A chance to ride the French countryside with a tour company called BikeDreams. many of the cyclists I meet have toured Europe with this company. Fingers Crossed. Four weeks and 2,500 kms hardly restful !
I don’t take my opportunities to travel lightly since Covid locked the outside world away. Yet each time I travel I’m feeling a loosening of the restrictions and certainly in Europe the attitude is becoming far more relaxed to the risk of infection. All of this set against a backdrop of ongoing war in the Ukraine that has an everyday effects on Europe. So I tiptoe into Frankfurt feeling kind of safe. I’ve soon forgotten the contagious virus and instead wonder at the strong Spring weather, blooming flowers, trees and noisy animals all revitalised by the warming weather.
The other thing Covid taught me was to be nimble and flexible so when the German trains and planes shutdown on the day I was to head to Paris I had to quickly grab a last minute bus ticket. My train was two and a half hours, the bus eight and I got to my Paris hotel one hour prior to the BikeDreams tour briefing. My fellow riders first saw me huffing and puffing after pulling my bike bag across half of Paris. The bike tour is for four weeks, 2400 kms and takes in a big clockwise sweep down to Nantes and Brest before hugging the Normandy coast to Rouen and finally returning to Paris.
Thirty eight nervous riders headed out of Paris in sleety, cold conditions. Versailles seemed subdued under a sullen sky, almost shy. Normally it shines with pomp and swagger its regal palace and tourists spilling allover the magnificent gardens. Soon enough we were on country roads but the rain wouldn’t leave us.
Camping each day puts a whole new slant on the riding being the end of your day. No sooner have you arrived knackered and panting to find a pile of bags of clothing and tents awaiting your collection. The best arrival treat is a large steaming bowl of soup, different every day with bread. There is always a long line of worshipers, heads bent, drawing some goodness back into their stomachs. Showers in tinea infested shower blocks then off to erect your still wet tent, and your final breathes into your inflatable mattress and pillow. I don’t know how many more boot camps I have left in this old body. Will I miss the nighttime coughing, the zipping of tents, guessing who is farting incessantly in a nearby tent ? The Polish rider running his auto parts business in Chicago each night talking hands free to his workers and finishing every sentence with fucken’ instead of full stop. https://www.bike-dreams.com
A couple days into the tour was Anzac Day. For Australians and New Zealanders it is a special day to remember soldiers who went off to distant wars to give us the life we have today. For that we are all grateful. One rider in our midst had managed to pack a few dozen Australian flags, poppies and ‘Lest we forget’ crosses in his baggage ? I struggle to calculate how many pairs of socks and jocks to bring. Anyway our short service at a small memorial on the Loire river in Amboise reminded us all of our soldiers, home and some people’s foresight of significant dates on the calendar.
The second day started quietly in cold weather but quiet roads, I had settled into a rhythm with another rider when a car began tooting it’s horn aggressively. I immediately moved tighter to the shoulder of the road. My new riding mate not so much, giving the car a good slap (so I found out later.) as he passed. The driver screeched to a halt before jumping from the car ready to fight. I thought he was over reacting until he grabbed my wrists and only then did I think this might turn bad. But he was French, noisy, angry and unable to retreat (which I find strange of a Frenchman) Anyway it finished with us peddling on calling him a dickhead but from the safety of a field well away from the bitumen. It shook me up for the rest of the morning.
Our longest day yet is into Nantes, a town I visited in 2017, it’s also our first hotel rest day. Before I could enjoy it we had to peddle 154 kms along the Loire valley to our hotel. Every week there is a hotel stay to give you a chance to restore some sanity and wash everything. Nantes was highlighted to me by a bike mechanic some years ago for its crazy, Avantgarde Les Machines. An old ship building yard littered with kooky ideas made of steel and metal to imitate the animal world. Think Jules Verne, who came from this town and his amazing imaginative spaceships and you have the seed for this place.
I spent a couple of childlike hours riding a carrousel in the shape of a giant stingray with levers to pull and wings to flap. The carrousel is huge, three levels high with various animals and assorted cockpits to operate your own levers. As I spun about I waved to parents watching from the sideline. They didn’t know what they were missing, I almost wet my pants with glee?
Into the second week and still the big days of riding continue, I’m surprised at my own resilience and the others in the group. Beyond Nantes we weave around the Brittany coastline. Dull grey skies, more rain and boggy flatlands before arriving at the slow moving tidal waters hosting oyster beds. Nearby ad hoc processing factories are scattered amongst this dirty bog that somehow produces world acclaimed oysters ?
Soon the countryside began to rise up from the coastal bog. The riding a bit easier too as we zoomed downhill and teasingly close to all the way up the other side. Our camp tonight is in Carnac, made famous by the discovery of kms of standing stones. Today there are 700 but they believe there was once more than 3000. Like Stonehenge the facts are hard to extract but many theories abound most including a connection to the sunsets and solstices. The jury is out but my guess is the local souvenir shops erect a few more each night.
We are a motley crew and all have varying ideas as to how this trip works best for them. Some choose to ride every inch of the daily produced route. Others conserve themselves with cherrypicked half days based on climbing or avoiding the bad weather. Others just use the opportunity to have a tour truck carry their luggage and ride off to investigate their own interests only arriving just before dinner. Some are besotted…. riding frantically head down, ignorant of the countryside they pass to the next campground. Some clean their bikes fastidiously then sleep with their bike in their tent… I kid you not. Just where do I sit amongst this group I ponder. Others have probably already made their own assumption, I’d prefer not to know.
I was expecting greater camaraderie, having spent the whole day riding the route with the group but I probably only ever see half of the thirty eight participants. Many have done multiple tours and built up tight bonds enriched by this annual catch up. You find your groove, it sometimes aligns with another, often not. But sometimes you arrive still wet at a small bar not far from the campsite and sip a glass of draught beer with another rider. Does it get any better you momentarily think ? But then there is a tent to erect, washing to do and maybe dry, kitchen duty occasionally and the realisation that it’s all going to happen again tomorrow. And yes my tent will be sodden as I try to wrestle it into its bag to be transported.
A rest day in Saint Malo, a town I unexpectedly spent a weekend in some thirty years ago when Robyn and I missed the Friday night ferry by ten minutes. Next ferry… Monday morning. We found a room, put on our raincoats (yes it was raining) and found a small bar/restaurant. The Rugby World Cup was on. France was playing New Zealand and the bar staff began plying/forcing ? Robyn to partake of Cointreau. We woke in a fog of our own doing. I was here many years later to try to recapture the vibe but the town has grown enormously. I saluted Robyn with a large bowl of tiny, sweet moules and a half litre of Boudreaux rouge inside the old walled city. I may have even extended the salute to a few glasses of Cointreau, shock horror.
Soon we begin to pass through the D day area of Normandy ? An area of memorials and bleak, flat unremarkable beaches. The American memorial is sobering with an etched metal map of the important battle points on the beach with a large barely rippling pond of water behind and further out Omaha beach where much of it took place. It’s quiet, it’s calm it’s everything war isn’t. To cap it all off we wander amongst the thousands of crosses with a sprinkle of Star of David symbols only making them and the crosses seem more human.
There is remnants still of landing gear slipped in overnight in the surprise invasion onto European soil of allied soldiers which finally broke the back of the Second World War. It wasn’t such a surprise though, as thousands were killed as they stepped from the water onto land. You stare out into the brooding sea in front of you and try to imagine the mayhem, the numbers involved and the futility of war. Yet right now in the Ukraine, Putin’s army is continuing this aggression and you think little has been learnt through history. Now these headlands no longer have gun placements instead it’s rows of camping cars all in a line satellite dishes turned skywards and being buffeted by the coastal winds. We peddle on, many in the group telling family stories over dinner of grandfathers and long forgotten uncles who went excited looking for adventure as twenty year olds and didn’t return.
A final rest day in Rouen, a beautiful well preserved city on the Seine river. The others talk of an Afghan dinner but I want something a little less rustic but it’s a Sunday night and much is closed. I slip away from the others and find myself in a modern day slum, a French Bronx with loitering unemployed African and Middle Eastern refugees displaced and nowhere to go. All pushed together after they have arrived in numbers on the European coast. They are then divided up and sent to these regional towns where they sometimes find their feet but just as often don’t.
My dinner ends up being Indian with few other options. My enthusiastic waiter can speak a few words of English. As I order I assume him to be Indian and joke about Kingfisher beer being remarkably good when Indian’s drinking water is so putrid. He explains he is from near Pakistan, one of the Stan countries. His family went to the Ukraine and then the war started, without residency it was either the army or being sent to Poland. From Poland he was transferred to Berlin, Germany and from there to Rouen. Phew… he is only eighteen years old and it has me thinking how stable my life has been in comparison. I eat every grain of rice, the runny butter chicken and the crispy naan bread before weaving my way back to the security of our tour hotel. I felt for a minute like I had made a connection with others of Europe. It’s not so easy in our big group to get those local conversations.
We rode into Paris yesterday. A circuit of the Arc de Triumph, a photo and a giggle when I see two of our group walking their bikes in bike shoes through the middle of the Arc traffic madness with the drivers bewildered, honking horns and justifiably angry. Then it’s a short ride to our initial hotel but not before a beer at a price our swanky hotel would not recognise. A clink of glasses before packing bikes, clothes and scrubbing up for one final dinner. A head shaking comment from an American rider, “You know I’ve had a couple of these French pastries every day and every one has been better than any cake shop in the U.S.A” Well, I think, that is a surprise. A touching speech by one of the riders highlighting a few quirky sides to some of the participants and a justifiable thanks. It’s been a great effort in feeding us, moving our camping gear and for the route which did justice the lovely countryside of Normandy and Brittany. Last morning breakfast, final good byes and whilst others are getting Ubers and taxis I drag my bike to the bus stop then train towards Paris Est station. All goes smoothly till I’m one station from my destination. Suddenly an English speaking Chinese guy lets out a blood curdling scream and yells “they took my wallet, they took my wallet.” The train doors all open and two big Africans slip away. Then with silence in the whole carriage as the train sits waiting he yells “ at least throw me my credit card ! “ I go from concerned onlooker to almost wetting my pants at the final plea/ negotiation. Was that wrong of me ? Gee I love travelling I thought as I moved my wallet and phone to my front pockets and the train began its journey again.