Tour de France
I have literally no idea how this stuff works. I can barely pump a bike tire, and the last time I had to do actual navigation was at Duke of Edinburgh’s at school where (no doubt due to my navigation skills) we constantly ended up in boggy fields being stared at by judgmental cows. My French is passable (Merci, Mme Taverner), but in the past three months I’ve spent approximately thirty seconds on a bike: enough time to realise that the bike I’ve been bequeathed needs both handlebars and seat raising, and brakes de-squeaking, and I that I only know how to do one of those things properly. It’s obviously the perfect time to plan a spontaneous ‘leaving in less than a week whilst working full-time’ solo first-time-ever cycle tour in France from Bordeaux to Toulouse down the famous Canal de Garonne and Canal du Midi.
After a week of soul-sapping heatwave Lucifer on a major glampsite near Vias, deep in the south of France, my lovely sis-in-law drives me to the nearest station. I find myself standing in a murky carpark in Montpellier armed with three pannier bags stuffed with an array of potentially useful/less clothing, four packs of super noodles, a shiny new trangia although alas no fuel has yet been found, one of Argos’ cheapest and cheerfulest tents and, as it turns out, a non-waterproof waterproof jacket. I was ready. Drag-yanking-heaving my bike and a fellow cyclists’ onto the train (up three steps and through a teeny door), using international gesturing and French-sounding noises to a woman I later learned spoke perfectly acceptable American English and I was ready: my bike hooked upright, my seat found, free water grabbed, and mooching along the tracks on a five hour mission to Bordeaux where my tour would begin: I was following an abbreviated version of the famous route of ‘two seas’, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean which runs from Bordeaux to Sète.
A night at a seriously luxurious campsite near Le Lac, Bordeaux, and I’m feeling good. Fuelled up on carbs, my tent still reassuringly existent, I wake up to a golden light filtering through the whispering silhouetted leaves and bedraggled ducklings squawking for their mothers’ attention. It suddenly hits me: I’m alone, I have just my bike and my tent, and I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing. How exhilarating! I decide pedalling forward is the best policy and make it into the city centre by 7:30, and my heart fills with the sense of freedom, purpose and adventure. I cycle past the National Opera and the Parliament place studded along the River Garonne, breathing in morning-cold air and feeling the soothing early light play over my face. A final rations stock up at a garage and I’m off in search of the first part of my journey: the Roger Laperbie cycle path which winds from Bordeaux onto the start of the canal path.
An initial panic seizes me as I read ‘derivation’ signs which I’m guessing means diversion, but I decide to ignore them: years of UK driving has conditioned me to assume that for every 10 diversion signs the crucial 9th will be missing, and I decide to trust in google maps. I make the right call and soon I find myself weaving onto the famous path, and I’m blown away. It’s an actual cycle path, just for cyclists, through forests and vineyard bedecked fields, not a car in sight, perfectly tarmaced and intricately sign-posted.
This was not what I’d been expecting. Granted, I’d not really researched beyond checking that yes, I could cycle the route, but this was exceptional. I felt my worries melt away and a rhythm that would stay with me throughout the week slowly enveloped my body: onwards, but lightly, gently, feeling the wind through my hair and begin to truly absorb the ‘shirin-yoku’ or ‘forest-bathing’ therapy of the skeletal lime green light, the gossiping of the leaves, and the eerie trunks standing as soldiers defending me from the stresses of the outside world. I had expected this week to feel lonely and to need some distraction from my ipod: a week later I found it at the bottom of my bag, forgotten, unneeded. As a runner I struggle to motivate myself without music. On this cycle tour, my soundtrack was primordial nature accompanied by the rare beauty of a sole fawn, a lolloping hare, an opportunist squirrel.
Through the week I fell into a natural comforting routine. On the road at the latest by 8:00am I cycled an hour before breakfast; a snack of whatever I had managed to scope out from the small village of the day before. By 10:00 it was time for another snack and a photo opportunity or a brief detour to a nearby sight.
Most days by 13:00 I was at my next campsite and nesting in my lightweight home until 15:00 when it was time to head out, explore, and forage for an evening meal and some small town ambience. The routine was unplanned and unexpected but soulful and purposeful. I felt a great sense of calmness come over me as I awoke every morning and knew exactly what I had to do, what I would wear, and that nothing else was required of me. Total freedom, total independence, and total lack of responsibility.
Gorgeous hours spent placing my faith in my body to move myself and my home, surrounded by the calm of water for endless stretches as the sole traveller, or the occasional exuberance of a fellow cyclist, a racer perhaps or dog walkers smiling a ‘bonjour’ at me.
I learned that it was possible to just ‘be’, that I could carry my life with me in three bags, that slowing down was as important as going fast. I have no idea of my km/h, no idea of the weight I was carrying, just that I was undeniably moving forward towards a destination but utterly absorbed in the journey.
The towns were special: I spent a little time in each, but the one that sticks in my mind most both in terms of actual beauty and in terms of lessons learnt is Moissac – it was a short cycling day, only 20km, and so the lovely lengthy afternoon I spent mooching around town is testament to remembering with cycle touring that quality is as important as quantity – I would be gutted if I’d missed out on seeing it. Beautifully French, with a stunning medieval abbey which is a stop-off on the famous Camino de Santiago, it was a real heart-nourisher and one of the few times that I wish I’d travelled with someone else who could appreciate it with me. Topped off with a hot meal that night and a good-sized Carrefour to stock up on it’s one of my favourite memories of the whole trip.
There were challenges, although not as many as I’d anticipated. In terms of weather I was undeservedly lucky: no self-respecting person chooses to do this kind of cycling in the middle of a heatwave, but the canal part of the route is frequently leafy and shaded, any wind I encountered was only the sort of blessed breeze that helps speed you along and not a major headwind, and I only had one wet day when travelling: although there were a few wet evenings, I was safely in my tent by that point watching the lightning dashing across the Garonne river whilst at La Reole, or out exploring in Moissac and Toulouse knowing that I was heading back to a dry home. The wettest day was, it’s true, incredibly damp, and involved about three hours of torrential downpour: the sort of rain that gets inside your collar, onto your eyelashes and somehow even manages to get your underwear soggy, but again I was lucky: the evening saw sunshine and enough heat to even dry out my trainers and my alleged waterproof non-waterproof (what lies you told me!!).
Technical problems were extremely limited: one chain fall off due to a sloppy gear change up a stonking hill, crunchy grating brakes after the rainy day trapped sand on the brake pads, and one night praying that it wouldn’t be windy at Creon because I didn’t want the weight of a mallet and couldn’t jam my tent pegs into the ground. I think the only point I almost lost it was after a misguided decision I booked a campsite up a ‘hill’ 114m up winding gravelley roads: half way up I had a solo temper tantrum and seriously considered dragging bike back down and cycling on the next 20km to the next town. One of the (many) pluses, however, of touring alone, is that if one has a temper tantrum no-one else knows and I got over it by eating Haribo and using a few choice swearwords.
Cruising slowly into the gentle pink of Toulouse over a more rugged path, past small bivuoacs of temporary refuges for homeless people and winding my way into the city, I felt that special confidence and sense of expansion of self that overwhelms you when you’ve set yourself a challenge you thought was beyond you: I had made it, my life was richer for it, and the beauty of it would stay with me forever.