A Velodyssey to Pilat
Cass Gilbert sets out to repeat a bicycle trip he tackled early in his touring career… a journey to the highest sand dune in Europe. More than 20 years on, he hopes his son Sage will enjoy riding to France’s towering Dune de Pilat as much as he did. Also, find Sage’s full packlist from the trip and a reflection on the Argos technical tartan rug from back in the day…
One summer in my early 20s, I rode my skinny-tyred road bike home from Nice, on France’s Mediterranean coast, back to England. With the naive confidence of the inexperienced bike tourer, I made a couple of pre-departure decisions.
One, I’d detour on my cross-country route to see the Pilat Sand Dune, which I’d been told was a wonderful place to watch a sunset from. The fact that it lay far away on the Atlantic coast, adding hundreds of kilometres to the journey, appeared to be an unimportant detail.
And two, I’d forgo carrying a sleeping bag. In part, this was because I’d recently invested in an ultralight Terra Nova Voyager tent (2kg seemed ultralight at the time, at least) but had yet to save up for the rest of my dream camping gear. Instead, I figured I’d ‘make do’ and bundle up in all my clothes. Encouraged by the exploits of the fabled Crane Cousins, I figured less is more. Plus, forgoing the sleeping bag also meant I could leave my panniers behind and simply cinch my tent to my handlebars. No stove. No mattress. Just a small pack. Oh, the endearing folly of youth!
It goes without saying that whilst I made it home, it wasn’t the most comfortable of bike tours. As I rode north, the nights became colder, to the point that I dreaded each sunset and the fitful sleep that followed.
But… I like to think that everything worked out for the best, in part because Pilat’s fabulous sunset, which was as magnificent as I’d imagined, made up for my discomfort. And, because it showed me that one way or another, life has a habit of working out when you’re riding a bicycle. In the late afternoon shadow of this towering dune, I was fortunate to camp beside a Kiwi couple in a panel van who, on seeing my unnecessarily minimal setup, insisted on donating me a synthetic tartan rug they’d bought in Argos.
No, not the Greek Argos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, but the English retail chain that was named after it! It’s an idiosyncratic store that will likely be all too familiar with British readers. The premise is this. There are no products on display for shoppers to touch and feel. Instead, a dozen encyclopedic catalogues stand centre stage. Leafing through them reveals everything from Casio watches, duvets, dumbells, electric razors, Scaletrix, and TVs, to crystal decanters, briefcases, necklaces, exercise bikes, Ataris, garden tools, and even synthetic tartan rugs, apparently.
Decision made, a petite paper form is filled in with an equally small blue pencil – like a betting slip – quoting a string of numbers so long that I assume these thick compendiums contain absolutely everything in the world. Five minutes later, the chosen product appears before you, as if by magic, no matter its size or obscurity. Argos will also have a special place in my heart because as a youngster – not much older than my son – I’d look forward to my visits there with my grandad, who’d treat me to a toy from the catalogue every time we met up. Given the relatively small dimensions of the shop on Wembley High Street, whence the toy – or the tartan rug for that matter – might have come from was always something of a mystery to me. I imagined it was delivered via a never-ending conveyor belt that emerged from a giant department store deep below the earth’s crust.
But I digress. As bulky as it was, I rolled up this synthetic tartan rug gratefully, wrapped it in a carrier bag, and somehow found space for it. It was a useful reminder that whilst dream camping gear is all good and well, some camping gear is a whole lot better than nothing, and that sometimes what you already have (or are kindly given) can be just as effective, in its own right, as the best gear you can buy.
All of which meant that returning to Pilat some 23 years later brought with it both an element of nostalgia for the past, and a sense of wonder for the future. Because this time, I’d be riding with my son Sage. As such, the trip had a completely different dynamic. Where previously I’d set my sights on some 150 kilometres a day, the two of us focused our efforts on riding a short section of the Vélodyssée bike route – part of the Euro Velo 1 network – with a more modest 30km or 40kms in mind.
The trip was one piece in an extended summer holiday in France and Spain, and began by catching a ferry from Royan, on the ‘mainland’, to an isthmus of pine-lined, sandy beaches that lay across the Gironde estuary. After all, a ferry ride is such an appealing way to kick off a bike tour. No matter the length of the crossing, the size of the boat, or the backdrop, they have a knack of infusing travels with a sense of exotic wonder, even if they’re relatively close to home. Especially in the company of children.
From La Pointe de Grave, we followed the route closely for the most part, except to detour over sandy humps to beaches, or hike into the maritime pine forests, or resupply on sorbets. Importantly, we’d agreed to sample the fares of french ice cream parlors as our daily ride treat. Each tasting was a highlight of the day and after due contemplation, Sage ranked every glace.
There was a social element to the trip, too. After all, the Vélodyssée is a popular route, used by long distance tourers who are riding Euro Velo 1 all the way from Norway to Portugal – a distance of some 11,000km – or those who were section riding it like us, or French holidaymakers heading to the beach for the weekend. We assigned five days to complete our piece – Royan to Archachon – after which we planned to meet back up with Sage’s mum, who was taking some time off the bike to visit Bordeaux. Every day we overtook and were overtaken by the same cyclists, like yoyos back and forwards, with a wave and a ‘bonjour!‘
Just look at those setups! Not so different from my tour of yesteryear. Note unfeasibly skinny tyres, duck-taped water bottle, wooden panniers and mudguards, and classic rat trap pedals… And, is that a rug I see?
The vibe on the Atlantic coast – and in particular, the Côte d’Argent – is especially appealing too. It’s more wild and carefree than the heavily developed Mediterranean, where I’d started my ride in my 20s, and is known as much for its empty, windswept beaches as it is for its surf spots.
As such, there was no shortage of organised camping sites to choose from. Sage, however, loves to wild camp and roam in the forest, so we threw some camping sauvage into the mix too; discreet forest locales that we had to ourselves. I’d make dinner and Sage would frolic in the woods and build fairy houses, his favourite pastime. In fact, he told me that the process of looking for a campsite, then spending the evening there, was the time he enjoyed most out of the day.
I totally understand why. There’s little better than finding the ‘right’ place to call home for the night and relaxing in the knowledge of a day’s worth of experiences accrued, which we chatted about as we ate. Amongst these whimsical spots we intermingled established campgrounds where we could be more social; as a father and son touring team, we drew interest and it was nice for Sage to chat to other people. Wherever we ended up, we were rarely out of earshot of the pounding surf, our soundtrack to a restful night’s sleep.
The face of a boy who has biked all day, played frisbee, searched for rare shells, swam in the sea, scouted a campsite, pitched a tent, created a forest structure… and is now ready for bed.
As for the riding, it felt perfect for our needs. Although the route isn’t the right choice for the hardened bikepacker with kilometres in their crosshairs, it suited us down to a tee. It steered us almost completely away from traffic and when we shared the road with cars, we found the drivers considerate, which put my mind at rest considering my precious convoy.
Challenges included a faceoff with a storm that hit the coastline one day, blowing down trees and seeing little Sage battling a 50kmph headwind, helped along with our ‘magic bungee cord’, the Tow Whee, that we also deployed when days were feeling long. But for the most part it was easy going and carefree. We savoured our beachside picnics especially – Sage carried a spade strapped to his rack – and on one occasion, we stopped to repair a forest structure. Sage’s top tube bag was also crammed with roadside finds, like shells and dried seeds, just as a top tube bag should be. And his hip bag took care of his most prized possession, a small Opinel knife we bought in a seaside town.
After four nights, we arrived along the stretch of the coast home to the majestic dune of my memories. The Grande Dune de Pilat, to use its grander title, is the tallest in Europe. In terms of proportions, it’s 500m wide from east to west and a whole 2.7 km in length from north to south. Most impressive perhaps is its 106m height and its steep, shoe-swallowing grade that makes summiting a real challenge – especially for 6 years olds. It probably goes without saying that it’s giggle-inducing to bound back down again, taking giant-sized footsteps.
On the very last stint of the ride, as we paralleled the dune, we’d overtaken a young Brazilian backpacker and his German girlfriend. They caught us with us as we deliberated on where to camp that night and the four of us chatted easily, exchanging stories. Listening to Sage share moments that were important to him over the last week of riding filled me with pride. Together, we chose one of the smaller camping zones – relatively speaking, because France knows how to do village-sized-tenting – where we were proffered special wristbands, to Sage’s complete delight. Once tents were pitched, our newly improvised group clambered up to the dunes to watch the sunset. Both were epic – the clamber, which was quite the challenge for Sage’s legs – and the sunset, which afforded far-reaching views out to sea, set to the surreal backdrop of a hundred colourful paragliders soaring over our heads like butterflies.
Yes, I’d certainly learned a thing or two about bicycle touring since I was last atop this dune. But the pleasure of riding, eating, moving, and camping remain timeless and largely unchanged over the intervening years – give or take a sleeping bag or two. Cycling to Pilat on my own steam in my early 20s remains a vivid memory. I hope Sage feels similarly, in years to come.
Sage was certainly better equipped than I was on my trip. Here’s his gear list:
- Air mattress; Alpkit Cloud Base
- Sleeping bag; Alpkit Pipedream 200
- Simply Merino wool long underwear top and bottom (aka PJs)
- Smartwool socks (if cold at night)
- Comfortable shorts (riding)
- Cotton t-shirt
- Long sleeve t-shirt
- Tank Top
- 2 x underwear
- Pair of socks
- Shoes (Plae brand)
- Puff Jacket (Patagonia brand)
- Rain shell
- Bamboo toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitiser
- Alpkit Snapwire Foon; ti foldable spork
- Small Opinel knife, used under supervision!
- Front and rear LED
- Reflective vest
- Decathlon small hip pack
- Bike gloves
- Bike helmet
- Reading book; Harry Potter
- Audio books, on my phone
- Various road finds
- Beach shovel
- Extra cord and carabiners for entertainment en route
We slept in a Tarptent Double Rainbow that Sage attached to the rear rack on his Islabike Beinn 20. It’s a great tent that packs down small enough for him to carry and it’s straightforward enough for him to pitch by himself. In practice, I ended up doing most of the camp chores so he could relax and enjoy building fairy houses! As for cooking, we used a Trangia and Clikstand, which I also felt comfortable for Sage to use.
Check out our Tour de Ré post, too, which preceded this chapter of our summer holiday.
FollowMe Tandem vs. TowWhee
As mentioned above, our section of the Vélodyssée was part of a summer touring and taking public transport in France and Spain. Most of the time we kept to traffic-free routes but occasionally we had to tussle with traffic in town. Sage was six a the time and for this reason, we ran a FollowMe Tandem attached to my bike. This Swiss-made device that allows a child’s bike to be quickly hooked up to an adult’s and towed along while they pedal or freewheel. A step along the evolutionary cycling ladder from a tag-along, it’s ideal for a bike tour in which your child is confident enough to ride by themself, but there’s also occasional traffic to contend with – be it stints on a main road or navigating cities that lack bike-friendly infrastructure. When conditions are quiet enough, the child’s bike can be quickly detached for solo travel. It’s a great way to experience the full autonomy of bike touring, with a safety net when needed. It’s also useful when the little ‘un runs out of steam or you need to hurry at the end of the day.
But as useful as it is, the FollowMe is cumbersome. Much of its 5 kg heft rests below the rear axle, which makes the lead bike heavy to lift, especially with panniers, and very noticeable when riding. Nor is it ideal for terrain any rougher than forest roads. We’d discovered the TowWhee earlier in the year and this trip was the first chance we really had to put it to the test. We quickly nicknamed it the Magic Bungee and we loved using it. A lightweight rubber band in a protective, pleated nylon sleeve, it stretches from 142 cm to 457 cm. When your child is close behind you it doesn’t drag on the ground and when they’re further back, it stretches gently to provide both a supporting tug and space to maneuvre.
What’s more, the Tow Wheel is light and very quick to fit, making it a game-changer in the world of off-road, family bikepacking. It barely impacts the handling on the lead bicycle, making it ideal off-road. Whilst the FollowMe has served its time and we’ve been grateful for it, it’s the lightweight TowWhee that will be joining us on all of our future trips. You can see it in action on these Instagram Story Highlights.
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