Favourable Conditions

Forest-before-Feneu to Le Val Langlais Wood: Sunday 13 August 2017

9:30.

Still decamping. Good sleep.

The importance of good hygiene; of good ‘downstairs-business’ hygiene; of good hygiene in all those cracks and crevices.

We’re on that. Inspecting each other for bugs and bites, like regular chimpanzees.

So, while aesthetically we may not be admitted to the Ritz, we are as clean and go to go as a surgeon’s operating tools (pre-operation); and a damn sight cleaner than many of the gelled, soaped and perfumed purveyors are underneath all those contrived smells.

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Midday.

By the River La Mayenne. Thirty-minute ride to be here, but it was worth it – well worth it. Peaceful river. Fisherman. Family on a little cruise boat. Hikers. Bikepackers. All rested within a little village. And benches – beauuuutiful benches 😃

Draped on Finkel is the fly-sheet, on Einhorn the tent, spread out on the ground are the, ahem, groundsheets, the bike covers are open and hanging on posts, and other things are scattered. I’m optimistic that conditions will dry out our things sufficiently before we continue making our merry way towards Chemille-en-Anjou, some 50km of very-pleasant-looking bike-ride away, passing through the city of Angers, as we make our way South-Westerly tracing the river.

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21:35. Crickets chirrup. A distant dog barks at the rising moon. It’s 21.5º. The sodden evening of yesterday feels so far away. The whole temperate Northern-European-Thing seems to have surrendered to a more Southern vibe, without much in the way of warning. We were told by numerous people that France is a country made up of very distinct countries: you travel x-amount of kilometres in any direction and you enter a different world. “Yeah,” we thought, “we are all sensitive to things like that within our own countries.”

However, Normandy clearly gave way to Pays-de-la-Loire, which, aside from some great looking apples and pears, wasn’t the most endearing part of the pleasure-fest that has been the majority of France so far since re-entering at Dieppe just over a week ago. A ‘week’: not much, in terms of time, but an age in terms of memories and experiences.

Then today, as we entered Avrillé, we felt all Souther European. Followed by exiting the lazily, beautifully situated city of Angers, along the River Loire, to be greeted by vineyards and grapes, and fields and vineyards, and rolling hills and beautiful views, and picturesque towns where families do picturesque things, savouring the pleasures of life, just for the pleasure and nothing more, in a way certain slightly more uptight or self-conscious Northern European countries struggle vainly to imitate. But yes, another country. This is not the grandeur that is Normandy, this is not the drizzly Midlands on a Tuesday afternoon of Pays-de-la-Loire, this is not the new seaside development of Avrillé, this is not the island coastal vibe of Angers. This is the vineyard cliché of France.

Now I see that France does indeed have many distinct aspects to it. Each could be said to be a cliché, but they’re just one part, one fragment of the fascinating, charming patchwork that makes up this country. It offers so much, but in an unfussy way, in its own way, in its own time, in its own place; trying to be nothing other than as it is. Of course, this is the unforced joie de vivre that gives it its grace and charm. It’s not a show, or maybe it is, but it’s all so practised, so rehearsed by now, that it’s second nature, which is nature to the unschooled observer.

I often felt that the problem many people seem to have with the French is that they are not French – and I’m not seeing anything to disprove that. We’re only 430km in, it’s a big country and there’s a whole load that can happen between now and next time to colour my view another shade, but on top of the view I had held previously, of a people prepared to be who they are as a people, rather than bend too far to the voracious caprice of neoliberal globalisation, I now see the France that many have spoken of – so, sorry for being trite, but I’m just being honest – of a nation of people that know how to enjoy life. Well, I hope they do enjoy life, because they sure know how to do pleasure, and their country and well-tended surroundings and environment play their role majorly majorly majorly, too, so it’d be a shame if they didn’t. I know I am – and I know we are.

Just hope I can find someone to have a look at my front derailleur on our rest day in La Roche-sur-Yon cos’ me chain coming off a couple of times soured the joyful flavours somewhat; but again, mainly it’s because of my own limitations at not knowing what to do about it. So, as with certain attitudes towards the French, they and it are based upon an awareness of our own shortcomings rather than anything inherent in the people or, on this occasion, Finkel.

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The Bare Essentials

La Chapelle-Hareng to Touquettes: Tuesday 08 August 2017

10:50am. Bernay. We’ve backtracked a little – 8km – before we really begin our day, to ensure we’re able to shop and stock up on supplies. I guess I can now understand that when Napoleon is supposed to have said ‘the English are a nation of shopkeepers’, this may have been used pejoratively: outside of the towns your chances of finding or passing a shop on the off-chance are limited. That’s not to say they’re not there, but stand out they don’t.

Was OK yesterday as we had a grand breakfast by the peace-tree in the forest, a decadent crêpe in the ridiculously picturesque village of Le Bec-Hellouin, and had the comfort of knowing we had some Warmshowers’ hosts awaiting us within a reasonable enough distance if we didn’t find a shop along our way.

Today, and for the next few days, wild camping’s on the cards, so each shop takes on an extra significance. Little things you take for granted at home, but don’t consider until you can’t.

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Like water.

You need it for coffee, you need it to cook, and you need it to drink.

Oh,

and you need it to clean.

The pots.

Yourself.

“But that’s different water.”

Er, no, it isn’t, and if you haven’t got it or you’re not carrying enough, you’ll have to sacrifice one or more of those things.

And they are all non-sacrificeable; to the same degree.

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Maybe you don’t have to clean as much as you need to eat, but, really, don’t you? that’s also pretty much non-negotiable; at least, from where I’m sitting, anyway.

So, for now, we shop. Well, Agnieszka shops. I stand with the bikes doodling words whilst she shops. It works better for our diet, I’m sure, but it would be nice if I could do it more often; or we could do it together; but, Finkel and Einhorn!

Grey and drizzly at the moment. Could be a damp camp. We’re both glad our meander is Southward. We’re not afraid of a bit of rain or cold, but the absence of them does make life a little simpler; a little easier.

From here, we plan to head South, following a river about as far as it goes to Anceins, about 30k away. Looks like it could be a nice route. From there, as we should still be good for another 20, we’re heading towards Saint-Pierre-des-Loges, via Touquettes. Sandwiched between those two is a huge patch of green, likely to be a forest, where we hope to pitch our tent.

Looks like another nice day’s riding in prospect, and about 57km covered towards the South.

For now, breakfast 😀

French food – you b*st*rd!

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Normandy, we ❤️ you.

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Poseidon’s Caprice

Warlingham to Dieppe: Friday 04 August 2017

9:04. We sit outside a Co-Op, just inside Croydon, picking up some supplies to keep us going till we set rubber on French soil again. Dieppe is today’s destination, all being well. A long stretch: sounds like real bicycle touring, doesn’t it?

We’re cheating.

In order to be able to catch our ferry at 5:30pm from Newhaven, we have to train from East Croydon to Lewes, where we’ll then ride the remaining 12k-or-so. So we’ve got a double-decker sandwich of one train journey and a ferry ride between three slices of riding. Phew, metaphors are tiring; probably more tiring than today’s small skips.

Did well yesterday, though, after ten non-touring days. Around 60km in total, and six hours saddle-time. Navigating our way out of London was hella fun, but intricate and time-consuming to the max (four hours to get from St Pancras to Warlingham); exactly the same distance as our ride into Leicester in the morning – more than double the time. Would you Adam and Eve it? 🙃

But, a fun ride. Feels nice to have done a proper ride through the capital: making our way from its beating heart, through the districts, through the outskirts, until we exited Greater London into the beautifully green and rurally feeling setting of Warlingham. So many flavours in one afternoon. Really got to feel the place much much more than any of my other visits there.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only way to experience the world is on a bicycle.

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Perfectly pleasant little bike-skip to East Croydon Station. Perfectly deflating train journey to Lewes – such tolerant, patient, understanding people amongst the passengers aboard 🤔 Hope the coffee I’m waiting for outside this café is able to reflate. Also hope it’s the last train for a while.

One more unavoidable encounter with public transport in a few hours: the ferry.

Newhaven’s a little under 60 minutes away. It’s 12:27 now. We’re supposed to check in at about 15:30, even though it isn’t due to leave until 17:30, so plenty of time. Of course, have been stung more often than once by last-minute hiccups announcing themselves at the worst possible moment – we all have – but, barring a pannier – the pannier – falling off … or a puncture … or getting lost, we should be fine.

And the chances of these things happening are slim slim slim.

“But there are chances.”

Shut up, brain!

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17:34. Sitting on board. Finkel and Einhorn sit below, sandwiched between a multitude of other people’s steeds. Not all tourers, but Ortleibs were conspicuous by their ubiquitous presence on the racks of those with racks. Other riders were clearly off to France for some road-riding; others for touring; others bike-packing. I heard Spanish and Italian amongst us – and it felt good to be part of the weirdo bike brigade boarding together in formation as bemused drivers gazed on.

Before we got on, I heard one rider say he’d done this crossing a number of times – and you just chuck the bikes in a place and leave them. Then I got distracted and missed the bit where he mentioned how they are secured and you leave them with great peace of mind.

That’s because he didn’t say it!

Yup, all leaning on each other – at the mercy of Poseidon. Einhorn is on some Spanish guy’s bike, Finkel’s on Einhorn, but a lesser known bike leans on him.

Solidarity two-wheeled wonders! Look after each other as we would look after you.

I hate leaving my bike unattended; and with the rear panniers and dry-bag attached, too. That’d be some stuff to lose. But we’re all (ahem) in the same boat, so hope this goodness of strangers prevails.

Four hours is a long time. Bagsy first one down when we near Dieppe!

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Impressions

Schoorbakkehoeve to Gravelines: Thursday 20 July 2017

Today we entered France and, boy, had we been spoilt by Belgium!

Ubiquitous cycle lanes and easy riding gave way to:

  • ubiquitous cars speeding past us on a narrow dual-laned highway.
  • a fierce headwind that seemed determined to blow us back to where we came. All day!
  • navigating around, to, through or past, Dunkerque: a puzzle set to ‘Sherlock’ setting; though maybe that’s a wrong metaphor as there appeared no logic on display to unschooled outsiders.
  • the multinational cemetery standing sombre testament to life and the living world we share.
  • the town we went through that didn’t have wi-fi!?!
  • the town with the ominous-sounding name, ‘Gravelines’ – we’re on our way to a funeral! – which, after much cold (dis)functionality, warms the heart with its more quaintly feel of a community evolved naturally rather than conceived to serve an industry.
  • the next day waking up, where I noticed that when I enter another country during the day, I feel a certain sense of displacement or dislocation, but upon waking up there, I’m immediately at home … for a short while only, as in one short ride and a ferry skip across the sea, we’ll be in England – and home.

And what a welcome it was!

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Unmooring

Biskupice to Zlechov [Part 2]: Friday 07 July 2017

Today we were washed away on a tide of rain. As the chilled rousing progressed: “It’s raining!” And then, “Kurwa!” Thunder cracked open the heavens to release the torrent. Still, eight mornings into our ‘what-exactly-is-it-they’re-doing?’ and we were much more efficient at decamping, packing, and rolling. Of course, things were still wet – there was no way they wouldn’t be – but our fear or concern about them being so was now negligible to non-existent, as long as we get an opportunity to air them at some point before making camp later.

“Are we making camp later?”

The rain was non-stop and torrential, the clothes I had chosen to wear were unsuitable: I wasn’t just getting wet, which was unavoidable, I was holding water – and getting cold. My poor decision-making in this regard heightened my misery: as an experienced runner, I am aware of how fabrics react to and interact with moisture.

I was being unnecessarily harsh, as there was no way, to my inexperienced eyes, of knowing that the weather wouldn’t turn; but when you’re in a slump, there’s a masochistic streak to pile a bit more on to make for a more immersive wallow.

And the hills – motherfucker! – the hills. The profile for today’s prospective ride looked like two Ss fallen on their sides. The climbs were interminable and steep. The descents were Alton Towers Unplugged. And part of you wondered why someone hadn’t thought to iron this part of the world flat, as, eventually, it all equalled out, anyway.

As we pushed our stubborn steeds up an unfeasibly long 12% climb, we knew we would have to review our goal for the day – both in terms of distance to cover and shelter over our heads.

If there was to be no let up in the rain, which looked wholly likely, there would be no opportunity to air the tent and let it dry out. After two hours of hardcore riding, in torrential rain, in soggy clothing (me), with malfunctioning lights (Agnieszka), the prospect of pitching a wet tent, in rain, piss wet through, stole the glints from our eyes.

This was also the fifth day in a row that we were out on the bikes, and while we had planned for six and a rest day, our green legs, combined with constant mountain terrain and, on all but one of the days, navigational distractions, roused a faint lullaby promising we’d maybe stay in a B+B this evening.

As the cold became a constant chill, I decided to put pedal to the metal and put some distance between Agnieszka and me, so that I could find time to stop and change into the more suitable attire I knew I had packed. After steaming up and into, and dashing down and through, and pushing up and out of a village or three, I paused on a peak to remove soggy layers and delve into panniers I hadn’t thought would be necessary until day’s end. As the layers came off, a bemused family of four wrestling an empty pushchair with a squeaky wheel up the hill walked by. They gawped incredulously at the half-naked middle-aged man continuing his striptease in the piss wet rain while enthusiastically blurting some sounds at them that were more akin to insanity than to the ‘good-day’ in Czech I was pitifully mimicking.

But the change of clothes was good and as we rolled into Napajedla for breakfast/lunch – all this and we still hadn’t had breakfast, even coffee – my spirits rose and my mad laughter at the ridiculousness of our situation had given way to a reasonable person’s optimism.

We enter a(nother) pretty little town that seems to consist of one main street of prettiness with, no doubt, streets branching off that lessen in prettiness as curious outsider numbers diminish. Us? Our stomachs are doing the thinking, so all we care about is finding a suitable looking place where we can keep an eye on the bikes while we refuel.

We pass a likely looking restaurant on the opposite side of the street, but decide to cruise through the town checking out the other options available.

As Sod’s Law decrees, the first one that caught our eye is the one we return to; and so we demount and cruise up to the beer garden, which is still not an option, though it seems the weather is taking a turn for the hotter and dryer. So inside it is.

Now, where to park so can have a good view of our steeds, Finkel and Einhorn? Hmm, a couple of touring bikes here that are in a great spot – good for them 😁 And here – a couple of serious touring bikes here that … with a trailer for a toddler? Ha! they look like … No! they are!

Just over 24 hours after saying farewell until who-knows-next-time? we end up in the same town, about to eat in the same restaurant as Michal and Zuza!!! Small world, ain’t it. As we gape into a window to see if there are free seats with a view of the street (and our bikes), we catch Zuza’s eye inside. She cracks up with laughter and surprise at our paths crossing again so soon.

They exit as we’re preparing to enter, and we meet as old friends; exchanging stories of where our travels had taken us since the previous day: us overnight in an orchard/allotment, them on a football pitch and therefore with access to a shower (that’s experience for you 😉).

With parking spaces occupied, we entered the restaurant, not hoping for too much – joking sardonically about opting for a tasty dish of potatoes and breaded mushrooms. As is the case almost everywhere, restaurants outside of the more built up areas clearly don’t anticipate having to cater for non-meat-eaters. Despite being only a short time in Czechia, our fare when out and about thus far had consisted, yes, of a combination of potatoes and mushrooms; prepared in different ways and always tasty, but the fact that this combination had already become an in-joke tells you, or us, all you need to know.

But variety beckoned: we opted for a Caesar Salad, with goat’s cheese instead of chicken, a side order of fried potatoes, and two half litres of Czechia’s cola-type drink, ‘Kofola!’, a delicious sugary elixir 😃 Very pleasingly rapidly, our food arrived. Caesar Salad: Lettuce? Check! Goat’s cheese? Check! Pita Bread? Check! Copious amounts of lettuce and the cheese – and that was that: not the most colourful dish I’ve ever come across. If it went to see a doctor, I think a diagnosis of anaemia would be generous.

Still, we ate it as ravenously as we consume anything containing energy or fat these days, chasing it down with two fine espressos each, before heading forwards until time for more food and rest.

Wrapped up more warmly following my impromptu striptease on the peak before the village, Sod’s Law invoked itself once again today and ordered the weather to revert to Central European mid-Summer type: dry and hot hot hot.

So, time to peel them layers off … in the Town Square/Main Thoroughfare this time. If I had the build for it, a passerby may think that I’m auditioning for a part in a Czech male strip troupe; as it is, I’m not sure where this body would go down well; though with its interesting tan patterns obtained by certain patches of skin being exposed to various levels of scorching sunlight over an entire’s day riding, I might get a part in that new film they’re not making about human jigsaw puzzles. I had wondered why someone started writing an anagram of ‘ronom’ on my arm as I dozed outside a greengrocer’s earlier. Now I know.

And with a number of maps procured from the local tourist information place detailing the numerous cycle paths and routes in the region – Czechia really is geared towards cyclists in a great way, we proceed to make our way along a beautiful path running parallel to a river, then a canal, towards Stare Mesto, literally ‘Old Town’. Is it the only old town in Czechia? I doubt it, so what gives it the honour of being able to dub itself the old town? Who knows?

But there is one more tale to tell before we actually leave this lovely little town: this day’s turning into a mini-meandering Don Quixote. As the kilometres and time between here and our previous lives increase, we discover, as we figured we would, that assumptions we made in our stationary lives regarding this journey no longer, or don’t, hold true once you are on the road; or that things you thought you’d care about are no longer that important at all, really. Most of the time it’s you yourself that has this revelation; on this occasion it was a piece of equipment that communicated this to me, in the only manner it knew how.

Following the heavy rains of the morning and early afternoon, the odometer was giving off some erratic readings all of a sudden, I noticed. Apparently, we hit a peak speed at some point today of 124.63km/h! Not bad: only a slight increase on the 51-point-something of earlier. And standing here, in the Town Square, with the device in my hand, I see we are travelling at 9.6, no! 34.2, no! 49.7, no! … blah blah blah. Oh, and we’re covering distance, too 😲

The odometer is fucked.

I now have an expensive watch and thermometer attached to my handlebars. Still, that’s one more disconnect from the assumptions of the past to allow us to focus on the here and now of the journey; and not what it means in numbers, though I did, and do, find them interesting and quite often useful: in making sure we’re not overdoing it, for example. But now, I guess, we’ll have to just listen to our bodies even more, regarding not only the direction we go, but also for how long, too. So, kind of good: the journey itself rather than expectation is taking over.

And the disconnects to things we take for granted in our stationary lives, which led to me feeling a little unmoored by the day’s end, continued. As we entered the Town of Old, in the now searing heat, we sought accommodation in a B+B pointed out to us by a kindly lady. Arriving late in the afternoon, on the second day of a national holiday, which tends to make for a long weekend for many Czechs, seeking accommodation on the spur of the moment is a little optimistic: attempt #1 – No; attempt #2 – NO; attempt #3 – NO! “Shall we just get something to eat, and camp for the night?”

“Cool.”

“This place looks OK. Let’s hang the tent out on the bikes to dry, then I’ll just check to see if they accept cards.”

Nope!

So, with empty stomachs, tired legs and tired heads, we lacked all the things we needed to revive and sustain them; things that we had taken for granted just seven days previously.

It was a stark moment on top of some other minor moments that amounted to a day of some significance.

As the tent, now rapidly completely dry under this blistering sunlight, was returned to its pack, Agnieszka went to search for a store that would accept cards to allow us to acquire vital fuel for our bodies and souls.

After one of those long short moments that we have all felt in moments of dramatic uncertainty, she returned carrying bags containing: bread, cheese, butter, nectarines, apples and grapes. And, did I miss anything?

Oh, yes, beer 😁 There’s a reason we are together.

And so we stored our precious cargo in the spaces we had available and sought out a suitable place to pitch our tent and make home for the night.

Just as we had on the previous evenings.

Yet somehow different.

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