron was named. When we last brought our boy to the west coast of France, he was five months old. We would peer together out over the Atlantic and wonder what the future would hold for him as we dipped his baby feet in the lapping tide. Now we know his horizon is as broad as the ocean before us as he masters those waves on his board, and life in general with the same grace and agility as his namesake. What a ride, indeed.
Speaking of which, we did cycle this week, hitting the 3,000km mark along the absolutely ideal family bike route that France has labelled its “Vélodyssée.” Starting in the far southwest at Hendaye and winding along the Atlantic 1,200km to the north coast at Roscoff, the path we found was almost all safely separated from main roads, largely paved, flat and smooth; and above all continuous - with few to no surprise dead-ends, and remarkably reliable sign posts all the way. It would be the perfect introductory bike-touring destination.
The greatest challenge for families of all ages would be to convince the kids to not stop at every fantastically fun “Holiday Park” campground - dozens in each vacation paradise town, each competing for the coolest waterslide, multisport fields, games rooms and evening spectacles (complete with special rates for cyclists overnighting in tents, though strangely without picnic tables to eat on). Then there are the elaborate ropes courses and go-kart tracks in between miles of pristine beaches and fragrant bakeries. And that’s before you encounter Europe’s largest sand dune, the 100m-high, 500m wide, 3km long Dune de Pilat that could keep the average tyke in explore-and-roll mode for months.
The hyper-pleasant route offers reprieve from the tourist traps by meandering frequently through coastal forest of towering maritime pine and oak, then straying inland through the below-sea-level marshlands of Charante and Vendée, with their fascinating labyrinth of medieval digues (similar to Dutch dikes) irrigating the vast fields of wheat, rapeseed and livestock from cow to goat. The symphony of birdsong blends with throaty frog calls from early morning to late night, and one’s reverie is frequently interrupted by a paper-white egret or our favourite heron springing into flight from their perches among the brush. We even spotted a muskrat-like ragondin and creepy masses of short-finned eels slithering and slurping over each other in the shallow muddiness.
Back on the coast, we had the unique experience of riding along the Passage du Gois connecting the island of Noirmoutier to the mainland. This causeway is accessible only a few hours a day - at the lowest tide, since it is otherwise submerged up to 12 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean. We timed our ride to catch the driest moments across the concrete road, joining dozens of pêcheurs à pieds who fanned out over the exposed seabed to collect shellfish. Once a year, a foot race is held in this spot, with runners starting as the tide first rises over the road. Winners wrap the 8km return route slopping up their ankles, while slowpokes have to swim to the finish line.
These kinds of quirky quests are what keep us all interested and engaged over months of bike touring. As we’ve mentioned before, our boys are keen for family travel because they’re full members of the planning team. And if our teenager is motivated by a week revolving around surfing, then we plan a week around surfing with them - even if it means a broken toe or two. It may also mean listening to French hip-hop all day, budgeting a daily dessert challenge, taking breaks to do 360s off of sand dunes and play horseshoes with our sandals, and ensuring evening game-time for mini-putt, beach volleyball, billiards or learning the quintessential French pastime of pétanque.
Granted, we still have to give nightly reminders to brush teeth, and Ed is still the only one apparently capable of washing dishes. But our teens contribute in their own useful ways to the bike-tour team. They take better pictures than Dad, and they keep Mom’s mattress pumped up and her bike chain lubed. Their musical taste is actually quite eclectic, and they have great taste in European desserts.
Best of all, they’ve become our greatest bike-touring buddies. Lifelong cyclist friends who, like us, have been hooked in by the winds of the unknown and all the adventures that come along.