2023 September Cycle U.K & Karslruhe to Nice.

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  Let’s go way back, a whole five months back. Then I had this germ of an idea to ride for a week in the region around Cambridge, U.K. The idea bubbled to the surface about five days into a tour with BikeDreams flashing through the French countryside. The French countryside I hear you say,  how idyllic however the whole tour was pretty much undertaken wearing a raincoat as France recorded its wettest spring in living record. 

           On that tour I fell in riding with Eric, an avid cyclist from Brisbane. Over the following weeks I talked of my idea to ride in England. The trouble was it was difficult to move my own bike to England for a week. Hiring one was frustrating as all the hire bikes in Cambridge were sold off during Covid. 

           One morning Eric announced he had a mate who may be able to help, John Carter. A few texts, a couple of phone calls and a loose arrangement was made to borrow John’s bike for a week. So here I am five months later on a train from London to Stansted airport where I was met by John and taken to his nearby house in the tiny hamlet of Bacon End. It’s a real name… “Pigs arse” I hear you Aussies mouthing. An hour later I’m away with two small bags lashed to John’s bike frame and a wave of faith from he and wife, Judith. 

               Unlike the weather during my Spring tour in France and England’s so far fizzer of a Summer I really lucked in. My week was simply full of brilliant sunshine and light breezes.

My route through the Fens / Cambridge region of the U.K

               Most days I was offered up a chance meeting with someone from another walk of life. At 6a.m on my second morning I meet an overexcited kayaker, John outside my hotel nestled hard against the Great Ouse river. He had driven half way across the country with his wife to ride the Ouse bore. It is a two foot high seasonal tidal wave which gushes inland along the river. Kayakers and paddle boarders are given a once, sometimes twice a year chance to surf these benign rivers for mile after mile if you are good enough. True, it was interesting but I could tell from the blank look on his wife’s face that she’d heard this story many times before. 

The Osue river where the “bore” rolls through on King tides.

       I spent part of another day at Sandringham, the Royal family’s country estate. It is massive as you can imagine with sprawling forests, manicured lawns and a rather stiff old pile of buildings. The gardens are magnificent and worth a look, as is the house which is still used every Christmas by the Royals. The following day I stumble across another huge estate, Holkham Hall an eye watering 22,000 acres or 89 km2 of prime grazing land. It drove home the fact that very large tracts of England were owned by very few.

Holkham Hall.

      I’d read about nearby Wolferton railway station long closed but used by the Royals back in the day. The story goes that near the turn of the 19th century King Edward VII was entertaining the Szar of Russia at Sandringham. They’d been out walking and sent their hired help back home. Becoming weary they decided to catch the train back to Wolferton. “It’s only a short walk on from there” said the King. Boarding the train the conductor requested tickets. Well I’m the King of England and he’s the Szar of Russia the King announced. “And I’m the Queen of Sheba” replied the conductor, “tickets please “  I love this story.

              I hit the sea at Sheringham and looked down onto the beachfront to observe the locals hobbling over the ankle breaking pebbles to the water. No wonder most can’t swim it’s impossible to actually get wet without breaking an ankle. Nearby was a steep concrete jetty with fishing boats winched up and hanging precariously. I was taking a few photos when a weatherbeaten local sauntered up to advise me that I was photographing ‘poverty point.’ The fishing boats haven’t gone out this year he said. 

The jetty at “Poverty Point in Sheringham.

            The government fishing licence cost is too expensive and now makes it unviable for the fisherman to go out, better they stay at home. Meanwhile larger boats from the nearby coastal town of Cromer were taking in a haul of local crabs to take back to Cromer as their own famous Cromer crabs. The worlds gone mad. 

Sunset at Sheringham. Those long English Summer nights.

            I continue along country backroads towards Norwich the heavy scent of hedgerows full of ripened blackberries, it’s intoxicating. I stop to sample them warm, lusciously plump and delicious. It’s not until I finish riding and have signed into my hotel that I find my mouth the colour of a murderer. 

The byways were full of Blackberries ripe for the picking.

          Finally into Norwich, a big city with a giant castle under painstakingly medieval slow restoration. It takes up the highest ground in town and nearby a university giving the city an edge with many international students. 

             A few twee towns full of tea shops, creamed scones and Range Rovers that will never see unpaved roads. I find another gem of a pub in Bury St Edmund, the Cannon brewery. A shaded beer garden and a complimentary dog under each table. It’s a hot night and no one seems to want to go home. One pint with dinner becomes two… ok becomes four. I stumble into conversation with the next table. I feel out of it not having a dog under my feet. Kevin and Dawn reply “yes it’s not a proper pub night if Cooper, the Labrador doesn’t come long.” Cooper just wags his tail and considers me for treats.

            I hand my bike back to John and I relive some of the towns and places I’ve taken his bike over the past week. It hasn’t missed a beat in 500 kms. Again he generously offers to drive me across country to Biggleswade. We do good North-South trains in this country but nothing East-West. I check and he’s right. I can’t thank him enough, he’s really helped to make my week.

          Back in Biggleswade Rosie takes me on a quick tour of her nearby villages. In the village of Old Warden there is a cricket pitch with an enormous tree well inside the boundary. Nearby is another local gem. An ornately carved wooden church. It’s full of these family enclosures dividing the inside of the church up much like a cattle yard. Each enclosure has its own wooden gate to keep the congregation in ? 

             Finally we head to the Cock at the village of Broom. It’s nearing midday but already there is a queue for the first beers of a warm day. The bar is unique in that it doesn’t actually have a bar, just a table. You yell your order down into the cellar and beers are handed up after money changes hands. 

The games room at the Cock pub in Broom, U.K.

             I have one final night in London and a musical “The Temptations” is playing in the West End. It’s a night packed with great songs, terrific harmonious singers and a story of black music breaking through to mainstream in the 1960s and 70s. So many great songs, so many that didn’t leave my ear for the next few days.  Early the next morning still humming My Girl I walk to St Pancreas station for the Eurostar to Paris. Suddenly the world is small again. In a day I’ve travelled between London, Paris and dinner in Germany

The Temptations in the West End

            I’m in Karlsruhe for two nights. long enough to gather my wits and check my donkey/touring bike for any mechanical issues. I enjoy a few nights telling stories and reliving memories with Gerd and Troudl before I leave for Nice. It’s 950 kms in ten days so no slacking and no rest days. I tried dividing it up into smaller portions through the mountains but there wasn’t a lot of leeway just longer days. 

My Route from Germany through Switzerland, France and Italy

             I creep out at sunrise the next morning with my goal 150 kms away. It’s flat country hugging the Rhine valley. I scoot along blessed by a tailwind and the calm quiet of the forest before my route opens into farmlands fresh from harvest. Corn stubble juts from the ground whilst nearby fields are shaved bare with jumbo rolls of hay waiting to be gathered. No one even knows I’ve set off my legs are barely awake. That Sunday set the tone, early starts, long days of generally kind weather and enough points of interest to keep my head swivelling with curiosity. The days spin along but I mostly spot e-bikes on the paths I follow into Switzerland. They have become the dominate mode of touring. 

Breakfast view in Switzerland I’m surprised I was charged to view it !

       The day started calmly, my route from Lausanne even including the details on where to find the ticket box for the ferry across the lake to Evian les Bains (famous for that expensive water brand ?) and then the real days riding would start. I was there at the ferry early, the ferry on time but that was late, almost too late to ride 100 kms by the time my ferry docked at 9.30am

My bike crossing from Lausanne to Evian.

       By midday I’d done a mere 40 kms, granted much of it had been climbing over a rather large mountain but still I had at least 60 kms to go. I was feeling both a little dejected and hungry but none of the towns I passed had a shop. Finally I rolled into Ville la Grand, a rural regional outpost. My eyes began darting about hoping to find a descent meal. Then I spot it, French rustic nirvana. A nondescript corner, cars abandoned all around and a simple blackboard naming four lunch dishes. I leant the bike against the wall to this worker’s bistro and made my way inside. 

      The place was heaving with solid worker types. There was no finesse here, no airs and graces, just tables loaded with food and heads bowed. I signalled for a table for one and sure enough in a squeeze I could get under the corner of the just vacated table. I scanned the menu knowing it didn’t really matter, it would all be good. I ordered the beef stew with pasta as they’d run out of fries. Perfect. A salad arrived, a basket of hacked slices of real bread then my beef in a miniature saucepan. I tipped it amongst the pasta and followed the lead of others, concentrating on the job at hand. It was so good I ordered a glass of red wine. You are riding 100 kms not having Sunday lunch I heard myself say. Live once I replied to self. 

My energy pack lunch at a French bistro.

           The owner had not only served me with an enthusiastic smile whilst busily serving some thirty others but had taken my bike and locked it away for fear it would be stolen. It was €17.50 for lunch but for forty minutes I felt like a bit player in some movie where everyone except me is speaking another language. 

           I threw my leg back over the bike. The sun had decided to show its face. I started to push the peddles and looked down to see the computer announce I was about to start a 5.3 km climb. I could feel the wine starting to drip from my forehead. You’d think I’d soon be regretting letting my guard down, not for a minute. 

          I arrived in Digne-les-Bains mid Sunday afternoon happy with my progress and keen to rest before my biggest day of climbing. But I hadn’t read the fine print (we open for guests at 5.30pm Sundays) and found myself stripping off in the car park then finding a bar to while away a few hours. Here I met a group of Dublin riders finishing lunch and I’d guess at a few beers. Why, because when I asked one in English where they had come from he spoke to me in some unfathomable gibberish with a hint of Irish lilt. I ask him again. Same reply before he stops…. and where might you be from ? “Australia” I reply… oh I was trying to speak to you in French. It was about now I thought you are not trying very hard and if you drink this hard you shouldn’t be on a bicycle. He waddled off wearing his Lycra and pleased as punch with his bilingual ability. 

           I had been concerned about the climbing up to Thorenc, a tiny village only chosen because of its striking distance from Nice and small hotel. Restaurants are often closed on Monday nights especially in small rural villages. This was one of them. I sent a message to my hotel conveying my concerns at getting a meal after 100 kms and 2200m of grinding up three major cols/ mountain passes. I will supply you with a simple but tasty meal came back the reply. 

You’ve gotta climb to get vistas like this.

         I set off at daybreak after grabbing a pre-filled baguette and a couple of pastries. There was no certainly of me getting food and I was right. The climbing started immediately as did the rain and my worst fear of not reaching Thorenc bubbled to the surface. But two hours later I was rolling along a ridge line in sunshine with all forgotten. My biggest thought bubble was where will I have that baguette ? Then the second sweaty climb and finally the third. I huffed and puffed with only myself as audience. At the final summit thunder crackled overhead and the day’s biggest downpour pummelled me. This quickly turned to sharp pings on the face as I barrelled down the other side into Thorenc. 

            Here I was met by a smiling owner who helped me unload my bike and wheeled it into their garage. Go and have a shower and come down for dinner at 7pm she ordered like a concerned mother. There I was greeted with a choice of beer or wine and a three course meal. The gods had smiled on me for sure. Not only could the owner speak English (4 years in Brisbane ) but she was the daughter of a chef and had become one herself. This was her retirement plan. A small hotel with no cooking until I rolled along. 

The Arches on the road down to Nice, France.

         In the morning she filled my water bottle and put it on the bike, fed me a simple breakfast and sent me on my way before her husband had even risen. Four hours later I was in Nice full of traffic and suntans, glitzy fashions and the sea. The sea, a vibrant turquoise so ultra blue colour you struggle to believe it’s not a film set. It draws your eye and then it draws you again.

The Mediterranean Sea in Nice draws you in.

       Nice and a chance to catch my breathe with some old friends and reboot myself for the last section along the coast then up through the mountains to Milan. Covid has meant I haven’t seen some of these friends in three years so that was nice. Especially when the conversation rolls along like I’d only seen them yesterday. A ritual early morning dip across the road in the inviting sea is certainly one of the best ways to start your day. 

        The cycling along the Mediterranean is pretty flat thanks to a number of disused railway tunnels transformed to a cycling freeway. Locals zoom along like they are champions until they turn North to face the mountains which rear up immediately. 

Like Beach Rd, Melbourne the bike rolls on its own in these conditions.

        I turn Northwards myself just before Genoa. I’ve been having a hard morning of it. First a blustery wind then cracking lightning out to sea and dirty skies. In a flash the storm has hit land and minutes later the volume of rain has chocked the Italian drainage system. I am peddling through calf deep water and trying to keep away from the cars who seem to enjoy sending a wave my way. I stop at one point but can’t find anywhere to shelter. Pelotons of soggy Saturday morning riders have filled the doorways of every cafe and bar. I trudge on, I have too far to go and I know there are climbs ahead. 

            Sure enough the moment I turn towards Ovada on a long forgotten track the mountain rears up in front of me. Ten minutes later I am walking alongside my bike with the computer telling me it’s 30% I don’t need to see that and turn it off. I’m still wearing my raincoat and am quickly wet on the inside as well as the outside. Off it comes and I enjoy the cold rain hitting my skin.  

            Ten minutes later an old Italian farm truck pulls up alongside of me. Above the whirring engine he yells “am I ok ?Is it the rain or the slippery track that is the problem ?” “No I reply my engine has seized up pointing at my heart.” Throw your bike in the back, he replies. No I’ll be fine…. I would regret those words for the next three hours as time after time I had to dismount the gradient too steep and plod along in my bike shoes. But like all things it was eventually over. I arrived at my family stay washed myself and gear,, walked into town and enjoyed a terrific meal and maybe too much local red wine. Then a long walk back on pitch black country roads.

              The last few days into Milan were easy in comparison. Flat roads, next to canals and the finish line in sight. I got my first puncture with less than fifty kms to go. At least it was dry, there was a nearby park to repair the tube and I had time. Usually it doesn’t happen that way. As I repaired the tyre another touring cyclist pulled up. As I pumped up my tyre he told me how he had quit his job as a sports teacher in Perpignan, France to take to the open road. He was heading to Istanbul and then who knows. He was jaded by a life he didn’t like and had decided to do something that was a dream and here he was. With his faltering English and my untimely flat tyre I had enjoyed our conversation. Unlike me he was yet to find somewhere to sleep for the night at least I have a bed booked. 

The canal bike path into Milan is rather flat and straight as an arrow.

              And then the tour was over as I made it into Milan central. The stylish residents of Milan all seemed to have been born with good looks and a slight swagger. I rolled along looking at the all hustling and bustling that this city exudes before heading towards San Siro stadium close to the main bus station for my early departure back to Karlsruhe. San Siro stadium is home to A.C Milan and InterMilan and a bit of a cathedral to football in Italy. It is brutal architecture and not appealing but can hold 85,000 rabid fans all screaming like someone has murdered their grandmother. I wish I could have watched a game there but missed by 2 days and quite a few euros. 

San Siro stadium, Milan. Home to InterMilan and A.C Milan

               I’m at the bus well before the allotted time but of course the only bus without information is mine. It turns up unheralded and quickly fills with a crowd of half asleep families, partygoers heading back to wherever and immigrants trying to find that glimmer of opportunity that would kickstart the next phase of their life. All goes well till Lorrach, Germany when the Italian driver notices a damaged tyre. He pulls up but says nothing to anyone. Half an hour later people start to come forward asking questions in rapid fire Italian. When they are angry the speed of delivery is like a machine gun. Tat a tat tat….. bang you’re dead. 

The bus from Milan to Karlsruhe managed a flat tyre and a few hours sitting about.

            We sit there for nearly four hours waiting for a truck tyre to come from France and the repair takes a mere fifteen minutes. Meanwhile my fellow passengers open up. A young Greek guy who speaks Italian brings me up to speed on the repair. He was forced to leave Athens due to the financial disarray eight years ago. He has rebuilt a life in Freiburg, which is our next stop but he can’t wait around. He photographs the tyre and takes a train. I’ll charge Flixbus the ticket he says with confidence.

         Another passenger is Chinese travelling with her German boyfriend. She speaks Chinese, German, English and has been studying for five years in three Nordic languages. When I ask her what she will do with her degree she just shrugs. Artificial intelligence will make any translation job redundant. Phew… we may have stopped for a while but the camaraderie amongst the passengers was rock solid. The Greek boy offered me his sandwich lunch before leaving. The people I meet along the way give me confidence in the future.