Heading out to France for my first bikerafting trip was a mixture of nerves and excitement.

This was very different to my previous bike adventures. Previously it had been all pannier (or trailer) cycle touring on a steel framed bike. Weight was never such a consideration. Chuck in a couple of extra kilos, no problem…just have to pedal harder up those hills. This time, it could potentially be disastrous. I simply had no idea of how the raft would hold up with so much gear onboard.

I had everything worked out in my head that I could keep the bike, camping gear, cooking gear and 4 days food down to less than 40kg so I had to choose carefully which items to take.

What I had totally not catered for was the fact that at the last minute I threw an iPad, spare battery power bank, GoPro with spare batteries and charger into the backpack. The backpack didn’t become too heavy to ride with, just more concerning about how it contributed to the weight on the raft which I hadn’t catered for.

I’d picked an easy river for my first bikerafting trip. I figured I had enough challenge without fast flowing or white water to cope with too. The Loire Valley in France.

The river itself almost ambles through the middle of France on its way towards Nantes and west to the Atlantic. Along side it runs a cycle route, well sign posted, and a rail line which provides special bike carriages and a general awareness of cycling and cyclists. The section I was planning to explore is covered by the La Loire à Vélo and is part of the EuroVelo route 6 – one of the most popular cycling routes in Europe.

My route from home in Margate involved trains and an overnight ferry to get to a mate’s house in Caen, Normandy for a beer or 12 before heading south by train to Tours.

The train ride to Tours was pretty comfortable – one easy train, plenty of space for the bike and not too long for my hungover state to cope with. Rather than try to find a campsite I ducked into a hotel and threw my bike into their luggage room for the night.

Next stop was up to Orleans, most well known to English people for the actions of Joan of Arc during the siege of 1428-29.

Joan was of low birth although not without family connections. She came to the notice of the French royal court when her visions of the future course of the war with England proved true initially. Her personal determination and persuasiveness saw her garner the ear of the king.

Sent with a relief force to the Siege of Orleans she later became a national heroine and more recently held up as a symbol of feminism. She was captured after the siege by Burgundian nobles allied with the English and handed over for trial. After being declared guilty, she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431. Orleans celebrates her everywhere and a decent tourist trade was born…

From Orleans I headed East, South East-ish following the river with no map. The occasional reference to Google maps to figure out routes round blockages, but the river was my guide for a few days. Some great trails and off road riding mixed with a bit of tarmac. My decision to replace my Maxxis with Schwalbe G-one All Round tyres and go tubeless was for the most part vindicated. Plenty of grip on the dry dusty trails and rolling smoothly on the hard surfaces.

Following the river off road and on gravel tracks meant much less straight line distance on this trip compared to previous cycle tours, but this didn’t bother me at all. The sense of freedom from carrying food for 3 days, shelter and leaving the directions to my senses rather than google maps was immense.

But the cycling wasn’t entirely what I had come for. Don’t get me wrong – I love being out on the bike in the middle of nowhere, but by the time I got to Sancerre I was itching to get onto the water.

At this point, geographically and seasonally, the river was only a few feet deep, so it was the perfect place to get the raft into the water.

The first time I inflated the raft by the river probably took me about an hour. I eventually got to a point of having everything stowed and secure and enough room for me to climb aboard.

For the next few days I floated down the Loire, paddling for direction, often catching on sandbanks and having to heave myself off or climb out and push/pull the raft off to re-float it.

At one point I came to a weir and had to portage the raft and bike around it – the Kokopelli thigh straps came in really handy here in dragging the boat out of the water and over the pre-prepared and carpeted portage path.

But for the most part I was making good progress, slowly paddling, passing a few pleasantries fishermen and just enjoying the serenity of the scenery I was passing.

Wild camping is so much easier if you are coming from the river – there were plenty of secluded beaches to pitch up on and drag the boat from the water to set up camp. The uninterrupted sunsets and sense of isolation and peace was superb.

Sadly I had to bring the trip to an end as real world concerns of getting home, work and my son began to creep into my thoughts. Time was still moving in the real world even if it felt like it stood still for me on the river.

Some of the lessons I learned from my first bikerafting trip

  • Try to ensure that the raft if perfectly balanced when loading it to reduce the amount of raft spin. you will never eliminate it as there is no keel or skeg, but less is more in this case.
  • Weight. Weight is absolutely crucial. Every kg saved is you sat a few more percent securely on your raft.
  • Water – sounds silly right? But a decent and ultra lightweight water filter applicable to the water you are paddling is essential. You simply cannot afford the weight of carrying large amounts of water.
  • Pack rafts require a little re-inflation every now and then. Personally I got into a habit of stopping every hour or so to put a few more breaths of air into it.
  • The Kokopelli Nirvana self bailing raft which I was paddling has an inflatable floating floor combined with the seat. Make sure you strap it to the loop at the back of the boat or you will end up sitting in water with the floor floating up between your knees!
  • The supplied back band is specifically designed to fit the boat – after market seats bring no benefit and are more trouble than they are worth. Stick to the stock band here.
  • The thigh straps which you can buy for the Kokopelli raft are well worth the investment. You feel so much more attached to the boat and have much more control when traversing slightly more fast flowing water than a placid lake.
  • Unless you are a strong paddler, be prepared to encounter periods where you just have to let the river take you where it goes – and there is nothing at all wrong with that!
  • A collapsible toilet tube is a real good invention.

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