Bikepacking and Bikepaths: The Beach is Our Destiny
Cass Gilbert spends a near perfect holiday touring with his son Sage around France’s delightful Île de Ré, pondering the merits of traffic-free riding for family adventures, whatever the surfaces may be. If kite flying, beachcombing, oyster sampling, and ice cream eating sound like your idea of an appealing summer escape, you’ll likely enjoy yourself there as much as they did, too…
I’ve long been a proponent of riding unpaved roads whenever possible. In part, it’s because they invariably promise less vehicular traffic, my arch-nemesis on any bike tour. It’s also, I’ll admit, because I savour both the feel, and the very sound, of rubber on dirt. Oh, that delectable and delicate scrunch! Aural and tactile pleasures aside, the pace of life invariably slows down as well. I can even venture haphazardly from one side of the road to another in a way that I can’t when I’m hemmed in by asphalt and painted lines. And for one reason or another, I feel more connected to my environment when I’m riding dirt.
But when it comes to family rides, I’ve learned to value traffic-free riding above all else, whatever the surface. I often even prefer a paved bike path, especially when my son Sage was younger and still getting to grips with the subtleties of braking and cornering – and not washing out. And whilst I don’t subscribe to the opinion that cyclists should be permanently confined to bike paths, there’s no doubt that I value them as a means of helping build confidence amongst anyone – young and old – who is new to cycling.
Because when Sage and I are riding together on a separated bike path, I can completely relax. Sage will happily yo-yo backwards and forwards, racing ahead and skidding to a halt. He can roam out of sight with little cause for concern, tasting his first sense of true independence in the process. We’ve toured in the Netherlands in the past and absolutely loved it for this very reason: it revealed to us an alternative universe where cyclists need not live in fear of metal hunks hurtling past them just a metre or two to one side. On a separated bike path, no longer do I worry about distracted drivers, seemingly oblivious to their responsibilities on the road.
Old habits die hide though and in part because of my love of dirt roads, we decided to start our trip at the home of Sage’s grandparents, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Having grown up there, I know this beautiful chip of land well, home as it is to the Purbeck Bimble. So, instead of asking my mum to drop us off at the ferry terminal to France, we rode a rambling, gently rolling route – following quiet country lanes, forest trails, and sandy singletrack that leads to the small and charming chain ferry that connects with Poole. From there, we connected with the ‘big’ ferry to Cherbourg. Whatever their size, it’s hard to better boats when it comes to travelling with kids. As soon as we’d passed through the ferry’s open jaws and been swallowed into its belly like a sea monster, we tied up our bikes and grabbed what we needed for this first leg of the journey. We were filled with an excitement that comes only with seafaring travel, in the way it’s so very much part of the whole adventure.
From there, we continued our public transport medley and caught a local train to Paris, running the gauntlet across the city to Paris Montparnasse, where we boarded the TGV to La Rochelle. And finally, it was a short but very blustery ride across the three-kilometre bridge to the petite Île de Ré, which would provide our base for the next week. Being early in the season, we had it mostly to ourselves, tracking down a small holiday apartment on the edge of Rivedoux-Plage that suited our needs. It was perfectly suited for day rides, so we set about scouting the local forests, devouring traditional buckwheat crêpes in the market, and picnicking on wild and empty beaches.
Today Sage explored some forest trails on two wheels. Observed flowers and plants. Rode his bike to the beach. Flew his kite. Studied the map. Rode on a traffic-free bike path to La Flotte. Mingled with traffic. Ate chocolate and strawberry gelato. Raced me back to the Airbnb (and beat me). Once his head hit the pillow… he was out like a light.
Then Sage’s mum Nancy enjoyed some time to herself, leaving the two of us to loop around the island on a father and son mini bikepacking trip. Because like the Netherlands and its impressive network of bike paths, it’s possible to circle and crisscross the entire Île de Ré largely traffic-free, bar the odd village resupply for croissants and pain au chocolats. No wonder it’s long been popular with French families in the height of summer. Cars soon become a distant memory – dotted lines, speed bumps, and crossings are all shrunk down to cycling proportions.
Sage was six at the time of the trip, so at a metaphorical junction in his biking life. He was ready to break free of the tag-along that had served us well on many adventures, but having grown up in New Mexico, didn’t quite have the confidence to share the road with traffic. This introduction to solo touring would thus help him develop some road sense in an environment that both understood and respected the needs of young cyclists. I brought along our TowWhee – aka the magic bungee – in case he ran out of steam. But apart from that, he was on his own.
Our mission was a simple one: ride to the westernmost point of the Île de Ré, where a lighthouse stood vigil and only the open sea remained. A friendly campsite – Les Balleines – made the perfect home from home for our two nights away. Setting up a base camp also afforded us a day to reconnoitre the area unencumbered by gear, or just enjoy time together beachcombing, for which we both share a love.
Sure, the distances weren’t exactly enormous; perhaps 40km each way, across terrain that was invariably pancake flat. But the island, as small as it is, is so full of nooks and crannies to explore that it was definitely a case of less is more. I’ve come to realise that for us, the best family trip involves enjoying as much time off the bike as on it, and better yet, finding a route that runs close to a body of water. Hailing from the high desert of New Mexico, Sage hadn’t spent a whole lot of time by the coast, so watching him immersed in the ancient art of rockpooling at low tide, a European seaside tradition, made me especially proud.
We’d brought the kite too, with which we whiled away the hours in the gusting wind, until I accidentally let go of it and soared into the ether. Still, amongst our gear list, we’d included a twig stove to practise our bushcraft techniques with driftwood from the beach and twigs collected in the forest. Sage even took over day to day navigation duties. We’d acquired a map of the bike paths on the island, which he consulted studiously at intersections, then scrunched back down into his top tube bag, where he also stored his road finds. “Where are we going, Sage?” I’d ask. Despite an ever-growing vocabulary, initially he was struggling with the word ‘destination’. But his version sounded so much more poetic. “The beach is our destiny!”
Within a few days, Sage had already become a ‘rider’. Or rather, he’d simply become so much more comfortable on a bicycle, in a way that everyone should probably feel, whether we define ourselves as cyclists or not. Prior to the trip, he hadn’t had the opportunity to spend much time on his bike, so his first few pedal strokes were wobbly and unsure, as was his sense of place on the road. But his confidence quickly grew, simply because here on the Île de Ré, bicycles had become part of our everyday lives; down to the boulangerie to buy fresh bread, or to the beach for lunch, or through the woods on pine-dampened trails.
On our return leg eastwards the weather took a change for the worse as a maritime storm swept in from the Atlantic ocean. So we raced from shelter to shelter, sharing the bike path with snails that were darting, relatively speaking, from one wild asparagus to the next. Within a few hours we were back in Rivedoux-Plage once more, where Nancy awaited us and stories were shared. As modest as it was, our lighthouse lollipop adventure was declared an undoubted success. The ride had been fun and carefree. It had been filled with observations and comments, both large and small. There had been kite flying and ice cream eating. We’d beachcombed and still had sand in our clothes.
Perfectly in proportion with this little island, it felt like a slice of father and son, bikepath bikepacking perfection.
The Lighthouse Lollipop Ride
I’m not sure that this was our route to the turn, as Sage was navigating with a paper map! But it’s probably close to what we did.
Although I first visited the area in my early 20s, it was a French cycling family I met whilst touring in Bolivia, of all places, that told me how perfect the Atlantic coast can be for family touring. Our summer adventure didn’t quite stop there. On their recommendation, we took a ferry over to the Île de Ré’s bigger, wilder brother – the Île d’Oléron – then followed the coastal bikepath (Euro Velo 1) to the remarkable Dune de Pyla in Bordeaux.
Lastly, we crossed over into Spain for our first dirt road based father and son adventure, that I wrote about in The Bikepacking Journal 03.
Dig into these posts for more Sage Adventures over the years...
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